Ever since I was four years old, I remember feeling powerless. I didn’t know it by name then, but looking back, powerlessness is what drove me every night, after I slid under my Raggedy Ann sheets and comforter, to wish and pray that when I woke up, I’d wake up a boy. Not because I felt like a boy inside, but because boys got to have what I couldn’t. Hair that didn’t have to be detangled or combed or braided. Action figures instead of dolls. Race cars with race tracks and pants to play in—always pants. In my four-year-old mind, boys had everything. Freedom. Choices. Power. Pants. But every morning like clockwork, the sun rose, I looked down, and I was denied yet again by The Man Upstairs. I was still Team Pink. I was still a girl.
I wore my disappointment more stoically than my dresses, because somehow I knew this was not a conversation to be had with either parent, or even my big sister (who was obsessed with boys in the acceptable way—with crushes and smiles and day dates to ice skating shows). I didn’t know how to voice the palpable inequity I was absorbing from our society, my culture, the media. That boys were considered the stronger, smarter, faster sex, who should be deferred to and in control. What I couldn’t find words for, but knew from the tips of my bobble ball hair ties to the soles of my patent leather Mary Janes, was that the way girls were devalued wasn’t fair, square or remotely close to justified.
Girls were just as smart and fast and valuable as boys—and once in a while, in between ads for EZ bake ovens and hungry toy babies and household products that would save me from a lifetime of dishpan hands, my TV echoed parts of this truth to me. I saw the “Bionic Woman” and “Wonder Woman” and Billie Jean King with the big glasses and small tennis racket beat the old, blustering Bobby guy in “The Battle of the Sexes.” And then there was Nadia from Romania who proved her ability at the Montreal Olympics, though her dainty and pretty were remarked upon more often than her athleticism and artistry. Even after her repeated displays of superlativeness, she stood there, half-smiling, as they gave most of the credit to her male coach. They might not have been black like me but they were girls like me, girls who liked to rip and run and use their bodies and brains for something other than to attract boys.
In my home, the messages were similarly mixed. My mom had a job just like my dad did. And as a teacher, when I went to work with her, I got to see a woman in charge. Of the space, the lessons, the students. I saw her leadership there, as well as in the house. Mom had as much authority as Dad (if not more) and my dad did the cooking. And since both parents were college graduates and educators, my sister and I were expected to do well in school, go to college and have a career.
Mom even gave my sister and me “School Years” memory books so we could track our progress from Kindergarten through High School. Who our friends and teachers were, our activities, awards, and what we wanted to be when we grew up. This aid to success ended up being one of the most painful reminders of the limited expectations the world had for me. The occupations listed for “Boys”? Policeman, Fireman, Astronaut, Soldier, Cowboy, Baseball Player. But for “Girls”? Mother, Nurse, School Teacher, Airline Hostess, Model, Secretary. In that order.
There was a “fill in the blank” space, so every year from Kinder on I filled it in with “Doctor.” By third grade, someone with a pink marker lined through my “Doctor” and checked “Secretary” instead. I rebelled with my blue marker and rubbed over the pink check next to “Secretary.” I didn’t remember this until I recently found the book, but it spoke volumes that someone in my life thought I was fantasizing if I wanted to be a doctor. In 1976. The same year of the U.S. Bicentennial, 200 years after independence from tyranny was declared and where colonists believed their liberty was worth their death. I, too, was fighting for liberty. My liberty. I wanted Batman, not Barbie, and I was tired of feeling wrong about it.
Years pass, and compliments about my cuteness are directed to me instead of my parents. I didn’t do anything to be cute—DNA did that—so this always feels weird. My mum tells me to not question or argue but just say “thank you.” Dutifully, I do. But being valued solely this way never sits right with me. I wanted “boy-style” compliments, about how clever or strong or skilled at whatever I was—praise that felt earned. I did receive some of this from the adults in my life, right alongside advice like, “Always have bus money so you don’t have to depend on boys for rides,” or, “No one buys the cow if the milk is free,” or, “It’s just as easy to marry a rich man as it is a poor one.”
