I have a friend who is smart and savvy. She’s eager to learn, often staying after class to ask her professors questions. But she’s majoring in a male-dominated discipline and so she finds herself surrounded by those most frustrating of creatures: men.
We went out for late-night sandwiches a few days ago and we talked about her work, her boyfriend, her social circles. I’m something of a queer older sister to her, I suppose. She travels in a world that I only observe from afar. I like to whisk her away from it sometimes to help her gain some perspective, to give her a breath of fresh, women-centered air.
My friend was simultaneously convinced that she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t pretty enough to be succesful in her sphere while also realizing that the metrics by which she was judging herself were the patriarchal norms that can feel especially pointed at an elite institution like a private university.
Her boyfriend was smarter, she believed, or at least better connected. When she spent time with a larger swath of her friend group, the straight boys, as they are wont to do, would talk over the ladies, all the while being convinced that their progressive politics are state-of-the art.
I wanted to pick her up and drop her into my world, a world I’m incredibly fortunate to inhabit due to my personal and professional commitments. My partner is a woman. Most of my friends are women. Every single person I work under is queer. I don’t have to do a whole lot of sidestepping around the heterosexual male ego in my social circles. I don’t live in a utopia, granted, but it’s pretty damn close.
We drove back to my house late that night and laid down on the bed. I told her as much as my heart could hold: “Your worth should not be defined by the standards of rich white men. And even by those standards, you’re more brilliant than any of the boys. You belong in places where you can shine, where you’re not sidelined by your boyfriend’s friends. And, since you doubt it sometimes, you’re gorgeous.”
She went home that night, back to her boyfriend who is, I am happy to admit, sweet, and funny, and kind, but still part of that network of men, still part of the privileged group who gets to decide what “smart” means, which texts are important, and how they should be discussed. But I hope my friend took something home with her: some glimpse at how things could be otherwise.
If there’s something tragic about the place of women at an elite institution of higher education like Emory, it’s that even here (or perhaps especially here), the girls are still made to feel like supporting actresses, no matter how they shine.