Women of a certain age (and other scholars) have been leaving us right and left lately: Liz Taylor, Geraldine Ferraro, and now Sara Ruddick. I am not a philosopher; in fact, if phrenology were a science, there would be a large hole in my head wherever the bump for philosophy ought to be. The only work of Ruddick’s I ever read was the essay collection Working it Out. But that book was so important to me that it is still on my shelves, though I can’t remember the last time I handled it. It’s at the office, not at home, so I am working from memory today.

I acquired a copy while I was still in college in the 1980s. Not for a class; it must have come from a used book store, of which there were many in town. The essays by women, many of them academics, who had struggled to claim lives that included work and the rest of what they wanted, whether or not that included children, travel, a partner of either sex, inspired me as I was trying to work out what I wanted in my life and how to get it. That book said to me, There are options. It said, You can do things if you figure out how. It said, Yes, there will be challenges because you are a woman, but your sex doesn’t define your relationship to work.

Without having the book to hand, I can’t remember many specifics about its contents. I think I recall a scientist’s essay about her lab work, and I know I had the sensation, reading it, that I could try on various lives: what would it be like to be a writer, an artist, a scientist, a mother who was devoted to something other than child-rearing, Girl Scouts, and the PTA? At the beginning of each essay was a picture of its writer, usually in some characteristic place or pose, and I remember poring over those for clues to what the adult life I wanted might look like. Reading it was the same sort of pleasure that reading blogs is, now: the chance to discover other possibilities, and that others face similar obstacles, and can advise on how to overcome them.

The essay that over many years meant the most to me, the one that I do remember by author, is by Virginia Valian, about solving a work problem, that is, getting oneself to start working (writing) when one has not been working. The author lived with a man who suggested starting by working for three hours. Three hours! The very thought triggered an anxiety attack. Two hours! The very thought . . . . But she could cope with 15 minutes, so she set a timer for 15 minutes, and when she was comfortable with that, added another 15-minute session, and so on. (I found that there is a PDF of this article available, at maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/psych/faculty/…/1977workingItOut.pdf; there’s also a table of contents, so now I’m thinking, “Wow, how did I forget that Alice Walker was in here? And Tillie Olsen?” But anyway . . . )

Now we’re all familiar with such techniques, but this (in the 1980s, remember) was the first time I had seen anybody address both the specifics of what you needed to do and the larger context of anxiety and expectations that make it so difficult to tackle some projects. What do you do when you know you “have it in you” but can’t figure out where to start? Valian had always thought of herself as someone who would become Someone, but getting down to brass tacks was harder. She wanted to get away from the fantasies of what could happen, and focus on the enjoyability of work for its own sake.

I’m going to re-read the essay now that I’ve found it, but I treasure my memories of it, as well, however vague or imprecise they may be. It was useful in college, in grad school, pre-tenure. The whole book was a treasure, at least to my college self, and I want to pay tribute to the woman who co-edited it and thereby showed a lot of women what might be.

3 thoughts on “Another one bites the dust

  1. It's a great essay. I read it for the first time this year (on a recommendation from the other half of my blog). It was also not the first thing I'd read by Virginia Valian. I'd read the phenomenal Why so slow and seen her give a talk and had nothing but the hugest admiration for her work. So reading the essay about her struggles was, I dunno, a bit comforting. Look what she's overcome to be such a big name in her field that folks outside her field respect her too. Maybe if I strive and pull ahead, even a little, then I'll amount to something too.

  2. Just came across your blog tonight and read this post. I have that book too — I think my older sister must have given it to me way back in the day. I too have read that essay by Virginia Valian many many many times. It must be one of the best essays about how to work ever written.

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