Before I turn the spotlight on men, I want to offer two bits of context. First, my Post for today is from a ‘binary’ perspective. Limited, I know, but there it is. And second, I need to give a fact-based “nod” (you’ll see how it relates, promise) to women. Author Gita Patel (2013) compiled extensive research-based data about how uniquely qualified women are considered in global business and overall professional settings. Women are valued in the corporate world as being more “people-based”, “democratic and participative”, and more “inclusive”.
The stunner (for me, anyway): Patel’s research reveals that women were “rated more competent in taking initiative, practicing self-development, integrity and honesty, as well as for being results-driven.” These are generally considered more masculine attributes in many societies.
Which leads me (and other Readers, I imagine) to wander –
mentally – into the territory of Power, and what it means to men and women. But
since this Post is In Praise of Men, that’s where I’m headed.
Social psychologists (pop, or legit) have always regarded Power
as a key driver in the male psyche. Personal power. Professional power. Feeling
a degree of control and influence over internal and external happenings. As I
think about the men (surrounded by them while growing up) in my life — the
energy, aspirations and drive…the tension, aggression and occasional
acting-out – this makes so much sense. Maybe it was because I was the only girl
in a crowd of brothers, but my father liked to ‘school’ me about males. Paraphrasing
here, my own father (a stern, strong, stoic) said that, despite how single-minded
they can appear (trying to address the need to find, and hold on to Power), most
men need and deserve compassion and, most importantly, praise. No matter how
gruff, ego-centric or stoic they appear (of course, Dad was also referring to
himself), they are “no match for women and they know it” (a direct quote).
Men, as author Robert Ardrey implied, have always been – since the days of early man – programmed in certain ways that have become increasingly difficult to act out in today’s world. Since the early days of Feminism, many men have struggled to re-align themselves with the changing needs and perspectives of women.
As a young (single) man in his 30’s recently confided, “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”. Too emotionally attuned to your girlfriend’s needs? She ghosts you for a Bad Boy. Too focused on your career and establishing yourself (trying to find your own balance of power in the corporation)? She accuses you of not valuing the relationship and your future together – she suddenly wants to marry and start a family.
Yesterday I was out and about and had to stop in for a shot
of espresso to fortify myself for another few hours. A man was coming out of
the bistro as I was entering. I reached for the door handle, which he already
had a hold of on his side. Our eyes met. Not for the first time, I saw the tentativeness
in the man’s expression as he prepared to hold the door open for me. As I tell
my millennial son, “Your mom raised you right.” It’s not that I needed the door
opened for me, being perfectly able-bodied to do so myself. It’s that the man
chose to open the door, in gallant fashion. (Personal experience note: Southern men will always open doors
for women.) This was his choice, and I allowed it.
It’s not just ‘gallantry’ that I appreciate in men – far from
it. It’s more the way they’ve continued to evolve and find their correct and
comfortable place in confusing situations. As a woman, I encourage and embrace
men: “Welcome to our world.” That’s just a small part of my role on
I grew up in a household full of males – no sisters, just my mother. But she was six feet tall, and had been pretty much been raised as the “boy” her father (a serious outdoorsman) so desperately wanted. My mother learned to hunt, fish, climb trees, drive a tractor, smoke, drink and cuss right along with my grandfather’s Spanish and Portuguese farm hands. Much to the dismay of my rather proper grandmother who wore corsets, powder, perfume and rouge, and who never in her life wore a pair of trousers. My mother occasionally used makeup and liked to have her hair “done”, but she never let anyone forget her full persona. After leaving her father’s farm, she became a college professor and also wrote dense, sad poetry. The happiest I ever saw her, when I was a child, was when she was fly-fishing: bouncing in her rubber boots over slick oval rocks, flicking her line, with a Black Gnat attached, like a matador teasing a bull. She always caught her limit of gigantic Rainbow trout.
I came into womanhood about the time that the Women’s Liberation Movement was gathering momentum. The term “male chauvinism” was on almost every girl’s lips. For me, as early as the eighth grade in school (as I wrote in a previous Post), chauvinism was the ‘thing’ that prevented me from wearing pants to school. (Try riding a bicycle, climbing a tree or Jungle Gym in a skirt and petticoat. No boy would do that, exposing his bloomers, am I right?). Social conventions created exclusively for females were being targeted and obliterated by the Feminists of my day. But, and I can recall this very clearly – the goal of our ‘liberation’ at that time was equity. If I chose to wear pants, I could. If I wanted to become a welder or enlist in military service, I could. And, if I did the very same work that a man did, I wanted and expected equal pay. Anything that a man was allowed to do in our society, women of my time wanted the option (which was always the only point of the Movement) to do the same. Of course, that created a Big Scare among men.
