Wednesday, April 19, 2006

How Do I Look?

Like Eric Muller, I found this post by feminist law professor Michelle Anderson on her upcoming marraige to be quite an interesting read. The opener:
I got hitched Saturday. Beforehand, I had been sheepish about telling my students I was getting married. It seemed inconsistent with my professional persona as an independent, fearless, freedom-fighting law professor. So I waited until the last possible minute to mention it. "OK, I have a quick announcement," I began a recent Criminal Law class. "I do apologize, but I have to cancel next Thursday's class because... um... well... my partner and I have decided to get married." My students then began to clap. Gads, this was worse than I'd imagined it would be. The applause grew.

Professor Muller seizes on this concept of a "professional persona." Specifically, that he doesn't conceptualize himself as having one. So, he wonders, is this a gender issue, or him being oblivious, or Professor Anderson being weird, or what?

I think there are almost definitely gender elements to this split, though as in all such things it's difficult to tell in an individual case what is personal choice and what is societal pressure. I know that I have a good idea of how I want to perceived as a professor when I enter academia (brilliant, fair, and a mix of scary, intimidating, and respected); a perception that (I hope!) doesn't really represent how I act in private life. But for women, such dreams aren't just idle fantasy, they're professional survival skills. To put it very simply, while everyone is bound by societal convention to some degree, women have a far smaller box to play in then do men. Thus, it is more likely that women will either a) find that their natural personality falls outside "acceptable" parameters, or b) be more cognizant of the borders (and thus how they appear) because they are constantly bumping up against them.

This is all just speculation on my part of course. In any event, best wishes to the new couple!

1 comment:

Eva said...

I think what you said basically hits it on the nose: women who are struggling to get along in a professional world dominated by men are under a tremendous amount of pressure to be as un-female as possible. This is especially important in law school. It's a really thin line to walk: there are some 'feminine' characteristics that law professors aren't supposed to exhibit (emotion, preoccupation with physical appearance, Elle Woods ditziness), but there are other 'feminine' characteristics that they are supposed to exhibit to keep the established male elite happy (deference to men, cuteness, heterosexuality). A woman in a male-dominated profession can be typecast as an airheaded Barbie or as a castrating dyke, neither of which will get her very far in her world or her job. So, yes, women are often forced to create a professional persona, not because their actual selves are totally incompetent as law professors or CEOs or anything else, but rather because it's what's expected.

I'm not totally sure whether I think that's a good survival skill since it enables women to 'infiltrate' men's professions, or whether it's basically selling out. If I ever wind up in academia, I guess I'll try to figure it out.

Sorry if it's a little weird for me to remind you of your previous life in legislative roleplay, but that's my analogy. Sam Daly and I thought about it once, and we concluded that there are, more or less, three types of women in Student Congress. The first is the unsuccessful type; she's generally not very intelligent - often feminine, but sometimes a girl trying unsuccessfully to be one of the boys. The second is the successful type who essentially plays by the men's rules; I count myself and perhaps Alex Wall in this category (in other words, the lesbian caucus as it exists so far). The last is more nebulous for me; it's the girl who has almost an explicitly feminine persona and debates as such - Julia Kamenetzky, for example, and other people like Jen Dever whom you may or may not know. Maybe I categorize it that way because I'm more accustomed than the average person to thinking in terms of the butch/femme dynamic - but it's a thought.