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Professional Women

I am a fourth-generation professional woman. Women on my mother's side of the family were going to college in the nineteenth century.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #26, May 1996

"History is what hurts."
— Fredric Jameson, in The Political Unconscious

I am a fourth-generation professional woman. Women on my mother's side of the family were going to college in the nineteenth century. Mother Rea, my great-grandmother, was one of the first female pharmacists in Texas. My grandmother Lucie (Mother Rea's daughter-in-law) was a high school English teacher, as is my mother Cynthia (Lucie's daughter). I am also an English teacher, about to become a professor.

Putting it like that, listing all those professional women whose genes have come down to me, makes my family history sound triumphantly feminist — these women were workers, not housewives; they were college educated; and therefore they must have valued themselves as women, and fought back against masculine rule. They must have known something about gender equality, and they must have practiced it in their lives. How else do you explain such a defiant list of exceptions to the traditional "women shouldn't work" rule?

Yet I know almost nothing about the women in my family, save that they were mothers and wives. What little I do know about their work lives is vague and fragmented. I've pieced together their stories after nearly three decades of listening to my mother Cynthia as hard as I could, waiting for those random moments when she might reveal something about her past and the past of the family I share with her. Cynthia does not like to talk about the past. She has never completely explained why; but she has said it is painful for her to remember.

The family story goes like this: Mother Rea was taking her pharmacy exam in a room filled with men. They were smoking cigars, as was the fashion in those days. Bravely, steadily, she asserted herself by asking permission to take the exam in a separate room to get away from that awful cigar smoke. It was an unheard-of request, but they granted it to her. That was her way of reminding them that she was a woman, she was different, and she wouldn't take any shit for it.

But I'm left asking, "What kind of a victory was that, Mother Rea?" She took a smoke-free exam -that's all. And yet, she did pass, and she did run her own pharmacy, where she mixed her own medicines. My grandmother Lucie still has some of those old-fashioned medicines in weird jars in her house -I remember looking at them as a girl, reading their Latin labels, wondering what "nauseam" meant. Lucie never explained whom they had belonged to, nor why Cynthia also had a jar with Latin writing and a glass stopper. The stories came later, when I was in college, when Cynthia told some of them to me because her mother had stopped remembering.

Mother Rea also made what Cynthia calls "junk jewelry." I have some of that too, and like the jars, they remained for a long time objects without a source — just the cool vintage jewelry my mother had lying around, left over from some unknown time before the 1970s. I have a silver poodle pin, a pearl turtle pin, and something else -an odd, square pin that I love with silver embellishments and fake rubies and emeralds. Now that I know Mother Rea made them to sell in her pharmacy, I wear them and think of her. I've never seen a picture of her, but I imagine her in sepia tones nonetheless. She wears dresses and "junk jewelry."

What do I know of Mother Rea besides these few stories? What was her first name, besides Mother? Who were her friends? Did she ever understand what it might mean for her, a woman, to join an all-male world of pharmacists in a small East Texas town? And finally: what exactly would it mean for her -or any woman -to "understand" her position in a male-dominated environment? That last question is probably the oldest one in feminist tradition. I've found myself returning to it recently as I try to piece together where I stand in the professional academic world. Even as I finish my doctorate at UC Berkeley, a female professional from a family of female professionals, I still ask myself everyday, "Am I pretty enough? Am I skinny enough? Can I act strong enough to talk to this room full of my fellow professionals? Will I be subordinated if I do work with a man?"

My questions, although they run the gambit from pathetic to sophisticated, are all ways of wondering how I should represent myself and behave in a professional environment as a woman. It is not as if I lack for role models of female power. There are powerful women all around me in the workplace, and there are powerful women in the movies and on TV. My dissertation committee is comprised of two women and one man; the dean of my department's division is a woman; two of my favorite shows on television, Star Trek: Voyager and Xena: Warrior Princess, are about tough, heroic women who are leaders in their societies. What I mean to point out is that my everyday life is not without the kinds of women whom I admire and try to emulate.

