On Doing What You Want To

11:04 PM in the Crescent City, and the river is going to rise. Despite this distraction we are closing in on the answer to our general question.

You have to do what you want to, but the problem in our day was that women were not to think of what they wanted to do. Rather, we were to gather together a series of possible second choices, things we could do, but could also stand to give up. Things to do were good, but life works were not; and there lay the rub.

I always thought it was the poor state of the academic job market — there were no jobs, and our careers would end when we were awarded the PhD, so one should not hope a great deal or count on a thing. (Professors wondered why people were slow dissertation writers, but they were acting quite rationally insofar as they were protracting their time in a profession they enjoyed.)

And part of the problem was in fact the state of the market. A more secret part was that while we knew we could work, we felt that having a work or works was not our place. This is a lesson for girls, and it is important. I could respond at length to Sara Ruddick’s “A Work of One’s Own” (126-146) and perhaps I shall under my own name. For now I will just take a few notes and highlight a few quotations.


As we have already said, Ruddick suffered complete paralysis for several months, during which she could not read or talk about anything relating to her thesis, and certainly not write. For many years afterward she suffered from “serious inhibition, halfheartedness, and vacillation in [her] work–the legacy, in a milder form, of paralysis.” (129) And this was not procrastination. It may have had to do with not knowing how to work, but if so, then knowing how to work is more than having a methodology.

Ruddick discusses the pain of worklessness and the way in which, in her generation, a women’s work histories were so submerged in their histories of personal relations as to be barely visible. Part of what Ruddick needed was a sense of herself as a worker. (I would add here how confusing I am as a worker. “You work like a professional,” someone once said, “and that is why you are incomprehensible.”)


In Ruddick’s world growing up, you could have a vocation, but it had to be secondary. Respectable work was professional and “was free from the taint of commercialism.” For girls, there was a “radical conflict between their sexual identity and this work ideal.” (132) Ruddick’s intellectual work was praised for its weakness, that is to say for being intellectual, but not too much so. (133)

So Ruddick was encouraged to “play at having work,” which, a she points out, has consequences — it makes one unfit not to work, yet it still interdicts having work. Then in college, at Vassar, it became clear one was being prepared not to work, but to marry; the sexual division of labor and adult life “was expressed in the self-doubt and self-deception of the younger women faculty….” (134)

Ruddick evaded the contradictions by “doing work that did not require self-knowledge or personal commitment.” (134) She had “an observer’s relation to philosophy.” (135) A spectator, a participant observer, partly because philosophy was created by men and partly because to do it, you had to behave and conceive of yourself in ways unacceptable for women. She also dropped projects and fields of study as soon as it became evident she could succeed in them, including success in work she viewed as feminine, because to continue would have forced her to risk failure, “to know myself and confront my desires.” (135)


For years, unable to commit to a career in philosophy, she believed her work troubles came from choosing the wrong subject. She now thinks not — because of societal conditions at the time, she would have had this alienated relationship with any subject. In any case, she was expressing “a deep and general commitment to security, passivity, and spectatorship” (136) — by committing to a work not her own (while pretending to herself and others that it was her own).

In college I learned to avoid work done out of love. My intellectual life became increasingly critical, detached, and dispensable. If I self-deceptively denied my desires for … conventional loves …, I refused even to recognize the loves that work demands in its own name: love for oneself, love for the ideas and creations of others, love for the people one works with, love for the knowledge, change, and beauty that work alone can achieve.

It was easy to move from college to graduate school, but she did not take graduate school as seriously. (Here, I note, I remember how many of the professors I did not believe who said “publish that,” and how I surprised people at my PhD examination by being truly original and good. This I had decided to do as a way to organize the material for myself, so as not to be chaotic and fail. Yet it was a skill I only thought it appropriate to use very sparingly).

Later on:

…I felt challenged to prove my right to be in those very places where I ws so uncomfortably placeless. It was as if I were continually seeking invitations to parties at which I would be miserable and turning down invitations offered in good faith only to feel excluded if they were not offered again. (139)

Still later, she did not revise her thesis or parts of it for publication, although she was encouraged to do so, and she continued to look for her subject. Unfinished papers littered her desk, as they do mine. (140) And, she finally started working again because she had children, which was a success and made her feel competent.

