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So This is the Real World? Sorry, Try Again.

May 20, 2008

Working at FCNL straight out of college is not just a lesson in American government, peace activism, and navigating Congress (or setting up a website, dealing with constituents, and interacting with the press), it’s also about learning how the workplace, and indeed the work world, well, works.

I didn’t realize how profoundly my environment had changed (beyond the superficial: I work in an office now instead of going to class, I live in DC instead of Philadelphia, I spend my days updating the website instead of analyzing how history is constructed) until an evening a couple of weeks ago. It was then, while babysitting for my cousins (I read while they did their homework) that I had an “ah ha!” moment. It resulted from the culmination of a series of articles, circumstances, and reactions that I have experienced in the past few months.

So what was the catalyst? An article running in the April 13th New York magazine about a Post-Hillary wave of feminism. I’m so sick of the whole presidential election already, it was much more likely that I’d have flipped to the movie reviews instead, but I didn’t. It is on that ‘didn’t’ that my post-Hillary feminist awakening hinged. Why didn’t I read the movie reviews instead? Not because the title of the feminism piece was particularly good and not because I’ve ever been particularly interested in feminism. I was responding to a need in myself, a need I hadn’t had at all before or at least in a number of years, a need to engage in a dialogue about my womanhood and the privileges and challenges that identity brings me.

From where did this need spring? As I think I’ve mentioned approximately 15 times on this blog, I spent four years immersed in a dialogue about my womanhood. Me and 1300 other women, with no one to talk to except each other, and every class somehow finding its way to a discussion of gender identity, the “gendering” of language, the inequality of the genders, etc. (Even in my computer science class!) Come last May I was pretty much done. (Come my sophomore year I had pretty much had enough, but alas, class discussion was a large part of most class grades). Why, I wondered, should we talk about gender and sexism? I certainly hadn’t experienced any. It seemed to me that we were trying to emulate our mothers, who had broken down career and educational barriers, fighting nostalgic for battles that had already been won for us.

This, of course, was before the bitter fight over the Democratic party nomination had truly begun, and before voters, the media, pundits, and others felt it was ok to paint Hillary Clinton as a witch, that word that rhymes with witch, a cackler, a weeper, and an overall scary female. Reading the New York magazine article made me hyper-sensitive to these realities, and to my own vulnerabilities as a strong young woman living in a world where such perceptions are considered acceptable.

I’m not a huge fan of Clinton for policy reasons (of course we should talk to Iran! Of course a gas tax holiday won’t work! And I long ago decided that I would put my lot in with economists.), but darn it, the reactions by some people to Clinton’s candidacy really made my blood boil. I had awoken from my blissful 4 year nap in equality land. I was in the real world now.

The shameful behavior that I noticed in the presidential election began popping up in my work life and personal life as well. (Had it been there all the time? Had I been oblivious before?) The most thuggish behavior became obvious to me – how dare men honk at me as I walk home from the metro (and I mean really old, ugly men–although it wouldn’t matter if they were my own age, sporting beards and waving law degrees around) – who did they think they were? I got to practice my most withering stare. Even in this office, which bends over backwards to be fair and equal, I felt a difference in how my male counterparts are treated – what you ask? I’m afraid I will have to disappoint. It’s just a feeling, a feeling of being just out of the old boys club, a feeling that can pervade even most PC of offices, and one that you’ll just have to trust is there. (Maybe I’m like a blind person who has a more acute sense of smell – I’m more sensitive to sexism in the workplace because my exposure to it was non-existent before).

None of the above examples are abhorrent offenses – I haven’t been the victim of horrible sexual harassment (though I would argue that the honking is a form), or out and out discrimination at work. But it is shocking to me that my gender is even an issue. At any level. It just shouldn’t be an issue. I realize that this maybe isn’t a realistic idea, but heck, I don’t know any better than to call for it. After all, I haven’t been judged by anything except my intellect and abilities for four years… why should my gender start being a factor now? I’m a pretty defiant person who can blissfully ignore what is considered reality in favor of what I prefer to be my reality. Not in an unrealistic way, but in a manner somewhat similar to what Clinton is doing as I write this – I refuse to be told what she should do, what the status quo calls for me to do. Clinton is pushing to define her campaign herself – not having it defined for her by the media, by the sexism propagated by society, and, dare I say it…. the gendering of electoral politics.

I hope my fellow young women follow my lead. I’m not going to accept sexism as a fact of life, and I’m not going to let anyone force it upon me. What glass ceiling? Forget it. I’ve decided it doesn’t exist. I’ve grown accustomed to life without it and I plan to continue living that life.

This willful stubbornness won’t come as a surprise to my boyfriend, but it might come as a surprise to some of my fellow Americans who have just accepted the status quo. No longer. The sexist rhetoric that has been highlighted by Clinton’s candidacy is ugly and unacceptable. I don’t care if you think the senator is a good candidate or a bad one – that assessment should have nothing to do with whether she was wrapped in a pink or blue blanket when she was born.

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