Monday, October 24, 2011

Destiny's Woman

On a recent, long plane flight, I read The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides), and found a few sentences of interest. If I were an underliner, I would have underlined these, both on the same page of the novel:
Madeleine worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men.
and
Phyllida's hair was where her power resided.
OK, I stand corrected about hair and power.

The first quote is interesting, in part because of the use of the word "destined". Is Madeleine worried about being cowed by less capable men because she can't do anything about it, or because she won't do anything about it? Either way, she has a sense of foreboding that this might be a feature of her life.

But why would it be a feature of the life of a young woman like this character in the novel -- an intelligent, literature-loving, Ivy-league graduate?

Have any of you ever felt that way, particularly early in your academic career?

I never felt that I was destined to go through life cowed by less capable men, but I did worry that I was destined to have lots of experiences in which I was automatically assumed to be less capable than less capable men, just because I am a woman. And in fact, this has been my destiny.

I have met this destiny, and it was mine, but that was then, this is now.

I got older. Some of the less capable men fell by the wayside, some are still around and doing well. All of this matters less and less to me as I get older and have more freedom and confidence in my work.

Even so, I liked the sentence in the novel because it captures a feeling you can have, particularly when you are young, about how things might go in the future, in part because you do not have super-human confidence in yourself and in part because life is unfair and strange.

Just don't be cowed. You don't have to be cowed. Just say no to being cowed. Or, if you are cowed now and then, OK, that happens, but don't let it be your destiny.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

What you said! Awesome post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. yes, I had this feeling overwhelmingly and I refused to be cowed. I had the pressure of the family and the society for marrying to men again and again I definitely knew are not match or capable (this was Indian orthodox society in 90s). I refused. Now fast forward to 2011, I am married to a highly capable wonderful individual, have two wonderful kids and have a faculty position in state MRS on northwest America.

Claire Warwick said...

Thank you: I know just what you mean and take comfort from your helpful post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I may print this out and post in on my wall so that I can remember - I will not be cowed. Yes I feel this way too often but no I don't think it's my destiny - just a common feature of a life in science when you're female. While I wish this weren't true it isn't enough to make me give up science or give up on pushing forward. Great Mike Skinner song "when you're going through hell -KEEP GOING" - who knows what's ahead but it doesn't pay to take a seat in hell. So I push and evade and do what I do while trying not to fret about the continual efforts to push me off the stage. This helps - thanks!

Kea said...

Wow, you really don't get it. Those of us that DIDN'T get make it in science feel like this EVERY SINGLE SECOND.

Kea said...

And I am not letting it be my destiny. It is insulting to think that anyone would.

Anonymous said...

Kea, I for one don't get your comment, or why you are insulted, or whatever. The post is a riff on a quote in a book written by a man, imagining the thoughts of a girl in college. Don't you get that?

Anonymous said...

Thanks FSP for posting this. It's one of the most inspiring things I have read in a very long time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, FSP! It is a timely post. I need this reminder right now...

Anonymous said...

Huh, I don't relate to this feeling at all. Maybe chalk it up to having a father who told me I could do anything and a brother who was less academically inclined (I was used to being better). I can't recall ever feeling 'cowed', I don't even know what that means, viscerally. I can relate to having my confidence chipped away little by little, until now I feel like maybe I can't achieve what I'd hoped... But not 'cowed' per se; when I have felt lesser, it was always around some truly amazing people (as in, actual geniuses).

Anonymous said...

Another thank you. I don't think of it as destiny, but I find time and again that it takes brazenness and what seems like an unrealistically positive and self-important attitude to succeed professionally in science--at least at this stage (I'm a postdoc). I'm excited by my work and have talent for it, but I'm never blind to the flaws in my ideas or think I'm indispensable for progress. I don't mean to polarize, but it seems like there's a significant difference in degree in where men and women scientists fall on this scale.