Outcries about crazed women trying to emasculate men on a global scale proliferated; coming from both men and more conservative (as in Biblical- framework) women. As with any Movement, things can go out of control. You begin your crusade with ideas that seem reasonable; but as others get involved and exert their own visions and influence, you lose control of the original mission. As a Liberated Woman (which I always felt was my birthright, by the way – despite rampant sexism in my workplace), I’m utterly dismayed by the left-turn in feminist attitudes (I’m inclined to call it a “one-eighty”) that has given traction to the phrase “Toxic Masculinity”.
Kudos to Christina Hoff Sommers – almost exactly four years my senior – who opened a dialogue out about the feminist “detour” (my word) we started to take in the early 1990’s, in her book “Who Stole Feminism?”. Simply stated, Sommers speaks to what the Women’s Liberation Movement was originally about: Equity. She makes a really important distinction between “gender feminists” versus “equity feminists”. On the most recent HBO series “Real Time With Bill Maher”, Sommers was the lead-off guest on the show.
Sommers declares that Toxic Masculinity is suspiciously similar to the divisive extremism we’re seeing in our entire current political and social atmosphere. I wholeheartedly agree with her: unity through equity was always the primary mission of the original Women’s Movement. I know, because I was there. I listened to Steinem, Friedan, Wolf and others. I read their books and even had discussions with men who generally agreed with our goals.
Women have come a long way in fighting for equal rights, but there’s still a long way to go – especially for women of color and for those wanting to experience Female and Femininity in their own ways. Wherever the struggle takes us next, I’m not willing to draw-lines-in-the-sand, adding to the bellicose atmosphere with negatively-charged epithets. I may not know who “Stole” Feminism; but the “Why” of the theft seems the more important question, and one that’s part of a much bigger disaster-in-progress.
I’m pretty much always in the process of considering the plight of women in the World. From just about every angle you can think of: career, family, personal happiness, health and fitness, self-image, hopes and dreams. And also the perspective that the World – all corners of it – has toward women: so vastly different, depending upon geography, politics, religion, and social structures that determine who has power and influence, and who doesn’t.
As I grow older, my perspective and understanding about how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, has broadened and deepened. I have to admit: I’m not feeling as hopeful about our progress as I’d like. My feeling’s based on two assumptions. The first being that all women want and are actively seeking respect, equity and access in all areas of their lives, personal and professional. (I’m in denial; make that, I cringe when I think that any woman might inherently feel like a lesser-being than a man.)
My second assumption is that all women recognize how truly complex they are, and that they aren’t restricted or limited in whatever, or however many roles they choose over the course of their lives. I’m not as hopeful as I’d like, because I continue to hear women in key Life Stages say that they feel conflicted, exhausted, frustrated, anxious, fearful and guilty about decisions – already made, or in the works – that really matter to their health and long-term happiness.
Younger Readers may not be fully aware of how significant the efforts and accomplishments of their mothers and grandmothers were in improving the lives of women. The right to vote; the right to have a career and a family; the right to play any sport and to join the military. The right to control our own reproductive systems (a little slippage in this area, recently). The (dubious) right to smoke. The right to wear pants at school, as opposed to a dress and petticoats (let that one sink in for a minute – in the 8th grade I was threatened with suspension from school for doing so). Undeniably, the list of struggles and victories is longer than can be presented here.
No doubt about it, we’ve been formidable in asserting ourselves in different ways, for decades now. Even though key concerns (such as equal pay, and demand for control over our own bodies) still exist, women’s voices have continued to protest injustices that are based solely on our assigned gender. So…why are we not feeling stronger, clearer, more powerful, resolved, secure, and more focused in who we are and what we want our lives to be?
In her book, “Women & Power”, author and scholar Mary Beard offers some very important ideas. Beard’s research traces how women’s minds, bodies, emotions, aspirations, learning, and self-expression have been subjected to both formal and informal constraints and manipulation since ancient times. And not that much has changed. She notes that, for example, even a current – admittedly brilliant — female presidential candidate for the U.S. 2020 election is being referred to as “strident”, in the volume and projection of her voice. Do we put such limitations on men’s voices? Of course not. We expect them, and even need them to be viewed as vocally aggressive.
