Big Girl

(Cover of Sara Ahmed’s 2014 Willful Subjects)

I had never been in better shape in my life.  There I was, for some reason playing intramural flag football with a team from my first-year dorm, sprinting around the field feeling lean and strong.  After about twenty minutes of play against a neighboring dorm, we had scored several touchdowns and smelled victory. As we lined up on the makeshift line of scrimmage, our quarterback planning to throw it to me long, I heard an opponent yell, “Get the big girl.  Cover the big girl!”  It wasn’t until after the touchdown that I registered the exhortation and realized that the opponent was referring to me.  I think it was at that very moment when lean, sinewy me decided to embrace the big girl.  I didn’t articulate it to myself (I wasn’t the most introspective back then), but I think I knew that, if my fit, active self was still “the big girl,” then so I would be her, fully her.  Not just big and muscular (and now fat, too), but also loud and hungry for life and full of opinions.

With each passing day, being the big girl became more and more entertaining, more and more natural—more and more, just me.  It is no accident that I’m listening to Lizzo’s “Feeling Good as Hell” as I write this. (Oh my God, I love the line in Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” of “That’s the sound of me not calling you back.”) In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I discuss having seen the film Julie and Julia and marveling at Julia Child’s taking ownership of how others perceived her—recognizing her height and stature and funneling that into her joie de vivre.  Many years ago, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I, both teachers, read Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. We joked that my book would be called Subduing Ophelia, but we also took very much to heart the ways in which adolescent girls learn to shrink.

If it were just us big girls here on earth, then I think we would remain big and hungry and laughing and experimenting—curious about the world and loving towards it.  Lamentably, though, even the biggest and loudest of the big girls can become invisible.  Although individual blame can surely be placed (no need to mention here Weinstein and Trump as metonymy for all the power-hungry rapists who disappear women), I find it most useful to understand invisibility as social structure and institutional habit. I write about this copiously, and from both theoretical and practical perspectives, in the Gender Shrapnel book.  In the book, invisibility is part of an intersectional paradigm of and with gender, and it plays against visibility (being invisible at all the wrong moments and then too visible, too scrutinized at other moments).

My sister and I, two girls of the seven children in our family, have laughed often about sitting in the stands, watching a brother play a sport, and hearing others talk about our family.  “Yeah, that number 12, that’s one of the Mayock boys.  They have seven kids, all boys.”  We told each other we looked fabulous and that we were the hottest of the seven Mayock boys.  When I made the All-District (or whatever they called it back then) basketball team, my brother, who was in the same year of high school as me, did as well.  We were delighted for each other.  I was too naïve to be concerned when the local paper wrote about my brother in the blurb about me and wrote about my brother in the blurb about him.  But I started to understand when one of my mother’s best friends wrote a letter to the editor complaining about it.  She didn’t use the term “invisibility,” but that was surely what she disliked—the erasure of an adolescent girl’s accomplishments and the double offering of an adolescent boy’s accomplishments.  None of the sexism from back then felt personally motivated or enacted.  It felt institutional, habitual, natural.

I am 54 now.  I started teaching when I was 21.  I have taught a lot of students in a lot of different classes in many different contexts.  I think you could call me a professional, someone who knows her stuff and cares about how she does her work.  I am bigger than I used to be—a “bigger girl” in some ways.  But I’m reminded each day that invisibility is still an institution, a habit.  Many of my students call me “Mrs.” or “Señora,” while they call my male colleagues “Professor” and “Doctor.”  Just the other day, I replied to an email from a colleague at a neighboring institution.  His email signature indicated he was a colonel, and so I addressed him as “Colonel So-and-So.”  I included my formal email signature.  In Colonel So-and-So’s reply, I was “ma’am.”  In meetings, I have found that I no longer even stick up for myself, cementing my own invisibility, because it’s exhausting and because it brings on the kind of visibility that I’m tired of attracting.

A colleague recently said I was being “willful” when I asked for more information about a decision our group was making.  Of course, the word transported me immediately to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant Willful Subjects (Duke UP, 2014).  In the introduction, Ahmed writes, “Willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given. (…) Willfulness involves persistence in the face of having been brought down.” She adds that, for women, “to be identified as willful is to become a problem” (3). For me, the big girl is the willful subject, whose very assertion of self is constantly scrutinized, criticized, and erased.  The repetition of removal affects the individual herself and all those who witness it, coming to understand the price of willfulness.

It is within this context that I think about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy to become the Democratic candidate for the President of the United States.  While the major woman candidate before her was “locked up,” again and again, institutional structures (Russia’s interest in U.S. elections; the Democratic party itself; Bernie Bros; traditional and social media; debates designed to have candidates go after each other; etc.) functioned for some crucial weeks to silence, or make invisible, Elizabeth Warren, whose big brain and detailed plans should make her perhaps the most visible of the remaining candidates.  Thomas Friedman, in his February 25th (2020) op-ed titled “Dems, You Can Defeat Trump in a Landslide,” made clear that either Sanders or Bloomberg will be the white male savior, and that everyone else should fall in line in their secondary roles.  Super Tuesday is this coming Tuesday, and I’m not yet ready to join the invisibility train for the person I believe to have the best of the best of what all candidates can offer.  (Of course, I will support and vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination.  That should go without saying.)

This big girl wants to see Elizabeth’s Warren big brain, huge heart, detailed plans, and willful ways occupy the White House.  Fingers crossed for a Super Tuesday.

Free Speech: For Whom is it Free?

