Check out my latest post over on Unwritten Histories. This post, written in collaboration with Andrea Eidinger, looks at Celebrating Women and Non-Binary Historians. We share the submissions from our December 2018 call to celebrate folks and talk about why promoting and acknowledging the accomplishments of women and non-binary folks matters.
I’ve started and deleted this post multiple times, not because the topic isn’t important but because talking about it makes me feel tremendously vulnerable. I’ve thought a lot about professional expectations and social niceties. I’ve also thought a lot about fear and the ways in which fear can stifle meaningful discussion. I’ve also had a hard look at my privilege – I’m white, mid-career, I have stable employment, and I’m protected by a union. I have a lot more space and security to discuss my views then some folks.
Over the past year, I’ve been in multiple professional settings where individuals have discussed female bodies. These conversations have often focused on what classifies as professional attire and what is suitable clothing for women to wear in work settings. Comments have ranged from “That outfit isn’t meant for someone her size” to “No one will take her seriously in that dress.” While embodying these spaces I have never once heard anyone comment on the attire of male presenting folks. What female presenting folk wear seems like a topic that is open for debate and scrutiny. Hearing these discussions have filled me both with despair and
rage the desire to discuss the endless stream of microaggressions that are connected to female bodies.
Dress codes and concepts of professional attire often play out in ways that are sizeist, classist, misogynistic, colonial, racist, ablest, and transmisic. When we talk about professional clothing we are often referencing white able-bodied cis-masculine centred standards. Carmen Rios has argued that, “queer people, women, people of color, working-class people – aren’t supposed to be comfortable when we’re being professional… All of the standards of appearance being pushed on employees in office environments are, essentially, strongholds of white, male standards of power.” Women are often socialized to present in ways which are feminine, but not too overtly feminine/revealing. The politics behind that are directly connected to gendered explications and reliance on male concepts of professionalism.
I also wholeheartedly agree with Rios’ statement that “Every single person in every single office should be taken seriously and treated with respect no matter what they’re wearing.” When professional attire or concepts of ‘fit’ are used to evaluate workplace contributions we are marginalizing huge segments of society. Discussions of institutional or cultural fit are often used in hiring and promotion practices. It is frequently used in the negative or as justification for not hiring someone (eg. “they just aren’t a good fit). Fit is entirely subjective and more often than not it reinforces homogeneity of workplaces and can be used as an excuse to avoid hiring diverse candidates.
In the academic realm female presenting and trans* folks are often told they need to dress a certain way in order to be “taken seriously.” That they need to confirm to the white male imposed standards of professionalism. Respectability politics expect marginalized people to conform to white standards of what is acceptable and penalize folks when they present using identities that are outside ‘accepted’ norms. We should treat others with respect. Period. Toeing an invisible line of acceptability is exhausting and “[d]ressing in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of older, more explicit forms of sexism still hovers over us.” (Stavrakopoulou, 2014). It’s also a near impossible game to win – dress in a way that is overly feminine and you won’t be viewed as frivolous, dress in a more masculine manner and comments of ‘power-dressing’ avail. Professional worth should not be tied to appearance.
Even just unpacking the language of sexism and acceptability can be a headache inducing wormhole. Holly Case has asserted, “Words like “sexism,” “gender bias,” and “structural inequality” describe conditions that are hopelessly banal, like a mob town or byzantine bureaucracy: grinding, petty, retrograde. Occasionally one catches oneself longing for a language that imagines a way out, rather than explaining why we are still subject to the ways of the mob.” Raising your voice against this treatment or structural problems can have tangible consequences. Speaking out against sexism, colonialism, and classism takes a whole lot of spoons. And if you are a precariously employed or emerging career individual there can be very real financial and career repercussions. Those with privilege, power, and authority need to speak up and challenge systemic problems. There is so much on this topic to be unpacked, discussed, and challenged. We need to do a better job of bringing this conversation into the forefront. We need spaces where this conversations can happen and where folks with power actually engaging with the structural problems that are unpinning concepts of fit and professional attire.
Erin Leach recently shared some powerful words about being a cataloger in instruction spaces and stereotypes that are often used to describe those involved in cataloging. I’m not a library cataloger, far from it, however Erin’s words struck a cord with me. Her anecdote of interacting with others and their responses to her cataloguing status stayed with me, “What I imagine the librarians in public-facing roles who tell me what an anomaly I am are actually saying is, it’s okay that you’re a cataloging because you’re not that kind of cataloger.”
I remember expressing an interest in library school as an undergraduate to a much older male who worked in a education context. His response “You’re too pretty to be a librarian.” Fast forward a number of years to having a colleague remark “I had no idea that librarians could have personalities” or “Librarians just shelve books and tell people to be quiet, that can’t be stressful” or “It never occurred to me that archivists can do instruction.” There are a whole lot of misconceptions about library and archival staff. Sometimes these misconceptions are tied to perceived personality traits and sometimes they are tied to confusion around roles and skill sets.