Beard’s point in her book is that women have been indoctrinated, right down to our very DNA – boots, to conform to what our social and religious groups say about how we should ‘behave’. We’ve internalized messages for centuries. Despite how “liberated” we might feel we are, many of us succumb to all kinds of horrible thoughts and feelings for simply wanting motherhood and a career. Many women don’t feel, and have never fully felt empowered or supported in making important life choices freely, outside the confines of social norms. More importantly, they’ve never really been taught and encouraged to reflect on their deepest desires and the options for fulfilling them. After discussing that the above ‘programming’ (my word) is really all about who’s going to have the most power and influence (certainly not women!), Beard closes her book with a simple statement:
“If women aren’t perceived to be within the structure of power, isn’t it power itself we need to redefine?” Let’s get that ball rolling, shall we?
We’ve all heard the phrase, “You
never get a second chance to create a positive first impression.” I’m sure that
many, if not most of my Readers have experienced symptoms of anxiety prior to a
high-stakes first meeting: an interview;
the first day on the job; a first meeting with any individual or group
of people that – momentarily, anyway – hold important keys to our happiness.
It’s a very human thing, to want to project the appearance of whatever the
desired qualifications are. As long as the Image is not that far from Reality,
all is well (depending upon the competition, of course!)
As women, sometimes we get a little carried away with the Image part. In fairness to myself and my Sisters, the scrutiny on us in many (most?) professions or industries is more intense – regardless of what the majority atmosphere (gender/s) may be. We’re not only aware of, but self-conscious about how we’re perceived by others. It’s important that those perceptions (and reactions from others) be in keeping with our professional goals, and also with how we see ourselves.
Unlike men, women (I’m speaking in the binary sense, here) are almost always in the process of balancing their sex with the demands and expectations of the job. How we wear our hair; how we use make-up to enhance our faces; how we dress and accessorize. More than a few times I was told by female mentors, “Never wear your hair down in a meeting!” (Who knew that long hair could be a professional saboteur?) Any style or adornment that transmitted even a whiff of ‘sexy’ was considered either a transactional killer, or, it communicated the wrong kind of signal (I’m decorative, not functional; here to play, not to work). This balancing Act can be flat-out exhausting; but there’s evidence all around us that the Act is still expected, if not an explicitly stated requirement in many organizations.
One of the most image-conscious jobs I had while climbing the professional ladder was working in a Communications Unit in a large Southern-California city. The director of the unit was a woman, “Carol”. This woman was always perfectly coiffed (hair bleached a dazzling platinum blonde, styled in a chin-length bob); her makeup was a perfect So-Cal tan, year-round; her suits (always a skirt and jacket) conservative. Carol always wore high heels, and always wore hot pink lipstick with matching pink nail color. I was the Editor of the Communications Unit and only saw Carol as she hustled to and from meetings, or when she wanted to meet over copy. Our conversations were cordial, but professional.
One day, however, we happened to be in the womens’ lounge at the same time. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but – being a writer at that point in my career, pretty much behind the scenes for most of the work day – it surely didn’t compare to Carol’s bright red suit and silk chemise. Feeling feisty, as she was touching up her make-up in the mirror, I commented on her appearance. Something left-handed and safe, like, “You’re always so put-together!” Carol turned to me, smiled indulgently, and simply said, “I’m so tired; I just don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Then she turned back to the mirror to blot her lipstick. She grabbed her huge handbag and exited the lounge. I was dying to know what she meant, but I had to wait until several days later – when I had some copy to give her – to casually bring up our previous conversation. (I framed it as, “Just wondering if you’re ok…?”) To summarize, Carol told me that, basically, her work image was all ‘show’, and not at all who she was “at home”. Image, she said, is Reality: the reality being, How You Want to Be Perceived, not Who You Really Are. Silly me, I thought smugly: my only ‘reality’ is who I am inside, regardless of what I’m wearing! Carol may as well have patted my head like the ‘innocent’ bumpkin she obviously thought I was. “You’ll see,” she said. And of course, I did see.
Recently I overheard a young female colleague (who works in male-dominated Finance) talking with another young woman about her image and how she deployed it in her work setting. No particular emphasis on clothing, accessories or make-up; no pressure to present aesthetic perfection. What she did, however, was telegraph her femaleness and sexuality by ‘batting her eyelashes’ (yes, she actually said this) and lowering her voice during a meeting with the male CFO, her immediate boss. I quickly realized that I needed to walk out of earshot, before my feminist hackles became obvious. But another colleague of mine, an older woman, had heard the same comment and was clearly fuming. I watched her walk toward the two younger women, pretty certain that I knew what was about to happen. Not feeling like sticking-around, I just whispered to myself, “You’ll see.”
