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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ma'am, Miss, Lady... what do I say?

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
A few years ago, a minor social misunderstanding occurred when Sen. Barbara Boxer was questioning then-BG Michael Walsh during Congressional testimony, and he began his answer with "Ma'am..."

Sen. Boxer politely interjected and said, "Do me a favor... could you say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am'? It's just a thing, I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it, yes, thank you."

At the time, I was a young enlisted soldier, and I didn't see video of the exchange. I read about it in the newspaper the next day, and it was portrayed--even if slyly--as her being defensive and revealing a "crazy feminist insecurity" when talking to a man in uniform. This was years before my feminist education, and I was certainly annoyed at the time.

In my privileged brain, I thought, "Well, geez, if I call a woman in power "ma'am", is she going to be upset? There's no winning here!"

The reality, as you can see in the video, was that she doesn't sound defensive, maybe a bit annoyed at the situation but not defensive. Her tone verges for a split-second on pleading. She gives reasoning for it. She even seems to feel embarrassed by making the request in "It's just a thing..." as in "Gosh, I know this is silly, but could you please afford me what I've earned."

Looking back on the exchange, almost five years later, I'm angry at myself and other men (and women) who criticized Boxer because, as it was revealed, Gen. Walsh had actually referred to the men on the panel with "senator" far more than "sir" whereas with her, it was only "ma'am".

I'm not going to speculate on Gen. Walsh's intentions because there's a very good chance it wasn't consciously intentional on his part.

What's clear, however, is that 1) Sen. Boxer was being addressed differently from her male colleagues and 2) even if she wasn't being addressed differently, why would it matter? Her request was given politely and was quite reasonable, not to mention it was made of someone from a culture where the addressing of title is EVERYTHING.

The blow back against Sen. Boxer was yet another instance of revealing how angry men can get when they feel they're being called out on their sexism. I have no idea how Gen. Walsh felt about the exchange, but the reaction from men across the media, and many of Sen. Boxer's male colleagues in the Senate, was ridiculous.

This wasn't about her exchange, which was clearly benign; this was about these men--including myself--being confronted with the idea that our words DO matter when we talk to women, who historically (and even now) are primarily in a state of cultural oppression.

The thought running in our brains was: "Wait, we can't say ma'am? Have I been wrong this entire time? Shit! Well, fuck her. I'm not apologizing because that's how I was taught."

And yet, few men assessing the situation from that point-of-view took the time to imagine what it must feel like for many women to be addressed with "ma'am"; the title isn't necessarily wrong, it's the feelings provoked from it by a lifetime of being considered inferior to men.

We call these micro-aggressions; they're little bits of speech or actions that subconsciously (and often outright) place women (and other oppressed groups) in a lower station, even if they're being said to a man.

This can range from the seemingly benign ( Ma'am) to the more severe ("You throw like a girl!") to the blatant ("Dude, stop acting like a pussy").

They can also be manifested in grouping together men and women with a reference that is traditionally male. Recently, a friend of mine pointed out that I call groups of mix-gendered people "guys". Is that meant to be offensive? Of course not, it's just habit.

But the implication is that most respectful form of address for a group of men and women is to use a term that is designated almost always for men and not because it's a nod of approval for the women in the group but because going with "gals" would be insulting to men in the group.

Men are not referred to as women unless it's an insult, and even in the rare instance when a man is seemingly complimented ("Wow, you can sew? Your mother taught you so well!"), it's a slap in the face to women, a further emphasis on gender roles that relegate them to second-place status.

Not too long ago, I sampled a small group of women (re: friends) on whether they prefer "miss" or "ma'am". Some didn't care, some definitely cared; of the ones do who did care, it was rather split on which of these was more condescending.

And that made me realize: has there ever been a term for women that is not condescending? Taking a quick scan of our culture, I know for a fact I've heard every salutation used pejoratively many times when women are addressed, even if they took no notice.