When my parents separate and divorce, this family fracture ironically gets me more of what I want. Guilt presents include video games and model cars and Star Wars toys. And pants—jeans and corduroys! My mom says when she was younger, she was a tomboy too. She enrolls my sister (and eventually me) in softball, and buys me books about skateboarding but stops short of the skateboard—she thinks I will fall and break my head. If I were a boy, I think, she’d let me break my head. I try to build my own with a plank of wood and wheels from Mom’s ancient metal roller skates. It travels six inches, I fall off and it falls apart. When my dad gets a housekeeper for his new townhouse, she cleans my room and asks him how old his son is. Suddenly Dad won’t buy me any more model cars.
As puberty dawns, boys are still getting the better deal. Most of them grow into muscles and height and undeniable physical dominance. But should this give them more rights? Should more strength automatically equal more power? Boys (and several girls) seem to think so and this thinking is validated at every turn. In government, in movies, in the workplace, in classrooms. They can pick up girls at random and the girls squeal and laugh and cajole the boys to put them down instead of throwing them into the ocean/pool/sofa cushions. All in good fun, right? Not at all a display or reminder of dominance, right? Boys get to act on crushes and initiate kisses and ask for dates without being considered “fast” or “sluts” or “whores.” They also get no periods, no pregnancies, no abortions.
I am handed deodorant, pads and Judy Blume books as my teenage girl starter kit. I dislike the changes and growing pains and expectations of “blossoming into a young woman.” I focus on grades instead of gregariousness—studying instead of a social life. My big sister Lesa, a natural at young womanhood, follows in our grandmother and mother’s kick steps and becomes a varsity cheerleader. I scoff and diminish her choice by saying I’d rather be who people cheer for. Because some girls make fun of other girls for being too “girly.” I do not see the insidious danger of this for decades.
By 1986 I am a senior in high school, and being in the “smart girl” category has been a boon for me. I am not offered a cent for a cute outfit or a good hair day, but Dad pays good money for As and Bs. I also get to wear pants and sneakers and no make up everyday and no one cares. Mom and Lesa are officially the “pretty girls” with pretty power and that is alright by me. I have no jealousy or longing for “pretty” status— though most girls aspire to this, it seems more like a curse than a gift to me. Yes, my mother and sister get preferential treatment and constant compliments, which they enjoy. But I also see them experience the flip side. Men and boys would stalk them both. Put their hands on them without permission. Recklessly follow after them in traffic. This was weekly if not daily for them; for me it was rarely, but it should have been never. It should always be never. But as 99 percent of girls and women will tell you, it’s never never. I am approached by a pimp on a bus who tells me I look sad and he can take care of me. I exit at the next stop and walk the extra mile home to escape him. I am told to smile more times than I am asked for my opinion. One afternoon I’m followed by a man who screams I should be walking behind him and don’t know my place. I run into a 7-11 and stay huddled near the Ms. Pacman machine until he disappears. Oh hell no. Screw being treated like prey. Screw pretty.
Instead I want to be strong and quick. And thanks to Title IX, I can put my body in service to sports—softball, basketball, cross country. I do them all and excel at none. I am average in every way, but the existence of these girls’ teams does not live or die by any one of us having to prove exceptional ability. We have the freedom to suck and stay funded, just like the boys’ teams. This makes me wonder if society needs a version of Title IX not just for the sports field, but for every field. Shouldn’t we demand and legislate programs that provide equal opportunity for both sexes everywhere? So then over time, like with sports, this parity would become the norm? Why not try this out in politics, I think—like maybe in the Senate? After all, there are 100 senators, two from each state, so why not make them 50:50, one male and one female? Wouldn’t that be true equal representation? But I don’t know what to do with these notions, so I keep them to myself. What kind of power do I have to make them happen, anyway? I don’t my want my “smart girl” rep to become a “naive, silly, pie-in-the-sky girl” rep.
High school also offers me a lifelong mentor in the unlikely form of tough-as-nails, no nonsense, AP U.S. history teacher Mr. Safier. He values effort, intelligence and discipline above gender, race, class… or anything else, really. Finally I am celebrated for what I believe counts. Safier is more than safe harbor. He is an equalizer. After repeatedly killing it in his classes, one boy writes in my senior yearbook he’s lived in academic fear of me for almost two years. I love this. Now I have proof. Brains are my field-levelling power. And they are what get me into a top-notch university.
