And Still We Must Persist
This month’s celebration is an opportunity to examine closely and honestly the ways in which our actions and inactions not only contribute to the delay in achieving equal opportunity for all but also either undermine or support a positive environment in which girls and women can feel safe and thrive at the top of their ability. We have the opportunity to accept our responsibility to help in hastening the day when women will be equal partners and equal beneficiaries in the great human experiment. We have a chance to commit ourselves to the intention of no longer being pawns in the sinister work of holding women back. It is a time to consider how each of us can empower girls and women to claim their rightful voices, to set the highest goals for themselves, to stand up for their rights, and to live out their lives on their own terms.
In truth, few of us have escaped a certain kind of anti-feminist or anti-womanist conditioning common today across the world. That is, the atavistic call of mankind back to ancient practices that defined women as weak, secondary, less important, less able. We know that for the longest period of time, false science was used to block access of women to certain opportunities and professions. One of the most memorable fake scientific assertions was the notion that women could not be given advanced education because the strain from rigorous intellectual activity would cause their reproductive organs to atrophy. So, for the good of the species, fake scientists argued, higher education should be withheld from women. Sounds rather similar to the fake science used to block educational access to African Americans and others.
And so, the practice of denigrating and withholding opportunities from women has been a part of human history since the earliest days of the species. Being aware of the ways in which we have, over centuries, been conditioned to endure this kind of treatment, it is rather surprising that we are still at the dawn of the greatest advances in women’s rights. But it really is merely the dawn. Much remains to be done before women will feel the full freedom and enjoy the security that is their God-given right.
From the time of courtesans who competed for the attention of powerful men as a means to survive to the present day, there has been a practice of encouraging girls and women to refine their cunning as a way of surviving. Part of that cunning was exercised against other women. This practice of competing with other women instead of focusing on overthrowing practices of discrimination has led to many unfortunate consequences. This is a good moment to reflect on the ways in which unjust actions of women against other women may result in hardening unjustified biases that exist against all women.
For many years as I advanced, it was common to hear that women dreaded having women supervisors. Why? Because, it was asserted, women were harder on other women than men who oversaw their work. Was that actually the case? Perhaps not to the extent so many alleged but it is undeniable that many women thought that to advance they had to demonstrate that they could be indifferent to the plight of other women. Some, to be honest, went further than simply being indifferent; they heaped upon their sisters burdensome tasks, petty attacks, and even greater discriminatory practices.
Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, ran afoul of public opinion when she became the poster child for insensitivity to other women. While she worked from home toward the end of her pregnancy and built a mother’s room next to her office suite when she returned to work, she implemented a policy converting all remote-working employees to in-office roles. This policy change would have made working and pregnant mothers accustomed to working from home change their life style in a way that she, as a highly compensated CEO, did not have to. The uproar resulted in the company initiating more family friendly policies. Some dismissed the disagreement between Meyer and women in the company as a “catfight.”
As women’s roles and stature have grown throughout history, the term “catfight” entered the lexicon to specifically disparage disagreements among women. The term “cat” with regard to women was used as early as the mid 1800’s. A woman who was spiteful, backbiting and malicious came to become identified with a snarling, hissing cat. Women who engaged in such behavior toward other women took on an increasingly prominent and vivid public representation (caricature) and were depicted in physical fights with other women. Individuals, mostly men, delighted in and were aroused by the titillating image of women fighting. The catfight genre entered into the mainstream some time after World War II and became increasing fodder for movies and television in the 1970’s and 80’s. Of course, we know that the staging of catfights is particularly evident today in television shows such as the Bachelor, The Real Housewives and the Maury Show. Frequently, the encouragement of catfights aims to divide women along lines of class and race in the service of the patriarchal notion that women should remain divided in their identities and thus kept in an inferior position in society.
The recent Me Too movement as well as the coalitions being built across race, class and gender in support of women’s safety and rights gives us much room for hope. But it is never enough to merely hope or to cheer activists on from the sidelines. We must take the steps necessary to assure ourselves that we are not part of the problem:
-by examining our own actions and motivations; to what extent are we engaged in or facilitating the undermining of other women?
-what affirmative steps are we taking to support, mentor, and encourage rather than assail, castigate, and demean?
– how are we utilizing our voices to speak up for women who do not have the same level of safety and autonomy to protest unfair treatment?
-are we voting for candidates whose policies and beliefs bar women from equal rights and equal protection?
Persistence in upholding our commitment to these actions will, in the end, have an effect. Our children will see a different world only if we are careful to stop internecine fights that divide rather than empower in our struggle for equality.
Of all the imperatives that the struggle for women’s equality faces, none is as pernicious as the belief by so many women that they are undeserving. This idea that plants itself in women’s and girls’ psyches as a way of suppressing their pride and independence, metastasizes without the life affirming and positive messages that counteract such malign messages. A strong and empowering education can overturn such notions. Loving family and friends can uplift women who are beleaguered by violence and discrimination. Public policy that understands, enacts remedies and acts on egregious and oppressive actions against women can lead to improved safety for vulnerable women who do not have the strength on their own to abandon abusive relationships. But women, most of all, can enable the self-confidence, pride and agency of other women. Each of us should commit to our role in doing that for our mothers, our sisters, our daughters.
In this moment when women’s voices are being heard in a new way, when women are growing in power and leadership, we have the best chance in history to make change for women stick. We can do that by ridding ourselves of the notion of limitations. The limitation of thinking small. The limitation of “That’s too hard for me.” The limitation of assuming personae alien to who we are. The limitation of being invisible and speaking softly. The limitation of consigning ourselves to accept imposed standards of beauty and being that do not apply to us. It is a moment for truth and truth telling.
Those who walk through life with the confidence that they matter have solved for the brainwashing that comes with being “the other”. We are not born with that confidence; we earn it every day that we confront unfairness. Every day that we challenge ourselves to become more self- aware. Every day that we stand up not only for ourselves but for others unjustly stereo-typed. Every day that we accept responsibility for supporting women who share our fate. For the bonds among us must be stronger than the differences and disagreements that divide us. Those bonds, if strengthened, will lead to a better world for all of us. And so, let us agree that we will persist as one until “victory is won.”
Ruth J. Simmons
March 6, 2018