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27 October, 2008

Slipping Down the Slope

I've been thinking, for a couple of reasons, about classism and how it interacted with the feminism of my childhood.

(This is riffing on my "Spoiling Feminism" post on last year, in part.)

I had a damn weird upbringing in some ways, class-wise, but one of the things that was a big part of it was that I would go to college. On the one side of the family, it was "Of course you will go to college; we are Yankee bluebloods and our kind has gone to college since Colonial days." On the other side of the family it was, "Going to college is how we can have a better lot in life than our parents and lift ourselves out of the working class. Your grandfather gave up a scholarship that would have made him the first in the family to attend college because his family needed his income, and you need to honor that sacrifice."

And threaded in through all that childhood is this very class-conscious feminism, one that barely touches on issues of violence and genuine misogyny for a very professional-class set of concerns that mostly were relevant to the women who were college-educated. Glass ceilings. Access to the boardroom and the White House. Economics without any sense that people bleed, except in the past, where that bleeding was done so that you, meaning me, could go out and accomplish the great things that Our Feminist Foremothers could only dream of seeing their daughters do. Just Do It feminism at its worst. I had to prove myself for womanhood, and because as a woman I couldn't afford to depend on anyone else for care and support, especially not a man.

I tell you a secret: I had no damn clue what I might want to do in college. This was my secret shame, that I didn't have A Goal, some sort of appropriately middle-class college-educated thing I would do to prove my merit (and, incidentally, Further The Cause Of Women). I wanted to write, and I couldn't think of a thing to study in college that would help me with that. (Literature classes were, in my experience, entirely painful, and not useful for actual writing in any case.) It was acceptable to take classes in Random Interesting Shit, but only in and around the edges of what was required to manage establishing that Proper Career. I had no Career dreams, and I knew that this was a great failure for me as a human being (for classist reasons) and as a woman (for feminist reasons).

So what happens when I went to college?

I went mad.

Load that wacky classist baggage with mental health ablism, now. Depression isn't a legitimate disability, you know, it's just the excuse of the lazy for their failures. It's certainly not a reason to drop out of college, because college is what I was supposed to do, and none of this fluffy insanity shit gets me out of my obligations to family, to class, to women as a whole, right?

I worked junior tech support and pink-collar for a while to make rent and food. My happiness at my state of freedom collided messily with, again, the whole class thing, the downward mobility of not being college-educated and the sense of hamartia that came of that -- not merely falling short, but sinfully so.

And, in time, freedom faded too, as the stress of the work started to be too much for me to handle. My migraines returned, my health degraded, and I could feel the edges of sanity sliding again, especially when I had to choose between being a good person by my own lights and making the rent. Eventually, I quit, and slid, more quietly this time, into madness and self-negation, truly knowing myself worthless and not worthy of living because of the shame of dependence -- dependence on a man, to boot.

I've had to come to terms with it. All of it. The classism, the ablism, the giant morass in my head. I've never gone back to college -- something that shocks people from backgrounds like mine, where the "of course you're college-educated, you're intelligent" assumptions run deep. I've had to accept that the odds are good that I can't work enough to support myself on my earnings and keep my sanity; I have to pick one or the other. I've had to deal with people who talk about how it's irresponsible for a woman to not be able to support herself on her own earnings, because other people are unreliable, untrustworthy, can't be counted on to not betray me and leave me on the street.

Which leaves me an autodidact with a freelancing job, working at home, writing between contracts because that leaves me saner than not, doing the laundry and all despite still occasionally facing failure-as-a-person and failure-as-a-woman for "settling for" a life where I have a chance at being happy and reasonably successful on my own terms, rather than miserably a good example of womankind.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I've been dealing with very, very similar issues, and you've helped me feel less alone.

Peeeeka-chu said...


Yes, I have a job, and I support my family with it. But the college degree is one of those looming failures which colors quite a bit of my life.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I'm glad I could provide you with some support, Anon.

Daisy said...

Load that wacky classist baggage with mental health ablism, now. Depression isn't a legitimate disability, you know, it's just the excuse of the lazy for their failures.

Madness in the southern poor/working classes is known as "nerves" and "being very high-strung." As in, "Poor thing was too high strung to finish school/marry that fellow/keep that job. (I admit, I like this term, as one also envisions a string wound very tightly and therefore tuned to a whole nother pitch.) I've heard some people called lazy, but I've also heard people affirm the reality, just using different words.

If you ever see SLING BLADE (and if you never have, you must, you must!!!) remember that he refers to being in the "nervous hospital."

Last Tuesday, I used the expression "Got Nerves?" on my blog, popular translation would be "Are you going crazy?"--and someone wrote me privately to ask what I meant. Admittedly, not an American, but still, I realized, not everyone knows!

I would say, you had bad nerves. I also think that is very descriptive of the condition.

Excellent post, as so many of yours are.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

"Bad nerves" is an excellent shorthand, thanks Daisy.

I'll look up the movie sometime.

bint alshamsa said...

I'm in much the same position. I'd like to go back to college but, for now, it just isn't a good idea. My family still hasn't accepted this, though. I stayed so sick while at the university. I was constantly having lupus flare-ups as a result of all the stress and sun exposure. It was awful. Being mad didn't help things either.