And yet I am still frequently disturbed by the openness with which many people now talk about problems with gender in the work environment as if they were aspects of the natural world. You know, just learn how to jump that stream of sexism over there, dodge the condescending male tree stump over there, and you'll do just fine. Senior women professors talk openly about the fact that a woman should never reveal her relationship status in a job interview — which means, of course, that we should take it for granted that people may feel free to ask whether we have a partner or not. And my graduate student peers are also quite frank with each other about just how much one may have to flirt with a professor in order to get his or her approval. While the academic workplace is certainly not the same as workplaces all over, enough has been written on, and said about, the difficulties with gender roles at work to prove that there are significant similarities. And to the extent that a place like UC-Berkeley is so liberal in its corporate culture that it often gets dubbed "PC Berkeley," problems my female peers and I experience there must get duplicated elsewhere to a shocking degree.

My problems are not all coming from external sources, however, and they are not all coming from men either. I did not learn to fear being ugly, for instance, from my professional life, nor did I learn it from men. To be honest, I learned to think obsessively about my weight and looks from my mother and from other women. Nearly all the men I have ever known — even ones whom I would hardly consider feminists — have encouraged me to stop worrying about how I look. But I am surrounded by women who talk about their weight, their skin, their hair, their nails. We go to the gym, buy new shampoo, wonder if losing ten pounds would help us have a better life. Every time I eat fatty food — every single time — I hear a faint warning bell in my head. I don't mean to exaggerate, for obviously I can ignore the bell and continue with my glorious meal. But that bell is there, and it drives me to exercise harder the next day, or to eat only salad and "lite" turkey.

Perhaps the worst part is my own complicity in this chain of events. Although I know that worrying about my body is a result of plain and simple sexism, I continue to do it. And I continue to engage in spirited talks with my friends about how we might better maintain our bodies, or what kind of shoes to wear, or how some woman we dislike is actually quite chubby around the calves. The fact is that I love clothes, and I love dressing up. This isn't to say that I love dressing up in traditionally "feminine" clothing — indeed, my favorite clothes are suits and ties for formal occasions, and vintage men's slacks and t-shirts for less formal ones. When I do wear a dress, I wear it with large, thick-soled work boots and a black latex jacket. Regardless of how "ironic" my clothing may be, I know for certain that I learned to enjoy dress up because it was one of the few things my mother felt strongly that I should do with her because I am female. Our trips to the mall for clothing were the extent of our female bonding, and it was hardly empowering. The mirrors all around us in the dressing room were a constant reminder that I was never skinny enough, never tiny enough to wear "petite" or "size 3." I still stare at myself in mirrors, wondering why the sum of knowledge that Cynthia passed on to me seems to add up to this sentence: Diet until you can wear size 3, then you will be beautiful in your clothes because they will fit you "right."

Having this knowledge — that I have learned from other women to mistrust my female body — is what hurts. The one thing that marks me as undeniably female, my physical being, is also precisely what I consider unsettling about myself. What got passed down to me from the women who created me? Jewelry, trips to the hair salon, injunctions to wear pretty clothing and smile in front of an audience — that's what I've inherited. Lucie told Cynthia how to look pretty as a girl, and that's what Cynthia told me. Instead of life histories, I have female body performance tips. I have yet to hear about how Lucie came to teach high school English while raising two children and coping with a difficult family life. And I have yet to hear how Mother Rea came to own a pharmacy, how she got the idea to have one in the first place. But I do know about the junk jewelry, and I do know that my grandmother took my mother to the beauty parlor once a week to get their hair done. "They weren't bad parents," my mother told me in one of her rare comments about her family. "When I went off to college they got me a very expensive hair dryer, one with a tube connected to a sort of puffy bag that fit over your head. All the women in my co-op were jealous."

For all that I might make of the working women in my family, the women themselves have not seen fit to pass along their stories about work. Men in my family have tales of labor — I know work stories relating to nearly all my male relatives — but women have tales of their bodies, their beauty, and the products they use to keep both as feminine as possible. Aside from the hairdryer story, my mother has told me almost nothing else about Lucie, save that she was occasionally hysterical.

