The Danger of the Self-Sacrificing Woman

Professional women beware: the dangers of the self-sacrificing women are many. You may be her and in that case, you are in danger. You may work in the same office she does and in that case, you are in danger. Finally, if you are a working woman, I am sorry to say you are in danger as your presence at work calls upon the unfortunate history of the self-sacrificing woman, for she has been where you are and her legacy lives on. In other words, all women suffer because of the self-sacrificing woman. The sooner we learn to distance ourselves from this role and to stop admiring or emulating the women who fail to see the harm they inflict upon other women in adopting the yoke of self-sacrifice, the better.

Who is the self-sacrificing woman? In one department with which I was briefly affiliated, the self-sacrificing woman was Bethany (a pseudonym). Bethany was a brilliant and talented young professor. She was very well-liked in her department and admired. She was a talented researcher but usually put her classes first as she felt strongly beholden to her students. Bethany was also involved in a few committees on campus, some of them high-profile. When one committee chair asked her if she would be interested in taking over as chair in the near future, Bethany was initially very excited by the prospect–it would be a great leadership opportunity and one that would help advance her career. But in the end, she declined. Although she loved the work the committee performed and had great visions for its future, accepting such a role and its responsibilities would mean a class or two of course release and Bethany worried about burdening her department with finding someone to teach her classes and creating any extra work for her colleagues. Bethany passed and the new committee chair, a gentleman in roughly the same stage in his career, accepted the post and the next year was named the director of a newly formed academic service on campus.

Bethany also had a baby while I worked with her; she delivered her baby 3/4 of the way into the fall semester and went on maternity “leave.” Despite her new responsibilities in the home, Bethany still attended campus events and conference-called in to faculty meetings. And despite the hard-earned victories of feminists and professional women in passing the FMLA, ensuring in part, protected time away from work to care for one’s new family, Bethany did her best to continue to perform as many duties as possible while on maternity leave.

While Bethany might sound like an amazing employee, her mantra of self-sacrifice is harmful to her and to other women.

First, Bethany is doing herself no service by putting the needs of others above her own. Women are socialized to do this from an early age, but it is a handicap we need to overcome in our professional lives. In her book, Women, Work, & the Art of Savoir Faire, Mireille Guiliano encourages women to understand how the company for which they work views them. She writes, “Understand that whatever your role, from the company’s perspective, seen from several cloud layers above your flying level, you are not a person; you are a box and function on an organizational chart. . . .  Your needs as a person rarely figure in corporate decision making, even at small companies. . . .  when tough decisions are being made, [higher ups] will make business decisions in the best interest of the company. It’s not personal, it’s business, as the saying goes.”

Bethany is very considerate when it comes to how her professional goals and ambitions may impact the institution. Too bad for Bethany this consideration is usually not reciprocal. The institution’s leaders will rarely (if ever) stop and think how their goals and plans for the campus will impact Bethany. They certainly wouldn’t decide against a particular course of action because it may inconvenience her. Bethany’s self-sacrifice is a one-way street and traveling down it will not serve her well. You know who it does serve? The guy who had no qualms about pursuing a career trajectory he found rewarding and desirable. That guy is now on the path to administration and making three-to-four times the salary as Bethany.

Second, Bethany is (albeit unconsciously) hurting other women by continuing to operate under a banner of self-sacrifice. When another woman in my department became pregnant a year after Bethany, there were many references to the tone Bethany set. The other woman was told she was expected to continue to attend department meetings, even if it meant via conference call, and to stay involved in the department while on leave via committee service and work on department initiatives. Bethany had established an expectation of what women in the department could and should do while on leave. Time after birth was no longer solely for family, recovery, and navigating the world of motherhood, but for demonstrating your commitment to the job and the unnecessary extravagance of maternity leave. Because Bethany did it, other women could do it, so went the department logic. This is dangerous logic that ignores a host of factors (like the different resources women may have access to). The bottom line is: Bethany shouldn’t do it. Even if she wants to, even if she can. Women have very little in the way of official policies recognizing their biological differences from men and the extra burden those differences place on their lives and careers. Brazenly flaunting the superfluity of those protections is extremely dangerous.

Third, Bethany has confused her coworkers with her friends. This is a mistake many women make. It may sound harsh, but it is important to keep these categories of interpersonal relationships distinct. When I consult with women on their professional communication, this is the point on which I receive the most push back. It is also the point on which I receive the most fervent agreement. The former comes from women who are convinced they can navigate the tricky terrain of close friends at work. The latter comes from women who used to think so until they experienced the inevitable disjunction between these worlds. As women, we grow up and are socialized to value relationships above outcomes, and this often does us a disservice in the professional world. I am not saying don’t be friendly at work. Be kind, be cordial; you can even care about your coworkers! But do not allow the relationship with a coworker to become the primary feature of your work, to the point where you are unwilling to take a step forward in your career or support a new initiative because it may harm your friendship. Consider appropriate distance and “keep in mind that your job is only part of who you are. Your work is your work, and your life is your life. . . .  Always remember that making friends is not an objective of a business situation,” (from Gail Evans’ book, Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman).

Part of me should feel sad for Bethany, I suppose. But most of me is mad at Bethany. Of course, I have been a self-sacrificing woman in the past and I still find myself performing the activities and behaviors of self-sacrifice every-so-often (and to be clear, I think there is one big whopping difference between self-sacrificing and being a team player). I am trying to be conscious of both my internal dialogue telling me to go the extra mile and advise one more struggling student group during the academic year (a difficult and perhaps fruitless job–there is a reason no one else is clamoring for the role) and the external expectations cultivated by ghosts of self-sacrificing women, past and present.

Self-sacrifice is a professional impediment. Please, for my sake if not for your own, think about making career decisions that do not revolve around self-sacrifice.

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The Poles of Historical Reflection: Nostalgia and Amnesia

Both are at work when it comes to contemporary conceptions of feminism’s past. On one hand, we have nostalgia–a desire to return to what is seen as the good old days (why don’t women burn their bras anymore?!) and on the other hand, we have amnesia–a forgetting that serves to wipe out the past’s nuances (women in the ’7os were so committed to feminism and ready to fight for women’s rights!). Often, amnesia and nostalgia get tangled up together, as these examples illustrate.

Both are also features of misremembering. Bra burning is an urban legend and despite tendencies to equate the ’60s and ’70s with widespread buy-in for social reform and all around grooviness, many women of the time were either ambivalent about feminism or actively worked against equal rights efforts (i.e., the STOP ERA). Nostalgia and amnesia both reinforce the need for accurate histories of feminism’s past.

The 1970s in particular is a fertile time for nostalgia when it comes to feminist activism. Nostalgia can be inventive and inspiring, but it can also feed us trace amounts of amnesia as we look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Another reason to know our feminist history.

 

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Feminist Scholarly Community

Very few of the feminist scholars I know are full-time faculty in women’s studies departments. In some ways this is a good thing–it helps make for a wider spectrum of voices on campus reminding various departments to think about social justice, power, inclusion and exclusion. But in other ways, this wide distribution is challenging. For one, it can lead to feelings of isolation, particularly if you are the one person in your department continually drawing attention to these matters. That’s why community is so important and that’s why my colleague and I created Feminist First Fridays—a forum for presenting and discussing feminist research and creative works-in-progress across disciplines and an occasion for feminist scholars on campus to come together.

Last week was our first meeting and it was a great success (check out our coverage in the student newspaper). I was impressed with our turnout and with the stimulating discussion we shared. Because so many different disciplines participate in feminist scholarship, coming together in an interdisciplinary format to discuss our work adds dimension and nuance to individual perspectives and approaches. I know my current project will be all the stronger for being aired in front of a group of feminist scholars from various backgrounds and disciplines.

 

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By Any Other Name?

