Harris, A. (2004). Citizenship and the self-made girl. In Arnot, M. & Ghaill, M. (Eds.), The routledge falmer reader in gender and education (pp.268-281). New York, NY: Routledge.
Harris (2002) illustrates how young women who cannot secure economic independence are often othered within society. This marginalizes young mothers and minority women in particular because they are often at a greater disadvantage in access to ways to achieve financial independence as it has been defined by the nation-state. Harris describes how citizenship is constructed around certain responsibilities which make the individual accountable to both the state and society. Many of these responsibilities are directed at young women so that they feel pressure to reject state help and instead are financially able to care for themselves and their children. This is one way that the state can regulate who is in a more privileged position and also exclude certain types of women from attaining true citizenship.
The text is separated by sub-categories such as:
Social rights and the self-made girl
Work and the citizen mother
The girl entrepreneur
Ambassadors for the nation
Each of these sub-categories operates within the discourse of the nation-state to insure that certain goals are achieved for true citizenship. Each is also regulated by capitalism, such as the final category of consumer. Citizenship is dependent upon many things, not just being born. According to Harris (2002), citizenship must be attained by successful completion of various categories which are dictated by political and societal goals. This brings up the problem that not everyone is in an equal position to attain true citizenship.
The topic of young mothers becomes especially important because in order to attain true citizenship, girls must become educated, attain successful employment, and eventually have children. They must balance work and family accordingly so that they participate in capitalistic consumption and work to further societal goals. At the same time, they must also be responsible for successful breeding and furthering the successful lineages of society. This goal is bound to biopower and the underlying belief that women within privileged positions of society will go to affluent schools, pick suitable work, then a suitable husband, and breed suitable children. Naturally, many women in lower income and minority positions would be excluded from this “suitable” ability formation because they do not start out in the same privileged positions. Women who “mess up” and have children too early are seen as a drain on social resources and will then have to continuously live off the state. Normally, their children will also have to rely on state assistance. This image operates within a discourse of power where fear is constructed around the unsuccessful young mother who cannot adequately take care of her children and effectively contribute to society’s goals. This stands in sharp contrast to the successful “girl scout” image of the educated, individual, and self-motivated woman who contributes to society through education, work, and breeding.
Harris (2002) shows how this discourse permeates multiple sites within society so that women can “get” the correct message. Also, it proves to “out” those who cannot achieve this successful status by effectively othering those women in public. It is as if the government and social systems are seeking to enable the public with tools to identify those women who do not fit within the public arena of success and are also a drain on society. We can therefore identify them publically based on visible signifiers and are also encouraged to other them and distance ourselves. As women we also learn to distinguish ourselves from what we do not want to be as defined by the nation-state. The successful woman is nationalistic and believes in her country. This is most obviously demonstrated through the public images of female soldiers who are an “army of one” within the army reserve. This re-iterates and plays on the discourse of independence and power which are character traits of successful woman in society. This woman is also determined to finish school, volunteer within society, have a family after establishing a career, and raise beautiful children.
Many of these same discourses play out within the image of the female entrepreneur. Nikolas Rose (2004) states, “individuals are to become, as it were, entrepreneurs of themselves, shaping their own lives through the choices they make among the forms of life available to them (p270).” Entrepreneurship them becomes a tactical maneuver of both the state and the individual to achieve financial independence. Again, the female entrepreneur is illustrated as a “can-do” type of woman who is self-confident and successful. She doesn’t let things like teenage pregnancy happen to her. No, she is a self-starter and willing to work hard to achieve her goals. This image is re-iterated and played out through various public competitions and government programs to encourage entrepreneurship and thus, discourage living off the state. Harris explains how Girlstart, Girl Scouts of America, universities, small businesses, professional associations, private foundations, and government-funded programs all encourage entrepreneurship. There are no prizes or funding handed out for young women who choose to become mothers. But, the self-starter who comes up with a brilliant idea and wants success; there are numerous grants and possibilities for her.
This piece reminded me of jasbir k. puar in Terrorist Assemblages when she describes the image of the “good ethnic.” In this image, a true citizen is always nationalistic, capitalistic, and able to self-support. More often than not, this image is bound to whiteness and also to heteronormativity. The successful woman does not necessarily need to be white, but she must be defined by whiteness as a standard. Those women who are able to “play the game” so to speak will need to fit into the image of the ideal women. According to puar (2007),
While the good (straight) ethnic has been the recipient of “measures of benevolence,” that is, folded into life, for several decades now, the (white) homonormative is a more recent entrant of this benevolence (civil rights and market) that produces affective be/longing that never fully rewards its captives yet nonetheless fosters longing and yearning as effects of nationalism. (p.32)
For the enactment portion of this assignment I experienced a long period of self reflection. In fact, I put off actually writing my enactment portion for this very reason. Thinking about the ways that I have been guided in my understanding of the successful women was not easy. This was because I needed to be completely honest with myself that I was a consumer of the nation-state dogma while also acting as a facilitator for its goals. As a female entrepreneur, I knew that I had been enchanted by images of strength, self-confidence, financial stability, and independence. The reality however is that most women, are somewhat forced into entrepreneurship due to early pregnancy, school schedules, or a general desire to have more control over your livelihood. Entrepreneurship is neither glamorous nor easy. Harris (2002) describes the problematic image of the “enormous earning power of a small handful of glamorous young women (p.270).” I would also admit that this is not my reality in self-employment. My field is neither glamorous nor immediately profitable. In the ten years that I have worked in the field of residential construction and historic preservation, I have not become rich but have had the flexibility necessary to continue my education. In fact, within the first few years of business, I was only making enough to pay bills and even that was a struggle. But, I found the work rewarding and stimulating. According to Lambing and Kuehl (2003), women and men define success differently.