So, I thought I’d just let this go, but my mind kept
circling back to it. With me, that means, Time to add my two cents’ worth of
commentary. I’m referring to a recent
Instagram ‘flap’ (creating a collective gasp and flurry of chat in our cyber
world) over 53-year old model Cindy Crawford’s decision to Post “racy” (her
word) photographs online. Nicely done, Cindy. I mean that. The pictures are
tasteful, yet undeniably sexy. Crawford’s still a beautiful woman, regardless
of how much air-brushing or photo-shopping was done: The Bones are there.
I’ve had more than a few friends who’ve taken what used to be called “Boudoir Photos”, feeling the urge to capture for all time a fantasy-like beauty and sexuality. Most haven’t posted them online, however. Crawford’s reasoning for doing so – she was vocal and righteously snippy about it – is that she wanted to speak to the fact that women should not feel they have “Sell-By” dates, when it comes to their sexuality. I couldn’t agree more. Especially if they look like Cindy Crawford. In her statement, Crawford implied that the photographs were also sort of a ‘gift’ for her husband. Not going to argue with that either; but there’s a bit of a weird mashup here: a political statement and a little eye candy for her spouse? On Instagram? You claim to be speaking for me here, Cindy, so I just want to make sure I’m understanding you.
In my view, a woman’s beauty and her sexuality are inextricably intertwined. In using the word ‘sexuality’ I’m not referring to sex, or the ability to conjure sexual feelings in anyone else. Feeling beautiful is something every woman on the planet is entitled to, and she should get to define what that means to her, and for her. But there’s a particular aspect of beauty that all women share, and that is our sexuality. Our sexuality is based, first and foremost, on the simple fact that we were born female. If we choose to embrace this (feel comfortable in our birth gender), our sexuality as females blossoms as we age. Our sexuality originates as a sense of self, a knowledge of self, a celebration of self and the ancient power inherent in being a woman. A woman’s sexuality does not , nor should it, require a male’s attention or validation in order to flourish.
Despite the “Swinging 60’s”, the brief illusion that women could truly celebrate being female in ways that suited their own bodies, minds and spirits, all women have faced a narrowing of the definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘sexuality’ over time. Yes, faces on glossy magazine covers have become more diverse (a good thing), but many of the images we see – within the pages of the top fashion sellers — still project a version of femaleness that is unrelatable to most women. There are also plenty of examples (movies, music, social media) guiding us in how we should feel about our sexuality; defining what it means for us. No wonder that, as women age, many begin to feel what Crawford called out as the “Sell-By” date fears.
I’m cheering for Cindy Crawford and her nude photos, regardless
of the reasons they ended up on Instagram. (I’ll be curious to see if the
next decade brings a new photo shoot). I’m just longing for the time
when an Influencer like Crawford’s proclamation includes a shout-out empowering
all women, of all ages, shapes
and sizes. She has a right to do her thing, for as long as she chooses to. I’m
just not convinced that the 53 year-old women she’s talking to are the same
ones I know.
Yesterday, like many people in the U.S. and in Europe, I spent
time watching the very somber and poignant D-Day Remembrance ceremony held in
Normandy, France. As I do each year, I also reflected on the military service
of my father in this conflict. Being drafted into the army at age 20 changed
him forever; I’m convinced it’s why he became such a stoic personality,
although I heard very little (his choice) about what he went through.
Both of my grandfathers served in the previous war
(WWI) also reluctant to talk about their experiences. But my grandmother (on my
mother’s side) was always willing to recall her experience
being “courted” by a “beau” who was a soldier. My grandmother, Beulah Howell,
was born in 1898, near the end of a succession of 13 children. Seven of her
siblings, six brothers and one sister, most of them older than she, died from
either tuberculosis or influenza before Beulah was 20 years old. I think I was
around 13 or 14 when she first told me the full story. The emotional
devastation of these deaths impacted my grandmother and the rest of the family
in ways that you’d imagine. But, for Beulah, the deaths also changed her
thinking, driving her to what I absorbed as a kind of calculated fury to
embrace life on her terms.
