My grandmother is going through chemotherapy for the second time right now. I live three hundred miles away so I try to give her a call at least once a week to check in. I gave her a call last Wednesday and my grandfather answered. He normally just passes the phone right to my grandmother and didn’t bother to talk much to me (which isn’t anything new) but this time he asked how things were going. I was actually quite pleased that he was really taking to me. Granted, he was more interested in how my husband was doing and less so in me… but I take what I can get.
A small part of my answer to “anything new?” was that I will presenting at a conference in April. Immediately after I said it I regretted it. My conservative, religious grandfather is not the kind of person with whom I want to discuss my graduate work. In the past few years he has become even more obnoxiously religious, racist, sexist, etc. and I was really not in the mood to get an earful. I often can’t share good news with some of my family because they twist it into a scolding or lecture, usually without really knowing what I was talking about in the first place. This situation was no exception.
*deep breath* So my grandfather of course latched on to the one thing I hoped he wouldn’t.
“Oh, a conference? What kind of conference?” he asked.
No point in lying. “Ah…uh, well, it’s a women’s studies conference. It’s part of the class I’m in right now. We are writing papers and each have to present our own at a roundtable during the conference.”
I cringed as he spat, “Women’s studies? What kind of class are you in?!”
Sigh. Here it comes. “My class is called Transnational Feminism, Female Bodies, and Social Change.”
“Well, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of.”
“Really? Why would you say that?” I managed through clenched teeth.
“Well, feminism is just stupid!”
“Feminism today isn’t the feminism you probably witnessed in the sixties and seventies. But either way, I disagree. I don’t think it’s stupid.”
“What’s your paper or presentation or whatever about?”
“Well, I’m not sure yet. I’ve decided on a broad topic but I think I’ll have to refine it as I do research -”
“Well I just think that all of that is ridiculous.”
Oh okay, so you didn’t actually care about my answer. I see.
He argued that feminism is stupid because women aren’t mistreated. And hey, the good Lord made them different, they aren’t supposed to be equal anyway. So, even if women aren’t treated equally, what’s the big deal?
I kept the conversation civil, though I trembled with rage. I gently pointed out that his experience as a man is much different than my experience as a woman. Because of this, I suggested that he should hear from women what their lives are like before assuming feminism is stupid. I tried giving him several examples of the way each gender may result in differing experiences. Before I could even finish my sentences my grandfather countered every example I gave of the blatant sexism I had experienced as just being “one person.” After all, “it’s not like that happens all the time,” he sputtered.
My voice became more forceful as I explained that it does happen all the time. It’s not just one person. And you know what, grandpa? I don’t appreciate the way you are choosing not to listen to the experience that I am sharing with you.
The last example I managed to give was when my husband and I graduated together with our Bachelor’s degrees my husband was always asked what he planned to do next and what graduate school he would be attending. I was asked if I planned to start a family or, worse, what I was going to do while my husband went to graduate school. My grandfather again tried the “just one person” tack. When that didn’t work he switched to, “Well, I’m sure it wasn’t EVERY person that said those things to you.” (Yeah, because it only matters if everyone is doing it – if one person out of everyone isn’t doing it then it can’t be sexism!) He continued to talk over me, forcing onto me his explanations of the treatment I had experienced. Mansplaining at its finest. He finally said something that pushed me too far: “Well, I mean, your family surely didn’t say that to you, so you can’t say everyone treated you that way!”
“Of course you didn’t say something like that to me – you knew I would have had something to say back that wouldn’t be very nice. You wouldn’t dare.”
“Well… uh… yeah, I guess… but… well, you called to talk to your grandmother. Let me go see if she’s awake.”
Figures. He talks over me, showing me in no uncertain terms that my voice didn’t matter – or at least that his mattered more – and then when he figures out that I won’t quiet down he bails. Maybe this is why he never wants to talk to me – I’m not a nice quiet woman who will agree with whatever he says.
He came back to the phone. My grandmother was asleep. “Now hon, I’ll let her know that you called, but I need to get to the store so I need to get going.”
“Okay,” I said, still reeling from our conversation. I was unable to force any additional words out.
“Hon, it was nice talking to you.”
Still drawing a blank. “..okay, bye-bye.”
I’ve spent the last three days with it gnawing at my brain. He didn’t even know what my paper topic was, just jumped onto his soapbox about feminism. My topic is reproductive health, by the way, focusing on the use of doulas and midwives compared to OB GYNs. Not really “feminism” in the way he assumed. Wouldn’t matter anyway, I would imagine.
My grandmother hasn’t called me back. I wonder if he even told her that I called. My husband suggested calling her yesterday and today but now I’m terrified that my grandfather will answer again and I’ll get sucked back into an argument. Nothing I say will change his mind, and I know that. I don’t want to try to change his mind – I just want to stay the hell away from him and his bullshit.
Update, 4/20/2014: I did call my grandmother and had a nice conversation.