My title has a question, and I sadly do not have an answer. This is just food for thought. I want unaware men (and some women) to realize that the experience of women with these terms has not been fun. Maybe they *do* feel insulted.

A few months ago, I ran into this problem for the first time (or at least, the first time it was verbalized).

A woman who was probably having a bad day (and we all have them) remarked to me: "Please don't call me Ma'am."

She was clearly irritated, maybe hurt. A few years ago, I would have been annoyed by her response, but now, I knew exactly what to say:

"I'm so sorry. I meant that as a term of genuine respect, but I know it's often not expressed that way. I still want to accord you the respect you deserve; is there a term that's okay with you?"

There wasn't. But her demeanor immediately changed. She seemed almost apologetic (and she had no reason to be).

There is no perfect solution to this, but that day, we both walked away feeling better about that exchange.

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but to unlearn."

My "unlearning" has been rigorous, but it's paid off. I still have a long way to go, but the fact that it's helped me treat women as equally as I treat men is more than worth it.


  1. hi charles, im a drunk 21 year old MRA.

    In many countries, the pension age is higher for men than women. In many of the same countries, men have to join the military for 1-3 years or go to prison, in a system called conscription.

    Feminist groups such as NOW have protested bills giving male domestic violence victims equal state services. Stories like this make that disgusting.

    Feminists say nothing about routine genital mutilation of boys in the united states. the foreskin has 20,000 nerve endings. The reproductive rights of men are ignored by feminists.

    read paragraphs 8-11, and ask yourself- whats her motive? what would you say if the genders were reversed?

    Worst of all, feminists attack MRAs for talking about these things, EVEN WHEN THOSE MRAS ARENT BLAMING FEMINISTS FOR IT. Many times I've talked about these things without mentioning feminists once, but got attacked and slandered by bigoted, ignorant people who told me only feminism should exist, and feminism is totally for mens rights.

    i think most feminists are good people, but simply misled. I think most MRAs and feminists would find they agree on most things if they really tried communicating properly. i dont think paul elam should be the voice for MRAs, i dont like him and neber have.

    but i think you are completely delusional, and while i know you have the best intentions, you're completely wrong when it comes it men rights.

    id like to debate you....though i dont even like the term "debate." it shouldnt be a war. rather, id like a public conversation. i dont want to "win", i want to make things better for everything. i dont want to be youyr enemy, or anyones enemy. real people are dying, and the "mra vs feminism" war isnt the solution.

    1. just saw that the article isnt free...heres another website, same story, but free

  2. Hi Taylor, are you from the UK? Just to say firstly that both those newspapers are kind of known for publishing lies and bigotry and you probably shouldn't take them as a perfectly neutral source. I'm sure the story you cite is correct, and I agree it's awful. Unfortunately, two women per week are killed by a male partner or ex-partner in the UK. If the papers gave these stories the same amount of attention, they wouldn't have room for the crossword.

    I got this fact from this website, which, thanks to feminist research, gives figures on the state of domestic abuse of men AND women:

    You have feminism to thank for that research, which exposes the scale of domestic abuse on men.

    I agree conscription is a miscarriage of human rights. Men are disproportionately affected by that. Feminists have never (to my knowledge) ever campaigned on any major level for the conscription of men. However, the reason conscription exists is the same system of patriarchy that oppresses women. The one that feminists rail against.
    If you don't see feminists campaigning against this (though I think if you got involved in the intersection with pacifism and feminism, you would), it may be because they are all caught up in other issues such as the pay gap, the existence of rape of women, abortion rights, sex workers' rights, and numerous other things that do take up many minutes in the day. (And there is no fully paid-up 'feminist office' responsible for this, by the way.)

    Regarding male circumcision - please do NOT make the comparison to FGM. I've been conciliatory, but here you don't have a leg to stand on. Sure, I get it - it's an unwarranted bodily invasion that I wouldn't, you know, invent today if cultural and religious traditions hadn't been doing it for centuries. So (as a non-muslim, non-jew) personally I see the ground is tricky. I get this.

