Playing Dumb: Thoughts on Women’s History Month 2012

by Kohleun

Since 1981, March has been the month to celebrate women’s contributions and the advancement of women’s rights in the United States. Back in 1981, women got a week when (theoretically) every American had to stop and consider that, yeah, women have done good stuff for this country and this world. In 1987, the year of my birth, women’s history claimed the entire month of March and it has held that month ever since. Each year the Library of Congress devises a theme for Women’s History Month and this year that theme is stated as follows:

Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment
Although women now outnumber men in American colleges nationwide, the reversal of the gender gap is a very recent phenomenon. The fight to learn was a valiant struggle waged by many tenacious women—across years and across cultures—in our country.

I’ve got a lot to say about this, so buckle your seat belts. In fact, this post is divided into two parts: The Conceptual & The Practical

I. The Conceptual

As an undergraduate, before I realized what I was getting into, I jumped headlong into one of academia’s oldest “old boys club,” philosophy. All the faculty members in my discipline were (supportive) men and during my four years of study I was one of three women who passed through the program. Granted, philosophy is not the most popular major at my alma mater, but considering that six people graduated in 2009 and I was the only female says something. And, to be honest, the low volume of female philosophers who aren’t working on specifically gendered issues was a key factor in my transition from philosophy to literature. I got tired of having to prove that my questions belonged and I didn’t want to work in the Continental tradition all my life, analyzing the final breath out of language, which seems to be done by anyone who is conscious of gender in philosophy. I just wanted to speak and listen more, fight less. So, at least for the time being, philosophy had to go.

Now, it could be argued that not as many women like philosophy as men do. Okay, I’ll go with that. But why? One of my colleagues recently returned from a conference on gender and higher education where one researcher reported that in the U.S. women’s university enrollment has skyrocketed since the 1950s, but the distribution of women and men amongst the academic disciplines has remained largely the same. For example, women still flock to education and nursing departments and family and consumer sciences, while men still hold the majority in disciplines such as engineering, philosophy, and political science. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not morally wrong to study something that is stereotypically associated with your gender. We can always use more nurses in the world and I say fill those departments up: women, men, anyone in between. And if it weren’t for interior design students now, I know my future abode will be austere and not in a good way. And, of equal importance, I celebrate women who haven’t pursued higher education and have contributed to human history as mothers, writers, baristas, sales associates, artists, social advocates, etc.

I don’t like the implication that to celebrate the history of women we have to pick a month. Yes, I like that at least during March there will be signs and events that bring women into focus, but the fact that we have needed a month each year for the past 30 years says to me that women’s history–our struggles, our innovations, and our triumphs–are still seen as different from American History. Until they are woven together, yes, we need to be collectively reminded of women’s history. I just wish it weren’t so seemingly easy to forget.

II. The Practical

But here we are, reminded, because we still need it. When I crossed the quad today on my way to the office, I passed by one such reminder. Hanging from a tree are pink cutouts of Venus’ Mirror and yellow cutouts of the skirted stick-figure motif that adorns women’s restrooms at the airport. The real clincher, however, are the strands of plastic pink beads that also hang from the tree.

Again, I am glad that people are paying attention to women, but are long-recognized symbols of women’s skirts and vanity the attention we want on a university campus? Where do we go from here when we want to affirm what women have historically been associated with as well as the ways women break the molds on a daily basis?

Well, for starters, to celebrate women’s education and struggles that people have faced and continue to face for the sake of equal education, don’t treat women like we’re stupid. Take our thoughts, our research, and our observations seriously. Argue with us if we’re wrong, but don’t talk down to us. Don’t reduce the representation of university women to outdated symbols and cheap beads. And for god’s sake, don’t hang us in a tree.

This isn’t just an academic problem, women not being taken seriously. If it weren’t still a socially pervasive phenomenon, Pink wouldn’t have recorded a song about it. I’m only half kidding. In Pink’s song “Stupid Girls” she asks why girls are still taught that playing dumb–harming their bodies, catering their opinions and behaviors to men, and pretending to be helpless or ignorant when they are not–is the way to achieve acceptance and happiness. I do take issue with an implication in Pink’s music video–the suggestion that playing with dolls rather than footballs is stupid. It’s not that I think embracing hegemonic models of femininity is stupid (I type while wearing a vintage linen dress and black eyeliner); rather, perpetuating the perception that women are pliable and not quite “with it” is stupid. It makes us look stupid and disrespects not only ourselves but the generations of women (and men) who have fought for our rights to broaden our minds through literacy and formal education. And, let me tell you from experience, playing dumb when you aren’t actually dumb is exhausting.

Women in higher education might be new; Women’s History Month might be new, but that doesn’t mean we’re new here. Women’s intelligence is not new. Women’s perceptiveness is not new. Women’s critical thinking is not new. Our history didn’t begin when Congress decided to give us a month 25 years ago. And we didn’t grow brains when the Library of Congress announced this year’s theme. So, in commemoration of women’s history, let’s be smart every day.