Pleasant (for blog against sexism day)

On this, International Women’s Day and Blog Against Sexism Day, I am thinking about context: how the meaning and sense of “sexism” changes depending on where you are.

I am a feminist, a writer, and a professor: that’s a position of wonderful, often wondrous, privilege. While feminists in academe play a large role in setting the agenda for American feminism (by, for example, designing Women’s Studies courses that educate young feminists and help set their agendas, their career paths), they have consistently failed the causes of women outside the white, American middle class.

It is easy to see why this is so. The sexism we each experience within our own lives is so palpably, frustratingly unjust that it can be hard to remember to compare it against larger injustices. Thus, people spend their energy fighting the tone deaf remarks of their university president about the dearth of women in the sciences, as happened at Harvard last spring, because it’s a local indignity—right here at my workplace the assumption is that women are inferior—rather than fighting grosser injustices experienced by, say, the women who clean their offices and do not have good child care while they work.

Off campus, out of the Ivy League, these professors sound quaint rather than right.

They are right. But there is something quaint about their complaints, too.

It is hard to articulate this, but I believe we must resist sexism wherever it occurs—be it gross or subtle, local or wide-ranging. At the same time, we need to be mindful of the context of our complaint.

Growing up in Seattle, listening to Free to Be, You and Me and reading poems in an anthology called Girls Can Too, I knew that people used to undermine girls, but I felt strong. At my women’s college, I felt strong enough that I grew tired and impatient with the knee-jerk feminism of some of the women around me. I certainly had no interest in reading boring old women writers like Virginia Woolf! It took me a while to realize that the freedom my classmates experienced at the women’s college was one I had always taken for granted.

On the first day of graduate school, in a class taught by a prominent feminist, a man raised his hand as first to speak. I was shocked! Forgetting that I was no longer in a single-sex school, all I could think was “How dare an auditor raise his hands before any women speak!” I soon learned that I was at a different institution indeed. I learned to be grateful for twenty-one years of ignorance about the realities of patriarchal power, however white-gloved.

Five years later, preparing for the job market, I went in for a mock-interview with the department chair and a small committee. I need not worry; I would do fine, they assured me: “You’re so pleasant.”

I was livid. I am pleasant; I mean to make that choice much of the time. But I did not spend six years working on a Ph.D. to earn the nod of “pleasant.”

So, I read with amusement the kerfuffle in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which a man rethinks his job interview and decides that at times it is best to choose “pleasant” over “smart.” The Little Professor has a nice entry on the matter (and the comments are interesting, too), in which she notes: “In most quarters, it's considered civilto refrain from constructive criticism of a potential employer when a) said criticism has not been requested and b) you have not yet been hired.” Too true.

And yet… Given my own experience of being pleasant, being belittled and praised as pleasant, I see this as a complicated feminist issue. A too-pleasant young woman may never be taken seriously but a brash one probably will not get in the door. Beginning our careers, in academia and elsewhere, we all have to figure out how to strike the right tone and what that right tone is depends on our sex and our willingness to capitulate to those in power. It remains a complicated, pragmatic dance that each of us must negotiate daily.