The attitude of defiance of many American women proves that they are haunted by a sense of their femininity. In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist. --Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
As a scientist, I take seriously the idea that our expectations about the world shape not only our understanding and perception of it, but our engagement with it. Here, I muse on the implications this has both for how we perceive successful women in society, and how our expectations may shape the course and outcome of their achievement.
Last week, I had the pleasure of reading an article in the NY Times on the social construction of gender in Afghanistan ("Facing Social Pressures, Families Disguise Girls as Boys in Afghanistan"). The article is even keeled, clear headed, and steers clear of cheap rhetoric and easy pathos. It is not especially about the "plight" of women in Afghanistan or the Muslim world at large; nor is it an argument about the (debatable) contributions of biology and culture to gender. It is not a cross-cultural comparison and makes little in the way of 'moral' pronouncements. It is not a feminist tract.
Instead, what it is, is a subtle narrative-look at the effect that taking on a different gender role has on individuals in a culture that defines them starkly. In some girls, this results in gender dysphoria. In others, empowerment. Still others resent the role they must play for their families (and think of acting as a boy as very much an 'act'). In all of this, I liked that the author did not search for easy answers or conclusions about "what this should tell us," which may well have cheapened the impact of such lyric storytelling.
But -- this brings me to an altogether different point. Last week, I also (coincidentally) received in the mail the latest "Great Courses" catalog from The Teaching Company. The company puts out audio CDs and DVDs of top-notch college professors delivering entertaining introductory courses across a variety of disciplines, ranging from music to mathematics. These are no where near as rigorous as any intro-class I've ever taken, but they're far more informative and comprehensive than your average radio show or TV program. And for as long as I can remember, my dad -- who has a two hour commute to work everyday -- has been a subscriber to their audio courses (which I've been all too happy to poach when he's done). In any case, this last week's catalog happened to have a 70%-off sale on the company's "Top Professors." As I flipped through it -- excited to see what I could order next -- I realized that every single one of the top professors was male.
"Really?" I thought. Every single one? Curious, I went to the Teaching Company's website and pulled up a list of all the professors they had, and counted the ladies. Out of the 188 professors, there were 13; or just less than seven percent.
Was this sexism -- or merely a reflection of competence?
As I thought back over my years at university, I tried to recall my favorite professors. There was Brett -- Lanier -- Josh -- Robert -- Paul -- Eric -- James (what women had I even taken classes from? Oh, now I remembered. I'd hated those classes! Or dropped them).
The only classes with women I remember enjoying were my advanced French classes. Both women were graduate students from Paris, spoke poor English and chain-smoked before classes, and one of them -- whom I was vaguely in love with -- wore transparent slips and lingerie to class, and made us take lessons on the grassy fields outside the library, while she drank spritzers and talked philosophy. Yes, that had been acceptable. But none of the others! I didn't respect many of the female professors intellectually -- they didn't seem as smart or as capable as the males, and very few of them taught graduate classes in my area.
Why, why, why? I wondered.
Why were there far fewer female professors (both adjunct and tenure-track)? And why were the ones in positions of power less famous, less published, and less popular in the classroom?
Answers to this could fill several volumes. But one thing I've been thinking quite a lot on lately is the dual importance both of developing a female model of what it is to be powerful, influential, and competent, and of changing our own expectations about what that model should like.
Speaking French like a Frenchman
Oddly enough Alex -- one of my younger brothers -- is a poster-child for what can go wrong when you lack for an appropriately-gendered role model.
Though Alex is quite clever, he has never particularly enjoyed learning new languages -- and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he's never been the best at learning them either. When, last year, he began taking introductory French at Berkeley, he asked to me to practice with him for an upcoming oral exam. I picked a page from the chapter and quizzed him at random -- "Qu'est-ce que tu voudrais manger?" His response -- "Je n'ai pas faim" -- was technically correct (if not particularly polite), but sounded like it had been produced for a Chipmunks album.
I stopped. "Why are you talking like that?" "Like what?" I pointed to the page and asked him to read me a couple more lines. He said them, clearer this time, in a high, girlish voice, as if he were a drag queen rehearsing for a 'Paris Speaks' pageant. I bit my lip and tried not to laugh. "Alex, honey, you sound like a girl." He blushed, and dropped back to his normal speaking voice. "I'm just -- I'm just trying to sound like my French teacher."
The problem was, of course, that he didn't have a model for what a male voice in French should sound like, so he patterned after the only model available to him: a female one. Instead of simply adjusting his phonemic boundaries and effecting some nasals, he was also raising the pitch and changing the timbre of his voice to match hers. Because he didn't have a good grasp on what French men sound like, he found it hard to separate out which part of what he was doing was accent and which part was gender-specific speech.
Speaking in French, he sounded like a breathless parody of Jane Birkin. We've got to fix this! I thought.. (and promptly put some Serge Gainsbourg on to spin).
Of course -- I'm hardly one to tease!
In my family, the way I talk is a bit of an ongoing joke. My voice is husky and low; more Bacall than Monroe. But when I talk to women or strangers (particularly on the phone), I unconsciously raise the register of my voice, so that I end up speaking several semitones higher than my natural pitch. It's not simply the pitch that changes though -- my accent and inflections, the idioms, the way I laugh -- everything shifts towards 'feminine.' I certainly don't mean to do it; and if not for my brothers' endless mocking, might never have noticed that I do. Both boys claim it sounds unnatural and wholly unlike me, but I'm not so sure; outside of my family and closest friends, no one has ever called me on it.
