Women academics today are caught between the pressure to be unsentimentally analytical in their research and the pressure to perform burdensome emotional labour in the classroom or in faculty meetings.
By Katie Fitzpatrick
When I was awaiting my first round of student evaluations, a female colleague warned me, “To students, you’re either a mother or a bitch.” That is, you’re either nice, nurturing, and helpful, or arrogant, dismissive, and unavailable. Although I ended up receiving many substantive comments from students, there was no doubt that my personality (for good or ill) was often a central matter of discussion.
Decades of research back up my colleague’s warning. A 1999 study of women’s emotional labour in academe found that “students expect female professors to be nicer than male professors and judge them more harshly when they are not.”
More recently, the history professor Benjamin M. Schmidt, at Northeastern University, found that male professors were more likely to be called “geniuses,” while female professors were more often judged on their personalities. Many women say that their students frequently treat them like counselors or social workers. Female academics — like their peers in other professions — are made to perform the bulk of the emotional labour, with both colleagues and students.
Pressures like these might explain why so many academic women I know were immediately intrigued by the premise of Deborah Nelson’s new book, Tough Enough (University of Chicago Press), which explores the work of women intellectuals, writers, and artists known for their stoical, even “heartless,” dispositions.
When I explained the concept to female friends across the academy (and for that matter, beyond it) they all saw something liberating in the notion of the intentionally cold woman intellectual; perhaps it could serve as a model for their own escape from the pressures of obligatory emotional labor.
Nelson examines a group of thinkers (Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil) who cultivated a cool, unsentimental disposition. Unsurprisingly, this attitude frequently inspired the disdain of their male colleagues, who saw them as “pitiless,” “icy,” “clinical,” “cold,” and “impersonal.”
Several of these women also became notorious among the broader public for adopting an unsentimental tone at exactly the moments when sentiment seemed most necessary. Arendt criticized what she saw as the overly emotional language of the Israeli prosecutors at the trial of Adolf Eichmann; Didion satirized the smug good intentions of the New Left; Sontag, less than two weeks after 9/11, chastised U.S. officials and the media for their “sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric.”