As you all know (or if you don't know you're not very careful readers - for shame!) my discipline is English. Now, English is a feminized discipline, just as many disciplines in the humanities are. It is also a discipline that pays a lot of attention (in the classroom, in the scholarship) to issues surrounding gender and sexuality (in literature). In fact, when I came to the discipline as an undergraduate, this was one of the things that attracted me. I was intrigued by a course of study that allowed me to explore my identity as a woman and that honored my burgeoning feminism.
The truth is, I didn't have much contact with male faculty during my undergraduate coursework. For one thing, I was minoring in women's studies and - surprise, surprise - most people who teach women's studies courses are women. For another, I did have a few male faculty in lower-division classes, but most were adjuncts (and thus oppressed by the system and thus not particularly invested in exerting certain kinds of authority over me, the nubile and brainy undergraduate) and one was a professor on the verge (like days away from) of retirement, and so was less interested in exerting authority than in having us all do shots of Ouzo in class (I kid you not). And so, I had a very skewed vision of what the discipline of literary studies looks like and of what my future as an academic in English would look like when I decided, as a junior in college, that I wanted to be a professor when I grew up.
Of course, though, this idyllic period of ignorance was short-lived.
From the ages of 21-22 the following things happened:
- A male professor, whom I liked very much, agreed to write a letter of recommendation for me. In this letter, he declared that I would be an "ornament" (direct quote) to any program that accepted me. I know, I know - he was just trying to indicate how great I was right? Yeah, except I doubt that he indicated the greatness of male students with words like "ornament."
- At the first conference I attended, a conference that is primarily attended by women, I was chatting along happily with a male scholar - about my work, about my interest in the conference, about going to grad school - but when someone interrupted to tell him goodbye, I turned back to my mentor. She said, "Don't talk to me! Keep talking to him! Don't you know who that is?!?!" and she turned her back on me. When we left, my mentor revealed that the man to whom I'd been talking was Very Important and that all of the other women (academics and feminists, mind you) were in a snit over the fact that I monopolized him and that he was so interested in talking to me (i.e., that his attention was diverted by a pretty young thing). I could tell you more stories in this vein, but this I think is illustrative enough.
- I chose as a reader for my MA thesis a male professor, who proceeded to, in a conference with me, with his office door closed and with only a little light on, to go on and on about a particular passage that I was analyzing - and only that passage - which was incredibly sexually explicit. He then loaned me his copy of a book by Norman Mailer, complete with his marginal notes. I felt incredibly uncomfortable.
- In each of these contexts, I was a woman first and my ideas came second. I either had to accept the benefits I could get from this (thus being complicit in being objectified) or I had stridently to refuse any such attentions. At the end of the day, I'm not the sort to stand up for what's right if it's going to get in the way of my ambition, so I've attempted to walk the fine line of letting the fact that I'm a woman work for me without ever becoming involved in anything that I feel is truly inappropriate.
- More prestigious/advanced male scholars can be fantastic and influential on one's work, but not all of them are true mentors. If a guy is looking at your boobs while you talk about your research, he is not your mentor.
- Even your female, feminist mentors may pimp you out at the first opportunity.
I'm going to end with two stories.
Once upon a time, Dr. Crazy attended a conference, and at that conference, she attended a discussion-oriented session in which the audience was expected to participate. The room was pretty full, and Dr. Crazy had to sit toward the front. Dr. Crazy hadn't planned on contributing to the discussion, actually, because it was filled with the OMG and she was tired and she just didn't want to deal. The problem was, at one point in the discussion, she couldn't stop herself from speaking up about something that she had some expertise about. When Dr. Crazy speaks up once, it's pretty much Goodnight, Nurse and she'll be speaking until the discussion is over. So she spoke. And she made some good comments, or at least she felt that she did, and the couple of other women in the room had come up to her afterward to say that they enjoyed what she had to say.
So during the coffee break, Dr. Crazy was talking with another woman, and she was interrupted by a Very Especially Grand Member of the OMG. He didn't introduce himself. (Not that he needed to do so, as he had preyed upon Dr. Crazy at a previous conference.) Rather, he told Dr. Crazy that if she wanted to participate in the discussion, she should have chosen to sit in another location in the room. (Mind you, many men were sitting in the front of the room as well, and they were talking, and he wasn't giving them advice about where to sit.) And then he walked away, having quite literally put Dr. Crazy in her place. Dr. Crazy attended a similar discussion-oriented session, and she took VEGM's advice. And she actively participated. (Incidentally, again, men were sitting in front and they were talking and the VEGM didn't have a problem with it. However, because VEGM was sitting on the side, and facing the back of the room, Dr. Crazy was now in his line of sight.) And all of a sudden VEGM was all, "I don't think I introduced myself," and "I'm interested in your ideas."
People like VEGM are not mentors. No matter how affable they become when you do what you're told, they will not mentor you as a professional. That is the bottom line.
Once upon a time, Dr. Crazy attended a conference, and at that conference, she gave a paper on a new research project, thinking that she could "try out" her ideas here (it was a non-specialized conference) and that it would be safe because nobody familiar with what she was working on was likely to be in the audience. Well, the president of the society dealing with this very topic was in the audience. (Incidentally, so too was the guy from bullet-point #1, and that was sure weird, given the topic of my paper, but I digress.) And she loved what I was thinking about. And she wanted to get a drink and a meal. And she suggested I submit a proposal for the society's MLA panel that was upcoming. In the following years, she has helped me get publications, a guest editing gig, and to become an officer in the society. And she's one of my recommenders. No, she's not a VEGM of anything. No, she's not at a fancy institution, nor is she part of the OMG. But she is a mentor. She treats me as a colleague.
The same is true of more prestigious female scholars whom I know. And isn't it interesting that I "know" them - have an acquaintanceship with them and have had good conversations with them, etc. - whereas those members of the OMG who like to show up at my side at drinks receptions don't even know my name? I certainly think it is.
I guess all of this is a long way of getting to the point that this is something that I struggle with. I struggle with the fact that I want to be well regarded by the OMG while at the same time I repulsed by the fact that I participate in a system that allows such a thing to exist. I'm not saying that every man in the profession behaves in the ways that I've described above, but I do think that both men and women allow for this to exist in the profession. We look the other way. We turn it into a joke. We pretend it doesn't exist or that it's not harmful.
The problem is, it's obviously harmful. And it obviously goes against much of what we talk about as feminists. But there we are, allowing it to continue. And I do it, too, so it's not like I'm blaming other people for this. I'm part of it.