My Dream for Women and Girls Everywhere
THIS IS EXCERPTED FROM MY BLOG "The Writing Life" WHERE I WROTE ABOUT MY DREAMS FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS EVERYWHERE A FEW MONTHS AGO. MY DREAMS HAVE NOT CHANGED AND, WHILE THIS IS A LONG POST, I ENCOURAGE YOU TO READ IT AND OFFER YOUR THOUGHTS.
Dear Michele Bachelet,
At the recent breakfast fundraiser for the Women's Funding Alliance, each attendee had two 3x3 slips of paper sitting at his or her table setting. At the top read: My dream for women and girls is...
The idea was that everyone would complete this statement on one of the cards and slip it into the envelope at the table to be forwarded to the organizations' staff. The other card was for us to take home, complete, and share with the other people in our lives; co-workers, friends, family, etc. An evangelistic outreach, a tangible wish that would cause ripple effects in the community and get people started talking about how to realize these dreams.
My dream for women and girls is
That they feel safe,
That they feel connected,
That they feel challenged,
That they feel as though they contribute,
and that they have choices.
Each of these concepts is so vast that I have decided to begin with the first one and write about my thoughts until I've unearthed every shiny nugget I can. Subsequent posts will explore each of the remaining issues. I hope you stick with me as I explore these issues.
Safety is so basic. Such a central spoke around which all of our other emotions and actions revolve. By safety I mean emotional and physical safety - being free from harm, both inflicted by ourselves and others. Although, it is my opinion that generally we don't seek to cause harm to ourselves unless we've been taught that by others.
Safety is the umbrella under which we fly. It is the basic assumption that allows us to go forth into the world and explore our limitations. If a child knows that they can roam freely within certain boundaries and someone will be looking out for them, they will seek with abandon. If a woman knows with certainty that she can speak her own truth without being ridiculed or physically attacked for it, she will learn to be her own best advocate. We have all seen dogs who have suffered abuse - they shy away from even gentle touch because they have learned that when someone reaches out to them it likely means pain. Women and girls who have been mocked or whose opinions are discarded, whose emotions are labeled as 'silly' or 'ridiculous' or 'overblown' stop thinking for themselves. Women and girls who are physically punished simply for existing on the face of the planet with a vagina have no recourse. We cannot change who we are, so we sink into the background.
I want a world where little girls grow up assuming that they will be watched out for, cherished, protected. One in six American women (as compared to one in 33 men) will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lives.* Add to this that less than half of all sexual assaults are reported to police, and you're looking at more like one in three women/girls sexually abused. In my neighborhood there are fifteen children. Eleven of them are girls. That means that in my neighborhood alone, at least three of these girls will be raped, molested, or otherwise sexually assaulted in their lives. I am not okay with that.
Nor am I okay with the fact that more than 25% of American women and girls have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lives. There are hotlines, crisis shelters, scores of resources available to victims, books written on the subject, self-defense classes, attorneys whose entire job it is to specialize in this area of the law. I want a world where women are not victimized. By anyone.
I want a world where women and girls feel safe to express themselves and their opinions without worrying about harm coming to them. I want a world where women and girls can go out with their friends at night without worrying about being assaulted. I want a world where we recognize the gifts that women and girls have to provide us with and we protect their voices and their bodies and allow them a safe place to explore their world and share their ideas with all of us.
I don't think that is too much to ask.
“Man is a special being, and if left to himself, in an isolated condition, would be one of the weakest creatures; but associated with his kind, he works wonders.” Daniel Webster
The second part of my dream is that women and girls feel connected. There is nothing so challenging, supportive, inspiring, comfortable, or exciting as a community. Ideally, each of us has several overlapping communities in which we can move as members. We have co-workers or schoolmates, family ties, groups of like-minded people who share our interests in hobbies or passions, and each of these people supports and challenges us in different ways.
So often, young girls who see themselves as 'different' are afraid to find community. They are embarrassed or ashamed or simply unsure of themselves and end up isolating themselves to the point where they cannot share their gifts or their difficulties. For many of these girls, this translates into their adult lives and they move through their days without any touchstone of reality except their own, which is often skewed.
In many cases, this makes these women and girls easier to control and manipulate and, whether by conscious effort or not, they are preyed upon by all kinds of people. In the wild, it is the lion pack that picks off the zebra who separates from its group. It is the same with humans.
