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United We Are a Force, and Individually We are W.O.N.

Image Courtesy of Joanna Eleftheriou

Women of Note celebrates the unique talents of women of Hampton Roads and seeks to raise awareness of issues women face in the 21st century. We are well aware of the many hats women wear throughout the day as well as throughout their lives and we would like to give women the opportunity to share their experiences juggling these with our community. By sharing our experiences, we hope to inspire others, learn from their perspectives, and foster a dialogue that creates solutions. Today we spot light Joanna Eleftheriou.

Affiliation(s) (past and present): Christopher Newport University (present)

How long have you been (working in/participating in) your field? How did you get into it?

I wanted to write a book before I’d even mastered the alphabet. As a teenager, I wasn’t sure what kind of book I wanted to write. But in Fall 2000, as a college senior, I took a course called The Art of the Essay, and I’ve been devoted to the essay ever since.

I love essays; I love analyzing them, writing them, and teaching them. I got into teaching quite organically. I tutored during high school (mostly math), during college (Modern Greek), and my first years as a graduate student (writing). At Old Dominion, I was awarded a teaching assistantship and I never left the academy. I’ve taught college literature and writing courses consistently since 2007. I think the reason I’ve stuck with it because my work as a writer leads me to continuously discover new insights about the craft, and I find it rewarding to share those insights with new writers. I also love teaching literature, because the insights students have about literary work enriches my own understanding.

How long have you been working/ living in in Hampton Roads?

I arrived in Hampton Roads in 2005 to begin my Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I departed in 2010 to get my PhD and returned in 2019. So seven years or sixteen, depending on how you count.

What advice would you give young women going into your field?

Reach out and make professional connections with other women. Sometimes it can feel awkward, but it’s worthwhile. Networking requires us to follow some of the social conventions of friendship while also following some of the social norms of the workplace. This can make the process of making professional connections uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely essential. Take initiative and offer support, encouragement, and advice to other women before you need to ask for it. Rather than operating from a scarcity mentality, assume that by increasing opportunity and success for your connections, you’re making more opportunities for all women. Think about the long term and the big picture, rather than limiting yourself to the next step.

Does your gender influence your relationship to your work? In what way?

It’s not my gender that’s an asset or liability. My female gender is itself neutral—neither an asset nor a liability. Gender norms determine what people expect of me (and from me). It’s sort of like a role I’m supposed to play. Most people are unaware of all the knowledge about gender they actually possess—we don’t realize we possess this knowledge about gender until we meet a person who flouts the rules, and in that case, we attribute our discomfort to the person rather than to the knowledge we unconsciously possess.

For example, I may speak the same words a man has spoken, but I don’t convey the same meaning, because listeners are always measuring whether we are conforming to the gender suggested by our voice, clothing, and bone structure. If I say exactly what I’m thinking, for example, people I work with have said I’m too direct, or have even told me that I seem angry. People have asked me to “sugar coat” critical feedback or be less direct, and I believe they request this because this is what they expect of a woman. The labor of sugar-coating detracts from the energy and time I have left for other tasks. Who knows what else I might have accomplished if I didn’t have to perform that labor?

In order to achieve my goals, I have to strike a balance between spending the time to conform to gender norms and subverting those gender norms.

Have you faced challenges in your field because of your gender or have you found your gender to be an asset? What kinds of challenges or advantages, and how have they affected your life?

Once again, it’s not my gender that’s an asset or liability, but the social structures and gender expectations that demand extra labor. For example, in order to look professional as a woman, I have to wear shoes that aren’t as easy to walk in as men’s shoes.

By presenting as a historically oppressed gender, I do see the world from a vantage point that has had less access to publishing opportunities. This has both advantages and disadvantages. As a result of the historical marginalization of women, my story is less easily recognizable as important. Also, readers often feel less comfortable reading women who assert their ideas – they expect indirect writing. That’s the disadvantage. The advantage is that once I do find an editor who can recognize my work’s importance and publish it, readers realize how different my perspective is than what they are used to. Women’s ideas and experiences have been left out of anthologies, so my work reads as quite novel and original.

Has parenthood impacted your career or shaped your perspective as a professional? In what ways?

No, but I’m grateful to women who carry, bear, and raise the infants that grow up to read my books.

What has been your greatest challenge and what have you learned from it?

Homophobia and the oppression of gay women (and men) for the last few millennia has been my greatest challenge—even greater than misogyny. The dominant (heterosexual) group has frequently insisted that I’m not oppressed at all, and that kind of gaslighting has injured me irrevocably. The erasure of lesbians from our history and our history books caused me great harm, and I have worked tirelessly and assiduously for twenty-five years to recover from the harm that erasure wrought.

I’ve learned that inequality really sucks, and that the dominant group will almost always be apathetic or worse, insulted when the people over whom they are dominant speak up.

Any closing thoughts?

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share what I’ve learned and inspire other women to pursue their dreams and lift up the artistic work of yet more women. It’s how we win!

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