An Unusual Keynote Address

The feminist blogger BitchPhD was recently invited to give a keynote address at a Women's Studies conference as her blogging persona. It's a brilliant turn for pseudonymous blogging, and in a way makes perfect sense given the content of her talk (which she quite graciously posts in its entirety).

There was a little surprise for me:

A few months into the blog, Amardeep Singh, who keeps a blog of his own, said in passing somewhere that he didn’t want to know who Bitch was, because he preferred to see her as “everycolleague,” and I think that’s right. In the real world, the line between private and public thoughts, especially in the workplace, is fairly definite, if not always clear. But--and of course this is a feminist statement--that line is a false one: after all, professionals are people, and while everyone plays different roles at different times, all those roles are played by one person. Bitch exists to cover up my anxiety about the blurring of my own personal, professional and (as things evolved) political opinions; but because she isn’t a real person, she can be all those things at once.

Well, let me amend that. Part of my argument, of course, is that real people are all those things at once. What I mean to say is that the social structures we’re working and living in define “work” and “life,” or “personal” and “political,” like “private” and “public,” as separate spheres. So it can be very difficult to talk about these categories together, because we’re used to thinking of them as conceptually separate, even if we realize that in our own lives and stories, they overlap. As a persona rather than a person, Bitch *demonstrates* the overlap as well as talking about it, and I suspect that on some level that’s a big part of the blog’s popularity. It’s kind of amazing, if you think about it, to have the same blog linked by both mommy bloggers and the big boy political blogs. Which are, of course, virtually all written by boys--but that’s a different issue.

I'm pretty sure the phrase she's referring to is one that I left in a comment thread on one of her posts, so the fact that it stayed in her mind a year and a half later is pleasantly surprising. Anyway, enough about me: go read the talk.

As for the point she's making about how she can transgress public and private boundaries, it's important -- and it's something you can do on a pseudonymous blog that isn't advisable on a 'real name' blog. With your real name on the sidebar, you can cross that line at times to talk about personal matters, but you have to tread carefully -- to protect both your career and your family.

The larger question might be something like: how can we redraw the line, so that personal life choices and family obligations can be seen as legitimate (as in, non-stigmatized), publicly marked factors in an academic career? (An example of it in action: my own university faculty is currently considering a proposal to require that all faculty who have a child before tenure extend their tenure clocks. This proposal has both advantages and disadvantages...)

In the comments, someone compares her argument about how the personal impinges on the public/professional to a speech by the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers. And here is BitchPhd's response:

There's . . . a major rhetorical difference between an argument that essentially throws up its hands and says "we can't change the reality that people make these choices" (Summers) and an argument that says "given that these choices are reality, we need to change the system" (me).

That seems like a really good way to imagine the effect activist pseudonymous blogging might have.