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Tonya Harding Goes to Berkeley

In spite of where my family might 'move,' my experience had taught me that the well-guarded boundaries of privilege would always determine my real movements.
Eileen O'Malley Callahan

Issue #14, May 1994

When I was twelve years old, my family moved from the all-Catholic Irish neighborhood in mid-Western Ohio to an affluent Connecticut bedroom community outside of New York City. The new neighborhood was mainly middle class bordering on upper class, composed mostly of Protestants and a handful of Irish Catholic families who lived together inside houses designed as cultural markers of advancing wealth. My father's father had been an Irish immigrant and ditch-digger, and my own father worked to the exclusion of all else to escape this fate.

Inside our new neighborhood, though, there were real problems. My father needed the 'toney' address for the personnel files at his new job, but our family clearly didn't belong. None of us knew the proper behaviors implicit to our new setting, and the daily realities of our personal lives were a bit strange, and strained. Money was tight, and as all the kids grew up, we stayed marked by nuances of behavior, speech, and a lack of access to privileged activities which set us apart from everyone else. From the age of 14 on, I worked as a waitress every day after school and then later, when I was older, I worked those same waitress jobs as well as weekend work serving dinners to the all-white, all-Protestant members of the country clubs — achieving, finally, an entrance into the Sacred Domain of the wealthy through the kind of identity appropriate to a Catholic, working-class girl. At the site of the hot summer poolsides and the late August dinners, sexuality and economics got all mixed up in the constructions of gender, and I saw my identity as 'lower-class slut' neatly slip into place as I served meals for a living. On more than one occasion I served parfaits to those same boys who would then ask me out for a ride after work, thereby creating the occasion to put into play the sexual presumptions of the upper classes in a way that continually confused me. Later, I would learn that the assumed right of sexual license toward the pantry-maid was a time-honored tradition implicit in the categorical imperatives of wealth.

Unlike the guys in the shiny cars, I worked for a living, and I didn't buy anything that I didn't first earn from my tips. In spite of where my family might 'move,' my experience had taught me that the well-guarded boundaries of privilege would always determine my real movements, shadowing and guarding against any attempts I made to cross over. I had seen where those boundaries were made, who made them, and how they kept them in place: because I was the 'invisible' servant, I overheard amazing stories of real estate and business deals, and I listened to the conversations of the corporate elite relax into blunt statements of racism or unapologetic business 'arrangements' which would continue the hold of their power uninterrupted by social movements.

The discriminations of race, gender and class that were practiced in the households and the Country Clubs became a training ground for me, one which allowed me to see clearly the 'dirty little secret' of an embedded structure of wealth which would not tolerate social disturbance from the lower regions of the working class. Unfortunately, my father never quite got what was going on, and never understood the game well enough to win. The geographic move was a gesture to re-state and re-formulate our family as something 'other' than that of working class or 'shanty Irish' — but it never worked, and my parents, like a lot of other immigrants' kids, refused to see that the class markings of economic culture could not be broken by a simple act of will — or a change of address. My education in the functions and interdependency of working and upper class structures made my coming to Berkeley seem like deja-vu — and I could recognize my implied position as marginalized 'outsider' the minute I took my place.

The influence of class background, which intellectuals in the academy might say is 'so hard to tease out, ' is a real, tangible, and disturbing aspect of the Academic life. The Academy theorizes class structures or class-identified social issues, but it does so in a markedly disembodied way, so that when we hear the named categories of 'class' or of 'class values' we must first disassociate our own experience from those terms in order to discuss them. In the triangulation of gender, class and race, the issues of gender and race in American universities assume the priority of emphasis, with the notions of 'class' a poor adjunct to the other two. Inside the classrooms, we are allowed to speak of race and gender only because we have first agreed to an intellectual unspoken which refuses to acknowledge the economic imperatives of an embedded class system.

