The Question

16 09 2010

Have you ever had one of those minor interactions with someone that was truly not intended to be more than a brief conversation or comment but which, unbeknownst to that individual, sent shock waves through you or made you reevaluate yourself?  I had one such moment a few days ago.  I was one of the committee members hosting a reception at work.  Many of those present had noted, and commented on, the fact that our male colleagues had congregated at one table while our female colleagues gathered at another.  As the event was winding down, I happened to be seated at the table with women, and a faculty friend said, “I suppose I should wander over to the other side.”  I responded that, as usual, I began the event at the table with the men.  My friend asked me what I meant, so I said that, in social situations, I typically begin by joining the predominantly male group.  And then she asked me the question which has been tickling the back of my mind ever since, “Why? Don’t you like women?”

I was nonplussed by the question, but I took it as I believe it was intended: a quick, curiosity-provoked question from one friend (who happens to have a research interest in female friendships) to another (who happens to occasionally make sweeping and broad generalizations).  And my quick answer was, “Of course! I love women!”

In the intervening days, I have caught my mind wandering back to the question, as well as to my initial comment that I find it easier to join groups of men in social settings.  Why is that?  And what does it say about me?  Do I have an underlying issue with women?  Have I bought into the cultural bias that women are just grown up mean girls?  When did I start talking about “mean girls” as if I actually accept this concept?

Here’s what I’ve decided about those questions.  First, I gravitate toward groups of men because their conversations are generally easy to enter into, especially if I don’t know the individuals in the group.  They are talking about things, about stuff they do, about events that have recently taken place.  They are not talking about their feelings, or wondering what someone meant when they said, “Don’t you like women?”  I am not saying that men don’t do these things.  They just don’t usually do them aloud at work receptions.  It is easy to sit on the outskirts of these discussions, occasionally ask a question, or find a moment to tell about the time you tried whatever activity is the subject.

In similar situations, groups of women speak differently — especially in groups where the women are already acquainted with one another.  At this particular event, both groups were speaking about their research interests.  The men discussed topics, instruments, research methods.  The women did, as well, but their conversation was also shot through with comments about how and why this particular research was meaningful to them.  They discussed the circumstances which made finding time for research difficult, or what resonated with them about someone else’s topic.  Very different conversations — each interesting, each meaningful, equally valid.  I just need a little time to warm up to the more self-revelatory discussions.

As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I have written about the wonderful gifts that my male friends and family members bring to my life, the incredible lessons I have learned by observing and interacting with them.  However, today, I am thinking about the amazing women in my life who perform death-defying or life-affirming acts with incredible grace:

  • My mother, who gave birth to 6 kids in 9 years and gave us her undivided attention for two decades.
  • My sister Chris, who nursed her husband, Dave, through stage IV cancer in the 90s, and has fought her own breast cancer in the 2000s.
  • My friend Wendy, emergency room nurse extraordinaire, whose husband says he loves that she sees things she wants to change in herself – and then she changes them (unlike most of us who just talk about changing).
  • My friend Sue who calls her knee replacement surgery and the enforced time off work this summer the “best vacation of her life”.
  • Tricia, who channels her grief from the loss of her son, Nate, into loving work with the SIDS Foundation and as a peer partner for families experiencing the sudden death of a child.
  • Carol, who met and fell in love with Zul, a Malaysian man, in Dubuque, Iowa in the 80s.  Dubuque didn’t get it, but Carol married him anyway.  And a couple of years ago, they adopted the lovely and vivacious Rumela, whom Carol met in an orphanage in India.

These are just a few of the women who inspire me — I could write whole articles about each.  Others, too, or about my sisters Anne and Gwen who make me want to choose courageous paths in my own life.  As I reflect on the question that sparked this reverie, I believe it is good for me to be shocked out of my comfortable perceptions sometimes, and I thank my friend and colleague for giving me reason to pause and reflect.  Perhaps what I’ve written reveals a sexist bias on my part, perhaps it shows that I believe there are culturally ingrained and/or deeply embedded gender differences.  I feel fairly certain, though, that it also reveals that I do, in fact, like women.  More than that, I celebrate their presence in my life.

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