Income Of One's Own
24 May, 2003
In graduate school, I struggled
to get my dissertation topic approved -- a psychological study on the
contemporary novelist, Margaret Drabble -- by an English department
composed of men who took refuge in white male studies the way I get
comfort from chocolate cake. After a few particularly sharp rejections,
an eminent professor queried, Who's Margaret Drabble? Why not
write on Virginia Woolf? I tell all my female students to write on Woolf.
Disgusted, I found comfort in Sandra M. Gilbert's words women's
alienation from the sources of power is profound.it has also been a
philosophical alienation, an aesthetic alienation, a literary alienation.
But time has passed since I've sought solace from the rich array of
French, British, and American thinkers; lately, I've become preoccupied
with scrambling for paid work.
Last fall, a year after finally
earning my doctorate, I was contacted by an all women's college and
asked if I'd like to teach an Introduction to Literature course in their
adult division. The student body consisted primarily of well-off women,
in their 40s and 50s, who spent the last decade or two raising their
children. The dean explained that many of the students would be signing
up for this class with the expectation that it would serve as a transition
from domestic life back into the work world. She stressed that they
were now returning to school to polish their skills in order to tackle
the difficult job market; many of them harbored the less tangible goal
of gaining some measure of personal freedom. The dean endorsed choosing
texts by women authors. Great! A savvy feminist, I'd finally found a
course where I could refer to Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Simone
De Bouvoir's The Second Sex, and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of
Then the dean hit me with
the punch line: the salary. It was so low, I could count the pennies
left over after train and subway fare. The masquerade over, I'd been
exposed as my true self: an exploited and degraded adjunct. For the
first time in ten years of part-time work, I blurted out, God,
that's so little; who could work for that? Then, I dared to ask,
how do the other teachers manage? The dean hedged, then,
confessed, Most of them are married to. successful men.
Code for surgeons, lawyers, executives.the kind of men mothers used
to beg their daughters to marry. Indignant, I demanded to know if she
didn't find this paradox hypocritical: the school's philosophy of promoting
women's independence while paying their almost all female teaching staff
slave wages? With perfect composure, she fed me the company line: the
college simply did not have more money in their budget for instructors.
I declined her offer with
what little dignity I could muster and turned to feminist theory for
salvation. I should have bought Naomi Wolf's second book Fire With Fire
which, I've heard, unabashedly challenges women to aim for financial
clout. Alas, I admit that it irked me to glimpse her pretty, young,
made-up face cropping up in magazines everywhere, aglow with a fire
that no doubt was lit by her huge book advance. Besides, I couldn't
afford the hardback copy.
Instead, I perused the old
standbys. Granted, they were discussing feminist theory in conjunction
with literary analysis, not championing a lifestyle. But I was nostalgic
for the high-road, the lofty scholarship that rarely transcends the
Ivory Tower. I smiled over Annette Kolodny's declaration that women
needed to liberate the text in order to recognize the achievements of
female authors and to decode woman-as-sign. But, then, I
was forced to concede how inept I'd become at utilizing this information
in my everyday life. I scanned through my books to determine my significance
as woman-as-sign. My thinking process had become pedestrian
from more mundane concerns, such as the increase in my car insurance
and the cost of my yearly visit to the gynecologist. All I could come
up with was: I'm an Aries. That's a sign of sorts. Isn't it? Shoshana
Felman directed me to reinvent' language, to speak not
only against, but outside of the specular phallogocentric structure,
to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined
by the phallacy of masculine meaning. But, how exactly does one
reinvent language effectively when demanding more pay from a women's
college, an institution which, in its very mission, should represent
the opposite of a phallogocentric structure? (And, what
precisely was a phallogocentric structure if not this women's college,
with its tall central building shaped suspiciously like a male organ?)
It seems that in the Dean's office, I discovered the truth: feminist
speak doesn't matter much when you're living hand-to-mouth.
Flipping through the work
of Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, I admit, I began
to grow impatient. I could vent my rage for having been treated too
long as a commodity; I could choose to live a totally circular
life filled with linguistic fluidity; I could even create images about
amniotic fluid and mother's milk in poetry. But, somehow the question
remained: how does one sound the trumpet for the rest of womynkind if,
sadly, one's instrument has grown rusty through lack of funds?
At the time I had the good
fortune of teaching A Room of One's Own to my writing class. I was able
to find comfort and wisdom in her controversial messages (controversial,
that is, to tenured feminists who are paid to luxuriate in Woolf's unconscious
conflicts). Perhaps, I thought -- reading It is fatal for a woman
to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice
any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman -- hers
is the better way. Which, translated, conveyed this personal tidbit
of advice: get off the pulpit and find a high paying job already.
My young, still idealistic
students romanticize the life of a writer, never mind the stories I
tell them of Tillie Olsen using the city bus as a writing room (for
me, it's often the train en route to teaching). They believe determination
and talent can overcome any obstacle and shake their heads when I quote
Woolf's warning, Intellectual freedom depends upon material things.
Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. They don't yet have
to consider the writer's relentless worries about the cost of quality
child care, or her longings for suitable equipment on which to compose
(something even Virginia Woolf could not have foreseen), such as a new
computer with a laser printer and fax machine. While Feminist Theory
is nice, I'd trade it in any day for a proper British nanny, a laptop,
and a private study of my own.
I now direct my students
to do the dirty work for me. I instruct them to ponder over Barbara
Probst Solomon's pearls of wisdom: If we wish to be firm-voiced
and progressive about meeting our primary needs.we should not point
our heads in the direction of the wrong revolution.. Sexual liberation
without economic security grants women merely the right to stay marginal.
Then, I scan their essays for easy answers.
Okay, I admit I'd like to
have a glamour shot of me in Mirabella's, even if my claim to fame was
a book renouncing The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash.
I, too, would indulge in a little hypocrisy if it meant getting closer
to the sources of money and power. If her power feminism
can guide me to new treasures, no more debt and, say, due to inflation,
a co-op all my own, I'll buy in a copy of the other Wolf.
Nicole Bokat is a freelance
writer with a doctorate in English who teaches at the New School for