Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


There's hope for mediocre women

  • 19 June 2015

Recently I was asked to speak at a community lecture series in a subject area I rate highly as a general interest, but am not really an expert in.

The series was being curated in response to another community-based lecture series that quite explicitly erased women thinkers and philosophers from its curriculum. I was being asked, as a feminist enthusiast, to contribute to a politically-corrective community event that was taking women intellectuals seriously.

I felt ambivalent about being asked to do this. Being a novice in the field, part of me felt that giving a lecture on feminist philosophy would give ammunition to the male philosophers who believed that there are no women in philosophy because women are too frivolous to take it seriously.

I felt a responsibility to all women, all three billion of them, to only speak with authority about the things I knew that I knew. And to leave the difficult stuff to the experts.

When you find yourself underrepresented in a world, as women are in public life, you feel the gravity of being called upon to speak on behalf of your type, your species, when you speak publicly. And you find yourself being used, however discretely, as evidence of something resulting from your type. The fear of mediocrity is powerful. If you, as a representative of X type, do a crappy job of something, doesn’t that prove that you’ve used the politics of representation to advance your own interest, your career or something, rather than contributed meaningfully to public discourse?

Fear of mediocrity is exaggerated in the mind of a person being called upon to speak publicly who fears speaking publicly. But it also discounts the fact that most of everything is mediocre, and in public life, that means most men are mediocre, too.

I have a friend who tells me she loves seeing what she terms ‘mediocre women’ at the top of their fields, especially in public, because it shows that feminism is working: some women have made a success of themselves as men have always done, through acquiring privilege and seizing opportunities with a sense of entitlement, rather than by the myths of brilliance and sacrifice.

I like this perspective; it gives me hope for myself. But I also don’t like the idea that when women reach the pinnacle of their public lives they should do it in the manner of the old guard. As Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘No