Thursday, July 21, 2005

Why Does a Reformed Republican Chick Need Prozac?

I had a lovely lunch today with a very bright woman who runs a huge non-profit in town. Neither of us knew each other very well, so before going "straight to business" I started asking her about when she moved here, where she worked before etc. I am glad I started our conversation this way, because I found out we had quite a lot in common and similar observations about how professional women interact with each other.

First of all, I discovered that both of us were raised in Republican homes and both identified quite a bit with some of the tenets of this political view for much of our high school/college years (in my case, I still identify with some of the values that my parents called "republican"). What I have come to notice--and this conversation helped clarify this for me--is that growing up around smart Republican parents, like mine are, really gives me a different approach to understanding and supporting the political issues that I embrace now.

I simply did not grow up in a house where dinner conversation centered around the injustices of capitalism, or that the rhetoric of "hard work" and "personal responsibility" are ruses for covering up the sins of the rich and powerful. My parents were not pro-JFK. My mother thought Kennedy was downright terrifying. My parents instilled in me a profound belief that I could achieve whatever I set out to do. My father loved talking to me and educating me about politics. He never imposed his views on me, but challenged me to think about why I took the positions I did.

My mother worked tirelessly to help underprivileged women cope with children who were born with birth defects, and later went to work for the a large state department that funded programs for maternal and child health. My mother did the work of social justice, while criticizing the mismanagement of bloated government budgets. My mother and father both genuinely liked and treated with respect people from all walks of life. While I won't go so far as to say that my father is totally untouched by racism (since his relatives are all from the South), in general he did a good job teaching me to value all people.

I also appreciated the way my father taught me to go after my dreams. He repeated to me over and over again, when I was a kid, "people will always tell you that you cannot do something because THEY couldn't do it." His other favorite saying, which I think he took from Lee Iacocca was "eagles don't flock, you have to catch them, one by one."

I cherish that upbringing because, in part, I think it helps me to really understand those who choose to be Republican. [I am still "challenged" by the Religious Right Republicans. I was raised Lutheran, and my father felt strongly that we were not to proselytize or impose our religious beliefs; religion is a private matter for him. Furthermore, neither or my parents would have a problem with Gay Marriage nor do they dedicate themselves to overturning Roe v. Wade.]

My lunch guest and I turned to a conversation about when we both became feminists and our politics shifted. We had similar realizations that transformed our views of the world. In general, we both had the epiphany that often occurs to women who are working hard in a "male dominated" field and feeling inadequate. Because I didn't grow up with a feminist consciousness (though I did grow up believing women were as capable as men), I tended to think that when I confronted a professional barrier that it was my own incompetence, rather than sexism. After enough events, and my accidental exposure to Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, I began to totally rethink how I viewed the world.

I would like to believe that we are beyond sexism: that women do,in fact, get judged and treated exactly the way men do. But, it doesn't happen. One of the ways this really hits me is how women are punished for "emoting" in the workplace.

I have a friend who is a psychiatrist. While she was in her residency, she had a real asshole as her chief resident. She is a very, very bright woman (with a Ph.D in Philosophy, specializing in Philosophy of Science and a MD). She is also likely to speak up when she finds reasoning or practices to be flawed. Because she had been dressed down multiple times when she expressed her reservations or criticisms, she held her tongue, yet her face showed what she was feeling. Her boss starting criticizing her display of "affect," which he said was not professional for a training psychiatrist. So, to deal with this situation, she did something quite interesting: she got botox so that she literally couldn't show what she was feeling.

I told my lunch friend this story while we were talking about how most women that we know are on some type of antidepressant, anti-anxiety medication, and/or sleep aide. The pressures and bullshit that professional women face do make us frickin nuts at times. We speak out in a meeting, where a great deal of men are present, and our comments float in the air, unheard. Then, five minutes later, a man says the same thing, and everyone nods their head and congratulates him for a great idea. Or, you have the situation my brother describes. He is a Mortgage Banker and announced to me one day that he wasn't going to hire anymore women because the idiot male mortgage brokers wouldn't deal or even make eye contact with his female sales team. He had hired these women, btw, because they were "loan processors" who already knew how to do the job he was hiring them for, but no one told them (or nurtured them for that matter) they would make 5 X more money if they switched to his department.

Our last lunch topic was: how our fellow female work colleagues, especially if they are older, can be our worst critics. The way that female co-workers treat each other is brutal and its quite demoralizing. The women who advised my dissertation were so critical of my work that I left graduate school believing that (a) I would never get a job and (b) that I would never get published. To compensate, I started working evern harder than I already was, determined to prove them wrong. This determination, I credit, with my early Republican upbringing. Now, I don't mean to suggest that Democrats don't work hard (its simply not true). I do think, however, that because I had that "you can do anything" stuff drummed in my head, I didn't throw up my hands and accept the reality of the situation: that I was hitting my head against sexism.

What I discovered, when I finally got a job, was that I was quite well respected. And, when I sent out my first articles, they were accepted! I was wholly unprepared, in a way, for my success because my female "mentors" had lead me to believe by my that my work wouldn't cut it. [Btw, I am leaving out of the story the bullshit stuff said to my by men, but that's for another day.]

Of course, I now realize--thanks to developing a feminist consciousness--that these female "mentors" were brutal because that was what their mostly male colleagues/mentors told them as they were coming up. They learned to be superior, just so that they could sit at the table with the boys. They also had to unlearn their the feminine qualities that they had been encouraged to develop--being self-sacrificing, empathetic to others, or being accomodating--because those traits were likely to work against their tenure. Trying to help out your colleague by taking on a committee assignment that he simply cannot tackle now because of a book project is likely to keep you from writing your own book. Or, offering to take the night lab, because your colleague has kids, won't get repaid somehow. Being nice, being feminine, will get you behind your male colleagues. If my mentors wanted to make it, they had to work their tails off, publish, publish, and publish. More importantly, they were not going to be taken seriously if they wrote about feminism (and yet, when they made it, they did change that).

We are far from a world that truly values or cultivates women's talent or the different ways that they might do things. And, on some level women have internalized a message that they aren't as good as the boys, which they have to confront each day when they go up against them. This internalized sexism also turns women against women in the workplace. To get power, many women have learned that its better not to rock the boat with the boys and to say things that they like. Plus, many professional women have to do that dance where they are both "pleasing as women," i.e. not likely to criticize how the boys do things or act too uptight about sexist jokes, and phenomenal at their job (perhaps exceptionally better than many of the boys). Its easy to be quite bitter in that circumstance (you see, being a mediocre female lawyer, for example, is really not allowed, unless you want to reinforce the stereotype that women just aren't as analytically sharp as men).

If one woman breaks in with the boys, which is always only slightly, she will try to maintain her position and hence not help out or align herself with her female colleagues, especially if her female colleagues want to point out the bullshit the boys are doing.

With all this crap going on, its no surprise that women are lining up to get their Prozac. And, frankly, it allows them to avoid the dealing with the REAL bullshit. Its much easier to convince yourself that you have a treatable disease, which explains why you are so frickin drained and demoralized all the time, rather tackle the larger inequities in the workplace.

So, what have I become--a reformed Republican turned feminst Philosopher--well, duh: Mad Melancholic Feminista!