Sometimes I wonder if I've inherited hysteria from the women in my family, too. Feminists have argued persuasively and effectively that "hysteria" was a disease invented by male psychiatrists, Sigmund Freud in particular, to blame and pathologize women for their emotional reactions to social oppression. And yet the idea that I might "get hysterical" continues to be my greatest fear, especially because I know that my mother thinks her mother had that most "feminine" of mental diseases.

Even as women are gaining access to power in the workplace, they are not throwing off the burdens of having been oppressed as women. For someone like myself, those "burdens" might be epitomized by the fact that I don't know my own family's female history — and, at the same time, I realize I have lost access to this history in part because the women in my family have been ashamed of themselves and each other. How else can I explain the peculiar absence of stories about my grandmother and great-grandmother at work? And how else to explain why many powerful women in my workplace, my mentors and friends (and I myself), still worry about their looks and smile a bit too sweetly in the presence of men? Indeed, one of the notorious ironies of feminist public intellectuals like Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf is that both are incredibly beautiful, thin, and wear make-up which looks professionally done. While one does not want to make too much of "the beauty myth" as a barometer of female oppression, most of us would acknowledge that there is something unsettling about a strong feminist leader who cares so much about looking pretty.

While feminists have helped to create a far better environment for women in the US than ever before in history, the injuries of that history are still with us. My mother and grandmother's generations remember vividly a time when a woman's best hope was to get married to a man who would make money and not abuse her. Many of their best skills in a world like that went toward making themselves appealing, dressing up, looking pretty. These women are the people who have taught me to understand myself as a women, and they are also the people who worked to change what "woman" might mean in the public sphere. I am grateful for their work, but I think that as we lose sight of where we've come from, we also lose sight of what we still need to do to keep history from repeating itself.

It simply doesn't make sense to me that women in positions of power continue to advise their younger counterparts to accept that some men will condescend to them, or to accept that they will have to consider how their relationship status looks to their colleagues, or even to accept that they should wear a skirt to a professional meeting. These are the aspects of female lore I've learned which arouse my hysteria, or at least my terror of hysteria. All around me I see professional women, in charge of hundreds of other people at work, worrying that age will ruin their beauty, and going home at night to husbands who condescend to them and expect them to be in charge of dinner.

Why haven't women taken advantage of their power to change some of the bottom-line features of female everyday life, like how a woman should look and act in a public environment? The answers are obviously complex, but I would reiterate my earlier point that it seems to have a lot to do with shame about female history. Because many aspects of female oppression could be considered a result of psychological, rather than physical, coercion, we are left with the uneasy sense that our foremothers were complicit in their own exclusion from mainstream public culture.

And that uneasy sense is even harder to bear when we consider the degree to which it may have been true in many cases. In my family, for example, it's clear that women might have made it on their own — they had jobs, after all — and yet they chose to remain living in a deeply patriarchal Southern region and endure their bad marriages. Not all families, and not all women, had the choices women in my family did. Women without education, job skills, or a supportive environment would have faced incredible barriers to independence. Indeed, such women still exist, and are still in trouble, particularly now that social welfare programs for unwed mothers and pregnant women are being cut back or eliminated entirely. My point, however, is that we are given to understand that many women in history were oppressed by indirect means, through cultural stereotypes and socialization, rather than through violence or some sort of organized system of slavery (like what blacks experienced before the Civil War). And many women who lived through that indirect oppression are ashamed to admit that they too were taken in: they wanted to get dressed up and go to the prom with a boy who might marry them someday.

