gender isn’t everything. it also isn’t nothing. which is what our haste to say it isn’t everything tends to imply.
immediately we downgrade it. in trying to make it less important we make it unimportant. so that, to discuss the experience of being a woman, i have to admit that being a woman isn’t the whole of my experience, and yet establish that experience as being valid enough to warrant discussion so that you won’t dismiss me for wanting to discuss it, whilst also making it seem like i don’t think it’s everything to such an extent that you won’t want to read what i’m about to write because (1) you think it doesn’t apply to you or (2) you hate my tone.
to lure you in as a reader, as a writer i must strongly scent this conversation with notes of que sera sera and c‘est la vie.
tone is terribly important when one is a woman.
i do not want to write about this. even more than i do not want to write about hillary clinton, i do not want to write about gender. but because i always wind up occupying the spaces i least want to stew in, here we are.
i wonder: is the worry of being shrill a feature of the male experience?
i also wonder: why do women always wind up doing admin?
time and again, it is women who are doing admin. because we are so organized. because we are so methodical. because we are so good at project management. because these are our natural gifts. because these are the gifts we have cultivated within ourselves.
in my pre-academic life, i was an assistant and an event planner. i am really good at admin because, in part, i am naturally a perfectionist organizer and that is where my experience lies.
so it is not all about gender. but it is also not nothing to do with gender.
i hate writing about this because it opens up a decidedly not safe space and my way of cushioning that vulnerability is by protesting the fact that i’ve been moved into writing about it at all.
but there are things you can’t not write.
also half the description i wrote for this blog is feminism and feelings. it can’t be all celebrity and biography all the time.
in writing this, i am holding myself accountable to that. i am also proving to myself that i can do it. and that it is worth doing.
confession: i harbor doubts that it is worth the risk.
in preparing the draft of my dissertation, i noticed that i refer to all the men by last name and all the women by their first and last names.
in my first reference to woolf, i called her simply virginia. neither i nor the female proofreader caught this.
there are these male colleagues who never reply to emails. they don’t put up an away message either. they simply vanish and you are left to wonder if they have died.
(having written that, i’m suddenly aware of all of the male academics who have outstanding replies to me and am consumed by fear that they will read this, believe i am condemning them, and i will be penalized forever and cut off for good. to them [and fear not, you are not alone because you are legion], i would say, please do not punish me for acknowledging this reality!)
they have not died. they have gone off to islands or cottages or the library or wherever. they are working. they are writing and being geniuses. they are too busy, too involved in their work to communicate. they are at liberty to totally let themselves go.
i write that in such a tone because i am stricken with envy. i am jealous.
i have never known such liberty in my life.
i will never in my life, already i know, have that luxury.
i worry i’d disappoint everyone. i worry i’d let everyone down. all the people who need things from me, they would be upset. perhaps i am imagining that their need for me is greater than it actually is, but nonetheless i can have no such liberty because i would be unable to withstand the resulting guilt.
monday was the first day in two and a half years that i have not written. within those two and a half years, i continued to reply to emails. surely my ability to do this is not a result of some womanly ability to multitask.
there are these things that happen and you just know- you just know– that if the situation were reversed, if it involved a woman rather than a man, he would not get away with it.
if he were a she, he would be failing to do his job.
what’s worse: you know that if he were a she, you would believe that he was failing to do his job.
but he is not a she and he is working on his manuscript. and so you nod and smile and say, oh of course, he couldn’t make it to this meeting because he has a deadline. you do not ask aloud why he didn’t have the courtesy to write an email informing everyone of that fact.
again. if you are reading this and think it is you, it is not just you. it happens all the time.
please also note my continuing need to protect everyone to whom this applies.
it is because i fear i am sounding shrill. i am pathologically afraid of sounding shrill. i have felt, as long as i can remember, that i must never, ever allow others to feel that i sound shrill.
this is connected to my other great fear of making someone feel uncomfortable. i’d far rather i be uncomfortable than they.
i’ve been sexually harassed three times, specifically. by which i mean three times that felt major.
once on the tube. once on a transatlantic flight. and once verbally via email.
despite living in a society that openly discusses many things, these are not typically things we talk about. but if ever you do talk about it, you’re invariably bombarded with the stories of other women and you realize how un-extraordinary an experience this is.
that i have been sexually harassed three times feels so normal that the phrase sexual harassment seems unnecessarily alarmist. in turn, that the phrase sexual harassment seems unnecessarily alarmist feels unfair. it suggests that even the language i’ve been given to communicate my experience cannot be taken seriously because it is portrayed as being extreme.
we no longer have the language to describe how banal this experience is.
now i fear that i am sounding strident.
i am less afraid of sounding strident than sounding shrill because i assume stridency is a distant country whilst shrill is my natural register.
still, i’d rather not sound strident if it can be helped.
i do not want you to think i hate men or think i’m better than men or that i don’t shave my legs.
it honestly feels like those are the stakes when one is writing such things (what things? that men frequently don’t answer emails in a timely fashion, that there is a double-standard and that i have been harassed). simultaneously, it feels like those are ludicrous stakes and that i am being patently ridiculous to feel that those are the risks i run.
