Gender bias at the polls, Miss Barelas Babe?

"Do you have a letter from the county?", the elderly white man working the polls asked me.

Having just returned from a stint back east at a think tank, I responded in the negative, telling him that it might be in my mail, but I hadn't caught up on a month's mail just yet, handing him my driver's license and voter registration card that identifies my address and precinct.

He looked up my name in the system, asked me to confirm my address and punched in a few keys. As we were waiting for the computer system to kick out my ballot, I asked him about the county letter, "Is this something new or only for the presidential election?" He wasn't sure, but told me that the aim was to speed up the voting process.

(Given that there had been two people in line when I arrived at the top of the noon hour, and there were now ten people in line, this seemed like a good idea.)

The system was taking a while to print the ballot, so we made more small talk. He handed back my driver's license, saying, "Thank you, Miss" and I saw red.

Up to this point, my day was sunny yellow.

I woke up this morning to a beautiful October day in Barelas, with crisp blue skies, sunshine, and cottonwood leaves slipping from green to gold. Having planned long ago to cast my vote on the first day of early voting, I reviewed my ballot over morning coffee, excited about having the chance to do something that I figured would happen during my own lifetime, but possibly not during my mother's lifetime.

To cast a vote for a woman running on a major party ticket for president was a historic moment for me, and I wanted to savor it. I thought about the day when, should I be lucky enough to have grandchildren, I could tell them about this, just as my great-grandmother born in 1900 recounted her memories to me about the first time she voted once women attained the right to vote. When I asked Nana about her first act of voting, she told me that she asked her husband who to vote for, which puzzled my thirteen year old self given the fierce independent Nana I knew.

After all, this was the woman who, fed up with watching men stand around the senior center while the women cleaned up, handed one of the men a short-handled broom. When he tried to hand it back to her, asking, "What do I do with this?" she told him to stick it up his ass and swish his hips to sweep the floor, motioning as she told the story to the family.

My grandmother, Nana's eldest daughter, was mortified, but I thought it was the coolest thing. I vowed to be just like her when I became an old lady.

It's a little thing, that expression "Miss" -- one that is used to imply politeness, but these days, it is also a way of putting women in their place. "Miss" is an antiquated term reserved for girls. Just about the only time I use it is when addressing snail mail to nieces and cousins; I also use "Master", but not without some qualms these days.

So when the elderly man volunteering at the polls called me "Miss", I thought to myself, "ENOUGH!"

Here I am, a middle-aged woman giddy with excitement about casting a vote for a woman for president, and he reminds me from his position as a representative of the state that I am not just a woman, but a woman whom he regards from his social position as a girl. (How much of this was also due to my dark hair and olive skin and slight accent I don't know.)

I politely responded back, "Actually, it's Ms. Barelas Babe or Professor Barelas Babe or Dr. Barelas Babe, but not Miss Barelas Babe, please."

I'm a woman over 50 with a doctorate, not a girl. He was holding my driver's license in his hand (which has my birthdate on it) when he said this.

To his credit, he apologized, and then started peppering me with questions about my medical training. I corrected him, telling him that I was a bioethicist with a doctorate, not a medical doctor. (There's a whole 'nuther thing that happens when people find out I'm a philosopher, and I was mindful that there were ten people waiting in line behind me.) He followed up with a few questions about bioethics until the ballot printed. After it did, he handed it to me, and said "Thank you, Dr. Barelas Babe."

On most days I make the calculation of time and energy that goes into the labor of advocating for one's equal standing. Competing demands on my time mean I usually don't engage in situations like this. (I'm too busy dealing with issues like trying to get disability accommodations to expend energy on these everyday instances of discrimination.)

In the past, I was more likely to stand up for disability discrimination than against sexism, but these days I'm just tired of the grabbing and the comments and the expectation that I am an object to be evaluated rather than a human being to engage.

Yesterday, though, I was casting a vote for a woman president!

Primed over the weekend's incessant news flashes and the presidential debate to be especially on the alert to sexism by Donald Trump's Access Hollywood video, in which he objectifies women and brags about grabbing women by the pussy without consent (this is sexual assault, FYI) given his social standing, I wasn't about to walk into that voting booth feeling diminished or 'put in my place' as I cast my vote.

But diminishing one is exactly what microaggressions like calling a grown woman "Miss" do.

Here's the thing: if you're working at a polling place, and there is a woman who is in line to vote, you can be assured that she is over 18.

Hence, a woman, and not a girl.

Just as you would address any man in line as "Sir" or "Mr. Voter", a title that confers respect, but does not reinforce a history of marital status as the most important social factor in a woman's life (these days, that's not relevant to our actions as citizens) or women as girls (we're long past that, contrary to what some people might think), you should address a woman by "Ma'am" or "Ms. Voter".

The questions that arise if poll workers don't treat equal citizens equally are much discussed with regard to race and age, but since the passage of the 19th Amendment, we've not paid much attention to gendered microaggressions at the polling place.

It's time for us to do so.

Here's one question: if you address a grown woman as a girl, what effect might this have on her voting pattern? I came in knowing exactly how I would vote, but I will admit that after this experience, I paid special attention to the women candidates I voted for, having just had this experience of being belittled on account of my gender.

There's been a lot of talk about down ballot voting, but I'm not sure that anyone's considered the effects of sexism on down ballot voting at the polling place in this heavily gendered presidential election campaign, and I'm curious.

