Portions of the post first appeared in Role Reboot.
In her recently-released memoir, Democratic nominee for Texas governor Wendy Davis writes about two abortions she had many years ago. A National Review Online contributor would like her to prove it. Like Erin Gloria Ryan, who wrote about this yesterday in Jezebel, I won't link to this article, which included the following sentence, "The Davis campaign did not respond to questions about whether Davis's highly unusual abortions were matched by any medical evidence, doctor statements, or public verification from her ex-husband or two daughters."
This "wink, wink -- we all know women lie" masked as journalistic concern isn't just about Davis, but all of us. Words like "highly suspect" "evidence" and "verification," used in circumstances like this, leverage a diffuse and atavistic suspicion of women.
Women's credibility is questioned in the workplace, in courts, in legislatures, by law enforcement, in doctors' offices and in our political system. People don't trust women... not to be bosses, pilots, employees. Last year, a survey of managers in the United States revealed that they overwhelmingly don't believe women who request flextime. Until relatively recently, in order to hedge against the idea that women lie, many U.S. police departments had "corroboration requirements" for rape reports, unlike any other crime. Pakistan's controversial Hudood Ordinance still requires a female rape victim to procure four male witnesses to her rape or risk prosecution for adultery. Bias is particularly pronounced when it comes to women's bodies and who does what with them.
Several months ago, a man in France was arrested for raping his 14-year old daughter. She'd gone to her school counselor and then the police, but they needed "hard evidence." The recently-revealed Rotherham abuse crimes, in which more than 1,400 girls were subjected to rape and other violence, were largely enabled by authorities who thought girls didn't deserve to be believed. They aren't alone. Studies show that college students and, even more disturbingly, police officers, believe that up to 50% of women lie when they accuse someone of rape, despite wide-scale evidence and multi-country studies that show the incidence of false rape reports to be in the 2%-8% range. As I will forever point out, as late as 2003, people jokingly referred to Philadelphia's sex crimes unit as "the lying bitch unit."
Everyone lies. However, people expect different kinds of lies from men and women. Women are frequently considered trustworthier except when lies include another person, in which case confidence in the veracity of what women say plummets. In other words, women can be trusted to talk about themselves, but not anything else. Even when people surveyed say they think women are more honest as individuals, despite themselves, they cannot trust them as leaders. In Davis' case, she's not even extended this courtesy, being believed when she is recounting the facts of her own life.
You know what a memoir is? Testimony.
The words testimony, testify, testis, testicle, attest, intestate, testament and contest are related etymologically. Yup. That, historically, you could not give testimony if you did not posses the balls to do so is not a metaphor. Apparently, men in ancient Rome cupped each others' testicles, as a sign of trust and truthfulness, when taking oaths. Today, men no longer do this, at least not that I'm aware of, nor do they place their right hands on their testicles in order to swear to tell the truth in court any longer. (Someone will tell me that I'm lying, in which case they should contact the University of Chicago.)
While this delicious historical tidbit may seem like a quaint oddity, and it's fair to assume that most people are not overtly linking men's crown jewels with the truth, the fact remains that we live with this legacy. This semantic cluster provides interesting insights into who we, culturally, choose to believe and how we, systemically, regulate narratives and prioritize experiences. There is a certain self-fulfilling ideological logic to the notion that the vast majority of women are, quite literally, not fit to have their words taken at face value or their concerns taken seriously.
Take courtrooms, and their proxies -- media, school rape adjudication boards and public judgment. Myths about gender and truth don't stay at home when jurors, judges and journalists go to work. In courtrooms, not only are men considered more credible, but they are particularly thought more credible if they are talking about complex subjects. Are Wendy Davis' abortions, and the ethical and moral considerations that led to them, complex? Conservatives in particular have a hard time recognizing women's moral competence.
As Dahlia Lithwick so richly documented a few years ago, the GOP's destructive, ruinous anti-woman "social policy" agenda is being pursued under a rubric that insists women need "permission slips" and "waiting periods." The government shutdown last year? Conservatives holding the country hostage because they wanted to add anti-abortion "conscience clause" language to legislation. Whose consciences? All the lying, morally incompetent and untrustworthy men who need abortions and health care?