At first, college feels different than high school—better—like there is gender parity. Like “smart” is all that matters. Smart whomevers travel to Boston from wherever to spend four focused years getting smarter. But then the parties start. The blue lights, safety phones and shuttle bus stops are pointed out. Boys casually notice, girls mark their maps. We have political debates. Ideological tangles. We openly protest to take back the night. I make male and female friends of every race and religion and orientation and it all feels equitable and the way the real world should be. I don’t shave my legs all winter. I march with the Black Student Union to the freshman quad to demand I don’t remember what from the Dean. One Christmas I fly home sporting fake Malcolm X glasses, leather Africa medallions and a lot of opinions. My dad picks me up at the airport and later asks everyone in the family but me if I’m a lesbian. Dressed like that, politicized like that, with my “tomboy” history—what else could I be?
What my father does ask me about is what I want to do after college. Whatever it is, I’m told, I should want my boss’ job. That’s where the power is. If you don’t want your boss’ job, you have the wrong job. So if I still want to be a doctor, become Chief of Surgery. If I want to teach, become Teacher of the Year. I do journalism for fun at college because there’s no television station, so I tell him maybe I want to write. Then, Dad says, become the publisher. He sends me articles on mastery and how to achieve it. The bar is set high—as high for me as for the boy he never had, I think, so I accept his challenge. I try to jump that high. Into top positions. Into leadership. Into power.
Unlike Dad though, I think public sector work is for the birds, even when in the “power position.” Dad had achieved that – he rose from community college counsellor to assistant Dean, Dean (the youngest dean in California ever at the time), Vice President, President, then Chancellor of an entire district. He was the top dog, the leader. But then sometimes he would say if he were in the private sector, he would be a CEO making ten times as much money. But it just so happened his heart was in education, and he chose it over what could have been real wealth. Another mixed message I struggled to process. Go for heart or for money or for power? And do they have to be separate?
My power equation, I came to realize, extended beyond my father’s. Mine was leadership, plus affinity, plus money. And, luckily, I told myself, my heart was in writing—television to be specific—a very lucrative field. (Journalism, I’d discovered, paid even less than teaching). So I told him I wanted to follow the Hollywood path. I wanted to come back to California. Come back home.
After working a few years in TV as an assistant, I get the chance to work as a junior executive at a major American film studio. I jump at it. I wear slacks and khakis and neckties and Doc Martens to work, until I see what’s really up and take all aspects of getting ahead in corporate entertainment seriously. It means conformity. The successful female executives I meet are tough in their dealings, but the top ones look very feminine. Hair done. Make up on. Designer everything. I start seeing a hairdresser regularly and buy real make-up: mascara, blush, eyeliner, lipstick, powder, even concealer (What am I concealing, I wonder? The absence of a penis?). I start buying clothes and shoes from boutiques instead of swap meets. I begin to dress the part, so much so when I show up in jeans on my day off, several co-workers are shocked. This reaction blows my mind—in my real life, it’s the other way around. Who am I becoming?
My paychecks and promotions answer that for me. I am becoming successful. And thus, I think, more powerful. I am competitive and assertive, and that feels okay, but I don’t like aggressive—and the prevailing corporate culture is aggressive. Regardless, I hear that my male colleagues respect me because I have “balls of steel.” What I have, what I know they are referring to, are moral boundaries I won’t waver from no matter the consequences. But why does this basic home training have to be interpreted as an “in your face” positive male quality? The spin has me spun. I am saved by mentoring from senior executives Susan and Elizabeth. They are not vipers or vixens or b-words or backstabbers or any other-female-in-the-workplace cliché. They protect and guide me through the boys club and I never forget that women lifting each other up is how to pave the way and pay it forward. But even with this safety net, I know I don’t want their jobs or their boss’ job. I am scared to admit what I really want. I don’t want to fail my father. I have a really good job in the industry I love. So I stay. Until my dad dies.
