Collective Unrest

 

I Want A Nerdy Girl For President

November 11, 2019

Before Elizabeth Warren declared her 2020 candidacy, Laura, my best friend from childhood, and I agreed that she shouldn’t. It wasn’t that we didn’t like her—Laura lives in Boston and campaigned for her first senate race long before she hit the national stage. It was the feeling that she couldn’t win, and that her seeing her ripped apart by the media and by people we knew would hurt too much. We didn’t want to get our hopes up. Months later, when I visited her, we took a photograph wearing matching shirts with the now-famous slogan, “Warren Has A Plan For That.” It was too late, we knew. Our hopes were up.

When Warren tweeted a photograph of herself as a child with an extensive doll collection in the background to highlight her lifelong interest in education, I did a doubletake. Not because it looked haunted, as many observed, but because it looked so much like a scene from my childhood. I, too, had a long shelf of dolls above my bed, and they were, as hers appear to be, a random mix of hand-me-downs and gifts and found-on-the-street treasures, with a couple high-end American Girls added as I got older. And, like her, my favorite game to play with them was “school.” I would have my dolls write book reports, which I would actually write myself, with various levels of quality to which I would then assign grades. Some dolls struggled with writing, while others, the nerdy girls like me, excelled.

Maybe I liked the power, getting to reward the nerdy girls and, yes, punish the bad ones. In real school, it didn’t always work that way. I got into the Gifted Program and my teachers told my mom how smart I was at parent-teacher conferences, but it felt like something was always preventing me from demonstrating the full extent of my abilities. When I started Kindergarten, I was devastated to learn we wouldn’t have spelling tests until the next year. When teachers put work up on the bulletin boards outside, they rarely included mine because they didn’t think I needed the encouragement. In third grade, when we had to write reports about Japan, I put a lot of effort into mine, reading grown-up books and spending hours perfecting my prose, but my teacher chose another girl’s report to show the class as an example. That girl had decorated her cover with magazine cut-outs, shiny paper, and glitter glue. Since my dad was a public school art teacher, I always had at my disposal only whatever he was able to take home, random colors of faded construction paper and dubiously moist glue sticks. The teacher said she especially liked this girl’s report because she “could tell a kid wrote it.” She’d used cutesy, childlike diction and made just the right amount of errors to be endearing, while I had labored over making my language sound as close to adult as possible. I still got a check plus, but went home disappointed.

Warren is the girl who uses words too big for her age, the girl who approaches her third grade Japan report like she works for the United Nations, the girl who does more than her fair share of every group project. That’s the girl I want for president. I think of my middle school homeroom, where I’d let so many classmates copy the math homework I’d completed with painstaking diligence the night before—I would never risk going to bed without finishing my homework. I didn’t know how to say no when they asked. I wanted to prove I wasn’t one of those smart girls, the ones who thought they were better than everyone. I knew the kids who copied from me wouldn’t invite me to lunch or to hang out in Union Square where they’d go after school and, from what I gathered, make out, but still I wanted them to think I was normal, not too smart or too good. I never admitted how hard I worked, how much I cared. Smart girls are made to feel unlovable. We’re told not to sleep on nerdy boys because they might be the next Bill Gates, but I don’t think boys get the same advice: you should date that nerdy girl, she might be the next Sheryl Sandberg? So we undermine our intellects, mask our ambitions, laugh off how much we care about our work.

Elizabeth Warren isn’t afraid to care. Her excitement is palpable as she answers questions during her Town Halls. You can feel her gearing up as she listens, a response already at the tip of her tongue. I see myself in college, in my logic class where all the proofs, so obtuse to my classmates, snapped together instantly in my brain, or in feminist theory class when the words I’d devoured the previous night would rush into my head and my hand would shoot up, face flushing with my eagerness to share. Now in the college courses I teach, I have my students turn in a self-evaluation for participation every semester, in which they give themselves a letter grade and explain why they think they deserve it. I originally started this practice to avoid end-of-semester complaints from those students who can’t imagine why they have a C for participation after showing up to 50% of the classes and talking once, but I’ve continued it for another reason: so many of the girls in my classes will respond with concerns that they talk too much. “Sometimes I get too excited and over-participate,” one of the best students in my creative writing workshop wrote. She’d taken a poetry class before and knew the answers to a lot of my questions, but she was always kind and thoughtful in the way she engaged with other students’ work. I assured her she was doing well, that she should keep speaking, quietly patting myself on the back for doing this feminist work, empowering young women by dismantling their internalized patriarchal beliefs. But leaving a meeting with my department’s Chair and Director of Graduate Studies, which I attended as a member of the Graduate English Advisory Committee, later that week, I caught myself overcome by the same invasive thoughts—did I talk too much? Show too much enthusiasm? Sound like a know-it-all?

