Being: A Scholar and a Lady

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAAs a teenager, my two greatest aspirations were to be manly and intellectual.

Manly and intellectual–because to be intellectual is to be manly, of course, I thought, and vice versa. That’s just the way things go. Men are the scholars, men write the books, men are the philosophers and composers, men are the thinkers.

Before I left for college, this never really bothered me. I loved men–their thoughts, their art, their history (I still do). I had nothing against women; I just wasn’t interested in adopting their usual aspirations. When I was younger, I wanted to be the men I read about–I was Robin Hood, or Lewis and Clark, making wooden swords and killing monsters and obsessing over The Hardy Boys and Jules Verne. I picked out books from the library because they looked masculine, and therefore scholarly. The old editions, heavy, with gilt lettering and no pictures. That was cool.

And all my literary heroes were men–Socrates, Hector, Don Quixote, Werther, Faust, Hamlet, Hans Castorp. The men who think about things, the men who love words. It was their image I wanted to cultivate for myself, was in love with. It was what I wanted for my future adult self, both as a way-of-being and as a career. I had intellectual aspirations in highschool, read my Latin and Greek and listened to inordinate amounts of German opera. I was going to be a professor, and a thinker like all those men in my books. I was going to have a book-lined study and wear patched tweed jackets. I was going to live the [masculine] life of the mind.

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But then I went to college and became a reluctant feminist, and suddenly the image I loved (or rather, my love for that image) became deeply disturbing. Perhaps I had the makings of a scholar–but I was not, after all, a man.

The question was unavoidable: what happens when one is a scholar, but not a gentleman? Because it is only the men, who are portrayed as capable of devoting themselves to the stringent, lonesome, heady, wonderful world of the intellect and academia. That’s what the media tells us, that’s what 3,000 years of art tells us. Think: name one film, one book, that portrays it otherwise. The intellectual, the aging male professor, in a dusty study surrounded by books, the pipe-smoke, the tweed jackets, the unkempt hair. Faust in his dumpfes Mauerloch, Socrates pattering about Athens in rags, Prospero with his scrolls and spells, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. This is the image we know and expect, in all its variations over the past millennia. Scholarship, reason, dialectic, debate–all these are somehow masculine traits. The archetype of intellectuality–the life of the mind–belongs to men.

I knew all this in highschool, at some level. But somehow I never saw any obstacles to my desire to take up the role and adopt the image for myself. Now it all seemed insurmountably problematic. I was female, after all–but the woman intellectual just didn’t fit the mold, didn’t have a place in three thousand years of art. She didn’t have an image, a reflection somewhere in the collective consciousness.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAI wasn’t going to give anything up, because I loved my dreams, loved the archetype of the (male) academic. The rigor, the Word, the devotion to thought, the study and the books–it was in this universe that I was most joyful. But–did my pursuit of the life of the mind, as a career and a way-of-being, imply a betrayal of femininity? Had I already done that? Or, conversely–was the image that I loved one I, as a female, was even allowed to participate in?

How do I be female (let alone feminist)–I asked–while pursuing an image that is so overtly male? What heroes do I take, what scholarship do I produce?

Yes, there are people (and ever more of them!) like the new young Classics professor in my school’s department. She is tenure-track, publishes widely on Platonic philosophy, has the book-lined study–and is also married and pregnant, and is teaching an entire semester of Myth in heels and power suits. She is doing it all, with intelligence and grace. But–what is she drawing on? Where are her heroes, her archetypes? Even her presence in my life, for which I am incredibly grateful, doesn’t do a thing to fill the void of the past 3,000 years.

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And yet–and yet–I am beginning to see how one might revel in the ambiguity, in the silence of art, in the lack of a self-reflection in mainstream literature and film. Isn’t it all incredibly freeing, after all? As a woman and hopeful future scholar, I have no archetypes, no image that belongs rigidly to me–and so I can create! I can make a new idiom, new tropes, and let go of the idea that I have to adhere to the old ones.

In this way, female intellectuals and academicians have much more freedom than their male counterparts–their existence is fluid, flexible. To steal another lovely German word, they are Mischwesen. Mixed beings. They are between two worlds, and they can move between them.

I can move between them. And I do. I wear skirts and heels to class one day, tweed jackets and button-downs the next. I can produce real scholarship, maybe write that book on metaphor one day, and still want to be a mother and a wife. I can write on “Women’s Issues” if I wish, or not. I can still hold on to all those old male heroes, but realize that they only tell half the story.

