Hillary Clinton, Graduate School, and Feminism

5 Jan

It’s not often that a non-fiction book makes me want to cry, especially not one about the 2008 elections, but this week I have been reading Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry. A professor of women’s history recommended it to me as a feminist examination of the fervor that had surrounded Barack Obama and the hate and disgust that had been Hillary’s portion in the last presidential election.

I cried because I recognized myself in the book.

Like Traister, I had been raised to believe that sexism no longer existed.  Birth control and the vote had excised it from the American landscape.  My epiphany came, however, not during the 2008 elections but a year later when I entered graduate school.

Growing up in a small town in Idaho, I expected to find graduate school a utopia of leftist politics.  It was to be the opposite of the conservative town in which I grew up.  I imagined it as a Mecca, as an embodiment of the liberal principles I had heard espoused in feminist and left-leaning books and believed that I held myself.  Leftist politics there were.  Utopia it was not.

In spite of the position of most of the graduate students as self-identified radicals, sexism still abounded at the university.  Graduate students complained about several of the female faculty were seen as angry, incompetent, and shrill.  Initially, I bought into the critiques of such women.  Eventually, I came to see that their anger was justified.

I heard stories of graduate seminars where popular, young male professors marginalized the older women with whom they were teaching.  It wasn’t something that was overt.  No one called anyone else the c-word or made inappropriate remarks, but there was a subtle dismissal of ideas that led to silencing of female voices.

I participated in seminars whose jocky tone made it difficult for women to feel comfortable contributing, and I discovered that men seldom participated in workshops when women were presenting.

I became a little more irritable, a little less willing to be nice, and I began to see that if I was annoyed, my female professors who had experienced a sexism much worse than anything I had ever experienced had a right to be ten times more so.

When I spoke to my fellow female graduate students, I received sympathy.  They shared stories about times when they had experienced a similar sexism.  When I spoke about the same problem to men, however, the responsive was dismissive.

“Are you kidding?”

“Come on!”

What hurt worse, though, were those few times when women themselves were dismissive.  In response to the unwillingness of some of cohort mates to respond to gender, a working group I am a part of suggested a conference solely focused on gender.  The response was that perhaps we should focus on race instead.

Reading Traister’s book brought up all of this for me.  When she talked about the media boys’ club’s disgusted response to Hillary’s campaign and success, I saw my professors’ and fellow graduate students’ faces.  When I read about the characterization of her as shrill, I recognized the response to my complaints about unwillingness of some people in the department to take gender seriously.

I initially started writing this point in response to the post on Zelophephad’s Daughters about the role that Joseph Smith Summer Seminar played in awakening the feminist consciousness of one of their bloggers.  One of the differences between my awakening and hers is that I already considered myself a feminist. My awakening was the realization that in spite of four decades, if not more, of feminist work, sexism was alive and rampant.

9 Responses to “Hillary Clinton, Graduate School, and Feminism”

  1. zillah January 6, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    i’ve had a very similar experience with graduate school. it’s all of the small, sexist things that add up to so much: all of the men getting pre-made nametags at an opening social and none of the women; almost no men showing up to hear a visiting female professor lecture; dumb blonde jokes in class; condescension; the lack of parental leave for a new child (okay, that’s a big thing). it’s particularly wearing on my fellow female students and me, as well as junior faculty.

  2. ECS January 6, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    Interesting post. My husband and I are both attorneys and graduated from the same law school (I had higher grades), but his career has been more successful than mine for many of the reasons you (and Traister) cite (plus the added bonus of being Mormon and all that entails for gender roles/stereotypes). I teach law school now, and worry about the women in my classes – who are bright eyed and ambitious – but who have little idea what is ahead of them. Hopefully, they will negotiate these issues more gracefully than I did/do.

  3. amanda5245 January 6, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    Zillah and ECS –

    It’s both depressing and reassuring to know that other women have the same experience. I think what bothers me the most is that the graduate school environment is supposed a liberal one that supports feminism and the careers of women. It seems at times, though, that that very assumption of liberality makes it difficult for women to claim the experiences of exclusion they have had and for those experiences to be taken seriously. The general assumption seems to be that that sort-of sexism can’t happen at my institution.

    I wish I had some of solution, but right now, all I feel is the frustration.

  4. ECS January 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    These comparisons are difficult, because of course any given woman (or man) could have worked harder or avoided certain pitfalls in her career trajectory or academic program, but it seems to me that women are punished more harshly for their shortcomings than are men. Hillary Clinton’s career is a perfect example of this. In any setting, white men are granted instant credibility, while women have to earn it (if they’re even allowed to).

    All things being equal, it’s still much (MUCH) harder for women to attain academic or professional success on par with men. Anyone who disputes this is simply not paying attention.

  5. Skip Hellewell January 7, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    All things feminine–there is a new website on living the prescriptions of the Word of Wisdom in the modern (toxic) food environment.

    This is a first but has the goal to simplify how to gain energy, healthfulness, and longevity through deeper insight into the Word of Wisdom.

    Check it out at wordofwisdomliving.com

    S. Hellewell

  6. Angie January 9, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    I attended graduate school at BYU and did not experience any sexism, as far as I was aware. My professors (mostly men) and my classmates (50-50 male female) were completely supportive of my career, intellectual pursuits, goals, and research. In fact, I presented my undergrad research at a conference to a packed room.

    This comment sounds like it’s all about me (“I, I, I”). But my real point is that this post has opened my eyes to a benefit of my BYU education that I had taken for granted.

    And IMHO, women are treated unfairly in all areas of society – including grad school – because of rampant un-chastity and sexualization of women.

  7. amanda5245 January 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    @Angie – ….If only men who were unchaste were treated as badly as women who are unchaste are.

    I was never a BYU student so I can’t comment on the gender dynamics there. That said, I have found a lot of things I have encountered in Mormon Studies since I decided to focus my dissertation on a topic that falls under its purview unsettling. Perhaps the thing that bothers me the most is that most, though not all, of the female Mormon academics I encounter are single while the most, though not all, of the male Mormon academics I encounter are married and have a stay-at-home wife. It seems to suggest that Mormon women have to chose between having a career and having children or even a husband.

  8. sar January 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    I did my MA at BYU and for the most part I did not experience sexism from my professors or other graduate students in my department, but I would probably characterize the institution and many students there as sexist, based on my experience as a TA and in BYU wards. Now I am working on a PhD at a large Midwestern state university, and I was surprised when I got here to discover that my colleagues and professors are more sexist here than at BYU, even if the institution and the student body as a whole aren’t as overtly sexist. I can second a number of experiences described in the OP and the comments.

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