I would like to see a world where girls are taught that their communities are rich with opportunity for them and encouraged to find their own place in them. I want to see them connect with each other instead of working to alienate those girls who are different from them. It is developmentally normal to want to conform in the teen years, but we need to learn to respect those who don't. I want us as a society to recognize our strength in connection to each other, in learning from each other and sharing ideas without anger or ownership. I want girls and women to feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves and use the leverage of these groups to push themselves farther than they thought possible. Often all it takes is one interested person, one mentor, one like-minded party to spark the connection. And the impact that this simple act can have on the self-worth of a young girl or lonely woman is monumental. Validation is a powerful tool and it is through connection and community that we can nurture each other and, in turn, ourselves.
"Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they are supposed to help you discover who you are."
Bernice Johnson Reagon
None of these pieces of my dream for women and girls can exist in a vacuum and while many of us can and do challenge ourselves regularly, it is so important that we experience inspiration and encouragement from others as well. Whether it is a boss or a mentor, a parent or a teacher, or simply a throw-down from a friend or adversary, often those obstacles placed in our way by others are more likely to get us moving than any we could make for ourselves.
When I think of times I was challenged I have a difficult time containing the list. It appears in my head as one of those trick cans of peanuts you can buy at novelty stores and as soon as I pry off the lid colorful snakes come erupting out in all directions. I attempted to categorize them and quickly realized that it didn't matter.
Giving someone a difficult task to complete or asking a question that prompts them to really think deeply and introspectively is truly a gift. Not only does it give them the opportunity to test their skills, but it sends the message that you believe they are capable of completing the task. My daughter whines and drags her feet and avoids doing the homework that is the most challenging for her, but when she finally resigns herself to doing it and makes her way, however arduously, through the process, she is always rewarded with pride in her own efforts and work ethic when she is finished.
If we live in a world where we marginalize certain groups of people by not asking them to do things that require creativity and focus, hard work and critical thinking, we are doing them a disservice. So often we would rather be in a position of influence and power where we simply give others orders or tell them what we think instead of asking them to do the messy work of finding answers and coming to conclusions. For so many years in this country we believed that women were not capable, physically or mentally, of doing many of the things men could and we didn't allow them to test that theory. They were not challenged because it was automatically assumed that they couldn't rise to the task.
My father wanted sons. He got one, but then I came along. And for the first few years of my childhood, I was compliant with my parents' plan that Peter play soccer and I dance ballet. Gradually it dawned on me that because Dad coached my brother's soccer team, my brother got to spend a heck of a lot more time with him than I did. Every Saturday we would pack a cooler and a blanket and head out to watch Peter run around on the field with his team as Dad stood on the sidelines hollering instructions to them. I wanted to do that, too! I didn't want to be sitting on this damp blanket eating orange slices and watching them chase each other around. Put ME in, coach!
I lobbied. I fought. I pled. I batted my eyelashes. I drove my father nuts. Finally he decided that the only way to shut me up was to put me on the team. That Saturday I got my very own black-and-white striped polyester jersey, put on some of my brother's old cleats, and Dad sat me in the goal. I was the keeper. This was the ace up his sleeve. I was to be the goalie in a game of soccer between two teams made up of boys three years older than I was. He figured I'd run screaming off the field before the first quarter was over.
I think I probably gave up ten goals that game and I know Dad was pissed. He did not like to lose. Neither did I. I was bruised and sore, grass stained from cheeks to ankles, and more tired than I had ever been, but you couldn't have wiped the grin off of my face for anything. I had just proven to myself, if nobody else, that I could rise to the challenge and at the age of eight, that lesson stuck with me for a good long time.
Let's do all of the women and girls we know a huge favor and put them in situations where they are asked to do just a little bit more than they think they can. Let's be sure to let them know that we have confidence in them as they embark on this lifelong journey to discover just who they are and how amazing they can be.
One of the most insidious by-products of being valued less than others is the feeling that you have nothing to offer. There is nothing so disheartening as the notion that you are either completely disposable or that your efforts are in vain and the fruits of your labor unnecessary.
In the early twentieth century, as the economy in America began turning from a subsistence model to a production model, women became increasingly disenfranchised. In the subsistence model, everything they contributed to the household, from farming to childrearing to producing clothing and food for the family was seen as vitally important to the family unit as a whole - not more or less valuable than any other member of the family. As men began to leave the household to seek paid work in factories and towns, women were left with more of the household chores but were valued less simply because it was money that made the world revolve and they were not paid for their efforts.
