In a similar way, my ex-husband’s family used to tell jokes that put down liberal arts majors. When it wasn’t a formal joke, it was a slam or insult towards those who were liberal arts majors. That is because the parents and all of the children were science or math majors. They had developed an attitude, one that was clearly ego based, that anyone could get a liberal arts degree but it took a clearly superior mind to major in the hard sciences.
This attitude even carried over into casual conversation. I quickly learned that my opinion would never be respected even if it was on a topic pertinent to my academic studies. I was someone who knew nothing, and I was treated that way on many occasions. In one of the most painful, two of my ex-brothers-in-law were having a conversation while we were sitting around the kitchen table talking one holiday. They were discussing a topic I have a degree in, so I stated a sentence of relevance to the conversation. They looked at each other, and then they completely ignored me and my comment. It was like I wasn’t even in the room. That was the day I gave up trying. I knew I was always going to be labeled ignorant (at best) by them. In their eyes, I didn’t know anything.
Even when my ex-husband and I were alone, he carried over this tradition of insulting liberal arts majors to my face. Finally, one day I grew tired of it and I confronted him quite angrily. I asked him if he remembered that I had many degrees in the liberal arts. He did. When I asked why he would insult me like that by making fun of liberal arts majors, he had no answer. He’d been so trained by his family that it was ok to insult liberal arts majors that he didn’t even think twice about doing it with his wife who was an extension of his family in his mind. That was the last time he explicitly insulted the liberal arts to my face, but certainly not the last time my intelligence or abilities were questioned.
As a result of all this conditioning, I internalized the idea that my degrees were useless. Instead of being proud of my doctorate, I saw it as shameful. I hid it carefully away, not wanting to declare my accomplishment of being a Ph.D since it was “only” in liberal arts.
That all changed one day when I was eating lunch at a local restaurant that I frequent. The staff there recognizes me, especially the one woman who was usually head cook on the day I normally came in. However, due to a schedule change, I showed up on a different day than my usual. The woman said hi to me and asked why I was there that day instead of my usual. I let her know that I had some appointments change that week. She asked if I was a doctor, and I said, “No, well, yes, but I’m just a Ph.D.” She looked at me with a very expressive face and said “Just a Ph.D.?”
I realized in that instant how deeply I was undermining myself. I’m not the only one who uses the word “just” to denigrate themselves; an article by a former Google executive suggests that women use “just” far too often and undermine their power in doing so. In my case, I realized that I needed to shed my shame about “only” having a liberal arts Ph.D. My degree is just as well-earned as any other. I went to a highly reputed school, and my dissertation led to me being invited to apply for a tenure track position by another major university (though I unfortunately could not follow through due to my health). The opinions of my ex-in-laws are not healthy ones, and they are ones I chose to deprogram from my mind. I’ve learned to proudly embrace the initials “Ph.D.” after my name, so much so that I think my name looks odd without them now!
As more of the grandchildren are entering liberal arts fields and more of the brothers have married women with liberal arts degrees, I’m hoping my ex-in-laws have learned to curb their denigrating comments about those who aren’t scientists or mathematicians. In my house at least, my kids are growing up knowing that all academic paths are worthy of pursuing. No one is better than another. The world needs all kinds of people in it in order to function, not just scientists or mathematicians.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC