The Female and Her Story on Trial

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Knowing the Body

2004 Final Web Report

On Serendip


The Female and Her Story on Trial

Name:  janamcgowen

The theme of the first semester of my senior year at Bryn Mawr College, although I have lacked any gender coursework in my first three years of semesters, unexpectedly heavily involves the collision of the science, literature, and politics of gender. As my most last minute, haphazard schedule of any semester ever, on the next to last day of the shopping week period, I found myself adding two gender studies classes to my schedule. One entitled Advanced Topics in Developmental Psychology for my Psychology minor, and the other entitled, Interdisciplinary Perspectives of Sex and Gender. Both classes, although very different in their methodology - (one placing a profound importance on precision, cautious and careful experiment design, and the other on "stories" both individual and collective, and their relation to society) - hoped to find the "real" gender problems, look at them with the attention they deserve, and encourage some kind of dialogue for change.

Gender Development, as a psychology class, was focused on the role of psychology in reporting only what can be proven, or statistically "significant." It took the stance that science, although slow, has the advantage of facts, which my professor insisted are key for social recognition of a problem which can be sited and lead to broad social change. My other class was in Bryn Mawr and Haverford's shared Feminist and Gender Studies department, although it spent a few classes dedicated to looking at gender from a biological perspective, in general, has looked less at the science, and more at the story or groups of stories that intellectuals tell about their own personal experience, as well as their observations of the larger societal picture concerning gender and sexuality. The class also encouraged intellectual discussions like we were participating in class about these topics and believed the dialogues were key for opening an awareness that might lead to social improvement. I have continually struggled with the scientific and intellectual representations of gender development and stigmatization, especially regarding the role of socialization (by "socialization" I mean the stereotypes and stigmas placed on individuals by society based on their sex, sexuality, or gender). How do I define my own experience, do either of these classes tell a better picture for me and my story, or for society, do either provide a better or at least more useful story?

My thinking about these questions came to a head when in my final Advanced Topics in Developmental Psychology class, for the first time the professor had not asked the class to read a cluster of psychological studies. Instead, we were discussing two popular, non-academic, books written for a broad audience, but mostly for parents about the difficulties of growing up based on societal expectations of gender. One of the books was about the trials of girls losing confidence in subjects like math and science, eating disorders and expectations of a girls' physical attractiveness. The other looked at the alarming amount of clinical depression in boys and encounters with the law that young men face today as they approach adolescence and the societal expectations to stay unemotional and to deal with anger or sadness through physical aggression. However, instead of talking about whether or not the class thought boys or girls "had it worse", the class focused on the unscientific nature of the two books, especially the one about girls. Peggy Orenstein, author of Schoolgirls, took the role of reporter in her book, and she does an in depth journalistic report of twelve adolescent girls observing the struggles they encounter as females in middle school where Orenstein says is "the beginning of the transition from girlhood to womanhood and, not coincidentally, the time of greatest self-esteem loss" (xxiv). Full of "science-thinkers", my class saw Orestein's book as offensive and dangerous. Where was her research, why did she seem to only chose cases of girls with the worst possible exemplification of female societal victimization? The lack of statistics, lack of a large subject sample, lack of good procedure (interacting with the girls sometimes when she felt the girls were unsafe, but not in others) was extremely upsetting to my professor and my class.

I honestly hadn't had too much problem with unscientific nature of the book. Maybe it's because I'm not a Psychology major, I'm an English major, but when I read it, I guess I just kind of just took the story for what it was, one woman looking at two schools in one city in America, which of course couldn't account for every girls' experience, but it was an interesting case study. But as I thought more about it, perhaps the bigger reason that I didn't have an issue with the lack of science in the book was that I agreed with the story that she told, and I could pick out a number of quotes from Schoolgirls that expressed how I felt about the female disadvantage better than all the sentences of all the psychological reports I had read put together. I raised my hand and asked something like, "Perhaps we might excuse Oreinstein for her lack of attention to detail, and perhaps even for a possibly inappropriate exaggeration, because her goal is social change." I could tell I hurt my professor with this remark, as she got flustered and mentioned that she thought it was interesting how different people go about trying to change society in "their own way", some dedicate their lives to scientific research, while others write books based on limited research or data. As the class ended, I realized that I was sorry for saying what I had, the psychology was just as important if not more than the book, but I couldn't help wondering which was better, or if Orenstein was perhaps actually better or more important than my professor's psychological studies, was the story better than the science?

