In my first few years in a tenure-track job, not a semester went by when I didn’t have to field some version of the observation, “you don’t look old enough to be a professor.” It came from jovial older men seated next to me on airplanes as I flew to conferences. It came from angry students who thought I graded them too critically. Whether voiced as a presumed compliment or as a vitriolic way to undermine my authority in the middle of class, every iteration of the observation had the same underlying implication: being young and female not only does not inspire a sense of intellectual confidence, it actively trumps any actual qualifications for the job. Such as, you know, having a PhD and several years of collegiate teaching experience.
Invariably, I found this infuriating. Certainly, it was more infuriating when coming from students who were trying to challenge my credibility in the classroom than when it came from suave silver-haired men who thought they were being flattering.
Except, it wasn’t.
Every single time I heard that sentence, in any context, I felt myself boil inside…because, unlike being President or renting a car or opening a non-custodial checking account, being a professor is not something that has an age requirement. One has to have a certain level of education, a demonstrated proclivity for the tasks of the job, and–at least in the last fifteen years–a hefty dose of luck to land a tenure-track position. But one need not be any particular age at all.
What was particularly galling, though, was my certainty (established by a casual asking-around) that none of my male colleagues routinely had their ability to be a good professor challenged on the grounds that they did not appear to be old enough for the job. This was not, in fact, an age thing. It was a gender thing.
For the first time in years–indeed, I cannot even remember the last time I heard this line–someone said this to me just last week. I was pumping gas and wearing sunglasses and enjoying the sunshine and breeze of a very long-time-coming spring day, when the young man who was washing windows at the gas station noticed my university parking pass. “Oh,” he said, “are you a student at EMU?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m a professor.”
He did a double-take. “You don’t look old enough for all that,” he said, smiling as if he were bestowing a compliment upon me.
And then I caught myself completely off-guard by replying, “thank you,” and finishing up my task and getting back into my car without feeling furious.
When, I wondered to myself quite sadly as I drove away, when did I become so vain? Did I thank him because now, with a dozen extra years on me, it feels more like a compliment for someone to tell me I look young? Because I feel self-conscious of the faint lines etching themselves into my face, which I can see when the light hits just right, but which I know will show permanently in not too many more years?
Or did I thank him because I have become a lazy feminist? Have I given up mustering the energy to get riled up over sexist comments because (ironically) the energy to fight the small, daily fights is the energy of youth?
Or did I thank him because I have some perspective, now, on what really matters? Am I, as a mother and an older (hopefully wiser) person, somewhat complacent about what I perceive to be the small things? Do they not anger me because the world has such a bounty of real tragedies against women over which to be rightfully infuriated…and in the face of the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls or the sentencing to death of a woman for apostasy, the throwaway comment of a kid in a gas station–a comment that was meant as a compliment–really is not worth getting angry about?
I think it’s probably some combination of all of those things. And the combination makes sense. After all, I am in a much different, more secure place in my career, where I can afford to laugh at rather than feel threatened by comments that presume that the fact that being female without the gravitas of silver hair un-qualifies me for certain kinds of work.
I understand that cultural pressures not to look “old” may subconsciously play into my feeling that looking young is more of a compliment than it was back when I carried my own doubts about my authority as a newly-minted professional. However, I do not like that I now apparently find youthfulness to be as flattering as it was once insulting. Because, of course, both responses are predicated on the notion that how I look is a reasonable measure of my professional credibility and of my worth.
And in the context of the recent #YesAllWomen discussions, my own responses seem to me to be worth interrogating.
Because I always carry my keys as a weapon when I walk to my car alone at night. Because a college student using a bicycle for transportation shouldn’t arrive home with a huge handprint on her backside, courtesy of a man in a passing car. A handprint that leaves a bruise for a week.
because I’m not “too young” to have this job. I have a PhD. Age isn’t a job requirement.
because it still surprises me when I meet men who consider themselves feminists
because my female students do not consider themselves feminists
because I have, of course, lied to men in bars about having a boyfriend because it was the only way to get them to leave me alone
because a policeman once looked me up and down and called me “very nice” rather than giving me the directions I’d asked for
because after I thought, “I have nothing to put on a #YesAllWomen,” it only took me as long as the typing took to make a list of seven things.