Women define it as having control over their own destinies, building ongoing relationships with clients, and doing something fulfilling. Women who were frustrated why the lack of challenge in a prior position might measure success internally in terms of personal growth. Women who experienced work/family role conflict in former jobs might measure success in terms of achieving a balance of work and family responsibilities. (p.37)
I also left a corporate job at a local newspaper in the advertising department for greater flexibility and job satisfaction. Also, I am not the kind of person who can spend long hours sitting at a cubicle inside of a building. My company facilitates my desire to work actively in the field. In fact, I relish the opportunity to learn a new aspect of construction on a daily basis. I often venture out of my comfort zone of knowledgeable skills to learn parts of the business that I normally don’t deal with. For instance, I spent last summer assisting an excavating company where I operated heavy machinery such as bulldozer, backhoes, and bobcats to grade parking lots, foundations and install septic systems. Overall, this increased knowledge helps me in other areas of the building process. In each of these new ventures, I am out in the field, in work boots, literally digging in the dirt and I love it.
In relation to this article, I had to also examine the ways that I influence other women in the community. One of my ongoing goals is to encourage women and girls to become more involved in the processes of residential construction or home maintenance. This can mean that they know how to fix a leaky faucet or change a toilet without having to call a plumber or handyman. Or, it could mean that they gain the self-confidence to tackle a bathroom renovation project in part or in whole by themselves. Underlying this text is a script which encourages women to be homeowners. There are a few women who I am currently working with in the neighborhood. I have allowed them to come onto a current project so that they can learn various aspects of building. The women range in age from 17-48. After reading this article, I asked them to come over so that we could re-build a fence and we met afterward to discuss some of the factors that have lead to their motivation for “success.” One woman is in her late 40’s and she is a recovering drug addict. Part of my motivation for her assisting me is to help boost her self-esteem. She seems to respond really well to positive reinforcement of her work. Sometimes I am saddened by the fact that I feel she has never had any positive feedback in her life. I believe that most of her drug addiction in the past stemmed from issues of past abuse from her father. She has had both of her children taken away by the state. She has a boyfriend who takes most of her disability money and buys drugs. In the past, she has asked me to hold money for her so that this doesn’t happen. I have done that once but was very uncomfortable and declined. I went to the Social Security office to enquire as to any budgeting programs that they may have to assist her. I was told that she must request this herself and I am encouraging her to do this. However, even my encouragement towards financial independence from a man is structured by my own lived experience. I realized that part of my “advice” for her stems from my own position of financial independence from any men and my belief that a woman should always have her own investments and money. In this way, I am also perpetuating the discourse of success as it has been previously defined in accordance with the goals of the nation-state. I also admit that I am often discouraged because she is already 47 and it seems like a major life change at this point is not very realistic. This brings up another problematic aspect of how the image of the successful woman is age appropriate and youthful.
One other way that I have enacted these issues within this text is in the how I handle a 17 year old girl who often comes after school to watch and assist. Her mother came to see me originally and asked if I can help advise her on ways to adequately prepare for college; which activities to become involved in, etc. This demonstrates how there is a communicated and prescriptive model for success within society. The mother understands this and desires this for her daughter. Unfortunately, her mother feels that she is not educated or successful enough herself to encourage her daughter. It is interesting that she looked to me for help. From the outside she must feel that because I am in a Masters program, am a business owner, and a homeowner; that I am in a position to help guide another woman. I am flattered but must also recognize how my lived experience has contributed to many of these privileges. I must also recognize that I have subscribed to the discourse surrounding success for women as well. I perpetuate this same discourse in many ways when talking to the 17 year old girl. I always discourage teenage pregnancy and instead advocate for education and success as defined by the article. I feel a little bit guilty when I realize how most of this image has been part of an indoctrination but I must admit that I am against teen pregnancy and agree with the discourse surrounding it’s negative effects. Part of my struggle in writing this enactment came from my inner conflict surrounding what I also believed to be true and how I am contributing to dominant discourse.
Lambing, P. & Kuehl, C. (2003). Entrepreneurship (3rd ed.). Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Puar, j. (2007). Terrorist assemblages: homonationalism in queer times. Durham: Duke University Press.