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States…

Yesterday the so-called president of the United States had what should have been the pleasant task of honoring Navajo code talkers from World War II. As we all know by now, he did so at the White House, in front of a painting of Andrew Jackson, fetishized Native peoples, and then, for at least the twelfth time, referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”  Donald Trump’s and Elizabeth Warren’s workplace is the Unites States government, whose buildings include the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and media venues and publications.  This racist epithet, repeated now so many times, constitutes not only demonstrated racial harassment of Elizabeth Warren as employee in the national workplace, but also racial harassment of Native peoples in general.  This could be grounds for a Title VII lawsuit against the harasser-in-chief and should be added to the long list of discriminatory, harassing, and retaliatory actions taken by this individual.

Some of you out there might think, “Oh, come on.  This is no big deal.  These are just words.  Let’s move on.”  I would ask you, though, how often will we agree to move on?  The racist-in-chief already lowered the bar so far so as to not only allow, but actually encourage, the violence of Charlottesville, thus chilling and degenerating conversations about racial justice, extreme incarceration, and hate speech.  These highly public statements, made live, on the news, and impetuously, through Twitter, create a hostile work environment for the individuals targeted and for the groups the harasser-in-chief believes they represent.  I also wonder if those who do not belong to legally protected categories but who do experience harm from the hostile work environments that impinge on others’ freedoms have some sort of claim here to insist on improved environments for all.

In this piece from The New York Review of Books (9-28-17), National Legal Director of the ACLU David Cole asks these important questions: “Does the First Amendment need a rewrite in the era of Donald Trump? Should the rise of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups lead us to cut back the protection afforded to speech that expresses hatred and advocates violence, or otherwise undermines equality? If free speech exacerbates inequality, why doesn’t equality, also protected by the Constitution, take precedence?”  Cole examines the elasticity of the First Amendment, stating that fewer millennials have faith in free speech than did previous generations and that some European nations differ from the United States in the scope of prohibitions against racist speech.  While Cole acknowledges the importance of these points, as well as the significance of the 1993 collection of essays titled Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, he still insists: “If free speech is critical to democracy and to holding our representatives accountable—and it is—we cannot allow our representatives to suppress views they think are wrong, false, or disruptive.”  In a speech delivered in Lexington, Virginia, Virginia ACLU Board member Wornie Reed cogently and ardently defended free speech along the same lines, as he does in this piece about the Virginia ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville white supremacist rally leader Jason Kessler.

Ted Gup writes in “Free Speech, but Not for All?” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4-27-17): “Barring speakers or preventing hate speech does not safeguard the oppressed. It empowers the oppressors, and it suggests that their words are to be feared for a compelling, persuasive power that, absent the muzzle, might infect others.”  As Gup defends free speech in his critique of Ulrich Baer’s argument, he makes reference to “Baer and his ilk.”  He cites “abolitionists, gay and lesbian people, civil-rights activists, feminist, and others on the cutting edge of change” as groups who have benefited from unfettered free speech, but then uses Arthur Miller as the principal example of someone who was barred from speaking at the University of North Carolina.  Arthur Miller did not suffer for lack of visibility and invitations to share his work publicly, but many others from the groups cited by Gup certainly have.

Cole, Reed, and Gup make excellent arguments in favor of maintaining free speech laws.  These arguments have sound basis in constitutional law and knowledge of traditional touchstones for democracy.  Nevertheless, I find the arguments also to be steeped in a nostalgia for the United States as the cradle of democracy from centuries past, when founding fathers owned human beings and limited the rights of enslaved individuals and women.  Democratic freedoms played favorites back then, and they still do now.  When I think about the $17 million of taxpayer money used by members of Congress to hush cases of harassment against them, I think again about who gets to speak, who is silenced, and who pays for it all.

My question, then, is this: At what point have we indulged free speech so thoroughly and allowed free speech to become so married to Second Amendment rights that free speech can be said to limit the freedoms of others? If African-Americans and other people of color felt unsafe just existing in the streets of Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, then they were less free to navigate the public sphere during those days.  If Nazis and presidents continue to be given maximum public forums to expose hatred, they change the environment and the level of risk for the groups they hate (people of color, migrant peoples, women, non-Christians, LGBTQIA+ individuals, etc.).  Why must someone’s right to use the N-word or the C-word, both of which can constitute physical threats, supersede others’ rights to move through public spaces, which include workplaces, restaurants and stores, schools, and government office buildings?  If the Sessions Justice Department advocates for greater free speech, especially on college and university campuses, can we interpret this as providing a more ample forum for hate speech?  If so, then hateful speech acts will require more corporeal forms of resistance, thus upping the ante on conflict and the real risks and dangers it represents. (*See Tiya Miles’ piece, “Fighting Racism Is Not Just a War of Words,” in the 10-21-17 The New York Times.  See also Adam Harris’ free speech-hateful speech piece in the 10-25-17 The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

In her book License to Harass, Laura Beth Nielsen states: “Rather than seriously engaging in an analysis of the costs and benefits to society of rules that might limit such behavior [hate speech], American courts have treated such conduct as ‘speech,’ which can be regulated only if the state offers a compelling justification.  This doctrinal treatment in effect grants a license to harass.  The judicial protection of offensive public speech works to normalize and justify such behavior” (3). Nielsen then (on page 3, and later in Chapter 7) makes the point that the most legally restricted form of public/street speech is that of begging, a restriction which demonstrates a significant class bias.  We might consider swinging the pendulum away from granting power to practitioners of hate speech and violent speech and towards those who have already been afforded certain protections under the law (Title VII, Title IX) precisely because of their historically limited free access to public spaces and media outlets.

The harasser-in-chief has created the biggest hostile work environment possible—the United States of America.  We do not have to allow this to continue.