The crappiness of the guilt reflex; or, micro barriers to feminism

26 August 2012

I have a new junior colleague who has recently moved to town, so I work up a small cocktail party to bring her together with some other people I’ve wanted to get to know. Nothing fancy — sort of last-minute and casual and all, but with some good sangria and cheeses and friendly women.

My new colleague emails me back this morning. “Sounds great! The only thing is transportation — you see, I don’t have a car.”

I stare at this email for a good while.

Is she really suggesting I come pick her up? Am I a bitch for thinking I don’t need to spend the 30 minutes before the party driving across town and back? The guilt reflex pokes me in the gut.

At first I remember being in her position myself — a new job, didn’t know anyone, and deathly poor. Back in those days we didn’t get our first paycheck til October 1, so us new professors amassed breathtaking credit card debt on top of the debts we already had from grad school. Maybe she, too, is that poor.

Then I remember she’s not coming straight from grad school, but from Private University where she had a one-year position. Not that one year of that salary would have eliminated school debt, but a year of it plus having no car expenses surely would have taken the edge off.

I email back proposing she catch a cab, and tell her I’ll drive her home afterward — a sort of compromise. Public transportation in our city is sporadic and inefficient, while cabs are plentiful.

She replies: “I’m very sorry to miss your gathering, but I’m sure I’ll meet you next week.”

In short, she has told me that unless I pick her up beforehand and drop her home laterin addition to throwing a cocktail party, she will not attend. Her transportation is my problem.

It’s not just that this makes me want to sit her down and give her a lecture on professionalism and collegiality like the bossy mid-career scholar I am.

The worst thing is that I feel crappy. I feel prickly and taken for granted — and above all guilty and somewhat gobsmacked by her behavior. Guilty enough to let it fester, but confirmed enough not to change my mind about it.

And I think: sometimes the biggest roadblocks in feminism consist of those micro-conflicts between one woman and the next — conflicts over how to behave, how to treat one another.

You are not the colleague I want, we say to each other via email. You aren’t behaving as I think you ought to, as my behavior has clearly called forth from you.

And we arrive at the impasse.

20 Responses to “The crappiness of the guilt reflex; or, micro barriers to feminism”

  1. servetus Says:

    Isn’t there a term for this in feminist theory — intersection? intersectionality? When different interests conflict? I would say, apart from the feminist question, there is a major junior faculty behavior fail going on here. I read the story and was horrified for her — doesn’t she know not to do this kind of thing? I admit I feel a certain amount of solidarity with her because I, too, was once a very naive beginning faculty member.

    My other reaction is something along the lines of what I thought about your piece on how feminism doesn’t mean having it all and never being stressed — i.e., feminism means being critical of power hierarchies and attempting to analyze them. It doesn’t mean bending over backwards to readdress them for someone who appears not to care?

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, and perhaps I’m annoyed partly because I’m still parsing some of those conflicting interests, including the fact that I over-identify to a ridiculous extent with her being the brand-new asst prof. And yet — via our other conversations on the topic — I insist on maintaining reasonable boundaries. I’m not going to be that female professor who cares too much … especially about issues that scream LOSE-LOSE.

      • servetus Says:

        If she’s going to mess up, this is a totally harmless way to do it, unless of course she doesn’t realize it.

        Yes, stay away from situations you can’t fix in which you have no obligations.

      • Didion Says:

        Yeah, that’s right — and I don’t hold grudges over stuff like this. I’ll just keep inviting her over, and let her decide whether she can come… like all the other people I invite.

      • servetus Says:

        I think you’re obliged to try a few times but not forever.

        Thinking about it from my own perspective — I sometimes hope people will stop asking me.

      • Didion Says:

        That’s right. I know this. I also know that the frequent requests sometimes produce increased determination to never, ever agree.

  2. Didion,
    I know I would feel just as you feel now. My only wonder is perhaps she feels guilty or that she is an imposition and is embarrassed that you have gone out of your way and now she has let you down because she does not have a car.

    Yes, there is the danger of you being the over accommodating female that does the care taking. I certainly hope this does not happen.

