Another [Un]helpful Book about Modern Women?

The New York Times Book Review featured a review of Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, And the Rise of Women, on September 13.  When I saw the headline, I must confess I was intrigued.  Could it be that the feminist revolution had actually worked as anti-feminists of the 1970s and 1980s feared?  Did Feminists finally put an end to men in their campaign stamp out social constructions of gender and rid the world of patriarchy?

All kidding aside, I was curious and did something I haven’t done in some time.  I read a book review in the New York Times.  (Seriously, between my full-time day job, teaching a class, and revising my manuscript, who has time to read book reviews?)  Jennifer Homans has provided a pithy and insightful review of Hanna Rosin’s new book, which if I understand the reviewer’s take on the text, is a frustrating evaluation of the status of women in contemporary American society.

According to Rosin, we are in an era of women, where they dominate in education, work, and at home.  They are better at love and marriage, and generally speaking, women have more success in the global economy.  Wow…The trouble with Rosin’s book, as Homans sees it, has to do with how Rosin characterizes women and men’s roles, and their successes.  She relies on stereotypical gender traits for women and men and overlays them onto the existing social, political, and economic situations where by the numbers it looks like women are more successful all around.

Women have reached this pinnacle of achievement (despite still earning less on average than men) because they are more caring, have better people skills, and better at time-management (what with all the juggling of home, family, and work, where men can’t seem to find their way out of a paper bag).  These traits that women seem to naturally possess are in reality stereotypes and to a lesser extent social constructions of gender expectations.  As Homans put it:

Is it really a good idea to say that we are, by gender if not by sex, open, empathic, flexible, patient, prone to communal problem-solving and the like? We’ve known for a long time that men do not hold a monopoly on being rigid, hierarchical, close-minded or authoritarian. Yet the women in this book are almost all organized go-getters, whereas the men come across as lazy, unambitious couch potatoes.

Right, and women are not universally better at cooperating and nurturing.  Just like men are not universally knuckle-dragging neanderthals.  Homans continues:

To suggest, in other words, that success — material, social, sexual, emotional — depends on (our!) gender traits and not on the legal and institutional frameworks we live in? I’m all for each of us remaking ourselves from within, but this kind of argument seems carelessly apolitical, especially at a moment when we are faced with public officials actively working to undermine access to birth control, abortion, equal pay for equal work.

Having not read the book,  I wonder if Rosin deals with an equity feminist or legal feminist approach to women’s rights.  Legislation was necessary to move the feminist movement along in the second half of the twentieth century to provide the structure (albeit not often adhered to) to guarantee women’s equal right to education, work, and maybe some day, pay.  It seems we, as a culture and society, cannot move beyond the understanding that women and men are different, therefore unequal.  We do not know what to do with difference.  How do we respect that while gender exists, it should not fundamentally determine or limit women’s or men’s status in society.

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Habits

As a professor who happens to be a woman, I have a different set of rules about what to wear in the classroom than male professors.  In conversation with a man who teaches at the University about what do faculty normally wear, I was told that people are pretty casual.  They wear khaki pants, jeans, etc.  I asked if women follow the same habit of dressing more casually, and the answer was not as much.  This fits with my experience at other institutions.  Women, particularly younger women or those new to the institution, had to dress more formally in order to distinguish themselves as the teacher from the students.  This is not universally true, but seems to fit my experience.

Oddly enough, men who dress up, wear ties and jackets, can get attention and noticed as that professor who wears a tie, but not in a negative way.  Students seem to like when their professors dress up–or at least they comment on that.  (Confession, this statement is based upon no actual social scientific research, no study, not even a poll of a poor sample.  Completely anecdotal evidence bases upon my and my small circle of acquaintances’ experience.)  We put on a wardrobe to present ourselves to our students.  We dress casually because we want to lessen the barrier between students and teacher.  We dress up, wear skirts, or dress pants to convey a degree of authority.  Or we want to articulate to the students the seriousness of what we do in the classroom, the professionalism of this endeavor.  We take it seriously, so they should as well.   What we wear says something about who we are and how we wish to define our interactions and relationships with students.

