My Response to Sexist Comments: Today I Start Work on a PhD

By now you know that I’m a feminist, albeit a quiet one.  Over the last decade or so of my life, I’ve just taken rude and sexist comments in stride.  And I’m one of those people who avoid conflict at all costs.  So when somebody says something jerky, I tend to go home and cry.  Then, a few days later, I think of a really great comeback.  Don’t you hate that?  If only I had the quick wits and guts to respond in the moment.  It’s something I’m working on.

Anyway, I’d like to share with you two of the insensitive and sexist comments that have been weighing on my mind for years now.  I’m not yet sure if I have a comeback, but I just might.

The first comment: “Women have too many choices.” 

This was said to me innocently, when I confessed to an older male friend that I was having a hard time adjusting to motherhood.  I missed my old job, my coworkers, my pretty clothing, the intellectual stimulation, the lively conversations, and the validation I got from completing the job each day.  I went from that to crying most of the time, changing diapers, not sleeping, and being very very sore.  You can see how one would find all of this overwhelming and depressing.

So, to cheer me up, he said that a long time ago, women didn’t have the choice to work.  Now that they do have a choice, it’s too confusing for them.  It’s like going to the grocery store and trying to buy laundry detergent.  There are at least ten brands, and each brand has ten or more different formulas or scents.  By the time you pick a detergent, your head is spinning and you’re still not sure if what you picked will clean your clothing to satisfactory levels.

public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

We have too many choices when it comes to items at the grocery store.  In fact, this is something Costco prides itself on.  Costco provides you with only one choice per item.  That’s their secret to success.  That and gigantic quantities.  We Americans love BIG!

But I’ve thought about my friend’s comment a lot over the years.  Is it true?  Would women be happier if we didn’t have to choose?  Would women be happier if we only had one option upon becoming an adult?  I doubt it.  (Look at history.)  I’ve also tried to apply this to men.  Would men be happier if they had more options, like women?  What if men could decide whether or not to have a career or stay home?  Would that make them more or less happy?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.  But I do know that I’m glad to have choices.  Even if some of those choices are hard, I’d rather have the freedom to make them than live with somebody else telling me what to do.

The second comment:  “You shouldn’t get a Ph.D. just because you love to read.”

I wasn’t aware that this was my reason for pursuing a Ph.D.  I thought I was trying to get a Ph.D. to further my career, because I love students and want to teach them full time, and because I’m smart and capable of it.  I want to research and write, add my voice to ongoing academic conversations, and eventually teach at a private university, one that requires a Ph.D.

The comment was said to me by a man (with a Ph.D.) during my application process to programs.  In all honesty, I think he said it with good intentions, just like the man above.  He wanted me to think realistically about programs and about how it would affect my life or my future prospects.  However, I felt insulted once I realized what he’d actually said, to my face.  Would he have said it to a male friend?

My response to both of these comments is the fact that I’m starting a Ph.D. program in English with an emphasis in the theory and practice of professional communication today.  Tonight, I have my first class, taught by the director of the program, who has been nothing but complimentary toward me and my accomplishments.  He has praised me, chosen me for one of two research fellowships, and not laughed at me when I’ve shared mistaken ideas with him about my course of study.  He has patiently answered all of my questions and encouraged me.  I feel as if I can trust him with my thoughts, goals, and aspirations, and I look forward to spending the semester in his class.  I am darned sure he would never say any of the above two comments to me.  In fact, I shared with him my ideas for incorporating feminism into my study, and he has wholeheartedly supported that.  In fact, he seemed to think it was a great idea, especially given that the field is male-dominated.  (I’m the only woman in my cohort.)

So, wish me luck tonight as I venture into the next chapter of my life and education.  I know this opportunity comes because I have choices and because I not only like to read, but because I’m capable of being challenged intellectually and just as deserving as any man of attaining more educational and career opportunities.

So there!

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47 thoughts on “My Response to Sexist Comments: Today I Start Work on a PhD

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  1. That’s a large problem I’ve come across with a lot of sexist comments, the men in question honestly do not believe that whatever they are saying is in any way wrong. I try to educate people as they say things like that to me, with limited success. Good post, thanks for sharing!

  2. I’m a feminist too – but a bad one. Sometimes I correct myself after I say something because at second glance, it seems inherently sexist. Sometimes I contradict myself and end up in situations that are less than empowering. But I suppose this makes me part of the majority. I’m in the group of women who didn’t necessarily have to fight for equality but still have to stand up to people who think equality is some silly privilege.

    I think the biggest equality battle right now is the equality in choice. I see it in the debates around abortions and birth control. Why anyone thinks we’d be better off having someone else make the decisions for us, is beyond me.

    1. I like what you said about not having to fight for it but still having to stand up for it. Good point. It is a precarious position we are in and we really do have to fight to keep those hard earned rights. And I agree with you on women being able to choose. I saw an interesting flow chart on this issue. It said, “Do you have a vagina?” and then went on. If you answered yes, then you can have an opinion on reproductive issues. If your answer was no, then “shut up.” It made me laugh.

