I originally wrote this in a notebook for myself just to put some self-reflection and gratitude down on paper. But with some trepidation, I’m going to share it because who knows, there might be someone out there who could use it.
Here it is:
I guess when you get to a point in your life (your 30’s), you’ve had enough time to experience a lot and gain perspective, even clarity. You can identify turning points or individuals who shaped the person you’ve become.
And you start to think about that (or maybe you don’t). Anyway, I am. From time to time I think about where I’ve acquired the traits that culminate in my personality.
Without a doubt, there are a lot of strong women who taught me by example how to be myself in a world where, often, women are taught to be someone else’s idea of what they should be. What’s fascinating to me is that none of these women read a guide or had a handbook on becoming the influences that they’ve been to me and likely scores of other women, and they weren’t even trying. Probably, they too knew men and women who inspired the many facets of their character, their personality, their values, and how they carried themselves. It’s an amazing thing to think that we are the sum of so many influences plus the traits specific to only ourselves — the notion of nature and nurture.
What’s got me thinking about all of this is that one of my colleagues, who I admire very much as a strong woman herself, described me as both strong and elegant. What a funny combination, yet so very much what I’ve secretly set out to be. I wonder, does my colleague know that she is one of the very women who’s given me strength? Does she know that the strength I seem to display has only ever been a tiny fraction my own and the majority was imbued by others I have been lucky enough to learn it from?
I’ve never been one to enjoy conflict or being met with disappointment, but she was the first person in my professional career to advise me to meet it head on, to stay true and honest, and not to hesitate. It’s a skill I use much more comfortably now because she showed me how to do it.
I wonder if she knows that.
Lately, I’ve been reading about particularly inspirational leaders and watching documentaries studying people who’ve had successful careers. Many of these people are women (applause!). In one interview I watched, the male interviewer asked of the very successful female thespian seated across from him, “I have three daughters, and I often think ‘How can I make sure they grow up in a world where they have every possibility open to them knowing that there’s still such a struggle for women to be seen as equals?'” or something along those lines.
In my experience, the answer is simple — don’t tell them that they can’t. Don’t even bat an eye at the fact that they are girls who’ll become women and may be subject to disappointing and incorrect perceptions, and even injustices, as a result. Don’t even let on that such an inequality exists. As far as you’re concerned, it doesn’t.
There will be plenty of people out there who subscribe to outdated ideas about women and will be vocal about it. There will be many opportunities to learn this sad reality. But until she’s met with them, your girl can do — and hopefully does — everything anyone else does without even realizing someone out there thinks she can’t or shouldn’t.
For a half a second, watching that interview I thought, “Well, gee, I think it’s gotten a lot better,” and “Do people really still slight women just because they’re women?” as though it’s so passé. …And then that half second was over and I remembered the fight still being waged for equal pay, the expressions of the elder men in the room who don’t expect that a woman may be direct or taken seriously at a meeting, the fact that women artists are still woefully underrepresented in leading cultural institutions, the way even many women out there said we can never have a female president because she’d be too emotional, the way we teach our very young women to cake on make-up — to do what? Get a man? Feel pretty? Fit in? Mind you, I’ve got nothing against wearing make-up, but it doesn’t hurt to teach our young ones that they sure don’t need it for any of those things.
You might say, “Why, even for half a second, would you think the playing field was level?” Here’s why: I have been extremely fortunate all throughout my development as a person to have never had anyone even mention or imply to me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something just because of my gender.
Oh, believe me, those people and opportunities I mentioned earlier, to learn that others felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t, did arise. But no one who mattered to me ever said otherwise. Prior to the aforementioned people and situations, I was just like every other kid. Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I watched He-Man on Saturday mornings, played with Barbie and Ken dolls, built race tracks and other structures with my uncle using K’Nex sets, was the architect of many a furniture fort my brothers and I would build, kicked the soccer ball around with my cousin (who was a girl playing on the boys team because they recognized her talent), etc. I was no good at soccer, but my Dad signed me up for karate. I wish I could remember how that came to be. All I know is that I really enjoyed it. In that arena though, was the first place I was met with the idea of gender roles and capabilities, and that my gender was supposed to be inferior.