If we take this idea and transfer it to the religious habits of sisters and nuns (or even priests and brothers), what a religious wears conveys a message.  In the nineteenth century, the non-Catholic world in the United States largely were unfamiliar with Catholic sisters and nuns, at least initially.  There was often a fear of what Catholic nuns represented and many Protestants had not direct connection with women religious, but had preconceived and negative notions of vowed life.  I think of the Maria Monk stories and other accounts of imprisoned young women at the mercy of sexually depraved priests, and so forth.  Nothing like a good escaped nun story to get the blood boiling.  Much of this attitude was ameliorated by increased exposure to women in habits, particularly after the Civil War.  For Catholics of the same period (speaking in general terms) were more familiar with sisters and nuns and especially in immigrant parishes, they represented members of their own communities.  Yes, they were religious beings, who had committed themselves to a higher purpose and therefore revered  but they at least were not a shocking sight to behold.

The habit in some ways enabled women to go where “respectable” laywomen could not. They could work, administer institutions, and interact in public settings in ways barred to single and married laywomen of all faiths.  The religious habit brought sisters closer to the People of God (within reason–there were still restrictions on religious life).  By the twentieth century, prior to modifications of habits, sisters in these cumbersome garments were, in some areas, fairly commonplace and in many ways expected.  For many women religious in active ministries, the habit became a barrier in their apostolic life.  Modifying their religious dress, or doing away with it all together, meant women religious could do their job, engage in their religious ministry in new and better ways.  The lack of habit brought many sisters up-to-date with the world around them and going back to a religious habit would be difficult.  It is interesting once again how outsiders react to the lack of habit on women religious, still.

What we wear has an impact on those we encounter in our daily life.   What we wear signifies what we are doing, and who we are.  The lack of a religious habit, however, does not suggest that sisters are less of women religious than those who wear one.

A Nun for Life

Last night Sister Simone Campbell spoke at the Democratic National Convention.  There has been some debate whether a woman religious should appear and speak in a political venue, but this wasn’t exactly Sister Campbell’s first public political appearance.  As the head of Network, a political lobby, this is hardly new territory.  Is she in conflict with the separation of Church and State?  Is she really transgressing some ill defined understanding of the role of women religious in the Roman Catholic Church or American society?

Here is the video of her speech last night.  She is a “nun for all life.”

Multiple Identities or Split Personality?

Well, the fall semester started and I started teaching again.  (I am teaching a class! she said with an enormous grin on her face.)  It’s a new class to me, a new prep, and there will be a lot of work and time that goes into this, but, honesty, I do not care.  (At the moment.  I reserve the right to complain later.)  I am enjoying every minute of it.  Even when they look like they are bored senseless.  Or confused.  Yes, I get a lot of bored and confused looks.

I am teaching A class and the rest of my time is devoted to my day job as an assistant director of this program. And then there are the revisions of my manuscript due to the publisher a lot sooner than I would think.  Consequently I am wearing many hats.  The funny thing is that, while I am teaching just the one class, it has risen in importance in my mind.  It is what I think about most of the time (even when I am thinking about my day job, or the revisions) and I have given it a place of importance in what I do.

The fun part of it all is that while I am concerned about doing the best job I can in this class, it isn’t freaking me out.  I was concerned that I would forget how to teach after my two-year hiatus.  Or that teaching methods would so radically change that I would be behind the curve.  The challenging thing about this experience is figuring out the culture of teaching at this institution.  What are the expectations of the students; how high (or low) are the standards?  How can I work well with my fellow teachers?  How can I be of help to others; or better how can I accept help when I need it?

And, meanwhile, I still have to effectively do my day job.  And my history job.   The tricky thing is when I have to shift gears from the classroom to my office.  I need to put away my concerns for class prep (temporarily) and students and take out the list of tasks that I need to do that are equally important, albeit different.  At the moment, my biggest concern is getting my job done.  What has been remarkable is that how the teaching is seeping into my day job and helping me think about that work in a better way.  I did not expect that.  Teaching involves effectively communicating with students, considering how and when one presents information, and gauging the reaction and understanding of those individuals.   Effective listening skills apply here, but they also apply in my daily work in administration.  I knew those there parallels existed, but I think I needed reminding.  Apparently I was wrong.

All this to say that I am currently operating with many identities.  I am hardly alone in that, but what I intended to with this multiple identities should be interesting.