(Here I think of all the friends I have who had children before graduate school and even before college, and think well that is interesting. They felt like adults and so they could take hold of work like adults, too. It is an interesting contrast to those of us who were cautioned to defer adulthood, in so many ways, again and again — to conserve mobility, to preserve ourselves from discrimination, but also, oddly, to keep us from growing fully into ourselves.)


And yet Ruddick still found herself turning down full time academic jobs; deprofessionalization turned out to be a key for her. (This is actually a classic radical position: professionalization involves gatekeeping, following the rules of a guild, and so on, and not, necessarily, good or serious work.) In Ruddick’s case, deprofessionalization meant finding pleasure and personal meaning in work. This was when the “balance between work and family,” as it is put now, stopped being a problem for Ruddick.

So long as profound desires are threatening and therefore disavowed, experience is impoverished. In my case, so long as that impoverishment continued, I could not have the self-love necessary for work of my own. Nor could I, without the self-respect of shared responsibility in my intimate, private life, gain the self-respect necessary for me to act with some freedom in the public world. (145)

I had carried an invisible, almost amorphous weight, the weight of guilt and apology for interests and ambitions that should have been a source of price. When that weight was lifted, I felt almost literally lighter, certainly more energetic, more concentrated. (145)

Of course, as we know, Ruddick went on to reprofessionalize, but it meant integration and individuation this time, not compartmentalization, tentativeness, and alienation. Do What You Want, Version 2.


11 thoughts on “On Doing What You Want To

  1. So are you counting Xiuhtecuhtli as a Cipactli? And — can you expand upon the recommendation (reasons)? I am fascinated…

  2. I hope that you’re not offended by demotion on the Aztec pantheon from Xiuhtecuhtl, Lord of Fire to Cipactli, the Crocodile, but I do think it’s more apt. Cipactli is subordinate to Xiuhtecuhtl since as one of the nine Lords of the Night he ruled the first hour of the night, named Cipactli. My impression of you swimming in your pool during the summer is juxtaposed to an image of a crocodile lurking in the bayous of Louisiana. The sex of crocodiles is not determined by genetics but by the temperature of the environment just as your functional gender or as you say “my characteristics would be far less shocking in a man” is an expression of your response to the surrounding environment. Crocs don’t spend hours waiting in one location because they’re procrastinators but because they’re ambush hunters. Your style isn’t procrastination but your strategic approach. You said about Ruddick, “And this was not procrastination. It may have had to do with not knowing how to work, but if so, then knowing how to work is more than having a methodology.”

    At the moment, I’m considering expanding this line of thought to a post on my blog probably incorporating Tokyo hardware girls and Julian of Norwich.

    1. Tokyo hardware girls and Julian of Norwich with Aztec deities! 🙂

      I was being Xiuhtecuhtli to fight off rude Mexican commenters who assumed I wouldn’t know anything about Mexico, and also because in Yoruba mytholology the god of my head is Iansan, lord of lightning and storms. But I totally see (your view of) Cipatli … I don’t yet relate fully, but I am going to think about this.

  3. “Here I think of all the friends I have who had children before graduate school and even before college, and think well that is interesting. They felt like adults and so they could take hold of work like adults, too.”

    -In the majority of cases, early parenthood is an attempt to escape from adulthood. Such parents identify with their children, dedicate themselves completely to their games, activities, interests and milestones of growing up in order to avoid confronting their own milestones. Such parents are always deeply traumatized when the children start having desires and preferences of their own. When the children grow up and leave, it’s a tragedy for such parents because the barrier that protected them from the unwelcome necessity to grow up is suddenly gone.

    1. I know, this is what one would think but in the case of one or two of these writers, perhaps because having children was a necessary right of passage, once they did it they could get on with their lives.

      I find it interesting since the way I was raised, you had to have your life first, then have children. Notice how disadvantageous it is to assume you must give up living when your first child is born.

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