Little Job

For some reason, this particular conversation has stayed with me. Not because it was the only one of its kind, but because of that phrase: “little job.” It suggested not only that everything I believed in so passionately – teaching, learning, literature – didn’t amount to all that much in terms of real world importance, but moreover, that in the final analysis it was fine that a young woman pursue such a goal because it was only a matter of time before she would have to prioritize caring for her children and household.

“Little Job”:

It must have been early summer in 2000. A welcome breeze surreptitiously entered the crowded room as someone ducked out the door to exit, a drink or two in her hands. The community clubhouse was filled to capacity with heavily perfumed women in saris and men in rumpled shirts, suit jackets having been disposed of by this point in the party. My friends and I were making our way through the group, being embraced by aunties and uncles who had known us nearly all our lives but who we hadn’t seen in the years we were away at college.

“So beta,” one such uncle began, “what are you doing now, after graduation?”

“I’ll be going to graduate school!” I beamed, just having received my coveted acceptance into a Ph.D. program in English.

“Oh, very good. What will you be studying? Medicine? Law?” he trailed off, satisfied perhaps that he had exhausted all possibilities.

“English,” I responded, still glowing with naïve pride at my hard-earned acceptance.

His face changed. “English, huh? We’ll have to watch how we talk around you!” he chuckled.

“Yeah, not grammar, English literature.” And then in an effort to regain his diminishing admiration, “I want to be an English professor.”

And that – as they say – was that. “Oh good, you’ll have a nice little job.” He patted me on the back (need I add patronizingly) and went on his way.

For some reason, this particular conversation has stayed with me. Not because it was the only one of its kind, but because of that phrase: “little job.” It suggested not only that everything I believed in so passionately – teaching, learning, literature – didn’t amount to all that much in terms of real world importance, but moreover, that in the final analysis it was fine that a young woman pursue such a goal because it was only a matter of time before she would have to prioritize caring for her children and household.

I had spent much of my life challenging just these kinds of heterosexist assumptions. My default proto-feminist position, crafted, polished, and shined as a defense against the patriarchal ideologies of womanhood I found in all the cultures in which I moved, was to declare that I simply had no interest in marriage or motherhood. Other girls may waste their afternoons fantasizing about dashing Prince Charmings, gyrating Bollywood Heroes, and lavish weddings. Not me! I was spending those same precious moments building elaborate fantasies in which I (looking suspiciously like a browner Anne of Green Gables) ventured off to Nova Scotia to attend Redmond College and later, brilliantly expounded on little known literary texts while wearing perfectly burnished tan leather boots in London.

And then ish got real. In my case, that meant graduating with a Ph.D. in English Literature during the worst economic downturn in recent history. It also meant finding an amazing partner and having two beautiful children. So now, twelve years since that damningly frustrating conversation, I find myself once again deliberating the meaning of having a “little job.”

I began lecturing part-time because of a confluence of factors: the position was only funded part-time despite initial hopes of a full-time visiting professor position and I had a new two-month old baby. Since I explicitly do not want this to be fodder for the superficial “mommy wars,” I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of working versus staying at home as if these are choices that all parents are able to make or that they are diametrically opposed. I am privileged in that, financially, my paltry pay (barely enough to cover child care for the hours I’m at work) is not a radical detriment to my family. However, after four years of teaching as an adjunct, I’ve also come to understand the exploitative nature of part-time academic work, as well as the joys of teaching and being with my children. But what I’m faced with, time and again, is the discomfiting realization that accomplishments in the classroom, hours spent advising brilliant students who are involved in meaningful activism, teaching, and study, and even publications and conference presentations do not matter to administrators nor to many prospective employers who will read the four, five, six-year position of lecturer on my CV as evidence of someone who prioritized her family over academia.

I take what I do as a lecturer very seriously, and I think my evaluations, the emails and messages I receive from students, and the rapport we have in the classroom (whether physical or online) would prove this to be true. I also take parenting very seriously, and I hope the little people we are raising will prove this to be true as well. But every time I’m reminded, “People stop looking at your CV after five years or so,” “Don’t fall into the ‘lecturer trap’!” or told, “You are so much better than this,” by those who really do care about me, not to mention, “It’s nice that you get some time out of the house,” by well-meaning people who have no damn clue what they are talking about, I am forced to confront all my fears of being circumscribed by the life choices I was expected to make and against which I fought so hard.

