Finding Her Identity: The Importance of the License in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies”

She looked frantically through her wallet and then searched the pockets of her clothing, but it was gone. She pictured it stuck in a gray bin circling through security or on the ground at her gate in the Madison Airport. After a long day of traveling, this was the last thing she needed. What was so important about her driver’s license anyways? Obviously, it is required by law in order to drive, travel by plane, and buy certain products; however, her license did more than just give her a series of permissions. Arguably, the most important aspect of a license is the sense of identity it gives people who poses them. It proves who you are; it has your picture, name, birthday, and address- essentially all of your personal information. We keep these sources of identity in the clear front slot of our wallet to look at all the time. Our identities remind us of who we are and what we stand for. God forbid if someone ever lost his or her identity, who knows where he or she might find it.

Nell had just arrived in Kansas City for the midyear planning meetings for the board of the national association. Her job as a women’s studies professor kept her busy enough and she didn’t have much time for unplanned activities. She quickly retraced her steps from the airport to the hotel and thought of all the possible places she could have left it. She calls the airport, but it was useless. Then a light bulb in her head goes off; she must have dropped it in her cab drivers van. Her cab driver, Luke, was a young man in his mid twenties who enjoyed sparking conversation with Nell on their way to the hotel. At first, Nell felt awkward around the man, but she slowly grew to be comfortable with him as he talked about politics and inquired about her trip to Kansas City. Luke’s hospitality paid off as Nell began to like him more. Upon arriving at the hotel, Nell gave him a generous tip and in exchange, Luke gave her his card with his number. He probably never expected to hear from her again, and on the other hand, she probably never expected to reach out to him.

Nell’s call instantly sparked Luke’s interests, and after she explained her situation, he agreed to look for the missing license. He later returns her call and tells her to meet him in the lobby of the hotel. Filled with relief and joy, Nell gathered money for Luke to express her thankfulness and headed down to the lobby. Looking at Nell’s past, she had experienced love before in a long-term relationship with a man named Henry. Unfortunately, they never got married and he had an affair with one of his graduate students. Henry soon moved out leaving Nell with nothing to focus on but her job. Nell worked very hard and attended school for many years in order to become a professor of gender and women’s studies. Up to this point in Nell’s life, her identity was found through her partner and her job, but now that her relationship is over, she begins to question her identity. Essentially, Nell is not only looking for her license, but also her new identity.

She sees Luke enter the lobby, and notices that “he’s not wearing the shiny orange polo shirt; he has on dark-gray jeans and a black, hooded, sleeveless shirt. His biceps are very well-defined.” This change surprised her, but nevertheless, she was excited to retrieve her license. She holds out the money, but he waves it off and insists that if she buys him a drink they will be even. Nell had already gone out for dinner and drinks with her colleagues and was more drunk than she had been in eleven years, but she agreed to it anyway. She continues to drink more as the two have meaningful conversation. The two seemed to be enjoying themselves and as Nell finishes her last drink she asks for her license. By asking for her license here, Nell seems to think that she has found her new identity with a new man. Luke insists that he walks her to her room first, like a gentleman. At this point they are both being flirty and Luke even openly admitted to hitting on her. On the way back to the room, they begin to kiss. One thing leads to another and they find themselves on top of the bed together. Cloths slowly come off and Nell begins to do things with another man that she hasn’t done with anyone besides Henry in recent memory. During the hook up, Luke tells her that she is pretty which makes her feel special again. The author describes Nell’s pleasure by saying, “it crosses her mind to say ‘I love you’ to Luke. That is, in such a situation she can understand why a person would.” Surely she has now found her new identity with him, so she proceeds to ask him for her license back. Continuing to preform sexual actions, he quietly says that he doesn’t have it. She immediately freezes, stops him, and demands an explanation. He explains that he looked for it but never found it; however, he still wanted to see Nell and spend time with her. Unable to find her identity in him, she demanded him to leave.

The room where Nell and Luke “Hook Up”

The next day, she woke up exhausted with an awful hangover. She attended all of her meetings for work, even though she contributed very little to the discussions. She tried to forget about the incident with Luke, but the night was still painfully vivid to her. As she starts getting ready for another dinner with her colleagues, she reaches into the pocket of her jacket and finds her license. There was a small whole in her pocket where the license must have slipped through; she had it with her the whole time. Immediately she thinks about Luke and begins to wonder if she should reach out to him. As each day went by, she considered picking up the phone and calling him but she never did. Even once she was home after the business trip she continued to think about him everyday. As Nell reflects on what happened with Luke, the author states, “He didn’t have anything to do with her losing the license, no, but it’s his fault that she thought he did.” She had actually found her new identity with Luke.

After Nell and Henry broke up, her love for him slowly began to fade away. As she was riding with Luke to the hotel, she stumbled across a picture of Henry and his new love getting married; at that moment, Nell had lost her license. As she realized it was gone and retraced her steps, it was only fitting that she dropped it in the van. She figured Luke had it and when she met him to retrieve it, she got lost in the joy of spending time with him. As the night went on, there was no doubt in her mind that he had her license. When he was unable to present her with the license, she was shocked and angry. She thought for sure she found her new identity with him. It turns out that she had her identity the whole time when she was with Luke; she just didn’t know it yet.

“She thinks of him regularly — she thinks of him especially during the Republican debates, then during the primaries, the caucuses, and the Convention — she never initiates contact. She does join Match…she starts dating an architect…Sometimes, when she’s half asleep, she still remembers Luke saying, ‘You’re pretty,’”
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