Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
It’s like the old days of the 1960s and 70s. In the 21st century women are being told to speak up, lean in, stand erect and look boldly at everyone. Why? Because they’re too quiet in the board room, their office and maybe even in the kitchen.
It’s sort of hard for me to swallow this whole since I lived through the pre-feminist years, the heady vital days of an energized feminist movement, and then watched with pleasure as gender distinctions became less important and both sexes moved closer to share tasks like cooking and child care.
Of course Sexism still exists as does racism and all the other isms. It takes a culture a long time to wipe out ancient stereotypes and replace them with new models. But that is exactly what has been happening over the last 60 years.
The point of this essay is to note that sometimes Sexism is alive and well and doing its destructive work. But in other circumstances, though the behavior can look like it’s related to an ism, it isn’t. Other factors can be at work.
Sexism, Pure and Simple
Before I went to college I had never experienced gender discrimination and I don’t think I even knew the word sexism. But then in the 1950s I became a freshman in college. After registering I went to meet with my counselor in order to enroll in classes. My counselor was a portly man in late middle age who barely tolerated me as I told him I had graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and was certainly prepared for pre-med.
I had hardly finished talking when he burst out saying, You can’t do that. That’s for boys! I disagreed, showed him my acceptance papers (which he’d surely seen before and ignored), and like most born and bred New Yorkers kept insisting I had a right to enroll in pre-med. He seemed to change his mind saying ok, alright…but truthfully, he outfoxed me. He assigned me to five lab classes which meant memorizing lists of words every day and taking a test on them…every day. Swiftly I was totally bored and ready for any other major which fortunately soon appeared in the shape of my anthropology professor.
But the fact that my counselor had denied me the opportunity to study what I wanted to based solely on the fact I was female created a new awareness of arbitrary and unreasonable unfairness that continued to grow. My sense of injustice increased with a close reading of Freud and his followers. How could the world have accepted the Freudian premise that women spent their lives searching for a penis they could call their own? I was ready to write my Ph.D. dissertation and by then I had two children. Believe me, the last thing I coveted was a penis. Freud, the psychoanalytic God, was an intrinsic sexist and naked to boot.
In the 1960s, I and mostly other middle-class educated women were becoming aware that gender discrimination was very real and our college degrees weren’t helping us much. As our awareness of the pervasive sexist reality grew, so did anger, resentment, and a very successful Feminist Movement. In my 1971 book, Psychology of Women, for the first time, someone – me! – had written a book of the Psychology of Women-as-Women and not Women-as-not-men. Alas, we won a battle or two, but not the war. Sexism was barely diminished as a national phenomenon. That would take decades of national improvement and the task is not even completed in 2015.
In the mid-1970’s I was an academic star: a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and an Associate Dean of the College. One day the Dean of the Medical School called asking me to join a Med School Committee that would spend months evaluating the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. I graciously refused. He repeated the invitation. I refused again. He begged. I gave in. There just weren’t many women professors to choose from and besides, I’d had two kids in the U of M’s hospital and my doctor was a member of the department. I’d seen and lived through a lot of the dirty under-side of the department.
The day of the first meeting of the 12 person committee it was brutally cold and I was dressed like an Eskimo from my boots to my hat. As was usual… I saw the only other females were a student and a secretary and we were the only ones not wearing a doctor’s white jacket.
For years I had often been the only female professional – all committees needed minorities, specifically a Black and a Broad in their roster and I’d gotten sort of used to it but something in that meeting had been making me uncomfortable…when I got home and could think, I realized that every time I had spoken up the others stopped talking and looked at me like they were paying attention to what I was saying. But like the Red Sea that opened and then slammed shut, I realized that when I finished talking the discussion had always gone back to where it had been before I started talking.
I wondered what was going on: I considered the relevance of what I’d said, my status as a Ph.D. instead of an M.D… what else was left to mark me as an inferior outsider? Perhaps, I thought, it might have been my informal clothes so I carefully prepared for the next meeting. My heels made me 6 feet tall, much taller than anyone else, my suit was somber gray and the silk blouse was white of course. My clothes projected Seriousness and Power. In other words, Take me very seriously.
But it didn’t do any good. My input remained ignored. My presence was not tolerated even as a token. This was especially angering because my academic status as a full professor and associate dean was higher than anyone else is on the committee and making it more outrageous, I was the only content expert.
I was miserable but I couldn’t quit. The Ob-Gyn department was corrupt: openly sexist. There were no women professors; the only women were Ph.D. lecturers or researchers (not on the professor ladder), patients were called meat, and the entertainment at department parties consisted of porno flicks. I was fighting for all women and had won nothing.
That situation went on for close to six months when the committee had to write its report to the Dean. The chairman of the Committee handed out our assignments. The men got important topics and I was told to write about sexism which was viewed contemptuously as a joke.
I remember my introductory sentence: Sexism comes in many forms ranging from subtle and hard to discern to blatant and obvious. I thought that was a pretty plain vanilla opening. But one of the committee members didn’t agree. He yelled out, That’s ridiculous! Ridiculous! There is no such thing as subtle sexism! And he glared at me.
Thank goodness I grew up in the competitiveness of New York. I glared back and very softly said, Oh, but you are so wrong. There certainly is subtle sexism and I am now going to tell each of you – and I slowly stared at each man – what you have done to me. As I worked my way around the massive table the silence grew heavy and intolerable. When I was finished the chairman said, This meeting is over. Judy, I want to talk to you.
Aaaah! My parents are calling me!
Angered beyond belief and expecting a major reprimand, I was thoroughly unprepared when the chairman said, I’m in a men’s group and I know you’re right.
That whole experience of blatant sexism took place in the days when gender put-downs were overt, powerful, accepted and worse, normal. Today, overt sexism is relatively rare compared with 30 years ago but the legacies of those traditional stereotypes linger on though their power is far less than it was.
The take home message is realistically, when your cause – whatever it is – is unpopular and a hard sell, you always need others who have more power and influence than you do who will sustain you and speak out. Having access to a person of power means you are perceived as powerful and that is a weighty advantage. So is having a large number of people who agree with you. The crucial point today is there are many more women than there ever were before who fit that bill. Together, with your own as well as borrowed power you are well able to speak up and speak out. Go for it!