GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Leadership Lessons from Mudwoman

In Janine's Posts on 2012/09/25 at 04:23
Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

As we begin a new school year, I’m sure many of us are prompted to reflect on the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Perhaps you are taking on a new leadership role or confronting some other professional change which brings both anticipation and apprehension.  For those of you looking for answers or inspiration, might I suggest you turn to Joyce Carol Oates’ most recent novel Mudwoman?

Mudwoman tells the story of M.R. Neukirchen, a woman who has ascended the ranks of academia, overcoming tremendous personal obstacles, culminating in her being named the first female president of an unnamed Ivy League university, probably Princeton (long-renowned for its history of supporting and empowering women).  The novel has been reviewed by my University of Venus colleague Lee Skallerup over at her blog College Ready Writing, and in reading Lee’s piece, I was compelled to distill what I hope will be a few useful leadership lessons that resonated with me, especially as I reflect on my own first year as a department chair.
1.  Leadership requires you to look the part.  Invest in stylish shoes and a good haircut.

M.R., a philosopher, spent the earlier part of her academic career in braids.  Such frumpiness is not appropriate for a woman in her position of leadership, which seems to necessitate uncomfortable Italian shoes and expensive Manhattan haircuts.  Fortunately, M.R. has a peppy young woman assistant who knows about such things and is able to help her.  You might not have such a useful person in your life, but happily the Chronicle of Higher Education has devoted plenty of space to helping women leaders figure out how to dress (see here and here).

2.  To attain positions of leadership, you must be liked.

You might have a certain amount of willfulness, but learning to suppress it in favor of likability is a valuable strategy.  As Oates’ narrator (who seems to have a bit more insight into M.R. than the protagonist has herself, as well as a healthy sense of irony) says, “M.R. couldn’t bear for any employee–any member of her staff to feel uncomfortable in her presence…Her power over others was that they liked her.”  Be careful, though, because this strategy does have the potential to backfire; you might, for instance, go so far towards suppressing your willfulness in favor of likability that you hallucinate murdering one of your colleagues in your basement and dismembering his body.

3.  Always be someone that others can rely on both personally and professionally.

Make sure that people always know how to find you; it helps if you are never really anywhere other than your office or your sparsely furnished home, and even there if you spend most of your time in your bedroom or study hunched over a computer not eating or sleeping then you will always be available.  This availability extends to emotional availability as well:  “It was difficult for M.R. to betray weaknesses to her friends who looked to her for–uplift, encouragement, good cheer, optimism…”.   Always be strong, always be smiling, and if your stress starts to manifest itself in disturbing and itchy skin conditions, there’s always makeup.

4.  To reach the top of your profession, some personal sacrifices are necessary.

You might find yourself in the difficult position of telling your family that you don’t have time for them, or perhaps forgetting they exist altogether.  (This goes for your schizophrenic mother who tried to kill you by drowning you in mud when you were three years old as well as your perfectly pleasant adoptive parents who deep down really just wanted you to go to the local teacher’s college and stay in their podunk town forever but instead you had to act like you were better than everyone else and go to Cornell.)  You will definitely find yourself in the difficult position of turning down an assortment of unsuitable marriage proposals so you can remain in a dysfunctional long-distance affair for decades with an emotionally retarded astronomer who makes you feel like a wimp every time you think you might like to express some feelings.

5.  Women in leadership positions always have to work harder and better than anyone else, but it’s also good to just try to ignore the fact that you’re a woman altogether.

If you try to take controversial stances on issues facing our society, like war or the changing landscape of higher education, you might be considered naïve.  However, if you devote yourself to outdoing everyone in the kinds of invisible, unacknowledged, and usually unpaid service that allows universities to function and is often performed by women, you should be fine:  “M.R. exhibited a naïve willingness to be a good citizen…and so she was asked to chair committees, and to help organize conferences, and to advise students…Of course she was a workhorse—but an uncomplaining workhorse.”  Better to keep your head down, nose to the grindstone, etc.  Pretty soon you’ll forget you’re a woman at all, until you start having bizarre rape fantasies as punishment for your own nervous breakdown.  After all, “Not that femaleness was an issue, it was not.”

Finally, when all this better-faster-more completely devastates your emotional and mental well-being, you can always go home and be a caretaker to your aged father until you feel well enough to go back to your job at the start of the school year as though nothing had happened—after, of course, you narrowly escape an assault as you’re wandering around alone in an isolated state park.  Happy new semester.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

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