how to rock being a woman

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Barack Obama is TIME’s person of the year. Again. I like Obama, but in my ever-so-humble opinion TIME got this one wrong.

It should have been Malala.

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot three times in the head and neck for speaking out for the female right to an education.

As Joanne Bamberger pointed out in a recent op-ed:

…she has raised awareness about the issue of violence against girls and women all over the world — an epidemic that few seem focused on. At a time when Republicans in Congress are fighting about which women should be protected by the Violence Against Women Act here in the U.S., and in a year where many people have had their awareness raised about what women and girls around the world face, through the book and movie HALF THE SKY, TIME Magazine could have sent a powerful message that it’s time to stop turning away from all the other stories like Malala’s that we never hear about.

I scanned the TIME masthead to try and guess how many female editors had been involved in this evaluation of Obama as being of greater symbolic importance than a fourteen year old girl shot for challenging a brutally misogynist government. I didn’t see a lot of female names – certainly not enough to equal the tipping point percentage (33) of a group required to influence and shape consensus – but then again, I didn’t expect to.

“We silence ourselves,” said Katherine Lanpher at a seminar I went to last fall called WRITE TO CHANGE THE WORLD. It’s part of something called The Op-Ed Project, which asks

“Who narrates the world?….Most of the voices and ideas that we hear in the world come from an extremely narrow echo chamber – mostly western, white, privileged, and overwhelmingly male.”

A big part of this is because women don’t participate in these conversations with anywhere near the same frequency that men do.

“At the Washington Post, for example, a five-month tracking found that roughly 90% of op-ed submissions come from men – and about 88% of Post bylines are male. If you think about it, women are actually being fairly represented, in relationship to our participation/submission radio.”

The Project aims to change that, by training and encouraging women and other minority voices to get their perspectives out into the world. To take our part in the discourse; to claim, or reclaim, our power.

I keep thinking about the time some months ago when a twentysomething woman asked me to recommend some biographies about cool ladies who, as she put it, “could rock being a woman.”

Now and then I fantasize about writing an ebook called How To Rock Being A Woman. It’s not because I think I know the answers. It’s an interesting question to explore. What I intuited my younger friend was really asking isn’t so much how to be a woman but how to be a powerful woman – how to be a badass – when words like power, badass and femininity don’t match up so well in this culture.

If anything, to be perceived as powerful you have to distance yourself from blatant signs of femininity (wearing pink, getting teary, raving about the cuteness of kittens) which has been synonymous with soft, with weak, with a vague sense of defection or contamination (ask the men around you if they’d rather be reborn as girls and gauge their reactions). I still remember the time a famous actress sitting next to me at a dinner party criticized Hillary Clinton for being “power-hungry”. Implication being, for a woman to even want power is a sign that she shouldn’t be trusted with any.

Power concerns the ability not just to follow your own agenda but to influence others to do the same. Yet any woman who puts her agenda first and foremost has to deal with being called selfish (and maybe crazy), which cuts against the good-girl dictate to be selfless and self-sacrificing.

When femininity has been linked with power, it’s that of the siren, the femme fatale, the bad girl, the golddigger, out to exploit men and bring them to ruin: Eve urging Adam to bite into the apple, Pandora opening the box, Helen launching a thousand warships, the latest hot young thing bringing down another politician. As Jessica Valenti points out in her book THE PURITY MYTH, a woman’s sexuality and morality are conflated; a good girl is by definition sexually modest, since female sexuality itself is suspect and even vile. (“What’s the worst thing you can call a man or a woman?” Jessica points out. “A cunt.”)

The more sexually active a woman is perceived to be – outside the container of a monogamous relationship with a man – the guiltier she is, so much so that some cultures justify stoning her to death. Even the whiff of knowing sexuality makes a woman suspect; just ask any accomplished woman accused of sleeping her way to the top (or, much more likely, the middle) or passing off her husband’s supposed artistic genius as her own work.

Yet we live in a culture that still encourages girls – possibly now more than ever – to compete in the Hotness Olympics, that judges women and compels them to judge themselves by how desirable they are to men. Shutting down that sexuality means setting yourself up to be mocked as unnatural, freakish, castrating, manly. Sure, a woman can run for President, so long as she doesn’t mind being verbally crucified in the process. Not to mention, a powerful woman risks being an unlikeable woman who might do what women grow up being trained in a million small ways not to do: intimidate men. Which means that nobody will ever ask you out and you’ll die alone with your cats. Who probably don’t like you either.

So is it any wonder that our words and actions, as women, reflect ambivalent attitudes about power?

In her book POWERING UP, Anne Doyle talks about how young women trip up their chances for success by dressing too seductively in the workplace:

“[Older professional women] in particular, who struggled so mightily to emerge from the confining box that measured women first on their ‘physical assets’ are watching in stunned amazement at the way young women are boldly playing – some would say misplaying – the sex card. Regardless of how seductively lawyers, FBI agents and surgeons are dressing for work on America’s top-rated TV series, real-life women who aspire to leadership must be highly conscious about not sending mixed signals with their clothing.”

