Saturday, June 25, 2011

Visibility and Women's Work

Since finding out our moving plans, I've had a bit of a blah.  Like emotionally just being relieved to have a direction, but not having the energy to do anything about it.  So we've made booze (basil vodka, steeped for two days--great with strawberry liqueur and a little ginger ale), and I've been thinking about my own position next year and the year after.

 I've never really thought explicitly about myself as someone who was defined by their job, but really, that's a big reason I'm in grad school.  My father is defined by his job and profoundly unhappy because of it; my mother defines herself (I think) much more as someone who paints, cooks, gardens, and mothers, and is happier for it.  Her job is important to her, but she's managed role shifts and job shifts within her career, and not been shaken by them, and that's always much more how I saw myself.

So I find myself a little adrift this summer trying to self-motivate towards research and writing, with the thought of picking up, moving, and self-motivating elsewhere for a year.  I'll teach in the fall, and I definitely don't see myself primarily as a teacher (although that is an important part of why I wanted to be an academic).  But this whole "you're done with coursework, go write a book!" thing with no road map leaves me feeling a little lost.

(I also had my car towed last week as I was heading out of town for a research trip, throwing me into a cycle of worry about being able to accomplish my summer research goals while stuck at home carless).

This guest post at Secret Confessions of a Trailing Spouse helped me articulate the many reasons I'm bothered by the upcoming year or more of relocation: I've invested a lot of my self-concept in assuming my partner J will move for me, not the other way around.  In this context, I've been much more profoundly bothered by conversations with J's coworkers this summer than I might otherwise have been.

J has worked at a summer theater every summer since I moved to Overcast three and a half years ago, and usually it's great.  Long hours, but the people he works with are mostly fun and reasonably acquainted with the fact that graduate school is work, since some of them are thinking about grad school themselves.  Except for a few people, mostly straight men, who seem to think that intellectual work, especially done by a woman, is not work at all.  I'm aware that I'm extraordinarily privileged, in that my university gave me a funding package which allows me to solely work on my dissertation during the summers.  I don't have to pick up a second job or teach unless I choose to, so when we meet people for drinks after work or whatever, my answer to "what did you do today" is usually "read another book" and not "rigged 500 pounds of lights/built a giant platform for people to dance on."

One of J's coworkers sees me only once every few weeks, and always asks me either "are you still reading books or doing something now?" or "how's writing your novel going?"  Every.  D*mn.  Time.  One or both of those questions.  I also get them from infrequently-seen male acquaintances who work in engineering or construction (not to stereotype, but they're the only ones I get these questions from).  The implication is that reading is not "real work" and that I ought to have moved on to something else by now.  The novel thing--I don't even know what's going on there, but it annoys the hell out of me, because I repeatedly explain, very nicely, the difference between a novel and what I'm writing, and it comes up with the same person repeatedly.  It just feels disrespectful.

Couple this with our impending move.  The initial assumption when J started at this theater was that I had chosen my graduate school because J had gotten a job at the theater here.  The current assumption is that J wants to work in a larger theater, so we're going to move because of that.  J doesn't give people this impression, and in fact, does his best to dissuade people of this assumption.  And I've never felt like an armequin in gatherings of theater people except when this comes up, because there's never a graceful way to say: No.  That's wrong.  We're moving because I make more, dictate where we live, have more constraining/demanding career needs etc, because it would be so profoundly unkind to J.  Those things are all true, and important to me, and important socially/culturally, but they're unkind things.

It ought not matter to anyone else, or to me, or to J, who makes more in our relationship or who determines where we move.  But the gendered expectations for our motivations are so incredibly untrue that to answer them puts us in an equally unpleasant situation:  for these people, either I am the meek and following partner, or J is the unmanly guy who follows his female partner.  And really, what they think shouldn't bother me at all, but it's so wrapped up in my own anxiety and how I see myself that it's hard not to worry about it.  So to deal with it, we both just smile politely and change the subject.


  1. Eileen, this was a fantastic post. The reason we care about what people think is that those thoughts are incredibly damaging, for both genders. Letting these assumptions stand only perpetuates them, so I, like you, feel a little impotent when I have to just let it go.

    What you said about your mother not being defined by her work struck a chord in me. I've felt inferior to J career-wise since I didn't have a direction like him, but I value the things I do outside of work more. I should accept that my happiness comes from different things, and not care if someone else decides to judge me on where my money comes from.

    This post has lighted my load significantly. Thank you.

  2. Thanks ab. I'm all about fighting the good fight for feminism, women, etc in my work life, but sometimes I feel like a failure for not taking a stand in real life. But there's only so many ways to tell someone who doesn't listen that the things you do are valuable. And if they don't listen, it's time to find people who do.

  3. For real. I'm lucky in that J and I have mostly mutual friends, where that kind of talk would be smacked down in an instant. The kind of person that would persist in that line of thought is, you're right, not worth it.

    Though, I recommend looking at them pityingly when they speak like that, and maybe add a "Bless your heart". Say it like you'd say it to a child. That is the Southern way.