Who’s Come a Long Way, Baby?

This essay is dedicated to all the bitchy, bossy, manipulative, know-it-all women who have been passed over for a job because they are not the right fit and lack the precise work experience at the equivalent level in an equivalent organization, in lieu of an unqualified, ambitious, confident, strategic, straightforward white man who has great potential, will have fresh ideas because he has diverse experiences and has not boxed himself in to a specific path, and is really likable, so will fit in well with the team. Women of color, especially, are foremost in my mind.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election results, while no surprise to me, crushed my hopes. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a symbol to me that reflects my own life experiences as a woman. I am fed up with the double standard to which women are held by both women and men alike. Social change to dismantle the habits, institutions, and power structures that perpetuate gender inequality is a much longer and deeper process than any election cycle.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have an extremely powerful pair of double X chromosomes. I carry my diminutive stature and childlike blonde hair with a swing in my step and a flirty dress. I am all woman, and I love it.

By accident of birth I slipped out from my mother’s womb an unmistakeable girl. My sex at birth and strong corresponding gender identity have defined every moment of my life, including my relationship with my mother who was devastated after 10 months of never wanting to be pregnant in the first place. A few decades of adult woman experiences helped me to understand what Mom went through, all that she has done for me, and to understand how gender has defined her life, during which she gave birth to her last child prior to the Roe versus Wade decision. Mom is a hero.

As a girl, I had housework to do when Mom was at work. I started cooking family dinners when I was 12 years old. We choked down some pretty creative inventions as I added my own twist to Mom’s instructions. As I got older I had to do the vacuuming and clean the bathrooms before I went to work, or after I got home, because my brothers worked hard. I guess I did not work hard enough.

As a girl in school, I was required to repeat eighth grade math. I may have only been held back for one class, but I was still held back a grade. Grade retention is one of the biggest predictors of school drop-outs. I actually skipped seventh grade math altogether, and was in seventh grade when I took eighth grade math, the first time. My marks were fine in the advanced course. Even with passing grades I was held back because the adults believed I was not ready for high school level algebra.

Clearly I could not do math. After middle school, 20 years passed before I was ready for math. A very dedicated and supportive tutor helped me struggle through my undergraduate math requirement. He enabled me to graduate from college, despite floundering so desperately. When I finally learned to do math on my own again I needed another five years of practice before I could make computations and explain the results without drinking heavily.

As a woman in college, I understood I never earned grades in accordance with my merit. Several of the men in my program constantly reminded me that the only reason I received ‘A’s on papers is that the professors were easy on women. As men, they had to earn their marks legitimately, unlike me. The men asserted they were treated particularly unfairly by my advisor, the only woman professor in the department. She only ever gave ‘A’ grades to women, some men were certain. The men never had a fair chance at high grades, while ‘A’s were automatic for me, regardless of the crap I ever submitted. My apparent poor quality work was simply undeserving of the high marks I received.

Clearly, not only was I incapable of learning math, I was completely unintelligent in my own discipline. It never even occurred to me that I earned high marks because I understood the material, or because I presented solid and logical analysis, or because I was a skilled writer. I admit, I had some quite personal, risqué rendezvous with a few of the men who most diligently persuaded me of my intellectual inferiority and the unfair treatment they experienced academically.

As a woman in graduate school, I was told I was an incompetent graduate assistant who was unqualified to teach or to develop new curriculum for my department. Some of the men in my program were invited to create their own courses, add themselves to the course schedule, and get paid for their efforts. With no background in education, or training in teaching-and-learning, clearly the men were brilliant, valuable assets from which undergraduate and masters-level students would benefit.

Clearly, I had nothing to offer the department. I had to develop and teach several classes for free, under the close supervision of my faculty advisors, on top of my other work for the department. My background in education, training in teaching-and-learning, and by then a decade of experience mentoring students were neither relevant nor adequate qualifications in program and curriculum development or student learning.

I am all woman, through and through. And I love it, despite having to work harder, and produce higher quality work, for a fraction of the respect and pay.

As a girl, Mom sewed for me, a lot. We did not have a lot of resources when I was a child, but she sewed dresses for me so that I did not have to wear boy clothes. Even as a child I was very particular that she create exactly the right look and fit.  I had near complete control.  I am still pretty demanding about my clothes and the image they convey on my effeminate body.

As a woman, my college advisor cut me no slack. She drove me hard, and assigned me the grades I earned. I did earn a lot of ‘A’s. I also earned some ‘B’s and ‘C’s. She held all of her students to very high expectations. My advisor questioned me, expressed her concerns at some of my choices, and supported me anyway. As one of the most highly respected, well-published scholars in her field, my undergraduate advisor was and still is living evidence that women are highly intelligent, highly skilled and analytical, and highly successful by their own right.

As a woman in college, I ultimately refused the advances of the men who pursued me in their insecurity. I walked away from more than one man in the heat of he moment saying, “catch me if you can . . . if you can respect me intellectually and respect me as a woman.” I ruthlessly disappointed my colleagues, at the loss of study partners who I probably did not need anyway. As a woman, I am still close friends with a cherished study partner, a man who I do not always see eye-to-eye with, and who has always respected me as an equal.

