Back in the 1990s, when I was coaching high school girls in track and cross-country, a book came out called The Stronger Women Get The More Men Love Football, by Mariah Burton Nelson, a former pro women's basketball player. It was about the backlash against women's sports and the increasingly defensive posture of men whose egos depend on being bigger, better, faster, and stronger than women. The news about Don Imus's suspension, after calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's," reminded me of that great title.
Dinosaurs like Imus are constantly putting women down to reinforce their feeling of membership in a superior boys' club.
Title IX revolutionized women's sports. It changed a generation of girls and boys forever, busting old stereotypes and getting girls onto the courts and fields, where they can experience the joy of their own strength and agility alongside boys. This is even more true today than it was a decade ago. The "gee-whiz" factor is gone from women's sports. It made my heart swell recently to take my young daughters to a University of Wisconsin women's basketball game. For them, the female players, coaches, and refs are as natural as the co-ed cheerleaders and Bucky Badger. I'm thrilled that they can look up at all those big, strong young women and imagine themselves in those size twelve shoes.
But, as Mariah Burton Nelson argued in her book, these cultural changes still make some men very nervous. Dinosaurs like Imus are straight out of Burton Nelson's text: constantly putting women down to reinforce their feeling of membership in a superior boys' club. The racism of Imus's comments made them particularly toxic, as Imus himself conceded in his apology on Al Sharpton's radio show.
The Imus story came on the heels of another misogyny-in-the-media brouhaha--the online threats and sexual slurs against technology blogger Kathy Sierra. Sierra, who endured actual death threats in addition to a lot of gross sexual put-downs, cancelled a public appearance because she said she feared for her life. The incident shone a spotlight on the ugly, trash-talking shut-ins whose voices are amplified and courage stoked by the anonymity of the blogosphere.
"Is the Internet safe for women?" the host of To the Contrary, a women's pundit show, asked me recently. Of course it is, I wanted to shout. Most Internet users are women. And bloggers from the left and right agree that one of the great values of the Internet is free speech. Death threats are a separate, criminal matter.
Beyond the issues of free speech and the ugliness of loudmouths like misogynist bloggers and Imus, there is the matter of who sets the tone of our national cultural conversations. If terrific athletes and accomplished female journalists are overshadowed and silenced by schoolyard bullies and socially stunted nerds, it's no good for anyone.
The hubbub around Imus focuses on the wrong thing: Don Imus. Does this man need any more attention, even if it is for telling Al Sharpton he's been "humiliated"?
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights are a great team who came one game short of winning the NCAA championship this year. The players, and their impressive head coach, C. Vivian Stringer, were robbed of the limelight at the end of an incredible season by one bozo shooting his mouth off. Imus has made a career of being nasty to public figures on the air. But, as Stringer pointed out in a press conference on the incident, "these aren't political figures, nor are they professionals. These are 18, 19-year-old young women who came here to get an education."
My favorite commentary on the subject was the New York Times op-ed by Gwen Ifill, the senior correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Ifill started her piece by naming the Scarlet Knights players--"the young women with musical names. Kia and Epiphanny and Matee and Essence. Katie and Dee Dee and Rashidat and Myia and Brittany and Heather."
After giving the players back their identities, Ifill talked about their storybook season. Only then did she get to Don Imus. It turns out Imus made loathsome comments about Ifill, too. When she was a White House correspondent he praised the New York Times because they "let the cleaning lady cover the White House."
The immensely classy Ifill didn't even know about the insult until years later, she writes--she doesn't listen to Imus. Nor does she think much of her colleagues' eagerness to go on his show.
That's just the right attitude. Gwen Ifill, who speaks movingly of her feeling of responsibility to the shy, young black women who approach her and look up to her, is a role model, someone who speaks to the best in us, who makes the world a better place. She is exactly what Imus is not. We'd be a better nation if we turned up the volume on voices like hers, and tuned the Imuses out.