I am woman…

The title of this article in the New York Times sparked a shudder of recognition in me: Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work

A few years ago, when I was still a fresh-faced PhD, thrilled to have found a job that met all of my outlandish requirements, a female colleague announced to me that I was “male identified” because I got on better with my male co-workers than most of my female ones. It’s worth noting that “got on better with” meant I had virtually no problems being direct with them and didn’t get too worked up if they disagreed with me from time to time.

I should come clean from the start and say I’d not been one to call myself a “feminist” much before this moment because I don’t like labels, and it seemed that the women who attached the label “feminist” to themselves paid lip service to helping oppressed women when their real goal seemed to be developing a sophisticated language of victimization. They were also too obsessed with talking about their feelings at work. The concern seemed more about the right to be hairy than actual “sisterhood” and I’ve never had the impulse to sit topless in a circle and celebrate my breasts. Seriously.

I also noticed something really creepy in graduate school that I’ve since seen among many female PhDs: they are as mean and nasty and judgmental of one another as their unwashed (read: non-feminist) sisters, but their self-righteousness is naked and aggressive.

I’ve never fit in much with women, though, because I’m an emotional tomboy. This is not to suggest that I don’t have soft feelings and insecurities. It also does not mean that I am invulnerable. In fact, I’m rather weepy and fret about the things a lot of women (from the bold to the timid) think about during the course of the day. I am perfectly comfortable talking about my feelings and will vent with the best of them. The difference, I think, is that I’m lead more by my dreams and ambitions that my frets and my weepiness. So while I’m just as likely as the next woman to crawl under a blanket and feel like utter shit, I think I’m probably more likely than most of the women I’ve met to also feel like it’s up to me to crawl out from under the blanket. Yes, I will, eventually, recognize the patriarchal structure of said blanket, but then I will figure out how to work around it.

The first time I realized I wasn’t “normal,” I was too young and naïve to understand why this marked me as different. I was the youngest woman in an all female office, and I was hazed in ways that still give me chills: Information readily available to my colleagues was kept from me (like the home phone numbers of co-workers I was expected to collaborate with…as they worked at home); I was regularly chastised for not having the proper wardrobe (I got the job a few months out of college) and then ridiculed when I bought clothes for work (not because they were unprofessional but because I had gone to the “wrong” store); speaking up in meetings I was accountable for running was frowned upon and viewed as impertinent (even if most my comments were well received); taking the “listening” approach was a sign that I wasn’t assertive enough.

I, who had been a confident, happy young woman, developed ulcers, stopped sleeping, and started getting ragged around all my edges. I quit, went to grad school, and autonomy became my best friend. It was in grad school that I began to understand that what had happened at my first job was not so much about me but about how women treat one another, especially young, single women.

Among self-proclaimed feminist I saw backstabbing, pettiness, passive aggressiveness, and narcissism of the kind that makes me think we need to go back and re-write the legend that gives us that label. Male academics, I noticed, could be obnoxious too, but the competitiveness was right there on the surface and resentment was sparked by real rather than perceived unfairness. And it was about real stuff that could be measured—not about who was most popular but about who got published and where or won a spot in a prestigious seminar.

Now, I know that patriarchal systems reward male directness and punish female assertiveness, but what I found (and still find) abhorrent is that feminists who can describe this power structure wield it like a cudgel against women they don’t like, and the reasons they don’t like these women has little or nothing to do with the quality of their work and everything to do with whether or not these women have made the kind of choices that so-called feminists value.

“I am woman here my roar” has been replaced with “I am woman and your job as a woman is to validate every choice I’ve made by making the exact same choices that I’ve made so that I never have to question whether or not I made the right choice to begin with.”

I’m not so fresh-faced anymore, but after being hazed by yet another group of women, I made a few promises to myself:

  • I will be kind to younger colleagues and offer them information that is useful and then give them space to use that information as they see fit and not as I would like them to use it
  • I will never feel I have to be “friends” with everyone I collaborate with
  • I will not try to “nurture” everyone who crosses my path
  • I will seek professional validation from my work and personal validation in my personal life
  • I will always support a woman’s right to shoes* and not judge any woman for any of the shoe choices she makes
  • I will be compassionate, but I will not be an enabler
  • I will be less critical of Oprah
  • I will get angry and fight against the real source of trouble: patriarchal power systems

If that makes me “male-identified” so be it. I’d like to think it makes me a feminist.

*borrowed from an episode of “Sex and the City”

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