Several years ago, after my mother died, I found among her belongings, a manila envelope with all of my old grade-school report cards. Starting in kindergarten, twice each year, one common remark could be found on every one: TALKS TOO MUCH. It wasn’t until the end of third grade that the message changed: NICE QUIET LITTLE GIRL.
This was back in the day before preschool was common, so I joyfully learned the alphabet watching Sesame Street. By the time I got to go to school I was pretty excited. Too excited evidently. I had no sense of gender differences back then, but I don’t think mine was the only spirit broken in the name of gender-based expectations.
Several books have come out recently on the timely and controversial topic of women’s empowerment—Lean In, The Confidence Code, and Women Don’t Ask—to name a few, that explore the myriad obstacles women face in the fine art of speaking up for yourself. While the authors acknowledge key gender differences, they argue, it is up to us to change things—from the inside out. Why, after all these years, is this still so difficult?
Speak Up Sister identifies three interconnected solutions to the problem at hand, and looks to our slow, subtle (sometimes not so subtle) and steady fall into the arms of patriarchy for greater understanding around this predicament. Many would argue that patriarchy is no longer an issue, but I disagree.
First patriarchy is to culture like the ocean is to sea life. We know nothing else and it permeates everything we do. We’re not interested in taking on a battle of the sexes—we’re interested in looking at the ways patriarchal culture is limiting both men and women thorough narrowly defined gender roles and differences that don’t allow for greater gender equality and improved psychological health.
I’m starting here because while I agree that it is up to us to change the status quo, we need to recognize that it’s not a personal problem. It’s a social problem. Gender inequality can be seen throughout the world across a broad spectrum of issues—from the tragic (human trafficking, access to education, FGM, rape, domestic violence, economic inequality) to the annoying (being ignored, over looked, talked over, minimized, ogled, dismissed, objectified, etc.). While in some places it can be very dangerous to speak up, in other places it can be extremely frustrating not to.
Second, it is through the unconscious internalization of patriarchy that women can tend to disregard each other, become competitive, over-identify with the masculine, and dis-identify with the feminine. Traditional feminine traits are devalued in both men and women. So there can be safety in aligning with where we perceive power to be. In so doing, women continue to contribute to the subjugation of women. We’re more interested now in how women can create more evolutionary relationships with one another—not at the expense of men, but to their benefit as well.
To be sure, this is a difficult topic to discuss. To illustrate my point, let me share an example. I worked for a while in the area of domestic violence, supporting women who had left their abusers, some of whom had to go to trial. In such cases, victim advocates argued that it would be better to have men on the jury than women because women would unconsciously tend to dis-identify with the victim (this will never happen to me!) and side in favor of the defendant. This is just one example among many. Only through making this tendency conscious can we start to speak up for those who can’t yet speak up for themselves. And recognize our own important roles in empowering each other.
Third, women (like myself) need to un-learn the many key messages we received through our underlying patriarchal socialization, and re-learn new ways of showing up and speaking up in our lives. We may have never learned the skills we need, or we may feel we just need to sharpen them a bit more. Or we may be confused as to why we tend to feel confident or powerful in some situations and not in others. Often times, we simply need to know it is safe to do so—without losing our jobs or our lives. It may be true that we’ve come a long way baby. But it is equally true that we have a long way to go.
I don’t really remember what went down during those early elementary school years, but I do have countless memories of scenarios since then where I kept my mouth shut when I had something to say. (More blog posts to come!). As a true introvert, I long for the day when someone says to me now, she talks too much!
Julie Freeman is the co-founder of Speak Up Sister, whose goal is to catalyze people for the advancement of gender equality (PAGE) in service to greater harmony in the world.