Either way, the voice trick is hardly surprising. Having been raised in an all-male household for most of my formative years, I never had an obvious model of what 'feminine' looked like. This became embarrassingly apparent when I worked for a time as a model; while my body is just the right size and shape for catalog work, my posture and walk are anything but. I was forever being told to "Stop standing like a boy!" and asked, repeatedly, to position my shoulders and hips in a way that looked "more feminine." Surely these were things I could have practiced -- I've been an athlete for most of my life, and the problem wasn't lack of coordination -- the thing was, none of these things had been modeled for me, and absolutely none of it came naturally.
Lacking for 'gender-appropriate' role models, both Alex and I have blustered our way through -- well, French, and life as an American girl, respectively. I don't suffer from 'gender dysphoria,' not as defined in the medical textbooks anyway -- but like some of the Afghani girls in the article, I had quite a lot of trouble post-adolescence figuring out how to dress as a woman; how to talk like a woman; and how to make (and keep) good female friends. As a child, I had been far more interested in traditionally-male sports and climbing trees than I had been in dolls or ballet, and made boy friends accordingly. And then as a skinny, motherless teenager -- who, in any case, hit adolescence way-late -- I wore my father's hand-me-downs, learned to swear and drink, and spent most of my time as the charity-literature-case with the science boys.
In the main, I was entirely oblivious to the idea that I might 'not fit in,' because -- to my mind -- I fit just fine. For one, I was casual friends with many of the girls at school, and each morning, would quickly skim the online recaps for television shows so I could join in on lunchtime gossip. The only problem was, I never actually saw any of the girls outside of school, and was bluffing all the values and interests I pretended to share with them. The personality I adopted to socialize with girls was entirely fabricated -- and probably not all that convincing, given my boyish clothes, and my habit of wearing my hair short, or clipped in a tight ponytail, with no make-up. Still, they put up with me, for reasons I have never quite understood.
The one peculiar habit I had then, which I tried -- without success -- to suppress, was that of following my boy friends' mothers and older sisters around, like a lovesick puppy. "An older woman!" I would think. "Perhaps she will like me and teach me how to be."
But this was not what fate had conspired for me. It was not until I was eighteen that I could count a woman as a best friend; not until nineteen that I began to rework the way I dressed and wore heels for the first; not until twenty-one that I discovered conditioner and bought myself red lipstick and something resembling a purse. On the whole, I did not think of this as 'selling out' or losing myself; instead I found myself instructed and immersed in a culture that had been heretofore remote : the culture of being female, in America.
This is, I'm sure, more biography than you bargained for. By now though, I hope you've locked into the idea I've been toying with -- which is that the particulars of being female (or male, or any type of anything) in our culture, have to be modeled, at least in part. Even being genetically female, I did not, in the absence of mothering, reinvent American femininity in all its guises. I was female, surely, but not typically 'feminine'; not in my dress, my tastes, my habits, my voice, my writing, or anything else. It was not something I learned until I was older, and by then, it hardly felt like native skin. It was a 'putting on,' an adoption of appealing foreign customs that were, for all their attractions, irredeemably alien. And it was (and still is) less a wholesale conversion than an artless form of personal theater.
Reading the story of the Afghani girls, I was struck by what happened to those who -- having adopted their freedom in male society -- were forced to revert and live again as women. They felt, for the first, trapped. Impotent. They struggled to resign themselves to it (and some did not).
You might think there is nothing in America today that would "trap" a woman in such a way (or a man for that matter). But I think this is a naive way of imagining the world. Our language and our culture are steeped in expectations about what women are like; what they should become; how they should behave. We carry these expectations with us -- in our language and our culture; in the books we write and the stories we tell; in the ways in which we instruct our daughters (and in the ways in which these are different from how we instruct our sons).
It is an invisible weight, surely, but a weight nonetheless; and one that cannot fail to transform us, as 'civilized' creatures.
(For even defiance addresses itself to what it would defy).
[To be continued...]
The Short List
Simone de Beauvoir, "Woman as Other"
Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities. The question is: should that state of affairs continue?
It is, in point of fact, a difficult matter for man to realize the extreme importance of social discriminations which seem outwardly insignificant but which produce in woman moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to spring from her original nature.
Kate Millet's "Theory of Sexual Politics"
Hannah Arendt has observed that government is upheld by power supported either through consent or imposed through violence. Conditioning to an ideology amounts to the former. Sexual politics obtains consent through the "socialisation" of both sexes to basic patriarchal polities with regard to temperament, role, and status. As to status, a pervasive assent to the prejudice of male superiority guarantees superior status in the male, inferior in the female. The first item, temperament, involves the formation of human personality along stereotyped lines of sex category ("masculine" and "feminine"), based on the needs and values of the dominant group and dictated by what its members cherish in themselves and find convenient in subordinates: aggression, intelligence, force, and efficacy in the male; passivity, ignorance, docility, "virtue," and ineffectuality in the female.
Barriers to Equality in Academia: Women in Computer Science at MIT (1983, Scientific Report)
Like everyone else, women internalize the opinions of themselves that others express frequently. When people whose ability they respect, such as their advisors, continually undervalue their contributions and imply that they are incapable of succeeding, they come to believe this negative appraisal of themselves. This problem leads to a vicious circle: once a woman is made to feel incompetent, she is less likely to accomplish as much as if she had received the encouragement given to her male colleagues. Dealing with biased behavior takes time and energy. Women who are subjected to this kind of behavior have less of each to devote to their work.