Stumbled on Beloit College’s Women’s Studies Facebook page awhile back and noted with interest the following info at the top of their page:

“The Women’s and Gender Studies Program is changing! Within the next year the program will be changing both its name and …its curriculum to incorporate more aspects of intersectionality and interdiscilinary classes.” The page includes ideas for new program and course names such as “Gender, Race, and Sexuality Studies” and “Intersectional Identities.”

These sentences resonated with me as I reflected on developing my Representations of Gender in Popular Culture course. The course–now up and running and very popular with upper division male and female students at my school–in its first incarnation was titled Representations of Women in Pop Culture but I decided against the name. It didn’t seem to fit “the times and trends” of contemporary study. In women/gender/feminist studies we use the term “gender” to include men, and also to include those who identify beyond the gender binary. Although my curriculum plan and outline included ample opportunity to explore pop culture’s interaction with gender beyond woman, I worried a class title with “women” rather than “gender” would be seen as too limiting.

However, I’ve noticed this shift in terminology and preference for the more inclusive “gender” rather than “women” can sometimes give students the wrong impression, and certainly misdirect expectations when it comes to my class. I often start the class (as well as my Gender and Communication class) with a caveat: We focus predominantly on representations of women, I explain. I must be upfront about this because students, and generally these are my self-identified male students (about one-third to half my classes), expect that because “gender” is in the course title, the course will be equally divided in its attention to women’s issues and men’s issues and topics most pertinent to each. Aside from my frustration with men and women focusing their concern on and identifying predominantly with issues related to their gender exclusively and my energy spent encouraging them to think of “women’s issues” for example as “human issues” impacting all of us, I also feel frustrated by the expectation that for every class we devote to violence against women, say, students believe we should devote a class to violence against men.

I do my best to explain the lack of “equal air time” in my classes with two sets of rationale:

1. This class reflects and seeks to remedy a long history wherein the circumstances, experiences, and realities of women’s lives have been ignored, given short shrift, or dismissed completely. It does not do so by applying the same lack of consideration to men (i.e., advocating for men’s experiences to be ignored or dismissed), but by encouraging us to grant women’s experiences the attention and consideration they have not received in the past. Therefore, providing equal air time to men’s experiences would negate our purpose and its import.

2. We must let go of our “tit-for-tat” mentality. I see the desire to give equal air time in part stem from assumptions–held by many of my students regardless of gender–about contemporary equality between the sexes. They see men and women as equal today, so what is awarded to one gender must be awarded to another; this includes discussion time, readings, etc. Here I remind students of our responsibility to return to data and give it weight in the face of our assumptions and anecdotes about who gets and deserves what and compared to whom. The National Violence Against Women Survey found 3% of men are victims of rape in their lifetime compared to 17.6% of women. Yes, men, too, are the victims of rape, but to devote the same amount of class time discussing the rape of men does not reflect data and experience, serves to diminish women’s realities, and distorts and misrepresents an important social issue.

Mostly, students accept these explanations–but it doesn’t happen right away. It takes some convincing and some close examination of women’s topics and I often return to these explanations throughout the semester to help remind students of our course objectives and learning agenda. I feel the term “gender” in the course title in some ways sets me up for this uphill battle. Please don’t get me wrong: especially when it comes to popular culture, I think it is very important to study how it influences and acts on performances of gender, including masculinity, but I also wonder about the larger message such course and program titles are sending our students.

Elizabeth Bell’s article, “Operationalizing Feminism: Two Challenges for Feminist Research,” in Women & Language (2010) touches on this issue as well. She notes the move from a focus on women to a focus on gender theory obfuscates women and forces feminism into a position of standing on “the outside, looking in, wondering how to make women’s bodies, experiences, and lives central to theories and practices of gender studies,” (p. 98). Bell’s words, in conjunction with my experiences in the classroom, spark a note of warning for me. We’ve worked too hard to make women’s lives and realities a legitimate field of study and I am nervous about what erasing “women” from our program and class titles may mean for that effort.

