Welcome to the Cauldron, @kevintpayne!
In My Head: Donuts…
In the Cup: Eight o’ Clock coffee: Hazelnut flavor
Currently Playing: Valhalla playlist
Daily Run: hoping for 2 miles. Being sick has really cramped my routine, and I’m kind of at the point where I’m ready to say: “screw it, I’m going for the run sick or not.”
On the Desk: drafting for Merrin Born, rewrite of a conference abstract, drafting for a paper on wounds in Malory’s Morte Darthur
On the DVR: Downton Abbey, Season 2; last week’s Grey’s Anatomy
On the Nightstand: Sara Douglass, Wayfarer Redemption; Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 2
BPal of the Day: Moonshine and Mist
I wrote this for a class, and since today is set aside as a day for celebrating the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his drive for total equality, I hope it proves interesting or relevant for some of my readers who have also experienced some form of discrimination or prejudice for things beyond their control.
Beautiful Scars: A Reflection
As a Caucasian, middle-class woman in the United States of America at the turn of the 21st century, to judge from most accounts I “have it made.” In comparison to most of the rest of the population, according to the literature of the age, I am socio-politically respected as a taxpaying voter, I do not experience prejudice or discrimination based on factors related to my race, gender, sexuality, or disabilities, and (so long as I don’t break any laws) I am free to go where I choose, to be what I want, and to do what I wish, without restriction.
The reality, I’m afraid, is somewhat different.
The most basic of these factors as they relate to me is that of gender, and my gender has informed all other forms of discrimination and prejudice I have encountered in my life, so that’s the subject I’ll take on here. The first time I was consciously aware of my gender as a potentially limiting factor in my life was when I was seven years old, and I can remember the conversation clearly. My best friend at the time, a boy named Watson, and I were making a space shuttle out of a refrigerator box (this was considered high entertainment in my time.) This was at the height of the (first) Star Wars phase in my life, and I was very enthusiastic about science and science fiction, particularly space exploration. As we colored the control panel with our Crayolas and cut and glued tin foil in the shapes of shiny space gadgets, I reveled in the creative process: “Maybe one day we’ll really invent things for spaceships!”
To my utter surprise, my dear friend leveled a look of complete disdain at me: “Don’t be silly. Girls can’t make spaceships. You can’t even fly in one!”
“But Princess Leia does! And Lieutenant Uhura!” I protested hotly. (I watched a lot of Star Trek, too, so I was up on my space woman references.)
And my best friend dismissed me flatly with one, withering comment: “That’s make-believe. In real life, girls don’t do that.”
In 1981, Watson was right; no girl had ever gone into space. My world changed irrevocably that day. I’m sure I had experienced gender discrimination prior to that point, but this was the first time I experienced it in an immediate and meaningful way at the hands of someone I knew and trusted. Since then, I have experienced similar scenes of “girls don’t” multiple times — girls don’t yell and scream and run around like wild animals in public (said my parents); girls don’t like science, girls don’t do Math, and girls don’t know how to use computers (said my male friends); girls don’t dress or behave radically differently from other girls they know because they’ll be ostracized for it (said my female friends); girls don’t go anywhere alone because someone will hurt them (said every adult, ever); girls don’t make the first move in a relationship (said my grandmother); girls don’t become college professors (said my undergraduate adviser); girls don’t, don’t, don’t. I am sorry to report that despite that I was raised by parents whose attitude towards rearing girls was highly enlightened and who would never explicitly have limited me based on my gender, for a long time (into my young adulthood, honestly) I bought into it all, and tacitly entered into the social contract that wrote me as a less-than member of society simply because I was a girl. Then, at some point, I started wondering: Well, what exactly do girls do, then?
That began a fairly rebellious stage in my life, when I systematically set out (though I cannot claim it was necessarily a conscious decision) to do just about every, single thing girls don’t do. I played rugby — a game which requires girls to yell and scream and run around like wild animals; I took an Astronomy class (during which I realized that whether girls did it or not, space traveling was definitely not in my future); I wore whatever I wanted and ignored the comments and stares; I lived alone, for a time, and I went everywhere alone (because I didn’t want to burden people by asking them to join me); I totally threw myself at my (now) husband — and, well, as we can see, screw my undergraduate adviser as well.
