Venus/ dodo

I didn’t even know the Venus of Willendorf inhabited Vienna’s Natural History Museum when deciding to spend our last afternoon in the city there. My son was weary of paintings, so while Madeleine and Chris headed to the Leopold Museum, Cam and I staggered through flocks of taxidermied rare and extinct animals. The museum was mostly non-air-conditioned so we were dizzy and wilting, fascinated and sad. I’m attracted to natural history dioramas but find them gruesome, too–all those creatures killed and stilled in the name of learning. I don’t know why Venus was among the early human life exhibits rather than in an art museum, but I was awed to meet her there.

I’m still jet-lagged and processing, but the whole trip was like that: lucky and wonderful, tiring and tricky. The intense itinerary was arrived at by family negotiation. I don’t love Vienna and argued to go elsewhere, but then decided to go with the flow–museums, beer, and pastries in any European capital are pretty great, after all, for tourists with Euros. Earlier in the trip, seeing Prague through our daughter’s eyes was especially amazing. She’d been studying there for months and planned itineraries that included not only the obvious sites but her favorite vistas and gardens, banh mi and coffee houses. Then, during the middle 3 nights of our 10-day holiday, we visited Chris’ second cousins in Slovakia, driving from Bratislava to the eastern village of Hranovnica, where Chris’ grandparents grew up before moving to Pennsylvania coal-mining country. Everyone was kind and generous, toasting the Americans with shots of brandy before large meals, walking us round to the graveyard and then to more relatives’ houses for more brandy and sweets (sour cherry and cinnamon pancakes–a religious experience). The next day, we hiked to a lake at the foot of the High Tatras–some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen.

There were stresses, too, and not just from having a headcold and being tired and itchy (Chris and I had bad rashes, probably allergic reactions to Virginia creeper, and still have them, despite rounds of cortisone and prescription creams). I have about ten words of Slovak now, and two of them are “black” and “white,” because of a racist joke at dinner about the Roma people and Obama that led to a long, irresolveable conversation in halting language. The US is notorious for a wide variety of human rights violations, but so is Slovakia, where the chiefest involve the Roma population: segregated education, forced sterilizations. Madeleine has been studying the crisis and knows way more than I do about its complexities, but trying to talk from that schoolwork just dropped us into an all-too-familiar education vs. life experience quagmire argument, deepened by tensions among the Slovak relatives themselves. It was hard to talk across our cultural and linguistic gaps, many of them springing from our relative wealth.

Even as we disagreed, I was feeling or imagining some hard-to-articulate connections. I was watching middle-aged and older women, most of whom spoke little or no English, work incredibly hard at making up clean beds in village houses without clothes driers, and feeding us elaborate meals cooked from scratch in small kitchens, although they, like the men, have demanding jobs. I was attending to them so closely that a couple of times, when someone said something in Slovak, I responded correctly in English and got accused of telepathy. There was lots of emotional eye contact, some of which I thought I could translate, although much is surely beyond my understanding: a mixture of pride, watchfulness, resignation to the hard work women do, and sadness at how family disperses further and further by the year, generations less and less intelligible to one another–perhaps a common frame of mind among postmenopausal Venuses.

In other words, I was thinking about race and gender the whole trip, just as I was before I left. I was also struggling with complicated emotions about a colleague’s angry reaction to my last blog post, particularly my sympathy with a commission‘s recommendation that changing the name of Washington and Lee, my university, was not as urgent as other transformations. After I caught up on that Facebook thread, I was kept awake by surges of horror that I’d hurt a friend who is undergoing difficult transitions. I also felt misread by him, suspicious that my defensiveness was an eruption of privilege, hurt at the harsh and public way he’d called me out, and a host of other messy things.

This is not a digression but the bedrock of my response to my friend, and my feelings about art and work and travel: I often wonder if I’ve wasted my life at Washington and Lee. I’ve been told by a wide range of people, in ways that are always demoralizing but occasionally frightening, that I’m not allowed to refer to my experiences at this university as harassment and discrimination, but I know how seriously I’ve been damaged by 24 years of employment here. I’ve done good work, too, and used my income to support two brilliant kids who are going to make the world a better place, when some of us old people finally go extinct. Complicity/ struggle, privilege/ damage–I’m riding the slash-mark, uncertain of the value of my work and the costs of my choices, undecided about everything except that talking, and writing, are hard but worth attempting.

Well, given how my private apology to that upset friend was received, and that it was followed up by a thinly-veiled and soul-crushing Facebook post criticizing white women who center conversations about race around themselves, I guess some of those attempts have failed and one friendship is toast. But to anyone who reads this blog who thinks I’ve been a dodo but perhaps one with redeeming qualities, please know I’m sorry for all obtuseness and bad translation. Also know that I’m listening, always. And writing hard, because I decided long ago that I’d rather fail by speaking than fail by silence.

As I reread that last blog, for instance, what seems most blameworthy is not what I wrote but the unspoken understory, how other oppressions surround but do not surface in the report and my response to it. The Commission focuses on cruel exploitations of black Americans and, to a lesser extent, the undervaluing of women, and begins to reckon the reparations due. Almost no one is talking about the Monacans and other area tribes whose lands and livelihoods were stolen, who were also segregated and sterilized and otherwise profoundly harmed, to my institution’s benefit. What reparations are due in that quarter? Or how about the Latinx population doing so much of the domestic and construction work in Lexington, on and off campus, often ignored but also frequently threatened by omnipresent right-wingers who think all recent immigrants should be deported?