a lot of the time, my feelings do not feel valid.
women didn’t get the vote in switzerland until 1971. this was the fact at the end of suffragette which brought audible gasps from the audience of the screening i was at and it is now probably emblazoned on my mind forever.
i wonder how suffragette will perform in america. will it perform at all. or, because it fails to represent every version of female experience, will it just quietly fade away and there won’t be another movie on the women’s movement in the next decade because audiences failed to go see this one in appropriately huge number.
gender is not everything but it is not nothing. as a little girl, i always played first lady, never president. a regrettable, albeit understandable, failure of imagination.
sally ride went into space so i knew i could do that. but, as the president was never a woman, the best i could hope was to be his wife. whether my prospects have altered in the decades since remains to be seen.
in first grade, the most evil teacher i ever had forbid me from talking in class or raising my hand. it was, she said, more important that the boys should learn.
when i kept talking, she took me to the principal’s office and made me call my grandmother and confess to her that i was being naughty and would not shut my loud mouth. (my grandmother- my savior- told me she loved me anyway and that i could talk all i wanted when i got home.)
how do we do it? a friend asks. how can we just disengage mentally and not let it get to us?
learn from this, learn from me, a mentor- my hero, my guide- tells me later that same day. be very careful what you say yes to, otherwise you’ll be doing admin the rest of your professional life.
i am a woman. i am aggrieved. i am making it all about gender. i am making it worse that it is.
actually, no. i am acknowledging what it is.
having written that, i fear what i have written will now be characterized as a feminist rant.
i hate when things i have written are characterized as feminist rants because the phrase feminist rant is a way of saying angry woman, which is a way of saying you don’t need to take this seriously.
we need to take this seriously. that isn’t strident. it is true.
in forth grade, the girls were separated from the boys and taken to a neighboring classroom where we were shown slides of naked women, told we would begin bleeding at any moment and that it was our job to thwart the advances of boys from then on.
the boys, they informed us later in whispers, watched an episode of teenaged mutant ninja turtles and ate snacks sent by someone’s mother.
my father has for years told me a story about how at a conference he went to there was this woman who was doing all the work- signing everyone in, overseeing all the arrangements, orchestrating the whole event. he thought she was a helper. later in the conference, she took the stage and gave a talk. she was, in reality, an expert in her field.
this has always been an anecdote about hustling, about machinations. a story about taking the lead in organizing things so that you can get to know everyone in your field and advance yourself.
i have always interpreted it as being the academic equivalent of pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps. from it, i have drawn courage.
it is only now that i see it for what it probably really was: in academia, most often it is women who are doing the admin.
this is not to say that there are no men who do admin. of course there are. but it is to point out that the people in administrative roles in higher education are disproportionately female.
and that there are reasons for this.
when i was twelve, i was drawn to jackie because she was beloved. i have lately come around to loving her for the fact that everyone universally hated her voice. it was, they said when she died, her only flaw.
were she an actress, this would’ve done in her career. she was not an actress, so she got away with it, but just barely as it persists as her most frequently cited imperfection. one of two, the marriage to onassis being the other.
but the marriage to onassis has been, for the most part, culturally erased. the voice, alas, we are stuck with, in all its awkward inhalations and curious drawls.
personally, i love it. probably because everyone hates it. but also because, without it, she is silenced.
we make fun of jfk’s accent. we do not characterize it as a flaw. we do not suggest he would’ve done better to have shut up. we take for granted that he had things to say.
when i was learning to drive, the instructor told all the girls in the class to always look under their cars to make sure a lurker wasn’t hiding beneath and to carry the car key between the knuckles of the index and middle fingers of their right hands, so they could wield it like a knife blade in case of attack.
this was, we were informed, part of the experience of driving while a woman.
15 years later, walking in chicago at night, i’d be halfway home before i’d notice that, in my coat pocket, my house key had found its way between the knuckles of the index and middle fingers of my right hand and was waiting, like a blade.
a colleague mentions that someone who’s been supportive of my work has a reputation. the sensation i feel upon receiving this information is of having been robbed.
because i thought he was engaged with my work. now the idea has been introduced that perhaps i thought too much of myself. perhaps my work is not as important and interesting as i had imagined. perhaps it was never about my work at all.
intellectually, i do not believe this is true but his reputation now intrudes.
now i wonder if his recommendation letter will be valuable or if, aware of his reputation, people will just assume he wrote it because i’m one of his girls.
what i feel i have been robbed of is my voice.
i wasn’t a feminist because i thought feminism meant burning bras and being angry. i thought this because i was a girl of the 90s and that is how feminists were portrayed when i was growing up.
and so, as an adult, when people would say, oh of course you’re a feminist, i’d pooh-pooh it, trilling, oh no no, i wear dresses and lipstick and am a whimsical, jubilant girl. i buy my bras at h+m.
i wasn’t an idiot, but i was ignorant. i did not know what feminism was, didn’t know it meant that we are all equal.
that i didn’t know that makes me angry. as does the fact that so many people still do not know.
(it’s hard not to apologize. it is so incredibly difficult to refrain from saying i’m sorry at the end…)