In 1918, a few months before WWI ended in November, my
grandmother was 20 years old and enrolled in a Teacher’s College in Toole,
Utah. It was July, and very warm. After her classes, she and a friend decided
to walk to a Sweet Shop to get ice cream. My grandmother, so she told me, was
completely dazzled by two uniformed soldiers who were in the shop, sitting at a
table drinking iced tea. (To prove this point mid-story, grandmother Beulah
whipped-out a picture of my grandfather in his uniform, before they were
married; I had to admit, the guy she had in her sights was gorgeous). My
grandmother (remember, this was 1918, and women did not behave this way,
generally,) left her friend where they’d been seated and went to the soldiers’
table. She immediately engaged my future grandfather (who, she recalled to me,
was very shy and somewhat taken aback by Beulah’s approach). Her
“line” was shocking in its day, suggesting that the ice cream was delicious,
and Wouldn’t he like to try some of hers? (as she extended
her glass toward him). According to my grandmother, the soldier was immediately
‘smitten’ (her word). The two spoke long enough for my grandmother to explain
who she was, where she lived, and that she’d welcome him “calling in” at her
My grandfather — Homer — wasted no time. He and his
unit were on a brief leave in Toole. Less than a week later, Homer produced a
ring and asked my grandmother to wear it until the war ended and he could
return home to marry her. Sounds romantic, right? But here’s where my
grandmother’s grit and no-nonsense approach to life’s realities kicked-in.
Paraphrasing what she said to me, she responded to Homer’s proposal by saying,
“Why on earth would I wear your ring, letting all the other boys know
I’m spoken-for, when you might not even come back ?” Now, I’m guessing
that there actually weren’t too many eligible men around, given the war, but my
grandmother did tell me about an older gentleman, “with a big,
expensive car”, that had been aggressively courting Beulah before Homer arrived
on the scene. Apparently, he thought he was a Serious Contender.
At this point in the story, I was pretty stunned by my grandmother’s steely pragmatism and, what I would now call, a fairly cold-blooded attitude toward my future grandfather. Nevertheless, I could see her point. Without a ring on her finger, clearly signifying that Beulah belonged to him exclusively, Homer was put on “the back foot” (as we still say) and, according to my grandmother, more motivated to return to her. She confessed to me that she was completely in love with my grandfather, but felt she had to put practicality above passion. While Homer went back overseas, Beulah let herself be courted by the “rich man”. But when her soldier returned to her, they were immediately married. They stayed so, for almost 70 years, until my grandfather died.
Most of the women I know consciously strive to release what
we all recognize as unhealthy ways of thinking and patterns of behavior. The
amount of introspection and effort required depends on how long we’ve nurtured
an emotional wound. The act of Release is an amazing thing. Some women use
lovely and elaborate ‘cleansing’ or ‘healing’ rituals that close with
celebrations. Some simply meditate, breathe, then release what’s no longer
needed to God or the Great Mother, or to the Universe. Some women are so strong
that they simply decide: “That’s enough of that!” And then they go for a
walk, or to the gym; they treat themselves to a shopping spree or spa-day; a
new scent or adornment, or to a full-on vacation.
It feels like I’ve been finding and releasing this kind of
“junk” for years. Likening it to one of my least favorite
household chores, it feels like I’m stuck in a Groundhog Day of folding and
putting away a never-ending basket of now-clean laundry. Just when I think I’ve
paired and inverted the last pair of socks, I look down and see there’s more
clean laundry in the ‘basket’.
This past weekend I did something (then berated myself afterwards about it) that I thought I was done with: I apologized ( to someone very dear to me) for apparently causing ‘hurt’ — which I felt in my bones was actually an overreaction to a casual comment I’d made. He was upset, and I wanted to soothe him; which I know really meant, enable him. Of course he felt better, having someone to pin his reaction on, but I was left feeling annoyed with myself for having taken on the responsibility for his outburst. Still, harmony was restored, so that was a net-gain for me. For a minute.
In the aftermath of this personal exchange, I wondered why and how my instinct to restore peace has always been — it seems to me — over-developed. As I’ve done my reading (academic and recreational) over the years, I’ve learned that this is a pretty common trait among women. (An underlying reason, I’m convinced, that the majority of males are so fearful of a woman in the White House.) Still, it’s important to be able to take a stand and remain firm in refusing blame that’s not legitimately your own. In the workplace I’ve become skilled at this. My go-to line: “I’m sorry you feel upset,” versus “I’m sorry for what I did” (because I didn’t do anything wrong). In our personal relationships, it’s often more difficult to offer rebuttal when someone’s put-out (unless it’s a child, and you are the parent). As women we’re expected to be receptive; to absorb discord; to offer ‘honey’ instead of ‘vinegar’ to disagreeable people. And we do this; but, at what cost to ourselves and our personal development?
