I was going to do a confessional post about my personal history of sexist, borderline misogynist thought and behavior, and I will, soon. But I have been confronted again by a me-averse woman in a position of power, and this history deserves its own investigation. Doubtless some of the same fucked up motivations will stand out when I turn the light on myself.
I’ve experienced plenty of sexism in my life, but all of the blatantly punishing sexist behavior I’ve been forced to put up with has come from women. Once in high school, once in grad school, and now at my job.
When I was a Junior in High School, our retired, male drama teacher was replaced by Ms. Martin, a bland, mostly forgettable blond woman in her 40s. I was disappointed by the previous teacher’s departure, in large part because he clearly liked me, and as a junior, I might now (juniority!) have a chance to earn good roles in the school plays. The now departed senior class was filled with talent, but this crop of seniors didn’t have a lot of dedicated actors. This was my chance! Yay, ME!
Or so I thought. After a semester of me working my ass off (you ask for a monologue, I’ll give you a one woman play), and of course trying to get Ms. Martin to like me (because that is a weakness of mine), I auditioned for the musical, Oliver! I knew it well because I’d been one of the urchins in a production when I was a kid. I’m not a great singer, but since we were an all-girls school (my two year punishment for skipping much of 8th & 9th grade), there were plenty of roles open. And we didn’t have great singers. After a long audition and callback process, all my classmates agreed that I would surely be Dodger or Nancy and I was antsy with excitement on the day the cast was to be announced.
But before that happened, Ms. Martin asked me to come to her office. She closed the door. She said, “Z, before the cast list goes up, in case your name isn’t on it [she was the one and only person who put the names on it], I want you to know why.”
“Oh. Okay.” I was already hurt, but curious, and took the “in case” seriously. Was there something I could do now, here in this office, to earn that spot?
“Well, even if you did give the best audition, I feel that if I cast you, you would rile the troops against me. I mean, why would I cast someone who’s great who I can’t control, when I can cast someone perfectly good who I get along with fine?”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.” (Yes, I said thanks. I was in shock.)
I walked upstairs to my Physics class and told my best friends, my drama friends, what had happened. They all agreed it was awful. I had never “riled the troops” against her, or anyone. I had asked questions in class, I had wondered why we were doing things – the kind of behavior that made confident teachers love me, and the kind of love that made me feel comfortable in school in a way I never had at home or, since, at work. In school, in the schools I went to, good teachers genuinely wanted students to question them, challenge them, bring in new ideas. I’ve never consistently experienced that in any other type of institution.
So the cast list went up, and the friends with whom I had sought comfort were on it, and I wasn’t. And they stopped talking to me. Junior year was miserable. When I finally got one of them to communicate, late in the second semester, and asked why they cut me out, she said she didn’t know. It just happened. But I knew when it started. And, ridiculous as it was, my existence apparently undercut their talents. If I hadn’t told them, they wouldn’t have rejected me. But I had to tell them, because when you have been targeted you feel alone and you feel a little like you’re losing your mind and you seek solace in your friends. Ms. Martin didn’t just take away a stupid performance, she indirectly deprived me of my support system. Fortunately, I had friends who weren’t actors, in the class above me. I made sure to get the fuck out of that school once they graduated. I even moved across the country to do it. I took my chance making friends in a new state my senior year over staying with a bunch of lost souls who left me to drown alone. I don’t hate them, but their weakness was a crushing revelation.
Over a decade later, I was happily studying literature in a small Graduate program in Southern California. It was intimate and the professors were challenging and smart and I was super excited about my second semester, because I’d decided that 20th century American lit was my true love and I’d be able to take two classes in that genre. Both with the same professor, it turned out, who was also the head of American Lit in the tiny department, which had only 3 full professors. The first day in my first class with her, she asked a question about something in the play we were reading. It wasn’t a very good question, and the dozen folks in the class met her with silence. I have always felt bad when teachers are met with apathy, deserved or not, so after a minute I took a stab at it. She was unimpressed with my answer, and responded in a way that misinterpreted what I had said. I attempted to clarify, and was met with
“Z, you shouldn’t be so contentious.”
Again, I was stunned into silence. Was I picking a fight? I thought we were just having a discussion. I was thrown and dizzy and didn’t say anything else. She rambled on with her theory. No one responded. At the mid-class break, a half dozen people, most of whom I didn’t know, surrounded me outside the building.
