INVISIBILITY   17 comments

Yes, I’ve been invisible to the blogging community since June 22, the beginning of a two-week cruise to Alaska. And I will post photos soon, but today I’d like to make some comments on invisibility, inspired by a little episode onboard ship.

Let me say upfront this is not a report of stress, or even any great emotional reaction. It is simply some of my personal experiences with the documented evidence that older women – or even, women – tend to be invisible. It begins as soon as one passes through the young blonde – or brunette – or redhead – stage.

Anyway, here’s my cruise story, and following. Doug and I always ask for a table for two in the dining room, and this time, as usual, we were recognized by the third day by the host assigning seats, so we were simply waved to table 144, a nice table for two as close as possible to the window. (That’s because all the tables by the window were for six people. One of the things to be observed is that many folks on board apparently enjoy the personal contact with strangers while eating.)

Anyway, here’s where my observations begin. One morning Doug was off on a hiking excursion, so I went alone to breakfast. “And what is your cabin number?” asked the host. “6160” I replied. Throwing his hand over his mouth, he said, apparently embarrassed, “Oh my. I didn’t recognize you.” And so I was directed to the table, and gleefully reminded him of the faux pas before every meal thereafter, a reminder to which he responded pleasantly. In other words, we had a thing going.

So, about being on the ship. One thing I have noticed there – and at other gatherings of strangers, is that folks always, as a way of making conversation, ask the men what they do – or did before they retired – for a career. As far as I can observe, I’m the only one who turns to the female partner to ask, “and how about you?” Often it turns out they have also had interesting careers. It just doesn’t occur to people to think of that. On the other hand, there are the occasions where the husband answers for her, “She’s been busy raising our family of six children.” A great career, I think, but what I find interesting is that he answers for her.

Remember, the theme of this entry is “invisibility.”

But thinking back, I realize my experience with invisibility goes back a way. (Incidentally, I think maybe things are different now with younger people.) Anyway, for more stories.

In 1980 I had the pleasure of a half-year sabbatical from SCSU. I did what I was supposed to do with it –a lot of reading on the Psychology of Women in preparation for improving my course when I would return. So, here’s my invisibility story. I was in the habit of stopping at noontime to do some exercises on the floor while listening to a New York TV station that ran the news on a banner below other programming. On this day, I heard three men’s voices deep in discussion. Then I heard a woman start to say something, to which one of the men said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We haven’t been giving you a chance to talk.” And then, I kid you not, I never heard her voice again.

And there’s the time when I was the only chairperson in a group of chairmen. (Yes, one observed that we were a committee of 21 chairmen and one chairperson.) I want to say up front these were all fine gentlemen who had, indeed, encouraged my advancement. It’s just that for both men and women of the time we were like the fish who are the last to discover the water in which we are swimming. It was a little different from the voiceless woman in the TV discussion, though, because they would politely stop when I had something to say, and then go right on where they had left off, as if I hadn’t said anything. One day I said to them “Gentlemen, I feel like if I looked in a mirror, no one would look back.” I did get their attention, and,, in response to their questioning looks, I explained what I had observed about our interactions. For a few meetings after that, it was almost embarrassing as they stopped to ask my opinion and respond to it. Yes, at first it was stilted, but before long I was comfortably incorporated into the group.

Then there’s my colleague and friend, Ragaa. We did tend to attract attention when we were out somewhere together – Ragaa with her lovely black hair, and mine still blonde. So it happened one time we were having dinner in a hotel dining room. We were there for a weekend conference. To some men at a table near us, we were not, in a sense, invisible as they were clearly hitting on us. We let them know we were discussing work. “What are two lovely ladies doing at a work conference?” they asked. That was basically the end of the cross-table conversation.

But it was at that time, or maybe later, that I talked to Ragaa about the research observation that women are basically ignored in conversation. She was really, I think, annoyed with me for being so “sensitive” until one day in Spring she came into my office spilling anger. As a member of the masters degree committee, she had just been at an orals exam for a graduating candidate. “Three times I made the suggestion (she told me what it was) and three times people ignored it.” Then Mark came in and made the same suggestion. “Great idea” people responded, “and made sure it was incorporated into the final thesis.”

One final story, and then I hope you’ll have your comments and observations to add.

This one has to do with “A Healthy Woman is a Crazy Person,” the theme of the talks I did around town. They were so popular that people displayed the phrase on bumper stickers. My colleague Bob and I decided it would be a good marketing idea to sell T-shirts with those words on them. So, I made an appointment with a lawyer to learn what we needed to do to accomplish our goals. Bob and I arrived on time and the secretary called Bob by name into his office. (Of course, the invitation was intended for both of us.) Bob sat to my right as we both faced the lawyer with his long yellow pad across the table. I gave him the information about what we wanted to do and he took copious notes. Then he looked at Bob to explain what needed to be done and – I swear this is the truth – never looked at me again except to shake hands on departure. If you ever meet Bob and talk to him, he will validate the story.