In the beginning I wondered if I had failed all of those who had invested so much time in my education and growth. I wondered if I had failed to live up to the feminist ideals by which I have navigated my life. How can I stand up in front of my students and talk about the ideology of separate spheres and the necessity of economic security while I am willingly taking a “little job” in order to provide care for my children in a way that is meaningful for me and keep them close to their extended family? But in fact, the other day in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class, as we discussed transfeminist Julia Serano’s call to reclaim femininity, it suddenly became clear to me that while I may have been capably teaching feminist theory all this time, I had been misapplying it to my own case and instead had thoroughly internalized the sexist dismissal of what has traditionally been considered “women’s work” that so infuses our social and economic thinking.

Sure, our society celebrates motherhood: we have a self-proclaimed “Mom-in-chief,” Mother’s Day, hell, even a genre of so-called porn just for us (IT’S SO BAD). But of course the cult of motherhood that has taken over American popular culture is a consumerist fantasy of worth that superficially covers over the reality of economic and social devaluation of caregiving and the simultaneous compulsion of heteronormativity in our culture. Although there have been significant shifts in the public culture, there remains at the root of how we understand ourselves the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres. This ideology argued that the social landscape was divided into two spheres, the public and the private. The public sphere was the world of capitalist commerce, of political participation, of government, of war, of travel, of great debates and even more radically world-changing ideas. The private sphere was the much smaller domain of the family, of religious and cultural instruction, of reproductive and domestic labor, of love. Victorians used an array biologically determinist arguments to claim that men properly belonged to the public sphere (at least propertied white men), and women to the private (although of course, large segments of racially Othered and poor white women always worked outside the home). If women ventured out of the private sphere it was for shopping, to cultivate their person, their home, and their children as indicators of the social status of their men.

It was against this mapping of gender roles onto the social landscape that white, middle-class feminists like Betty Friedan rallied so forcefully in the 1960s. (Middle-class) women were told that they were “angels in the house,” that they were valued so much by their society that they were put upon pedestals to be protected from the increasingly ugly, grueling, dirty, but oh-so-lucrative world of capitalist profit making. They were love embodied, a pure essence to offset earthly greed and ambition. They toiled and labored in the home, they sacrificed their bodies and their minds out of love for their families, to ask for compensation in dollars was crass, a violation of affective ties. But this conception of femininity was a mystique – a myth that served to undergird capital’s ruthless treatment of its workers, to control female reproduction in the interest of reproducing the middle-class social body as the true beneficiaries of the state, and to create new generations of consumers that literally bought into the ideals of the “American Dream.” Educated women should not be languishing at home, declared Friedan. They should be able to pursue the same goals as their male counterparts, to achieve the same level of monetary success and social prestige. In fact, the idea that women should be able to do what the men do still lies at the heart of Caitlin Moran’s definition of feminism in her much lauded  feminist manifesto, How to Be a Woman.

When it is discussed at all, this is what feminism is taken for in our mainstream cultural discourse. But, is that really all it is: trying to get what (middle-class, straight) men have historically had access to? Surely there must be more than that, for as bell hooks reminds us in Feminism is for Everybody, the reason why so many working-class, poor, queer women/of color never took up the mantle of feminism was that it seemed to be about a bunch of middle-class women trying to attain the privileges their men had, at the expense of everyone else, whose labor would still be needed to do all the things that these women were no longer willing to do. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild talk about the new sexual division in our society as being organized by race and geography. We like to pride ourselves here in the U.S. that we have achieved gender equality, but the reality is that we still organize work in a hierarchical manner, with affective (that is, body-centered, emotional) labor at the bottom and salaried professional labor (mind-centered) at the top. As middle-class women move into salaried jobs, they are still held accountable for what happens at home. In order to fulfill the double responsibilities of home and work, they hire mostly poor, migrant women of color to do the so-called women’s work in the home: caring for children and the elderly, making meals, and cleaning the home.

Let me be clear: I am one of these middle-class women. My partner is equally committed to the responsibilities of the home, but because he works full time, I rely on other women to care for my children when I’m working outside of the home, and to clean the house twice a month so that I can be freed up to lesson plane, grade, and write while at home. I strive to honor and value these women, but as a society we all fail to do so. Domestic workers are among the most invisible and exploited workers in our economy. And just over the weekend, our California governor, Jerry Brown, vetoed a domestic workers bill that would have secured this mostly female labor force with some of the same safety measures afforded other workers.

