Already as a child in Catholic school, I knew that the body was a problem. In second grade, I started acting out by wearing lipstick and tube tops to school.
The teacher, Mrs. Wolf, sent me to see the principal-- a tall, thin nun who looked like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. I knocked on the office door and waited for her beneath the frosty glass window.
She came out. "What is it?" she asked.
"Mrs. Wolf said to come see you."
"Because of how I look."
She glanced at me up and down like the witch did to Dorothy in the castle and said, "Is that what the Virgin Mary would wear?"
I shook my head. I tried so hard to be good. I had a note in my desk back at the classroom that said TRY. I didn't want to be in trouble. I wanted to be like the Virgin Mary, my namesake.
The Virgin Mary was also a mother, and that was the second thing I wanted to be. I stole mothering magazines from my pediatrician's office and read them. I was only seven.
Seven is the age of reason for the Catholic Church; it's when kids can get their First Communion. This struck me-- that we can take something into our bodies only when we have attained thought. What would the body be without thought? Animal, maybe.
After a brief stint in a public middle school, which I mostly hated because girls were making out with boys and getting drunk between classes and I was wearing skirts and getting As, I attended a Catholic girls' school in Washington, D.C.
Maybe it was the absence of boys, but those four years were the best of my life. I was smart (not as smart as Ruby who went to Harvard or Eileen who got 1600 on the SATs) and liked (not as liked as Claire, the star of every sports team, or Patty whose Rockville mansion and older sisters made her house the coolest place to hang out). But I was a leader. I was myself. I was at home in a world of nuns and smart girls and the absence of boys.
The ancient nun who was the principal in my freshman year told us we were the "cream of the cream." I believed her. I knew it was true. My years had public school had taught me that not every girl goes from reading Judy Blume to Camus.
When I got unintentionally pregnant in graduate school and decided to keep the baby, something in me shifted. I understood I had a body in a new way. I had always been pro-choice, for example, but becoming pregnant in such undesirable circumstances made me realize that the choice was really a choice that no one but the woman should decide - it was as unthinkable to me that I might live in a society where someone would tell me I couldn't have this baby as it might have been for another woman who just couldn't bear to have one.
The pregnancy was ectopic and removed by laparoscopy at six weeks, but already I was taking on the mothering role with my roommate's son, picking him up and taking care of him after school in exchange for rent, and soon after I was in a relationship with a man who had a toddler daughter who would become my stepdaughter.
I went on to get my Ph.D., but mothering became a priority. I wanted a baby of my own. My first book was accepted for publication when I was pregnant. I was determined to be two things: a mother and a writer. And this meant leaving academia behind.
I continued to teach as an adjunct - more than part-time, since some semesters I taught four and five classes, often at more than one school. But I was home when my stepdaughter was with us in the afternoons. I cooked the dinners. I kept the house. I stayed home with my infant daughter when she was born - teaching a class on Motherhood one night a week, after which I would arrive home to find my husband and the baby in a full sweat asleep on the couch. She wouldn't take a bottle till the age of five months, so leaving her with him meant she would cry for hours, hungry and angry, which was exhausting torture for both of them.
At five months, I started hiring a babysitter to come to the house once a week for two hours so I could write. The writer, Louise deSalvo, taught me that Virginia Woolf wrote for two hours a day, and maybe that was too much for her, I thought.
During the week, I read and wrote in my journal, and when my Friday writing time came, I cranked out a publishable essay in the time it took me to drive to the river, sit, open the computer, write, and drive home again.
From this I learned that the academic habit of sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day is not only unnecessary but destructive. While academe certainly doesn't reward professors for becoming mothers, it is my experience that mothers can get more done in 30 minutes than most distinguished professors can do in a week.
But in the eyes of the academy, I was a faculty wife. The worst kind of adjunct. Below even the recent Ph.D. from the institution who couldn't get a job. Far below the visiting lecturer from Somewhere Else who gets paid handsomely.
A faculty wife adjunct won't leave. You can cut her salary in the middle of the semester and she will still teach the class. (This happened.) You can cut the whole course on the first day of class and she will still teach the next semester. (This happened.) You can find out she's using one of her books in a class and ask her to reimburse the students for the price of it. (This happened.)
What is she going to do? Leave her family?
The irony is that I think becoming fully "female" in this way is what made me create The Feminar. The socialization of me, partly self-induced and chosen and partly placed upon me and enforced, meant that I wanted to help other women break free of the cultural and institutional barriers holding them back from doing their best work.
By opening myself fully to the way the patriarchal institutions of marriage and academe saw me as a woman, wife, and mother, I embraced that identity so wholeheartedly that I knew I deserved better.
Women with brains deserve better.
Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., designed her Feminar classes for women academics as a way to inspire those who struggle with questions of mind and body, reason and emotion, sabotage and empowerment. This is the fourth in a series of five posts on these themes. The Pre-Feminar starts November 30th.