And so it has gone. Today I’m not so sure I want people to notice me anyway. Well, that’s not true. I’d love to have folks seeing me at book signings when “Figs & Pomegranates & Special Cheeses” hits the market.


17 responses to “INVISIBILITY

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  1. I know there are equal rights in place, but it is a slow-moving process where men truly see women as their equals. After all God placed Eve on earth, because he knew Adam could never make it on his own.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this, Mona. Latest today I had 2 craftsmen here doping work on an awning ( Google translate suggested this word for a sun-shielding device on the balcony. Correct word?) I told one of them about a particular fault – he did not even look at me. I repeated it twice. No connection. It was like ANYTHING I said was not listened to. What a bad place to be at for such men – its like a big part of the population is just eradicated. Hmm, I wonder how their mothers were 🙂

    • Yes, “awning” is correct. You are amazing with the language. You remind me of another story. Back in 1972 when my husband and I were building a new house with an apartment for my parents I asked the contractor to move the location of an internal door so they would have direct access into their unit. “You can’t do it” he insisted several times until I took a piece of lumber and laid it out for him. I don’t think he much liked that I was right, but the house turned out right.

  3. I have worked throughout my professional life in a female dominated profession where, I must say, these workplace incidents have not occurred. In fact, I could relay a number of experiences where a woman’s opinion and plans have brought men to their knees.Many years ago I worked to pretty much slaughter the dominance of an influential group of specialty physicians and manged to devise plans that made the services rendered to them just like those of others.

    Long ago, there were many similar things from physicians who were not able to hear reports and concerns of nurses, but that is not so much of an issue any longer – now that women make up about half of medical school graduates. Further, significant observations about patient well being are documented in objective formats. The gender of the person signing reports is not relevant – at least until there is a problem. But, it has been about facts, not opinions. Opinions and personal observations can be more challenging to express or defend. Conversely, I have been aware of certain less specific generalizations about the occasional man who chooses the profession. He seems to have to work a bit harder to “prove” his worth. Reading your comments provides some degree of gratitude.
    I have not been aware of having to deal with household helpers who reject my input. Maybe that is my ignorance, my rather androgenous physical presentation or my sheer ignorance of such problems. And maybe it is a certain confidence in my perspective that demanded attention and response.

    • Whatever the explanation, your assertiveness certainly is a powerful virtue. And I remember how hard it was back in the day for men who wanted to be nurses. Not that the schools wouldn’t take them, but the families discouraged it as too “feminine” an occupation. It took guts for them to follow through.

  4. This post is very timely. I am realizing how accustomed I am to being invisible and how much comfort I find in it. Yesterday I voiced my opinion on a serious situation to my superiors and was very surprised that they responded positively, affirming my thought process and contribution. I am realizing that I am more comfortable working one-on-one with people who come to me, asking for my opinion. Then I am aware that I will not be invisible and am more likely to be listened to. I’m sure the next chapter of my personal growth will involve the concept of invisibility/anonymity. Thank you so much for posting your observations and thoughts.

    I also loved reading about your assertiveness as a chairperson and willingness to work through the awkward stage until the other members were able to change their habits. As always, you inspire me, Mona!

  5. I must admit that I have at time worked under a male boss and it was always interesting. I had many arguments out in the kitchen with male chefs at a resort where I worked the floor (and sometimes managed the restaurant). Then there was the male accountant who took me to task because I fell pregnant and he had hired me on the assumption that I was past my child bearing years (his words not mine). The last place I worked was run by females and we never had that issue thank goodness.

  6. Ah yes, Pregnancy. Puts me in mind of another story. When I moved from Boston to Hamden, Connecticut, with my new husband, I had completed everything but the thesis for my PhD. I came with an introductory letter and recommendation to a well-known researcher at Yale, suggesting he might be able to use my services as a research assistant. He did grant me an interview, at the end of which I told him I thought I might be pregnant. (Stupid — a woman of my time — wanting to give him fair warning.) I heard nothing from him for some time, so I finally called and was told they were sorry, but they had already filled the secretary’s position.

  7. welcome back, miss Mona! 🙂

  8. Welcome back! I’m looking forward to future posts with pictures. I’m sometimes surprised (and dismayed) by the stereotypes that some people have of what older women “should” be like. I occasionally worry that with each passing year that people will develop stronger stereotypes of what I should be like–and that it will be problematic because I intend to just keep on being me.

  9. Received this e-mail from my sister in response to this blog. “Hi, Traveler.

    Wait until you go about in a wheel chair!

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