Monday, December 15, 2008


I have been musing on a very touchy subject and I predict that my comments will be either misunderstood or cause offense. But, here goes. I have been thinking about how many of the older academic women I know can be matronizing. In my most charitable moments, I see the overbearing advice of my fore mothers oriented at protecting me from outright and institutional sexism. I am talking about the advice, wherein I am warned about the "patriarchal" style of certain male colleagues--ones I barely know--or administrators. I am exhorted to stand up for myself, to protect myself with mounds of documentation of my excellence, and, this one always gets me, told to constantly set up boundaries with my students (or else I will be seen as their mother).

What usually irks me about this matronizing stuff is how negative it is. (Here is where I am going to be misunderstood). But, it is true. The vibe I get from matronizers is negativity and anger. Men are either sexist pigs or lecherous. In this worldview, no woman is capable of being warm, nurturing toward students and colleagues, cheerful and congenial WITHOUT it being read as unprofessional or unserious. Moreover, in this worldview, sexist pricks are out with their fangs at every turn. No man is to ever be trusted completely. Even the good guys are deficient, insofar as they are insensitive to the sexism out there.

I find this worldview oppressive. I don't see the world this way. I don't experience the world this way. And yet, I am a overt, proud, and outspoken feminist. I am passionate about the ways gender stereotypes harm women. I am concerned about female poverty rates. I LIVE the difficult balance of work and family. I have dedicated my life to fighting all of these.

But, I just cannot live in a world where I see everyone--especially men--as always out to get me. I cannot live in a world where I am to suppress my natural affection for people, in particular students, in order to be "taken seriously." I am unwilling to be grumpy. I don't see where it gets me.

So, what I am left wondering about matronizers, is: does their behavior reflect a trauma, an injury, a pattern of injuries that have made them profoundly self-protective and cynical? Am I one of those happily delusional types (some research suggests that cheerful people are more delusional about reality than depressed types)?

Or, is feminism the vehicle by which they express a kind of temperamental grumpiness?

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