Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Role Models?

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.


Perilla Docta said...

Without knowing any of the details, I wonder whether the key (during "Anna's" generation, or any other) is *support*. During her generation, she may have received a lot of personal support from family members, or even from male faculty members who were able to appreciate her work. Is she claiming that women nowadays act more "entitled" in the sense that they whine more? I didn't really get that sense from the comments that you reported. Also, without knowing the rest of the conversation, I don't know how to interpret her comment, "What is wrong with this woman [the American philosopher]?"--it could be a desire for more information, or speculation, about the forces--internal or external--that conspired to give this woman the idea that women couldn't do philosophy. If she was hearing those messages, and didn't see much evidence (i.e., examples of actual women doing actual philosophy) in front of her, she might very well have internalized those messages. These days, an aspiring philosopher has a *lot* of female role models to provide evidence against any claims that women can't do philosophy (Nightingale, Nussbaum,etc. etc.--de Beauvoir might not have "counted" in those days since she was working on explicitly gendered issues).

I am pleased to report that, in my experience here, female faculty with small children are assertive about their need to leave a meeting early to pick up their kid--treating it the same way as if someone had to leave early to meet with central administration, for example. Seems to work okay. And it occurs to me that the more men take on child-care responsibilities, the more normalized these scheduling considerations will become, which will benefit everyone.

Perilla Docta said...

Clarification of earlier comment: What I meant to say was, your interlocutor may not have been considering it the female philosopher's *fault* that she was believing the negative messages about women in philosophy.