I can’t help wondering if, in the choice we’re given between being powerful (bad, unnatural, manly) and feminine (good, desirable, loved) we take ourselves out of this impossible equation by sabotaging ourselves: by disowning our power, giving it up in a myriad of small ways, convincing ourselves we never wanted it in the first place. We even disown the words power and ambition, regarding them as vaguely distasteful; we question the former and won’t admit to the latter; we turn our ambition inward, to the private worlds of our families and our bodies, trying to be the perfect mother, the perfect beauty. We get ambitious for our kids instead of ourselves.

But if power is also, as feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun once defined it, “the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter”, then we are disowning our place in that discourse. So the conversations going on around us – in the media, the boardrooms and office suites — conversations that define policy, shape our culture, and dictate what we should care about and how we should be (including the control we’re “allowed” over our own reproductive systems) – establishes an agenda that downgrades our concerns to less-than.

So maybe we should redefine what ‘power’ and ‘ambition’ mean to us. Maybe as women we have the right and even the moral obligation to cultivate our gifts and find that place where they best intersect with the world, the times, bringing us out of isolation and into community with each other.

Otherwise known as: a voice. And the ability to amplify it.

In her post about Malala, Joanne Bamberger writes:

“My seventh-grade daughter told me just this week that her class had been discussing Malala’s story and she was shocked that there are girls just like her around the world who fear brutal violence and even death as a result of wanting the education she takes for granted. She asked if we could talk about doing something to help other girls like Malala, including purchasing a bracelet she could wear to show her support in a visible way. Imagine if it had been Malala’s image on TIME Magazine for all our daughters to see and the change they could help make simply because a magazine chose to put her on the cover?”

Recognition is a powerful — and very limited — resource. What you put your attention on, grows.

Imagine if this culture focused on female courage, leadership and intellect as much it does female beauty. Imagine if girls looked at a magazine cover and saw Malala, instead of Paris Hilton or some famous movie actor’s latest Brazilian model girlfriend.

Imagine if hotness was recognized as simply one option among many of how to show up in the world, how to be.

Imagine if a teenage girl didn’t have to be brutally shot in order to “raise awareness” about global violence against girls and women.

Imagine if the gang-rape of a drunken young woman at a party was an unusual event that generated town outrage – directed at the rapists, and not the woman who ‘ruined’ their good names by calling them out for abuse and misogyny (and had the audacity to be partying among them in the first place).

Imagine if we stopped turning away from the stories of violence, if we as a culture reported them and listened and bore honest witness. If we didn’t blame the victim. If we believed her. Imagine if girls and boys were taught that female sexuality is healthy, beautiful, redemptive instead of exploitative, and should always – always – be respected (and not just when withheld). Imagine if a vibrant, brilliant, badass femininity was taken as a given, and no one ever had to refer to herself or another as a ‘strong woman’ ever again.

Imagine if women could predict the future, because women had the power to invent it.

Dec 22, 2012
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8 comments · Add Yours

Justine I would love to see that book list of kick ass women!

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Imagine being a man and having your eyes consistently opened to a perspective you knew was there but could never quite see or understand with the clarity you desired. Imagine being thankful for a writer who cares enough to deliver that perspective in a way that always illuminates and inspires—even though you might not be her main audience. (Glad I don’t have to imagine.)

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Justine, I hope you do write that book some day. I would love to add to what you have said, but I really think you said it all. Thank you so much for highlighting Malala’s story and connecting it to the bigger picture.

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I want that book too! It’s so difficult to find role models for females and even harder for me to find a female Muslim or Asian role model to relate to. They exist but to god them you have to go on a treasure hunt because they’re not readily available. These models should be easily accessiblete way Barack Obama or movie stars are.
Thank you for writing yet another insightful relatable thought-provoking post.

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“But if power is also, as feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun once defined it, “the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter” Yes, yes, yes. I have a taste in my mouth of what to say, but can’t yet put it into words. I love your suggestion to redefine. So many women I know are so power full, yet would not be called that if the word power is used to apply to our society’s image of what power is. We don’t even know how to talk about it to each other. How to empower each and use the right words to convey what our guts know to be true. It is a process I’m going to work on though. Thanks for bringing it to light.

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You write powerfully! Thank you for articulating this for us.

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Malala’s story hit me like no other. How could Obama be person of the year? Whatever good he has done, he could never match the sacrifice of this courageous young woman. The very second I heard about what happened to her I was furious and could do nothing but write about her. Blog post, spoken word piece, I even wrote about her on Facebook, which I never do. Most of the world has already forgotten about her, but I never will. I wish I could express more eloquently how much of a hero she is. My meager attempts don’t seem like enough:

http://wildhorsechase.com/2012/10/13/for-malala/

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I love this article so much. You beautifully articulate thoughts that have been recently rumbling around in my mind. I’ve gifted “Half the Sky” to all the women in my life, and bought extra copies to give away. I was outraged and heartbroken when Malala was shot, and so proud of her and her family. I am so grateful that she’s alive.

I’m determined to use my voice. I’m not even sure I know yet what I want to say, but I have a feeling I’ll figure it out in the saying of it.

Thank you for your writing.

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