By and large, says Julia Serano, feminists have accepted those behaviors, practices, and types of labor associated with masculinity as their de facto ideal. She writes with great passion about the trivialization and targeting of transwomen within both feminist and queer circles as well within the society at large for being somehow inauthentic or dupes to patriarchal norms, what she calls “trans-misogeny.”

“It is commonplace for people in the straight mainstream as well as within our queer and feminist circles to presume the feminine gender expression is more frivolous, artificial, impractical, and manipulative than masculine gender expression and those of us who dress or act femininely are likely to be more tame, fragile, dependent, and immature than our masculine or ‘gender-neutral’ counterparts” (“Reclaiming Femininity,” 170).

We can see this so easily in society: why is it that we applaud little girls who would rather play sports than play with dolls, but reprimand boys who would rather dress up in high heels and makeup than play rough and tumble outside? Femininity continues to be the denigrated, whether through the dismissal of “femme skills,” like makeup application and stylizing as trivial and unauthentic (as explained in a brilliant post by Marianne), or the dismissal of caregiving in the home by parents of any gender as mindless, easy, or “not really working.” What if we took up Serano and Marianne’s call to rethink how we understand femininity? Not as tied to particular bodies defined by sex and gender but rather by traits, affinities, pleasures, and practices? Julia Serano is writing specifically about the particular history, positioning, and exclusion of transwomen within mainstream society as well as feminism, and I am concerned about co-opting her theorization for the purposes of working through my own heteronormative, middle-class issues. But I firmly believe that the type of feminism that I aspire to has much to gain from reading radical black feminists like hooks along with transfeminists like Serano, and that more selfishly, I have a lot to learn about how I value the various kinds of labor in which I am engaged.

Can I come to realize that many of my misgivings about the choices I have made to engage in part-time work while raising my young children are a product of socialization to value what a patriarchal, capitalist society has told us we should value (ambition, financially profit, and intellectual labor), at the expense of all of those practices we intuitively know make a lasting impact in peoples’ lives (listening, teaching, learning from, caring, loving, nurturing, feeding, playing)? How we prove that value as a society (through monetary compensation, through governmental benefits, through a re-energized social safety net?) is something we need to work on, immediately. How I prove the value of my “little job(s)” to myself is something that’s going to take me a while to figure out. In fact, by the end of this post, I’m questioning it all over again…

Dedicated to Jennifer Terry and Laura Kang who understood all of this long before I did.

Works Cited:

Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy,” Globalization: The Transformation of Social Worlds, Eds. D. Stanley Eitzen and Maxine Baca Zinn (Wadsworth Publishing, 3d edition, 2011): 188.

bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: A Passionate Politics (MA: Southend Press, 2000).

Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman (Harper Collins, 2012).

Julia Serano, “Reclaiming Femininity,” Transfeminist Perspectives: In and Beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, ed. Anne Enke (Temple UP, 2012): 170-83.

Marianne, “I’m Tired of Apologizing for Liking Girl Stuff (i.e. Femme Skills),” XO Jane (Feb. 27, 2012):


About priyajshah31

I'm Priya J. Shah, Ph.D. I taught courses on gender and sexuality, imperialism, globalization, and the politics of style for over five years and am currently pursuing my other passion for the arts.
This entry was posted in Academia, Parenting, Pedagogy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Little Job

  1. Natasha Sayani says:

    I strongly feel that you of all people should not question your value in society. After every lecture you conduct you are educating a new wave of students in the fallacies of a capitalistic and patriarchal thought process. The whole point of such a system as you pointed out is to make women feel secondary. You on the other hand get us to think outside the box and question everything we previously chose to believe. For one, you single handedly caused me to re-evaluate where I was headed in life and inspired me to work in the field of education as opposed to fashion (considered a woman’s world). I am grateful for your influence every working day and I am positive that there are numerous others like me who have been inspired by you. I believe that is true success. Influence. It is something very powerful and individuals who (like you) possess it have been known to change the course of history.

  2. priyajshah31 says:

    Natasha, thank you so much for your generosity. When I write about my brilliant students, I am thinking of students like you who make the classroom and office hours such incredible spaces of learning and conversation. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the choices of you have made upon graduation!

