I was talking to a friend the other day about the fact that both of us throughout our careers have often been described by others as “outspoken,” “willful,” or even “intimidating.” For example, at a talk I gave a few weeks ago, I was introduced by a (male) former professor as “one of the two most willful graduate students” he’s ever worked with. This was extremely disarming–first of all, because that’s not my memory of my graduate school self*, and secondly, because of course my instinct was to argue with this characterization, although that would only have ratified his judgment of me as “willful.” (Game, set, and match to the former professor before I even opened my mouth!)
My friend–also a white woman, also exactly my age, also middle-class, and also supposed to be a “nice girl” from the suburbs–told me a similar story about how at the conclusion of a two-year postdoc, she was introduced by the (male) director of the granting organization as someone who really “shook things up” around the place and got up in their grills about various issues. What could she say after an introduction like that? Once again, shutting up is the only way you can go. You can’t argue with him without proving him right.
Now that I’m further along in my career, I don’t get called “willful” by the people I work with. (My friend pointed out that “willful” is only an adjective she would use in describing a child’s behavior, not that of a colleague or a graduate student.) These days I get called “intimidating” by some colleagues and my students. I don’t think they mean it as an insult–I actually think most of them mean it in a complimentary way, so it bothers me less than being called “willful.” But, still–there’s an implication that being “intimidating” is something unexpected or unusual.
*My memory of grad school is of a year of uninterrupted trauma and depression** followed by two years of increasing confidence in my work (and meeting Fratguy along the way.) I took my exams at the end of my third year and then got the hell out of Philadelphia, and my life improved dramatically.
**Yes, “trauma and depression.” What else can you call an exploitative and dishonest love affair, rumors circulated by my classmates who didn’t have fellowships (I was funded) that I was plagiarizing my own senior thesis for my first-year research paper, followed by actually being hit by a car after getting off a bus. (I had to call a friend to come over and help me get undressed to get in the bathtub that night. I couldn’t lift my left arm for months, but managed to get myself dressed and teach three T.A. sections the following day.) I read all of Jane Austen’s novels that winter and cried randomly throughout the day–being an ordinarily very happy person, I was unable to recognize the signs of depression I was obviously manifesting. Needless to say, I don’t remember having the time or energy to be all that “willful” with respect to my coursework and teaching assignments!