Friday Bookshelf: Strong Women Don't Ask For Help

This Friday Bookshelf veers slightly off my gender and scienc/engineering bookshelf for a detour over to the general women's studies bookshelf. I hope you'll see why I think it's appropriate to this blog.

The book I'm looking at this week is Engaging Feminism: Students Speak Up and Speak Out edited by Jean O'Barr and Mary Wyer. It's a collection of writings by students in Duke University's women's studies program, from their works in various courses and some outside course work. i-2129b463c1c6cfe6f26b4b50bea02d45-DSC00731.JPG
Readings are grouped into the following categories: Reasoning With Emotion, Exploring Relationships, Engaging Feminism, Exploring Feminist Perspectives, Reassessing Classrooms, Learning About Sexual Harassment/Rape, Thinking About Sexuality, Reproduction, & Abortion, Teaching Women's Studies, and The Politics Of Knowledge: Taking Action.

In that last section, there is an essay titled "The Evolution and Process of a Successful Graduate Feminist Reading Group". Twenty years ago, eight women began meeting every other week in a bakery/coffee shop to discuss various feminist articles and books. A range of disciplines was represented - English, philosophy, psychology, political science, economics, and engineering. The group met regularly for over two years; the members formed close bonds, hosting group dinners in their homes. Sharing information about personal lives became a part of the bi-weekly meetings, along with the "professional" discussions of the readings.

I was privileged to be part of this group, and to be one of the eight co-authors of the essay.**

We actually outlined the essay and divided it up into eight parts, writing separately and then blending our voices in the final product. I can no longer remember which part I wrote. We learned a great deal in the process of planning and writing the essay, about ourselves and our group dynamics. Here are some of the things we learned:

  • We learned to talk across disciplinary boundaries, which turned out to be an important first step to friendship.
  • We each felt silenced in our own disciplines in various ways; the reading group gave us an academic "home". We had learned to speak up around those silences and about being silenced.
  • We had separated the "personal" talk temporally in our meetings from the "professional" talk and yet clearly the personal talk included a lot of things that were affecting us professionally. We had reproduced the public/private hierarchy in our meetings.
  • That hierarchy encouraged us to overlook some other not-so-good things we brought with us from outside - heterosexism, a focus on marriage that made single members feel excluded, a sense of guilt for "wasting time" on personal issues.
  • Further we had valued the dominant form of discourse in our disciplines - she who shouts loudest contributes most. The talkers had not valued the contribution of the listeners, nor had the heavy talkers tried to make much space for quieter group members to speak up.
  • And we all had subscribed to a very curious myth: Strong women don't need help. From anybody. About anything. Loud and long talkers were seen by all group members (including themselves) as particularly "strong" in the sense of "I must not ask for any help" or "she must not need any help with anything". We equated asking for help as a sign of weakness and we all wanted to be strong women, and strong women don't need help.
  • We tried to downplay sources of conflict in our group, because we needed and wanted our group to be a safe haven for us. We turned to an article by Bernice Johnson Reagon for help in understanding how a nurturing group can also become a destructive group when difference is not allowed.

When I graduated from Duke, the loss of the reading group was devastating to me. It felt like a golden moment in time - and it was. To have spent two years in the company of seven other intelligent, funny, wonderful women, feeding our intellects and our souls, was truly a privilege. Now I felt banished to the world where only science and engineering went on, where there were precious few women, and where such a vibrant group was unlikely to materialize.

For the next two years or so I threw myself into research and thought of my reading group as a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Then something lovely happened. I ended up at a place with three other women postdocs. True, we were all in research hell as the head of the group was a complete head case, but there we were, four women all working on similar stuff! Four of us to talk nerd talk together! And two of us got involved with an informal group in the wider institution for graduate students and postdocs, and so met many more women in other labs. None of these women were particularly interested in gender issues in science or philosophy of science, but they were all smart and funny and wonderful, and so I found myself in the company of extraordinary women again, this time in a group coalesced around science.

When I moved from Philadelphia and lost this network of friends, I again felt that sense of loss and was sure I would never again experience such a group. I had been lucky twice, what more could I expect? And yet...when I went to work at Kansas State, as director of the Women in Engineering and Science Program (WESP), I landed right in the middle of a group of extraordinary women, from the senior ones who had envisioned the program and helped bring it into being, to program staff, to the junior ones at the undergraduate level who helped us carry out its programs and activities. I was also connected to a larger network of amazing women across the nation who were managing similar programs through WEPAN. Science, engineering, gender issues - it was nirvana. Working with these women for institutional transformation - well, it was quite simply the best job I ever had. It was also emotionally draining and high burnout work. Though I chose to leave, I now mourn the loss of yet one more exquisite group.

As I look back over these experiences I note a few things in common.

  • None of these groups "just happened". In each case, there was at least one woman in a position of power who brought the group into being or set things in motion. At Duke, it was Director of Women's Studies Jean O'Barr. During my postdoc years at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Marge Einenkel cared about the isolation of graduate student and postdoc in individual labs and got the group going. At Kansas State, Beth Montelone, Ruth Dyer, and Jackie Spears were both inventors of and midwives to WESP. Ruth's position as assistant provost was especially critical in WESP's inception.
  • Even the groups that don't exist anymore continue to have an effect, because of how they changed and influenced each group member. Permanence is not necessarily a measure of success.
  • Some of the lessons of my reading group seemed to apply to each subsequent group, but none perhaps more so than the Myth of the Strong Woman.

This blog post about a book threatens to turn book length itself, so perhaps I shall continue my thoughts on the Myth of the Strong Woman in a subsequent post, including issues of race, because the nature of the Strong Woman's duties varies if you're white or black. I'll try to connect this all to blogging, the women in science blogging community, and what I see as my Fabulous Group of Women today. Then maybe you'll think this Friday Bookshelf has a point!

**The other authors are: Shelley Park, Elana Newman, Michelle A. LaRocque, Angela Hubler, Melissa Haussman, Anne S. Forrest, and Gillian Brock.

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I think that the "strong = not needing help" idea is well established across both genders at this point. I'm inclined to think that we (well, WASP we's, anyways - I can't speak to any other perspective) learnt it from the men as part of the struggle towards equality.

It really is a crippling mythology, and so deeply seated that in many ways asking for help becomes itself a test one must be strong enough to pass.

I look forward to your future posts on this.

By PennyBright (not verified) on 20 Jul 2007 #permalink

You've really summed it up beautifully. Strong women don't ask for help. Hope you'll take a look at my new book though, published by McGraw Hill about Self-Sufficiency Syndrome.(By the way, I'm not a psychologist - I lived this) The book is entitled Help Is Not a Four-Letter Word: Why Doing It All Is Doing You In. We can't ask for help, do everything all by ourseves, can't delegate cause no one else can do it as well as we can and we're headed for burnout and/or mental, and emotional isolation. I lived this and started having panic attacks. I'm a speaker and trainer and in workshops, women will come up afterwards and say, "oh, I'm having panic attacks, but I have medication" like it's supposed to just be part of life! That really scares me!
I trace where this came from, what it's doing to us and what we can do about it. I hope you'll take a look and let me know what you think.
Thanks for a great article,
Peggy Collins