The professional compliment I most often receive is that I’m gracious. I hear this all the time. It’s a lovely compliment. I particularly appreciate it because I make a concerted effort to be gracious. You see, as a woman I’m forced to deal with sexism in my daily work life. It’s often in the form of microaggressions that you, as a man, wouldn’t notice. Being gracious is both a tactical strategy to deal with sexism and a measure of self-care that allows me refuge from anger. It’s my way of going high, when others go low. When I choose to be gracious it does not mean I don’t feel angry, nor does it mean I am oblivious to the injustices I experience. One can simultaneously be gracious, enraged, and hyper-aware. In that respect, my performance of graciousness is far more defiant than you may realize. At times, it is my act of resistance.
You may wonder why I am writing to you now. For many American women, this last presidential election cycle could have been titled “Trigger Warning.” It was tough bearing witness to the sexism our first female candidate for president battled. After the debate in which she was interrupted and spoken over 72 times, I heard many men comment that they didn’t understand how she could just stand there, patiently, without exploding. She was being gracious. For a woman in the workforce, let alone vying for a leadership position, we are judged no matter how we respond to sexist bullies. There are no good options. And yes, it is infuriating. Graciousness takes strength. But that doesn’t mean the sexism it masks is any more palatable. Nor does it imply that it takes a Trump-esque bully for sexism to thrive in the workplace. More often, sexism is propagated by those who think of themselves as “good” guys. This is what brings me to you.
I should remind you of what happened, because it’s clear that you don’t remember. That doesn’t surprise me since it had a massive impact on my life and none on yours. Here’s the recap. You hired me as an adjunct lecturer in your department when I was a full-time graduate student. Over a two and a half year period, I taught 19 classes at your institution. I was paid a pittance, I believe $1,900 per class (pre-taxes), and eventually approximately $2,400 per course. Finally up for a promotion that included a better title, more stability, and a raise to about $3,100 per course, I was fired. Let me add some other details. I was twenty-five years old and the single mother to an infant. I was fired without notice of any kind, or as your answering machine message said, I was not being “rehired.” Gotta love euphemistic language. Perhaps you thought not “rehiring” me would have made me feel better than being “fired.” It didn’t. Perhaps it made you feel better.
Why did you fire me? Apparently there were two incidents. In the first, a student complained about a grade. In the second, a student, who was also a staff member at the college, complained that I had cancelled class on Halloween. Based on these two accusations you launched a full-scale investigation. Students from my class were randomly called at home and asked a host of questions about whether or not I was professional. For the record, I did cancel that Halloween class. It was an adult education class, taught at your request, and it met in the evenings. The mostly middle-aged, White male students, primarily police officers, begged me to cancel class on Halloween so they could go trick-or-treating with their kids. I acquiesced, offering to hold office hours for any students who wanted to meet individually. It is hard to believe that this was grounds for termination, after I had successfully taught 18 prior courses at that college. It left me without notice or any ability to support myself and my newborn daughter. You found it hard to believe too. In fact, you told me privately in your office the real reason the student/staffer complained about me was that she was a conservative, Christian and “probably uncomfortable that you are a single mother and Jewish.” If you are shocked reading those words, I assure you I was shocked hearing them. That is what you said, verbatim. And that, I believe, was true. I believe I was fired for being an unwed, feminist mother. You told me the Dean (also a White male) had long perceived me as “edgy.” Uh, what? I suspect being openly feminist contributed to my “edge.” According to you, the decision to let me go was made by the Dean, to whom you reported, and you felt terrible about it. I wonder if your decision not to fight for my job was linked to concerns over your own renewal as chairperson. Besides, in your mind you had already done your part. You were honest about the sexism I was experiencing. You weren’t a bad guy, you were a good guy. It wasn’t you, it was that other guy that was the problem. Because I was young and inexperienced I actually thanked you for your honesty. I was gracious.
