Despite one’s best intentions age does catch up to us. Finishing graduate school, having children, getting that first job, and then finally tenure. It’s a nice academic narrative. But more often then not we continue into this middle-aged zone, much as I have, thinking that we are still pretty much the same person we were 20 or 30 years ago. However, even if we still see ourselves as that radical young activist campaigning against pornography and engaged in direct actions against x-rated vendors our younger colleagues are more likely see us as a middle-aged male professional wielding power and authority over them.
What a let down.
Today’s academic workplace is overwhelmingly female but the positions of authority remain the bastion (perhaps the last bastion?) of male control. In my own academic department most of the untenured faculty are women in their 30s while most of the full professors are men in their 60s (which leaves me still somewhere in the middle). Despite the long-term demographic transition that is feminizing the academe, many of the positions seen as powerful remain in the hands of men. Arguments and explanations that it’s a matter of lifecycle and history are rarely accepted nor do those who see this as a hierarchical system based upon power and gender appreciate them (rightly so). That gender plays a role in academic politics should not be surprising for those of us who cut our teeth on the works of women like Eleanor Leacock, Katherine Gough, and Margaret Benston.
I’ve never been one to deny that each of us is a product of our world and our times. Thus I quite bluntly assert that no one among us is free from the prejudice of sexism, ageism, racism, or homophobia, irrespective of our age, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. We carry with us the values and experiences of our childhoods and our adult lives. Sometimes these underlying values drive us to explicit acts, other times they are merely an unconscious background to our patterns of speech and behaviour – I still stand to the side at doors holding it for older colleagues or women – that’s not a virtue, it’s a habit drilled into me by my mother and grandmother.
Confronting racism and sexism does rely upon each of us to accept our own inherent racisms and sexisms. It doesn’t mean we tiptoe around issues – I value (but perhaps this is gendered?) clear direct honest statements more than the lily-livered middle-class liberal platitudes spoken softly and with what often seems to me to be a rather passive-aggressive undertone. Though, who doesn’t bristle (except the saints among us) when we find ourselves positioned as an abstract and ahistorical dominating source of power. Are we post-modernists in our writing – eschewing grand narratives in a holistic play of polyvocality- but structuralists in our work place where roles take precedence of actors and agency? Sometimes it does seem that way.
I subscribe to a variant of socialist feminism – one that sees the oppression of women (as reflected in misogynist pornography, for example) as being integral to the maintenance of contemporary capitalist society. Thus, confronting sexism means to necessarily also confront capitalism. However, the particular history(ies) of sexism in our world and the way in which specific benefits have fallen to men, even working class men, means that simply rejecting capitalism is not a sufficient act to confront the issue of women’s oppression. Capitalism may give a specific form to sexism, but sexism predates (and sadly) could easily continue after the demise of capitalism. This necessitates a combined program that links strategic struggles against class exploitation with struggles against the oppression of women. Thus, if we really want to address sexism we have to also attack class privilege in general, not just fragments of it.
When I was younger I had a far grandiose idea of what could be done. As I have grown older I have come to see this struggle reduce to those things that I in fact can control in some small way. The big questions of world hunger and peace and the impending environmental collapse remain important issues, however I see my zone of local control as more and more in those things that affect the person. It is, I realize, quite true that the personal is political, except that I see this in a somewhat different manner than it was implied in the midst of the 1970s women’s liberation movement.
So, what have I done? Beginning with the socialist feminist idea that women’s oppression is in a critical way located within the realm of the reproduction of labour power I endeavoured to act, not as a father (which, of course I am) but as a co-parent. That means attempting to share the responsibilities and obligations for parenting as an equal and attempt to engage in an equitable division of responsibilities, obligation, and pleasure (for parenting is more than work, it can be emotionally rewarding as much as it can be taxing).
In my work place this meant arguing for flexible teaching schedules that would allow those with parental responsibilities, but no day care or afterschool care, the opportunity to be both scholar and parent. As my children grew it also brought me into the domain of parent politics and school politics where I spent over a decade being involved in school-based parent committees. These engagements led me to become a public advocate in support of public education and the teachers who did the work educating our children. Though, by the end of my involvement with public education advocacy I came to the perspective that our expectations of the school system are misplaced, since we ultimately are unwilling to redistribute social wealth in a way that would address all of the expectations placed upon our schools.
Being a parent changes how one views the world – it leads, at least for me- to a greater sense of humility and a sobering reconceptualization of what we can in fact control – precious little. In my work environment I have translated this into a do what is asked locally (as best I can) and work at a higher level to try to make changes.
One area that faces serious equity issues in our University is the conditions under which aboriginal faculty work. Though there are only a handful of us the issues are fairly stark. In the university of excellence one either goes along or one gets pushed out (though arguments can be made for a third path). I have seen a number of examples since starting to work in my university – tenure denial, shifts out of the tenure stream, non-renewal of contacts, resignations and on it goes – there are good things too – very important to say. But I would like to focus some of whatever power that others think I have into changing the situation for aboriginal faculty so that we don’t constantly have to make excuses or provide explanations when we do things differently. I’d like to think that my progressive female and male colleagues who are concerned about gender will join with their aboriginal faculty colleagues in trying to make our work environment all that much better, that they will be honest and acknowledge their own racisms and misconceptions about us, and that together real progress can be made. However, as long as we let those with REAL POWER divide us and pit us one against the other no one will really win, except those who always have won – those in positions of administration and authority who have the power and control over real resources and real decision making.