Saturday, April 04, 2009

Damn Biology

I am a feminist who still stares in wide-eyed amazement at so many of the women in this community in which she is now living. 90% of them, if they are professionals, are either nurses or teachers (or retired teachers or nurses). Even more mystifying to me, though, is the fact that I've met quite a few female teenagers and early-twenty-somethings who plan to follow these career paths (one having thought, when she "was young and didn't know better" that she wanted to be President of The United States and who now wants to be a nurse, so she can care for others).

Don't get me wrong. God knows, nursing and teaching are valiant careers. I admire anyone who can stick needles into others and who doesn't mind cleaning up puke. You could offer me AIG-like bonuses, and I'd still turn down a job that required me to do those things. And teaching is truly the most noble of professions, one that is so under-appreciated that it's laughable. Not only is it noble, but it gets harder and harder all the time as teachers are required not only to make sure students score within an acceptable range on stupid standardized tests that prove nothing, but are also expected to be parents, psychologists, nutritionists, and personal trainers while being completely up-to-date on all child welfare policies, lest they find themselves being sued.

You see, I am not against young women choosing either one of these professions. I just have a problem when these are the only choices they think they have. I'll never forget one day when I was out walking with the three neighbors I join for a walk every morning, and we were discussing the need for kids to be better informed when it comes to career choices. So often, young people's talents seem to get ignored when thinking about their futures. They're not always encouraged to think about how best to use their talents to ensure job satisfaction. I laughed and said,

"I had no idea at age sixteen that there were these people called "acquisitions editors" at publishing companies. As a matter of fact, I went to college planning to be an accountant."

One of my friends immediately replied, "At least accounting was seen as an option for girls when you were in high school and college."

I nearly stopped in my tracks. I'd never before considered the fact that these three women, all between the ages of 60 and 65, had never thought that they, not being drawn to nursing, could ever be anything other than teachers. (Yes, I can be very dense sometimes until someone finally points out the obvious to me.) Here I'd been marveling about how many teachers I seem to know around here without questioning why. My own mother, twelve years these women's senior, had worked in the museum field and eventually wound up a curator. She had never gotten the message that, if she wanted to be anything other than a wife and a mother, her only choices were nursing and teaching.

All this is to say that we feminists still have quite a lot of work to do. The message has certainly gotten out over the past forty years that, yes, women can be whatever they want. However, there are pockets of this country where that message has just been buried, it seems. This sort of evidence is why, as I once told everyone, you will never hear me say, "I think women should have equal rights and all, but I'm not a feminist." I hate to burst your bubble, but if you think women should have equal rights, that they should be encouraged to pursue whatever career paths for which they are suited, then you are a feminist. Despite my feminism, however, I still find myself saying, "damn biology." One of these times occurred in the Barton household while Bob was so sick.

When either Bob or I is sick, I prefer to sleep in the guest bedroom that's down the hall. This keeps the one who is sick from being woken up by the one who is well, and I like to think (although, judging from the evidence, it doesn't seem to work too well) it helps keep the well one from catching whatever afflicts the sick one. This is no real sacrifice on my part. I love our cozy little guest bedroom and would be perfectly content to make it a "room of one's own." Also, it's closer to the bathroom than our bedroom is (yes, we live in a house that was built in the pre-master-bath era).

One night, in the midst of Bob's illness, I was slightly conscious of being dragged out of a deep sleep to hear Bob come stumbling into the room in the dark. He put his hand on my head and then stumbled back out, thus indicating to me that he didn't seem to be in need of anything. The next morning, I wasn't sure if it had really happened or not, so I asked him about it.

"Oh yeah. I heard some strange noises, and I was looking in on you to see if you were okay."

Later, when he was feeling much better, he told me he'd checked on me several nights when we were sleeping apart. He admitted it was funny, because he's not usually so aware of noises in the house, but he seemed to hear every odd knock and creak when I was down the hall. He supposed that when I'm in the same room with him, he feels he can "protect" me, but that when I'm down the hall, something could happen, and he might never know.

Although ready to "pooh-pooh" this notion (especially since I don't know how much "protecting" a man doubled over in pain with a kidney stone and a 101.7 degree temperature can do), I had to admit that I'm the same way. As much as I'd like to think I don't need protection, I've experienced many a night when I've not been able to sleep, have taken a book off to some other room in the house, and been sent scurrying back to the safety of the bedroom and Bob when I've heard some strange noise I can't immediately identify. I've often laughed at myself, knowing full well that if Hannibal Lecter is about to come through a back window, armed with weapons and a carefully pre-meditated plan, Bob would be no better protection for me than the stuffed panda I slept with as a child that was meant to defend me from any giant who crossed the threshold of my bedroom. I told him this, and he agreed, laughing,

"Must be our biology," he said.

"Our biology?" I asked.

"Yeah, you're so much smaller than I am, and we're programmed to protect what's smaller than we are." He had a point. We humans are not exactly chihuahua-like in our ambitions to attack and fight those who are 100 times our size, so those who are bigger tend to want to help those who are chihuahua-sized.

"So you're programmed to protect me, and I'm programmed to seek protection? Is it just because of size, or because I'm a woman?"

"Let's put it this way. If you were M, I'd be turning to you for protection." (M is a woman we know who is about 6'6" tall and very athletic. I was quite amused by the notion of Bob running to her for protection.) If truth be told, though, I think my natural instinct would still be to run to Bob for protection and not to M. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I really do think it's more nature than nurture.

Maybe I need to take a self-defense course for both our sakes. In the meantime, I will continue to be amused by the way biology often interferes with my feminist ideals. However, I will not be amused when society's ideals interfere with feminism, when bright and talented young women are not encouraged to be doctors, if they want to care for the ill or principals and college deans if they're interested in educating young minds. That is called "believing in equal rights and all" for women, and it's what feminism is all about.


