So it has been a while since I have posted on here, and I was going to make my comeback with a post on the Reith Lectures and 20th-century masculinities, but that can wait, at least for a couple of weeks when the lectures are due to start. In the meantime, I have been spurred back to the keyboard by the latest Twitterstorm over Dr Fern Riddell’s insistence on her right to use her hard-earned title in public without shame. Dr Riddell’s challenge to the many men who took the view that they were entitled to police her behaviour and challenge her claim to expertise has morphed into a movement of women changing their Twitter handles to include their academic titles in solidarity and as expressions of justifiable pride in their achievements. The movement has spawned its own hashtag, #ImmodestWomen, in face of the claims that the use of such titles displayed unfeminine immodesty in the public sphere.
If you follow me on Twitter, you will see that I have not followed suit. This is not because I am an appropriately modest woman. I doubt any of Dr Riddell’s detractors would define me as such, and I take great pride in my title and use it often. So why was my instinctive reaction to this campaign one of resistance – not to the women changing their titles but to the idea that I should do so myself? Was it the sense of embarrassment, even shame, about declaring our credentials publicly which a number of my colleagues articulated? Perhaps in part, not least because I have complicated feelings about the process through which I earned my title, arising from the way in which I completed my doctorate, as I’ve previously discussed. While I now absolutely feel that the title is mine, earned as of right, it has taken me a long time to get to this position and a large part of that sense of ownership comes not from my work on the degree which led to its award, but rather from the work, struggle and achievements that came after and that ultimately led to my promotion last year. Calling myself Dr Meyer reflects that position in ways it never did my PhD alone.
But there was more than a sense of embarrassment behind my reluctance. What was making me uncomfortable was not any sense that blowing my own trumpet was inappropriate in anyway, but rather the extent to which the exercise was deliberately performative. As Dr Riddell said in her initial tweet, in explanation of why she used her title consistently in public, ‘my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible.’ Which is a stance of courage and commitment, to be applauded and supported, but one which, personally, know that I can never hope to attain. I may be an expert in my career, but in my entire life? I have multiple identities; as my Twitter bio says, I am a wife and mother as well as a historian. I am more than that – a friend, a sister, a decent cook, a not-in-the-least-bit-expert gardener, a reader, a writer, a knitter. How I integrate those roles and identities into a coherent whole is my daily personal challenge, but, having written an entire book on how men could integrate multiple masculine identities even in moments of personal and national crisis, I fail to see why, as a women, I cannot or should not do the same.
The problem is that patriarchal society does like to define women by monolithic categories – Madonna or whore, stay-at-home mother or career woman, blue stocking or angel of the house, immodest woman or properly feminine. Women’s capacity for multiplicity, complexity, an integrated self, is severely curtailed in our society, which then demands that we perform the roles we are deemed to appropriately occupy through our dress, our language, the titles we may suitably call ourselves by and when it is suitable for us to do so. And #ImmodestWomen the world over are pushing back against that in important ways, but using a title in a public space because men said we shouldn’t feels, for me, reactive rather than proactive. It feels another way in which men define women’s behaviour, making me define myself entirely in a particular way through their mockery or rejection of my claim to that definition as a part of who I am. That robs me of my sense of agency, my ability not only to define myself as an expert through my title and qualifications, but to choose when and where I do so. No man has a right to prescribe, positively or negatively, either when I may use my title or when I must.
So I will carry on tweeting as plain old Jessica Meyer, about things I am expert in and things that I am not, because that is how I choose to occupy that particular public space. And I will do so in solidarity with all the amazing women displaying the symbols of their expertise publicly with pride. We are all #ImmodestWomen with a great deal to be immodest about.