One interesting aspect looking back on that class was that Orenstein had not taken the scientific approach in writing her book that she complained the girls in her book were not expected nor encouraged to learn. One fact I think most can agree on is that women, although still doing well in the scientific field of biology where women have always shown skill and interest as both mothers and nurses, and are now making a good appearance in the role of doctor, are still not getting involved in many other scientific fields like engineering or computers. Another scientific field that many look to for social change probably more than psychology, and that women have struggled to find a place in, is Law. Women as both lawyers (interpreters), and legislators (makers), are struggling to make that science, the one that governs citizens, a gender even playing ground. Patricia Williams, a black woman who practices law, in her book, "The Alchemy of Race and Rights", proposes the scientific aspects of studying law in her first chapter, "Legal writing presumes a methodology that is highly stylized, presidential, and based on deductive reasoning. Most Scholarship in law is rather like the 'old math': static, stable, formal - rationalism walled against chaos." This dichotomy of chaos that skirts just along the edges of the extremely structured law according to Williams is, "that life is complicated" while, "Law too often seeks to avoid this truth by making up its own breed of narrower, simpler, but hypnotically powerful rhetorical truths" (10). Williams seems to follow my proposal about the usefulness of the individual story through the mode she uses to talk about her experience working as a lawyer. In her book she weaves the individual stories of the cases into her experience with the law. This form Williams describes as "a model of inductive empiricism borrowed from - and parodying - systems analysis", and she proposes that her reason for "this sort of analytic technique", is that it "can serve to describe a community of context for those social actors whose traditional legal status has been the isolation of oxymoron, of oddity, of outsider (Williams 7).

These social actors that Williams wants to include in her analysis of the law because they are traditionally left out, unfortunately are actually the majority of the population in the United States. If white, male, heterosexual is on the inside, every other category of gender, race, and sexuality falls on the outside of the traditional law. Cherri Moraga, in The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind, talks about being a member of this outside category while at the same time being part of the inside. She allows her reader to watch her mind as it harshly comes to terms with her dual identity. With a white Canadian father, and a Mexican mother, Moraga feels that she must chose her identity, and though she is "of that endangered culture" (Mexican) "and of that murderous race" (white), "I am loyal only to one", and in her case she chooses to be politically faithful to her mother's, Mexican blood. She chooses because she wants a term with "political bite" that she feels terms like biracial and bisexual don't assert. In a biracial individual like Moraga, the colliding categories are often most obvious because of one's outward appearance. Moraga pinpoints the hidden dilemma; it isn't just the mix of two people who don't look alike, it's a deeper level of mixing of two inherently very different categories. Her parents or their ancestors were members of groups with different, almost opposite political backgrounds and positions, one as the oppressor and the other as the oppressed, what Moraga calls raper and rapist.

In the anthology Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, Nineteen essays look at the kind of hidden political context that Moraga speaks of. The story is that African American men are liberal, but in the case of Clarence Thomas, the opposite was true, and this truth was hidden behind the color issue that everyone was talking about during his Supreme Court nomination. Politics become invisible when race is in the limelight because, "people can't read your mind, they read your color..." Williams and her fellow writers in their anthology argue that the dangers of identification, of using what we can see to assume what we can't, finally needs to enter into public consciousness. "What would have been extraordinary would have been to ignore Thomas's body...the articles would have had to discuss...that aspect of him more difficult to appraise-his mind" (Race-ing xv). Clarence Thomas was black, but he also identified as a "black-conservative", which to many seemed to be a contradiction considering the anti-equal -rights platform of the conservative legacy in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. in a letter to Thomas writes that he is "at a loss to understand what it is the so-called black-conservatives are so anxious to conserve"(17). None the less, this lack of understanding Higginbotham expresses, led to the outcome that Thomas was approved by conservatives because he was conservative, and by liberals for no other reason than that he was black.

The categories of race and politics had collided by the end of the Thomas proceedings, and had in a way began breaking down the typical racial stereotypes, not all blacks are liberals, and just because someone shares your color of skin, doesn't mean he shares your political agenda. But this doesn't even take into consideration another aspect of Thomas's nomination to Supreme Court Justice, the outcries of an African American female, named Anita Hill. Suddenly, the political event of Clarence Thomas being nominated for Supreme Court justice, when Anita Hill enters the picture, becomes a complete narrative. The story of two individuals moves to the center of public consciousness. When Anita Hill did accuse Thomas of sexual assault, she fits into one of two stories, either "he the benevolent one and she the insane one" or "he the date-raper, sexual assaulter,...and she the docile, loyal servant", and the only "balance" found was to "reorder these signifying fictions" (xvi). The demand for keeping a stereotypical story that goes along with "justice" and law which seeks to find "the truth", ends up defeating itself. None of the stereotypes fit the truth, and yet the public still held on to its stories.
Still, although the truth about Anita Hill was never really found, and Thomas was finally approved as a member of the Supreme Court, this private story when made public, because of it's atypical nature, did bring about something positive, and the groups that came forward to protest and support were racially, politically, and gender diverse.
"Yet regardless of political alliances, something positive and liberating has already surfaced. In matters of race and gender, it is now possible and necessary, as it seemed never to have been before, to speak about these matters without the barriers, the silences, the embarrassing gaps in discourse. It is clear to the most reductionist intellect that black people think differently from one another " (Morrison 111).

