Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A response to Professor Robin Lakoff

By Peggy O'Donnell

Dear Professor Lakoff,

Now it is my turn to thank you for your passionate response to my blog post from last week, in which I expressed my frustration about statements made by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright about young women who support Bernie Sanders.

A careful reader of our pieces would see that your argument is not dissimilar from my own (although our conclusions are). You found my piece ageist, critical and dismissive of older women based on their age. In fact, I was objecting to comments I found to be critical and dismissive of young women based on their age. You wrote that I should be careful not to perpetuate bias by dismissing women’s words, even as you dismissed mine.

My post was less about this year’s election — I didn’t endorse any political candidate or platform — and more about what recent months have revealed: that statements that publicly dismiss the thoughts, opinions, and motivations of young women are not the sole provenance of blowhards on the right. They come from a source much closer to home, often from the women we look to for mentorship, guidance, and inspiration.

It has been my observation that it is more socially acceptable for older women to criticize millennial women than for men to, and that they do it liberally. In recent memory, young women have been publicly critiqued by women for the sound of our voices and our speech patterns, the way we write our emails, and how we dress and present ourselves. Madeleine Albright's comment that "there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other," does not strike me as particularly "encouraging," as you describe it. Rather, as we often are, millennial women were the punchline to Albright’s joke.

Pointed criticism of women by women is hardly a new phenomenon — see, for example, a 1976 essay by Jo Freeman about "trashing" among feminists — but it is a damaging one. And it has been part of my experience at Berkeley in both subtle and overt ways. Two of my friends have been told publicly by a female professor to change their speaking demeanor — one was too quiet, the other sounded too young — if they wanted to be taken seriously. A female professor told me that I will never be taken seriously because I wear makeup and curl my hair; that because of these choices I will never seen by male colleagues as anything but a sex object. In those moments, it is those women who do not take us seriously.

A lack of support from female mentors is concerning, because sexism is not as dead in academia as you make it seem. "You have every right to expect that, if you do well (as you surely will)," you wrote, "you will be able to compete for a university job on an equal footing with anyone else with a history Ph.D." I am less optimistic. Women are less likely to hold tenured faculty positions than men, and more likely to serve in the "contingent" — adjunct — positions that are rapidly becoming more prevalent at universities in this country, as they are at Berkeley.

For those of us who do get hired into the tenure track, we will make less than our male colleagues, and pay a steep penalty if we choose to become mothers. You must have faced immense challenges when you began teaching at Berkeley in 1972, battles I and my female colleagues will never have to fight because you fought them. I could not be more grateful. But as we fight our own battles, we need other women in our corner, not on the other side of the firing line.

I do not "despise" the women who first trod the path I follow, as you write. To the contrary, I desire their personal mentorship, encouragement, and support as much as I admire their feminist legacy. That is why it stings so much when women who hold positions of power—professors such as yourself, Wall Street power brokers like Albright, or esteemed feminists like Steinem -- help to perpetuate the very gender biases they fought against by undercutting, or publicly cutting down, young women. When someone of Steinem's stature says that millennial women make political decisions based on their hormones rather than their opinions, she delegitimizes the very people I’d hope she would want to bolster: young women. The professors, power brokers, and feminist luminaries of tomorrow.

The greatest gift today's young women have been given by the women who came before us is that of choice: we have the ability to choose what we will do with our lives, how we will present ourselves, and which issues we care about. To see young women exercising that power of choice should be a sign of hope for tomorrow, not an occasion for derision.

In last Thursday's Democratic debate, Clinton herself put it best: "I have spent my entire adult life working toward making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices," she said, "even if that choice is not to vote for me."