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User-Generated Content and the Scholarly Writing Process

Check out my video as my Western States Communication Association presentation:

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The Oft-Neglected Generous Read

Critical thinking is, of course, highly valued in this line of work. We talk about it all the time in our classes, sprinkle the phrase liberally into course objectives, and design assignments and exams to assess our students’ ability to employ this desired skill. Especially as students get more advanced in their field of study–upper division classes and graduate school–critical thinking becomes even more important, and interestingly, I’ve noticed a greater emphasis on the critical. My students’ first move is often to reject a piece of work, confusing critical thinking with a discerning attitude of dismissal. I don’t find this too surprising. After all, I found myself practicing the same regiment in graduate school–read, refute as you read, don’t take anything at face value, question, finish reading, and refute some more. Of course, questioning is good; refutation can be productive and both these things help students develop their own voice and confidence in themselves as independent thinkers. But this can also go a bit too far. An associate professor friend once recalled to me an instance in her graduate schooling when she and a fellow student were asked to introduce a well-respected guest speaker invited to campus to discuss his most recent work. By way of introduction, the two students proceeded to delve into his work, dissecting it via a (highly) critical lens before inviting him up to take the podium. She said at the time, she thought her intro was exactly what she was supposed to do.

Contrary to official course learning goals, I try to encourage my students to back off a bit when it comes to their critical approaches, especially because I have also noticed their critical lenses are sharper when it comes to authors outside the white male canon. Their first responsibility, I tell them, is to apply a generous read. To read with open and receptive minds, to understand the author and his or her argument, to allow yourself the possibility of persuasion–to be potentially changed by the work. After opening ourselves to new ideas we can then apply our critical lenses, and should, regardless of how we feel about the work and how much it changed us. We should question it, refute it–even if we agree–for the sake of a more comprehensive understanding of how this work may be interpreted.

I know I am not the first one to come up with these ideas or apply them in class. Sally Miller Gearhart, one of my intellectual heroes, believes in the creation of an atmosphere of understanding as a precursor to change. (I note with a bit of disappointment every semester her work usually invokes the strongest critical response from students.) But I do think we, as researchers, need to be reminded of the benefits of a generous read, particularly as we make our careers in what we perceive as the overlooked, incomplete, or perhaps inaccurate work of other scholars.

In my own work, I am finding a generous read is important to our consumption of feminist histories. Employing a generous read of feminism’s past–its platforms, areas of focus, and methods for achieving its goals–allows today’s scholars and activists to fully grasp the strategic choices of earlier movements and understand how particular determinations in goals and approaches both served and undermined the cause. A generous read further allows one to recognize resources and constraints within feminist discourse, both historically and in a contemporary context. As feminist activists and scholars, a clear sense of our history allows us to know our strengths, better familiarize ourselves with our limitations, and work to navigate new and persistent challenges to women’s rights, particularly as they are relevant to women and work. Criticism without a clear sense of history not only means feminists are doomed to repeat the mistakes and oversights of the past, but also means we do not benefit from the strong bond forged by a common tradition and fail to build upon earlier approaches in addressing the most pressing and long-standing challenges to women’s rights.

We can’t dismiss critical thinking or the import of critically engaging with a text. This is a necessary skill for our students to develop and for us to continue to employ as teachers and researchers. But sometimes we may need to check ourselves and turn off that knee-jerk critical reaction to find the most productive path forward in our work.

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Using Twitter to Organize the Online Conversational Text

In prior posts I’ve written about creating a conversational text out of bits of online discourse and how wikis can help with this organization. Lately, I have been using Twitter as well, and found it just as, if not more, useful than wikis. Twitter is a fantastic means of quickly marking bits of online discourse. When I see an article, blog post, or comment relevant to gun control or abortion–two conversations I am interested in for an upcoming piece on civil civic discourse and feminism (see prior posts parts 1 and 2), I tweet or retweet that bit of conversation with #civilcivicdisourse. A search for this label will bring up anything trending in Twitter–mainly (ok solely at this point) my posts, but it is a great way to tag, organize, and keep track of all this info in “real time” (i.e., as I am on the go and running about my daily business, unable to log on to my wiki, describe the blog post I am interested in and link to it). Twitter’s brevity and immediacy work in my favor for this purpose and my tweets become another useful space in the writing and research process.