However, today I wonder, not to be pessimistic but maybe realistic, where have these conversations gone? In my piece, The Hidden Hierarchy of Silences, I sought to find how society's "real" problem played out when race and gender came together by looking at what moments recently involving both categories have caused the most controversy. Two arenas where African Americans have perhaps found some amount of level field, (the same arenas that African-Americans have been slowly gaining ground in for decades) are musical entertainment and professional sports. Yet, I found that despite the acceptance of black men into football, and black women into the entertainment industry, the sexual prejudice of women with a sexual appetite being ostracized, still existed. The only difference was that now society is desiring to protect black men on professional football teams from being stigmatized as associating with the "sluts" that black men "on the street" are placed in the same category with. I was looking to find the story I imagined, that gender issues were being used to cover up race issues, but what I found was the reverse. Today, if the story is that both white and African American men are too good for sexually aggressive white females, I hate to imagine where that leaves black women.

According to Williams, it leaves them as the ultimate witch.
Later in the anthology, is a piece by Patricia Williams in which she declares herself a witch, and that all black women share her "powers" through the symbols of black and women that society places on her.
"Show your subjects the symbol of blackness and you will be protected by your invisibility.....of your femaleness and you will be able to diminish in size and escape through a crack in the wall...of professionalism and you will be able to stop strong rampaging armies by turning them into brick walls."
Williams warns that using these identification categories can seem like power, but in the end this "magic" causes the annihilation of the individual. This is especially true for black women who manage to have every contradicting story placed upon them, and they are somehow always the losing subject in the stereotype, the witch in the story. This magical ability to be a thousand wrong things at once, is what Williams refers to as a kind of black magic: "Anita Hill is dipositively a witch...She was controlled yet irrational, na´ve yet knowing, prim but vengeful, a cool, hotheaded, rational hysteric"(169). Williams notes the impossible standards required of women when they take the stand in court. The contradiction of what femaleness is inside and outside the courtroom in sexual assault crimes displays the ultimate contradiction of a female in the masculine-ized legal system. Outside the courtroom, in almost all scenarios but especially in date and romantic situations, women in society are taught to be passive. Inside the courtroom, however, traditionally male verbal aggression is essential, and in the eyes of the male interpreted law, women are expected have acted aggressively toward their sexual assaulter. Thus, feminists have expanded their general ideas to describe the feminist theory as it applies to laws and judicial proceedings. The feminist theory takes into account the fact that because laws are written and interpreted by men, statutes that deal with crimes where mostly women are the victims and males are the assaulters, are unjust in that they are written from a male perspective. Thus, many feminists ask for recognition of women's viewpoints, and experience where women are primarily on the receiving end of violence in achieving equality.

Finally though, Anita's story eventually entered the courtroom, and therefore had to become "legitimate", and in the court of law, stories don't matter. They exist, but they aren't allowed to exist or at least not be discussed, for the law is a discipline of science. Williams calls this refusal of the story (but not really) "one of the law's best-loved inculcations: the preference for the impersonal above the personal, the "objective" above the "subjective" (87). Williams says she is worried about "a deep misunderstanding of the struggle, a misunderstanding that threatens to turn the quest for empowering experiential narrative into permission for the most blatant expressions of cynical stereotypification" (83).

So where does this transforming of story into established science begin? How does Anita Hill's story begin to disappear or transform once it is in the hands of lawyers? Law students all begin in one place, Law School. Williams, once a law professor, notes that when she was taking different questions into consideration for Law School exams, she noticed that these exams were in danger of teaching students to be colorblind, but in a way that ends up having the opposite effect. This is because by ignoring race, one risks ignoring the stereotypes that exist around race, and if these are not addressed, they can't be broken down.
"Students are left to deal with raised issues of race and gender as unframed information, as mere backdrop...The message that is reinforced by such exams is that white racist, sexist stereotypes may be part of life, it's not important - or important not - to deal with them in the law. (And yet of course we know it is.) Or that it's not so important that it can't be severed, caged, and neatly suppressed (Alchemy 87). One example that Williams provides as a stereotype that exists but is ignored in the name of science and equality is/was that "women can't be raped by their husbands" (87).