“You’ll never be a cult figure,” says the young Classics professor, when I stop by her office to thank her for three years of good teaching. “That’s just not how students relate to female professors.” I think about the dozens of freshmen I work with in the Writing Center, all breathless with adulation for their male Heritage and Lit professors. Can I let that go? Yes, I think so. Did I even want it in the first place? Perhaps not. No human being deserves worship. I will be content with (and honored for!) the chance to earn respect in the classroom, to create and participate in dialogue, to think and write about beautiful things.

But I still have a long way to go. In the meantime, I revel in this in-between area. There’s something incredibly playful about it all, in the end. It is the space, the vacancy, and the silence that allow for real creativity.

~~~~~~

Perhaps someday the image of the female intellectual will start making it into the collective consciousness, into mainstream art and film and literature. Perhaps someday there will be a new type. But maybe, I think, I don’t even want that to happen. Archetypes and images are comforting, but in the end they imply restriction, a lack of freedom.

In the moment, I like falling through the cracks.

_______________________

This article from thehumanist.org has many fascinating things to say on women in academia.

The photo was taken outside the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. The sign reads “Women, women, women.”

5 thoughts on “Being: A Scholar and a Lady

  1. Emily,

    Lovely essay. But methinks your viewpoint is a bit outdated. I need recall only one marvelous scholar, Hannah Arendt. Out of so many — a pittance, I know. Gender-appropriate is now fast disappearing as, inter alia, women assume combat roles in the Middle East (which as the father of five daughters, one of whom is a scholar of sorts and another the avocational leader of a rock band, still shocks me, a hopeless romantic). Hegel: the bud, the flower, the fruit — transformation! You are a true original and originals engender their own standards.

    Where is that translation of your Kafka piece?

    Jim

    • Jim!
      First of all, a Kafka post is coming! I know I keep saying that, but this time I really mean it.
      Secondly, in the above post I’m not meaning to say that there weren’t any historical female intellectuals over the past millennia (though they are comparatively few and far between)–but rather that the image of the female scholar/thinker has hardly made it, as a “type,” into literature and art in general, especially pre-20th century. Sure, there are a few exceptions–one need only think of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium. But even there, I would argue, she herself is more or less a projection of Socrates’ own intellectuality–she only speaks through him, after all, and has no independent presence in the work.

      In German literature, there are a few fictional women who “take over” the image of the male intellectual for themselves–in Adalbert Stifter’s “Brigitta” and Thomas Mann’s fantastic “Gerächt” (Revenged/Avenged), for example. Fascinatingly, though, they are only portrayed as intellectual/scholarly in as much as they leave their femininity behind them, both in terms of physical appearance and otherwise. In most of art, there seems to be a great tension between portraying a female character as intellectual, and portraying her as truly feminine–like somehow they can’t go together.

      So there’s my two cents, anyway. It’s certainly a fascinating topic!
      Emily

  2. Great piece of writing you’ve posted. Have you spent any time with Adrienne Rich? She’s an amazing woman, brilliant poet and essayist who thinks a lot about the topics you’ve addressed here. May be an appropriate time for you to spend an hour looking in to her if you have never made the acquaintance. I admire the way your author-voice maintains an engaging, conversational tone while also addressing important topics, it’s a delight to read.

  3. Emily!

    Don’t forget that men are forced into exaggerated gender roles as well. One of the toughest is the macho act: John Wayne and his always-ready fists and six-gun, well compatible with war and professional wrestling but not with peace, aesthetics, social science, metaphysics. Didn’t bother Byron, O.W. Holmes, Hemingway, T.E. Lawrence of course. Did Nietzsche, so unlucky in love, bridge the role gap with his uber mensch, of which he considered himself a prime example?

    The eternal feminine is perhaps a loftier ideal, valorizing love, establishing civilized standards beginning with the family, gentle while ennobling, a romantic leavening of the rigorously rational that has made philosophy so hard-boiled and desiccated, so quick today to embrace the void. That’s why we all love Blanche DuBois and hate Stanley Kowalski. The ideal might be the happy medium, provided by Stella.* But women’s role being the yin-passive one in Western society is a relic of the day when muscle power trumped intellect.

    Jim

    * Pardon this intrusive thought; I adore “Streetcar Named Desire.”

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