I had a date with my professor. Actually, let me rephrase that—I had a date with my professor, his wife, and eleven other students (yeah, that definitely sounds better). My professor, an incredibly experienced, professional and sociable man well into his later years, is the kind of professor who tries to get to know every single student in his class each semester by throwing a dinner party at his house. I was assigned to the “Saturday at 6 p.m.” dinner shift and as I stood outside his door that Saturday I felt surprisingly nervous. My professor was now going to know me personally; when he read my essays he would be able to put a face to a paper that may or may not be my best work. But as a poor college student, I never pass up an opportunity for a free meal, so I took a deep breath and knocked on his front door.
OK, so it actually took me about three extra minutes to work up the courage to knock. But, with a notorious reputation for arriving approximately ten minutes early to any event, I figured I could spare an extra three minutes to get my life in order. I went through a mental checklist of things to talk about: subjects to discuss included our upcoming project, my professor’s earlier career as a lawyer, and anything to do with his kids. Conversational subjects to avoid included politics, what I’m doing after I graduate, and the history readings that I had not completed. I finally knocked on the door and my professor, dressed in a pretty classy sweater vest and khakis combo, ushered me to the living room. After a quick survey of the room, I assumed we were waiting for several other students. I had assumed this because when I walked in the door there was approximately one girl and a much larger group of guys standing around in that holy-shit-I-don’t-know-you-people-what-do-I-do kind of way. My professor invited each of us personally, so I figured that there was no way that he could have designed the dinner party to be so gender-disproportionate. As if he had been reading my thoughts, my professor said, “Oh yeah—by the way, several of the girls couldn’t make it. So it’s just you two ladies and these gentlemen tonight.” Although the ratio was somewhat unsettling, I thanked him again for inviting me, went to grab a drink, and quickly counted the number of guys in the room. Ten guys altogether. 10–2 ratio. Not bad if you’re looking for a date (I wasn’t) and not bad if you don’t mind spending dinner engaged in stereotypically male topics.
After standing around and engaging in the awkward first-meeting conversations (“So, what’s your major?” “Where are you from?” “Oh, I have a cousin who lives in Oregon, how interesting!”) my professor and his wife announced that dinner was ready. “By the way,” my professor began, “I want to make sure everyone has the chance to meet each other—so girls,” he said, glancing and me and my fellow female classmate, “please don’t sit together. There are two separate tables since there are so many of you and we want the boys to get to know both of you individually.” I smiled, indulged his request, but was entirely confused at this logic. After sitting down at my designated table I suddenly had the urge to laugh: Imagine me, a vertically challenged, chatty-as-anything history and English student, seated at the center of a table that encompassed precisely three incredibly tall university athletes, two politics majors, one terrified first year, and my professor. Besides a shared history class, these gentlemen had nothing in common with me or my interests. Besides a shared history class, I’m pretty sure these gentlemen had few things in common with each other. Well, this should be interesting, I thought.
Although current evidence might point to the contrary, I actually love dinner parties. I love how awkward they can be; I love seeing how food brings people together. That being said, I am also a notorious party-mingler—that is to say that I don’t like staying in one place at a party. I often feel trapped in one conversation and because I get bored easily I tend to politely excuse myself and rotate among social circles. At this moment, I found myself trapped in the center of a table surrounded by men talking about politics, sports, and (you guessed it!) the history readings I knew nothing about. I chimed in on several of the conversations, but by no means did I dominate any of the conversations. This was no one’s fault—I simply have no interest in sports or politics or the history readings and I chose not to contribute to the conversation. I asked questions, I was polite, I was poised, but as the dinner continued I wondered if I should try to speak more. Did being the only woman at the table mean that I was the representative of the female sex? Did the fact that I talked less contribute to the belief that women’s opinions were inferior to men? I started to feel antsy at the idea that I had to prove myself; that I wasn’t standing out in the circle of testosterone that I found myself in. My thoughts were interrupted by my professor’s wife: Dessert was ready whenever we were.
At first I just sat there, but as I looked over Athlete No. 1’s rather giant frame into the kitchen I noticed that there were a lot plates for my professor’s wife to carry. I looked at the young men around my table: No one was offering to stand up and help. She can’t carry those all by herself, I thought as I rose out of my chair and headed to the kitchen. On one hand I was simply being polite, but I was also grateful for the chance to stand up and escape my confinement. “Here, let me help you with those,” I said, grabbing two plates. Then I began to serve the men at my table. The first young man said nothing after I placed the pie in front of him. “You’re welcome,” I said, looking at him straight in the face. Sure, I was passing out dessert, but that didn’t mean his manners could suddenly dissipate. I served myself last and sat down to eat my own piece of pie. It was only after my first bite that I realized what I had done. I had conformed to the patriarchal construct of how women should behave. I had served dessert; I had graciously handed these men their pie as they discussed political nominees and the ski jump at Sochi. I had served myself last. I had excluded myself when I should have channeled my inner Sheryl Sandberg and leaned in! Now I was practically panicking. I had let down the entire female sex, I had shown weakness, and I had traded feminist pride for pie.
At first I was disappointed in myself because I believed that I had succumbed to a stereotype that generations of women have fought against. In an age when the very definition of feminism changes constantly, I find it difficult to discern when I must defend my right to gender equality and when I am simply berating myself for no significant reason. In many ways I see the challenge of gender equality everywhere, but there are also moments when the question of gender equality is irrelevant. No one asked me to help serve dessert at my professor’s house. No one demanded that I help in the kitchen. No one judged, compared, or belittled my intelligence and interests to those of my male counterparts. Instead of reading my actions as negatively “feminine” or “domestic,” I have since decided that some actions, like offering to serve pie, are universally understood to be acts of politeness and kindness. I wholeheartedly believe in gender equality but, as I have discovered, there is a time when gender politics are relevant and when they are not; when there is inequality and when there is simply a lack of intrigue. While adhering to the fundamental principles of feminism will always be part of my life, I also recognize that there are times for the feminist platform and there are times when people just need some pie.