And yet what has become clear to me while at Berkeley is that the survival of the Academic patriarchal structure — the corporate model — depends on this agreed disassociation of issues of gendered and racial paradigms from the economic structures that have helped form them. What we believe we are talking about in terms of race and gender is something very real in and of itself, and needs our most careful attention, but these subject categories are too often used as a masking device to divert our attention from the insidious patterns of economic determinacy that underlie deeply ingrained performative aspects of class. Repeatedly, with a stubbornness undaunted by economic reality, a majority of people in this culture describe themselves as 'middle class,' thereby safely removing an identification of self from either a Tory identification or a plebeian association — removing, in effect, all identity of class by claiming the 'middle.' Leaving aside for the moment the intriguing problem of where to locate 'top' or 'bottom' if everyone is in the 'middle,' we might ask why this self-reporting of class identity is so consistently skewed. Economic status and its associated implications — that is, issues of CLASS — continue to be the great secret of the culture — the Big Lie, the alcoholic's 'Elephant in the Living Room' — the reality to be denied by claiming that you, or your family, or your most recent family, belong to the bland, neutral, disengaged and economically safe 'middle class.' Like a roomful of alcoholics whose continued self-image as 'social drinkers' carries an implicit agreement of denial, the large grouping of 'middle class' is a 'safe' identity based on an exclusion of actual conditions. Among the many lies we tell ourselves in this country, this one — the one about class and who we are — remains most firmly in place. As a people, we seem remarkably resistant to reality, even as that reality brings more and more people into a lower economic ranking than that of the safe and nonpolitical 'middle.'

As working class women in the Academy, we have a chance to shift this paradigm just little. Race and gender need not be talked about as separate from class issues; our experience in working class families has given us a different perspective, and here, under the striped tent of this particular Country Club gathering, we might use this opportunity to disassemble the smoke screens and mirrors that keeps us from seeing class issues as intertwined with race and gender. But we'd better do this fast — since the very place in which we are speaking is engaged in a serious and determined effort to dislodge that conversation even before it starts. To play along with the academic game, we are to understand ourselves as outside and above personal histories, even as our own experiences as working class women are re-formulated for us into the properly articulated abstract theoretical paradigms. Like the well-known model of the patriarchal nuclear family, the Academy works on multiple levels to reduce a particularized class experience to the soothing universal of a child's dream — something to be considered, but nothing to be valued in the more adult world of the academic profession.

In the introduction to the recent Working Class Women in the Academy, editors Michelle Tokarczyk and Elizabeth Fay wonder out loud about the political imperatives of an Academic profession that determines a 'transformative process of decentering our own, and our student's worlds, in order to provide a different, more compelling center.' The question of what this center contains, and whose purposes it serves, brings us closer to a wider perspective on the economically-determined intellectual culture of Universities like Berkeley — and yet, as graduate students, our implicit submission to the transformative process of the Academy, in order for us to succeed, rightfully assumes that we will not bring too much pressure to bear on the underlying structures of the profession. The subject of what economic class we or our students reflect continues to be much-belittled professional discussion, one whose very existence is made unnecessary by the intellectual parity which we are assumed to occupy.

But it's a lie — it's all a lie, and it always has been. After all, between the Ice Queen Nancy Kerrigan and the Bad Girl Tonya Harding there never was any question as to who really belonged at the Olympics, and who should be kept out — the narrative of the final fall merely made explicit the teleological authority of the always-already social paradigm of propriety and class. Moving into the academic world as a woman and as a woman with a working class background means carrying a compound identity which reflects disjunction, disassociation, and dis-ease with the place we find ourselves. Like the narrative structure of a deeply paranoid dream, we have fallen into an inverse world in which much of what our background has given us in terms of strengths and identities is used to play against our own professional interests and possible achievements. Again, as Fay and Tokarcyzk point out, women from working class backgrounds are more likely to accept heavy teaching loads, or committee work. We are more often found in the pink ghetto of composition studies, or in non-tenured lecture positions. The subtle interplay of emotional need and past conditioning sets us up: we want to be liked, but we're 'a little too loud, a little too open,' or a little too present at faculty meetings, and so we go where others more like us are apt to be found: on the lower rungs of the academic ladder, on the lower rungs of the economic class, on the outer margins of the intellectual center of the Academy where our position remains familiar to ourselves, and comforting to those whose interests are best served by our acceding to our appropriate place. 'Mentoring' is foreign, something to watch with suspicion, something by which management uses workers for their own gain. 'Our nervous edge of 'not belonging' is often the first thing people see,' and the easiest reason to dismiss us from the more prestigious tenure-track or research positions.

