jessica smartt gullion
My sense that my status had changed was confirmed midway through the fall semester. As I sat in my office preparing a lecture on data triangulation, the department chair poked her head around my door and tapped her fingernails for a moment on the doorframe. Without looking me in the eye, she asked me to join her in her office.
I eased my large body into one of her creaky matchstick chairs, wondering if this impromptu meeting would make me late for my class. The department chair was also the chair of my dissertation committee, and had an inordinate amount of power over me.
“We need to talk about the spring,” she said.
Next spring would be my last semester as a graduate student; I planned on teaching and finishing up my dissertation. I was going to give birth in February, defend my dissertation in April and graduate in May. Some of the other graduate teaching assistants had recently told me they’d already received their teaching assignments for the spring. I was currently the senior among them, and it was a general policy that seniority equated better classes. This fall I was teaching research methods and statistics, and so I assumed I would teach them again.
“I can’t hire you as a GTA in the spring since you are pregnant,” she said. “It would be too disruptive to have you leave in the middle of the semester.” She picked some lint off of her sweater, flicked it on the floor, and stared at me.
I didn’t know how to respond. I was part of a sociology department at a women’s university. We had experts in feminist pedagogy, feminist epistemology, participatory research. We had activists, ecofeminists, crusaders for women’s rights. The woman sitting in front of me had done pioneering work with women employed in inhumane working conditions in the
maquiladoras along the Texas-Mexico border. This was supposed to be my feminist enclave! And this, my haven, was kicking me out, because I was pregnant?
My second thought was more practical than philosophical: If I lost my job, I wouldn’t have my pitiful stipend, or my health insurance. And I was about to have a freaking baby.
“Well, I can understand it would be disruptive,” I agreed in my trying – to-be-calm voice, the baby rolling around under my maternity top. “What about just working as an assistant to someone with a large class? That way it wouldn’t be such a problem when I took off.”
In our department, assistants and GTAs both made the same amount of money (not much), and had the same benefits (namely, health insurance). The primary difference was that GTAs were the teacher of record for two courses per semester, whereas an assistant just helped grade papers and tutor students in the monster-size classes, and did not have to teach.
“We generally use assistants in the beginning of the program, not at the end,” the department chair said. She leaned slightly forward, elbows on the desk, her fingertips touching. “I just don’t think we can use you.”
Ah. I was overqualified.
“I see,” I answered.
My throat burned and choked as I sat on the flimsy chair, but I wasn’t going to let her see me cry. All I could do at that point was get up and leave. By the time I got down the hall to the graduate advisor’s office, I was nearly hysterical. The graduate advisor closed the door behind me while I told her the story.
“What am I going to do?” I sobbed, snot attractively running down my bloated face.
“That bitch!” the graduate advisor exclaimed, slamming her hand down on her desk. “I’m not surprised. We’ll support you all day long if you’re a migrant transsexual teenager who needs an abortion, but God forbid you’re a straight woman who wants to have a baby!” She took my hand and locked eyes with mine. “This is what we are going to do. I am going to go cancel your class right now, and you are going to go home and relax. Then I am going to have a talk with the dean. And if that doesn’t go well,” she said as I sniffled, “we are going to get you a lawyer.” So much for data triangulation.
Fortunately, we didn’t need a lawyer. The dean had actually heard of the Family Medical Leave Act, but more importantly, didn’t want the publicity of a pregnant woman suing a women’s university for pregnancy discrimination. To this day, I don’t think the department chair thinks she was in the wrong. Eventually she assigned me to teach one class online (I could work from home!), and another department picked me up as a research assistant. The class was a new prep, and the first I had taught online, resulting in many more hours of work than my previous courses. Five days after the birth of my son, I was online, working on my class with him sleeping in my lap. The research assignment was completely outside of my field, but resulted in my only peer-reviewed publication as a student.
When I got pregnant my identity changed, in the eyes of my colleagues, from burgeoning young scholar to beached whale. Apparently my ability to think, discuss, or write was instantly erased when my husband’s sperm penetrated my ovum. I once walked in on two fellow graduate students discussing pregnancy in the mail room, right as one said, “I don’t know what it is, pregnant women just weird me out.” She looked up and saw me, my pregnant belly stretching through my maternity top. “Well, not you, of course,” she added hastily. Of course. I had the sense that my colleagues were avoiding me, especially as my belly grew bigger. Conversations changed from social theory and research to how I was feeling and whether or not I planned on staying home with my baby. Even my students treated me differently. While they had never cared much for statistics to begin with, they now tried their best to get me to talk about my pregnancy and about babies in general. Maternity fashions were of particular interest. The students in my online class, however, were blessedly compassionate— much more so than my colleagues. They kept telling me not to check the Web site, to be with my baby; and true to their word, they continued to produce a large volume of work without my constant attention. Many of the students in our online courses also had young children, and favored that environment for its flexibility. Although I can’t help thinking that they, too, have been marginalized out of academia.
Prior to my pregnancy, I had not even realized how the exploration of this fundamental fact of life is left out of the sociological curriculum. There I was, a student of human social behavior, but pregnancy and motherhood were considered taboo, or simply too boring to talk about. While we had a smattering of courses on marriage and family, the general opinion among my classmates was that these were not respected fields of study.
In the first women’s studies course I took as an undergrad, the professor explicitly told us we would not be discussing women as mothers. For too long, she said, women and children have been lumped together as if they
were one. We were going to study women’s experiences outside of that realm, with an eye toward valuing women’s total experiences and not just their roles as mother or procreator. I remember this because I used it myself when I first taught courses on women’s roles. It pains me now to think I could teach an entire course on women’s roles and never talk about the one role that is primary to the majority of women: that of being a mother. This despite inroads women scholars have made into the field of sociology.
When I started the graduate program, the sociological theory professor gave me a list of about 250 social theory books that doctoral students were expected to know for their comprehensive exams. Of these, only one (Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins) even mentioned pregnancy and motherhood. I was trained as a sociologist who could easily deconstruct the world, who could deftly spout revolutionary thought, or could speak about rationalism and bureaucracy. I could hold my own with the postmodern crowd, spewing out nihilistic criticisms of material culture. But I could not tell you anything about being a mom. Theorizing motherhood was unimportant work, and when I began to express interest in doing so, I was further devalued in the eyes of my colleagues.
I approached the feminist theory professor wanting guidance on the subject of motherhood. A strange, pained look flashed across her face. “Um. Sure,” she said. But we never had that conversation, because while she was the resident expert on feminist theory, motherhood was a topic that she, like the rest of my colleagues, knew nothing about. We could all converse with passion about the right to not have a baby. But none of us could talk about what it was like to actually have one.
To triangulate data, we gather information from a variety of sources in order to draw conclusions about the subject under study. During my pregnancy, I observed how focus changed from the talents of my mind to the physicality of my body. I could see it in the way a professor would back away from me in the elevator, trying too hard not to stare at my hormonally enhanced breasts and swollen belly. I could hear it when a classmate uttered “breeder” under her breath, and it got a laugh. I resented it when I was denied my job not because of my abilities, but because I was viewed as a liability. And I felt it in the eyes that followed my heavy frame around the room. The data were there, they added up. The behaviors of my professors, my colleagues, my students, all led me to the conclusion that with pregnancy, I was a scholar, negated.