  3. Anila Bhagavatula, Ph.D. says:

    I posted on FB before realizing that you had asked for comments here…I agree that proving the value is something we need to work on immediately… Eagly’s Social Role Theory suggests that the stereotypes arise because of the patriarchal traditions that brought about the differential roles of women and men in society. And then, because because men and women occupy different niches, people come to associate different personality traits and abilities to them. These traits become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, maternity laws and the lack of subsidized child care often pigeonhole women into taking positions that allow them more time with their children, e.g. the inherent flexibility in teaching and nursing professions. Men are more likely to occupy positions that call for more time away from home. The differential aspects of these roles are pointed to as “evidence” that women are more nurturing and are better suited to spend more time at home with the children than the father is!

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Anila, thank you so much for your comment and for informing me about Eagly’s Social Role Theory. I had not heard of this theory in particular, but it is very similar to the overall feminist argument about the naturalization of gender behaviors. It’s interesting that you mention it because in class just this last week we were looking at some of the different ways twentieth-century feminists tried to pinpoint the origin of patriarchy, and hence the traditional social roles that you mention. I think that Joan Scott has it right when she argues that there is no one origin story – that patriarchy looks very different depending on the time, place, and social context of the group in question. In this essay, and in class, I try to trace our current mainstream American ideologies of gender to the rise of industrialism and capitalism in the 19th century, within the context of Empire.

  4. Aisha says:

    In my attempt to be brief, I’ll simply first say THANK YOU!!! I sit here with tears, chills, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this amazing piece you’ve written that seems to be the very song of my heart — as I was scrambling through a busy work-at-home day to prep lectures, grade, and continue to find yet another adjunct class to round out my Spring teaching load…so that I, this womanist, feminist, woman of color, from a working class background (who now finds herself situated somewhere in middle-class land), may prioritize and simultaneously honor my many life-passion roles of parenting my beautiful baby, teaching (and learning from/with) my brilliant students and therapy clients. So, brief it was not, but heart-felt for certain. Again, I say THANK YOU! Peace and respect,

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Aisha, thank you so much for your incredibly heartfelt comment. Much of the reason for starting this blog is to make these connections and have these conversations. It appears we are kindred spirits, and your words mean so much to me.

      • Aisha says:

        Thank you, Priya! Kindred spirits, indeed 🙂 I look forward to sharing your blog with my students the next time I teach feminist therapy!

  5. Ana M. Fores says:

    This was excellent, though I want to warn you, the road ahead is bumpy, and the jump to full-time work is elusive. Still, after a lifetime of much the same as you, I have no regrets: I have three beautiful children, all grown up, who are going on to graduate school, one having graduated summa cum laude (and Phi Beta Kappa!) from one of the best universities in the world, another studying at one of the best, a third beginning his first job. And I did this all on adjunct salaries. While my husband nurtured our bodies, I nurtured our minds. But it is still wrong. This is why I have started my petition, and I hope you sign and share with your students and friends, and they in turn also sign and share, so that our cause begins to be better known and talked about: educators like you need to make a difference, and we all need to get paid more than childcare money; we need to make living wages, so that we can survive and teach our passion.

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Ana, thank you so much for your comment, your candor, and most of all for the incredible work you do on behalf of our tribe! Your posts on our group page, along with the work of others, have helped me understand the structural problematic of our positions and the toll it takes on ourselves (financially, intellectually, emotionally) as well as our students, and the university system as a whole. Your recent experiences have greatly moved me, and I agree that we must help our students, our colleagues, and all others who care about our communities understand the implications of our precarious positions and the devaluing of education.

      • priyajshah31 says:

        I should also add that I completely agree with you that pay is one of the most important factors that needs to be addressed. I didn’t set out to explicitly talk about that factor here, but believe me, I am vociferous in challenging the patronizing concept that somehow teachers just live off their “passion for students.” Although passion is a huge part of what we do, I would argue that this rhetoric has been used to systematically undermine our efforts to make an equitable wage and to fight for our rights as workers in the university.

      • Ana M. Fores says:

        I totally concur. I understand this is why the university takes advantage. They realize our passion, and they think we can just live off its fruit. Sooner or later, this is going to fall. And the fall is coming. We may be David and Goliath fighting, but David did win. Or, if you want to speak in feminist terms, Huitzilopochtli, the god of the Aztecs, rises. But he is born of Coatlicue, his mother the earth, as he never had a father. So the underdog will rise. Eventually, without help of man? Interesting concepts these myths explore too. Through time, we have been questioning and exploring the same questions, battling the same problematics. Will we ever find an answer?

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