Meanwhile, the Media shows us that a growing number of people appear to be acting on impulse, irrespective of others’ needs and feelings, without ever apologizing. It’s clear that more men than women are in this category. Ironically , we’re also exposed to an increase in outraged voices and very ‘public’ demands for Apology, for perceived slights or injuries. Thanks to our real-time media, public shaming can be instantaneous when/if an apology is not forthcoming. It’s as though our collective, internal perceptions or definitions of What I Believe I Did, versus What You Seem to Think I Did, and What I Really Did have become irreparably distorted and opaque. Are we doing this intentionally (avoiding taking responsibility), or are we really no longer sure of the standards of behavior in our personal lives, nor of the parameters or decorum in our social groups?
I know one thing for sure. I’m going to keep ‘doing my own laundry’ (back to my metaphor) and self-checking ,when an Apology doesn’t feel like mine to make. And I’m going to be totally un-apologetic about that.
Before reading further,please note that some
of the material in this Post may cause some Readers (who’ve perhaps had similar
I characterize my “#MeToo Moments” as follows: feeling sexually intimidated, coerced, or threatened by a male.
My first #MeToo Moment happened when I was only 9 years old. Not even an adolescent, and I was already the target of a 14 year old boy: a good friend of my oldest brother, who was also 14. Both of my parents had 9-5 careers. After breakfast, and at the end of the day, my two brothers and I walked or bicycled to and from school. I was usually the first to arrive home in the afternoon; I never knew when my older brothers would show up at home, due to sports and whatever else they did. When they got home, it was still usually two hours or so before an adult was in the house. My brothers had friends over in this timeslot, from time to time. One day, “Doug” showed up at my house, ostensibly to meetup with my oldest brother. Not having any reason to feel fear about being in the house with a 14 year old boy, and a friend of my brother’s besides – someone who I recognized as ‘familiar – I wasn’t alarmed. Doug went into my brothers’ room , but then called to me. When I walked in the room I saw that he was lying on the bed, his legs dangling over the end of it, his pants down around his knees. Now, growing up with two teenage brothers and a pretty healthy balance between ‘information’ about body parts, and modesty, I knew what a penis was and had seen my own father’s once, when he dove into a river sans underwear, during one of our road trips. But a stranger’s anatomy was another matter. I stood frozen where I was, confused about why I’d been called into the bedroom, but Doug cleared that up quickly. He guess he assumed that my hesitance meant I was waiting for instructions. “Touch it.” (No) “Blow on it, then.” (No). Doug was about to ask for something else penis-related, but there was a noise from the hallway of the house – it sounded like one of my brothers was now home. He hastily did up his pants and gave a breathless, “Don’t say anything, ok?” Of course he did.
I tried to put this incident out of my mind. It made no sense to me, but I already felt complicit, somehow, in something bad. The sad truth is, a similar scene played out again, about one week later. This time, however, the boy had more in mind. He came into my own bedroom, where I was putting some little art piece from school on a small table by my bed. Doug got down on his knees, pushing his body against mine and the table, trapping me. He started to put his hands all over me, but this time I pushed past him and ran out of the house. I walked around the block several times – I must have appeared like one strange little girl to the neighbors – until I saw my oldest brother’s bicycle parked in our drive. I shot into the house and told him what his friend had tried to do. (I’d shared the first incident with my best friend at school, and she gave me an “earful” about how stupid I’d been.) My brother, when I told him, at first looked shocked. Then his mouth twisted into a snarl and he accused me of making both events up, trying to get Doug “in trouble”. To this day, I don’t know if my brother ever said anything to his friend – we never spoke of it — but Doug stopped coming to the house. I do know that I continued to feel ashamed, frightened, confused, betrayed and sad that I’d made my brother angry. I definitely felt as though I’d done something to cause this situation; I just didn’t know what.
The second incident happened when I was a beginning teacher, at age 23. I’d been trying to land a permanent position, but had no classroom experience. I was told that, by applying to work summer school, I might earn some quick status that might lead to a contract in the fall of the year. I’d heard that a particular principal had openings in his summer program, so I made an appointment to see him, at very end of the school year. To my amazement, the principal responded enthusiastically to my request and told me how to take care of the “details” of my official hire with HR. It was my very first week of teaching a 9th grade summer school English class. I was so excited, and so happy to be teaching in my subject area. I was also very nervous. I wanted to do a good job. I wanted the students to like me as a teacher and hoped they would enjoy my class. One day, I was in the middle of setting up a film (back in the day of reel to reel projectors!) to introduce a novel to my class. The principal walked straight into the room, directly toward me, with a very stern look on his face. He was at least 6’4″ and very powerfully built. He was also at least 20 years older than I. Of course I was terrified, and paranoid that I’d already done something wrong; something that would cause him to release me from my position. I need this job badly. The man leaned in close to my left ear as the very full class of (almost 40) curious students watched both of us. I was expecting the principal to say, “Report to my office, after class!”. I was sure that his behavior meant a reprimand was coming. Instead, the principal whispered in my ear, “I’d like to f*** your brains out!” Then he turned away and walked out of my classroom.
