Sunday, December 1, 2013
Ma'am, Miss, Lady... what do I say?
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.