A few days ago Dr Fern Riddell, a historian (who, like me, works on sex and gender), was involved in a nasty twitter conversation with a man who poured scorn on her expertise and – gasp! – what he considered to be her arrogance in defending her qualifications. In response to her refusal to be patronised, storms of women academics have been changing their twitter handles to include ‘Dr’. The negative responses are predictable. What does one word matter? What do these women think they’re proving to anyone? Who cares how you talk about yourself? And so on.
For a lot of women academics I know, Riddell’s is a familiar story. Outside academia, ‘Dr’ is a man. Despite the fact that increasing numbers of women are going into medicine, ‘Dr’ is also a medic. Academic woman come in for a double dose of slapdown for advertising their qualifications as a result, and the scaremongering hits in at full force. Use ‘Dr’ on your passport? You’ll endanger the lives of millions as you are forced, coerced, into performing an emergency tracheostomy in a Boeing 747, since your doctorate almost certainly required the removal of your common sense and your ability to say ‘no, I’m not a medic’. Other academics – I leave you to guess their typical gender – will tell you condescendingly that they have no need to use ‘Dr’ with their students. I prefer to be Dave. They respect me just the same, and by the way, did you see how my teaching evaluations didn’t contain a single comment on my clothing or my tits? Amazing. A woman who pretends to academic expertise is presumed to be overreaching or posturing, and if she points to her qualifications, she’s insecurely boasting.
I grew up with parents who both had doctorates. My father used his. My mother didn’t – except on her child benefit book, because she’d got so bloody fed up with people patronising her on the assumption that being pregnant makes you really, really stupid. I later found out that it’s pretty common for women with doctorates not to use the title, especially if they’re not working in academia (and, of course, far more women than men are being pushed out of academia). So, when I got mine, I used it: I went to the bank; I put it on my work email signature; I ticked boxes and filled in forms with it. But I didn’t put it on my twitter handle. And, like Cinderella at midnight, I retreated nervously from the idea of using it beyond the magic circle of inner-city Cambridge.
A couple of months ago, I moved from Cambridge to rural Yorkshire, with my partner and our daughter; at the same time – inevitably – I went from being Dr Allen who works at Cambridge University to being Dr Allen, excuse me, is he there, or could you take this parcel in for him? I can see that it could be arrogant – and it’s certainly unwise – to have too much of your sense of self bound up with where you work and what you call yourself. But, for me as for an awful lot of women, it’s a real issue. A lot of us won’t get permanent academic jobs – we’ll find other things; we’ll decide to take it slowly; we’ll go part time, and for most of us it will be fine, but it will also be a much commoner experience for us than for our male peers. A lot of us will write theses, but we won’t write the books that could have come from those theses. A lot of us will write a first book, but not a second book. You might say it doesn’t matter. I certainly won’t pretend I’ve got something tucked away in a drawer that’s going to change the state of the cosmos or cure a rare disease. But, it’s still a loss, and a loss I’m very conscious of at the moment, as I wait in vain for someone to publish that brilliant paper I need to cite for my book, only to discover she gave up on academia after that conference, or check to see if someone else ever got their thesis off the ‘forthcoming, CUP’ lists only to find she’s taken a career change. These are literal ways in which female academic expertise is lost or removed from circulation; effort wasted. For me, using my title – on twitter, on everything else – currently feels a bit like an act of faith, a promise to myself to keep my work from being erased, to keep on going against the nagging worries about academic career safety and its gendered challenges.
As I’m writing this, I’m revising chapter 4 of my forthcoming book. In it, the fantastic heroine Floripas – who shatters gender stereotypes across the board – offers a neat illustration of the power of describing your most forceful and expert self. In a coolly outrageous act of violence, Floripas breaks into a jail to free imprisoned knights, snatching up the metal bar holding the keys to the jail and braining the unfortunate jailor with his own property. Excusing her violence to her father, she calmly transforms this moment of impetuous rage into one of warrior-like decision, declaring: ‘I slew him with a mace’. I love this moment, not only because the narrator lets us glimpse how Floripas pictures herself, as she slams the keys into the jailor’s head, but also because the real weapon here is not the block of keys, nor the mace, but the word, which transforms a woman’s outburst into a warrior’s triumph. I don’t suggest we rise up, en masse, to club our opponents with whatever the twenty-first century digital-culture equivalent of a mace might be, but I do think we might stand to benefit from Floripas’ example, and to channel her as a woman never shy to represent herself as expert in a male-dominated sphere.