Taking Back The Skirt

Engaged and noticing sexism? CHECK!


I’m in the midst of an identity crisis. I recently awoke from a naive and blissfully ignorant lifelong slumber and realized that I am a WOMAN and somehow that means I am viewed differently in the world. Becoming ‘engaged’, was the loud alarm clock that rousted me from my oblivion. It has been a few months since we woke up on a Saturday morning and decided to put an end to the year of just talking about it, and actually go buy the rings. We kept it a secret for a whole week, during which we each ‘proposed’ to each other. We broke the news to both sets of parents by taking them out to dinner and waiting for them to notice the gaudy costume jewelry rings we bought on South Street to wear to dinner in lieu of the real rings, which were still being made.

By now, most of our summer wedding is planned—wonderful liberal rabbi to officiate our Jewish/Greek ceremony, family house in Maryland reserved for the weekend, caterer booked with strawberry shortcake instead of cake, dress purchased with my mother and grandmother there to offer their opinions. But now I’m beginning to question whether I will have worked through this “woman issue” by the time our date rolls around.

Since “the engagement,” I am suddenly the “daughter-who-is-getting-married” to my parents’ acquaintances. People who are almost strangers feel compelled to ask me very personal questions: “Have you thought it through? You’ve really got to think it through. Those vows, you know, ‘for better or for worse,’ those are serious.” Extended family members only ask me about wedding details, but ask J about his work. I’ve found myself in fits of anger while doing things like cleaning the house, suddenly feeling bitter that I’m doing “women’s work.” (Note: I actually really like cleaning and doing laundry, and I love that J does the cooking.)

At work-school, where I am a PhD candidate in music composition, I’ve found myself hyperaware that I am usually the only skirt or dress in the room. The majority of my professors are men, all of my colleagues are men, and all of the music and theoretical writings that I engage with in my studies were written by men. When I am on the podium guest conducting I am constantly frustrated with my attempts to get a heavy impactful sound from the ensemble. The same exact heavy gestures made by my male conducting professor result in a loud forceful bravado. Comments that I receive from audience members after premieres of my music center around adjectives such as pretty, beautiful, pleasing, pleasant, and lovely. Often times their descriptions feel less about the actual musical content of my music and more about my appearance.

I blame the skirt.

Why am I questioning in my work life whether people are able to look past my gender and evaluate my work on its own merits? Why am I suddenly aware of the hypermasculine undertones of many music theory manifests? Why did I snap at J when he benignly asked me how my day was? “…Just because I was home all day, doesn’t mean I had time to play housewife. I had final papers to grade, I finished editing my new piano piece, and I had to prepare an analysis presentation for seminar.”

Somewhere in the midst of confrontations with the WIC during the wedding planning process, and the change in people’s perception of me due to my status as “engaged,” I became of aware of the multitude of ways in which my gender affects my life in ways I didn’t want to believe were possible. I’ve grown up in a post Title IX world. I had heard stories from my mother and grandmothers about discrimination. Stories about not being able to play sports, about having to wear dresses to school, and sexual harassment at work. Blissfully ignorant, I thought that was all in the past, but my recent encounters and realizations have proved otherwise.

The majority of society still perceives people according to gender norms. There is systematic pay inequality for women. On average it takes women longer to be granted tenure at academic institutions. Most composers are dead European white men. Weddings are a “woman’s thing,” even if J is just as excited about wedding details as I am. (Ask him about crushing the glass during the ceremony, or the pictures he wants to have of his rugby buddies doing a scrum in their suits, or selecting a craft beer from his hometown to have at our reception.) It has taken becoming engaged for me to awake to this reality.

I suppose I could try to go back to my ignorant days—throw out my dresses, buy some androgynous suits, list the composer on concert programs as Eric instead of Erica. But the truth is that I love a dress with a good twirly skirt. I can use this new awareness to bolster my reserves going into the discrimination of the academic job market. I can politely correct my family and friends to ask J about wedding related things as well, and to inform them of my accomplishments in my professional life (I wrote a kickass viola concerto! CON-CERT-O, as in soloist and full orchestra. And it was PLAYED. Why doesn’t anyone want to hear it?!). I can investigate the lack of a feminist perspective in music theory and begin formulating one for myself. I can come up with crafty replies to well-meaning, but annoying comments from acquaintances about our decision to marry.

I didn’t think that being engaged would change much in my daily life, but it opened my eyes to the challenges facing women today. This in turn has made me aware of possible gender norms that may even be engrained in my thinking and affecting our relationship (where and when did I learn to equate housework with “women’s work”?). I hope by the time our wedding rolls around in June that I will have at least come to terms halfway with some of these issues. I’m trying to use this time to become engaged in an inner dialogue with my personal identity as a woman and the way that society perceives that identity.

I can take back the skirt, and not let it define me.

Photo from Erica’s personal collection

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