It’s 1996 and he’s months gone and I am drinking a lot. Although I’ve lost my anchor and my guiding force, I am somehow free in a way I didn’t know I needed to be. I am still Tommy’s daughter but I no longer have Tommy to answer to. I begin to tell myself what I want, for real. I want to write. Television. Where I will want my boss’ job. I regain my bearings and quit my good corporate gig. I take a chance on me. I spend time jogging, taking classes, eating right. I stop drinking a lot. I live off my savings and write. I work hard, former mentor Elizabeth helps me get my agent Tracey, and get work writing for TV. I think, ah, yes, this is what “girl power” is all about. I wear skirts and make-up when I want to, because I no longer feel I have to. I am finally in the rooms I want to be in. Rooms where outrageous jokes (mainly by men) pervade the creative culture. A lot are funny. Many are not. The “nots” are often cheap shots at women or gay men. When this happens I speak up when I can, but I do it in a “funny” way. I have to keep good will… and my dream job. Sometimes I protest with silence. But silence and stone-faced looks aren’t enough. They never are, unless you are the leader and you have the power. So I am still conforming. I am still fitting in.
The millennium brings futuristic, technological promise, along with the crushing sea change of 9/11, where even able-bodied, straight white men in America glean what it’s like to feel perpetually unsafe. Airports are militarized, the homeland is secured and several freedoms to privacy are stripped. Backlash against “others” is renewed and revitalized. Mainstream America learns more about the Muslim world than ever before. Muslims are excoriated for their subjugation of women, for making them cover up from head to toe and for denying them education and equal rights. How backwards. How horrible. How hypocritical.
Friends, colleagues and peers, meanwhile, are engaging in all kinds of marriage and baby having. I am in my 30s and single and tiring of dates and relationships where I’m not meeting someone’s “ideal woman” criteria and vice versa. I hear I am “too strong” or “make too many statements” or “wear the pants.” When I beat one boyfriend at every sports arcade game in front of his colleagues at his office party, he is not proud of me. He is sullen. Eventually he moves away and we break up. The next time I like a guy and we play a computer game called “You Don’t Know Jack,” I throw it so he will win. I still regret I did that even more than that one time I faked an orgasm.
Then there’s the guy I treat so badly because I’m rebounding, tired of catering, of being girlfriend-y and well thought of. I say rude things and hang up on him whenever I feel like it. This makes me even more attractive to him and I am repulsed. What do men even want from women? And what do I want from men? There is nothing feminist or empowering to me in emotional domination. Or any kind, really. I hate that I even tried it on. I decide to stop dating for six months, get myself together, lose both the good girl and the bad girl acts and try to be happy just being me. I listen to a lot of Stevie and Aretha and Prince and Sade. If I never have a husband or a family, I realize, I will be just fine. I can support myself, and define myself outside of gender, societal, class, race or familial expectations. I will have my life, my way, finally.
I tell this to my mother, who has been encouraging and supportive over the years as I’ve made my life/man/career changes. But the “no marriage, no kids” prospect? When I say I’m okay living an atypical life, she pauses, then says, “Do you mean ‘alternative’?” She thinks I’m telling her I’m gay, not that I’m fine just being me. Wow. Why is my choice not viewed as an acceptable one for a woman, even among other women? Mom tells me she can’t be settled until I’m settled. When I get home I scribble this exchange down, knowing I will write about it somehow, someday. This is what well-meaning mothers do to daughters. What society does to women “of a certain age.” We are told—lovingly—that without a spouse or children, we will never be whole. We alone are not enough. I am eager to prove my mother and everyone who thinks this way wrong. I travel alone, go to movies alone, eat out alone, buy tickets to concerts and if I don’t have a date, I ask a friend. And if I can’t find a friend? I go alone. After six months, it is all going well and I am sure my life will be happy and full this way. I am a 21st Century Woman. I am going to be the best single female success story since Oprah. And then I meet Warren.
