The Basics: I am a cis-gender, straight, white, liberal woman, living in New York City. My life is not that hard; I have the luxury of getting to worry about my artistic goals and how to budget my patchwork salaries between Fresh Direct and Sephora. I like Pumpkin Spice Lattes and wear sunglasses indoors. I try to wear my privilege with awareness, but occasionally slip into ignorance.
It is likely that I won’t have health insurance come January and my student loans could buy themselves a nice house on Long Island, but it is also unlikely that I will ever be the victim of a hate crime, that I will ever be deported, that I will have to worry about who I am and who I love. I mean, my boyfriend is a Jew and I’m a lapsed Catholic…I guess that used to be a thing, but let’s be real. I have, however, been the victim of a sexual assault and of harassment. My lens, as this woman I am, is the only one I can write from.
My Truth: I grew up with a father so loving and so supportive that it was actually overwhelming sometimes; there are worse problems to have. My father never gave me any indication that I wouldn’t be extremely successful, or that I had any limitations on my dreams or goals. He plainly thought that I could do anything. Even simple things that I would ask permission for like eating an apple from the fridge, or more nuanced things like going to a concert with friends, my father would reply “you’re Janice Louise Gerlach. You can do anything you want.”
Now this sense of entitlement is potentially problematic, especially for a millennial, but the thing which has tempered it in my adult years is that I do not ever remember my mother telling me this. My mother was extraordinarily kind and loving to me as a child; she would tell me I was beautiful, special, intelligent, capable, but I don’t remember her ever telling me that I could do anything I wanted to do. And if she did, it was not at my father’s frequency…perhaps because she knew better.
She knew better, that being a woman would crack my teeth, that I would bite so many bullets. The street compliments which feel more like declarative ownership. Bite. The man who looks too long, smiles too broadly. Bite. All those little acts of dominance which are muddily confused with chivalry. Bite. She knew that I’d be asked twice as many questions to prove my intelligence and believed half as often. She knew that being “pretty” would be a scale I’d be measured against and an asset I’d be required to work, skillfully. Red lipstick would be considered a “power move” by Purewow and a “Pantsuit March” threatening by the Patriarchy.
My loving, progressive father actually warned me off attending that march prior to the election in NYC. “Too male – the men of this country won’t respond well to that” he had said and I had convulsed with righteous anger, proud that we women had claimed the pant as a symbol of gender equality. And then on the day, I had made other plans, maybe subconsciously worried about ruffling feathers. So demure. I wonder if my mother suspected that I’d be fighting my whole adult existence to be considered a reliable narrator of my own life, opinions, and emotions. That I would have to be careful when upsetting events upset me, careful not to seem too fragile or unstable, too abrasive or over-reactive.
Maybe she knew that even other women would shame me – demand I be stronger, fiercer, better – because we all know there’s scarcely enough power to go around, so if you’re not going to take it, get to the back of the line, sister. I wonder if she knows how hard I’ve worked to be able to stand in my own power, a power I’m often afraid I don’t understand and wouldn’t recognize. That I stand next to men, even friends, and a familiar pang of fear occasionally creeps up from nowhere, a shameful analysis that he is taller than me, his biceps stronger, his reach further.
I wonder if she was ever told to speak up, speak loudly, speak correctly, speak clearly – too much fragility or indecision insulting, weak. I wonder if her sentences have always required twice the conviction, if her opinions have always required twice the magnanimity. This election has been very personal for me because I had never known, but by my mother’s silence had suspected, that I could not in fact be anything I ever wanted to be. That the ultimate figures of authority were in fact, male, and that we were all kidding ourselves.
I have never felt less empowered in my life and have been flailing around my internet echo-chambers for guidance, reassurance, a release valve for this disillusion. Interestingly enough, it came in part from a lovely conversation with a little girl at my work the day after the results were announced. She was very sad that “Miss Hillary” had lost, but still believed that girls could be President.
With a wisdom so crystal and clear from one so little, she said with conviction I was envious of, that “people are just silly and didn’t like her, but they will like some other girl, and then we’ll have a girl in the White House. I don’t see why it can’t happen.” And then she added a “boys are dumb” just for good measure, an adage as true as ever, and in my head I heard my father say, “you can do whatever you want” and saw my mother’s sweet, sad smile in response.
So, it is in that vain that I needed to write this, as much to myself and my mother, as to whomever else may be reading. Let’s turn oppressive language around and claim it for ourselves, darlings. Be that pretty, fragile thing that can never be unnoticed; please wear that prettiness, those feminine weapons, with strength and look up. Be up, love. Move, forward, and leave those who doubt on the ground. Be sisterhood, be strength, be passage.
Let a short skirt betray nothing but strong legs, a red lip act as nothing but a shield for words to pierce through. Curl that hair with volume, a mane for a lioness, but never stop listening to enhance that brain underneath. Learn, think, move forward. Use your voice as a chain to break freer, like a battering, swinging signal.
Let’s educate ourselves, inform ourselves, and never let them put us down again. I say this with love and not shame: speak, sweets. Speak. Be. Together.