This one is for my ladies.
The more time I spend on this planet coming up against the normal challenges of living and growing, the more my bones understand the power of the female collective. I don’t know why I’ve run from it for so long. I used to say that it was really hard for me to make friends with other women. That may or may not have been reality. What was true: the social conditioning to distrust the female gender. Most of us have an understanding of sexism on a large scale, institutionalized sexism. If you live in the US, there have been many long and relatively successful battles to take down institutionalized forms of sexism. Women can vote. Women can receive higher education. Women can drive. Women are legally allowed in public spaces without being in the company of a man. In other places around the world, these are not rights women enjoy. Internalized sexism is something that we are all very much living inside of no matter what part of the world we inhabit. Internalized sexism is subtle. It invades the ways we perceive reality. Internalized sexism is the way that we judge other women based on their appearances. It’s the way we say “oh you look really pretty today” when another woman is wearing makeup because we have been trained to see someone in makeup as beautiful. It is the way we judge women in positions of power or women who are acting with assertive authority as “a bitch”. It is the way we feel horrible about ourselves when another woman comes into our space and judges our character based on how clean or how atheistically pleasing it is. It is the way we are constantly comparing our bodies, our hair, our faces, and deciding that these are the qualities that make a woman “good”.
Perhaps you read that above list and agree with the person who is imposing judgements. That’s fine. Who hasn’t been that person before? Just do a quick check-in. Where did I learn those things? Why is it that when I enter a space with other women, I judge or criticize or compare? Welcome to the social conditioning handed down by generations of mothers, and sisters, and aunts, and grandmothers. This is the social conditioning of media, heavily controlled by the male gaze. This is the social conditioning of needing to belong. These are the subversive and subtle ways gender roles tear down the female collective.
It is perhaps challenging to see the ways that these whispers impact life on a daily basis for people who identify as women. Women are trained to be submissive, to put the needs of all others ahead of their own wellbeing, to give up the personhood and their identity when the are married. (More on why I don’t believe in marriage later, but this is one of the biggest reasons. You want to to give up my name and my identity so that some man can claim me as his property? They used to address married women as Mrs. John Smith. That is infuriating, belittling, and disgusting. Again, I digress.) So, if for pretty much all of time, all people have been trained to think the voices of women are less important than those of men, the voices of women are less trustworthy than that of men, doesn’t it make sense that women have to overcome those internal, ingrained, diminutive perceptions to connect with themselves and with each other?
Yes. Yes it does.
If I as a woman can barely trust myself, how could I ever find a way to trust the collective? This has been a part of my journey for much of my adult life. There are so many habitual ways we are trained to see women. The first step is to identity them. The second step is to break them down for the lies they are. The third step is to find healing and support in the women who are ready and willing to hold each of us up. There is a special kind of magic that fills the universe when women come together to hold and love and support one another. I have been lucky enough in these last few challenging months to be wrapped up in the love of some strong and trailblazing women. I want each and every woman to feel the same support I do when I am around the women who make up my sisterhood. So let’s start at the beginning.
Let’s break down some bullshit stereotypes that are perpetuated by social conditioning.
- Women are crazy - Sometimes when people say this one to me, I want to respond with “Oh you think this is crazy? Let me show you what actual crazy looks like.” Most of the time, other people say that because they don’t want to or do not have the capacity to listen to the rationale behind a strong emotional and visceral reaction. Empathy has long been a trait assigned to women. Gender roles dictate that emotions are for women and emotions make you weak. Emotions are thought to be irrational. Most emotional responses have a clear cause and effect. This idea of women being crazy is used to invalidate any truth coming from a woman’s mouth. If you’re crazy, I don't have to listen or believe anything you say. “Women are crazy” is a way to stifle the voices of women. (This one is known as “you were trying to play me a fool and I’ve caught you in the middle of your lie.)