It’s stunning, really, how easy it is with him. No awkward misunderstandings/half-lies. No lack of communication. No shoes drop, no drama unfolds, no interest wanes. Respect. Desire. Honesty. Vulnerability. Love. He opens doors and picks up checks but never assumes and does not possess. I am soon engaged and I am still me. So I surprise myself when I give up the one thing I thought I never would—my last name—and take his. He does not demand it, or even cajole. He simply offers that he wants us to be a team, united by name, whatever that name is. The moment of decision is transformative—instead of feeling like I’m succumbing and losing, I feel like I’m giving and gaining. He agrees to take my name, too. He doesn’t use it professionally, but it’s there, legally, and we both know it. I don’t have a father or mentor or boyfriend or even a “husband,” really. I have a partner.
As we blend our lives, he suggests a joint bank account. I hesitate. He wants to know why. With chagrin, I have to admit that deep down, I have fairytale notions of wanting to be taken care of. We both work—it’s only fair I pay my fair share, but I don’t want equality to work that way. It’s sobering. In this moment I see how I have internalised female infantilization and patriarchy and how I am feeding into it. I promise myself to stop doing this. We will have a 21st-century marriage and remain equals in every way.
In 2006, I become a mother. I am enveloped by the primal power of it, of doing what no man can ever do. After a difficult 17-hour labor and birth, I ask Warren what it was like for him. He says he felt like a spectator. Helpless. I, in turn, felt like a warrior. Every moment of the pain had purpose. I took the deepest cuts and survived. Like billions of other women through time, I possess life-giving Power with a capital P. And yet the narrative around motherhood does not fully acknowledge this. I wonder why women don’t organize to mandate universal childcare, but I don’t have time to go deeper into this thought because my baby, my son, is in serious trouble. He has seizures that can’t be controlled. Doctors ask me and not my husband: am I an alcoholic? Am I on drugs? Do I have herpes and didn’t tell anybody? All the answers are no but make me ask myself the crippling question—is this my fault? I’m the mother. It must be my fault.
But I was so overly-cautious during my pregnancy, I know it’s not my fault. It is however, my job to care for Xavier. Forever. He is hospitalized three separate times and the problems are myriad, but none of the never-ending tests can pinpoint the why. Going back to work is not an option for me. He is now my work. And my heart. And soul. Cerebral Palsy, Epilepsy, Dystonia—all these words! I feel powerless against them. Love is all I have to give.
Time passes, we build our version of normal as I build the courage to have another baby. I put my body back in service and never feel more like a mammal. I am in awe of the female body’s power again but now I also feel trapped by it. Warren works. I stay home. I envy women who relish this arrangement as I imagine I’m envied by those who want it but can’t afford it. I shouldn’t complain, I think. I’m lucky, even with all I have to deal with. But as my life becomes doctor’s appointments and playgroups and therapies and naps and birthday parties and bath times, years go by in a blink. And even though progressively there is more and more of me in the mirror, I see myself less and less. I have not embraced motherhood. I have succumbed to it.
When I am away from our children for more than a day, for any reason, I feel guilt my husband never feels and never will. Mother Guilt. I miss working and writing but no way I can make it a priority again, not with a toddler with special needs and a bouncing baby girl. Warren can run the world; I must run the house. My writer friend Ray informs me that a male colleague of ours thinks I must have quit writing after I had my babies, because I’d never returned his call about a job. I discover he never called my number. He called an old one of my husband’s.
It’s 2009 and I am in the writers’ graveyard, where many good women lie. It is adjacent to the lawyer/doctor/executive graveyard. The teacher/nurse/caregiver graveyard is under-occupied by comparison. They don’t die as often, these women, because either the world embraces their work/home balance in these “traditional” women’s professions, or because they will die literally if they don’t work for shelter/food/diapers. When Warren has to leave town for work for weeks at a time, I parent alone and can not figure out how single mothers do it day in and day out. I question again why there is no universal childcare. If I could create it, I would. But I’m just one person. What can one person do?
