At approximately 6:35 this morning I was standing in half-darkness, in surprisingly warm (40 degree!) weather at the bottom of section one of Harvard Stadium. I was there surrounded by fellow “tribe” members of the November Project, a grass-roots fitness movement, conceived locally which has since spread to numerous cities across the country. It’s a powerful experience: one of quasi cult-like community, camaraderie, commiseration, and a fair share of hugging strangers (which is, I promise, less creepy than it sounds). If you’re not yet convinced that waking up at the crack of dawn to run stadiums or participate in circuits is the greatest way to start your day, then simply take my word for it: it’s awesome and it has, honestly, been one of my favorite parts of moving to Boston thus far. And you should all join, or as the NP motto goes: “Just Show Up.” Unsolicited, though enthusiastic, plug for this organization aside, today’s November Project made an impact. In the least expected of places, I observed something quite startling that made me think about things I’d long theorized but never quite experienced, and I felt compelled to write about it. (Indulge me here and see also: picture from NP taken earlier this year).
At approximately 6:35 this morning, standing in half-darkness, waiting to climb the 37 – well, 32ish I could manage – sections of Harvard Stadium, I felt like, for the first time, I was consciously aware of the social constructedness of gender. My friend Shannon and I often joke that our studies in gender and sexuality unwittingly and unnervingly compel us to start theorizing our own lives. Today, it was true. What, then, does the November Project have to do with feminism? Nothing, except in my crazy mind. Certainly, I hadn’t meant to think about this; at that hour, I’m not exactly at my most lucid. But a unique observation compelled my train of thought. I arrived right on time, and maybe a minute late (I ran there, it’s fine) for the group workout, so I was forced towards the back of the group of people waiting to start their ascent. Normally, about ten people line up and start at once; it’s a procedure the group leaders regulate, to some degree, just to make sure everyone keeps moving and the stairs don’t get too congested. In addition, typically those who know they will go fast proceed first, for obvious reasons. Not among those in that category, I had no problem waiting for a few minutes to recover from my run. It was then that I noticed something fascinating. And it was not simply that people who did not want to bother to wait started climbing parallel stairs and not starting at the “right time” or in the “right place.” As I looked around at my fellow stragglers, I noticed, curiously, that they were predominantly all youngish women like myself (of course, there were a few men). This was striking: was it possible that all these women were late, like me, and forced towards the back because of the sheer number of people?Definitely not. Did all of the men simply proceed first knowing they would (likely) go faster? Probably some, but certainly not all. Why then was this final group of a good number of people (maybe 60ish) predominantly female? A more likely answer, it seemed, was that they were, obediently, and for lack of a better word, docilely, waiting in line – waiting for their proper “turn” and waiting, in a sense, to follow the rules.
I’m not going to argue there’s a direct correlation, here, or that I’ve stumbled upon some absolute truth about the social construction of what it means to be female. But it struck me as particularly noteworthy that those who stayed, those who waited, those who didn’t push or weren’t as eager or willing to move ahead were women. (And, of course, certainly not all women follow suit). I began to consider to what extent this might be a reflection that young women have been acculturated to wait, to play by the rules, not to be “pushy” or to go against what we are told we are “supposed” to do. It’s not like there would have been any disincentive to or punishment for going early or skipping a few sections and starting elsewhere, and it’s not like the group leaders said: “all women to the back of the line!” Perhaps it was not merely as coincidental or circumstancial as it first appeared (perhaps it was, I can’t be sure). I do not mean to suggest anyone is really “at fault” here. The fact of experiencing this in such a weird and interesting way, at November Project, is in no way meant to reflect my feelings about the group or the people involved - it's a fundamentally great and egalitarian group at its core (as I hope my opening makes clear). Still, I don’t think the fact of my stray and admittedly brief observation can merely be attributed to the notion that all of of these women, like myself, are simply more disposed to meek or introverted individual behavior. To what extent, might it seem, then, in even this very small way, that I was finally experiencing and real-izing a barely perceptible but undoubtedly gendered bias: that society teaches (compels?) and rewards its women for their deference and for their propensity “to play by the rules” and to a large degree, we accordingly fall in line and do so. To what extent, that is, have we, as young women, internalized this idea of what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to act? These were the questions that I, rather surprisingly, began to think about as I waited to climb those stairs, and that I've continued to think about all day.
The coherence of these thoughts and any answers I could provisionally obtain were soon dispelled as I became more focused on my movement and the inevitable, incontrollable leg shaking that I needed to attend to. Nonetheless, it seems a particularly fortuitous time to have experienced this phenomenon and to begin to think about it more deeply. Sheryl Sandberg – she of Lean In fame – recently began a campaign to “Ban Bossy.”The website for this campaign avers: “When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don't raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.” I wonder to what degree Sanberg’s understanding and my own ostensible “revelation” (if you could rightly call it that) operate on the same principle. Both seem to speak to broader notions about the way girls and women are conditioned to behave: deference over assertiveness, passivity over activity, silence over speech. Girls, if they strive to get ahead, should do so quietly, almost invisibly, lest they be branded as bossy, lest it incurs backlash in a society that – in an undoubted double standard – privileges the very traits in men it discredits in women. This is certainly not a new insight, and it’s something we’ve seen before; one need only think of the way female politicians are portrayed by the media and the competing narratives, formed by and for society, that often attenuate their campaign messages and real, hard-won achievements. Yet it’s an issue, like many others, that merits attention, and if I sometimes have qualms about Sandberg’s feminism and her public message, I’m nevertheless glad she’s bringing this issue to bear on a broader public audience.
My point is not to rhapsodize at length about these things, because these are issues that run deep and are more complex than I have suggested and want to describe here. I simply found myself startled by an observation this morning and its potential "meaning” or significant import in terms of the gender constructedness I’d studied theoretically and perhaps intuited but never, perhaps, quite so clearly “seen.” So, I’ll conclude simply with an excerpt from Judith Butler’s seminal work on gender construction and performativity – the sine qua non of this kind of theoretical thinking – that has proven fundamental to my conceptual understanding of these ideas and others within the realm of feminist/queer theory. As Butler attests: “Acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires create the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core, an illusion discursively [societally ] maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality […] The displacement of a political and discursive origin of gender identity onto a psychological “core” precludes an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject and its fabricated notions about the ineffable interiority of its sex or of its true identity.”