I have been sitting here debating whether or not to write this diary. Anyone who checks my history can see I usually do not. This diary is not political. It's not about Democrats or Republicans in particular. It's not about contraception or transvaginal ultrasounds. Instead, this is my attempt to come to grips with the fact that Monday evening, I became just another woman whose voice was silenced by a group of men, which led to me crying on my husband's shoulder tonight in anger and shame. This is a more personal examination of what the War on Women looks like in a classroom. Follow over the squiggly if you want to work through this with me.
To fully understand what happened to me, it's probably best to start with the context. I am a white 35-year-old woman attending a state university in North Carolina, majoring in history. I am a disabled vet who was put out on disability during Clinton's last year in office. VA is putting me through college for free because my disability, fibromyalgia, is so severe that I need to be retrained to do a job different from what I was trained to do in the Army. My university's administration is pretty well known as being very conservative, so it is not surprising that a large portion of the student body is very, very conservative. I started going here in January 2008, so I got an up close look right away at how conservative and racist many students are thanks to the Democratic Primary. It is also primarily a science and technology school. The humanities are fairly well ignored and do not get many of the state grants.
This semester, I am taking a class about slavery in the antebellum period. Quite a touchy subject to some folks. The classroom is very tiny. There is a rather small oval table in the middle which the professor, myself and four other students sit at, and chairs are arranged against the wall in a U-shape around the table. There are 11 people in the class. We started off with 20, but almost half dropped within the first two weeks because there is a significant amount of reading to do every week. Probably a good thing since it is crowded with just 11. Everyone is white, five females, six males, and the professor is a very smart older white guy from Texas who seems to be mellowing with age.
There is one young man who is loudly conservative and complains fairly often about how books always give the slaves point of view the benefit of the doubt over the masters. The professor has skillfully and very politely reasoned him into a corner every single time, but he is in such denial and the professor is so polite to him, I doubt he realizes he's lost every single argument this semester. I often feel a sense of schadenfreude when he talks because he literally grumbles about "liberals" always calling him racist and sexist all the time, and saying that he isn't. He is a walking stereotype.
I have actually loved this class. Thanks to how much we've had to read, and the fact that I have had to write a paper about what I read every single week, I have learned an amazing amount of information concerning what led up to the Civil War. It's really been fascinating. I currently have an A in the class. I got a B+ on the midterm, and all As and A+s on the weekly papers, which have been an absolute joy to write.
Today, though, something happened I realize on reflection I probably should have seen coming. We have been reading this book called Roll, Jordan, Roll, a fairly controversial book about the slave culture by Eugene Genovese published back in 1972. I have been criticizing certain aspects of the book in my papers all semester, particularly the historian's idea that the slaves decided to willingly accept their punishment. The overall criticism, which several students agree with, is that he tended to manipulate his resources in a slightly irresponsible way, and often used resources which were questionable at best. Still, there is some very interesting stuff in it concerning the evolution of southern cooking, the clothes slaves wore and other anthropological and archeological evidence I found interesting. The conservative student has been complaining that his book is Marxist. Eh.
Last week, though, one of the parts we read dealt with miscegenation during slavery. For anyone who does not know what that word means, which is probably many since it is rarely used anymore, it basically means folks of different races sleeping with each other and doing things like having kids out of that interracial relationship. Quite frowned upon in the antebellum South obviously, and apparently still today in some places. Of course, as we all know, frowned upon or not, it happened. One of the main arguments Genovese makes in this section is that many slave women who slept with their masters or, more often their master's sons, eventually learned to love those white men. Even the slave women who were raped.
The only evidence the historian even offers is that many slave owners fought quite strenuously to free the female slave they were sleeping with because they wanted to marry them after it became illegal in many states in the Deep South to free slaves. That's it. Because those men fought to marry those women, some of whom they likely raped, then the relationship must have been genuinely loving.