  3. Many people honestly don’t believe that the things they say are sexist. Like my brother-in-law, who recently described women as, “incubating babies.” Technically, it’s true. We do “incubate.” (I’m laughing while writing this). It’s also reductionist and insensitive. He was honestly confused as to why his mother and I were annoyed with the comment. Haha!

    I think the right thing to say in these situations is, “Why would you say that?” or “Do you honestly believe that?” It gives them an out without being outright accusatory. It’s something I’m working on. In the above example, I just laughed in his face and made fun of the comment for a few days. Probably not the right approach, but it made me feel better. 🙂

    Good luck tonight, hope the class is stellar!

    1. Thank you, Neesha! I appreciate your kind words and I love that we are friends. If only we got to see each other more often…. How far away do we live from each other? 🙂 I seriously never see you. Bummer.

  4. Good luck to you! I think it is wonderful that you are going for a Phd. You are wonderfully insightful and I am sure you will bring much value to the academic world. And it is also great that in these modern times you really don’t have to choose. You are being a mother to your children, and you are furthering both your education and your career. That is something to be so proud of. I don’t know if men will ever stop being condescending toward women, especially mothers. Maybe they just feel threatened. Especially with a tight economy. They have to step up their game too. Unfortunately, women can be just as condescending and anti-feminist as men. I have had women behave disdainfully because I don’t have children. And I know that other women judge stay-at-home mom’s as being archaic and living up to male desires for female. I think that until women can respect other women’s choices, whether they work at home or out in the world, or both, we can’t expect men to value us as true equals.

    1. I completely agree. You make some very astute observations. Women are mean to each other and men demean women, whether they mean to or not. It’s our culture. I keep joking with my husband that if everybody were kind, patient, and obeyed the law, the world would be a perfect place. It’s just all these darn people that keep causing so many problems!

  5. Firstly, good luck with the phd, and well done!
    I think the problem lies in the fact that women should have to make the choice between career and family at all. You see this ‘choice’ talked about a lot, and movies portray women as being either cold career women who eventually learn about the joys of love and family, or family-oriented, ‘traditional’ women. Do men have to make that choice? Of course not – almost all men in the top tiers of business and politics have wives and children. Despite the gains that women have made over the years, the home is still seen as the woman’s responsibility. Many studies have shown that even when both parents have careers, the woman still does the bulk of the childcare and housework. This makes it strikingly difficult for her to juggle both at once, resulting in her needing to make a choice between one or the other. I think both men and women should be allowed to ‘have it all’, a fulfilling career as well as a great home life, but until society stops seeing the household as women’s domain by default and gives both genders a true choice, we will always remain trapped by limiting gender roles.

    1. Thank you! And yes, you have articulated the issue perfectly. I often say, “I need a wife!” My husband, bless his heart, never has to worry who will be watching the children while he’s at work, but when I leave the house, it is a huge ordeal for me and when we need child care, I am the one who finds it. He’s great and supportive, but this is a societal problem. Men should be caregivers, too. Children need that. Women need that!

      1. I always think its funny when mothers tell me that their husband is “babysitting” their kids…. Its called “PARENTING!” and AMEN to all that has been said. I am a feminist, wife, mother, and career women. I hope some day we can just call it being a “humanist.” I also hope that one day our life choices can really be about finding our own individual truths and that society can support this ideal as opposed to hanging onto past cultural expectations.

        On a side note…. I have found that because my profession is one that services children it is often seen as more acceptable in my culture, but whenever I mention the possibility of one day becoming a lawyer I am instantly met with questionable looks and concern…. Why would a women want to do that.. looks… One day I hope to be completely living my own individual truth…

  6. When I started my PhD studies, I was the only woman in the program and was surprised when the head of the department delegated me as the ‘coffee girl’ (not the actual term he used) during our group meetings. And this was only ten years ago. Fortunately everyone else in the department was great and even he came around eventually, more or less (I had to work on him little by little!). Good luck in your studies – it’s a wonderful adventure you are starting 🙂

    1. Thanks for the luck! And what happened to you is terrible! I am glad he came around, but it should never have been your prerogative to have to try to make him see the error of his ways.

  7. Best of luck in this new chapter! It’s a very exciting time for you and I’m sure you’ll find a way to manage all the various components of your life. We’re very lucky that these days, there tends to be much more flexibility around how we complete our education, and that flexibility can accomodate family life quite nicely. I finished a second M.A. back in December, and for the three and a half years I was in the program, I did all the reading and writing at night after the kids went to bed. I didn’t get much sleep, but I got everything done, and my husband was hugely supportive. I’m sure you’ll do great!

    1. Congrats on your accomplishment! I bet you were tired. I am fully expecting to be very busy and very tired, but I like that sort of stress so it should go well. Here’s to sleeping children! Thanks!

