The way of the PhDiva

Wiles, not whining, are the way to overcome the gender gap, says Dorothy King

Wednesday May 25, 2005 - The Guardian

I have been near Cannes for the film festival and reading Vanity Fair. I found an article in the magazine called Caution: women seething, which chronicles diatribes by a variety of American women who clearly feel hard done by. Among them is a series of emails that Professor Susan Estrich is said to have sent Michael Kinsey, the op-ed editor of the LA Times. Prof Estrich apparently objected to how few comment pieces were written by women and fired off a stream of insulting emails, culminating in one in which she rudely questioned Kinsey's mental capacities based on his ill-health.

The Vanity Fair piece surprised me, as I have written an op-ed piece for the LA Times, and I am pretty sure I am a woman. Not only did the paper track me down to London to get an opinion, but they could not have been kinder or more supportive in helping me adapt the piece for an American readership. Rather than blame the editor, Prof Estrich might have been better served looking at the basic truth: women do not publicly express strong opinions as willingly as men. Of the female journalists I know, only one writes comment pieces; the rest seem to prefer to write features or interviews.

As an Anglicised American, I also find it difficult to understand Prof Estrich's all-out attack, as represented in various articles. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, so I take a different approach to life. An example is a friend who has been staying with me. She is beautiful and talented, with an Ivy League PhD in philosophy, which she wrote on the ethics of intervention and the just war. With the situation in Iraq, the subject could not be more apposite. She turned up in France planning to write a chick-lit novel. Over the weekend, between drinking Martinis and attempting to flirt with movie stars, I have talked her into writing a book based on her dissertation and introduced her to my editor. I suspect that in a year or two she too will be writing an op-ed piece for the LA Times.

Perhaps Prof Estrich should learn that supporting other women, rather than abusing men, is more likely to further her cause. If, that is, she has a cause, rather than just a hunger for publicity. Had she had written to Michael Kinsley and pointed out her concerns about the op-ed page, he might have had a chance to review the imbalance. Instead, her attack probably did more harm than good.

I started the week feeling proud to be one of a new breed of woman - the PhDiva©. We wear Manolo Blahniks but we also have doctorates. We are shocked by old-style attacks such as those of Prof Estrich, because they go entirely against our way of operating. We know that, instead, a little charm and a little cheek will get us almost anywhere. At the beginning of May, I was in Venice to celebrate my birthday and to look at some material in the Archaeological Museum. One evening we saw Ted Kennedy in a restaurant, and my friends wanted to meet him. I wrote Senator Kennedy a polite note, apologising for disturbing his holiday, and sure enough he came over to our table to chat and allowed us to take photos with him.

That week, in Cannes, I got on a launch with two other women, both glamorous doctorate-holders. When we were on the host's boat I teased him, asking if a PhD was a requirement for an invitation to lunch.

A few days later I was once again with two other PhDivas©, but this time we had an additional factor uniting us: cervical cancer. One of us had had the precursor disease, one of us is fighting it and the third is conducting groundbreaking research into a vaccine at the University of North Carolina with, pharmaceutical collaboration. Dr Jennifer Smith is also beautiful and brilliant, and I am privileged that she lets me call her a friend. She is trying to raise a million dollars to vaccinate girls in Africa against HPV, the virus that is a central cause of cervical cancer. Rather than sit at her computer firing off angry emails à la Prof Estrich, Jennifer is using every tactic she can to fundraise and potentially save millions of lives.

The other night I found myself on a launch with her and a man, going to meet an acquaintance on his "friend's boat". I mentally clocked that the launch was nicer than most, and then this dashing young man told me that my name was "Linda" and that I was on the guest list. I have not crashed a party since I was 18, and admit that I was stunned and slow on the uptake. As we approached the boat, he said it was the Octopus, owned by Paul Allen, billionaire of Microsoft fame. I felt sea-sick for the first time in my life. I can be naughty, but Jennifer had balls. She planned to go to the party to fundraise if she could.

The sad truth is that I scuppered the attempt to meet Mr Allen because I lacked the bravado to follow through. Had I known of their plan, I could have helped with the preparations, but it was foolish to try to pass me off under another name since I had been in the papers. The security guard knew I was not "Linda" and I was too mortified to follow the lead. I actually told the security man "I want to go home", almost on the edge of tears, torn between the embarrassment of being sent home and the even greater embarrassment of going into a party where people might know me and know that I was not invited.

I was too dazed and horrified to be sure but I think I was to be allowed in, if not the others: I declined to go in without them. I proceeded not to try to talk my way on to the boat but rather to tell the security guard: "Of course we can't all come in. It's Mr Allen's private boat; he can chose his own guests," to which the rather surprised security man agreed. He handled the situation so beautifully I wanted to tip him - but did not in case he interpreted it as a bribe. If he is ever in London, I would be delighted to buy him a round.

I just read a "review", on the internet, of my book - it will not be in shops until late August, but the reviewer presumably used her psychic powers to read it. The female academic who wrote it - anonymously - says that I should stick to modelling rather than writing. Apparently my PhD in classics was a waste of time and I would be better served appearing in Playboy.

The truth is that a Greek photographer rang me last summer, wanting to take "artistic" photos of me. I declined and hung up on him. I would never take my clothes off for photographs and he would not have wanted to photograph me had he seen me recently. I was 20kg heavier than I am now, after a failed attempt at pregnancy, with stretch marks and breasts that were more Palaeolithic-earth-mother than porno-pert. And I had just been told that the results of my pap smear test were not good. My thought during the brief conversation was: "Sod art - I need Photoshop TM." I chose to take the phone call as a humorous compliment rather than an insult to feminism, because I am a PhDiva©. We take our work very seriously, but we can also see the humour in life.

I despise academic women who whinge about life's challenges rather than getting up and doing something about them; Estrich is one example, but I know a hundred others. If this is the new "sisterhood", I want to be a man. What we need are more Jennifers, women who are prepared to go out there and fight for their cause. If it were not for women like her, I might not be down here in Cannes having fun. Instead I could be in London, recovering from a hysterectomy.

I will never be comfortable gate-crashing a party on private property: I tend to be invited to sit on the board rather than be thrown overboard. Who knows if Jennifer's friend's plan would have worked, but if I ever see Mr Allen in a public place, I will walk up to him and tell him about the research she is doing, fighting cervical cancer in countries who need this support the most.

The worst he could do is say "No".

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