Hippie Goes Mainstream, Gets 8-5 Job: Filmn At Eleven
I wear combat boots. Big ones. And a monstrous wool army coat from the 1940s. My derby is my trademark; I prefer ripped jeans and a tank top to any other articles of clothing. I consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool feminist/humanist/neo-peace-loving hard-core freak.
I also just started my first full-time job after college. Suddenly, I have heels, suits, and a legal pad from hell. I say things like "target group" and "teamwork" in a room full of middle and upper-class white people, mostly men.
Um, someone put my life on pause, please?
I went to college to get a basic education, and... I got way more than I bargained for. Like many women, college is where I had my "feminist awakening." Although I had always considered myself a feminist, I suddenly knew what it all meant. I found an answer to that distant ache in my stomach, that ache that I had endured for the previous 19 years. I found the connections between racism, sexism, classism, and all the other "-isms" out there. I diagrammed the patriarchy for my friends. I found groups and activities to develop both my interests and my activism within various causes. I challenged myself and my own prejudices; I challenged the world around me. And I loved every minute of it; every detail of pain and hope and suffering and joy found a place in me that will never be the same.
At the same time, I jumped head-first into my studies as a linguistics major. I had always loved languages, and I found my niche in the tiny (but wonderful!) linguistics department at my school. I eventually was able to combine my feminist passion and linguistic academic work by studying the social aspects of language with respect to women. It was the perfect union of the two great passions of my life, and I couldn't have been happier. By the time I finished, I graduated with departmental honors, magna cum laude, with a 3.74 GPA.
Then, cold harsh reality set in.
"What are you doing after graduation?" was a question I heard more often than I care to remember. I generally answered, "Going out to the bars, why? Ohhhh, you mean... after... I see. In that case, I'll be working for the Man." Although I tried to joke about my impending doom in the Real World, there was a feeling of resignation that I had never experienced before. I wanted so desperately to find a decent-paying job in the feminist network, but I knew in my heart that all of my good intentions and strong-willed passions to destroy the patriarchy wouldn't be the way to save money for grad school, or even to pay the astronomical rents of New York City. I knew I was betraying myself, my sisters, and everything I had worked for in the last few years, so I sent my resume out to many of the feminist groups in the city-- from grassroots organizations to web servers to magazines. But, a BA in Linguistics doesn't take you very far, no matter how good that GPA was.
After a couple of months of first boredom, then depression, then exasperation, I landed this sales position at a large German communications firm who has offices in Manhattan. Within a week, I was clop-clopping along in my heels and commuting in from Jersey. The money is good, and the people are nice, the work is interesting. I don't feel quite as bad about my actual job because it's not hard-core "buy this and be cool, so that we can suppress millions" selling. And as a friend of mine put it, "It's not like you're working for The Man; you're working for some German guy. Completely different Man altogether."
Still, I wondered (and still do) about how my life is turning out. A few weeks ago, I sat at a departmental lunch in a posh mid-town restaurant and looked around, half-dazed, at all the people who were dining. I counted two Black people, three Asians, and mostly white men. It felt like a dream at the time; I started to question everything around me. If my partner were a woman, could I talk about her? If I were any ethnicity other than white, and still spoke German, would I have been hired? Why are all the people in power upper-class white men? (Gee, that's a tough one to answer...) I had enough difficulties admitting that I was dirt poor and needed a paycheck as soon as possible. Other little events signify the position I hold in my "new life": how I notice that most of the people who work at Au Bon Pain across the street from my office are mostly women of color, while their customers are most white businesspeople, how I listen to the women around me complain about not getting anywhere in their careers; how my jokes about capitalism and The Machine fall on mostly deaf ears.
How can I possibly benefit from this situation?This is a question that I've asked myself many, many times in the last few weeks. It seems that every day, it gets tougher to swallow this crap. Some mornings, getting on and off of the subway, I feel like just another cow being herded up the escalator to my spiritual death. All of these thoughts buzz around and around in my head like needy children begging for a parent's attention. Spirituality has been a big help; my own personal belief of "everything-happens- for-a-reason-so-get-off-your-sorry-ass-and-learn-soemthing-from-it-damn-it" has been essential in my own struggle to come to terms with working in corporate America and staying in touch with real life. I'm learning more about what needs to change than I could read in a million textbooks; like someone said to me once, "You gotta learn the system before you can change the system." Every "-ism" that smacks me in the face reminds me of the importance of our work as feminists, as human beings. I try to educate others that share my privilege, not by ranting and raving throughout the office (as tempting as that sometimes is), but by subtly planting little seeds of change in people's minds and letting the grow. I keep sort of twisted log of the things I see wrong everyday. I report these things back to the feminist network I still keep in touch with (sneaky little spy that I am!). Hell, I'm writing this article right now...
Interestingly enough, though, there are certain women-centered phenomena that many people here don't realize exist; perhaps because the women have held the same positions in business for some time now (pink collar and not-quite-top-management), these little events are accepted at face-value and rarely explored. Let me give you an example: Not long ago, a co-worker suddenly appeared in front of my office door and simply said, "Bathroom conference! Right now!" I followed her and several other women into the restroom, where we all began to discuss a few issues all we were facing in the office. To me, it was blindingly obvious that the meeting was "male-free," and through some of my linguistics work and personal experience, I knew that the speech in the bathroom was radically different than the language used inside the office. It was as if they had created their own version of the "old boys' club" in the one space where men could not be present at any time. Everyone spoke equally and freely, without worry or hesitation. In response, the listeners were responsive and supportive (which rarely happens inside the office; everyone is concerned about saving face or saving ass while the bosses are around). It has become a safe space for women only; seldom is the trust forged there violated outside of its doors. I want to cultivate that network on the "outside," to show that if we demonstrate the power in our numbers, words and collective actions, things might just change. Even just a tiny, tiny bit.
So, what does all this mean? It means that everyone can do something. No one is excluded from the movement, there's not an excuse that you can give to me that will make me think that you can't take at least a tiny little part of the work we all face. So, I guess what I'm saying is, get off yer butts and say something. Anything. I'm not going to sit here and pretend that it's the easiest thing in the world to do, but it just might keep you sane. And you'll be helping the greater good. So, next time you feel that little tinge of guilt while working for the Man, just remember two things: 1.) don't get discouraged, because you're not alone, and 2.) use that guilt to fuel you drive to make things happen.