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?”
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.