Towards the end of my thirties, I experienced a period of professional malaise. By ‘professional malaise’ I mean that I was threatening to quit every few days. Since most of my threats were issued at home, the only person who was actually affected by them was my husband, but I think it’s fair to say that I diminished his quality of life.
I have held many different jobs. I’ve been a fiction editor, a secretary, an adjudicator, a litigation lawyer-in-training, a university administrator and a fundraiser. I know how to gut it out. I once won a national trial advocacy competition while in the grips of a serious public-speaking phobia. (That’s how I figured out that I didn’t want to be a litigator. But I digress.)
The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally is to try to raise fifty million dollars for a capital campaign in the middle of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. This is what I was doing when my midlife crisis hit. Many have suggested that I am a bit young to refer to 40-ish as ‘midlife’. I note that all of these people are baby boomers.
Raising a massive amount of money in a dire economy is like climbing up a sheer rock face with your fingernails. (I imagine. I have tried many things in my life, but not this.) Every inch is agonizing, takes all of your effort and leaves you bleeding. And then people come by and say things like, “Wow, you really aren’t making much progress, are you? Maybe you aren’t very good at rock climbing. Maybe you should hire a professional rock climber. There’s probably a reason why professional rock climbers are men. They’re stronger, right? And better? So you should think about hiring one of those rock climbers. I’d love to help you, but I’m fully committed to supporting other, more successful rock climbers, or I would be if the economy weren’t so lousy. So let me know when you get close to the top, and then we’ll talk.”
As I may have mentioned, I dabbled in feminist theory in the early nineties. I am therefore well-equipped to identify subtle and unspoken forms of discrimination. But these skills were not required. No one was being remotely subtle. They just came right out and said things like, “You need to be realistic. You’re out of your depth here. You’re too nice for this. You need someone who can shake people down. You should talk to [fill in name of powerful male with no professional fundraising experience]. He knows how to do this stuff.”
I am pretty nice. If you met me, you would think so. Most people do. I have good social skills. But these experiences didn’t make me feel nice. They made me feel angry. Feeling angry, in turn, made me feel uncomfortable.
I suspect this is because I’m a girl. Despite all of my years of feminist theory, I consider anger to be an inappropriate emotion. I’m more of a crier than a yeller. I tend to turn negative feelings inward. I rarely raise my voice unless I believe that people can’t hear me (literally, not metaphorically). But now I was steaming.
My friend Bronwen is a couple of years older than I am. We have been friends for more than twenty years and have seen each other through some major life events – marriage, divorce, crippling heartbreak, the loss of a parent, a near-fatal medical crisis and the births of our children. We know where the scars are.
I took her out for a drink in a hotel bar, and I told her my troubles. Was it me, I wanted to know? Was I doing something wrong?
“No,” she said, “It’s not you.” She leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “They’re called the Fucking Forties for a reason, Kate. Every woman I know is pissed off as hell.” We drained our drinks. And then we ordered another round.
And then I went out and raised $50 million.
I don’t know if this story has a moral. When I first posted this story, it was gently suggested to me that I take it down because it might embarrass people. So I did, but it bothered me. Because here’s the thing: I think people should feel embarrassed when they tell women that they aren’t up to the job by virtue of being women. It’s not OK. And my not telling anyone about it suggests that I accept it. I don’t. And that’s why I’m posting this blog.