Rachel Maddow and the Lands’ End Catalogue; or, In Which a Specter is Haunting Emily Rutherford: The Specter of Womanhood!

This morning, apparently, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) decided to take a cheap shot at Rachel Maddow by implying that she does not look like a woman. Of course it is absurd to think that Maddow’s short haircut and dark suits (and, implicitly I’m sure, her sexual orientation) make her less of a woman; as we all know if we stop to think about it, there are more and more ways these days to look professional as a woman, ways which run straight across the femininity spectrum, and Maddow’s is just one of many ways (if it weren’t, you can bet she wouldn’t be on television). But if we stop to think for a few seconds longer, we might also consider what message we send to other women who are not conventionally feminine by suggesting that Vitter’s comment is worth being outraged about, therefore validating (however unintentionally) the idea that it is somehow “better” to be more feminine if one is a professional woman in the public eye. The ways in which we who do not approve of what Vitter said respond to it say a great deal about how unusual it seems, still, to be okay with being a non-feminine woman in our society. That we are instinctively inclined to jump to the defense of women in situations like this demonstrates, I think, how fraught issues of gender presentation are, and how sensitive we can be about what “counts” as “looking like a woman” in 21st-century America.

What it means to be a woman and to look like a woman is an issue which has plagued me for the entirety of my life as a woman—since, I suppose I would say, my late teenagerhood. And while I do not want to overshare about my personal life in this space (after all, I deleted my livejournal account years ago), today’s Maddow story, as well as things which have happened in my own life recently, cause me to believe that this is a story worth addressing from a transparently personal angle. Since her television show first went on the air, Rachel Maddow has been a role model to me in negotiating the world as a non-conventionally-feminine woman, and well: if it is writing our stories and making sure they’re out in the open that helps to build a new world for the next generation, then it is worth telling mine with my words the way Maddow, to me, convinces by her presence.

I wrote yesterday about sexuality, its relevance to my life, and my coping mechanisms for dealing with it (and, by the way, thank you for all your kind words about that post. They are much appreciated). I addressed in oblique terms, but still the most explicit terms in which I have spoken about the issue in some time, the ways in which the intellectual pursuit of sexology was a way of confronting the changes going on in my own life. Today I want to talk about another set of coping mechanisms, separate but not too separate from those I built up to confront sexuality. These are the ones I used to confront gender, and my growing sense as I went through puberty that I was inhabiting a narrowly gendered body.

In suburban southern California, where I went to middle school and high school, it was difficult to escape from a culture which entwined “being a woman” with “being a sexual being.” I was scared of being both things: I was a bit later developing than some of my classmates, and I’d watched the eyes which began to watch the girls in my school as I began to fear that those eyes would soon be trained on me. I perceived a fairly limited set of options for what “being a woman” meant, and I didn’t find any of them appealing. Read what you will into my obsession with my female classmates’ changing bodies, and my visceral fear of the remote possibility of my male classmates’ gaze, but at the time I didn’t read into it anything but horror. I cannot emphasize enough how terrifying that environment was, and how perilously inevitable, not to mention suddenly looming, the link between womanhood and sexualization seemed.

I reacted by going into denial, which I did by dressing not like a little girl in skirts, but like a little boy in shorts and t-shirts: loose, baggy clothes that hid my changing body, emphatically purchased from the men’s sides of stores. I cut my hair, choosing for myself styles like those chosen for little boys by their mothers. I grew increasingly uncomfortable in all-girls’ atmospheres from locker rooms to slumber parties. I either tried hard to be accepted by boys’ social groups or just went it alone, so that I didn’t have to account for my resistance to looking like and acting like the almost-women around me. This all became such a big barrier to living a mentally normal life that I actually began to wonder if I was transgender, although I knew that it wasn’t until puberty that I’d truly begun to hate my body. But even if gender dysphoria wasn’t the answer, I certainly didn’t have a better one. Lacking an answer, this visceral hatred has persisted for much of the past several years. By wearing only men’s clothes and by using them to disguise the unavoidable female parts of my body, I have hoped to avoid what that body signifies to me about the social expectations of women in our culture.