I’ll never forget it.
It was my first tournament, held at the old armory in Frederick. I was sparring a boy ranked as an orange belt. I was still fairly new at the sport, so I might have been at least a yellow belt. In our rounds of fighting, I managed to get three points on him before he got them on me. We were roughly the same size, being 9 or 10 year olds, but I was faster. After the fight was over and we bowed in respect of each other, I saw that kid, red-faced and disappointed, be lead away by his father who was also red-faced and demeaning his boy for being “beaten by a girl.”
I remember standing there, pondering it. I even asked my dad, who had watched the match, about it and though I don’t remember his explanation, what I do know is that was the moment that I recognized I had an edge. I was quite capable of doing things that, apparently, people weren’t expecting of me — and that was powerful.
My dad likes to tell another similar story to that one; it was the second time I heard an adult male chastise his son for doing something sub-par…”like a girl.” Our neighbor and his son were in their back yard, which was fenced in and had a little less running room than ours because they’d done some landscaping. His kid played baseball the same year I played softball, and I guess we were about 11 or 12 years old. They were outside, just like my dad and I were in our yard, practicing throwing the ball. “Come on, Matt. You’re throwing like a girl,” his father yelled, upset that his boy wasn’t throwing maybe fast or far enough. Just 50 feet away was me — a girl — very visibly throwing the ball around with my dad.
I can see it clear as day, my dad lowering his mitt to his side, turning around to watch this spectacle in the other yard, and then turning back to me unfazed, perhaps pitying the boy, but never missing an opportunity to turn the other cheek. “Come on, Jenny. Let’s show them what a girl throws like.” We moved a few feet further apart from each other and I lobbed that softball right to his mitt. We kept doing just that until well after the neighbors went inside. Maybe they didn’t learn a lesson that day, but my dad and I had fun, and I was instilled with a sense of power that all girls and women should have — You can.
From those days on, I was going to do anything anyone else could do, and just as well if not better, without giving a second thought to anyone else’s opinion about it.
I was going adventuring in the woods and wading through creeks and climbing trees. I was going to learn karate and compete. I was going to work on my first car with my best guy friend and learn how to take things apart and fix them. I was going to lift heavy boxes at my first job and ride pallet jacks and reconfigure store sets. I was going to study fine art even if the overwhelming majority of recognized artists throughout the canon of art history are men. I was going to explore ideas, write, think critically, come to informed conclusions and present all of this without bothering to think about whether I could or should. I was going to argue my worth and negotiate a fair salary for myself at my first career job. I was going to make my way in this world because I have as much right to it as anyone else does.
So, I guess what brings me to thinking about all of this is that I’m at a place where I can reflect and be grateful. I’m very grateful to the people in my life, especially the men, who never once lead me to believe I wasn’t capable. Sure, there are those who thrive from being told they can’t do something; they see it as a challenge. But I truly believe that I’m in part the product of the support of people who never told me otherwise, who never compared me to the boys, but just let me do my thing.
Thank you for letting me explore the same possibilities, perhaps without even realizing that there are people out there who don’t think you should.
Mothers and fathers, role models and mentors: If you want your daughters and sons, and other kids needing you, to have every opportunity out there as human beings, if you want them to come into their own without being limited by socially accepted gender roles, then don’t bring it up.
Let them try everything, let them explore all of the possibilities that this rich and vastly rewarding world and life have to offer. Give them your support, not because you want to wage a war on gender role conformity, but because you love them and they should be able to experience it all. And when they’re presented with the challenge of overcoming hurdles concerning their gender, they’ll have the edge because they’ll be too strong to be bothered with it and keep moving forward.
As far as your concerned, the conversation around gender role limitations and capabilities is illegitimate, and as far as kids who are supported are concerned, it doesn’t exist. If we do this, then, maybe one day, it truly won’t exist.