My face burned. The students in the front row, closest to where I stood, looked freaked-out. They were watching me very intently, perhaps expecting me to cry or to bolt from the room. I struggled to not “lose it”, but it was impossible to teach after that. I put the film on, let it play in its entirety, then dismissed my class at the end of the hour. Shortly afterwards I went to the principal’s office to vent about what he’d done, hoping he wouldn’t fire me on the spot. He accepted me into his office, shut the door and began making suggestive comments about meeting someplace later in the day. I stood by the door and told him clearly how his comment had made me feel and that I was not interested. How the man laughed ! His face was a strange mask of anger and amazement. He began ‘back-pedaling’. It had all been a joke. I was ‘stupid’ for taking him seriously. I had better ‘grow up’ if I wanted to work at his school. He continued belittling me, telling me I was ‘confused’, that I ‘flattered myself’, thinking he was interested in me. His words made me feel that I had somehow imagined the whole thing – a kind of waking nightmare.
I know that neither of the above events were as bad or as harmful as what other women have endured. But I also know that the memories of how I felt when I resisted or objected to being bullied sexually have remained – not only in my memory, but in some deeper, more private place – into adulthood. The shame of ‘the act’ perpetrated on me (especially as a little girl); the frightening moments of not knowing if my resistance would stave off an attack; being ridiculed after the fact; and being accused of making up stories or imagining events all impacted me as a girl growing up, and my perceptions of male authority figures.
When a girl child or a woman is sexually intimidated (or worse), I’ve learned — through my own research – that it’s very common for us to assume that something we did, or, the way we acted or looked, summoned The Beast. We provoked him, and therefore, got what we were secretly hoping for; or somehow deserved. This is the most vilemisconception and obscene excuse for male arrogance and aggression toward women that exists.
The more women enter into full awareness of their innate rights, as well as their personal and professional power, the greater the potential for these scenarios to repeat themselves. At this very moment in time, the growing hostility of males in the media and political arena makes clear how vulnerable we all are as women.
We must stand together; we must be proactive in our actions, showing strength and unity; and, we must protect one another by sharing our stories and validating each one.
Without over-thinking it, ask yourself, “How often, in the
course of a single day, do I suppress or “filter” who I really am, what I really
think, and what I really want, in favor keeping some kind of harmony in my
life?” It could be at home, with family, or in the workplace that you downplay
your own ideas, opinions and wishes; it could be a stifling of something so
personal to you, like your voice, makeup choices or sense of style. It could be, out in the world you’re wildly
assertive, but in your relationship with yourself, you really don’t approve
or accept that who you are is worthy of all of the good things in
It doesn’t matter what age you are: if you’re engaged at all in social media or exposed to media messaging of any kind, one of the dominant themes these days (it’s actually a resurgent theme from a few decades ago) is that it’s totally “ok” to Be Yourself. In fact, if you have school age children or grandchildren, you know that being referred to as “fake” is one of the most common and devastating insults to be on the receiving end of. If young children, even in elementary school, are chastising one another for being – intentionally or not – the child’s version of inauthentic or even duplicitous, that tells us a lot about our current culture. So: if authenticity’s not only acceptable, but an expectation for ourselves and others, why does being authentic feel like so much effort? Part of the answer is that learning to be and stay “true to yourself” goes against our DNA. We’ve absorbed a life lesson that’s been clobbering people since we first became social animals, and the fear of being ostracized was legit: being expelled from the protection of the tribe could mean certain death. But we’ve evolved, of course; so much so that we can choose our tribe, and – to a large extent – control much of the personal exposure we have to the larger society of potential critics. Still: why do the comments and opinions of other people – whether close to us, or coming from cyberspace – get under our skins and make us feel insecure? Why does our sense of being approved of, accepted, (Liked, Followed) sometimes seem more of a determinant of our actions and Life Path than our own inner guidance system?
“Just Do You” is actually a contradiction for us: a cute little catch-phrase dressed up as thoughtful
gift that’s meant to empower in our modern times. But, as anyone who’s exposed
a tattoo or piercing in the workplace and gotten negative feedback knows,
self-expression is more of an ideal, than a practice consistently
sanctioned by society. We’re naturally wary, when we’re on our way to a big
interview and a colleague says, “Just be yourself !” We know what’s
expected, and we doubt our ability to deliver that, in the process of
sharing who we really are, what we know, and what we can do.
