Back when I was in graduate school, I one day noticed a help wanted sign posted on the announcement bulletin board (since these were just the proto-days of the internet, it was an actual, physical bulletin board). The Women’s Studies office needed an office assistant. Women’s Studies! Well that sounded like a friendly place to work. I imagined an office full of chatty, supportive women. So I headed on down to the Women’s Studies department and found an elderly, ghostly thin woman behind a desk. I told her I was interested in the job. Did I have experience? Why yes I did. I’d had any number of office assistant type jobs in college. I was hired on the spot. In retrospect, her eagerness to hire me so quickly should have been a warning sign, as no one lasted long in the Women’s Studies department.
The Women’s Studies office workers consisted of me, the elderly lady, and a white girl with dreadlocks who, like her elderly counterpart, was also bone thin. The dreadlock girl invariably wore the same outfit of black jeans and a black tank top; she was so thin the jeans had to be held up with a thick black belt. She spent her time in the office quietly arguing on the phone with her boyfriend (since these were the proto-days of the internet, cell phones were also rare). She confided to me in private that he was abusive and had spent time in jail for hitting her. The elderly woman spent her time on the phone with kosher butchers, eateries, and her husband planning the details of dinner that evening. During the day she snacked on pre-sliced bell peppers that she kept in a ziplock baggie in a desk drawer. She ate them at regular ten minute intervals, and advised me that they increased calorie burn.
The three of us were ruled over by the Women’s Studies chair. She was a hulk of a woman who looked like a football player with boobs. She wasn’t there often, but when she did appear she was full of demands, criticisms, and condescension. She piled us with impossible and pointless filing and organizational tasks, and liked to summon us– me especially– into her office to pick up things from the floor. Once she summoned me to her office and told me to pick up a piece paper that lay on the floor two feet away from her.
One of my duties was to field calls from prospective Women Studies majors. I was to obtain their name, address, and phone number, so a tidy informational packet could be sent out. Without fail, every last woman who called (and it was all women) was unbelievably rude and nasty on the phone. “You BETTER get my address right. Send me that packet IMMEDIATELY. You understand what IMMEDIATELY means don’t you?”
A few weeks into my employment I was informed I’d be setting up, and cleaning up, for a presentation in another building. Keys in hand I ventured to the designated room and set up the chairs in neat rows. Turning to refreshment duties, however, I found a broken coffee maker and broken can opener (the fruit juice was in cans). I called the office in mild panic, as the audience was set to arrive within minutes.
“The coffee maker’s broken?” said the elderly woman with feigned surprise.
“And so is the can opener,” I replied.
She told me to go up and down the hallways to other departments begging for use of their coffee makers and can openers, which is exactly what I did. Several departments later I’d only procured a can opener, so I gave up on coffee and poured the juice into paper cups.
Then the band of feminists arrived, including a women’s studies professor who, like the department chair, had an attitude the size of Mount Rushmore. She was furious over the lack of coffee and the lack of variety in desserts (I’d been given a single bag of cookies by the elderly woman). I explained that the coffee maker was broken and the cookies were all I’d been supplied. Somehow the women survived the unimpressive refreshments, and they settled into chairs to listen to the lecture about the oppression of women. I took this as my cue to quietly wait in the wings, so I took my book, sat off to the side, and read as the lecture droned on. When it was finished the professor made a beeline for me.
“Why didn’t you participate?” she hissed, clearly furious.
“No one said you could just sit there reading. You should have participated.”
“Participate how? I’m not in Women’s Studies. I’m here to set up chairs.”
“You need to understand there’s a hierarchy here and you’re part of it.”
Whoa…. this was too much for me. Had I fallen down the rabbit hole? But instead of a magical fantasy world, I was surrounded by a bunch of crazy bitches. By this point she’d raised her voice such that the other feminists in the crowd stared at us uncomfortably.
“Look, I was told to come here, set up chairs and food, then put the chairs back. No one said anything about participating.”
“It was disrespectful to sit on the side reading.”
I decided then and there to cut my losses. “You know what? I’m three months pregnant.” When I said the word “pregnant” the professor flinched back like a vampire faced with a cross. I placed my hand instinctively over my abdomen, where my now teenage son was residing. “I don’t need this kind of stress. I’ve never dealt with such nasty people in my life. I’m done!” and I walked out of there, leaving the feminists to stack their own chairs.
I’ve occasionally wondered where all those women are today. Is the elderly lady still living, if so is she still munching bell peppers to stay scrawny? Did dreadlock girl break up with her boyfriend? Did those nasty professors ever get what was coming to them, or did they continue to stomp through life like bulls in china shops. All I know is– I’m glad I escaped.