Toto, We’re Not in Grad School Anymore

Let’s take a break from the GOP’s war on women, shall we? I’ll return to it, but for now I’d like to talk about myself. Let’s be honest; everyone loves the internet because it readily feeds their narcissism and/or voyeuristic desires, and I’m not above that. Also, I think  conversations about the everyday choices and struggles of being a feminist in the world are interesting and important.

I spent the past two years in a graduate program for Women’s & Gender Studies. In my experience, graduate school was deeply flawed but also a magical place; sometimes it  felt like bookish, feminist summer camp.

So you can imagine my surprise when I recently received an email at work the other day addressed “Dear Sirs.”  The logic behind such causal misogyny is startling. Perhaps the idea of a woman responding to his email was so absurd that he couldn’t imagine it. Or perhaps he was trying to prohibit a woman from reading/responding to his email with such an opening. More likely, he believed what my 6th grade English teacher taught me:

When you are unsure of the gender of your audience or you are writing about an unspecified 3rd person, just use “he” because the “she” is implied.

I spent the next seven or eight years writing like that, making my own experience the implied and unspoken “she” because I didn’t want to make my writing sound awkward. It’s heartbreaking to think of generations of women avoiding female pronouns, and in doing so being unable to see themselves reflected in their own writing, because they were told that to do so would sound awkward. I still remember how liberating it was when I first read “she or he.” Not only were women and men included, but the “she” came first. It still feels like a mini-revolution every time I read it.

Part of the reason why that little moment still feels so revolutionary is specifically because it is just a little awkward. It is not what we expect, so it reads as slightly off balance in a way that might make you pause and consider what we were expecting and why that might be problematic. We only have to reconsider our assumptions when we’re made uncomfortable, and so there is very real power in that moment.  It’s that moment, for example, when someone tells a racist or sexist or generally obnoxious joke and you don’t laugh. And as women, we’ve all been so conditions to be polite and considerate, we avoid awkwardness like the plague, even when doing so requires making ourselves smaller and smaller.

Awkwardness, then can be a very powerful way to make ourselves bigger. Tea & Strumpets homework assignment:  Let’s all try to make someone feel a little awkward today, to balance all the “dear sirs” in the world.

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6 thoughts on “Toto, We’re Not in Grad School Anymore

  1. Rebekah says:

    I am SO happy you have started blogging, and I have really enjoyed all three recent entries. there is a prodding here that seems very gentle and intelligent in a quiet, non-flashy way–which I suppose is a counter to the idea in this post we’re supposed to make ourselves smaller as women… but I still appreciate it here. tea & strumpets is the solution to the problem of internet feminism! please keep posting! <3

    • Tea & Strumpets says:

      Thank you, Rebekah! You are my very first comment; I feel like I should frame this like Rosanne did with her diner’s first dollar bill.

      I think that being quiet is not always the same thing as being small/shrinking. Maybe that’s actually the beauty of awkwardness, the way it can work in the quiet spaces.

  2. Looks & Books says:

    You will be happy to know that the style sheet for the Sesame Street Workshop dictates that the pronouns “he” and “she” are to be alternated throughout communications, so that each one is used equally. Those muppets know what they’re doing.

  3. Christina Lepre says:

    Kyley! Catching up on your blog. The whole defaulting to a male pronoun thing is one of my biggest pet peeves as an editor and as a reader. When I was in high school, I remember having to write some pointless essay about a field I was interested in, and I chose psychology. I used the pronoun “she” when referring generally to the (imagined) psychologist, and my (female) teacher actually took points off for gendering the profession! I argued with her until she relented and rewarded me my rightful A, but I was seriously pissed.

    Though it’s still too rare, it does always make me smile when I see any of the authors I work with use “she” when referring generally to statisticians, researchers, and scientists.

  4. Katie says:

    I’m really enjoying this blog, Kyley! There are sadly not many feminist blogs on the Internet that I like, so thank you for creating one!

    I do have one question, though- what do you consider to be misogyny? I always considered that a stronger word than “sexism.” I think sexism is more about discrimination or prejudice while misogyny is about actual hatred. So I’d consider the “Dear Sirs” email sexist, but not misogynistic. I found a blog post somewhere that talks about those two words. http://tdg.typepad.com/heidi_lis_potpourri/2008/12/the-difference-between-sexism-and-misogyny-and-why-having-to-explain-it-in-part-illustrates-that-dif.html

    HOWEVER, I could be completely wrong- I’ve never taken gender studies and you know more about those kinds of topics than me. What do you think?

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