I have worked at a clerical job at the University for the last four years in order to pay the bills while I attended graduate school. I also have taken out substantial loans. I work for Physical Plant, the blue collar division of the University, the place where the custodians, the grounds keepers, the electricians and the plumbers go to collect their checks. When I go to class, I carry a triple vision of economic divisions within the city-state of the University, and then I hear the very loud silence which attends those divisions within the classrooms. The lack of attention, support and recognition of working class dynamics makes many working class women wonder why they should be here at all. For many of our Professors and fellow graduate students, being in the Academy means 'assuming that one holds the power to make life choices, [but this assumption] ignores the inescapable, disempowering economics of working class lives' (Fay & Tokarczyk, 14). Sometimes I feel like I'm being told to swim while the lifeguard holds my head under water; sometimes I feel like I'm part of the 'interesting dynamic' in someone else's privileged life story about graduate school at Berkeley.

For every working class woman I know, for every working mother, for every working graduate student with neither family nor fellowship to fall back on, the conversations about class can never be 'theoretical' or 'academic' — they are too pressing, and too real. We fear the future because it looks so much like the past, and we seem unable to persuade others to take this past — our past — seriously. We are turned and shaped in ways not easily understood, even by ourselves, and we are encouraged within the Academy to disassociate ourselves from our feelings, our families, and our past. If we do not do this, we run the risk of speaking out of turn — of not being able to 'fit in' — of not being able to 'pass.' And when we go home, if we have altered our speech patterns, we are reminded of this by brothers and uncles who, with a few drinks, are quick to point out this language as an 'affected' superiority. Their recognition of distance is one that we ought to take to heart — and together with other women and men from the working class, try to analyze what we are doing inside the culture of privilege in order to change the structure to include more, and not less, of our own particular histories.

So, here's a thought — instead of continuing this idea of 'us' and 'them,' I would like to use this occasion of graduate school to begin a conversation with other women that would allow 'the contradiction, multiplicity and contextualization of working class experience' to become part of the agenda of discussion. Rather than cede the center of our lives to someone else's idea of intellectually appropriate thinking, I would like to believe that we can continue to raise questions of class, and of class structure, exactly at those points when we are told most firmly that they do not apply. I cannot support my role as a teacher or an academic scholar as a functionary of the economic or intellectual elite, because I see the operation of that job as primarily one of management, and I am solidly working class. To insist on the validity of a economic background as a real condition equal to gender and race is neither professionally wise nor politically endearing, and yet to open up critical thinking inside the Academy to a multiplicity of perspectives seems a most necessary work, and one for which working class woman are uniquely suited. We need to complicate issues — include all factors, not simplify them — and we need to bring our working class experiences forward in order to change the context in which it is not now discussed. I'm not quite sure how this thinking is done, or how long it will take, or even what it will look like when it is here.

What I do know is this: that the experiences that have shaped me have shaped others, and that bringing attention to that shaping will allow something new to enter in. We are a culture that is not supposed to have a class structure, and yet we do. We have an elite, we have a ruling class, and we have a system of intellectual training inside the Academy that seeks to join us to that intellectual center so that we may serve it, and keep it in place. Feminist discourse has given us a place to start — with an attention to the absent element in the given conversations. As graduate students, we are in a position to widen this discourse of the unacknowledged even further — and to insist on a conversation of economics and class whenever, and however, we can. I cannot imagine any reason why we should not explore a definition of ourselves as scholars or teachers that is as full, and as wide, and as engaged as the experience of our own lives — as women, as working class woman, and as feminists. From such a position, we might then seek to redefine the function of intellectual activity within the University — particularly as that activity touches on the substance of teaching — and the substance of what we teach, and who we teach, and why.

Eileen O'Malley Callahan is a graduate student in the English Department at Berkeley. The above paper was presented as part of a round-table discussion on 'Working Class Women in the Academy, ' a panel session organized by Danusha Goska at the Boundaries in Question Conference for Feminist Activists and Graduate Students held at the University of Berkeley in March, 1994. She can be reached on the Internet at

Copyright © 1994 by Eileen O'Malley Callahan. All rights reserved.