I want to break from the story that my paper has been telling so far about the political sphere, and look at the contradictions of sexual assault law that I am familiar with. I want to examine the "story of the law" independently, in hopes that I might tap into what the more scientific method tells us about what happens when the established story collides with the personal one. For although I am not documenting (in this strictly "scientific" analyses) names and specific circumstance, rape and sexual assault, if anything, are very personal crimes which most of the time involve two people who know each other well. They have a history, a story. Williams argues that Anita Hill's story was never exposed because of the already existing, yet hidden stereotypical stories that surround the law and courtroom in sexual assault crimes.

Andrew Taslitz in his commentary on Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom notes, "The message the law sends to women is this: be passive, sensitive to male needs, fearful of venturing out at night in public spaces, and dependent on the protection and presence of a man." (Taslitz 136). Two key elements of rape that must be proven in all states are non-consent and force. However, states differ in whether or not non-consent needs to be verbal, whether or not force needs to be physical, and whether both or just one of these requirements must be satisfied. Today, many states still require proof of physical force, although, some like Pennsylvania don't require that the force be "physical". As to non-consent, most states require, a verbal "no". The question that was not asked of Anita Hill was "The woman question" in the case of rape and sexual assault is, "Why the defense of consent deals with the perspective of the defendant and what he 'reasonably' thought the woman wanted rather than the point of view of the woman and what she 'reasonably' thought she conveyed to the defendant" (Vago 69).
However, The progression of law in the case of sexual assault seems to go against the before proposed arguments that what we need is to breakdown the categories. By asking the woman's story instead of the man's story, aren't we still assuming that all women are something, either weak docile servants or overly zealous temptresses (or both)? Patricia Williams at one point at a conference called The Sounds of Silence where "the topic of the day [was] the social construction of race and gender and oppression" , she is asked to "comment on the rape of women and the death of our children" Caught with my guard down she explains, "I finesse the question with statistics and forgotten words. What actually comes to my mind however, is a tragically powerful embodiment of my ambiguous, tenuous, social positioning; the case of Tawana Brawley." Tawana Brawley, for Williams is the reason that categories perhaps should not be overlooked in rape convictions. She was a black woman, raped by a white man, and the lawyers decided that she need not even testify, and "without her, the script unfolded at a...fantastical level, but the story [was] the same: wild black girl who loves to lie, who is not innocent (...referred to her as the "defendant") and whose wiles are the downfall of innocent, jaded, desperate white men; this whore-lette..."(Alchemy 174).
In order to help in cases like Tawana's where the woman's side of the story is literally not even heard, in the New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State ex rel. M.T.S., the New Jersey legislature became the first to amend their sexual assault law so that it conformed with the state's law of assault and battery. It now states "permission to engage in sexual penetration must be affirmative and it must be given freely, but that permission may be inferred either from acts or statements reasonably viewed in light of the surrounding circumstances" (Forell and Matthews 238). This statute does not require a verbal "no", nor does it require proof of physical force, and many feminists support the New Jersey statute. The question that was not asked of Anita Hill or Tawana Brawley was what feminist theorists in law call "The woman question" which in the case of sexual assault is, "Why the defense of consent deals with the perspective of the defendant and what he 'reasonably' thought the woman wanted rather than the point of view of the woman and what she 'reasonably' thought she conveyed to the defendant"(Vago 69). Clearly, feminists want a larger focus on whether or not women think there was a clear affirmation rather than whether or not men think there was an unclear refusal. Rape law in New Jersey then, is trying to break down this stigmatization of women. It's trying to not make women on the stand feel like witches on trial who are damned if they did commit the crime and damned if they didn't.

In the case of these women, like Anita Hill, if the law required the woman's point of view, and it asked what a reasonable woman thought a reasonable woman might have done, does this go too far in the other direction? Shouldn't the goal be to ask what a reasonable person might have thought that a reasonable person might have done? By even recognizing that women are taught to be "passive" in life, it seems that we are expecting a stereotype of passivity that not only risks the ability to reinforce itself, it further leaves no room for the story of the aggressive woman to even exist. And yet the argument that remains in all of this is that no matter how many categories are broken down, it ends with a question about a story. The final question then isn't whether science triumphs over story, it's whether "my" story beats out all the other stories. I must admit that I will keep the stories of Schoolgirls, and even the pscyholoical studies I learned about long after the Real Boys stories have been discarded from my memory. I agree with the stories told in Schoolgirls, and I can relate to those stories. As individuals we take what we need from what is presented to us, and neither law nor science is exempt from this human skill, for selfishness is colorblind, gender blind, and even genre-blind. "Perhaps what connects the distraction of these glittering fan-dancing stories, is as a friend of [Williams's] writes, 'there are no bodies (nobodies?)-only ciphers for the will of other entities. They do not exist except as markers of narrative transactions'" (En-Gendering Power, 169)

It seems that we are left with the knowledge that humans need stories about sex and race to understand enough to even begin to design a system of justice, and so the story always supercedes the science, whether intended or not. People may say they are thinking scientifically, judiciously, but they almost never fail to have a story in the back of their minds, science just means to keep that story silent, to not let the story appear. Whether from narratives written in a book, seen and sensationalized on television, or recognized in a courtroom, there are hundreds of stories ready to be told, the question is whether we are willing to hear the "truth." So then what is the whole "suppressing the story" routine all about? If the science is really just a mask, why wear it?

Perhaps Orenstien has part of the answer of why we in serious scenarios like law, where a person's life might be at risk, the stories are disregarded. Orenstein, probably couldn't answer this question because like the girls in her book that couldn't and weren't encouraged to learn the skills, they were also never taught the supposed value of science. One skill of science is to ignore silly stories even though the truth is that everyone lives by those silly stories. Then perhaps the narrative is suppressed because femininity is suppressed, and stories are associated with female-ness. And if the answer to gender equality is breaking down gender categories, then we must also bring the story up to the science, and then break them apart. This is not to say that society doesn't need laws or methodology or facts, but that we shouldn't hide behind those facts in the name of "truth". Because in the end, there is no truth, only stories, and we must be conscious that society can always pick and chose which stories it wants to hear. But that in a democracy, selfishness is not always a bad thing, the key is knowing and expecting every person to be selfish in his or her own way, and that their selfishness is not and cannot be determined by the stories we know about categories like race and gender.

In the recent United States Presidential election, when shown a color coded map of the voting results in my Gender Studies class, my classmates were astounded to find the way red was divided from blue, the way votes for the democratic nominee were not so distantly divided from votes for the republican nominee. We were hard pressed to find a state, or even part of a state that was entirely one color (unless it was desert land in Nevada). One of my classmates noticed the heavily student populated area near the University of Texas, and was "surprised that Texas had so much blue". One of the things I have honestly been most disappointed and frustrated in especially this final year at Bryn Mawr is the extreme, almost obsessively insular nature of the students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford concerning their political viewpoints. They have such great ideas, yet only seem interested in sharing these ideas amongst one another. One thing that I have gathered from both my scientific and other classes, is that there is no easy categorization technique that is successful. Yet, students refuse to look for temporary job opportunities or even spring break anywhere near a "red-state". I perhaps naively associated liberal with open-minded, and hoped to escape in my move from Dallas to Bryn Mawr four years ago, and yet I constantly hear close-minded remarks that Texans are stupid or racist or somehow redneck and backwards. I am afraid of these remarks not because I am offended, but because I hope that the map from election night is not the end of the purple nation. It is important that all the students at places like the Bi-Co realize that every individual has a story, and knowing what a person believes based on where they are from is far from simple science. And further, the students here and everywhere must actually talk to conservatives. Chances are, there's one living closer by than you think, and no one will die from being offended, I promise. The problem is that the republican stance can't just be brushed away as stupid, because until the convincing stories behind it are uncovered and really understood, like the approval of Clarence Thomas, (or like the remainders in a hard math problem), they will just keep coming back but each time in an unrecognizable form.


Works Cited:

Williams, Patricia. The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon,1992.

Forell, Caroline and Donna Matthews. A Law of Her Own. New York: New York University Pres, 2000.

Moraga, Cherri. "The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind." Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity. Becky Thomson and Sangeeta Tyagi, eds. New York & London: Routledge,
1996. 230-239.

Taslitz, Andrew E. Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Vago, Stephen, Law and Society. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.


WWW Sources

1)NAME OF YOUR
FIRST WEB REFERENCE SITE
, COMMENTS ABOUT IT

2)NAME OF YOUR
SECOND
WEB REFERENCE SITE
, COMMENTS ABOUT IT

3)NAME OF YOUR
THIRD W
EB REFERENCE SITE
, COMMENTS ABOUT IT

ETC (AS NECESSARY)


| Course Home Page |Course Syllabus | Feminist and Gender Studies Program
| Other Undergraduate Courses on Serendip |Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Tuesday, 07-Sep-2010 07:52:38 EDT