Admin’s Note: This is something I have been wanting to post for a while, but I was inspired by a big old blog fight among feminists this past week. The fight started in a debate over bikini waxing, but the larger issue is social class and standards of beauty and femininity. I was on the outskirts of it, so I missed much of the controversy, but I just had to get my two cents in now that I finally figured out whats going on. My primary exposure to this debate was over at Bitch|Lab’s spot. I left this comment on her blog, which basically sums up my feelings about the femininity issue:
I’m completely and utterly tired of hearing the word choice bantered around like it is the be all and end all of feminism. A week long moratorium on the word would be nice. It might get some folks to think outside the box.
In my experience people who talk about choices are the people who have the most choices to talk about.
The rhetoric of choice erases any sort of meso or macro level understanding of constraints on human behavior. It’s this overly individualistic mentality that drives me nuts.
I’m also tired of graduate students complaining about how poor they are, especially when so many of them have the money to travel abroad, have nice cars, and have an alcohol and weed budget in excess of $50 dollars a week. (If you fit this description, you ain’t poor.) Hell, I wasn’t poor in grad school (well not in my PhD program). I got paid $18,000 a year for a grad student stipend and managed to carved enough adjuncts together to make $30,000. Having grown up without indoor plumbing in Appalachia, I felt like I was in hog heaven. I was even able to buy a condo and a car.
My friend told me about leg waxing in grad school (people in southern Ohio just don’t do such things), and she said it was relatively affordable only $30-50 every 6 weeks. I remember thinking that I could get a pack of 15 razors, for $10.
Yes, this is an all over the place rant, but reading the post will address where the slightly unrelated thoughts are coming from. I also think people may like to follow the discussion on this post over at Rachel’s Tavern since the discussion over at my place always seems be different from the one here at Alas.
A Little Piece of My Social Class Story
I have experienced a great deal of class mobility in my life, and I am the poster child for the idea that getting a good education can move you up the class ladder. For me this worked in two ways, through my mother’s education and through my own. See my mother’s family is the quintessential white working class family. Almost all of the stereotypes about working class white people apply to them. Unlike her 6 siblings, my mother managed to get a college degree. To this day, I don’t really know how she financed it. My Dad, on the other hand, came from a GI bill middle class family. My grandfather was able to go to college thanks to the GI bill, and he became a chemist, which allowed my grandmother to be a homemaker who raised 4 children. When her children left home, my Grandma went to college and started a career as a teacher. Even though they didn’t grow up well to do, my grandparents were vaulted into the middle class, and my father benefited from it.
It took a long time for my parents to enter the middle class because they came of age in the economic recession era of the 70s and early 80s, so most of my childhood, we were poor and our neighborhood was even poorer. (For those who don’t know, I grew up in Appalachia, southern Ohio to be precise.) But, we had an ace in the hole my Mom’s college degree. After years of substitute teaching, my mother finally got a full time teaching job in the mid-1980s (I think with a pathetic starting salary of $17,000.). Once my father’s income from a small business was added in we were over the $20,000 dollar mark right around the time I finished high school.
I have also benefited greatly from my own education. In spite of going to a low income school and having high school guidance counselors, who were incompetent, I went to college. My parents did a tremendous job of picking up the slack for my less than stellar school. I had the advantage of having a teacher mother, and a father who got me hooked on National Public Radio, sometime around kindergarten. I am not dissing my teachers, but they were expected to perform without many resources that other schools had.
I really noticed the social class gap in junior high and high school after I managed to get myself into this program at Northwestern University (thanks largely to John Smith the county gifted education coordinator and my teacher for the gifted class Mrs. Evans). The program was wonderful, and I got to be around other nerdy kids. However, it would not have been possible for me to go to this program, if I didn’t get need based scholarships (I believe from the University and a local foundation.). When I got there, I quickly realized I was the poorest kid around. In fact, one of the teachers decided that I had a self esteem problem (which is very far from the truth) when I noted that the other kids were way ahead of me. I never thought that I was slow. I knew that these kids were from rich suburbs around Chicago, Detroit, and Columbus, and they had schools with many counselors, AP classes, and all of the other advantages that wealthy people had (Most of the kids were also Asian Americans which was another interesting aspect of the camp that I should probably write about someday.). Truthfully, I thought I was pretty damn smart because I was in the same place as these wealthier gifted kids, and I had fewer resources. In fact, one of the things that angered me the most was when I saw other students getting a year’s worth of high school credit for taking these courses and the guidance counselors at my school said that they couldn’t do this because “it had never been done at our high school.”
The Northwestern program along with my other outside of the classroom experiences motivated me to get great grades in high school, and sometime around 10th grade, I started my college search. To make a long story short, I got into the University of Detroit Mercy with a full scholarship, and subsequently earned assistantships, which paid for my master’s degree program at Bowling Green and my PhD at the University of Connecticut. I had to pay small sums for fees and books, but somehow I managed to get a PhD and not pay any tuition. I was happy to earn scholarships, because I was worried that my parents were not going to be able to help me finance my education. (I suppose one of the more ironic twists to this story is that my father’s business took off while I was in college, and my parents moved into a very comfortable middle class status.)
Tying it All Together–My Feminism and My Social Class
Each step in my education has marked a step up the class ladder. With every degree that I earned, I helped buffer myself from poverty. Moving up the ladder like this, gave me a different take on social inequality and ways of fighting it (i.e. socialism, feminism, anti-racism, heterosexism, and so on).
I don’t personally blog much about feminism and body hair or high heels, and I’m not going to put down people who do. However, I do worry that we need to stop framing everything in the language of choice, as it frequently, implies a smorgasbord feminism, where everything is laid out and we just pick from it. When I was young and we were poor, my concern wasn’t about choices I made, it was about opportunities–the opportunity to go to college, the opportunity to play sports, and admittedly, the opportunity to get out of southern Ohio and find a place that had a shopping mall, more than one TV channel, and good schools. Now that I have a middle class job and live in a county that is one of the wealthiest in the US; I have many more opportunities, and with those new found opportunities I get to make choices–whether or not to buy a designer handbag, whether or not to get digital cable and high speed Internet, whether or not to go to dye my hair, and whether or not to live in a wealthier community or a poorer community. Hell, I even get to choose which mall to go to or which gym to be a member of. Having many choices is the product of having many opportunities, and having many opportunities is the product of being a privileged class/group. This is something I have to remind myself all the time, and the best way to do it is to go back to high school and elementary school when my choices were more limited.
Endnote: I appreciate anybody who took the time to read this looooooong post. I pledge to myself and my readers that I will try to post more short and fun posts. I have been producing long treatises lately. LOL!