It is women in my life, once again, who lift me. My former film studio co-worker Vanessa, who has navigated into a top position with her soul intact, sees me grocery shopping one night, baby Phoebe strapped to chest, and simply asks, “Are you ready?” “Yes!” I answer, and weeks later I am writing for her. Subsequently, I get two more calls—one from Elizabeth, who is now Queen of her own hugely successful movie division, and one from writer pal Stacy, who has just created her own TV series. These are women who know me, my situation and still believe in me. All three resuscitate my career—and me—even when I didn’t believe I had any air left.
My professional confidence returns and I have to admit how much I miss writing. Without it, I didn’t feel like the whole me. I begin to wonder, how can I be a good mother if I’m not a whole me? Maybe I’m not giving my best to my kids when I am burying and sacrificing parts of myself. Would I ever want either of them, especially my girl, to do the same for me? NO. So I gird the guilt and take time away from them for me. My husband supports me as I join a writing staff again, with Stacy as my boss. It’s the first season of a new show, and Stacy does not waste any time on one-upsmanship or domination— her leadership offers respect, trust, support and encouragement. It is a dream staffing experience and shows me there really is a different way to do it, with sane working hours and no compromise of quality.
The positive energy of this environment feeds me, and makes me want to create something of my own. I am surprised when I’m inspired to create not a movie or a TV show but a Facebook page called Good Black News, when I discover no page with this focus exists. (Dad, you called it. I become the publisher!) It’s the first time I have a self-created job and autonomy. My editorial philosophy is positive, expansive, generous. I adhere to it even when leading with optimism is difficult. I dig down deep to come up with pro-active suggestions amid travesties and tragedies. This approach slowly gathers support. People of all genders, ages and races write in to thank me, saying this is what they needed. It takes a while for it to dawn on me that this is more than just flattering. It is power—the power of positivity! It is strange for me to think of this concept as more than a hackneyed cliché. But I start to wonder if “positivity” can be a space to operate from not just online, but also in real life.
Having the final say on direction, on content, on everything—it’s invigorating. More women need to feel this, have this, feed this. But as I expand GBN into a dedicated website and across social media, it becomes more demanding. Even with my sister Lesa on board as a co-editor, the Mother Guilt flares up. So we keep it small, manageable, and I only work on it around my kids’ schedules. This is the baby I choose to neglect.
Other promising projects stall, too. I feel like I have 1,000 pieces of a puzzle but not the picture box they came in. I have no idea how to put anything together right. Then Dena Crowder, an extraordinarily perceptive woman who I haven’t spoken with for years (she was once married to the director who was hired to shoot my romantic comedy screenplay which I was told by the studio head would happen but then for all manner of Hollywood reasons never happened)—she contacts me. When we speak it’s as if she knows my entire life, though there’s no way she could. I learn that Dena is now guiding/instructing/teaching people who desire to identify and unlock their power. She is dynamic and thought-provoking, and as I take private sessions with her and classes she instructs, the exercises and assignments and discussions allow me to see I’ve spent a lifetime looking at what constitutes power, leadership and success through a seriously fractured lens, which much of the time was not even my own.
The definitions of power and leadership are so different and more flexible and fluid than what I’ve believed them to be. She helps me find voice for what I’ve felt my whole life – words I didn’t have when I was four or fourteen or twenty-four, or even the day before we reconnected. That I, along with generations of women and men, boys and girls, have been reared under and subscribed to a “dominator” model, where power is positioned as scarce, aggressive, fear-based and meant to be wielded by only a few. Where it is measured by money, notoriety, political pull and/or possessions. But a truer, simpler definition of power, I am reminded by Dena, is what Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly said: “Power is the ability to affect change.”
As I work with Dena and examine some of what I’ve chronicled in this essay and more, I unearth sexist tropes, guilts, fears of success, failure and of being powerful, because I’ve spent a lifetime perceiving of power as domination, corrosion and destruction. I learn how to spot then name my beliefs that aren’t true, and then I let these fettering thought patterns go. I learn that power can be positive, abundant, shared and expansive. I learn to get curious, to separate real problems from created or anticipated problems. I learn to identify my own powers and how to prioritise them, and that self-appreciation is essential to fostering power. And leadership. Women too often are self-deprecating for fear of coming off as arrogant or unapproachable. I learn being sure of oneself is never this and shouldn’t be perceived of that way because of gender-based stereotypes.