  8. I’ll be the first to say it, most men are inherently prideful, and take every chance they can get to put themselves ahead of others. Women often prove to be a very accessible source for a quick ego-boost. There are, however, many who really do have good intentions when they say things, not necessarily because they want to put someone down, but because they are a) only accustomed to older (and oftentimes superior) modes of thinking, and b) feel as if women really would be happier if they didn’t need to worry about things that they go through on a day-to-day basis. I liken it to a somewhat chivalrous attitude that is often times used around women who aren’t looking for that. Our society also tells us that women have to fight to be ‘on-par’ with the men, and so it should be, but that doesn’t mean that some men aren’t just trying to make life easier for someone they respect and/or love. Best of luck on the PhD, but remember to keep giving us guys an open mind from time to time!

    1. After everything you wrote, I am surprised to realize that you are a man! That just proves that not all of them are sexist. And the truth is, I really like being around men in work and school environments. They are easier to talk to in certain situations and can handle bluntness and efficiency without getting their feelings hurt. I do like the way men communicate, when they aren’t pontificating about women’s choices! 🙂

  9. Emily, I honestly don’t think the second comment is “sexist.” But it is inane! If you want the PhD and you want to continue to learn go for it! It sounds like you moved past the remark, but I don’t think it should bother you as a woman. As far as the first comment is concerned, I think we all have too many choices. We would probably be happier living in a simpler, more straight-forward world. But it would be less interesting!

    1. Very good observations as usual, Hugh. Maybe I thought about that second comment a little too much, but I really wondered, would he have said that if I were male? I guess we’ll never know!

  10. Many congrats on starting your PhD. What is it in – sorry to be dim? I am hoping to embark soon on an MA in Children’s Literature, though struggling to justify it financially because I am not sure what I can ‘use’ it for. Trying to juggle working part time with childcare part time and then studying part time is difficult but I am SO glad to have that choice. It still astounds me the assumptions people make about women and choice and that little shaking of the head ‘Well, you wanted equality’. Hmmm. Have you read Caitlin Moran’s book ‘How to be a Woman’? It’s very good in parts (some of it is rather dubious) but I like a lot of her arguments about feminism. Anyway, keep us informed about your PhD!

    1. Go for it! You can’t have too much education. Mine is in the theory and practice of professional communication in the English department, so basically tech writing and editing. My goal is to teach. As to Moran, I have been contemplating reading her book. Maybe in between semesters…

  11. Good for you! Nothing smacks sexism down better than pursuing your own goals and loving your life. Choice is a wonderful thing, women have worked really hard to have equal choices and are no less capable of choosing our paths according to ourselves.

    In my own pursuit of graduate programs recently I’ve also had a lot of comment on my reasons for pursuing further education, and alot of these have been discouraging. Turns out that any reason is a good enough reason if it’s what I choose to do.

    Kudos and good luck with your work!

  12. I get really annoyed at the comments like the first one. We all have choices – women and men of all ages so why single out women?

    Good luck with your PhD. Do you think you’ll be adding a ‘research journal’ side to your blog?

  13. I could’ve written this post – that’s how much our experiences/reactions match. And I want to pursue a Ph.D. in literature as well! Hopefully, I’ll get to that some time soon 🙂 Good luck to you!

  14. Well, it would the height of idiocy to go for a PhD in ENGLISH if you didn’t love to read, wouldn’t it? Hellooooo! 🙂

    As far as the sexism we women encounter, sometimes actions speak louder than words. I choose often to just ignore — people making the comments are interested in anything I have to say anyway and it often simply draws more negative attention. Make your choice and then really give it your all. No words need to be spoken and you don’t have to justify or explain yourself.

    Congratulations on your start, Emily. I wish you all the best. Your intellect shines through in everything you write and you’ll do well and go far, I have no doubt.

  15. Very best of luck with the PhD; i think it’s fantastic! As for the sexist comments, I guess as women we’ve all had our fair share of them. I remember an older woman friend saying to me once ‘when you hit 40, you will suddenly realise that of course women are superior’ – it made me laugh then but when I hit 40 and then 50 I sort of understood what she meant. I’ve met very few women who dole out the kind of sarcastic put-downs that men are so fond of (well not in public at least), and that does show us as the better human being, don’t you think. I so love your blog!

    1. I don’t think my views of feminism are radical. I also don’t think that wanting to be treated with respect is radical. Neither does my husband. “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.”

      1. Emily .. “some” women who comment on your blog are radical feminists: I already checked that.

        Your husband is right to support your study, your PHD. I have written here and elsewhere already shared texts from my blog. In no time, I stated that respect for women is an attitude “radical.”

        I wish you luck in your studies and in your marriage too, why not …?

        Yes, men .. MUST care for children and work in household chores, let me make clear that I think this …

        I do not consider you a “radical feminist.” Forgive me if I caused this impression …

        But, equally, you fight against sexism and disrespect for women (quite rightly) I fight I also radical feminism, which advocates abortion and encourages unnatural attitudes regarding sexuality.

        The political and radical feminism is against the family, so it is against women and against men …

        I know you do not think so ..

        I am against a political discourse that puts women see men as enemies. How to educate a son in such a world?

        Wish you well in your work and family life …

        Eduardo.

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