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An Income Of One's Own

By Nicole Bokat

24 May, 2003

In graduate school, I struggled to get my dissertation topic approved -- a psychological study on the contemporary novelist, Margaret Drabble -- by an English department composed of men who took refuge in white male studies the way I get comfort from chocolate cake. After a few particularly sharp rejections, an eminent professor queried, “Who's Margaret Drabble? Why not write on Virginia Woolf? I tell all my female students to write on Woolf.” Disgusted, I found comfort in Sandra M. Gilbert's words “women's alienation from the sources of power is has also been a philosophical alienation, an aesthetic alienation, a literary alienation.” But time has passed since I've sought solace from the rich array of French, British, and American thinkers; lately, I've become preoccupied with scrambling for paid work.

Last fall, a year after finally earning my doctorate, I was contacted by an all women's college and asked if I'd like to teach an Introduction to Literature course in their adult division. The student body consisted primarily of well-off women, in their 40s and 50s, who spent the last decade or two raising their children. The dean explained that many of the students would be signing up for this class with the expectation that it would serve as a transition from domestic life back into the work world. She stressed that they were now returning to school to polish their skills in order to tackle the difficult job market; many of them harbored the less tangible goal of gaining some measure of personal freedom. The dean endorsed choosing texts by women authors. Great! A savvy feminist, I'd finally found a course where I could refer to Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Simone De Bouvoir's The Second Sex, and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering.

Then the dean hit me with the punch line: the salary. It was so low, I could count the pennies left over after train and subway fare. The masquerade over, I'd been exposed as my true self: an exploited and degraded adjunct. For the first time in ten years of part-time work, I blurted out, “God, that's so little; who could work for that?” Then, I dared to ask, “how do the other teachers manage?” The dean hedged, then, confessed, “Most of them are married to. successful men.” Code for surgeons, lawyers, executives.the kind of men mothers used to beg their daughters to marry. Indignant, I demanded to know if she didn't find this paradox hypocritical: the school's philosophy of promoting women's independence while paying their almost all female teaching staff slave wages? With perfect composure, she fed me the company line: the college simply did not have more money in their budget for instructors.

I declined her offer with what little dignity I could muster and turned to feminist theory for salvation. I should have bought Naomi Wolf's second book Fire With Fire which, I've heard, unabashedly challenges women to aim for financial clout. Alas, I admit that it irked me to glimpse her pretty, young, made-up face cropping up in magazines everywhere, aglow with a fire that no doubt was lit by her huge book advance. Besides, I couldn't afford the hardback copy.

Instead, I perused the old standbys. Granted, they were discussing feminist theory in conjunction with literary analysis, not championing a lifestyle. But I was nostalgic for the high-road, the lofty scholarship that rarely transcends the Ivory Tower. I smiled over Annette Kolodny's declaration that women needed to liberate the text in order to recognize the achievements of female authors and to decode “woman-as-sign.” But, then, I was forced to concede how inept I'd become at utilizing this information in my everyday life. I scanned through my books to determine my significance as “woman-as-sign.” My thinking process had become pedestrian from more mundane concerns, such as the increase in my car insurance and the cost of my yearly visit to the gynecologist. All I could come up with was: I'm an Aries. That's a sign of sorts. Isn't it? Shoshana Felman directed me to “reinvent' language,” to speak “not only against, but outside of the specular phallogocentric structure, to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of masculine meaning.” But, how exactly does one reinvent language effectively when demanding more pay from a women's college, an institution which, in its very mission, should represent the opposite of a “phallogocentric structure?” (And, what precisely was a phallogocentric structure if not this women's college, with its tall central building shaped suspiciously like a male organ?) It seems that in the Dean's office, I discovered the truth: feminist speak doesn't matter much when you're living hand-to-mouth.

Flipping through the work of Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, I admit, I began to grow impatient. I could vent my rage for having been treated too long as a commodity; I could choose to live a totally “circular” life filled with linguistic fluidity; I could even create images about amniotic fluid and mother's milk in poetry. But, somehow the question remained: how does one sound the trumpet for the rest of womynkind if, sadly, one's instrument has grown rusty through lack of funds?

At the time I had the good fortune of teaching A Room of One's Own to my writing class. I was able to find comfort and wisdom in her controversial messages (controversial, that is, to tenured feminists who are paid to luxuriate in Woolf's unconscious conflicts). Perhaps, I thought -- reading “It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman” -- hers is the better way. Which, translated, conveyed this personal tidbit of advice: get off the pulpit and find a high paying job already.

My young, still idealistic students romanticize the life of a writer, never mind the stories I tell them of Tillie Olsen using the city bus as a writing room (for me, it's often the train en route to teaching). They believe determination and talent can overcome any obstacle and shake their heads when I quote Woolf's warning, “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.” They don't yet have to consider the writer's relentless worries about the cost of quality child care, or her longings for suitable equipment on which to compose (something even Virginia Woolf could not have foreseen), such as a new computer with a laser printer and fax machine. While Feminist Theory is nice, I'd trade it in any day for a proper British nanny, a laptop, and a private study of my own.

I now direct my students to do the dirty work for me. I instruct them to ponder over Barbara Probst Solomon's pearls of wisdom: “If we wish to be firm-voiced and progressive about meeting our primary needs.we should not point our heads in the direction of the wrong revolution.. Sexual liberation without economic security grants women merely the right to stay marginal.” Then, I scan their essays for easy answers.

Okay, I admit I'd like to have a glamour shot of me in Mirabella's, even if my claim to fame was a book renouncing “The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash.” I, too, would indulge in a little hypocrisy if it meant getting closer to the sources of money and power. If her “power feminism” can guide me to new treasures, no more debt and, say, due to inflation, a co-op all my own, I'll buy in a copy of the other Wolf.

Nicole Bokat is a freelance writer with a doctorate in English who teaches at the New School for Social Research.