I’ve been trying to word this post for days, and every time I seem to want to approach the discussion of feminism in academia, I wrestle with the words. Maybe this time will be the time I hit publish.
It was at that moment when Josh went on about patriarchal customs in marriage and naming that I realized exactly how feminist he was and how I loved that about him. And when we married, I kept my surname, he kept his, and we went as far as even divvying up our surnames among our children (our two boys have his surname, our girl has mine). For the most part, it hasn’t been an issue – there were a few semesters where Lindsey kept getting dropped off of Josh’s health insurance because of a coding issue with the university, but that seems to have resolved itself. And when Will was born, he was “registered” at the hospital as “Baby Boy Yu,” and we had to have some discussions with insurance as his surname was not my own.
Hand-wringing on the Internet occurred in the various forums I frequented when I mentioned that our daughter would have my surname, while our older son had Josh’s. So to sum up here, yes our kids have different surnames. No, they don’t really care about it. Yes, they feel like they’re part of the same family. In fact, when we were preparing for Will’s arrival, we asked what name the baby should have. They disagreed on a first name, but then also thought that since the both of them had different surnames, the new baby should too.
So here we are, twelve plus years into our relationship and as the years have gone on, I have grown ever more grateful for finding a partner who gets it and gets me. He gets it and probably gets angrier than I do when he sees examples of sexism and racism in media and politics. We are That Household where words like “hegemony” and “patriarchy” and “oppression” and “social justice” get tossed around on a regular basis.
Another way our teaching experiences differ: Josh has never had to reprimand a student for calling him a boy. During my second year teaching, one of my students wrote to me, addressing me as “Girl.” I read this email and thought to myself this thought, which I continue to think (though I add in a year to age myself appropriately) on a regular basis when I am inappropriately referred to as a girl.
I am 37 years old. I have had three children, been in a long term relationship for almost 12 years, have been out of high school for almost 20 years, out of college for almost 16 years, and out of my first stint of grad school for almost 14 years. I worked professionally for over ten years before going back to school. Dammit, I think I deserve to be referred to as a woman.
I am not a girl.
Now, I say inappropriately referred to as a girl, because there are some instances in which I feel it is appropriate for me to refer to myself or my peers in very specific circumstances as girls. For example, two of my closest friends here in town commonly refer to ourselves as girls, and it is because in part, the term girl is one that represents youth. I outed myself as 37 above – let’s just say there’s a fair amount of reminiscing about days gone by, before we were parents, before we were married.
But in this instance above – in a professional, academic setting, just stop. Stop referring to women in college and graduate school and beyond as girls. Just stop. It is unprofessional and condescending. If you don’t want to be thought of as sexist, stop saying sexist things. It’s really pretty easy.
As for the email above, where the student addressed me as “Girl,” I called him out on it. I told him point blank that while I was casual with students in terms of addressing me by my first name, in no way is it ever appropriate to call an instructor “Girl.” He apologized sincerely, and we have been good ever since. I say this because I had a considerable amount of angst over that email, to make sure that the words I was going to use would make a developmental difference – that is, it wouldn’t shut him out, and preserve the relationship of instructor and student with us. I would like to think I succeeded in this area.
When you can, stand up for yourself. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it. I know that it is not always possible or comfortable or safe to do so, but if you can, do it. I know that I felt comfortable in this situation because of the power dynamic present – I was the instructor and had a perfect opportunity to educate and did so. I have done so with peers – brought up issues of sexism – because we have a somewhat equal power dynamic, with education plus stature – and I am assertive, as a general characteristic. Now, if a professor or a boss of mine referred to me as such, I honestly am not sure how comfortable I would feel confronting the issue. If you do decide to stand up for yourself, email me. I’ve got your back.
In my family, words matter. Every word, subtext, structure – it all matters. When the kids fight (and boy HOWDY are they ever FIGHTING!), we tell them that they need to apologize when they mean it, because otherwise their words are just empty and devoid of meaning. I teach this same concept in a variety of ways as an instructor. Every semester I teach, one concept I push hard is professionalism – you have to own your words, so make them count. Write well. Spell perfectly. Structure your sentences immaculately, because whether it’s right or wrong, you will be judged on the context of what comes out of your fingers into your website, onto Facebook, or in Twitter.
Words matter. Intent matters, but does not excuse. You may have a perfectly logical explanation for your word choice, but it still stings and infuriates. Make your intent match your words. And just stop treating women verbally as children.