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Fighting words, indeed

I'm in the midst of a conversation with three pilots _ two men and my friend Nancy. We're celebrating. Nancy, who is 62, just earned an instrument rating and a multi-engine rating, two tough tickets bought with months of sweat and tears. She opens her wallet and proudly waves her pilot's license, then hands it to me for a closer look.

"It says AIRMAN Certificate," I say.

"Yeah, I know," she says wryly.

And then it happens.

Both men's heads go back, their eyes roll up, they groan.

The Dreaded Eye Roll!

You know the expression. The one that says: Oh, you women. There you go again. Give us a break.

For years I lived in terror of The Dreaded Eye Roll. I mean, nobody wants to be known as one of those "strident females." C'mon, Diane, get off your high horse. You feminists. Always splitting hairs. Looking for the sexist spin on every ball.

"Are you telling me that the words really matter that much?" asks one of the airmen who is really an airman.

I say they do, and then we get into the predictable debate about whether we should rename personholes, personkind, etc. When I mention that I call my headset a "Walkhuman," I get another look.

Later, one of the men asks me: "Why do you keep steering conversations to ... issues?"

I say: "Why does the Federal Aviation Administration keep insisting Nancy is a boy?"

Actually, this column is only secondarily about gender bias in language. It is about how women are sabotaged by the putdowns they get when they point out the gender bias, whether it's in language or elsewhere.

Despite my snippy response to my friend, I did kind of wonder later. Maybe I was being a little too picky. Maybe I do tend to turn friendly conversations into political issues. And if that's true, if I keep annoying everyone this way, they will stop liking me.

Maybe, maybe. Pretty soon the maybes take me farther and farther from what I know to be true.

Perhaps we women are not on solid enough ground. Maybe what I need is some more self-confidence, or an assertiveness training workshop. But I do know that whatever is at work here, snorts and sniggers and clucking tongues are very powerful tools of control.

Just ask any woman who has spoken up about the bikini-clad pinups her male colleagues have tacked on the walls of their shared workspace. Many say that having pictures of semi-nude women around is demeaning. Some say it's downright pornographic. The owners of the photos say: Oh, come on! You can't be serious.

A few months after sports writer Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the New England Patriots locker room, Victor Kiam told the following joke, which tore across the country on bad joke warp speed.

Question: What do Lisa Olson and the Iraqis have in common?

Answer: They've both seen a Patriot missile up close.

Thud.

Geez, Diane. Lighten up. You're really losing it.

(Worse than groaning is the suggestion that I might be losing my sense of humor. Which is, I know, what a bunch of you are thinking right now.)

The process is insidious. As my self-doubt grows, my courage to speak up shrinks. Self-doubt soon moves into self-censor. Next time, maybe I'll avoid speaking up. Maybe I'll stop noticing.

This same tendency to minimize _ this feeling that something must be wrong with me _ can get dangerous.

For example.

This probably isn't really battering. He only shoved me a little bit and just hit me that one time.

I made him so mad. That's why he beat me up.

Maybe it isn't really rape. We had some drinks. I invited him up.

If I hadn't worn that miniskirt. ...

I realize it's a long way from "Airman" to date rape. Most men hate the idea of rape. But most women who speak up do confront The Dreaded Eye Roll every day.

We need to recognize the oh-so-subtle way this works to make women turn on ourselves, to teach us how to self-censor. When we fear ridicule, we shut up. When we're told that we are putting a damper on everyone else's good time, we shut up.

But I figured out this secret. It's based on an old revolutionary principle that when you are trying to get freedom, the strength of the resistance is directly proportional to the strength of your oppression.

Now I welcome The Dreaded Eye Roll. It's a signal that whatever I said was real close to the truth.

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