Recent events in various newsfeeds (I’m referring to several women currently in the political spotlight) highlight just how hard it is, especially for women, to find and hold on to that place within ourselves that allows for and promotes authenticity. Among other difficulties, we’re constantly being judged by others by our “surface” attributes: every detail about how we look, how we speak, and what we wear. On a deeper level, projecting strong viewpoints and behaving outside of established norms will usually earn derision of the most personal kind.
Is there a “happy medium”, then, between retreating into a shell of our own making – letting others dictate our thoughts, feelings and actions — and living a life that is authentic, powerful and fulfilling, but puts us in regular confrontation with others? Older, wiser women know that part of the answer to this question is to stop caring so much about what other people think, while in the pursuit of personal happiness. The way to develop this strength is to take an honest look at your current situation and evaluate for yourself what needs to change, based on what your heart wants. It takes courage to be who you really are; you might find that people close to you become upset or confused by your changes. You don’t need anyone’s permission (except your own) or approval, before you act on what feels so natural to you. In fact, the only difficulty you may have is deciding what (and who) you really want, for the kind of life that really is best for you. Trust me on this: that’s actually the fun part.
On a pretty regular basis I feel very happy about the circumstances of my birth. Being born a woman? Absolutely. I love the feeling of power, backed by so much ancient wisdom. Being born in the 1950’s? Oh, yes. Entering the world just as women were swapping-out poodle skirts and girdles for anything that felt like freedom and self-expression was a wild ride. Electricity in the air; lines being drawn between the status-quo and the force of Women’s Liberation. There were so many topics around which early feminists mobilized and became true Forces of Nature, conducting mini-revolutions and protests against all forms of oppression, injustice and inequality, and militarism, to name just a few unifying struggles. Women demanded to be heard, and insisted that they be respected for who they were, what they offered, and for the work they were doing in the workplace and in the home.
Some older, wiser women feel that our younger Sisters don’t understand or fully appreciate the colossal effort it took to take-on what was then called, The Establishment. The Order of Things. The Male-dominated system. As bizarre at it seems, older, wiser women remember when girls weren’t allowed to wear pants at school. We remember stories of girls getting pregnant and desperately tapping the “underground” resource of friends at high school for somewhere they could go…was there something they could eat or drink? Does the clothes hanger really work? This particular female dilemma, for me personally, involved a friend who found herself “in trouble” and was promptly sent to live with an aunt somewhere in the eastern united states. One day she was in class, the next, she wasn’t. As though she’d never existed. Creepy, as I think back on it now. Pregnancy, however, was exclusively the girl’s shame. The football player that deserved at least half of the “blame” stayed right where he was, surrounded by his sniggering buddies.
I can understand why older, wiser women might feel that The Struggle has been taken for granted by younger Sisters: the limitations, and even horrors we grew up with, which are forever etched in our psyches, don’t seem to have transferred to younger women, as we view their activities and choices as a collective. In my work life and at the university where I’m finishing up my doctoral program, I engage with a lot of women in their 20’s and 30’s. I love how intelligent and aware they are, searching and seeking-out the myriad opportunities they have, the choices they have for self-fulfillment. It’s amazing to me how many of these young women have already… traveled all over the globe…held several very worthwhile jobs… earned multiple degrees…given an “I’ll pass” to home-life and children…and have sampled relationships of every sexual configuration available, just as though this has always been a woman’s birthright.
The chasm between older, wiser women and our younger Sisters, however, is — in large part — an illusion. We really have much more in common than many would assume, and rely on each other for two very important reasons. Younger women need the narrative, the memory of older, wiser women, to temper moments in Life that will ultimately feel like a glut of Too Many Choices. The “smorgasbord” of delights young women now have the freedom to enjoy may provide certain experience and knowledge, but not the gravitas they need to become Us, as they eventually replace us, taking on the roles of Guides for the next wave of the Sisterhood. Older, wiser women need the perspective of younger women who haven’t known The Struggle. (I’m referring to the decades-long struggle of women, not at all discounting the fact that ‘youth’ doesn’t protect women from personal challenges and even tragedy.) Older, wiser women rely on the energy, enthusiasm and receptivity of our younger Sisters. We’re delighted by the fact that our daughters, grand-daughters and nieces can live in greater freedom, as a result of our efforts and sacrifices. Our fervent hope, however, is that they retain some memory of how that freedom came to be, and continue to pave the way, with new effort, for the Sisters that follow. We recognize that being born Female is a gift, to be cherished,nurtured and leveraged for the benefit of everyone on our planet.