Friends suggested I sue the college for discrimination, but of course I had no ability to do so. I couldn’t afford an attorney, I could barely afford food. I had no time to spare as a single working mother in school. Beyond all of that, I couldn’t risk going on the tenure-track job market as “the person who sued her former employer.” I suspect your awareness of these factors, even if subconsciously, made it a lot easier for you to be so “honest” with me about why I was really fired, absolving yourself of culpability.
I’d like to tell you the impact all of this had on me. I was unable to support myself and my daughter. I was forced to give up the apartment we lived in, lovely in a good neighborhood. We moved in with my parents for nearly a year. While I was fortunate to have someplace to go, as not everyone has that, it was a humiliating and emotionally devastating experience. I scraped together a couple of adjunct jobs, enough to pay for the parking space I needed to rent, and gas for my car to get to school and work. When I landed a tenure track job my daughter and I moved into our own apartment. It was a basement apartment infested with insects. My upstairs neighbor beat his girlfriend and I used to call the police and then live in fear for days that he would know it was me. It’s hard to be a good parent under that kind of stress and I fear my daughter and I lost out on quality time together because my life had become a series of daily struggles. We made the most of it for two years before I was able to move into a better neighborhood.
From the time you fired me more than 15 years ago I have experienced all kinds of sexism in my professional and personal life, as most women do. I’ve had countless male colleagues talk over me, interrupt me, exclude me from decisions that impact me, degrade my work, and ignore my work altogether. Certain male editors and publishers have repeatedly patronized me, an experience echoed by my female peers. Early in my career, the President of a college I worked at assigned me to a compensation committee to address faculty salaries. The group met on weekends. We were not compensated. When I made specific complaints about how under market we were paid the President of the college suggested I become roommates with another faculty member, also a young female. He suggested we might have “fun.”
More recently, I’ve routinely had male friends hijack posts on my Facebook timeline to “mansplain” things to me, including things about my own personal experiences. I’ve lost awards and recognition in favor of less qualified men. For example, I lost a book award to a man whose book had lifetime sales of less than 50 copies, and very few citations. My book had sold thousands and was well-cited. The only criterion for the award was “impact on the field.” Huh? In these situations I’ve heard men congratulate each other and say that they are glad to honor their “buddy.” As a woman, I am no one’s “buddy.” These are just examples. I realize that women of color simultaneously experience microaggressions based on gender and race that I am immune to. What’s important to understand is that in each of these cases the men in question are not the loud-mouthed, belligerent sexists you probably find offensive. They’re the good, bad guys. They’re not like that jerk, so they must not be sexist at all.
This brings me back to you. A couple of years ago I was invited to speak to the faculty at your college about my book Method Meets Art and my advice for succeeding in publishing. A colleague told me you would be there and were anxious to see me because you gave me my start in academia and were proud of me. When I had accepted this speaking gig I wondered if you would show up. I also wondered what you thought now about how I was fired. When I heard of your glee that I would be returning to campus I knew revisionist White man’s history was at play. When you walked into the room smiling from ear to ear, making a beeline toward me, I knew how I would respond. Graciously. We hugged. You told me how impressed you were by my career. You asked about my daughter.
My motivation in writing this now is to offer you a mirror for critical self-reflection. Like the men who interrupt me at conferences, those who disparage or ignore my work, and those who hijack my Facebook posts, I want to give you an opportunity to critically interrogate your own behaviors. How are you complicit in a sexist system? Do you intend to be? I’m fortunate to know and work with many actual good guys, and they have earned my respect. I want you become an actual good guy. My hope is this letter prompts you to do some serious reflection about the insidious ways that male privilege benefits you and how you have been complicit in the sexism that has harmed me and others. If so, we could move graciously forward together.
Patricia's latest edited collection Privilege Through the Looking-Glass is available on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/9463511385
Author's note: Thank you, Celine Boyle, for your thoughtful feedback on this piece.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College). She is widely considered an international leader in the fields of arts-based research and qualitative inquiry. [...]