It's not just what women say that people find in-credible, but studies also show that women are allowed an exceedingly narrow band of how they are allowed to say it. If a woman expresses righteous anger, she is less likely to be believed. If she expresses herself in a combative way in response to a hectoring lawyer or reporter, she is going to be disliked. If she is silent, she will be distrusted. If she talks too much, she is thought to be making stories up. If she is a woman of color, well, all of that on steroids plus some. What are Jezebels and welfare queens if not, first and foremost, myths about liars?
People don't just turn 18 and start doubting what women say, their competence or authority. This struck me clearly three years ago, when, in fly-on-the-wall fashion of parent drivers everywhere, I listened while a girl in the back seat of my car described how angry she was that her parents had stopped allowing her to walk home alone just because a girl in her neighborhood "claimed she was raped." When I asked her if there was any reason to think the girl's story was not true, she said, "Girls lie about rape all the time." She was 14 and very sure about this.
We don't need to though. It's in the air. Lessons about women's untrustworthiness are in our words, pictures, art and memory. Women are overwhelmingly portrayed in media as flawed, supplemental, ornamental objects, or unattainably perfect. It's easy to find examples of girls and women entertainingly cast as liars and schemers. For example, on TV we have Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, Don't Trust The Bitch in Apartment 23, Devious Maids, and, because its serpent imagery is so symbolically basic to feminized evil, American Horror Story: Coven. Backstabbing women are a staple of reality TV.
Movies, too. PG and G-rated movies are filled with "women lie" precursors to their R-rated versions. Tangle's "Mother Knows Best" is a delightful ditty that takes particular aim at... mothers. Or, how bout Shark Tale, which features the song "Gold Digger," a catchy tune that kids sing along to that describes women as scheming, thieving, greedy and materialistic? The vast majority of mad people in films are untrustworthy women and the entire Film Noir genre is filled with manipulative gals. What does the failure of most films to even allow two women to be named or speak to one another about anything other than the male protagonists say to kids?
In the music industry, hip-hop most frequently comes in for well-deserved criticism, but there is no shortage of music lyrics in all genres that convey distrust of and disdain for women. Pop culture has nothing on religion, though.
Here's a two-for-one example! Delilah, a renowned biblical avatar of female untrustworthiness, made it into the lyrics of JT Money's "Somethin' 'Bout Pimpin'":
I got a problem with this punk a** b*tch I know
Ol'no good skanlezz switch out ho
An untrustworthy b*tch like Deliliah
Only thing she good for is puttin' d*ck inside her
Ew. However, line for line, this is an updated version, albeit more catchy, of:
Honestly, what's the difference? While most religious leaders aren't going around spouting overtly denigrating opinions (does calling us "penis homes" count?) about women, many, through default and tradition, casually and uncritically expose children to religious texts, systems and cultures rooted in misogyny.
The United States is among the most religious of developed countries. There's a straight line between catchy, contemporary expressions of the distrust of women and these guys, who shaped the Judeo-Christian canon, and who continue to shape children's imaginations. As a matter of fact, the quotes above represented a tradition that some consider an improvement for women. There is a strong family friendly heritage of sexism here. And, unlike pop culture, religious misogyny that inculcates children with a disrespect for women's words is tied to institutional power in ways that mean women continue to be impoverished and die, including because women are denied access to safe, legal abortions when they need them.
Most importantly though, when it comes to religion, the dangerous and destructive effect that the everyday ritual silencing of women has on children, and what they think about women, cannot be overstated. Personally, I won't allow my children to participate in religious conventions were women are barred from speaking as leaders. If women aren't allowed to speak with ministerial authority, it's because they cannot be trusted to. Children aren't stupid, they're just young.
A seemingly simple statement, with its barely contained innuendo, such as "only Ms. Davis knows the truth about her alleged abortions," ripples widely and resonates deeply in the cultural imagination. When you see this language, these ideas, don't tolerate the insult. Name it.
As Ryan said, "Are you sure you want to do this? Is this the message you want to send? ...This seems wrong."