“It’s really not as impressive as it sounds!”
“It doesn’t mean as much as you think it does.”
“I guess I just got lucky.”
I have these responses ready at my fingertips for those who ask where I’m in school or what I’m studying, and I’ve gotten very used to employing them in the last four years — that is, when I haven’t avoided the question of college in the first place or flat out lied about my current enrollment. I’ve grown accustomed to diminishing my own accomplishments for one of two reasons: either avoiding an awkward conversation with a stranger or trying not to scare away a romantic partner. (In my own case, the audience in these scenarios is always male.) The former generally leads at the very worst to a slightly uncomfortable interaction in which the man checking my eyesight or waiting for a takeout order at my hostess stand insists on quizzing me about current events or random trivia to see if he can catch me off-guard and reassert his own intellectual dominance, but the latter can have some more lasting effects.
A recent conversation in my small, all female-identifying seminar (which juxtaposes nicely with the 90-person, 90%-male Political Science lecture which precedes it and reminds me just how gendered academia still is) shocked me with the revelation that something I’ve thought of as one of my more shameful habits is, perhaps, universally resonant among women in academia.
A discussion of college replacing marriage as an avenue for social mobility — specifically for women and femmes — morphed into a broader discussion of college and marriage, and the societal response to female academic elitism. Women have been at Yale for a full half-century now (a century and a half, as graduate students), but it is still a surprisingly commonly held belief that we come here in search of husbands: our M.R.S. degree. I reject this, but not simply because it minimizes the work that we have put in to get here — I just don’t think that Yale’s straight men will find their partners here.
I somewhat jokingly remarked to this class that I don’t trust any heterosexual male’s desire for an “ambitious” partner because that desire is, in my experience, generally superficial. Either he is attending school with me, and thus appreciates my academic abilities and career goals but secretly hopes that I’ll put them on hold when the time comes to raise a family, or his definition of “ambition” is simply different than mine — and requires a certain attractive level of goal-orientedness and animated energy coupled with humility and the understanding that my dreams will ultimately come second. And the simple reality is that such a definition doesn’t match the ambition of the women I’ve met at Yale.
I was expecting pushback on my snide cynicism, but instead saw the emphatic nods of fifteen women who have all, at some point, lied about what school they attend, what their major is, or downplayed their own intelligence and accomplishments so as not to make a man uncomfortable. Ruthless pursuit of lofty goals is an attractive trait for a man to possess, but an instant strike (both personal and professional) against any woman in their institutions and industries.