I tell Warren about the work I am doing with Dena and how it is rearranging my understanding of power, leadership and gender dynamics. He loves the changes in me and supports my growing into my power and purpose. He also agrees that the long history of systemic sexism and male domination in the US and elsewhere needs to be challenged and dismantled. As he talks, I see I am looking at a true man, who should be in the majority not the minority of his gender. He gets that humanity must always temper hegemony and is willing to walk the walk for it. But I know (as does he) that it’s going to take millions more men alongside women to create a tipping point on these issues where equitable societies and governments are the reality instead of the ideal.
In 2016, I get the gig of a lifetime. Elizabeth (always Elizabeth!) hires me to do some writing on “Hidden Figures”—a movie about women whose math skills, whose brains, are overlooked because of gender and race. After studying what is already a very strong script, I am sure I can help make it even better. It’s not arrogance that makes me think this; it’s certainty. I connect who I am with what I love, what I know, and what I do, and have my best filmic writing experience to date. I know my purpose. I know my power.
Now when I say I am a writer or a wife or a mother or a woman or an African-American, I fully own every one of these aspects of myself. Some are chosen, some are not, but they are all power positions, based on my perceptions and not my culture’s or my family’s or my country’s, because I don’t give credence to any external or internal reductive definitions of these positions anymore.
And 44 years later, I no longer wish to wake up a boy as the solution to the inequity I still encounter. Instead I wish to help make a world where being female, in all its iterations, is as equally respected, valued and empowered. I love who I am, uniquely, and know any power I have starts there. I also know I need to share what I have gleaned from my path. Because speaking up and not keeping ideas to myself might help pave the way to gender parity and help create more equitable, positive, and robust societies. It might help reframe power. It might just be leadership.
Here are my offerings:
- Redefine the prevalent beliefs on power and leadership. Women taking charge under the same dominator model will only offer similar results, for any power model that propagates subjugation and disenfranchisement will not lead to equality and parity. Models that tend towards more people gaining opportunity and liberty and shared responsibility are what should be promoted and applied. Look for leaders who do the work they ask others to do. Being a leader should not mean you are flawless or superior or above question. It should mean you have the ability to admit mistakes and learn to do better as you inspire and guide others.
- Prioritize education. How many times must history make it plain how crucial education is to empowerment for all genders, races and classes? It is always one of the first institutions dismantled or forbidden in autocratic, dominator model societies. Or education is made to be so expensive, it keeps a perpetual underclass in place, even in societies where sexism and/or racism aren’t overriding social constructs.
- Subsidize childcare. There are statistics from nations like France and Finland that show how this helps keep large percentages of women in the workplace who want to be there. The do not have to “give up” any part of themselves to raise a family because of costs or scarcity of quality childcare. Single and married mothers get the help and support they need. Men aren’t penalized in the workplace for becoming parents and women shouldn’t be either.
- Identify and develop your own powers. Prioritize them. Appreciate them. Share them and put them out in the world however you can. Be open. Know that there are myriad ways to accomplish goals and respect that others may take a different path to the same place. Listen when trusted peers, advisors, mentors, friends and young people offer their perspectives. Accept any critical voice that is helpful and makes sense.
- Empower and support others as they identify and develop their powers. Lift others up. Instruct and guide while offering truth and accountability. Be honest and loving and caring as you share and discuss difficult realities.
- Assume capability. Like in the Michelle Pfeiffer movie Dangerous Minds—start everyone new to class with an “A.” Don’t undermine or underestimate any individual person based on gender, race, creed, orientation or age.
- Emphasize positivity. Projecting doom, worry, fear, demonising and “otherizing”… this is what dominators do to divide, conquer and hoard power. A new model would embrace coalition, pro-active suggestions and solutions, gratitude and open communication.
- If you see injustice or disparity, find your way to act to change it. Do not assume powerlessness. You can start a conversation. Read. Research. Write into blogs or newspapers. Organize like-minded people. Ask questions. Vote.
A shortened version of this essay originally ran in issue #53 of Dumbo Feather