    But get your distinctions straight. Circumcision essentially has zero effect on sexual sensitivity (as numerous boyfriends can attest. Did you ever blow a circumcised guy?). The impulse to do it is led by regional and historical concerns about hygiene. That's it. I have never heard of a feminist movement that actively *promoted* circumcision. It happens as part of the customs of Abrahamic patriarchal religions, and men who undergo it are left to get on with being their happy sexual selves, something they're still totally equipped for and culturally supported to be.

    However if you want to fight male circumcision, be my guest. I think you'll find it's the patriarchs who are doing it, not the feminists. You know, the patriarchs? The ones who invented patriarchy, that system that feminists have been fighting since before those terms were invented?

    On the other hand, FGM happens *specifically* to limit female sexual freedom. That's the *intention*: To shut down women's sexuality. Wholly and for good. You will hear this being preached about, highly specifically, about the dangers of a woman having desire. This is not so for men. And for women, it is accompanied by an intensely restrictive set of social and class codes around how women can behave and how they are expected to be on their wedding day; this is also not so for men, who can basically fuck around. (Why would they want to if they've been circumcised? Maybe because circumcision has fuck all effect on their desire?)

    FGM is effective butchery coming from a very particular form of oppression, and it works and it ruins lives. I know you can find stories of botched circumcisions, but you can find botched operation stories anywhere. FGM doesn't even happen in hospitals or with clean equipment. Women don't get that. Men do. Women don't get the right to a sexual identity. Men do.

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    3. "Feminists have never (to my knowledge) ever campaigned on any major level for the conscription of men."

      3 words for you. White. Feather. Campaign. A white feather, as a symbol of cowardice, was given to men who didn't enter into the military during WWI. By whom? Feminist suffragists. These very same feminists also proposed conscription for men.

      Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were the prominent leaders of feminist suffragists in Britain. Here's a quote from Christabel.

      "War was the only course for our country to take. This was national militancy. As Suffragettes we could not be pacifists at any price. Mother and I declared support of our country . . . . We offered our service to the country and called upon all members to do likewise . . . . As Mother said, ‘What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!’ . . . . She called for wartime military conscription for men, believing that this was democratic and equitable, and that it would enable a more ordered and effective use of the nation’s man power."

      Now, they also wanted women to be conscripted too. But they wanted women to be conscripted into factories while men went off to die. Because, you know, equality. Feminists are all for it.

      But fret not. I have some good news for you. FEMINISM IN ACTION! (Warning this video is NSFW)
      Because, you know, dudes protecting their church from vandalism while praying TOTALLY need to be spit on, spray painted, and have unwanted panties hung around their necks among other things

      Or wait, there's this video where feminists are blocking men from attending a discussion about male suicide and boys failing in school while simultaneously spreading lies as to what the event is about.

    4. Sorry, I forgot to include the address for the 2nd video.

  3. LOVE it, Artbitch...RIGHT On!! :-)

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  5. um, no,not right on. you obviously have no idea what you're talking about. ican see how feminism works- somebody stupid steps in with big words and meaningless buzz phrases, only to be cheered on by someone equally clueless. sorry for the deleted messages you see, had to copy/paste to word to split the message.

    first of all, circumcision causes severe loss of sexual sensation, as the vast majority of empirical studies and anecdotal evidence suggests. the foreskin has 20,000 nerve endings, compared to the 8,000 of the clitoris. the foreskin also protects the glands from friction. without the cover of the foreskin, the glands undergo a process of keratinization and lose sensitivity. if a circumcised man keeps his penis covered for a week, he'll start regaining some of this loss sensitivity, and having it done it myself, I can assure you the net is greater than zero.

    first of all, why do feminists always bring up FGM when someone tries to speak about circumcision. did i say anything about fgm? then why did you bring it up? and how can you possibly say that male circumcision shouldn't be called mutilation, because FGM is worse? that's like saying you shouldn't call cutting off someones finger off mutilation, because its no. stop mitigating and trivializing male genital mutilation. im sick of being unable to have a conversation about the intrinsic nature of circumcision without some ignorant feminist coming in to hijack the conversation. I just cant understand the mindset. ive been mutilated for life, and you have the gall to tell me I haven't really been? circumcision is like rape, but with sharp metal instruments. healthy sexual tissue is ripped and shredded off, often without painkillers.

