Despite my love of sleeping in on weekends, I woke up early Saturday morning, made myself some coffee, and met up with some friends to attend the Memphis Women’s March.
I’ve read a fair amount of news talking about the futility of demonstrations, but I want to push against this idea. For example, I expected the turn out at the Memphis March to be low and reinforce my distaste for living in a red state. Instead, I walked through downtown with thousands of other people who are dissatisfied with the direction our current administration is leading us. I smiled and talked to strangers. I chanted and clapped about the hope of democracy.
I was motivated to keep up the fight.
If the demonstrations do nothing else, perhaps they’ve reminded millions of people across the United States and the world that they are not alone. This is power.
Of course, I am too pragmatic to think making as sign and walking a few miles is enough. However, the March has shown us that there are enough of us to make a difference. If everyone who attended the marches gave $10 to causes, groups, or even politicians, we could create change. We don’t have oil companies or banks on our side. We have numbers.
To anyone who studies rhetoric, the power of silence and silencing is not a new subject. Cheryl Glen has published extensively on the subject, and her book Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence provides a comprehensive approach.
Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about silence as power a lot lately. This comes from a few events, most notably the recent debate between HRC and Trump. It also comes from a discussion I had with my professional writing class about gendered communication in the workplace. And, an email I received from one of my collaborators on a book project.
Let’s start with the easiest target – the debate. In all fairness, I should admit that I will not vote for Trump. However, I don’t think many experts in politics, public speaking, or rhetoric would dispute that Hilary did a better job. She was more professional and more on target. On the other hand, Trump interrupted Hilary 51 times. Instead, Hilary just looked at the camera and waited her turn.
In response, one woman (E.Van Every) on Twitter posted: “To the men amazed Clinton hasn’t snapped: Every woman you know has learned to do this. This is our life in society. #debatenight” And she’s right. Women are used to being interrupted, talked over, and silenced by their male counterparts. And at the same time, can any of us deny that by being silent, Hilary won the debate? By smiling and listening, Hilary looked more presidential.
Maybe we need to address the difference between being silenced and using silence. In the workplace, women are routinely silenced in meetings by their male counterparts. Even in academic settings, I’ve seen male professors take over panels, dominate Q&A, and monopolize friendly discussions at bars. Even in a the progressive space of Obama’s administration, women were silenced. Obama’s women staffers created a strategy they called “amplification” in which women would repeat the points of women speakers. Being silenced isn’t powerful.
And yet, a recent email exchange with one of my collaborators for a book project demonstrates how powerful silence can be. She emailed us about an upcoming deadline, but none of us responded immediately. A day later, she emailed and asked, “Ok y’all, I’m starting to feel weird about this. Did you make a decision that I don’t know about?” It turns out we were all just really busy and hoped someone else would answer. As a result, our silence made her fear the worst. Our silence had power.
A provost asked me if professional writing students actually get jobs. When I paused to consider how to best answer her question, she asked, “Don’t you know the answer?”
This weekend a student asked me if I like her research question and I thought, “Why are you asking me?”
When I encouraged a student to rethink her approach, she later told me that she thought she wasn’t a good enough researcher and writer.
A colleague asked me to recommend a theorist, I thought “They don’t respect me as a scholar” when I couldn’t namedrop fast enough.
I asked a student how she was doing. She responded, “I’m not very smart. I’m not sure I belong here.”
A colleague asked me under her breath, “Will I ever feel good enough?”
I once thought that I would get my PhD become Dr. Lukowski and believe in myself. However, two years later I can confidently say that I still feel like an impostor. Every time I’m observed teaching, present a conference paper, or submit am abstract I am sure that this will be the moment the they find out.
What am I afraid the spectral they will discover? That I’m a fraud. That I don’t deserve my degrees. And, that I have no business being in academe.
Of course, my rational mind knows that this is ridiculous, but the fears remain. Psychologists Clance and Imes (1978) coined the term “impostor syndrome” while describing high-achieving people who can’t accept their accomplishments fear being exposed as frauds. While Clance and Imes’s study focused on young college women, over the years we’ve discovered that many high-achievers complain of never feeling adequate. Business publications like Forbes and the Harvard Business Reviewpost stories about over coming the syndrome by “re-framing failure” or “seeking support.”
However, for women in the workplace and the academy, failure and seeking support can have more consequences for our careers. So, while women are more likely to experience impostor syndrome, seeking support may not be an option. Women still face persistent sexism in academia; this Guardianstory noted that while 66% of men have tenure, only 42% of women do. Moreover, several studies have shown that women are more likely to experience poverty and job loss. In other words, women have more reasons to be afraid and feel like frauds.
As I think about all of the women I quoted above, I wonder when we will feel good enough. How many awards, accolades, atta-girls, or great classes will it take? Or, is impostor syndrome part of our success? I sometime feel like my drive to do my best comes from my desire to prove them wrong. That, when the time comes, I’ll prove worthy because I’ve done enough.
It’s crazy coming back from a Conference on College Composition and Communicationand trying to readjust to the real world. While at C’s, I had the privilege of working at the Feminist Workshop and meeting with women at the Women and Working Conditions Special Interest Group. Women from all over the country in a variety of academic positions shared their experiences.
With all of this positivity, I was shocked when I read the news about Ashley Judd’s experience on Twitter. The story begins when, like any other American caught up in March Madness, she tweeted a comment about the success of University of Kentucky’s basketball team. Her tweet was immediately met with a vile and violent response. She was threatened with rape, called every nasty name in the book, and reduced to a sexual object. Like women calling out other games for sexism in gamergate, Judd became the target of sexual threats.
Judd published a response to the hate in this article entitled, “Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass.” Judd does a great job of cutting through the crap and getting to the heart of the issue – misogyny. She was targeted with sexual threats because she’s a woman.
Some of her detractors claim this is an issue of free speech and that she part of the idea police. However, I wonder if this is a free speech issue. If someone said, “I’m going to rape you” in the real world, the police could take the threat seriously. I think she’s right to question whether a digital space permits any language. At the same time, I am loathe to infringe on anyone’s right to free speech. Surely there’s a balance?