“My Brilliant Career”
The title above is from an Australian film of some years ago, whose heroine decides to refuse the hand and society life of the handsome suitor she loves, and instead to set forth on the solitary struggle to become a writer.
In my youth a popular song carried the same message:
“Dance ballerina dance — And just forget the chair that’s empty in the second row.”
Two roads diverge in a wood. The word was, you pick one or the other: love or work.
On the face of it, things have changed quite a bit since then. On closer inspection: not so much. Last night in a café, I overhead a young woman say to her confidante, “It was so nice to talk to him! He didn’t treat me like a woman!” Isn’t that the same dichotomy, the same either/or?
I must have decided early on to refuse the either/or. Why work in philosophy at all if I was going to espouse views that had no life experience of my own to back them? And, where I found a collision between life and thought, didn’t I have to be willing to revise the way I lived or else the way I thought? Since I lived and thought as a woman, I could not maintain views incompatible with what I knew by experience as a woman to be true. I did not feel obligated to write about women per se, or necessarily to read stuff by women. If I thought a book by a man was a better book, and getting at the truth was still my aim, better to read that. But read it as who and what I was.
The resulting life wasn’t boring. It drew collegial friends, male and female, who had similar values. And of course it drew fire.
In my first full-time job as an assistant professor, a young male colleague mentioned “in passing” what I must be dealing with as an unmarried woman in my thirties. We didn’t have email in those days so I sent him a note: “If you want to be my friend, Cavendish, don’t talk to me about being unmarried in my thirties. And the same goes if you don’t want to be my friend.” He apologized.
Another time, I got a call from the chair of a philosophy department where I’d interviewed before I got my first job elsewhere. His wife was out of town and would I like to have dinner with him. So help me, I didn’t think that meant what everybody reading this knows it meant. I just thought he’s alone and wants to dine with a colleague. Over dinner he told me how, unlike other women in the field, my femininity didn’t conflict with my philosophical work but somehow blended with it. I didn’t mind the compliment and easily wiggled out of his clumsy attempt to steal an after-dinner kiss in the restaurant.
There was, however, a sequel. A few years later, I found myself part of a group that had been collectively fired for (as we protested) reasons of academic politics. One of my battered allies met this chairman and told him about the massacre.
In response, he said, “What’s wrong with firing Abigail Rosenthal? She’s a terrible philosopher!”
“That does it!” I said to the two allies, one English and one American, there with me in the room. “I’m gonna TELL.”
“Oh goo-ood!” said the English colleague, practically rubbing his hands together at the anticipated gossip feast.
What kind of m.o. was I using? The idea seemed to be to keep my thinking connected to my real life, fight only the fights that had my name on them, and try not to inhabit a displaced self thought up by somebody else.