    you're a woman- what do you know about having a penis? what if I told you what's good for womens bodies because of what my ex girlfriends said? the hypocrisy is staggering. you're allowed to tell me that circumcision has "zero net effect" which is an idiotic and completely unfair statement, yet you get angry when men talk about womens sexuality and reproductive rights.

    also type 1 FGM, the most common type, does NOT do the same degree of tissue damage as removing the foreskin

    I actually know the effects of circumcision first hand...who the FUCK are you to tell me otherwise?

    not surprised you completely derailed. all of your stats about violence against women- so? what of it? whats your point? what does that have to do with what I posted? im not disagree with anything you said, obviously im all for efforts to stop domestic violence. i just think EVERYONE should be included and treated equal, not just some people. what was the point in the things you posted? why is the first reaction of feminists to discussion of male domestic violence a slew of information on violence against women? if you really believe in equality, you should welcome conversation of the discrimianted the marginalized minority that is male DV victims. as usual, trying to use suppression tactics by trivializing the issue. male domestic violence victims are far more common than often thought, and do not have equal protection. feminists are NOT trying to help male victims of domestic violence, because feminists very actively fight against measures to grant equal standing to male victims.

    1. PART 2:
      also, your mere attempt and shutting down the dialogue is a form of passively supporting the discrimination.

      the wage gap does not exist. the male mean is offset by the .0001% of billionaires, and males in prison who make 0 but aren't included in data. you wont find me one company in the U.S that pays women less than a man in the same position. if they are caught doing so, they are sued. since the late 90s, women have entired the workforce with higher starting salaries, and colleges have been 55-60% female.

      what does rape have to do with ignoring conscription? feminists seem to ignore that the vat majority of murder and assault victims are male. include the prison population, and the slight majority of rapes in the U.S happen to men. its funny, feminists seem to have time to attack MRAs for bringing up conscription, but no time to address it?

      you ignored the part about Cynthia pearson because you have nothing to say. pure bigotry. what she advocates would result in people being denied equal healthcare.

      I could actually go on much longer. your entire post was brainwashed drivel that did nothing to refute what I said. you show your clear tendency for doublethink and doublespeak, and your subconscious bias. there is NO rational way to defend calling ripping off sexual tissue from a baby anything other than mutilation. and you-a woman- telling me-a man- how my reproductive rights should work, and what does and doesn't constitute mutilation? could you imagine how you would feel if the genders are reversed?

      talking to feminist is like talking to a religious person using quotes from the bible to support their claims. the problem is the entire bible is wrong. using feminist theory to support your arguments is exactly the same.

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  7. This has always bothered me too. I dislike both 'Miss' and 'Mrs.' and 'Ma'am'. It always bothered me as a kid to be referred to by these terms, as they usually felt vaguely condescending. Letters from my grandmother were sent to 'Miss Chantal' and 'Master Allen', my brother. I know Miss is a contraction of Mistress, but Master always seemed a more powerful title. Small, I know, but there was a certain commanding to the name that extended into relations. 'Little Miss' was often used for me, while my brother got 'Young Man'. This despite the two foot difference in our height in my favour.

    Nowadays, Ma'am feels like an older title. Growing up I saw it used to refer to unavailable or undesirable women as a sign of their age or marital status, while Miss indicated youth and prettiness. Missus is worse, as it denies identity outside of marital status. It defines the woman as extension of husband, who receives no change in title.

    I've no idea if anyone would be comfortable with it, but I like the idea of 'Sir' or 'Mister' becoming gender neutral. I wouldn't mind being called by either. But perhaps this perpetuates the idea of man as default even further.

    Language is flawed when it comes to sexism.


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