I was taken in too. Even when I was an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley, I used to tell people that I wanted to be a professor so that I could have as many love affairs as possible with the interesting people I would meet on campus. When I was in high school, my mother told me I looked nice in pink because it made my cheeks look rosy. So I fluffed my hair, wore pink dutifully on dates and to special events, until one day I realized that if I didn't start wearing trousers, blazers and ties I would become hysterical. To survive, I literally had to fashion myself after young men I knew, and attempt to forget what I had learned from women altogether. I am ashamed of my past, disturbed by looking at my old journals which are full of stories about falling in love with boys (and, later, girls), and yet I am convinced that if I don't look my worst, gendered instincts square in the eye, one day I'll be telling my female students that it's just too bad that they'll have to put up with men who treat them with disdain and women who want to be skinny.

Recently, my partner's mother Lisa sent me a feminist cartoon which shows a very traditional looking mother reading to her daughter out of a book called "A Girl's Life." The bubble over the little girl's head says, "I don't like this part, Mommy! It's scary!" The mother replies, "Alright, honey. We'll just skip the part on housework and flip to feminism." Of course, it's a great joke, and one which reminds me of my own childhood growing up with liberal parents in the 1970s. Yet this joke also illustrates one of the central problems with contemporary female power I've been talking about here. It assumes that teaching the next generation about gender equality means "skipping the part on housework," as if feminist consciousness could erupt full-blown out of nowhere into a young girl's mind without prior references to "housework," which is to say "the scary part" of female history.

If we can't talk about our past honestly because of the bad parts, then it becomes very difficult to account for the times we were strong and stood up for ourselves. Sure, there are dozens of "feminist histories" out there which can tell me the heroic tales of amazing, individual women who led lives of exceptional political engagement. But I want to fill in the cracks, to hear about the ordinary women who struggled with their worst instincts towards passivity and hysteria in order to work, to take charge of their families, to go to school and change their everyday lives. Feminism isn't just about winning the election, or getting a professional job. It's also about remembering just how it was that a regular woman learned not to care about her hair because she had to study for her pharmacy exam — or how a person like my mother went from being a nice Texas girl who called slingshots "nigger shooters," to being an educated, progressive woman teaching high school in Watts during the 60s riots.

There's a strong connection between the feminist joke about "skipping housework," and the female reality of a continued preoccupation with our bodies, our domestic lives, and our potential hysteria. The female professional, and her feminist counterpart, in many ways base their identities on a repudiation of the past. For, of course, we cannot be adequate professionals without symbolically doing what I did when I put on trousers and "forgot" what my mother had taught me about looking pretty. Unfortunately, repudiating our personal histories and the histories of women who came before us often causes us to overlook the past entirely and hence repeat it in new and insidious ways. We may be making money at professional jobs now, but we still haven't managed to overcome our basic fears about self-presentation in the public realm — or, at least many of us have not. Female shame haunts our greatest achievements because we refuse to talk about it, and refuse to fight back against social systems which help to maintain it. As feminists, and as women, we need to begin constructing narratives which can account for a form of female self-loathing which now co-exists with female economic and social power.

I believe that my female friends and I, my female colleagues and I, continue to hate our bodies and worry obsessively about interpersonal relationships precisely because we are offered stories of feminist triumph without understanding how it is intimately bound up with female degradation. At the same time, we are offered stories of female failure without understanding its relationship to female strength and social potency. Thus, many of us end up leading split lives, the way I do. I am as ambitious as hell at work, willing to talk louder than the man next to me to get noticed. But I still worry that professional success has made me ugly; I wonder if I am too fat; and I find myself nearly hysterical with rage when, in a group situation, a man will talk to another man first before looking me in the eye.

There are some things I do know for sure. I will never wear a dress and make-up to a professional job; and I will never allow anyone to suggest that being female means my personal relationships affect my work. I will never tell one of my female students to accept these "facts of life" either. I would rather riot than teach the next generation of women to forget why I stare at myself in the mirror every day, critically, for at least fifteen minutes. They should know why. Maybe they can teach me how to stop doing it.

Annalee Newitz is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UC-Berkeley, writing her dissertation on monsters, psychopaths and the economy in American pop culture. You can reach her at:

Copyright © 1996 by Annalee Newitz and Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.