The History Major and the Place of Women

“I want to start a game,” my friend said, “a bingo game. It will have every sexist thing a male history student has ever said to us on it. When our cards are filled up we go for drinks.”

“That sounds perfect,” I replied. I was expecting to drink a lot.

“I think what my colleague means to say…,” was our first item—a guy’s favorite thing to say if one of us women said something particularly smart and they wanted to use it to steal the spotlight.

“For a girl, you talk a lot in class,” was another one of our favorites.

“Ladies first,” whenever one of us and females and a male raised our hands. We learned not to fall for that unless we wanted number 1 to happen again.

However, my real favorite, and most prevalent item, came from defending my research to my fellow male students. At the end Spring quarter 2015, I went to my office hours to talk ideas over with my professor, and he had two male students around him. I knew that one of them, C., knew what he was talking about. He lived and breathed intellectual history and had asked my opinions on writing one day after class. He was my ally in the male world. The second guy always wore 19th-century attire and liked to use class time to argue with other male students on the meaning of Kafka and Nietzsche’s work. While we were waiting he asked me if I was “new to history.” I told him no, that I had been pursuing it for quite some time. “Oh,” he said awkwardly and looked away.

“Well then,” he said coming back to it, “what areas are you interested in?”

To him, I obviously couldn’t be interested in the class we both attended: intellectual history. Which I was, but I explained my research of romance comic books during the Cold War era and what they could potentially reveal about gendered history.

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“I just have to ask a question,” he said. I became hopeful. “Why aren’t you in the women’s studies department? Isn’t that what it’s made for?”

“Well the department chair thinks it’s fitting, she’s my advisor for the honors program.”

I walked away triumphantly with a new item for the bingo game.

Around this time, a professor told me that I could submit a paper to him for review before it was due. He replied within a few days, saying that it was a “very good paper” and no revisions needed to be done. A few weeks later, he handed it back with a mark that indicated it was not “very good.” Confused and frustrated I went to his office hours to ask what was wrong with my paper. I didn’t bring up the first review he gave me where he said that nothing was wrong with it. He still couldn’t tell me what was wrong with it and awkwardly ate his carrots while I asked him questions.

“Well,” he finally said, “this is an upper division class.”

He never explained what that statement meant. I had similar experiences with other male professors. Frustrated I had one of my friends, who always got A’s on her papers and had even won two awards for one on Jewish history, to read something of mine.

“You can tell that you’re a woman when you read your writing. You’re very excited.”

“Excited?”

“You can tell that you care about what you are writing about.”

“I do care.”

“You write about women’s history. It’s not right that you’d be judged for it, but I think that’s what’s happening. You come across female.”

tempImageForSaveUnconvinced, I decided to experiment. I switched from lecture classes to seminars; from male professors to female. Writing was more crucial for seminars, meaning more judged, but you also got to pick your own topics. I picked kept picking my gendered topics: Cold-War romance comic books, rape commentary in 1980s teen magazines, and how tampon advertisements redefined the meaning of virginity. My grades went up and stayed up and I got published. I stopped consulting male professors.

The honors program, which is a year long, provided an even more freeing experience for me, where I had equal opportunity to speak and to have my ideas considered. By the end we were expected to finish a fifty-page thesis of original research with the support of our faculty advisor. During our first quarter, we met in a collective seminar once a week to discuss our hopes, plans, and to start the formative stages of our research. In terms of classroom experience, it was my first history seminar at my university where the women ruled. The number of women in the seminar outweighed the men by 6 to 5; our professor was also a woman with intimidating credentials. Most of the men complained about her, who were sometimes used to a more buddy-buddy relationship with the male professors of the department.

Despite the confidence that I felt from having so many other females to back me, I felt unsettled by familiar and new patterns of “friendly” harassment that started arising. One of male colleagues, and good friend, who sat next to me, started playing footsie with me when it was my turn to present my research. We were situated around a round table and the two of us were situated right next to the professor. After we left the seminar he said “I just wanted to make her [our professor] uncomfortable. She already thinks I’m horrible.” She had told him to redo an assignment that she didn’t feel he had properly done. I didn’t bother pointing out that his resorting to harassing and embarrassing his friend during her research presentation to teach the professor a lesson was pretty horrible; I was afraid it would jeopardize our friendship.

Even with the sexist forays in our initial seminar, I felt close to everyone in the cohort, and silently forgave my friend, who had since proven himself a true friend in other ways. At our honors ceremony, we banded together and told the department they were not allowed to announce our honors level to the audience as we wanted to be considered equal. Still, I was ecstatic when I opened my closed certificate back in the privacy of me seat and saw that it read “highest honors.” My hard work had paid off and my gender did not interfere with the decision of the committee.

After the ceremony, I went up to one of the members of the committee and thanked him for his consideration of my work.

“Oh yeah,” he replied, “Wasn’t yours the one with pictures?”

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