Might sexist microaggressions by poll workers that occur just as one is getting ready to vote incline one to vote for more women down ballot? (Especially for the local elections that people pay far less attention to?) Does heavy media coverage of sexist behavior prime one to be more aware of instances of sexist microaggressions?

I can hear some of you saying, "Yeah, but he's an old man from a different era. Give him a break!"

While I do appreciate the way that the man responded to my objection (he could have been a dismissive jerk), I don't hold with this objection.

Here's why: as a poll worker, he's in a position where he is representing our government. As such, he and other poll workers have a legal (and I would add, ethical) responsibility to use language that is equitable.

Try substituting demeaning terms for addressing people of color if you're not convinced of this point. Consider this: would 'boy' fly in these circumstances as a respectful term of address for an man, particularly for an African-American man? Hmmm???

There are a number of ways one can address people equitably: using first names, using comparable terms of respectful address (this can be challenging if one does not use the gender binary -- I'm not aware of a gender neutral term in English that is used as an equivalent for Mr. or Ms.), using surnames only, or perhaps not using a name or term of address at all, since some people are affronted by first name or surname usage.

Social influences and cognitive bias have become part of the public discourse. In addition to just treating people with equal respect, shouldn't we also pay attention to how some of our ordinary and unexamined habitual behaviors might have an impact in the polling place -- regardless of which candidates we support?

Over to you, Mr. Winter: as New Mexico's (interim) Secretary of State overseeing elections per the National Voter Registration Act and other laws, do you think women should be addressed as girls when we arrive at the polls?


[Image description: photograph cropped to show the upper half of a woman's head and face. She is an olive skinned, brown-eyed woman wearing sunglasses and a bicycle helmet with an "I voted" sticker on it. An adobe wall and windows with blue trim are behind her.]

Views: 389

Comment by Kitson Harvey on October 13, 2016 at 3:10pm

Hooray! I love you.

Comment by Sí Serrano on October 13, 2016 at 3:34pm

My sons have had to listen to me speak up for many years when I encountered gender bias (and violence against the weak).  They didn't get why 'I had to yell at everybody' (when women speak up).  I knew I wasn't alone in my views but it is so wonderful to finally have others with the same voice speaking up too.

Comment by JeSais on October 13, 2016 at 4:38pm

Hooray!  I've missed Barelas Babe! and Hooray for middled aged women-- I am finally learning to speak up and appreciate your words--pure inspiration!  

Comment by Debby S on October 14, 2016 at 6:45am

At least he didn't call you a "guy", which seems to be popular today particularly in the media: Yesterday a woman TV weather forecaster on some local chat show interviewed two women and called her guests "you guys" quite a few times. I was with a table full of women one day and the young male waiter addressed us "Can I get you guys anything?"

If I'm going to be lumped together with other people (women and men), I'd rather hear "you" or "you all". So having come of political age in the late 1960s, I can understand your irritation, Barelas (Babe).

Comment by once banned twice shy on October 14, 2016 at 9:24am

You know, as a middle-aged woman myself, I rather like "Miss."  I don't like "Ma'am," as it makes me feel old. You know what I DON'T like?  "Babe."  I worked as a stagehand for many years.  It is a male-dominated business.  When some of the male stagehands called me "babe," there was no question that they were being dismissive and sexist. 

Comment by Barelas Babe on October 14, 2016 at 10:46am

OTBS -- There's a substantive difference between personal preference and self-chosen appellations, no? :-) I get what you're saying here (we all have personal preferences, and my own nom de plume is a bit of ironic alliteration, as most who know me realize), but I just want to be sure the bigger point of my post is not missed.

If a term that is widely used to refer to girls or young unmarried women (see various dictionaries) is used by representatives of our government (e.g. poll workers) to generically refer to women of all ages, that's not an equivalent term to what is used to refer to men of all ages, and is demeaning.

Given the wide range of personal preferences and potential for misgendering, it may be that the most respectful approach is to not use any name or term of address, but simply use language of courtesy (please, thank you) to show respect. I'm not that this is the best approach, and I'd be curious to learn what others think!  

Comment by The DitchRider on October 14, 2016 at 12:30pm

Hey Ms. BB, So right on.  I was discussing the Ms. term with one of my daughters and she said in Germany, where she resides currently, earning her doctorate and teaching, what the equivalent to Ms. was in German. She says that in usage, there is none. The Germans have boy and girl (der Junge and das Mädchen) (funny, however, that girls have a neutral article das, but boys have the masculine der). And they have Frau und Herr. No marital status third choice. I battled the "Miss" in the classroom for years. Now, as I am in my 70s, I battle the "Honey" and "Dearie or dear."  But you and I are word specialists. Most Americans don't give a flying F-word.  I did tell a server once that he was likely to get a much bigger tip from me if he used neither Honey or Dear. That usage is ageist. I resent their arrogant pity towards the wisdom of the ages. We may not have the strength of the young but we still have our names and dignity. This is where Ma'am, short for Madame, equal to Sir. And the use of "ladies" is a whole other ballgame and battle, not even worth the lecture.  But there are those among us who fought for the right to move from "girl" to "Lady," to "Woman."  And it's a woman running for president, not a lady. Her title will be Madame President, neither miss nor ms nor lady would work.  OMG I want to go vote!  This is a visceral, intellectual ecstasy!  And I often head down ballot giving women preference if at all possible.

Comment by Barelas Babe on October 14, 2016 at 2:20pm

Brava, Ditchrider! I wish there were a "like" button for comments, because I'd be liking these with gusto!

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