Academy for Educational Development, AED, Chick, Contradictions, Damsel-in-Distress, Feminism, Girl, New Voices, New Voices Fellowship Program, Objectification, Objectify, Sexism, Terminology, Woman, Womanism, Women, Youth
I started writing this in response to the contradictions anyone can find in looking at Women’s History Month. Particularly the distance between feminist/womanist rhetoric about girls and women loving themselves for who they are and not how they look. Versus the everyday barrage of images about beauty and achieving it for others’ pleasure, if not for one’s own. Then I realized that this is an issue for women and men, boys and girls, regardless and because of race and socioeconomics. Then I thought that beauty isn’t the only insecurity folks who are blessed or gifted become neurotic about over time.
It just proves that most of us, even the most well-rounded, well-meaning and well-adjusted of us, can’t help but be somewhat sexist. And that there are many of us who represent walking contradictions of feminism and sexism who call others on their -ism “isht” but refuse to recognize it in ourselves.
Sexism is complicated by the fact that it often is more than just the mere objectification of women. After all, men can be eye-candy as well, and using the term women in the universal, at least in the Western world, equates almost exclusively to White women. I haven’t even begun to describe the exclusion of the transgender community from this conversation, as well as how embedded middle class and affluent values are in our understanding feminism (but not womanism) in our Women’s History discourse.
Such was the case for me nine years ago at my job as assistant director of the New Voices Fellowship Program at the Academy for Educational Development (AED). (It’s the organization that finds itself under suspension from government grants because of serious financial malfeasance since the beginning of last December — see my blog post from December 2010). We were prepping binders and other materials for a New Voices selection panel meeting when a staff member engaged me in a conversation about how I moved from dating to marriage. It was a question that required me to discuss my progression to serious relationships.
Though I didn’t want to go into major details about my personal life, I did want to give the young man an answer that made sense. So I started with how I saw women when I was about twenty-two or twenty-three (the younger man’s age at the time, by the way), and worked my way forward. I noted how I often interchanged the terms “woman,” “girl” and “chick” when I was younger, but had pretty much grown out of objectifying women in that manner by the time I’d started dating my future wife a few years later.
A female co-worker walked into the conference room while I was in mid-sentence, and the only thing she heard was “chick.” She demanded a retraction on the spot, which I summarily refused. “I’m not going to change a story by using a different term when I know I used that term ten years ago,” I said. I added that the conversation wasn’t really her business, especially since she walked into the middle of it without
knowing the context of it.
She reported my allegedly sexist misdeed to my immediate supervisor, who didn’t know how to respond, so he did nothing. That, at least to me, was actually more sexist than anything I may have said and regardless how anyone could’ve interpreted it. That my co-worker never followed up to discuss why I happened to be using the term “chick” seemed to me a sign that even she knew she overreacted to something that was never an issue to begin with.
A few months later, the young woman had resigned, leaving to work on her master’s at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. She told me, in the way of sage advice, that I “needed to open up more and be honest” with younger staff. I just looked at her and wished her well. How can anyone be honest about anything if the first thing we say to each other is to change our stories about our experiences because the words we use can be interpreted as sexist (or racist, or fatist or any other -ist or -ism)? It seemed to me that if anyone had any serious problems negotiating feminism and sexism, it was my former staff member, not me.
Not that I didn’t realize I had some issues regarding my feminism/womanism versus my own sexism. Most of them have come from what I haven’t said, what I have and haven’t done regarding White women and women of color over the years. As I’ll discuss in my next blog, I’ve had three decades’ worth of damsel-in-distress neurosis (I have no idea what the DSM-IV code is for that).