But, as have so many things in my post-adolescent life, this, too, has slowly started to change. While one of the best ways to make me feel uncomfortable is still to tell me that I look attractive, the paranoia about evaluating gazes has lessened. I have independence of thought and action that I didn’t have when I was a high-school student and the inability to control what was happening to my body was just another part of the general helplessness I felt. I worked in a D.C. office for nine weeks and realized that, in a culture which prizes dress code, sticking out in Capitol Hill corridors for effectively cross-dressing made me more uncomfortable than wearing clothes bought from the women’s side of the store. And most importantly—particularly in the last academic year—I’ve started to get a sense of who I am as an adult, and to see that as being a very different kind of person from the kind of person I was as a child and an adolescent. I’ve started to think of myself as someone who has my own ideas about the way the world works, someone who has an ability to cultivate my own social and professional relationships, and someone whose life decisions are constrained by little except what I think I am capable of doing. I have started to use phrases like “my work,” “my project,” “my thesis,” and “as a historian….” I have started not just to have professional role models, but to talk like them, and to see my life as one which could be like theirs someday. I have started to see myself as an apprentice to the masters, not as a different (and alien, grotesque) species. I have started to see myself as another professional academic woman.

The hang-ups are still there. The coping mechanisms are still valid. I will not go swimming or change my clothes in front of others, I will not wear tank tops or low-cut blouses, and I certainly have no intention of returning to skirts. But I have grown tired of not owning any clothes that fit me because they were not cut for bodies like mine, and the anxiety that has come to accompany entering gendered spaces like women’s restrooms has long since subsumed any feeling of accomplishment I might have gotten from passing as a boy. What is more, I have found at college, and on the east coast in general, more gray areas in women’s dress and presentation. More of my women friends (and, importantly, more of my women professors) have short hair, so that just a haircut doesn’t gender one masculine; even more of them don’t wear makeup; a few don’t even shave their legs. Dressier, preppy styles suited to cold-weather climates are a non-entity where I’m from, but proliferate on the east coast and even at prices I can afford—opening up a whole new world of women’s clothing which is conservative enough that I feel comfortable wearing it. Between my desire to be taken seriously as a professional in my field, my desire not to have to deal with observers’ confusion about my gender identity, and my desire simply to look stylish, I suddenly find myself more willing to compromise, and less frightened of spooky added implications to shopping on the women’s side of the department store.

Last week, I went and got a shorter, but trendier, haircut; I finally reneged on my principle of never using any sort of cosmetic to change my appearance, letting the hairdresser show me how to use “product” to style my hair so that I don’t look like a fourth-grade boy with a bowl cut. Over the weekend, after having a meltdown in the middle of Sears because I was scared of all the women’s clothes I didn’t feel comfortable trying on, I went online and shopped the bargain section of the Lands’ End website, where they sell the east-coast styles not stocked in San Diego stores. My order arrived today: the first women’s clothes in years that I have picked out for myself, not had given to me by a well-meaning parent or aunt. Despite the heat wave, I tried on the trousers and shirt and sweater and raincoat, and I found myself lingering in the full-length mirror I usually avoid. And why? Because I looked at myself and for once I didn’t look like a 12-year-old boy who’s raided his dad’s closet. I looked like a professor.

Today I decided something which has not ever been the case before in my life: I am okay with being a woman. And this is because “womanhood” (as distinct from “girlhood”) need not be defined by how large your breasts look, how pastel your clothes are, or whether you’re dating and having sex; all those things can be merely incidental in the arc of a thrillingly developing life as someone with an independent professional identity, for whom clothes do not signal sexuality as much as they do readiness to stand behind a lecture-hall lectern or (it occurs to me, thinking ahead not ten years but six months) to attend formal hall at an Oxford college.

I don’t expect to embrace conventional femininity anytime soon, and so I don’t imagine that those who object to or are threatened by me will cease to use my “mannish” appearance as a weapon. But perhaps a bit like Rachel Maddow—whose ease at rising above those sorts of insults has given me a serious lesson in moral fortitude—I think I’ve found a compromise I can accept, a way to balance my competing impulses to fit in and to stick out. I think I’m ready to be a professional academic woman—and I think I’m ready not to let anyone else tell me what that identity has to mean.

7 thoughts on “Rachel Maddow and the Lands’ End Catalogue; or, In Which a Specter is Haunting Emily Rutherford: The Specter of Womanhood!

  1. Reading this post, I think our paths in gender-identity development have not been so different, though maybe diverging a bit at the end. I, too, spent much of my childhood being mistaken for a boy, and I wasn’t willing to make much of an effort to correct that misconception. At that time, I always wanted to fit in with the boys, to be “one of the guys” socially, and I think I saw it as some sort of validation to have nothing outward to separate me from them. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a boy — I think I wanted to be a girl who could look and act and be treated like she was a boy. I was in high school before I was willing to wear any clothing that made the shape of my body recognizable at all, and in college before I was really okay with what I was wearing. Now I sort of maintain an uneasy balance between trying to adopt a level of femininity in presentation that is just clear enough to be mainstream (clothing cut for women, but not elaborate or impractical; occasional jewelry, but no make-up; long hair but no styling products) and allowing for the fact that I’m still more comfortable, more “myself” (if there is such a thing) in jeans, running shoes and a loose t-shirt. I struggle with whether or not all these adjustments are some kind of “giving in” to norms and stereotypes, but at the moment, I’ve decided it’s just an experiment — I’ll try out the femininity thing for a while and see if it suits me. I suspect it’ll be a long time before I find a niche on the gender-presentation spectrum that I really feel is mine, but, like you, after many years of frustration, I’ve decided that I’m okay with (1) being a woman and (2) defining what that means in my own way.

