Friday, June 04, 2010

Between misogyny and feminism

Fretful Porpentine has a great post, building off her comment in the previous thread, in which she reflects on her undergraduate self's perceptions of her male and female professors. She quotes from one of her old journals, in which her reactions to her female professors oscillate between internalized misogyny and a kind of nascent feminism.

It's a fascinating excerpt, and one I suspect many women can relate to; I certainly can. As I said in my comment to her post (and as I've written here before), I also had a long struggle coming to terms with what being female meant. I spent years feeling that everything would have been so much easier if I had been born male--but to the extent that I kicked against sexism and the double standard, it was more because I didn't feel able to compete within that system: I saw myself as awkward and dorky and unattractive.

Since I wasn't actually resisting gender norms, however, my solution was at least partly to try to meet them: to learn how to "do" female in certain external ways (by which I mean hair, makeup, and clothing--not coyness or helplessness or any of that shit). I didn't experience this, at the time, as capitulation, and I don't regret it now; I'm happier, for a lot of reasons, and frankly life is easier.

I suppose you could think of me as a kind of feminist double-agent--using the weapons of the patriarchy against it! But I'm okay with calling it selling out.


Ianqui said...

It's funny--I don't remember having reactions like that as an undergrad, but I do remember feeling like I needed to take charge when I first started teaching. And indeed, my first year was awful. The students sensed how unsure I was of myself, and how I had a lot to learn in order to answer their questions about general things in the field that I hadn't thought much about as I was steeped in the minutiae of my dissertation.

I still try to dress fairly professionally when I teach, but impeccably? Hardly. I'm not you :) But I think my experience carries me a longer way now.

clio's disciple said...

Both your and FP's posts made me reflect, because I don't remember having similar thoughts about my undergrad dept.--and then I recalled that there WERE no young female professors in my undergrad dept. (I think they hired 1 or 2 while I was there, but not in my sub-field.) All the faculty I worked closly with were grey-haired tenured folks, mostly well-known eccentrics, and all have now retired.

A White Bear said...

I was just talking about this with my students in a 17-19th-c British women writers course, about how we negotiate with the dominant culture of heteronormative gender expectations, and to what extent those expectations become a part of us. My students seemed to feel like they had been making those conscious negotiations all their lives--wanting to get married but not wanting to be kitchen/sex slaves like many of their mothers had been, etc.

I talked about how my internalized misogyny had made me reject anything like femininity in my professional life so long that for a long time I didn't feel free to wear what I wanted or have relationships or seem vulnerable. In a way, it's been my students who have taught me that we now live in a world where more complex negotiations with gender, in which we can examine our relationships with masculinity and femininity, are possible. I can be brilliant and also emotional, demanding and empathetic, loving but not dependent, and students get that.

I find that's not necessarily the case at conferences and professional functions, where there are still boundaries between the "collaborationist" woman and the "feminist." It's less of an individually analyzed matrix of complex factors, and more of a spectrum. I have hope that this is changing.

Sisyphus said...

I remember writing and thinking very similar stuff, but back in high school, not undergrad. This included wanting to be a famous writer while at the same time making public declarations that the only "real" great writers have been men (!!!)

Yeah, I don't try to explain myself.

And I think that "doing femininity" has its own intrinsic pleasures beyond those of conforming to gender norms or being dupes of patriarchy, and that scholars need to pay more attention to those other pleasures.

But you know me.

Janice said...

Thanks for the link to a blog I didn't follow before!

I had two women as professors during my entire university career. (Neither of them in grad school!) I realized, upon later reflection, that these two women had an outsized impact on my academic life (one inspired me to switch majors and the other helped me to figure out where I was going to grad school). Because I didn't have them as professors until my third and fourth year, I was blown away by how good it felt to be taught by a woman and to have a woman as an academic role model.

Flavia said...