“What was that about?”
“Do you have a history with her?”
“Why is she after you?”
I was so grateful, again, to have my perceptions and my sanity validated. I told them I had never met her before that night, and there was a lot of head shaking. As I trudged on through the semester, two of my three classes with this so called Feminist, Ms. Martin (I am not shitting you), I found out that no one thought she was a good teacher, and legend was she found a female student to pick on every year. Though no one directly stood up to her behavior (it was hard, because it was subtle), I was still comforted when classmates, some now friends, confirmed that she regularly dismissed my contributions as irrelevant or offbase, then attributed them to other students with praise. She gave me A minuses on every paper, and when I would ask what was missing, where I could improve, she never had an answer for me. Her class was the only one in which I received less than an A for my semester grade. (Why did I keep making comments in class? Because I love discussing literature with others more than I hated validating her leadership by actively participating)
But the greatest comfort (and most shocking part of this story) was when the head of the department and my randomly assigned advisor, an equanimous, brilliant little woman with whom I had taken a few Early Modern Lit classes, met with me to discuss my current classes and plans for the next year.
“So, how are things with Ms. Martin?”
I was a bit surprised by the question. “Well…” how much could I tell her?
She got up and shut her door, then returned, sat down, and waited. I told her just a little of what had transpired between us. She told me that Ms. Martin tended to feel intimidated by certain female students. She said she thought Ms. Martin was “not very smart” and “not a good teacher” and was probably threatened by me. She said she was sorry that my interests lay in Martin’s so-called area of expertise. But she was a full professor and there wasn’t much that could be done. Maybe I could avoid her classes going forward?
But she taught most of the American Lit classes, and if I attempted to earn a doctorate I would have no choice but to have her on my committee. So I completed my Master’s and left. At the top of my class, despite Martin’s machinations to cut me down.
Most of my teachers and bosses have been female. Some were good, some weren’t; but until recently, I’ve only had clear, personal problems with those two. Most of my close friends are female. My beloved online sangha is almost entirely female. My fortifying DEI Officers were, until recently, all female.
So it was shocking to get hit with another vindictive female authority figure, at my age. Or not so shocking. The head of HR definitely falls into that pseudo-feminist, going after women, category as well, but I’ve dealt with her for years now. As much as I wish she weren’t there, I at least feel like I’ve seen her worst and can handle it. But now there’s this new CEO. And it is so hard, friends. It is so hard feeling hated and gaslit.
And alone. I attended a training today where the CEO sprayed her hypocrisy all over the Zoom, talking about how important it is that we talk about things in the open and have difficult discussions. Meanwhile she is actively blocking my work and excluding me from opportunities because I’ve questioned her decisions and stood up to her abusive behavior. And none of my like-minded homies were there to text our frustration at each other. I was literally screaming at the screen, with my video and mic off, while she blathered on with her lies. Could you hear me? I’m sure my neighbors could.
So what’s the lesson in this moment? I can find at least a couple.
- I gotta get out of this place. Every time I’ve been fired (once) or laid off (once) or quit a job, it’s always pushed me in a better direction. I have to trust that it will likewise do that this time.
- Being covertly targeted feels awful. It’s been so long, I had forgotten what it feels like. It is a form of gaslighting and even though I know that term comes from the titular play/movie, it is far more apt than that. It burns and consumes. I feel it eating away at me, and feel the self I bring to the workplace markedly diminished, weakened, charred. Not having allies present to confirm the behavior makes it worse. As I sat writing, burning up in the glow of hypocrisy this week, I thought about all the women and Black and Native and LGBT and other members of non-dominant groups who have been disbelieved and ostracized and shamed and laughed at and had their stories and their feelings dismissed as fantasy or paranoia. My heart opens to them. I don’t like being back in this space, but it does me good to get another taste of their pain and recognize my own complicity in some of that marginalization (again, Feminist Failure blog to follow).
- Being decent, honest, well-intentioned, or even right does not mean people will like you. At times it is precisely why people won’t like you. And you gotta decide what you’re willing to risk to keep doing what you think is right, and what it is in your nature to do.
- Nothing is certain. You can’t control anything but your own reactions.
I keep telling myself that. One day it will sink in.
Thanks for letting me get this off my shoulders. I’d like to keep it there.