    Please let us know how this resolves itself.

    • Didion Says:

      Ugh, you’re right. Blecch, it’s nasty.

      And yet after reading your comments about guilt and caretaking … I wonder whether this is actually seem like a blip on the screen after next week, after we’ve both had a chance to think about it? And for that bit of hope, I’m grateful to you, Michael!

  3. Spanish Prof Says:


    You don’t have to feel guilty, you did a wonderful thing, and those are things that count inmensly when one is a newbie. However, may I offer an alternative explanation? I say this because as I was reading the post, I saw myself in a similar position, 5 years ago, but in the position of your junior colleague.

    When I moved to my current city, I was dead poor (and I tend not to make assumptions about other people’s financial situation). I didn’t have a car either. A wonderful colleague, before classes started, emailed me saying she was thinking about organizing a little party at her place so I could get to know my future colleagues a little better. I froze. I did not have a car and a cab trip would have cost me around $30-40. And at that time, i just couldn’t afford it.I timidly email her back saying that I did not have a car. I was lucky enough that somebody else invited to the party lived 5 minutes away from me, so the hostess arranged that I catch a ride with him. However, if the hostess answer would have been a suggestion to get a taxi, I wouldn’t know what I’d have done. I hate being an imposition, but above all I don’t feel comfirtable talking about money with somebody I don’t know. So there is a good chance I would have replied like your new colleague.

    Again, I say this not because I think you are responsible to get this person transportation. On the contrary. But maybe you can give her the benefit of the doubt, and don’t think that she is necessarily acting as an entitled brat. Now, if in the future she starts asking you to take her grocery shopping because she doesn’t have a car, feel free to blow her off.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, lord — if I thought a cab would cost any more than $12 I would’ve found another way for us to gather. But she could have said, “I hope you understand that after moving my financial situation is just extremely tight; I certainly don’t mean to cause hassle or offense.” I know academics can be socially klutzy — me included — but I don’t think this kind of statement is beyond us.

      It’s very true that I shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s financial situations, particularly in August. I was dead broke when I first got hired too; I totally get it. Yet this appears to me to be as much a question of professionalization as anything. Is it more important to preserve that $12 cab fare, or engage with colleagues and others who can make your transition better and happier? It’s a tough question that depends on what your bank balance is, of course, but I don’t think the answer is to just imply in your response, “Well, if you won’t solve my own self-imposed transportation problem, I won’t come.”

      • servetus Says:

        OK, this discussion is starting to take on the features of a medieval summa, but I was just thinking, had I been you, would i have offered to pay for the cab? And I was thinking, I probably would have, *had the guest been a graduate student*. I do think there’s a sense in which as a faculty member you have to be conscious that you need to start taking on certain responsibilities. I also know this was something I flubbed badly in my first job. I made an effort to be polite in the ways that I understood were demanded, but my understanding was limited.

        We’re probably overanalyzing. 🙂

      • Didion Says:

        I thought about paying for the cab too at the moment and rejected it — not out of pettiness or scroogelike selfishness but because I thought it would seem infantalizing, like saying she could do a load of laundry here while she sipped a glass of wine. She’s my colleague, not a person who needs to feel indebted to me.

        No one tells us how to inhabit those shoes of the new professor, do they? And it’s harder/ much less obvious than you think.

  4. Dark Iris Says:

    Can I just say that it’s amazing that you are throwing a cocktail party, however low key, after coming back from leave!! I am having serious re-entry problems myself in similar circumstances, so this task feels positively Herculean to me. She’s lucky that you are reaching out in such a generous and thoughtful fashion. To throw a wrench in the works, she might be one of those people who is anti-car. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to feel this way, but it can create some pretty heavy dependencies on others (and latent resentments). Just saying.

  5. Hattie Says:

    I would probably have picked her up and let it go at that, although I think your suggestion to her to take a cab and drive her home was fair enough, since you had preparations to make.
    Looking at this from the outside I am amused at how hierarchical the supposedly liberal academic world is! Outside of the military there is probably no institution which is so rigid in that way.

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