TOADtalk: Woman Stuff

Ms. Vickery talks about feminism.
As the months go by in a Thacher school year, students and faculty members learn about each other in a thousand different ways, times, and contexts: around the breakfast or formal dinner table, in a sunshiny moment on the Pergola or a sunset shared on a trail, at the whiteboard in a classroom, lab, studio or seminar circle, at practices and games and rehearsals, at coffeehouses and Open Houses, in dorm common rooms, and in Suburbans on highways or back roads on the way to community service projects, field trips, cultural excursions, or athletic events. Then there’s each faculty member’s TOADtalk. Monday morning’s all-School Assembly launches with whatever the Teacher On Active Duty wishes to share—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, every week of the school year, the community gains a new window into the mind or heart or spirit of one of our own. 

Gallia Vickery
, whose TOADtalk is featured below, teaches mathematics and serves as the School's AP Coordinator. She is also the director of Thacher's dance program and advises junior girls. Ms. Vickery has worked at the School since 1991 and lives on campus with her husband, Bill Vickery.

On a flight during spring break, I read an interview with actress Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) in which she spoke about starting her own production company to address Hollywood’s gender inequity. She’s known to be vocal about this issue. Yet, she has felt pressure to be less strident about her cause. “I had one male director say to me that I talk too much about all of this “woman stuff,” Ms. Chastain said (Carl Wilson, American Way Magazine).

I have had similar experiences with friends and family suggesting “I talk too much about this 'woman stuff,'" and of course that line inspired me to talk a bit more about
it today.

And what is this woman stuff? I suspect it’s code for being a feminist.

The conversation, which is still deeply about the same thing—equality, independence, and fair treatment—has also turned to teaching about unconscious gender bias and examining how we are socialized.

What does it mean to be socialized as a woman or socialized as a man? I can speak from my own experience starting at a young age.
When I was a kid we used to play church—this is something you do when your father is a priest and you grow up going to many very formal, ceremonial church services. We’d pin towels across our shoulders for robes, have pretend censors, carry a large volume of an encyclopedia as our gospel, sing atonal songs in fake Russian and make communion with Funny Face Cherry. (Funny Face was the Koolaid of my childhood).

One day—and he doesn’t know what triggered this—my older brother announced that I could no longer be a priest or a bishop, but I could direct the choir. It had become very clear to him that girls don’t do these things, so even in our play I was not going to be allowed to. The church game was over for me pretty quickly. While I could tell many stories of what it was like to be socialized female in my youth with three brothers and conservative parents, this is one of the things I now recall most vividly. I was being told by a male what I could do or not do as a female.

Perhaps this was the beginning of my rebellion, which has, at times, turned into resisting simple good advice because I want to be sure all decisions are my own and not things I’m doing because a man told me to.

I was socialized to be polite, to dress appropriately, not to speak up too often or too loudly, and, of course, not to get angry. Bit by bit I began to understand that these expectations were unique to me and not my brothers. And I began to resist. I started identifying myself as a feminist in my teenage years. Unfortunately, the word feminist is loaded with baggage.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED talk—We Should All be Feminists—this baggage includes things like if you proclaim yourself a feminist, that means people think you hate men, or you can’t get a husband (which of course assumes that’s your primary goal in life), you hate bras, you think women should always be in charge, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor…etc. I stopped counting how many times I’ve heard people say, I’m not a feminist, but... which I hope is code for I don’t want to use this label that comes with all this baggage but, in fact, I believe that men and women should be treated equally.

Another huge part of being socialized female is thinking about and worrying about how you look. What’s the occasion? What’s the appropriate dress? If I feel like wearing pants and a t-shirt is that OK—if I feel like wearing make-up or heels am I doing it to attract attention? I’d like to not have to think about if what I wear makes any difference in whether or not others take me seriously.

I don’t know any men who have to think about this. What do I wear? How will I be perceived? Will people take me seriously? And while a shirt and tie may not be an appealing dress code—and yes, it’s true that I have a much wider range of socially
accepted ways to express myself through my clothing and jewelry—it sure does feel like it’s easier for men. Sometimes you want to dress up, it can make you feel good and it’s nice to get complimented. Yet, as Teo Leoni said in Madam Secretary, “I want people to talk about what I’m trying to do—not how I look doing it.”

