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!