Anxious Feminism

First, a story.

A few years ago, a male colleague of mine was approached in a local coffee shop by another graduate student. This graduate student was a man relatively new to the program and I had only met him once or twice. When he saw that my colleague had a bible (apparently the universal indicator that you work in Hebrew Bible/NT studies) the newbie launched into the following inquiry: “Do you know Jeannie Sellick? Is she in your field? She’s really loud. Like really fucking loud.” After he finished the last statement, he started leaving and then turned back for one last “really fuckin’ loud,” you know, just in case there had been any confusion before.

I’d like to say I never thought about this incident. Or that when I did, shrugged it off and said “screw that kid.” I did not. Instead a spent an evening crying in my room, imagining all the ways that I could have “wronged” the boy to justify why someone I barely knew would slander me unprompted. What’s worse is that my mind spun over and over with the question of “am I too loud??”

In the less emotional, more self righteous light of day, I came to the conclusion that this guy must just be a flaming sexist. You wouldn’t criticize a man for being too loud, right?! He hates women. He hates me for being a woman who speaks. What a prick.

Now in reality, neither of these stories were true. But over the next few days (ok, fine, weeks) my brain kept swinging between these two poles. He criticized me either because he’s a sexist puppet or because I am a loud mouthed bitch. For me this became an all consuming anxiety over whether I was being attacked because of patriarchal norms or because I was actually an obnoxiously loud person. In sum, someone had to suck and I couldn’t figure out who.

Okay. Another story.

I was having a conversation with one of my female colleagues about the prophet Jonah. For those of you who don’t know, Jonah’s claim to fame is being kind of a whiny prick. He’s as judgmental as he is cowardly and his short book ends with him in continual disagreement with God. Well I was going through all of this with my friend when I asked her whether Jonah was still considered a prophet in Hebrew & Christian traditions. Before she could respond, another male student (not part of the original conversation, mind you) looked up at me and patronizingly said “You’re adorable.”

I am adorable. Like very, very adorable as a person. I’m silly & cute & lighthearted. My claim to fame has been making typically dull or dry material funny and relatable. Adorable, however, is not entirely what he meant. I’m relatively fluent in pretentious grad student so allow me to translate. By “you’re adorable” he actually meant something along the lines of “you’re a silly, ridiculous, moron.”

Again I found myself swinging between the poles of he’s a sexist & maybe I am ridiculous. There was no middle ground in my mind. Either he judged me because I was a woman or I was letting female graduate students everywhere down by being too adorable.

Again, the reality is that neither of these stories were true; they were merely my interpretations. I cannot know what he actually meant by calling me adorable, I can only speak to how it made me feel. But these types of situations have been haunting me since I learned the word patriarchy.

As a woman working in a male dominated field, I have been battling these thoughts ever since I started graduate school. I am constantly put in the position of having to question whether a critique of me, my ideas or work is legitimate or if it is patriarchal. For any woman who’s ever had to read course reviews, you probably know what I’m talking about. Is this constructive feedback or is this a criticism rooted in or colored by my gender? How do you reconcile the two takes when you are one, wholistic person?

These thoughts sometimes lead to a sickening split reality in which all feedback must be taken with a heavy grain of salt. I have always suffered from anxiety, but this is a whole new level. Once I entered graduate school, not only did I feel personal pressure to perform, but I also felt keenly responsible for how all women would be perceived. If I failed to speak up in class, botched a paper or embarrassed myself, I couldn’t help but feel that I was letting down not just myself, but generations who had given me the opportunity. It’s a heavy weight to carry that compounds one’s anxieties in an already difficult career. And I know I do not have to carry it, but I can’t help it.

Now I’m not saying that all women go through this (though I suspect a great many do). Neither am I saying that it’s only women who can experience this kind of split reality (I’m a privileged white lady so I have it easier than most). But this has been my experience — one of constant second guessing, anxiety, and guilt.

The aforementioned are just two examples of many; but I love them because they nicely illustrate the range of “wrongness” that often exists for women in fields like academia. On one end I’m too loud, too obnoxious, too bold, too outspoken. On the opposite end of the spectrum I’m too adorable, too silly, too shallow, too soft. And this is what makes me the most anxious of all. That no matter where I land on this spectrum, there is no way of being any of these things without some consequences (no matter if they are real or perceived).

But at the end of the day, fuck ’em. This is 2019. Be adorable. Be obnoxious. Be fucking loud. If it upsets them, they can just put on headphones.

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The Atheist Nun

A baby academic making her way in the world of Late Antiquity & beyond.

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