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The Absolute Necessity of Accurate History

I’ve written before about my response to calls for feminists–third wave feminists–to know their history. One reason this is so necessary is to temper criticism of previous waves with full knowledge and understanding of the strategic choices made by its leaders as well as the challenges and confines they faced in particular contexts. I have been taking this duty to heart in some current work. I am creating a historical overview of women, work, and feminism and have been startled to see much of the criticism contemporary feminists lob at the second wave an echo of criticisms second wave feminists leveled against the women of the first wave. And, even more important, the criticisms the following waves voice against the previous seem to go hand-in-hand with a drastic swing in the opposite direction. Platforms, perspectives and rhetoric become reactionary–responses to what is seen as the mistakes of a previous generation.

First wave feminists, after suffering from the sensational accusations of anti-suffragists claiming women working for the vote wanted radical social upheaval, eventually adopted a rhetoric grounded in the Victorian ethos and the cult of domesticity. Women, as the more virtuous half of the human race, were needed in politics, they argued. As mothers, they were duty-bound to do what was right for the nation, and their vote would reflect their allegiance to the family and country. These connections to virtue and motherhood–tenants of the cult of domesticity–stressed women’s difference from men. Forty years after women attained the vote, second wave feminists fervently critiqued this tactic and in their zeal to avoid it, pushed heavily in the opposite direction. Second wave feminist rhetoric (and here I am referring to liberal feminism portrayed in the media and widely viewed by the public as a stand in for all feminism during the second wave) is therefore grounded firmly in equality discourse. Women and men are equal and should be treated as such, second wavers argued; their differences–if indeed there are any of note–should not impede fair and equal treatment in the public sphere.

It is obvious the pendulum swing from the first wave to the second was helpful in many regards, but it also served to direct attention away from important matters relevant to men and women but solely applicable to women’s experiences such as maternity leave, lactation, and childbirth. The second wave left these issues largely untouched.

I think it is in part this emphasis on sameness that spurs reaction from contemporary, third-wave feminists. Third wave feminism is highly individualized and very concerned with what it means to be a girl or woman and how that experience is unique not just from men but among women as well.

The third wave’s biggest trigger reaction to the second wave is the second wave’s alleged exclusivity of minority women and perceived focus on the experiences of white, middle class, educated women. This is not entirely accurate. Some of the most inspiring second wave leaders and writers–bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Maxine Hong Kinsgton–are women of color and the feminist women’s labor movement (a very powerful force for labor reform) was firmly grounded in the expereinces and voices of working class women from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities.

Knowing one’s history means recognizing the mainstreaming of the second wave of feminism–just as the first wave adopted palatable discourse to achieve its agenda, the second wave focused on a clearly identifiable “heroine” as well as a streamlined agenda (“equality”) that would resonante with the public and avoid the threatening association with social upheaval. Yes, this was a strategic manuever that left many women on the periphery, but this manuever was not purely the fault of second wave feminists. In large part this mainstreaming was a media creation. Third wavers’ criticism of the second wave’s exclusionary agenda is a bit missplaced and shows a lack of appreciation for historical context and its accompanying challenges.