As you can imagine, the females in the class, including myself, had a bit of a problem with this. Myself and a graduate student in the class both spoke up and outright disagreed. Now, this is a complex situation. We all know that there are many women of all races in abusive relationships today, some of whom have been raped, who do love their husbands/boyfriends, but sociologists and psychologists today consider that to be a sick kind of love. However, the point myself and the other female tried to make was this: how could a female slave even refuse to sleep with her master or her master's son, or, indeed, with any white man? It wasn't even considered a crime to rape a black woman back then, heck they didn't even call it rape, so what choice did these slave women have? They could find someone to protect them, which did happen quite often (many slave men were whipped or even killed for protecting slave women), they could physically resist and be explicitly raped, or they could give in, which is still rape as we know it today. Does this turn to love over time?
Myself and the other female student said no. Not a love that isn't completely sick. A true loving relationship can only be about a relationship based completely on consent from both sides and without constant abuse. Even if the white man stops abusing the slave woman, she would always know it could start up again at any time. More importantly, she would wake up every single day knowing that that could be the day he decides to sell her away. That sense of fear that would always have been there and the deeply asymmetrical aspect of the relationship overall would not have allowed genuine love to develop.
Now, this discussion occurred last Monday evening. The only response the young male students had in the class was from the conservative student who asked why it even mattered whether or not they loved them anyway. Not surprisingly, he later asked why it was important to find out whether or not Thomas Jefferson fathered any slave children. But aside from that, it was a very civilized, polite conversation. The only one really arguing against myself and the female student was the professor, but it was in a very polite and respectful manner, as all arguments have been all semester.
At about 6:15 PM Monday night, everything changed. This class, the professor said that in response to some students arguing that slave women could never have loved their masters in an honest, genuine manner, especially the ones who were raped and/or abused, he wanted to switch it up and talk about white women. He then proceeded to read a paragraph from a book called Southern Honor, which described horrific abuse some Southern men heaped on their wives, but the courts would not accept that as a reason for divorce. He described how women were practically one step up from slave women in the South at times. He then asked, could these women have loved their husbands despite this horrific treatment?
The other female student (who is Southern) who spoke up last week stumbled a bit, and then fell silent. I said, definitely, that no, they would not. Women who are constantly raped, held down by their husband's friends so their husbands can whip them, tied to chairs and forced to watch their husbands have sex with prostitutes, did NOT love their husbands. No. None of those women did. They might have felt affection. Some of them might have been so abused that their ideas of what love was so warped that they may have believed they were in love. But it was not love.
The class practically exploded. Suddenly, as soon as I said that, four of the six male students (all Southern), practically jumped in their seats, all started talking over each other at the same time with raised voices, telling me how I was wrong. The women, all but one sat behind me, remained completely silent. I have never heard a stronger silence than what was coming from behind me while I was the lone female being shouted down by four very loud males. I was told that I was generalizing, then I was told that I wasn't giving those women back then enough credit. When I asked why it was that it was only the men in the class who thought some of those women genuinely loved their husbands, but none of the women in the class did, I was told it was "because you are just upset that women back then had such shitty lives."
This entire conversation, if you can call it that, lasted maybe three minutes, with me being told by four men that I was definitely wrong, and the professor agreed, though he was far more polite about it. What I know my words cannot properly convey is the anger and violence directed towards me in those three minutes. It was visceral. My heartbeat is racing right now as I type these words just thinking about it. By the end, I was not allowed a word in at all, and then the matter was closed and I was declared wrong. As you can likely tell from the statements that are direct quotes, thanks to them being seared into my brain, they were all spoken in a very condescending manner.
After this happened, since it was over before it was even 6:20, I still had to sit through the class for another two hours and 25 minutes. For the rest of the class, all four of those men glared at me and grumbled quietly whenever I tried to speak about anything. Even when I actually agreed with one of them, he looked at me with this look that was a painful mixture of hatred and condescension.
The silence of those female students, almost all of whom sat behind me, was one of the most painful aspects. I knew they agreed with me. One had told me so last week while we all had congregated in the bathroom. Yet they stayed completely silent once the men started speaking.
The most painful aspects of this was that the argument was really about how women love, and four men decided that they knew more about that than women, and that I needed to be silenced. I was humiliated, ashamed and even slightly scared. I almost started crying in class.
