MODELS OF PEOPLE AND PLACES
It is often said that a good female “role model” can make up for the pervasive discouragement women find in academe. By role model I mean simply a person whom a student feels she wants to be like or could become. It is
someone she may magically incorporate into herself, someone who, intentionally or not, throws her a psychic lifeline. A role model is thus highly personal and idiosyncratic, although she may nonetheless fit a social pattern. I am aware of being part of an invisible parade of models. Even as I seek a model myself, I partly am one to students who are, in turn, models to still others. Various parades of role models crisscross each other in the university, and each goes back in psychological time.
For example, I distincdy remember my mother directing me at the age of sixteen toward a model of a professional woman who followed her husband from place to place outside the United States. My mother worked hard in support of my father’s work in the foreign service, and while her own situation did not permit her a career, it was something she had always admired. At one cocktail party, crowded and noisy, she whispered in my ear, “Mrs. Cohen. Go talk to Mrs. Cohen. She’s a doctor, you know.” I hesitated, not knowing what I could say or ask. My mother made eye signs and I ventured over to Dr. (Mrs.) Cohen. As it turned out, she was the hostess of the party. One of her three small children was complaining that he couldn’t unlock his bicycle. A tray of hors d’oeuvres had spilled and Mrs. Cohen was hysterical. She was ignoring her son and the spilled hors d’oeuvres for the moment and concentrating on stuffing some eggs, every fifth one of which she ate. As I began preparing the eggs with her, she explained how practicing psychiatry outside the country was impossible, that moving every two years messed up the relations she might have had with her patients, had she any patients. She popped yet another egg into her mouth and disappeared into the crowd. Yes, Mrs. Cohen was a model of something, the best model my mother could find for me, and only much later did 1 begin to really understand her situation and my mother’s.
Actually it was not so much Dr. Cohen herself as it was her whole life, as part of what Hanna Papanek calls the “two person career,”13 that became, for me, the negative model. From the perspective of the 1970s, 1 imagine that in twenty years young women will, in the same way, scan individual models to sense the underlying situation, the little imperialisms of a man’s career on his wife’s life. Dr. Cohen’s husband had one role, and his role created two for her. Male careers in other fields, including academe, differ from this only in degree.
This is the second sense in which we can talk of models—models of situations that allow a woman to be who she gradually gets to want to be. Models of people and of situations, some appealing and some distressing, march silently across the university grounds. Among the inspiring leaders < >1 this parade are also some frightening examples of women who lack the outer symbolic or material rewards of accomplishment: the degrees, the higher-level jobs, the promotions, the grants that their male counterparts have. In some cases, too, these women show the inner signs: a creativity that
may have cramped itself into modest addenda, replications oi old research, or reformations of some man’s theory—research, in sum, that will not “hurt anyone’s feelings.” What is painful is not simply that a particular woman may have been denied a job, but rather that she may face the daily experience of being labeled a dull or unpromising dutiful daughter in research. The human pinch for such a woman is not simply having to choose between a full-time commitment to her profession or a family, but what it means to remain single among couples, to have her sexual life an item of amused curiosity. For others it isn’t simply the harried life of trying to work and raise a family at the same time; it’s the premature aging around the eyes, the third drink at night, the tired resignation when she opens the door to a sparkling freshman who wants to know “all about how social science can cure the world of war and poverty’.”14 There are other kinds of models, too. By the early 1970s women had earned degrees and good jobs and, with it all, some had established egalitarian arrangements at home. But I think they are likely to remain a minority because of a tight job market and the career system itself and because women inside academe are often constrained from lobby mg for more women. It’s not professional Speaking only for myself, I have found it extremely hard to lobby for change while sitting in a department meeting with dozens of senior male professors, among them my mentors. I have felt like a totem or representative more than an agent of social change, discredited for being that by some professors and for not being more than that by some feminists. Of course when I do speak up, it is with all too much feeling. It is immeasurably easier, a joyous release, to go to the private turf of my classroom, where I become intellectually and morally bold. If I had to locate what has been my own struggle, it would be right there in that committee room.
Women respond not simply to a psychological lifeline in the parade, but to the social ecology7 of survival. If we are to talk about good models we must talk about the context that produces them. To ignore this is to risk running into the problems I did when I accepted my first appointment as the first woman sociologist in a small department at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Some very strange things happened to me, but I am not so sure that anything happened to the department or university. Sprinkled thinly as women were across departments there, we created a new minority status where none had existed before, models of token women.
The first week there, I began receiving Xeroxed newspaper clippings and magazine articles praising the women *s movement or detailing how bad the “woman situation” was in medicine or describing Danish women dentists. These clippings that began to swell my Шее were invariably attached to a friendly forwarding note: “Thought you’d be interested” or “Just saw this and thought of you.” I stopped an older colleague in the hall to thank him for an article he had given me and inquired what he had thought of it. He
hadn’t read it himself. I began to realize that I was becoming my colleagues’ friendly totem, a representation of feminism. “I’m all with you people” began to seem more like “You be it for us.” And sure enough. For every paper I read on the philosophy of Charlotte Gilman, the history of the garment union, the dual-career family, or women and art, 1 wondered if I shouldn’t poke a copy into the mailboxes of my clipping-sending friends. I had wound myself into a feminist cocoon and left the tree standing serenely as it was. No, it takes more than this kind of “model.”