On the Education of Women

From Tina Fey’s Bossypants, p. 14-15, courtesy bibliofeminista:

When I was writing the movie Mean Girls—which hopefully is playing on TBS right now!—I went to a workshop taught by Rosalind Wiseman as part of my research. Rosalind wrote the nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes that Mean Girls was based on, and she conducted a lot of self-esteem and bullying workshops with women and girls around the country. She did this particular exercise in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C. with about two hundred grown women, asking them to write down the moment they first “knew they were a woman.” Meaning, “When did you first feel like a grown woman and not a girl?” We wrote down our answers and shared them, first in pairs, then in larger groups. The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.

I experienced car creepery at thirteen. I was walking home from middle school past a place called the World’s Largest Aquarium—which, legally, I don’t know how they could call it that, because it was obvious an average-sized aquarium. Maybe I should start referring to myself as the World’s Tallest Man and see how that goes? Anyway, I was walking home alone from school and I was wearing a dress. A dude drove by and yelled, “Nice tits.” Embarrassed and enraged, I screamed after him, “Suck my dick.” Sure, it didn’t make any sense, but at least I don’t hold in my anger.

1. For all the lamentation about a dearth of real men today, at least many of us are agreed that manliness is a good thing in some way. We may disagree about what that way is. We may have a few radical nutcases with disproportionately loud voices, pseudo-scientific data, money and an establishment behind them taking cheap shots at the male gender and shortchanging a generation of young boys. There are extremists of all sorts. When we identify a real problem, that doesn’t mean by extension a host of other problems were false or less serious. Extremists would have you think the other side is lying entirely.

I’m going to identify what I think is a real problem. I could be wrong, but I didn’t get into thinking for myself in order to always be right. The idea was to be able to offer serious opinions, ones that might be useful in bringing us closer to the truth of the things that matter. That’s probably all philosophy – loving wisdom – is.

I think – despite the fact that women dominated my classes both through merit and many other ways in grade school, high school and some of college, despite the fact it seems to me more and more women are rightfully earning leadership positions, despite the fact that most women I know conduct themselves with a grace, confidence and prudence that I can only envy – that this is a world which still treats women like crap. It’s probably better than it used to be, but we can make some major improvements, and we need to make those improvements asap. Being a girl who is considered less-than-beautiful could be one of the toughest situations in the world. You’re literally going to watch men and women, young and old, just pass you by like you never existed. And if I had a daughter, and you yelled “nice tits” at her at 13, you better believe that nothing is going to save you. That car is only going to be your coffin.

2. So there are definitely injustices and problems. But how do we identify them? It certainly seems like we devote a lot of time within and beyond institutions to a set of problems. Are the problems we’re dealing with of a different set? Or is the treatment of them failing in a more fundamental way?

Given that what’s on my mind is bullying and being bullied, being treated as sex objects, being dominated by one’s parents, worrying too much about relationships, being too materialistic, not quite seeing the value of learning beyond grades, I’d say we’re not quite talking about the same set of problems. The focus is on the achievement of girls within the classroom and their representation in specific career paths. I think that’s a noble goal. But I don’t think that addresses whether we’re creating women that are happy. Or genuinely free. Or independent in the way we need them to be independent: not just competent and practical, not just people who do their jobs well – even taking on leadership roles – not just ambitious.

What we need most in a democracy are opinionated, concerned, serious people who dare to be interesting. They dare to be interesting because they want to know how freedom is good; they want to make life good for all. It’s not uniqueness for the sake of uniqueness – it’s really an attempt to see further so we don’t make the same mistakes, so we see what we can do better.

This is not something which translates directly into political activism. It doesn’t even translate into being Lady Gaga or Mother Teresa. It could mean being a schoolteacher who really enjoys poker because of the psychology involved. It could mean working retail and reading Euripides in one’s spare time. The high-sounding rhetoric is connected with some rather mundane, everyday behavior: wherever and whenever you can be better, be better.

3. I expect to see conformity among students. They take the social nature of their institutions of learning for granted. They don’t even realize how their modes of rebellion are, for the most part, fixtures of a sort.

But conformity among adults – especially when we’ve got a country to run – is a very dangerous thing. And it is even more artificial than the environment of a school. One’s time with one’s peers is limited severely by work. How is it, then, that time spent together follows a formula? No wonder pick-up artists exist: if we follow a set of rules in attempting to be ourselves, then we’re probably reducible to a formula.

It’s funny how much is invested in education nowadays. I personally have learned tons in classrooms. It’s a joy for me to hear someone lecturing well. At this level, I’m watching them think through a problem and present that. The presentation is most important: how do you make difficult, inchoate thoughts something that everyone can learn from? How do you preserve the more difficult questions that pressed you to a temporary solution – that will motivate you to reread – even while maintaining there is a ground to stand on? How do you communicate those questions to the students that really want to know, the ones who will be at first most dismissive of them because they have (good) questions of their own?

There’s a seeming conflict between freedom and knowledge in the phrase “coming to know.” It isn’t enough to know. It is only enough to want to know and be able to trace one’s path there. The conflict is actually between learning and wisdom. Strauss on Xenophon: wisdom is simply the greatest good. Learning is the greatest pleasure. The issue is that you need the experience of learning wisdom in order to maintain the pursuit (pleasure) and communicate it to others (good). You can’t just take a test, answer a bunch of questions correctly, be proud of the grade, and not be able to tell a soul anything you learned a week after the test.

That, in my mind, is the biggest way we’re failing women (and a lot of other people). We’re pretending like the world is fully meritocratic. It isn’t, and couldn’t function in any recognizable sense if it actually were. We need wonder back. The world is better than our achievement, the same achievement that lets people get the money to buy cars and drive around yelling sexual insults at preteen girls. When we’ve got wonder back, we’ll hear more stories like this: “I knew I was a woman when I convinced my mother to go see a doctor.” “I knew I had reached womanhood when people took a serious interest in where I work and asked me how I got things done.” “I knew I was a woman when my perspective was valued because it was that of an adult individual.” None of this is to say that Tina Fey’s debate example is wrong. Achievement is a means to an end, after all. I knew I was a man when I took charge of my learning and held myself wholly responsible for it.

1 Comment

  1. I think we all teach people how to treat us. So, when you’re a woman, you’ll know you’ve matured when you ignore lewd and sexist comments, and demand – by the way you carry yourself – the respect you deserve from your male counterparts…

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