Notes on congeniality

September 4th, 2008

When I was a senior in college – serious, smart and ambitious– a professor asked if I wanted to grade papers for hourly pay. I accepted, not just because I needed the money, $2.50 an hour, but because I needed a mentor. Now this was not a good or well-liked professor. He was tenured, but he had stopped actually teaching his students decades before. In each class lecture, he droned disinterestedly from a yellowed sheet of notes he took from a dusty three-ring binder, the pages as aged as his skin, as discolored as his teeth.

He never looked up and he knew none of our names. But he sought me out, and I traded on his attention.

I did his work and I took his wage and I felt lucky about it. When I graduated, he arranged a series of job interviews for me with the executives who were at the top of my profession in the city where I would live. I had agreed to his proposal because he had that kind of power, and in leveraging it, I landed my first real job.

Later on I came to realize that he had probably not chosen me for this gratuity because I was serious, smart and ambitious – what I perceived to be my obvious qualifications – but more likely because of other attributes. I was no pageant winner, but I could contend with the best, and I was congenial.

Young women are often granted the gifts of old men’s power. We are given the opportunity to do their work and do it cheaply. We do it well; we are recognized and applauded. We might be invited into the club room, on occasion, where mostly other men chat amiably about the mission, and the team, and the objective, and the strategy for whatever consumer, capitalist or culture battle they are plotting at the time. We might view this admittance as our achievement and reward for being serious, smart and ambitious. But it is not, no, not hardly. We are invited in because we are young women, and we have the charms of a certain kind of young woman. We do the dirty work well, and hot-damn, we are congenial.

That is, until.

And it’s what happens after that makes all the difference.


  1. so scary how little is really being said about her politics and so much about everything else. the marketing is impressive.

    “But you have to remember who the other options were.”
    During this whole campaign business i cant help but wonder why noone wants to be in politics anymore.

    Comment by latisha — September 4, 2008 @ 6:03 am

  2. WOW. On so many levels.

    Comment by Renae C — September 4, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

  3. Exactly.

    Comment by Kristin H. — September 4, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  4. Perfectly put.

    I hope constantly that the passive young women I meet and teach will open their eyes to the reality behind the facade.

    Comment by bluelikethesky — September 4, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  5. What if we were living 200, 100, even 50 years ago?

    Would we have even had the opportunity to speak out like this?

    It’s obvious this country is still intimidated by powerful women and confused by the whole politics of gender and authority. Maybe we just aren’t really ready yet to allow people to stand on equal footing. Maybe women need a few more years of shaping the country’s discourse before we are really taken seriously, and not just as beauty queens or viragos.

    It’s disappointing that we are not ready, but there is hope that we… and I mean we, right here on this blog, in these comments… have a chance to help our society develop an attitude that is a little more, mmm, shall we say, “enlightened?”

    Comment by Rowena — September 4, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  6. Great post. So much to ponder on. What impact our choices have, what is Truth and what is subterfuge … can we ever really know?

    She was impressive though.

    Comment by Mrs. B. Roth — September 4, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  7. You have no idea how impressive I was as a shill, Brandy. I could give you goosebumps. But I always knew what I was selling was a lie. We always know.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 4, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

  8. Exactly! ( Sorry I realize I repeated what another person said But this is great!) Cat

    Comment by Cat — September 4, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  9. How does the saying go? Well-behaved women never make history….

    Comment by Barbara — September 4, 2008 @ 10:17 pm

  10. story of my life until my thirties. there’s inherently nothing wrong with the master-apprentice relationship, but it is so often abused when the genders are different.

    Comment by Kyran — September 5, 2008 @ 1:10 am

  11. Her speech left me feeling sort of inadequate though. I am a writer, and two times she made comments about Obama writing two memoirs and not writing any laws, or Obama writing, but not doing any deeds. I know I write, and it takes a lot of my time. A lot. I know I could do more for others–could be more of a woman of action–and yet… Hmmmmm. Is a book of less value than public service? Handing food to the poor? Probably.

    She was so impressive, that I almost felt like I was caught up and taken on the ride. It was weird. Only later did I reel myself back in. So it is interesting that you say we always know when we are selling a lie. I kind of needed to hear that. There were distortions in her speech.

    But she just came across as so confident and so powerful. It’s odd that I felt small watching, and I’m not usually one to feel particularly small.


    Comment by Anonymous — September 5, 2008 @ 1:14 am

  12. These are gunlovers who shoot for sport, remember. And the hatred they are firing with has a huge dispersal factor. We all stand shrunken in its quake. I find that good liars are the most confident and powerful people on the planet. They believe themselves, and even the humility they might sprinkle into the show is fake.

    Do not take anything to heart she said about writing. It wasn’t about writing, and she knows nothing about writing. Every line was written for her by the best speechwriters in the Republican party. It was about killing the prey. It was sport.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 5, 2008 @ 1:32 am

  13. That, and they don’t they’re young.

    Comment by mapelba — September 5, 2008 @ 3:35 am

  14. “To do their work and do it cheaply.”

    And, always with a smile.

    Damn, Karen, this is so true it hurts!

    Comment by Mama Zen — September 5, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

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