Tuesday afternoon, around 4 pm, I am wandering the halls of my department trying to decide whether I should do some work or throw the towel in and go home already. I pass the open office door of a certain Elder Female Professor whom I am hoping to pin down for some dissertation advice. She is visiting, not permanent, so I only have a week or two left to meet with her. Said EFP is two generations older than I am, a real trailblazer for women in the academy, and the most reknowned, if not the only truly reknowned, female Indo-Europeanist. (Which will indicate to anyone familiar with this sick, arcane little corner of scholarship exactly whom I mean, so it is okay that I reveal that her first name is Anna.) As much as I want her input on this dissertation chapter, I simply want to spend time in her general presence because I admire her so deeply. And because she is extremely kind and fun to talk to.
So we schedule a meeting and then, somehow, end up talking about feminism. (Gee, I wonder how I could have steered the conversation in that direction - I have only wanted to get Anna on the topic for five years or something sick like that... ever since she explained in a paper she was giving that relatively unknown Alice Kober did the real work on decipering Linear B.)
Anna asks me what I think of the role-model school of feminism. That is, the notion that having women faculty around is important for female students. She offers this anecdote: Her college at Oxford was originally an all-women's college, which meant that both students and faculty were all female. At some point in the not-too-distant past, an American woman colleague visited. Said colleague apparently could not get over how much more friendly the place was, in comparison to her experience as a female philosopher in the US. Apparently, a professor had told this woman that women, generally, could not become good philosophers.
Here is Anna's take: What was wrong with this woman that she believed this awful professor? In her own career, Anna's only choice was to ignore any comments or intimations of that nature and simply do her work. While she could agree that there are certain practical matters it is difficult to discuss with a male adviser, she left to the woman student a lot of personal responsibility for her own self-image and the run of her career.
Then Anna told me about the 5pm meetings her department used to have. All the women faculty used to get babysitters, make special arrangements, etc. so that they could make it to the meetings. They never dared beg off a meeting or leave early for family reasons. Now that men are taking increasingly active roles in childcare, however, the situation has changed. The men constantly absent themselves to pick baby up from daycare or something, no apologies, no questions asked.
Here, confronting a deeply practical and tangible manifestation of gender inequity, Anna held the typical feminist view: Damn those entitled-ass men! (Except she didn't say "ass".)
I was raised to believe that there is some intrinsic value in seeing authority figures who look and sound like oneself--and to believe that intangible manifestations of sexism (or racism) are still pernicious and "can be blamed", so to speak, for discrepancies in performance, etc. Talking with Anna has given me pause.
But maybe that's also a reason to keep believing in the power and importance of women role models.