Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Class, Part X: When Sex and Class Collide

In any earlier post, I mentioned that one of the things that's difficult for people who are changing classes is that we often do not have models around us. We don't know who we want to be like, but we know that we don't want to be like the people we know. Some of this is certainly class-based: People who grow up around men who work with their hands or maybe in sales and women who are secretaries and file clerks and maybe even nurses or teachers don't necessarily know anyone who's a doctor, or a lawyer, or a reporter, or a professor, or a manager. If you live in a small town, the way I did, you might know someone whose dad owns a car dealership, say, or is the proprietor of some other small business, but that's not the same as someone whose dad is the sales manager or the vice president for a major company. You don't have any idea what those lives are like, what those possibilities are, and it is therefore impossible (or, at least, surpassingly difficult) to imagine yourself in such a position.

If you're female, however, and over 40, you likely grew up not knowing OF any women who did any of those things. In my home town, women were teachers, nurses, secretaries, homemakers, dressmakers, waitresses, saleswomen in department stores, and the same was pretty much true in the media around me. (There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those occupations, mind you--they're all underappreciated, undervalued, and underpaid, in part because women historically have performed those jobs, but the work itself is every bit as necessary and worthwhile as anything else you can imagine.) I did not want to do those jobs. I didn't have the vaguest notion what I did want to do, mind you, but I knew I didn't want to do those things. (Although it's difficult to reconstruct what I was thinking at the time, it's not that I didn't want to do the jobs because women did them. Rather, those jobs didn't seem very interesting to me--they seemed to involve subordination, more than anything, and they didn't pay very well. I wanted to do something interesting, something that engaged my brain somehow, and I wanted some kind of independence, though I had only a vague notion of what that would or could mean.)

More to the point I'm making here, though, I didn't know any women who'd done anything BUT those jobs. When I got to college, most of my professors were men, too. That didn't stop them from mentoring me, or stop me from learning from them, it just meant that I still didn't see (m)any women doing those things.

The mother of my last college boyfriend was a lawyer, though: she had gone to law school after raising her kids. (For those of you who read the religion comments, she also said kaddish for her father for the year after his death, even though that is a duty traditionally performed by a son.) As I noted, I even worked in her office for a few weeks, filling in until they hired a legal secretary. At this point, and in large part thanks to feminism and Ms magazine and the men and women with whom I'd attended college, I believed that women (like men) could do whatever they damn well pleased; I also believed, based on significant evidence, that there were signficiant numbers of men who didn't want women to do many of those things, even as there were also many men who would have agreed with me--and I still didn't have many samples available in my immediate, personal life of women who had done any of those things.

And this is where class intersects with sex, perhaps. There certainly were women who were doctors, lawyers, professors, professionals of various sorts in the 1970s and 1980s--I just didn't know any of them. I hadn't met any my own self. And that challenge has remained, in many ways, for much longer and in much more pervasive ways than the class-related aspects of it--I suspect BECAUSE of the class-related aspects. I've met a fair number of people who started out working-class and got education and/or a break somewhere along the line, but only a precious few have been women; I've met brilliant, successful, "professional" women, but only a precious few have working-class roots. Perhaps even more to the point, the women I know who fall into this category are contemporaries or younger than I am. Obviously, having someone up to whom one can look isn't absolutely necessary, but it is helpful--not because we're going to do what that person did, but because it's helpful to see how choices the person made played out. The women who are my age are helpful in many other ways, of course--we share the same fights, and many of us understand how working-class men share a lot, if not all, of those fights, and many men are helpful in some of the same ways as the women. That is, often enough, class trumps sex. But not always.

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