September 04, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew: The Struggles of the Alpha Female

The dialectic of how women would function in positions of power began, of course, during second wave feminism when women broke through the professional glass ceilings that had heretofore prevented them from competing with their male counterparts.  

As Rebecca Walker so famously stated, "I am not a post-feminism feminist.  I am the Third Wave."  Although I am among the generation of women who have enjoyed the fruits of their mother's labors, I have come to realize that there is still a deep abiding sense that women don't belong in power, or at the very least, they are ill suited for positions of power and therefore must be "tolerated" and placated.  Since the second wave, women have held some of the highest positions in government, education, and the private sector.  But so many still believe that their presence in these high ranking offices has been a big social experiment gone wrong.

For the past few years, I have occasionally been faced with subtle male resistance/combativeness in the classroom.  And now, as the head of an academic department, the resistance has taken on a more insidious form.  In the classroom, I have always handled these situations like Hemingway would have said, with "grace under pressure."  And by the end of the semester, said male combative student would be eating out of my hand, drinking whatever Kool-Aid and blue pills I offered.  Later, I would dismiss these incidents because some part of me empathized with students like this.  After all, it must be difficult to have one's Alphaness challenged by an Alpha female who is the ultimate authority figure in the room.

Or is that just it?  Do Alpha females face more resistance when they are in positions of power than Beta females?  Are both men and women uncomfortable with assertive, strong-willed women?

As we know, gender (like many other aspects of the human condition), is socially constructed.  Therefore, we expect men and women to remain in their respective corners with regard to "performing" gender.  When a woman steps outside these social mandates of gender, she has transgressed a boundary, she is "trying to act like a man," she is (when all other adjectives fail) a "bitch."

The situation becomes more complex (of course) when we consider race and gender.  Not to diminish any other women's struggles, but it seems that those of us who are female academics experience this kind of gender resistance in a very immediate and confrontational way.  The front of a classroom is a very visible and constructed place of power.  Those of us who are black, female academics experience both gender and racial resistance.  

For example, black male students perceive black females as either potential love interests or mother figures.  When black male students find that their professor is neither mother or lover, and that she is the authority in the room despite her genitalia, they experience a loss of context (to say the least).  On the other hand, black female students perceive their black female professor as sexual competition until they discover that neither is competing for quite the same resources.  It is my experience that white students, both male and female, initially perceive a black female instructor as somehow substandard and undeserving of the position of power in which she has been placed.  This set of assumptions, while racially motivated, creates a dynamic that most black women are more equipped to handle.  After all, we have always been forced to prove our intellectual merit, and we find ourselves quite comfortable doing so.

Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions to the absolutes that I have posited above.  I am still left with more questions than answers.  Does everyone feel as if they need to "tame the shrew?"  Are women in power a threat or an asset?  Are black women in power a double threat?

What do you think?