Sis and AWB:

I totally agree that that "doing femininity" has its own pleasures, and I now experience the particular spot that I inhabit on the spectrum as comfortable and even relatively authentic (or as much as any aspect of self-presentation can be). It feels like it's a chosen place--I've tried on and discarded some aspects of femininty, kept some, and reshaped others to suit my temperament. And as problematic as I know it is to assert that I actually like lipstick and skirts and high heels (as Twisty Faster would say, how convenient that those likes are exactly what Dude Nation also likes!). . . um, I think I actually do like them.

But in my early and mid-20s, it was really hard to tell what were my own preferences, and what I was doing just to get along or get approval. (And as a result, I was deeply cynical about men and about male-female relations for a number of years. "Misandry" might not be too strong a word.)

Terminal Degree said...

When I was an undergrad, most of my professors were male. The females tended to be adjunct or non-tenure track, especially if they were the wives of t-track male professors. So I did think that professor = male, at least until my junior or senior year, when I finally had a strong female professor. (Naturally, everyone called her a bitch.) It never occurred to me that having almost all male profs was a problem, even though over two-thirds of our student body was female. (It DID bother me that our entire board of regents was male, however.) I did notice that the wives of the tenured professors, even if they had full time careers of their own, tended to fade into the background, seen-and-not-heard, at university events.

I didn't have a single class from a woman during my entire master's degree at a huge R1 university. It was a very male-dominated environment, and sexual harassment of female students was common. I never saw a female graduate student conductor, either; all of them were men. I don't miss that school. At all.

Luckily, during my doctorate, I had some fabulous female professors. I was at a slightly wacky university, so there were no standards of dress; as long as someone wore clothes, that was good enough! (One of my favorite professors used to hang out in her office in a sports bra and stretchy running pants, but that was the only time I ever saw someone's clothing raise eyebrows, and she was so damned good at what she did and so beloved by her students that no one ever bugged her about her weird attire.)

the rebel lettriste said...

I have wished I were a man, but never in the intellectual sense. I never thought that the male writers/thinkers were superlatively better than the female--if anything I was annoyed by the bombast of male writers.

I have wanted to be male because I didn't want to have a female body, because I didn't want to be objectified, because I didn't want to have my expression of emotion unnecessarily mark me.

And I had a lot of undergrad female profs, and NONE of them were beautifully dressed. But then again, I went to a crunchy SLAC where commencement addresses regularly began, "You women and men..." My lady profs were tough cookies, but rather plain. They were spinsters or lesbians, and the few mothers there were were somewhat odd.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Well, Flavia, these are complicated choices. But the shoes fit you a lot better then coyness or helplessness ever would.

Renaissance Girl said...

I spent a lot of my childhood wishing I were a boy--thinking of myself as my dad's first son, rudely displaced/replaced by the birth of my brother when I was 10. And I'm not sure I've ever become comfortable with EITHER the system of gender norms OR with my own femininity--poised precisely, as you say, between feminism and misogyny. I don't "do" female in most of the ways you describe. I wear a t-shirt and shorts or jeans to teach. I don't wear makeup or fuss with my hair at all. I don't look in the mirror, for heaven's sake, or shop for clothes (horrors!). Still, I am constantly and actively conscious of the erotic effects of femininity. Someone recently told me that I "splatter flirt in all directions." I'm not sure that's a capitulation to some social role, though some would certainly protest that it is. It feels more like locating and making use of a variety of instruments of (egads, I hate this word) empowerment--spaces that happen to include for me the rigorous and intense intellectual thing, the mother thing, the eccentric mountaineer thing, and the flirty thing--some gendered, some not. Is that feminism? Humanism? Either way, I feel like I've resolved the misogyny-feminist tension by, on some level, declaring the choice invalid. (And obviously, I only have that luxury because of the work of feminists who've preceded me.)

Flavia said...

RL: oh, yeah. I definitely didn't want the body of a woman, for a long time.

RG: in re: "splatter[ing] flirt in all directions": I can see that. In fact, having had the pleasure of meeting both you and AWB, I think I'd say the same of her, and that I think you present in somewhat similar ways--which is maybe the result of your both having negotiated for yourselves a really dynamic tension between different kinds of gender and power identities.

Also, for all y'all: just saw this, which seems relevant to this whole discussion.