Though university administrators seem to be widely reviled among faculty members, one of the best jobs I ever had was in administration. Many wonderful opportunities came my way; possibly the most mind-stretching, exhilarating, and rewarding of these was the chance to spend four weeks attending the Summer Institute for Women in Higher Education Administration, held at Bryn Mawr College. Just imagine spending four weeks with several dozen intelligent, interesting women from colleges and universities all over the U.S., from a range of administrative areas (including faculty members looking to move into administration).
As you can imagine, with any group this size, there would be some people you would just absolutely love, and some who might just rub you the wrong way now and then. Very early on, one of our instructors gave us this valuable advice: Pay attention to the person who annoys you. Stick with them long enough to try to figure out why you are so bothered by them.
That wording is key: not, figure out why they are so bothersome, but why you are so bothered by them. What are you reacting to, what is being triggered in you, what does this mean for you, what can you learn about yourself from it, and what, if anything, do you want to do about it?
Of all the that I learned in those four weeks, this advice has stuck with me – nay, nagged at me – ever since. When someone annoys me, I just want to get the hell away from them. And there are some kinds of “annoyance” that call for putting as much distance as possible between you and the annoyer: sexual harassers, loud cell phone talkers in public spaces, evangelical proselytizers at your doorstep. But there’s another kind of annoyance that really calls for you to move closer in and ask yourself why, really, you feel so squirmy whenever That Person starts Mouthing Off.
Lots of people seem to be annoyed with Dr. Isis lately, for lots of different reasons. But I want to focus on one particular reaction to her and her blog.
I’m not going to go into the whole history of Dr. Isis’s use of the teddy bear on the toilet image…I’ll just pick it up at the point where Transient Reporter felt compelled to tell us how much he does not like Dr. Isis as a consequence. Which is fine, he is perfectly welcome to dislike a blogger’s style. But in the first comment on the post KH, who blogs at Lecturer Notes (formerly Propter Doc), had this to say:
I liked it [Dr. Isis's blog] at first but now the writing is just a steriotype and a pretty poor one at that. Thing that bothers me more is that this cartoon personality makes female scientists sound like shoe fettish ignorant bimbos.
Naturally this did not go down well with Dr. Isis. You can read her manifesto here, and it’s a good one. A piece of her reply:
What I find unfortunate is that this is the kind of mean-spirited thing women in academia (and women in general) do to each other and I find it, frankly, unacceptable. Rather than simply stating that she dislikes my particular writing style, is not particularly interested in shoes, or thinks that I have proven myself to be too ignorant to discuss scientific findings with any degree of authority, KH refers to me with a slur that denigrates women in general when she does not agree with something (or a series of somethings?) I have done.
Here I agree completely with Dr. Isis. It is absolutely wrong for women to call each other the nasty sorts of names bestowed upon them by misoygynists. We needn’t help them in their efforts to denigrate us.
A comment like KH’s has its origins, I suspect, in the fear we all have somewhere in our gut that there is (only) One Proper Way to be, and be accepted as, a woman scientist. We want that acceptance by the scientific community at large. And we know that the powers-that-be have a tendency to ascribe the behavior of any one member of a minority group to the group as a whole (whereas anything a member of the dominant group does is, naturally, reflective only of his or her own personality.) KH’s comment speaks to anxieties about perception – if she behaves that way, will it rub off on me? In a later comment, KH says:
To clarify, I do not state that Dr. Isis is a bimbo, I suggest that her writing style makes her sound like one.
How does a bimbo sound? Dr. Isis’s sin is that in addition to science, she talks about shoes and cooking and proclaims herself to be a smokin’ hot domestic and laboratory goddess. Clearly, she is Not Serious. Only a bimbo would talk about shoes and cooking when we are supposed to be discussing Science.
The problem, you see, is that women aren’t really allowed to be ANYTHING in science. If you are a hot goddess then you are Not Serious and Not A Real Scientist and you are Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Serious and so on. If you are just a regular goddess (like Zuska) then you are an ugly hairy-legged man-hating feminazi who needs to get laid and Not A Real Scientist and Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Reasonable. The mythical More Serious, More Reasonable, non-hairy-legged, non-high heels-wearing Real Scientist woman has, alas, rarely, if ever, been seen. Because women can’t be Real Scientists, no matter how Reasonable and Serious they are.
This is KH’s dilemma. She wants to stake out the More Serious, More Reasonable territory (which, alas, belongs to Men) and place herself squarely within it. And she doesn’t want the likes of Dr. Isis around bustin’ up the place, calling attention to all the ways in which Women Are Not Like Men.
Now, you may not care to perform your gender exactly the way Dr. Isis does. Maybe your toe joints ache when you wear high heels, or you just hate cooking, or you never wanted to have kids, or you don’t give a crap whether or not you slouch into the lab on Friday morning without having washed your hair or put on makeup. Maybe you don’t even own makeup! Dr. Isis’s brand of heteronormative femininity is not for everyone. But here’s the thing: she’s not saying it should be! She’s saying: this is who I am, world. Deal with it and move on. I am a shoe-lovin’, smokin’ hot mama AND scientist. There is no contradiction here: I am all these things at once. And she’s saying, signing up for science shouldn’t come with a straitjacket for your lifestyle.
We cannot accept that, by not conforming to the patriarchy, we will not be successful. A woman who is aggressive, or who proclaims to anyone who will listen that she has the potential to achieve great things, is not a bitch. A woman who chooses to wear high-heeled shoes is not a slut, a bimbo, or a tramp. We need not be ashamed of the things that make us women (though, granted, we all embrace and express our femininity differently and that should always be acceptable). Neither our bodies, the social/gender roles we may choose to embrace, or our decision to or not to parent children, should ever have the capacity to limit our academic success.
It’s a bit disingenuous for KH to proclaim “I didn’t call Dr. Isis a bimbo, I just said she writes like one.” Whose viewpoint is KH using to look at the world? If she’s looking from the vantage point of the patriarchy, then yes, Dr. Isis is giving the performance of a bimbo on her blog. But if she wants to stand against the forces that tell all women – including KH – that there is no acceptable way for them to be scientists and women at the same time, then it would be much better to cheer Dr. Isis’s bold, brash, self-confident presentation of self.
If you disagree with what Dr. Isis says about science, or you don’t care for her interest in footwear, or you simply dislike her writing style, fine. But if Dr. Isis bothers you because she “makes female scientists sound like shoe fettish ignorant bimbos” then perhaps it’s worth spending some time thinking more about why that bothers you so. Who gains, really, if Dr. Isis is required to restrain and constrain her self-expression – and what are they gaining? Is the gain worth what we lose in the process? Who’s to say that your version of More Serious, More Reasonable isn’t some misogynist’s version of bimbo or feminazi?
That’s the problem with policing our own ranks. We might think that if we can just get everyone to behave in some particular acceptable manner, then we’ll put on a good united front for Women In Science and we’ll make some headway. But in that attempt, we forget that we aren’t the ones setting the standard of acceptable; that acceptable is a constantly moving target; and that acceptable just doesn’t look acceptable when it’s worn on the body of an Unacceptable Person (even when properly accessorized with stunning footwear).
If you want proof of that, just take a look at our President-Elect Obama. If ever there was a non-white American leader who ought to be “acceptable” and non-threatening it should be him. And yet we’ve got a member of Congress, no less, who has compared him to Hitler.
That’s why, rather than trying to norm each other into “acceptable” modes of behavior and discourse, we need to be supporting each other in all our various flamboyant permutations. Women have to be able to be everything, if we’re ever to be anything at all in science.