The other night I had a friend over and we were talking about our mutual career angst. We are not at all on the same professional tracks, though I’d venture to say I am more often jealous of hers than she of mine, hers being a life of the mind and mine being a life of the… stacks of paper, I guess you might say. At any rate, here we were, two smart women, young but feeling adrift, and it makes me cry to think about how actually and utterly convinced we both seem to be that the future holds nothing but failure for both of us.
Some of my angst is, of course, of my own making. Icarus’s problem was that he flew too close to the sun, but I keep lingering in the shade, myself. I don’t apply for things I assume I won’t get. I don’t write things I think about because I assume that I will express them inadequately and awkwardly. I double-up on the self-flagellation around these things because then, since I am rapidly approaching a Landmark Birthday By Which One Is Supposed To Have Certain Things Settled, I want to complain that I don’t have any of the things I was too afraid to ask or work for in the first place.
As I always do when I feel like I am about to throw myself under the bus, I’ve been trying to think about what this life of mine means in feminist terms. (I may be the only person in the universe whose breaking heart can be soothed by a good abstract feminist debate.) And, well… I think I might be a big old feminist failure too, flunking on my own terms of what it means to be a woman in my particular time and place, with my particular advantages.
Let me back up. A few weeks ago I happened to see Naomi Wolf speak, and although my impression was mixed, one thing she said that has stuck in my craw ever since was that women needed “to take up the space that the world gives them.” When she spoke those words, it dawned on me that I hardly knew how to do that, and that my lack of knowledge in this regard was, in fact, a Pretty Fucking Big Feminist Problem.
I want to be clear: in a room full of people I love, I am an interrupter and a pedant and a shouter and a comic and I’m sure altogether infuriating. In these small particular spaces, which are, by choice and habit of association, usually filled with sympathetic ears, I do not lack for self-confidence or self-respect.
It’s when I get out in the wider world that I get into trouble. It’s there that I lose my assurance that I matter, that I have something to say that people want to hear. It’s there that I smart at being overlooked but do nothing in particular about it, there that I smile dumbly when someone tells a joke I don’t like, there that I assume I will not get anything I deserve.
And I don’t kid myself that this is not a gendered thing. I know that I was not raised with any expectation of being able to do something extraordinary. But everywhere I look I see dudes who see the world as their oyster without the vaguest sense of self-awareness. Last year I was dating a man who, despite having done very little with his life other than receiving an undergraduate degree in film from NYU, was absolutely, one hundred percent certain that it was his destiny to make a film about “women’s stories.” (No, I do not know why I did not dump him immediately either.) I have worked with a hundred and ten male actors convinced their degrees from the American Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts would lead them to the position of the next Daniel Day-Lewis. Every guy I know at work thinks he’s going to be President, on the Supreme Court, the Dean of Harvard Law School, the biggest M&A lawyer in New York.
And meanwhile, I try to be content, as Edith Wharton once urged, to be interested in big things and happy in small ways. Which, as a coping strategy, may be the best advice there is. But it will not get any of us the big things, a shelf full of books one has written and others have read, the Presidency, a mention in the history books read by children, will it? I don’t mean to be hubristic and suggest that I am entitled to those things, but isn’t it sad that for most women, most of the time, they aren’t even things one envisions in the realm of possibility?
And here I am, late at night, with a pot of tea and these thoughts rolling in my head and all the lazy time I spend pondering these things is more time gone that I shan’t be getting back and that I can’t use for anyone at all, let alone myself. And I don’t know what the answer is, whether I ought to be, as a feminist, taking up my space. I don’t know whether it’s feminist to be ambitious in a world that doesn’t give anyone what they deserve to have.
What do you think?