My picture of the world has always looked a bit rosier than the picture I was shown in my history textbooks and sociology classes. I tend to believe that I am a part of a community of people who would never stand as an obstacle in my pursuit of a good life. But I’m just starting to gain awareness of the subtle, yet powerful, challenges I stand to face that have nothing to do with the more commonly discussed problems plaguing our generation. I am a woman and though the odds aren’t stacked against me quite like they were 50 years ago, our society is still a long way from gender neutrality.

A basic sociological understanding of gender teaches that men are the advantaged group. Their pursuit of power and leadership is compatible with the norm, making it easier for a man to succeed in such a pursuit while those of us who diverge from that archetypal image of the “Person in Control” have to do what we can to legitimize ourselves in the world of power.

The women on the television series “Mad Men,” who personify the efforts of 1960s women to legitimize their role in the workplace, ended the show’s fourth season recognizing how fruitless their attempts at working the system had been. Joan (the advertising firm’s sexually iconic office manager) said to Peggy (the eager young copywriter who desperately wants to earn a name for herself at the firm) on their way out of the office, “I’m just a meaningless secretary and you’re a humorless bitch.” Though much progress has been made since the time period when Joan and Peggy were scratching at the glass ceiling, women still struggle with the social weight their gender carries.

“The Fashion Conservatives,” a recent article in The New York Times, explored the two modes by which Joan and Peggy achieved power — to rely on their femininity or strip themselves of it entirely — in the context of politics today. The article contrasted Sarah Palin’s “conventionally feminine” look with Hillary Clinton’s decades-in-the-making collection of pantsuits. While a handful of female Republican politicians have taken Palin’s cue to dress up the battle garments and lead the Tea Partiers forward, the rest of the women in politics “adhere to a rigid, patently dated style that has the allure of a milk carton,” as the Times article puts it.

Clinton’s conviction to keep her femininity wholly separate from her public persona led her to decline an invitation to appear in Vogue during the 2008 presidential election. Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor in chief, responded to Clinton’s decision with an angry editor’s letter, saying “the notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously is frankly dismaying.” But it appears as though Clinton may have been onto something, as the political women who have decided to don their ruffles are — coincidentally or not — taken perhaps the least seriously of all.

Barneys New York’s creative director, Simon Doonan, was quoted in the article arguing that “flamboyance and politics are mutually exclusive.” While he likely consciously used the term “flamboyance” to refer to fashion, it could be taken to refer to anything that explicitly diverges from masculinity as a standard trait among people in power. So it seems that a woman — or even a gay man — can successfully achieve power as long she (or he) walks, talks and dresses like the men who traditionally hold the positions they’re after.

My own awareness of my struggle to be taken seriously as a woman developed only in the last couple of years, after I decided to concentrate in a subject matter that is largely male-dominated. For the first time in my academic career, I feel reserved about raising my hand in one of my philosophy classes because my manner of speech is entirely different from that of three fourths of the class and my GSI. I often find myself thinking about how to condense my comment into as few words as possible, while working to speak much slower and at a lower register than what feels natural.

A friend of mine recalled her mindset during her semester in Washington, D.C. She employed the hyper-feminine route, feeling committed to looking beautiful and “exceptionally womanly” to make her stand out among the men in suits around her. Though she felt able to express her femininity in a professional setting rather than feeling forced to tuck it away, she wasn’t able to simply be without thinking about what to do with her gender identity. The march toward gender neutrality in the public sphere is long-running and I celebrate the distance we’ve travelled. Still, I believe my pretty picture of the world is attainable — but only if we recognize the imperfections of the picture of today.

Libby Ashton can be reached at eashton@umich.edu.

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