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Why It's Hard to Talk about Oppression in Academia

While being a woman professor is a position of privilege, it is also a position of oppression. There. I said it. I think I was afraid to say it because of the interconnected nature of the privilege and the oppression.
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I have started this essay several times. I'm not usually like this. I tend to dive in to my writing and not stop very often.

But this is different. This time there's a sense that I'll offend someone. Or get it not quite right.

This is a common problem for women academics. It doesn't happen right away; in fact, in graduate school, many women have the advantage of working with older women scholars who give them a great deal of support. They are encouraged to write and research topics that matter to them. They are encouraged to believe in their voices.

But then comes the job.

And while being a woman professor is a position of privilege, it is also a position of oppression.

There. I said it.

I think I was afraid to say it because of the interconnected nature of the privilege and the oppression.

There's something about this that goes beyond reason into the realm of emotion. And since the academy is still a place that values reason over emotion, and because women are commonly associated with emotion in pejorative ways, it is difficult for women in the academy to break this silence.

Here are three silence-breaking stories:

A woman at a state university is the first one in her department ever to apply for family leave when she is pregnant with her first child. A colleague says, "Why don't you just become a lecturer and make it easy on yourself?"

A woman who has been denied tenure sees a male colleague while walking across campus during her last semester there. He comments on the fast food container she is taking back to her office to eat for dinner while she grades papers. "I have a wife to do that," he laughs.

A woman at a small women's college is approached by a male colleague. "Hey, I've been thinking about your women's studies class. I wonder if I should have a men's studies class. Maybe we could meet in a hot tub."

What are women academics to do with the emotion that arises after encounters like this? In my experience, what usually happens is that they push it down where it festers into deep doubts about their work.

This is, perhaps, what it is meant to do: undermine their belief in themselves in insidious ways so that the real damage comes from what they end up doing to themselves.

Let's break down the three stories above to show how this works.

Example 1: Mothering. To be a working mother as a middle-class white woman is a position of privilege since the historical truth is that women of color and poor white women have always been working mothers. To be a tenure-track woman in academe is a position of privilege, then, since lectureships and adjunct positions have traditionally been the track for women. Thus in this context, this mother-professor's claim of her right to parental leave is added up against the other states of privilege for the male colleague. His comment, then, can be taken as an attempt to put her "back into her place."

Example 2: Marriage. It is no secret that male professors depend upon their wives as live-in, unpaid help. They cook, clean, take care of children, and lend an ear to the professor's ideas, edit and sometimes type their work, and provide a clear space without interruption. The unmarried status of the woman professor in this example marks her as an outsider to this position of privilege. The male colleague is reminding this woman that, in the traditional gender roles of the academy, she doesn't fit in - even though she is on campus late to keep working. The fact that she was denied tenure shortly before this exchange makes this particularly poignant.

Example 3: Mutuality. In the third example, it is the exclusion of the male colleague from the field of study that causes his discomfort. This is something I have witnessed in other contexts, as well--for example, when a white male is denied a fellowship that is awarded to an African American female. In both cases, the mutuality of their positions is not recognized. (A remark such as "They've been excluded for a long time. Now you know what it feels like," is met with a blank stare.) This example reveals the deep distrust in the possibility of mutual recognition on the basis of equality. And the hot tub comment exposes the male colleague's deep perspective on women as sexual beings--something that is especially troubling since he teaches at a women's college.

Yes, it's hard to talk about oppression because to do so brings up the emotions of anger, shock, disgust, rage, terror, hopelessness, and grief. But to stay in silence is to perpetuate the power structures - even as women academics are increasingly part of that power structure.

Perhaps we can take Audre Lorde as a role model in this regard. As she said to an audience of women academics in 1977,

"We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us."*

As a woman academic, you have more power than you think. You can use this power to break the silence that has been holding you back. You may have more fear about doing this than you want to admit. But speech even in the face of fear is still speech. Just like the work you're doing now, near the end of the semester, is still work, even in the face of your fatigue.

I designed my class for women academics, The Feminar, as a way to give support and accountability to women scholars who struggle with questions of privilege and oppression, reason and emotion, sabotage and empowerment. This is the first in a series of five posts on these themes. You can also attend my free workshop on November 11.


* Audre Lorde, "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," Sister/Outsider (The Crossing Press, 1984), p. 44.