- Women are manipulative and untrustworthy - Every person has the ability to be manipulative. But so often women in positions of power are seen as snakes, master manipulators, devious. It’s a tactic of keep power structures in place. If a group of dissenters troubles those in power, divide the dissenters. Turn them against each other. Break their solidarity. Diffuse the potential threat. Many of us have allowed this to be true. We turn against one another because we believe the toxic lies being fed to us by those who can’t imagine or don’t understand what equity really means. For as long as gender power dynamic have existed, women have had to play the game of gender roles in order to stay alive. The moment a woman or man steps outside of what society perceives as their place in the world, they are other-ed. Those in power try to stifle their voices and make them invisible or turn people against them. Women are taught to be submissive. Women are taught to take care of the needs of others before their own. Women are taught to stay in the shadows of men. Break these rules, attempt to fight back, or take ownership of identity/personhood and risk severe emotional, sometimes even physical, harm. Women who rise to positions of power and influence break the archaic gender roles narrative and in order to lessen their success are shamed or berated as not full women.
- Women are simultaneously hyper-sexual and too reserved - This was one of my biggest struggles when I was in the entertainment world. I hated that so much of the media that we consume was created, edited, manufactured to service the male gaze. How many successful women directors and writers do you know? Can you list their works like you can their male counterparts? In how many films, TV shows, ads, are women highlighted for their sexual appeal as if that is the only thing they have going for them? How many castings and breakdowns did I read that where a woman was submissive, hyper-sexualized, or scorned for her lack of sexuality? Women have been conditioned to compete for the male gaze. There are endless beauty, fashion, body altering ads that attempt to sell us on the fact that if we use their products, we will be attractive to the opposite sex and therefore valuable. And if we keep competent for the attention of the male gaze, as has been socially conditioned into us, then we will forever see women as competitors, in an extremely negative way. You are valuable as a human whether or not someone of the same or opposite sex deems you attractive. You are valuable because of the ideas in you head and the compassion in your heart. Not because of the size of clothing you wear or if your eyes are puffy from having not slept in days or if you spend hours picking out an outfit.
- Her success is a direct impediment to mine - One of the biggest lies ever told. The success of each and every woman is a building block for all women to finally achieve true equity. There is enough room at the table for all women to sit down, share their ideas, be heard, without desperately trying to silence the voice of another person. We need to retrain every single person in the ways of compassionate communication. Listen more often and more loudly than we speak. Allow every person at the table to have an equitable voice. Competition is great when it pushes us to be better, more creative, problem solvers. It will be our downfall if start attacking the very women who are making the success of all women possible.
This is what we are all fighting against when we look to create a strong sisterhood. We are fighting against generations, ages, of social conditioning that was used to divide women. Sisterhood is an act of protest against misogyny and patriarchy.
A lot of these ideas will make you uncomfortable. And if they do then great. This is the point. We are so comfortable inside of prescribed gender roles, inside of misogyny, inside of patriarchy, that until enough of us are uncomfortable and speak up about it, equity will be impossible.
So I challenge you, no matter where on the spectrum of gender you fall, to get inside of your own head. Men and women alike are subject to the same unconscious biases because of the messages we have been fed since birth about the place of women in this world. Question all the preconceptions you have. Challenge the judgements you walk into a space with. Ask yourself, do I really believe that this woman is “a bitch” based on behavioral patterns exhibited in the time we have spent together or am I buying into social conditioning and internal sexism that is surely at work inside of my mind?
For my women out there reading this, the more you challenge those habitual, conditioned responses to other women, the more you might start to see other women as your greatest allies. These last few months for me have been anything but easy. In every way, I have come up against personal and professional challenges that maybe, had they all happened at separate times, I could have handled all by myself as I usually do. When they hit me at the same time, I reached new levels of ungroundedness and sorrow I didn't know I could feel. I found the strength and the guidance I needed inside of the women I am so grateful to be in sisterhood with. Instead of being in competition against other women for attention or praise or promotions or success, other women can be your sounding boards, your support system when you are falling apart, your empathetic listeners, your best collaborators, your sisterhood. Let the sisterhood begin.