As a doctoral candidate, I love department service. I’m good at coming up with ideas, simple fixes to longstanding institutional problems that will satisfy the needs of faculty and students. I have ideas for improving our coursework sequence, for streamlining the candidacy process, for recruitment. In meetings I overflow with thoughts, brimming, as I listen to each concern raised, with eagerness to explain how I think it could be fixed. It’s a thankless job, often, in that the changes we plan to enact often take months—when we came up with new evaluations for graduate courses, it took two semesters for the department to process and distribute them. And so much of the work takes place behind the scenes, in coffee shops or in our bedrooms as we awake to stressful emails, scheduling mishaps we are mistakenly blamed for, last minute changes of room numbers and times. One of my colleagues told me she often wonders if department service means women in positions of power or women doing chores. Asking people to volunteer to help with recruitment, reminding them not to leave perishables in the grad lounge fridge, sending another email reminder about an event the department would like us to attend—as women, we worry these things will make everyone hate us. Women in academia perform more department service than men, and are scarcely rewarded for it. At a panel I went to at the 2018 American Literature Association, one professor, an older woman, remarked that service positions like department chair were once prestigious but, since more women have begun to occupy such roles, they’ve been devalued as free labor available to whomever can be guilted into it. Service, and what I call “department citizenship,” is not lauded in the same way that solitary pursuits, like publications, are—and yet women are more likely to be viewed negatively for non-participatory behavior, so we go to all the things and we come home exhausted and we write articles and abstracts and apply for conference funding.

Planning is gendered work. We do it in our jobs and, more often than not, we do it at home. In her viral article from 2017, Gemma Hartley describes the emotional labor of making plans for meals and vacations and, when others are willing to help, delegating tasks; she writes, “I was the manager of the household, and that being manager was a lot of thankless work.” My last boyfriend cared, in theory, about dividing household tasks equally, but it was hard for him to see how planning factored into the equation. I cooked, he did the dishes, but he never acknowledged the work that went into planning our meals—knowing what ingredients we had, what ingredients we needed to buy, whether we’d have leftovers for lunch, when dinner needed to be started, what time we were meeting friends for drinks afterwards and how long it would take us to get there. Even after we’d gone grocery shopping together, I’d ask him what he wanted for dinner and he’d say, “Remind me what we have?” Before living with me, he’d lived with his mother and grandmother and these things were simply not a concern for him. It’s not that he didn’t work hard—he did, and still does, work probably too hard—but he was able to focus on work without thinking about his next meal, or what time the store closed, or the gift we needed to order for someone’s birthday. I am deeply committed to my work, but my consciousness is always divided, hundreds of little plans churning away in the background.

The most stressful week of my year, new student recruitment week, a delicate balance of events and interviews and rides to and from and managing the emotions of others involved, he was studying for midterms and I was taking care of pets and meals and cleaning. By the end of the week, my emotional energy was drained. We said goodbye to the recruits and went dancing for a friend’s birthday. He joined me after finishing his work for the night, a few hours after the event had begun, and told me he’d had a painful heart palpitation before he left. I assured him it was probably just from the all-nighters he’d been pulling all week and continued drinking, dancing (I was right). Later he accused me of being selfish, said I should have shown more concern, offered to go home with him. But in that moment, I needed to be the one who needed a break. I needed someone to tell me I deserved to relax. I couldn’t stand taking care of one more thing. I still checked on him throughout the night, leaving the dance floor to scan the patio where he was chatting with some other friends, but he seemed fine and I hadn’t danced in ages. I needed to expel all the lists from my brain, relearn existence within a body. I needed to, for once, lose track of time.

Women have always been making plans. Plans for meals, plans for playdates, plans for vacations and dinner parties and family outings. And these things are trivialized, but I don’t know that I trust someone to plan a delicate diplomatic mission if he can’t even plan what he’s eating for dinner tomorrow. Somehow we still trust a man’s gut feeling over a woman’s years of precise calculation. When Hillary Clinton said “I’m prepared to be president,” I felt like she had taken all our years of unseen, unpraised labor and shoved them gloriously into the spotlight. I’ve always been prepared—prepared for class, prepared to teach, prepared for a party, preparing dinner. On election night in 2016, my drunken Facebook post lamented that, “the popular boy ranking how hot each girl in his class is will always achieve more than the girl who gets an A on every test.” In the victory I’d imagined, I saw our reward for years of loneliness, for adolescent romances denied, the persistent sense of not doing enough, the constant exhaustion. Instead, my worst fears were confirmed. 

I’m not letting the cool kids copy my homework anymore. I don’t want a climate change proposal that’s kind of like Warren’s, a childcare plan that borrows some of her ideas. I want a nerdy girl for president. I want the girl in the front row of lecture, laughing genuinely at her professor’s jokes. I want the girl who did the work, who read ahead, who wants to know where she can learn more. I want the girl excited each semester to read through her school’s course catalog, torn as she narrows down enticing possibilities. I don’t want the boy who saunters in late and unprepared, who the teachers still like because he has “good leadership qualities,” because maybe if he likes them he can encourage the other students to behave. I don’t want a man whose secretary handles his work schedule, whose wife handles his home schedule, whose meals appear to him out of thin air. I want a woman with a plan.

 

Emily Banks is the author of Mother Water (Lynx House Press, 2019). Her poems and essays have appeared in The Cortland ReviewGlass (Poets Resist)New SouthThe Southampton ReviewSuperstition ReviewCimarron ReviewYemassee, and other journals. She lives in Atlanta, where she is a doctoral candidate at Emory University. You can find her on Twitter @auntaminal. 

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