What can we learn from an accurate history? First, it is important to note the patterns and recurrences in feminsit history; for example, both the first and second wave’s emphasis on the public sphere. Second, it is equally important to note the divergences and see them as intimately related as the similarities. Noting both helps us be mindful and transparent about out desires, fears, and priorities–these things are products of our time and therefore cannot be imposed upon previous generations without reflection and recognition of the role of context. Each wave of feminism is a product of the one before, not just in terms of advances but in terms of perceived shortcomings. A complete and thorough understanding of those shortcomings is therefore absolutely necessary, especially if they will determine what current feminists deem important and how they address and frame their goals. Working with half-truths and operating on oft-repeated assumptions cast as axioms assures feminists will neglect the resources and lessons learned left to them from previous generations. Instead, our criticism without history means we will only reinvent the wheel as a weight around our necks.

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Sister Social Movements

There are some GREAT books out there right now by UK Feminists. . . .

In both the U.S. and the U.K., feminism has long fought claims it is disengaged, detached, and invariably dead. Recently however, such claims have come from within the ranks of self-identified feminists themselves. In an October 2010 BBC Radio program broadcast, prominent British feminist academic and author Angela McRobbie stated, “There is no contemporary feminism in mainstream political culture,” effectively dismissing the existence of young feminist activists. The same month, American author Susan Faludi’s article “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide,” appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Like McRobbie, Faludi laments the state of contemporary feminist activism and a stalled feminist movement: “At the core of America’s most fruitful political movement resides a perpetual barrenness.”

As a social movement spanning centuries and various manifestations across the globe, feminism is dynamic and fluid, responding to the social, political, and economic milieu of time and place. As the debate above indicates, feminism does not look the same as it did decades ago, yet efforts to characterize it and map its existence—let alone efficacy—in the U.S. and U.K. in the past ten years have lead to a myriad of contradicting opinions and little in the way of satisfying answers or resolution. Feminist scholars in both countries in part identify the calcification of neo-liberal principles and cultural narratives as explanation for a feminist movement and agenda that is seemingly-absent at worst and highly fractured and diluted at best.

So what’s with all of these great books?

Despite the similarities in stories regarding feminist (in)activity in the U.S. and U.K., those stories have begun to diverge significantly over the past two years with a drastic increase in feminist activism, organizing, and public discussion in the U.K. Since, 2010, the number of grassroots feminist groups have grown exponentially, men and women are increasingly involved in political marches and organizing, national feminist groups are seeing a drastic upswing in membership and involvement, and a plethora of popular press books on feminism and gender issues have prompted media attention to feminist issues.

Which means there is something really interesting afoot here, and an interesting comparative study. . . .

The U.K. therefore offers the unique opportunity to explore the factors, strategies, and implications of a purportedly thriving feminist movement and examine how two manifestations of western feminism, grounded in many of the same politics, ideology, history, and neo-liberal cultural narratives respond to similar contextual factors with drastically different feminist practices. Further, the U.K.’s environment of feminist activism and scholarship allows for exploration of the strategies employed by U.K. feminists in addressing the rhetorical challenges of claiming feminism’s current vitality, utility, and benefit as well as a basis for comparing the efficacy of rhetorical strategies between U.K. and U.S. feminist groups and organizations.

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Transparent Criticism: Theorizing the Rhetorical Act

Been thinking a bit more about my approach to teaching an advanced or graduate course in rhetorical criticism and more specifically, about putting my ideas into an article. I am giving a research talk on campus in April on this topic and put together the following synopsis:

This work positions the rhetorical act as a theoretical concept to be deconstructed and examined from a variety of perspectives for critical purposes. I theorize the rhetorical act by viewing the project of rhetorical criticism as a series of dyads, with the text as the central and consistent component paired variably with author, audience, critic, context, and theory/method. Each dyad yields a perspective and offers insight into the process and practice of the act of criticism, and each perspective, when employed methodologically, produces different results. While these dyads are certainly inter-related, emphasizing a particular dyad enables rhetorical critics to be more overt and transparent about the purpose and function of criticism. Finally, the perspectives these dyads supply allow critics and scholars of rhetoric to consider 1) how the study of rhetoric and the practice of rhetorical criticism have evolved and “progressed” and 2) answer a fundamental question: “what makes ‘good’ criticism?”

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