Since it was the last class of the long day for me, I walked to my car. It was an incredibly slow walk. I was so hurt and confused by what happened. I ranted and raved to myself all the way home in righteous anger. But when I got home and walked through my front door, and walked up the stairs to see my husband, and heard my husband ask, "How was your day?" I broke down in tears and said, "Terrible."
I was practically inconsolable. I couldn't stop crying deep, heavy sobs. My husband immediately went into "How do I fix this mode," and asked me what he could do. I couldn't even answer him. I just kept crying. He kept asking questions, and I kept doing nothing but crying. Finally he asked if I wanted hot chocolate or tea, and I latched onto that and said, "Yes." I followed him downstairs and watched him put the kettle on and prepare the mugs.
By then, I had stopped crying, but I was still unable to talk about what happened. Suddenly, I was afraid. What if my husband didn't understand? I mean, yes, he is incredibly sensitive and very smart, but what if? I had just been through an extremely demeaning situation where absolutely no man stood up and agreed with me, and instead all sneered at me and obviously saw me as a threat to their masculinity. What if my husband didn't understand what that was like?
Slowly, nervously, I began to describe what happened. I did not have to provide much context for him. He had even read the section on miscegenation a week ago and thought it was absurd. When I told him not only what happened but how I felt, he not only empathized, he told me that I was right in my assumptions that they were trying to shut me up. That meant the world to me because my husband is very honest and does not say anything to just make me feel better. We even ended up having a long conversation about love and abuse and rape and discussed its complexities once I started feeling better. He didn't just let me make bad arguments, he always pointed out my logical fallacies, but he wasn't condescending when he told me that my argument was faulty.
From a sociological perspective, it is pretty obvious that those four southern men did not care as much when I was talking about the slaves, but felt I was directly attacking them when I talked about the white women. That much makes sense. What hurts is that when I tried to point out that there was a reason that only the men thought a woman who was abused could grow to genuinely love their husband, they reverted to the very, very old attack of women just being "emotional" about this issue. I could not believe that not a single white male realized what was going on. The very idea that their great-great-great-great grandmothers might not have loved their great-great-great-great grandfathers must have seemed like an attack to their self-esteem. It was all right if the slaves didn't love the masters ("Why does it matter?"), but as soon as I made it apparently more personal, look out.
This was a new threat that they were not used to handling. Most young white American men are willing to admit that, if their ancestors owned slaves, it was wrong. That conversation is quite old. But to tell them that, "Oh, by the way. You treated your wives little better," well, that argument isn't really discussed other than in the broadest, vaguest terms. I would wager that those four white young men in the classroom last night have spent much of their life feeling guilty about slavery, and being faced with the idea that these slave owners even treated their wives like slaves sometimes, seemed to be too much for them.
Here is how I see it: In my life, I grew up in an abusive environment. I spent a lot of time isolated. I've been raped by someone I considered a friend and used to date (took me years to fully admit). I have constantly been faced with men dictating the facts of life concerning everything. I have been in relationships that were very, very unequal. I have been told I cannot do certain things because I am a woman. In the end, I think I know a little bit more about how white Southern women felt in the 18th and 19th centuries than those four white young American men could ever know. Yet, because I told these men something they did not wish to hear, they dismissed me as emotional and biased. They implied that, as men, they clearly did not have the same biases and could see things more clearly.
I realized a couple of hours ago that I am not really angry about this. I am ashamed. I was put into a situation where I should have won the argument, but I failed because I am a woman. I feel like I let women everywhere down. I feel like those four men who shouted me down and silenced me because I got scared and felt all alone probably now think, or had their ideas reaffirmed, that women are stupid and emotional sometimes and can't be depended on to know anything about women in the past. Yes, I understand that what happened to me was wrong. But it does not erase how ashamed I feel right now.
9:43 AM PT: Wow. I never expected to wake up and find myself on the Recommended List. Thank you all so very much for taking the time to read such a long diary.
3:39 PM PT: I cannot thank this community enough. I cannot fully express how much your comments have meant to me. I am so glad to be part of a community that is so informed and can be so thoughtful and perceptive.