Rhonda Garelick on the Problem of ‘Schoolmarming’

“Warren is hardly the only woman professor to be diminished or overlooked on the political stage lately. Remember psychology professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford? She of the impeccable, detailed testimony against Brett Kavanaugh? On the witness stand, Blasey Ford was learned — drawing from her professional understanding of the brain and memory to describe Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on her years ago. She spoke like the professor she was and in return she got … ridicule and death threats. Think of Trump impeachment witnesses Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill who, while not technically professors, evinced great scholarly expertise in their remarks before Congress, only to be mocked, their testimony largely ignored.

Or think of the many women professors who regularly appear on even liberal TV political stations, such as MSNBC, who are virtually always addressed casually by their first names — as Maya (Professor Wiley), Joyce (Professor Vance), or Mimi (Professor Rocah). Male on-camera professors, on the other hand, receive exaggerated deference. Who has ever dared call Professor Tribe “Laurence” or Professor Dershowitz “Alan?” It’s almost unthinkable. But why?

Because the archetype of the learned man looms large in our cultural imagination as an authority figure deserving of respect. But a learned woman remains an aberration, an unnatural creature to be diminished and implicitly sent back to the appropriate realm for women: the care and education of children. And with its connotation of prudish virginity, “schoolmarm” reminds us that women are still defined by their relationship to men. A schoolmarmish woman has no obvious sexual “owner,” no husband to confer the status of wife or mother. (By contrast, consider the wives and girlfriends of Trumpworld and their endless parade of mute, hypersexualized adornment. They are the anti-schoolmarms.) Unadorned and “unattractive,” the schoolmarm is deemed unworthy. This is the only archetype we seem to have for the woman intellectual.”


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