Again, not a digression: there’s a theory that the Venus of Willendorf was carved from limestone and tinted with ocher by a woman artist, based on how the proportions and facelessness suggest a woman looking down at her own body. My delight at the notion doubtless springs from my identity as an obscure woman artist, increasingly pudgy and trying not to be depressed about it, looking down at my flawed self and wondering how to make something good from my life. That ringing question implies an ongoing journey rather than a destination, I suppose. Best take a few deep breaths and get some sleep before the next leg.

 

 

Gender shrapnel, from one foxhole

“The first time you’re hit by it, you have no idea what it is, what it came from, or why…If you ever try to confront the events, you feel half crazy and afraid…People start to tell you to calm down, to pick your battles more carefully, and to be grateful for what you’ve got…As you obey and shut yourself up, you start to notice more of what is happening to other women around you. The shrapnel itself and the silence surrounding it start to seem more and more absurd. You start coming up with nine-block cartoons and lyrics for a sexual harassment musical. You wonder who’s crazier now…” (4)

I just finished a new book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplaceby colleague and friend Ellen Mayock. It’s useful and even funny, as in the passage above, but painful to read, too. It’s hard to face being valued less in a demanding workplace because of your gender. I’m more comfortable acknowledging good luck than discrimination. My identity has brought me many advantages, but what what I’m thinking about today is how I’ve hated being a girl for as long as I can remember.

I hate the cultural implications–that my appearance matters so much to strangers and to me. But the ways that culture and biology intersect are no fun, either. I’ve spent so much time feeling physically afraid. Weak. And menstruation, pregnancy, lactation–oh my god. Having two healthy children prospering in the world is part of my luck, and it’s healthy for an intellectual to be reminded she is, in fact, a mammal, connected to natural cycles in the very tissues of her body. Yet I would gladly have shared the costs of gestation with my husband and I can’t wait for menopause. If you identify as a woman and love it, that’s great, truly. But womanhood as I’ve known it is, at best, a royal pain.

Is this a bad attitude to admit? Does it make me a lousy role model, or render hypocritical the solidarity I feel with women writers? I don’t know. Certainly it’s a kind of frustration no one should have to feel. But it’s the truth, for this one person.

I’m not the only professor who throws herself into work to get away from the limits of embodiment just to find work directing her back to that very body. Gender Shrapnel offers smart analysis of harmful ways an academic workplace can keep reminding a striver, “nope, you’re a woman, before all.” The chapters on “silence” and “tempered radicalism” are particularly powerful, as well as the idea that women who speak up become “radioactive,” tainting anyone they try to help. And Mayock is great on insidious factors that can reinforce gender power structures: when and where a meeting is set, for instance. A few other passages I dogeared:

131: “Administrators who appreciate strength, even divergent, possibly competing types of strength, in their employees also exhibit real strength, for they are modeling the type of intellectual debate that their organizational mission statements are promoting.”

171: On making place for critique of an organization, within the organization: “Ponder the possibility that all workers have the good of the organization in mind.” (I do, even in my angriest moments.)

175: “Leaders who can express ‘humility and modesty’ are de factomen. Why is this? Because it is a given that they are excellent and, therefore, they are provided the luxury of presenting themselves as humble or modest. Women leaders and/or aspiring women leaders do not have this luxury, and I believe that the same is true for people of Color.”

197: “The leading study on maternal wall stereotypes found that, compared to women with identical resumes but with no children, mothers were: 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position, held to higher performance and punctuality standards.”

I dread taking this female body back to full-time teaching as my sabbatical ends. I love teaching, and other parts of my job can be great, too–helping students and colleagues thrive, advancing the arts on campus. But a boss who bullied and undermined me for years is still parked in my building, proof to me, forever, that my employers don’t consider my professional well-being important. I don’t feel safe, even cushioned as I am by so many privileges–tenure for starters. Whiteness. None of us is ever safe, I know, but I wish we could show more respect for each others’ fears and impose consequences on aggressors.

On shrapnel and poetry: I know of two recent cases in which talented women poets were pushed out of academic leadership positions for reasons that had a lot to do with gender. And women writers suffer flak from more distant battles, too–VIDA has done a lot to highlight how much gender shrapnel is flying around in the publishing world. Small data points have big consequences.

But harassment, mobbing, and other destructive behaviors rooted in gender bias affect literature more deeply than that. Sometimes people are so demoralized they can’t or don’t write in the first place. Sometimes, more positively, suffering redirects writing into new channels.

Writing remains a primary way for me to probe inequity and imagine a better order. Here, in disembodied language, I feel as strong, as pretty as any of you. So among Mayock’s many lists in this book, I particularly relished “Stages of Confronting Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation in the Academic Workplace” (50-2). The whole thing is priceless, beginning with #1, “What the hell was that?” But I note how much time I spend at #15, “Anger, frustration at the injustice,” in which the harassed person, coming to voice in ways others may find inappropriate, “consider[s] writing cartoons or musicals.” For me, speculative feminist novellas in terza rima, and I ain’t done yet.

Bless activists who make change in the courts, the streets, the boardrooms. For me, it’s mostly the classroom, the student conference, the printed page, the blog. Also, the voting booth. Small spaces. The consequences remain to be seen.

Lastly, because performing gender is a drag, here’s some joy: