August 7th, 2006

ozarque figure

Sexism in and out of the workplace; part two...

You have been posting such excellent comments -- thank you, one and all. I've pulled a number of quotes from them to be discussed in full posts, and will be getting to them as quickly as I can. I just want to say one thing in advance as a general response: I'm sorry to read the ones saying it's not true that the younger generations today -- roughly those 25 or younger -- are essentially free of sexism. I had been hoping that that was true. This morning, however, I want to tell you about the worst and most disgusting thing I ever did to support and perpetuate sexism.

When I was in my late twenties, with four children, it became clear to me that if my family was ever going to have any kind of economic security some kind of substantial change had to be made, and made quickly; either my husband had to go back to school and learn some profession that offered decent money and solid benefits, or I did. Because going to school was one of the things I was best at, the family decision was that I should be the one.

I did it very systematically, and very carefully. I wanted a Ph.D. (for reasons I'll explain later), but I knew that getting one with four kids at home and no household help or subsidized childcare was a long shot, so I hedged my bets. First I had to do the senior undergraduate year I'd left hanging when I left the University of Chicago; I did that. And then, in case I didn't make it to the Ph.D., I went after a high school California Lifetime Teaching Certificate -- which meant taking graduate courses in "education" and doing a stint of practice teaching under the direction of a "master teacher." This turned out to be in every way as horrible as I'd been warned it would be; I hope that "education" classes today have become more educational than the ones I had to slog through in the 60s.

I didn't do well in that program. I did consistently get As on the course work and on the tests. It would have been hard for me not to get As. A typical homework assignment was to go to the library and copy (in longhand) the table of contents from three education journals. And not only were all the tests multiple choice, they were the kind of multiple choice where three of the four choices are so obviously wrong that you'd have had to be demented to pick any one of them. But I was young, and socially awkward, and always tired because of the housework and caretaking I had to do at home -- not to mention the fact that I was teaching guitar classes on the side to make ends meet -- and I did a rotten job of hiding the way I felt about the program. I suppose I must have had contempt written all over me, and the man who was going to be my "master teacher" hated me. Without his signature approving me for practice teaching, I couldn't get my teaching certificate, and he went out of his way to be sure I knew that he was not about to provide that signature, no matter what kind of grades I earned in the courses. I was, he told me, "unsuitable" for the teaching profession, and it was his ethical obligation to keep me from being turned loose in it.

I had a choice at this point. I had already invested heavily in what I was doing. I'd uprooted my kids and moved them away from the schools and friends they knew, and this only a short time after the father they adored had suddenly died and they'd acquired a stepfather who was a total stranger to them. I'd put them in childcare that was worse than inadequate, with a woman they detested, and had told them it just had to be lived through. I'd cut the time I had to spend with them to the bare bone. I'd slogged through a whole array of stupid and boring and (to my mind) useless courses, as well as a few good non-"education" ones that were difficult enough to cut even more deeply into my time. None of this had been easy on my husband, either; he'd left a good job he liked for an inferior one he was unhappy in, and I'm sure I was no fun to live with. And after all that, it looked as though I was going to have to go back to working at yet another dead-end secretarial job. I could do that, with my ethics and my dignity and my self-respect and my principles intact; or I could stoop.

So I stooped. Way low. Typical episode: I needed to make twenty-five copies of a document on the mimeograph machine for a class project. I started making the copies, and made three. And then I stopped, and I went to the office of my future master teacher and threw a spectacular Scarlet O'Hara Fit. I burst into tears. I wrung my hands. I went through a wild wailing warble about how ashamed I was of being so stupid and so clumsy, and how if he didn't help me I just didn't know what I was going to do, and how it was hopeless and I was ready to give up and I was desperate for his help, and would he pleasepleaseplease come show me how to use the mimeograph machine because otherwise I was doomed.... You see how that would go.

I spent the next few weeks demonstrating to this man that without his gracious and expert instruction and tender loving hovering over me there was no way I would ever be able to run a mimeograph or a slide projector or any other machine that was essential to "education," that there was no way I'd ever be able to fill out a gradebook correctly, that there was no way I would ever feel confident enough to face a class of students -- in sum, that there was probably no way I'd ever learn to find the teacher's restroom by myself unless he led me there himself, in person. And even then, he'd have to do that several times before he could be sure that he could trust me to do it on my own, because I learned only slowly and ploddingly and every last detail of every task had to be explained to me at length in words of one syllable.

Result: He signed the document authorizing me to do my student teaching, under his supervision, and I got my lifetime teaching certificate; my lifetime not yet having ended, I have it still.
ozarque figure

Sexism in and out of the workplace; part two; afternote....

The comments you've made about this morning's post have been almost entirely supportive; I thank you for them, and I believe I understand what you're saying. The problem is -- as I perceive it -- that as long as women who find themselves in a situation like the one I described go on doing the kind of thing I did, situations like that will continue. I was in fact contributing to the sexist system that was putting me in that situation; I didn't have the courage to do what I knew was right and then deal with the consequences, whatever they might have been.

My weakest point is my children (and of course now my grandchildren). I think of the children who walked through that howling mob in Little Rock to desegregate its schools, and kept on going back day after day. And I know absolutely that I could have done that myself if it had been something an adult could do, but I would never have been able to muster the courage to send my children to do it. Somebody's children had to do it, and there's no reason on this earth why mine should have been exempt; but I never could have found the courage or the strength to send them.