In the media librarians and archivists get painted with a wide, dull brush a lot. Media and other unrepresentative portrayals often fall back on gendered expectations and are related to the gendered nature of the profession. I’m not going to do a deep dive into the visual stereotype discussion as so many people have already done so and done so well. Jessica Olin and Michelle Millet’s 2015 look at gender and leadership roles in the library profession indicated that the profession is comprised of approximately 80% women and 20% men. Despite women gaining leadership roles and closing the gendered leadership divide there are still a whole lot of challenges associated with being a woman in the library field and perhaps mores so if you are in an authority role.
I don’t have a solution to the prevalence of these stereotypes. My thoughts are mostly around more outward facing advocacy and speaking up when we see comments being made to colleagues. Projects like Librarian Wardrobe aim to highlight the aesthetic diversity of clothing choice within the librarian profession. And initiatives such as Archival Awareness Week and ArchivesAware! seek to share ideas about increasing public awareness of the archival profession. However I think these are just a few of many examples of outreach, awareness building, and crushing stereotypes – and that what types of conversations and outreach you’re able to engage in is going to vary greatly depending on your position, privilege, and workplace. And we need to do more to support those who speak out on this issue.
A weeks end look back at some of the archives, public history, and library world readings that I’ve been pondering on this week.
Gender in Libraries:
- “If You Give a Librarian A Cookie” a great post by Dani Brecher Cook on the gendered work, the challenges of letting gender expectations control actions, and the need to find balance between doing traditionally gendered work you enjoy and being seen as a professional.
- “Knausgaard Writes Like a Women” An interesting piece on gendered writing and the idea that you can tell if someone is male or female based on their style of prose. Link found via Allana Mayer (@alanaaaaaaa) and her thoughtful twitter discussion of gender in LIS
Outreach in Academic Libraries and Archives
I’ve been thinking about different ways to promote university archives in engaging, informal, and low costs ways.
- An older post on the Mr Library Dude Blog on general outreach initiatives at the UW-Green Bay Library is about general outreach at the UW-Green Bay library.
- The slideshow is worth looking at, particularly for the linked videos within it. I particularly enjoyed the video of the edible books contest they held as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations.
- I’ve also started looking at institutional twitter and Instagram accounts. Do you have a favourite archives or special collections social media account? Is there an institution that does a particularly good job of promoting their collections through social media? Is it worth the effort?
Amongst the museums I visited while in DC, my least favourite was The National Museum of American History (NMAH). Upon reflection, it is not that I disliked the content of the museum, I just had a hard time grappling with the national differences of conceptions of history. I expected a grand narrative style of history in the museum and was confronted with something very different.
Canada’s national museum system does not include a museum dedicated solely to the history of Canada as a nation, but perhaps the closest would the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The CMC isn’t solely a national history museum, but it does currently give the most cohesive museum based look into Canada’s past. But, the two institutions are so different comparing them is akin to apples and oranges.
One of the main things I struggled with in the NMAH was the focus on individual great figures. I found the large overarching history of America was told most frequently through a great man style narrative. The most prominent exhibits that stick out in my mind as falling under this category include : The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, Lighting a Revolution—Electricity Hall (focused on Edison), and Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty. In each of these cases the emphasis tended to be on the individual not on larger historical trends.
These exhibits also reinforced the extent to which Canadian Prime Ministers and US Presidents exist on very different plains of history in their respective countries. Prime Ministers are viewed as players in history but Presidents seem to be points around which history revolves. Presidents are seen as being directly associated (and responsible) for key events and developments, where as Prime Ministers are seen as parts in a larger less individualized narrative. I’m not sure either interpretation is better than the other. Rather, the interpretation reflects each country’s unique view of the role of government and the past.
I also struggled with The First Ladies exhibit at the NMAH. The NMAH website suggests “The First Ladies encourages visitors to consider the changing role played by the first lady and American women over the past 200 years.” To be honest, I had a hard time getting past the fact that the prominent items displayed about each Woman were dresses and dishes. Similarly, the majority of the prominent text panels focused on the First Ladies’ role as hostess, entertainer, and public face. While walking through the exhibit part of me kept thinking “I wonder if they know that women can wear pants now.” The exhibit also left me wishing that there was more content in the NMAH about the history of women’s rights and changing roles of women in America.
Even with these conceptional struggles I did enjoy my visit the NMAH. I think the highlight for me was the Star Spangled Banner exhibit. I had never really considered the history of the first flag in America and the exhibit but the exhibit helped put that history into context. This exhibit was also interesting to see from a curatorial perspective, as the flag is huge making special display considerations necessary.
How do you see national conceptions of history being explored in museums?