Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Old Dead White Men (aka studying for the GRE)

This morning I was talking with a young woman who is also an English major at my alma mater, about her post-college options. And we talked a bit about my unfortunate GRE experience.

A looooooong time ago, I thought I’d apply to graduate schools and become an English professor (poor undergraduate grade notwithstanding). My father is a college professor and to be honest, while the hurdles to get in (and get a job) are hard, the job actually seems pretty cushy. Obviously, I am not a professor. In fact, I did not go to grad school at all aside from a few publishing classes at NYU. But I did take the GRE. And while I was cramming I noticed something strange. My prep book had a list of EVERY literary work that had been on the GRE English Lit test in the prior 7 years, including wrong answers. And it was all old dead white men. Most appalling to me, it had 7 works by Jonathan Swift, and only 1 Brontë sister. (I don’t remember which one but seriously, omitting either is appalling.) This was in 1996. But it felt like 1966. I went to a small, private liberal arts college in the South, which wasn’t exactly cutting-edge (in fact, it’s usually described as fairly conservative). But I had taken a class where NOTHING we’d read the whole year was on the list (the class: Studies in Literature by Women. Some of the snubbed books: Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Surfacing by Atwood. Jazz by Toni Morrison. Not exactly really far-out books.) And my senior colloquium only had 1-2. I was so offended. I had been on the fence about the whole grad school/professor idea in the first place, and although I still did go through the application process, I was even less enthusiastic after this. In fact, this was one of the first times I can remember feeling offended as a woman, and acting like a “feminist.” Until then I’d always felt pretty equal, and my teachers and professors had all been consciously equitable.

I’ve heard a lot in the last few years about how the generation of young women just coming out into the work force thinks we’re past feminism and how they just don’t get it. But that was true of Generation X for a while too. Then we got out in the real world and encountered sexism right in our faces and changed our opinions. It will happen to Generation Y as well. For me the most shocking was when I was working at a chain bookstore. We had 4 opening duties: Newspapers, Trash, Bathrooms, and Vacuuming. The first 3 took 15 minutes or less. Vacuuming took 3 hours. If there was any female on the opening staff, the manager always gave her vacuuming. And I seethed as I vacuumed while my male friends hung out in the break room for 45 minutes, drinking coffee and gossiping. Finally, I complained. I was told I shouldn’t do the trash because I always looked so nice. I was baffled. Was I somehow unable to take out the trash without getting it all over myself? Was it okay for Russell to be covered with garbage while he worked? We didn’t even have a coffee stand in the store –it wasn’t exactly the messiest trash. But I finally occasionally got rotated into trash and bathroom duty (the Magazine supervisor did the newspapers.)

A few months later, two supervisor positions opened up, one in Children’s, the other in Shipping & Receiving. Now, I had been helping out in S&R for months, when I was between register shifts and the store was fairly quiet. I enjoyed it very much and was good at it. I loved that as S&R supervisor, I could see EVERY book that came in the store. Plus, I would hardly ever be on the sales floor which was never my forte. On the other hand, I actively avoided the children’s department. It was full of shrieking, sticky kids, dirty diapers, teachers that wanted you to look up lists of hundreds of books they had no intention of ordering from the store, massive reshelvings, and it was by itself on the second floor where you were isolated. So guess which supervisor position I was offered? Naturally, a girl would want to work with children, not with heavy boxes and sweaty delivery guys. I said no. I wanted to work shipping and receiving. Then my boss had the gall to say to me, “But, our chain doesn’t have any woman shipping and receiving supervisors.” Really? That’s interesting. “Well, you do now,” was my response. I think the unsaid second half of the sentence, “…or you have a lawsuit, take your pick,” was more than obvious. Of course I found out later that wasn’t even true. In fact the closest store to us had a woman S&R Supervisor! And the most shocking thing about my sexist treatment at this store was that the manager was a woman. Yep, she was the one treating me like this. I had always assumed that if/when I ran across blatant sexism, it would be at the hands of a man. This was baffling to me!

I haven’t figured out yet whether or not I think the Orange Prize is a good or bad thing, and while I prefer “humanism” where everyone is treated equally, I do think it’s ridiculous that Publisher Weekly’s Top Ten books of 2009 were all written by men. Sexism isn’t something most people think of when it comes to controversy in the book business, but it’s everywhere. We should all be aware.

1 comment:

Kristen said...

Interesting. When I applied to grad school, I actually wrote a very long essay about why UConn would be missing out if they declined to admit me based on the relative weakness of my grounding in the dead white males (I went to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest and it was fairly liberal so the English class choices were skewed away from the sacred canon). I figured I'd shot myself in the foot by writing about that and admitting my own educational lack, but they admitted me. So either whoever read my essay agreed with me, or they didn't read the essay. ;-) Of course, once there I had trouble graduating early because while I had the requisite number of credits, I didn't take enough of those dead white male clases to suit the chair of the department. He actually suggested that my leaving without having taken Anglo-Saxon would somehow reflect poorly on the university because certainly someone, at some time in my life, would ask me about my degree and be horrified that I didn't know Beowulf in the original. :-P It probably suited him to know that I was leaving school early (albeit with degree in hand) to do the proper girl thing and get married and that's why he gave in and signed off on my diploma.