Monday, March 03, 2008

Molly Ivors

Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia

Twocents By Molly Ivors

I would like to tell you a story about a woman, one which may, perhaps, be instructive to some of the “get out of the way, grandma; you're blocking progress” folks out there.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who was pretty good at school. She read when she was three, and when she started school, her teachers didn't know what to do with her. Shyness and bookishness kept her modest: she didn't see “smart” as something worthwhile. To her, it was like having dark hair or big eyes: just a thing that was. School continued like that through graduation, but she bobbled a bit in college. Still, she got her degree summa cum laude and went on to grad school. There, she did everything right: won awards, became assistant to the chair, edited a journal. She finished her dissertation more or less on time (a rarity in her field) and went on to a lectureship in which she intentionally sought out harder subjects to increase her familiarity with them.

But life interfered, as it often does, although somehow always with greater reprecussions for women. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer while she worked on her dissertation, and her sister died of a preventable but serious illness (Hepatitis C). After the death of her sister, she determined that she did not want to be over a thousand miles from home when her mother's health started to fail, so she headed home with her spouse, a brilliant and funny man she'd met in grad school, and her young daughter. She took a job teaching at a high school for the benefits, and adjuncted at a local community college. Her spouse also adjuncted there.

She wasn't too surprised when he was offered a tenure-track position first: no one had more respect for his intellectual gifts than she. Of course, he was ABD at the time, and she had completed her degree, but this was a community college and that sort of thing didn't really matter so much. She continued to adjunct and get part-time administrative jobs to keep the family afloat, and had two more beautiful children without the benefit of maternity leave or family leave—that sort of thing just isn't available to part-time employees.

It was a couple of years later that she learned how things really worked, however. She had an impressive CV and years of experience. She had friends and a strong application. She gave a good interview and was told, confidentially, that she was the first choice of the hiring committee, a female friend was second, and a third colleague, a young man who was very popular with the students (as in, sleeping with at least one) was the third. She went to interview with the dean, who she knew socialized with the male candidate, but was confident, even when he told her he didn't have anything much to ask her and essentially made her run her own interview. The interview with the academic vice-president was similarly bemusing, but again, she knew her position was strong.

It was the several days of waiting afterward that started to fluster her, until finally the news came down: the dean had re-ranked the candidates in reverse order to throw the job to his drinking buddy, and the VP—who also frequented the same bar—had accepted his recommendation. (Not to be left out: the re-ranking may also have been to thumb his nose at the administration of the department, all of whom had confidence in the female candidates, but were cautious at best about the male candidate and had tossed him as a bone to some hesitant committee members.) The female candidates, upon being twitted, went through the appropriate channels, but were told two things by the wan Affirmative Action officer charged with protecting the college: that they had no business knowing the rankings of the committee, and that unless the dean had made some remark about their breasts, there was no way to prove sexism.

It was a disturbing lesson, an embittering lesson. I tell it here not to garner sympathy, but because one of feminism's main tools has been to share experiences to reveal they systemic processes at work in the workplace. I daresay many women, maybe even most, have some story like it to tell. We keep them quiet, generally, because the accusation of sour grapes is always quick on their heels, ready to belittle and dismiss very real experiences with prejudice.

And so we who look at this primary season as another example of systemic prejudice often have reasons for doing so. Dismiss them as personal or petty if you like, but don't pretend that we are emotional and you the disinterested arbiters of what is and is not fair game. I have been accused of everything from willful stupidity to “vaginal solidarity” over these last weeks. It's insulting and demeaning, and intended to be so, as much as major opinion pieces on how dumb girls are and how Hillary should just climb on the Obandwagon.

Indeed, it seems that Senator Obama will be the candidate, not because of (or in spite of) my vagina, but because of his ground game. I respect that. But I also ask respect for my position, for my experiences. Win with grace, not with sneers at old ladies who have repeatedly been told that it wasn't their turn yet, only to be told that sorry, their turn has passed by. That's about as alienating as you can get. I don't think his followers are shallow—at least not most of them—but many are rudely dismissive and do not seem to know whose framing they're adopting.

Just my two cents.

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