Since the incident I wrote about last week,  in which I failed to stand up for my fellow women, I have tried to become more sensitive to the fact that no matter how victimized I feel I am, I, in turn, am usually standing on the backs of other women who have an even harder time.
A few months ago I was part of a discussion on the work-life balance at a university I won’t name because the administration really is very forward-thinking and supportive, and this story could make it seem otherwise. The talk was organized by an organization for graduate students, but it was open to all members of the university community.
It was a fascinating experience. Participants shared stories of coping with surprise pregnancies; of trying to share childcare duties with a partner who was employed in a different state; of guilt over the decision to put their children in daycare to pursue their studies, and guilt over the decision to cut back on their coursework to be more available to their children. Many expressed gratitude to the administration for listening to their issues and working with them to make the environment more welcoming to parents.
It was all hugs and roses until a young woman raised her hand. “I’m not an academic,” she said. “I’m an administrative assistant here. And I just want to say that I didn’t get a lot of love from the university when I needed to take maternity leave.” She told about her too-brief leave, her exhaustion, and the lack of support when she was called away because of a sick child. “Where is the help for people like me?” she asked.
There was a brief pause. A few of us made sympathetic noises. Then the discussion resumed its previous course, flowing around and over this young woman’s plight and rendering it invisible again.
There were good reasons for this. Members of the graduate organization that had put the event together were, naturally, focused on the concerns of graduate students. I didn’t know anything about the issues affecting administrative assistants or the resources available to them, and nobody else seemed to, either. Time was short, and there was a lot of ground to cover.
But it felt wrong. I kept replaying her question for the remainder of the afternoon, and asking myself, why did none of us know how to respond to a non-academic mother? The simple answer is, we’re all overwhelmed with our own work and parenting issues, and there is no energy left over for extra research and advocacy.
But it also seemed to me to be another instance of blindness to our own privilege. “Women in higher education” has to include all women in higher education, from the president of the university to the woman who mops the floors, if feminism is to mean anything besides following the patriarchal model of grabbing the goodies for our own group and ignoring the needs of the less powerful.
I finally blurted out, “I want to go back to this woman’s question. I don’t feel like we gave you enough.” But I had nothing material to give. I blathered some sentimental crap about how we all need to join forces; how a rescue operation is a failure unless the whole family is in the lifeboat. I hope she at least felt listened to. More important, I hope someone who was in a position to help was listening to her. And I’ve been trying to educate myself about the issues faced by non-academic university employees. It's not much, I know, but it's a start.