I came across another way to look at gender socialization in a Time Magazine article by Charlotte Alter: “Cultural sexism in the world is very real when you’ve lived on both sides of the coin.”

“Experiences of transgender men can provide a unique window into how gender functions in American society.” For this article, she interviewed nearly two dozen trans men and activists about work, relationships, and family. “Over and over again, men who were raised and socialized as female described all the ways they were treated differently as soon as the world perceived them as male. They gained professional respect but lost intimacy. They exuded authority but caused fear. From courtrooms to playgrounds to prisons to train stations, at work and at home, with friends and alone, trans men reiterated how fundamentally different it is to experience the world as a man.”

“Once they transitioned, walking became easier, but talking became harder. To be more specific: walking home after dark felt easier, casually talking to babies, strangers and friends felt harder.”

Another big aspect of this “woman stuff” is diversity in the workplace, equal opportunity, and equal pay. A recent article in the Atlantic by Liza Mundy entitled “Why is Silicon Valley so Awful to Women,” brought a few new things to my attention.

Only ¼ of mathematical and computing jobs are held by women, and this number has actually fallen in the last 15 years.

To succeed anywhere in Silicon Valley, she said, you need to have social credibility, to be able to bring people around to your point of view and get them on board with a new product or solution—to be able to socialize your ideas. You would think all things are equal,” she said, “but these backdoor conversations are happening in settings that women are not invited to. The whole boys’-club thing still applies. Such bias may be particularly rife in Silicon Valley because of another of its foundational beliefs: that success in tech depends almost entirely on innate genius. Nobody thinks that of lawyers or accountants or even brain surgeons; while some people clearly have more aptitude than others, it’s accepted that law school is where you learn law. Surgeons are trained, not born. In contrast, a 2015 study published in Science confirmed that computer science and certain other fields, including physics, math, and philosophy, fetishize “brilliance,” cultivating the idea that potential is inborn. The report concluded that these fields tend to be problematic for women, owing to a stubborn assumption that genius is a male trait.”

Bethanye Blount, co-founder and CEO of Cathy Labs, talked about her path. “I made decisions along the way that helped me to succeed, like don’t bring attention to being a woman, never talk about gender.”

Ok, girls, so you’ve got talent and experience and an advanced degree in a math, science, or tech field, but do you have the really important skills? The women interviewed for this article talk about some of these.

“The ability to neatly reject a man’s advances without injuring his ego is a pretty important skill.”

“Learn how to deflect conversation away from family and personal life and make conversation with men about sports, marketing strategies, and investments.”
To those who think these things are really not that bad and that women have equal access to jobs as long as they are qualified, I’d ask you to examine some of the status quo and think about your first reaction. How do you feel about men coaching women’s teams? But how often do you see women coaching men?

Even in fields that one thinks of as dominated by women, men still lead. Male directors of professional ballet companies outnumber females 3 to 1 and more choreographers are male as well.

And then there’s my favorite, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

“People ask me sometimes…When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is, When there are nine.
Now after you smile—think about how that actually feels. Nine women, isn’t that too many? Isn’t that unfair? And if you feel a bit of that—remember that for almost 200 years there were 9 men on the Supreme Court.

How many women? In which jobs? Should there be quotas? That seems like a bad word in our culture. Why should we change the workplace for women if it’s working for men? I like what Emma Watson recently said. “It’s time we all see gender as a spectrum, instead of two opposing ideas.”

Let’s take away the baggage and acknowledge a feminist as a man or woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Where do we start? Have a conversation with a child about her favorite animal or the last book she’s read. Resist the temptation to tell her how pretty her dress is or how much you like her shoes (which I just did with March the other evening). Ask the same questions of boys, instead of asking if they won their game. Work on it; it’s harder than you think.

Instead of saying “act like a lady” say “be respectful and polite” because all of us should do these things.

Instead of saying “man up” say “have courage and be strong” because all of us should do these things.

“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” (G.D. Anderson)

I’d like to end with these thoughts from a paper I was given over 25 years ago. They are still ringing true to me today:

For every woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay, there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.

For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes, there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.

For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he is vulnerable.

For every woman who is tired of acting dumb, there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of “knowing everything.”

For every woman who is tired of being called an “emotional female,” there is a man who is denied the right to weep and be gentle.

For every woman who feels “tied down” by her children, there is a man who is denied the full pleasures of shared parenthood.

For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier. (Nancy R. Smith)

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