Susan said...

I like how forthright and outspoken you are, because you come out and say it - why are women only nurses and teachers? Why not doctors and astronauts, or principals? Maybe because it's community oriented, and they don't have to leave where they were raised. I don't really know, but it's something to think about, as you so rightly put it. And we're not so far out of the woods yet either, in terms of freedom of career choice for women.

As for things that go bump in the night - I know I'm a wreck when I
m on my own, and when I have a husband (I spent many years in my thirties as a divorcée) I'm much calmer because there is a living body next to me - not that he would do much to protect, not having that kick-boxing course either! Safety in numbers, I think, or just our ancient cave dwelling memories are stronger at night :-) Anyway, you always make me think and I really enjoyed this column today!

Nigel Patel said...

The factory floor is a majority women's space. (at least when factories were still open)
But the numbers shift as you get to the higher paid positions.
Though in the past fifteen years it's been much more normal to have women as forklift drivers and supervisors.

raych said...

Just thought I'd let you know that in my husband's med school class of about 200, more than two-thirds are female.

Cam said...

I agree with what you are saying about young women being made aware of career choices, but I think that there is a huge difference in aptitude and skill between doctors and nurses. Nursing is primarily a caring profession that requires one to know many things about heathcare, pharmacology, science; doctoring, while the individuals may be caring -- and one wants to have an emphathetic doctor -- is a career requiring one to be a diagnostician, a scientist. That's why when you're sick you want a nurse with you most of the time, not a doctor. I know many fine doctors, some of them women, who are doctors I want on my team if I were ill, but who would make terrible nurses. So, while some women may be directed to careers because of their gender, some are directed towards careers because of their personality traits. That is the nature part. Women -- and men -- can be both and we need to celebrate that. Those differences are differences in individuals, not in genders.

litlove said...

I get the feeling that work for women still has an element of moral choice about it - how can I best serve others? And whilst for men, it's fine that those 'others' remain strangers or culture at large, a woman's duty is made messy and unclear by those who are close to her. Duty to serve a family comes before duty to serve a society in most women's books. And so there is still a natural cut off point for achievement, because women are still made to feel uncomfortable by society if they do not put self-sacrifice to husbands and children before all else.

Good questions to raise, Emily. We need to keep talking about this kind of thing.

Stefanie said...

It is hard to think there might be other career possibilities when all the women you know are nurses or teachers. I also think that when women choose careers they tend to consider work-life balance more than men do.

As for protection, my husband thinks he has to protect me too even though we are pretty much the same size (both small). It cracks me up but I am not allowed to laugh too much or it hurts his feelings :)

ZoesMom said...

I agree with Cam that career choices need to be about individuals. My husband considered the idea of becoming a nurse and I happen to think he would have been a fabulous nurse, but ultimately he decided against it and a lot of the reason had to do with the fact that he is a man and nursing is a woman's job.

On the bright side, my daughter talks about being a scientist, an astronaut, and a vet.

sarawithnoh said...

I love your passion. But I do have to laugh at the idea of being either a nurse or a teacher. I am a horrible nurse - I hate needles, blood, medical machinery and all things related. As for teaching, I couldn't explain my way out of a paper bag. If I had chosen or been forced to choose either there'd be a whole lot of sick and poorly educated in our society!

Emily Barton said...

Susan, nope, we aren't out of the woods yet. I'd been living in my own little clearing, though, until I moved here.

Nigel, when you read about all those sweatshops and the Triangle shirtwaist catastrophe of not-so-long ago, yes, there has been a tradition of women being on the factory floor. I imagine, in the few factories left, it IS still the case.

Raych, could you please send some of those young women to Lancaster County to speak to the middle and high schoolers?

Cam, I agree about the differences in individuals when everyone is given the same starting point. However, I'm not sure that's what's going on here. Bob once asked one of the 20-somethings we know who chose to be a nurse, why not a doctor? Her response was that she hadn't ever thought of being a doctor. And if you ask people here about the disproportionate numbers of young women choosing to be nurses, they will be quick to point out that lots of young men are choosing to be nurses, too. They don't, however, say that lots of young women are choosing to be doctors (they just aren't). Of course, I probably should have mentioned somewhere in my post the fact that a huge number of the people living here are from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, and women are not allowed to be in positions of leadership.

Litlove, yes, and what if they don't want to put self-sacrifice to husband and children? And what if there are men who do? THAT'S another area in which individualism comes into play.

Stef, oh well, nice to have a Superman around occasionally, even if you're aware it's just fantasy, isn't it?

ZM, see? Society is as hard on men who want to step outside the bounds as it is on women. It's ridiculous.

Sara, you and me both. Two highly respectable careers far better left to others, as far as I'm concerned.

Cam said...

Good point about how the influence -- both direct and subtle -- of one's religious background influences one's choices. I tend to not notice those types of things because they are not in my immediate spheres of influence. I was stunned a few months ago when a friend of mine, who along with his parents recently started attending my rather liberal church after going to a very fundamental church for years, commented that I never would have been able at his old church to be a committee chair or a Vestry member (which in our legal charter documents are still referred to as "vestrymen"). I wonder why there are so many women in that large congregation. I'd bet many of them are not doctors, lawyers, and accountants, like the women I attend church with. I forget so much of how the "cultural wars" are influenced by what I consider to be misintrepretations of Paul.

Women make up almost 50% of med school classes (according to a doctor I know) right now, but I bet most of them are not from rural areas or from very conservative backgrounds. In the large urban medical practice where I am a patient, my doctor is the only male out of a dozen MDs. Many of the female docs work part-time allowing them a means to balance family and career.