The Playing Field
For one year, immediately after graduating from college, I taught English to high school sophomores in South Texas. My inexperience with classroom management often resulted in—among many other disasters, large and small—discussions that veered wildly off topic. The school, and the larger community, was majority Hispanic; in fact, reviewing my students’ standardized test results from the previous year, I realized that only two had identified themselves as solely “Caucasian.” And so perhaps it was not surprising that one of those two students eventually brought up the topic of “reverse-racism.”
I don’t remember what my lesson plan that day was to have been; in any case, it was immediately discarded in favor of a discussion about structural inequality.
I took the position that what seemed like unfair opportunities being given to minorities—who were, after all, for that Caucasian student, in the majority—were actually attempts to reverse decades of institutional racism. Being white and male, I argued, was a historical advantage; it was part of the government’s duty to try to compensate for that advantage. I tried to explain that the point was to equal the playing field, which meant that people whose parents hadn’t gone to college or whose ancestors had been slaves, to give just two examples, got what looked like special privileges; in fact, these “special privileges” were just getting them to the same place that you, white and male, had started from. I don’t think I argued my points very well; certainly I didn’t convince the student who had sparked the discussion to change his mind.
All of this is to say: I believe that structural inequality continues to exist today. The deck is still stacked against women, against minorities, against those who do not belong to the upper-middle-class. And that’s easy to remember when you’re being confronted with it daily, in the form of students who are multiple grade-levels behind in reading for reasons that have far more to do with their socio-economic status and the part of the country they live in than any kind of inherent intellectual deficits. But it’s easy to forget when you’re a white woman living in New York who, sure, doesn’t make that much money but will never be in serious danger of falling out of the middle class.
Ellen Willis reminds us—by chastising Betty Friedan because she “does not understand sexism in structural terms”; by chastising white upper-middle-class women who could see the inherent inequalities which governed their relationships with men and were blind to those that governed their relationships with their black and poor white counterparts. At a time when much of the (more or less) feminist dialogue that I regularly come into contact with is laced with the jokey use of the word “lady,” it’s refreshing to read a woman who writes with an unapologetic seriousness. Reading No More Nice Girls both reminded me of my own privileged position with respect to the majority of the country (not to mention the world) and made me aware of the internal compromises I unconsciously make out of respect for the power structures which have not—sadly, unsurprisingly—crumbled in the years since the collection was published.
“Escape From New York”—in which Willis takes a cross-country bus trip to visit old friends scattered across the states—is a skillful and evocative essay in many respects, but one of its deepest resonances, at least for me, was that almost every encounter Willis has with a man is fraught with danger, fear—or at the very least, condescension.
“Men on buses always take up too much space,” she writes. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell, when they fall asleep and sprawl all over you, whether they’re really asleep.” A college student sits down next to her and though he’s nice, friendly, “perfectly okay,” she’s still “scrunched against the window and resenting it” and unwilling to say anything. A large, drunk, black man who is briefly her seatmate insists on calling her “honey dear” instead of by her name. She is rescued by the male half of a pair of newlyweds; the husband has his wife switch seats with Willis’s seatmate. Then her rescuer explains, “you should let that lady alone. She just left her old man, and she hates the whole world. She don’t want nothin’ to do with men.” A soldier who engages her in conversation keeps touching her on the shoulder, first for emphasis, then, after she attempts to end the interaction, to get her attention. Finally she says, “Will you please keep your hands to yourself?” and, though she knows she hasn’t technically done anything wrong, his look of deep offense make her feel “like the blue meanie of all time.”
These incidents, along with the casual way Willis writes about them, effortlessly convey what institutionalized sexism was and is like: how it has the potential to poison even the most innocent and well-intentioned encounters. It was unsettling to recognize, in “Escape From New York,” the same vague feeling of guilt and powerlessness that pervades, it seems, every single one of my own interactions with strange men (that is to say, men who are strangers). Perhaps more disconcerting was the realization that an alarming number of my interactions with men I do know leave me with a related sense of guilt: at having been too needy; at having proved inadequate.
There are many treasures to be found in No More Nice Girls: Willis’s dissection of the cult of public confession; her casual and dead-on diagnosis of the “ridiculous self-inflation in my self-hatred” (which, of course, all the self-hateful suffer from); her searching examination of that moment during the counter-cultural revolution when it seemed possible to try steer “some sort of livable path between schizophrenia (or amnesia) and kill-joy self-consciousness in bed.” But the feeling I have every time a man asks me for directions in a mostly deserted subway station after dark (unease, even fear); the feeling I’ve had too many times leaving a man’s apartment (that my emotions are not only embarrassing or inappropriate, but flat-out wrong)—that’s why she’s necessary; that’s why she’s right.