And through all of this, I have learned that it isn’t really a question of what “girls” do or don’t do, it’s a question of what “this girl” does and doesn’t do. Because gender discrimination isn’t going anywhere; in fact, as an adult, I encounter it both overtly and in undetectable ways almost every day — from Mitt Romney’s dismissive “binders full of women” comment during the last presidential election, to the raised eyebrows of the homeschooling mothers in my daughter’s Girl Scout troop when they find out that I (gasp!) work outside the home and put my children in daycare. I was once denied a position I was very qualified for and really wanted because I “might” get pregnant and have a baby, thus inconveniencing the company. After having a baby at another position, when I went in to speak with my Assistant Dean of Academics about the inadequacy of policies at the school to facilitate taking FMLA time and having a private space and time allotted to pump milk during the day — both federally provided legal rights for parents — she responded by saying, “well, perhaps we should only hire people who aren’t going to have babies from now on.” This from a woman who had previously and in every way imaginable supported me as a professional, but clearly had no idea what to say or do when confronted with the axis where my professional and individual needs met. Surely, no man has ever encountered such rampant workplace discrimination because of his body’s basic, sexually gendered biological functions, any more than he has been told “boy’s don’t [fill in the blank] when it comes to his chosen profession.
If you’re a girl and you really want to ruffle feathers, drop the “F-bomb” or the “C-word” in a conversation sometime. I don’t care whether your audience is male, female, or a pack of dogs — in my experience, someone is going to walk away mortally offended that you said something like that out loud, because (good) girls don’t swear.
[I self-censored that last remark for the benefit of people who love me and don't think those words are acceptable and might sometime read this essay, not because I, personally, have a problem writing out the "F-bomb" or the "C-word."]
My gender has extended as the basic, underlying context for other forms of discrimination I have encountered, as well. I will never forget the first time I stepped into an inner-city classroom, teaching certificate and college degree in hand for all of two months, bright and young and eager to make a difference, and was stopped cold by the proclamation that rang out from the back of the classroom so loudly that everyone in the hallway heard it and laughed in response: “Man, they got us a white bitch teacher up in here this year!” I had been aware that there might be some racial tension at first, but no one prepared me for the fact that African-American, inner-city adolescent males would consider my gender at least as important a factor as my race in determining whether they would accept me as a teacher, and thus an implied leader and superior. This was an issue that came up many times when I taught in public schools, until I learned how to negotiate it into a non-issue by addressing it outright and being fair and honest when it cropped up.
And, of course, as a mother, a whole new set of discriminatory practices rear their heads, everything from the judgment of what I wear and how I behave as being fit or unfit for my (gendered) role as Mother, to what I should be buying and how I should be voting as a woman with children. This has become a non-issue for me the older I have grown, because I tried following all the gender rules, and that didn’t work; when I stopped following the rules, life got much better, and so for the most part, I no longer really care what people think: my husband’s opinion of me as a co-parent and the opinions of my daughters as the products of that parenting are really the only ones that matter. This is not to say that every once in a while I don’t experience insecurities and doubts related to these matters — I think for any woman, that’s a given.
Finally, having recently gone through and successfully battled breast cancer, I am all-too aware of how even the experiences of disability and disease is gender – driven in our society, having watched my male and female doctors argue over the best course of treatment — the man telling me that I should just go ahead and lop off both breasts, and while I’m at it remove the ovaries and uterus as well; the woman telling me that we can certainly conserve most of my own body if I so desire and there’s no genuine need to take extreme action based on my particular diagnosis; the man, again: “why take chances of a recurrence down the line, ten years, twenty years, thirty years? Just get all those woman parts out. What do you need it all for? You already have your children, and your insurance covers it; as long as you have to go through this anyway, why not come out of it with new breasts?” — as though the most important factor in all of this were how perky I looked in a bathing suit. (In fairness, although the entire situation was horrific, I know he had my best interests at heart and was just concerned about recurrence, and I still am grateful beyond measure for his excellent care and personal attention to my case.) But to be honest, the most difficult part of going through the cancer treatments was not the surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, although none of that was fun, but rather the loss of my hair — the physical marker of my difference to all the world. Even I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t sick anymore, not when I was bald. Girls don’t do bald. (Although, on my good days, I’d like to think that I totally rocked the bald.)
In the end, does any of this really matter? I think it does, for two main reasons. First, because as I look back over my life I can see that in every situation in which my gender has been a factor in discriminatory or prejudicial practices, I had the opportunity either to be a victim of that frame of thinking, or to become a stronger individual by overcoming it. I like to think that in the main, I have grown immeasurably as a result of my (admittedly oppositional defiant) attitude toward the gendered barriers others have tried to construct around me, that I am more resilient, more independent, more courageous, and more forthright because of those conflicts. And second, because I have two daughters who have to learn to navigate this society and their place in it for themselves, and I hope that through my own example I show them that they really are limited only by the choices that they make. I want them to believe that there are two things girls don’t do — girls don’t give up, and girls don’t give in. And I want them to know that what girls do, is live — hopefully happy, productive, meaningful lives, constructed on their own, individually arrived-at notions of what such a life means. That’s the lesson I have carried away with me from my own experience. So for me, all of these emotional and physical imperfections that I bear and that are the direct result of my female gender, are beautiful scars.
So, what about you? What lessons have you learned and what wisdom can you share from experiences in discrimination based on your gender, or any other factor?