  2. Thanks for this, Katie. I know exactly what you mean about wanting to be “one of the guys,” and it’s really wonderful that I’m not the only person who feels that way!

    If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you find your current gender-presentation balance to be professionally related? I’m finding that the biggest driving force behind mine is a combination of feeling secure as a woman in my chosen professional trajectory (i.e. I’m as good as the boys doing my own thing, and I don’t need to be one of them to do it), and (a bit conversely) feeling as if I have to dress more “mainstream” in order to be taken seriously.

  3. When I was a high school student, I had a summer job in the seismology lab at Caltech, and I remember at some point remarking to my mother that you could tell the academic rank of the women in the department by how they dressed. The students and postdocs all wore very casual, mildly gendered clothing (or things that were not gendered at all). The professors sometimes wore shirts that had buttons. The secretaries were the only ones who wore skirts, heels, pantyhose, and make-up. I remember that my mother made me wear a dress for my interview for the job, but that was the last time; I didn’t want to be mistaken for a secretary.

    Since then, I’ve noticed that there’s actually a really wide range in gender presentation among women in physics/astronomy, and in the sciences in general. Back in Princeton, some dressed identically to their male colleagues, most wore just slightly feminine clothing, and a small minority (three that I recall) dressed in a way I might describe as “aggressively feminine” — tight, low-cut tops, short skirts, etc. These few stood out, and, I think, might have undermined their authority a bit. Here in England, though, it’s a bit more skewed toward the feminine, which may be part of why I’m wearing earrings all of a sudden, for example — nearly all the women dress in a way that is at least somewhat feminine, and rather than making them look like secretaries (who are still much more likely to wear hose and heels and business skirts), it just makes them look “grown up.” The undergrads in the astronomy department sometimes wear t-shirts; generally the grad students and postdocs don’t. So in some ways, I’m dressing more “womanly” just to seem less like a kid. But it is a sort of careful balance — I want to look mature so I’ll be taken seriously, but I also am very aware of trying to avoid looking “decorative.” I won’t wear a skirt at a conference, for example. (I almost never wear skirts at all, but I could conceive having a skirt-suit kind of outfit.) Certainly not to give a talk, and not even for the conference banquets, which are often supposed to be somewhat formal. It would feel weirdly unprofessional to me, somehow, even though I know that a lot of women do and are still taken seriously. Recently, a professor at Oxford invited me to one of his college formal halls — events where it’s very nearly mandatory for women to wear dresses or skirts — and I couldn’t bring myself to wear the dress I had brought along for such an occasion, opting instead for a Maddow-esque business suit, because I really wanted to give the professor the impression that I was a serious scientist.

    I’ve often thought that this attitude might be due to some latent sexism on my part. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a particular manifestation of sexism that’s really quite common in my field, especially among my more senior colleagues, so, as unfortunate as it is, it may be ultimately to my advantage to indulge it to some extent.

  4. Wow, thanks, it’s so great to hear someone else’s perspective on this. And I know what you mean about looking mature in a serious way.

    I just looked up info about formal hall on my study-abroad Oxford college’s website. It says, “Gowns are worn, but there is no other requirement to dress formally.” Hurrah for trousers!

  5. To clarify the formal hall point: if you’re a member of the college that’s hosting the formal hall, you wear a gown. If you’re not, you don’t, and it’s certainly expected that you dress nicely (since there will be nothing hiding your outfit). It doesn’t mean you have to wear a skirt, of course — when I said “very nearly mandatory” I just meant that (1) most women wear skirts/dresses and (2) dressing nicely is very much expected. But I think my dark suit was perfectly acceptable.

  6. Yes. Thank you!

    My understanding is that some colleges may require black tie, which seems to be the point which my college was clarifying.

  7. I think Rachel Maddow is really pretty.

    I would describe myself as very feminine. I always wear skirts and dresses, clothes in purple and pink, shop at anthro, jcrew, banana republic and wear clothing that fits my body.

    Yet my short hair seems to always override this and I am very often stereotyped as a lesbian. I really think I look better with short hair, but I am now growing out my hair because that’s apparently what men prefer. If I had better luck in the romance department, I probably wouldn’t let it bother me so much.

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