As my children grew from toddlerhood into true childhood they began to ask for ways to contribute. Even before then, they loved to play with toy versions of my vacuum cleaner and run the dustcloth over the coffee table and bookshelves. Today, they take pride (and, yes, sometimes complain mightily) in taking out the garbage, feeding the dog, and setting the table for dinner. Last Saturday night they shooed Bubba and I out of the kitchen, prepared a menu with beverage choices, cooked a pot of pasta and made a fruit salad and a green salad and served us dinner at a table lit with candles. The idea that they were grown up enough to produce an entire meal for us tickled them for days and Lola still presses me to tell friends and family about their endeavor.
Today seems a particularly salient day to be making the point about how important everyone's contributions are, given that tomorrow is Election Day in the US. There are thousands of individuals who will choose not to throw their ballot into the mix simply because they don't have any faith that it will make a difference one way or the other. The simple idea that one's opinion doesn't count removes most of the motive for sharing it. Why the heck should I vote if the outcome is already decided? Why should I raise my voice and articulate my thoughts if nobody is listening?
It is up to us to create a space where everyone can add their talents to the pot. Everyone must feel as though they have something to offer in order to feel empowered and valued. We need to create an 'economy' where we honor contributions of thought, emotion, and action that don't necessarily result in monetary compensation. It is useless to be part of a community if your voice doesn't count as much as everyone else's. The feeling of pride and self-worth that comes from knowing you have added some value - even if it was to offer food for thought - goes a long way toward encouraging individuals to continue contributing. Enough practice with this and the sky is the limit.
My final wish for women and girls everywhere is that they have choices. That they be presented with options and given the freedom to exercise their will. Certainly this doesn't mean that young girls ought to be able to make difficult or momentous decisions beyond their developmental capabilities, but it does mean that we need to assess their abilities closely, listen to them when they talk to us about their desires and beliefs, and take those into consideration when we help them choose their path.
When we are given options, we are given trust and responsibility. Inherently, we are being told that we are valued as independent or semi-independent entities who can be relied upon to weigh variables and decide accordingly.
When Bubba and I began giving our daughters an allowance it was initially very difficult for me to let them spend it. Their weekly spending money actually only comes out to one third of their allowance, given that we put one third into a savings account and the other third into a charity account which they are free to donate at their own discretion. Lola uses her money every Thanksgiving to "buy" turkey dinners from the Union Gospel Mission for homeless people in our area and Eve generally sends her money to a local animal shelter. Their savings accounts are to be used for big-ticket items that are strictly "wants" versus "needs" and must be pre-approved by Bubba and me, but their spend money is fairly unfettered.
I don't know whether it is because Lola is the younger child and used to hand-me-downs, or if it is just her personality, but she tends to forget about her allowance within 40 seconds of getting it. Eve, on the other hand, mentally spends hers half a million times before the cash ever hits her hot little hand. I'm not sure "burning a hole in her pocket" is accurate because I don't think the money ever makes it that far.
Over the years I have had to learn to bite my tongue when Eve tells me about the new song she's going to download or the cheap notebook she wants to buy. When she used to get the Scholastic Book Order form from her classroom, she would tuck it under her arm, head up to her room, and sit in the beanbag circling items and counting on her fingers for an hour. More than once she has blown her stash on books that take her less than 15 minutes to read and come sobbing to me that she wasted her money.
But therein lies the rub, doesn't it? Along with choices come consequences and unless we have choices, we can't learn how to make more difficult ones. Without suffering the sometimes negative outcomes of our rash decisions we would continue to make poor choices over and over again. Learning can't happen without mistakes. Mistakes can't happen without action. If we aren't trusted to take action, we can't learn or grow.
My wish for women and girls everywhere is that they be given the chance to test themselves. I want them to be nurtured and cared for and have a safe place in which to make mistakes, but that won't mean anything unless they are given choices to make. Too often, as people in power, whether benevolent and loving or dictatorial and fearful, we trick ourselves into believing that we know best. All too often, I've discovered that I can be surprised when I stop and take the time to listen to others' perspectives. There are things which I couldn't possibly have known or circumstances I was unaware of or deeply held beliefs I wouldn't haven taken into account that may drastically change my point of view. From time to time we all make choices we wish we wouldn't have, but being given the freedom to choose is worth the possibility of screwing up. Just ask someone who doesn't have that freedom.
As the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women officially begins its work this month, World Pulse is asking women worldwide: What is YOUR vision and recommendation for UN Women? We invite you to raise your voice by writing a letter to UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet outlining your recommendation for how this new UN agency can truly affect change on the ground to promote gender equality and uphold the rights and needs of women both on a local and global scale.
Learn more: http://www.worldpulse.com/pulsewire/programs/international-violence-agai...