As a woman in graduate school, I could sit in a professor’s office and sob out of frustration and the constant pressure. As a woman, it was very difficult to persuade my faculty to take me seriously as a researcher with my own independent ideas and skills, but as a woman I could get a listening ear.

As a woman I am analytical and logical. Writing equations in Greek is more natural than writing poetry. I think in words, so I can explain the equations, and make the numbers I crunch sing. I am meticulous, determined, and I document my sources. As a woman, I am on constant alert, I doubt everything, and trust no one completely. I have a steel core and a beating heart of molten gold, though my outermost layer is nothing more than the finest pure silk floss: soft to the touch, delicate, strong.

As a woman I have learned to live up to very high expectations, and still not get the job, the pay, nor even the minimal respect due to an earned Ph.D. As a woman, it is getting old.

My hopes were crushed on Tuesday following the first Monday in November, 2016. During the two years leading up to the presidential election, for the first time in my life I started to believe that I might one day be able to compete with men on equal footing, and command the credibility and respect I deserve in all my femininity. I had to believe it with all my heart, or I do not know how I would have tolerated the vitriolic rhetoric and increasing violence that permeated the airwaves from numerous sources over the last two years.

The ballot box, however, is one of the last venues of social change. What happened on November 8 is merely a snapshot of the social and political culture of the U.S. The individual candidates and their rhetoric are nothing more than symbols of the current reality in our communities.

A lifetime of repeatedly being disbelieved, discredited, overlooked, and undervalued is enough to make a person angry. Anger, when allowed to fester, becomes violence. It serves no purpose and is counterproductive. When channeled into into meaningful action, however, anger is a productive driver of dialog, problem solving, and action. The inflammatory rhetoric preceding the election and its aftermath has made clear the U.S. is in need of deep dialog around gender inequality, racism, and other pressing issues, such as religious pluralism and family financial stability.

I tell my story because there is absolutely nothing remarkable about it. Every chapter and every section of this story and then some have been lived and uniquely told again, again, and again. Each and every woman has told some part of this story for herself, and each has several more chapters of her own to add. These events are so ordinary they are not events. These are the conditions of being a woman. The conditions are so normal they are accepted by men and women alike. So intensely infused in the U.S. culture are these unwritten rules that have guided my life. Very little space is available within ordinary hunan interactions to identify and disrupt the conditions that define women—and people of color, and religious minorities, and sexual minorities, and immigrants—as less than whole.

I cannot resolve every injustice or every social ailment. I certainly cannot solve any one by myself. I am, however, able to add fuel to the processes to unravel gender inequality and sexual-based violence. I can strive to see, interrupt, and take action against racism and other violence and inequalities as they occur.

I am highly qualified. I also have great potential, and am strategic, confident, ambitious, and bold. I am independent. I am intelligent and creative. I am so strong I will not break. I am humble and eager to learn from others whose perspectives are unlike or even at odds with my own. I am afraid of nothing. I am provocative. I am determined to draw any dialog below the surface so we can discuss the underlying issues and priorities, and to develop alternative narratives and discourse that do not manifest in strains of violence. I will hold others accountable whenever I can, and expect the same favor in return when I make mistakes.

I am all woman, and I am powerful. We number many millions. Together we are very powerful.

4 thoughts on “Who’s Come a Long Way, Baby?

  1. Al, thank you for putting into words (quite eloquently) my feelings. I know many other women will echo your sentiment. If these painful (but real) issues cannot be discussed in an open forum, yes, anger grows and hope is lost. Thanks for sharing your personal story and making yourself vulnerable so that we all may have the courage to share our stories, learn from the past, and make positive changes in the world. You are awesome!

  2. Thanks, Al. We need to keep on keeping on exploring and facing these matters. I was holding my breath for such a competent, caring, well-prepared woman (who,frankly,does look a bit like me) leading our government. As a 70 yr old feminist from the ’70s, I am sorry you younger women have to keep on meeting these inane prejudices and patterns. We must rise to the occasion.
    Hugs, Sharon

  3. These comments are an excerpt from a message I received from a friend after she read this essay. I am sharing her thoughts with permission.

    I was very depressed after the election.  . . . Be that as it may, we still have to deal with this coming year and the aftermath of January 20 which, for what it’s worth, I have signed up to go to D.C. and protest.  From Trump’s appointees thus far (seriously, Steve Bannon?!) it seems more like he is dredging the swamp instead of draining it.  This is frightening, but not surprising.  

    After my initial reaction to the election, I have realized that we do not have to complacently accept his policies, so I have decided to be more proactive.  To begin with, we need serious campaign reform.  Personally, I think money plays entirely too large a role in elections.  European countries do not design their campaigns to allow their elected officials to be bought by corporate interests.  We will never experience true change in our government until this practice is eliminated.  To that end, I have joined a like minded group.  Noam Chomsky has stated that we can achieve democracy if we unite to enforce it.  The anti-Vietnam, Civil Rights and Women’s movements demonstrate how this is done.  Complacency will not defeat the corporate oligarchy that this country has become.

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