I’ll never forget. Like most other children, I was bullied throughout my early school years. Being small for my age, I was an easy target. And in 3rd grade, I went through an especially bad year of being picked on by one boy in particular. He would seek me out on the playground, grab me by my long hair and swing me around. Even when I tried to hide from him, he would always find me. I would go home crying every afternoon … until I finally told my mother what was happening. I had hoped she would save me. I had hoped she would make it stop. She didn’t. She laughed. She thought it was funny. And she told me this was a sign the boy liked me … as if I should be happy or proud of it.
This was the first time I really understood that, as a girl, I was supposed to compromise myself to accommodate a boy.
It felt like a slap in the face to realize no one cared how I felt. My voice didn’t matter. I didn’t matter. I was supposed to feel lucky to receive male attention, even if it was negative. The messages I received from my mother, other girls and the world around me was that I needed to be liked. And to be liked, I had to be good … quiet … polite … not cause any fuss … do what I was told … don’t gain weight … smile … look pretty (so a nice boy will ask me out) … never argue … get good grades, but don’t expect much … and certainly, don’t achieve anything (because that will scare boys off).
I wasn’t supposed to be myself. I wasn’t allowed to choose who I wanted to be. It was already pre-determined. The standard was already set … and I was expected to squeeze myself into the tiny box others had built. Success was looking and acting like Barbie. And if I didn’t? Then, clearly, I wasn’t good enough … smart enough … pretty enough.
I wasn’t enough.
It’s hard not to internalize those messages, especially when we are bombarded by perfect, manufactured images in magazines and commercials showing us how we are supposed to look … and telling us that how we look is the most important thing about us. Once you buy into that mindset, you’re already behind the eight ball. You’re always struggling to catch up to all those other women who are smarter, prettier, better. And you’re willing to step on the backs of other women to get there. This is how women are divided. From my early playground experience, I learned not to trust other girls, other women, my mother. I was alone. Divide and conquer works every time. And we are all complicit. I never considered myself a mean girl growing up, but I’m sure there were other girls on that playground who would disagree.
When we are made powerless through degradation, bullying and abuse, we turn on each other to assert some measure of control in our world. And by internalizing those negative messages, we are powerless. We’ve allowed the outside world to tell us who to be and what to do. We’ve allowed it to define our value in the world, rather than defining it for ourselves. And for what? We compromise ourselves so that men can feel comfortable. Men can feel powerful. Men can be in control. Isn’t it ironic? Women are meant to be controlled in a world that makes excuses for men who can’t control themselves.
I’ll never forget. When I was a teenager, my mother told me I was lucky. She said, regardless of any physical or mental abuse I might have experienced … I was lucky it wasn’t sexual. Wow. Apparently, it was only luck that saved me from that kind of abuse. Apparently, I wouldn’t be able to save myself in that situation. It would have been out of my control. I would be a victim. I would be transformed from virgin to whore in just one stroke. And again, none of it would actually have anything to do with me.
I hadn’t realized before that some forms of abuse are more acceptable than others.
Sex has always been at the heart of feminism … because sex is the foundation from which we have been minimized. Religious doctrine. Societal beliefs. Political policy. All intertwined to define women’s value based purely on our bodies. Sex and childbirth. Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and The Single Girl in 1962. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. And Gloria Steinem was right on her heels with A Bunny’s Tale. Feminism was a movement whose time had finally come in an age when a woman couldn’t get a credit card on her own, take the pill or go to an Ivy League school. In the world my mother grew up in, women were considered the “weaker sex.” We were meant to be dependent on our fathers and husbands, regardless of the type of care they gave us. My mother grew up in an abusive household, so why would my experience be any different? I guess I’m just lucky.
Feminism was a rallying cry to break free from that control and abuse. It opened the door to freedom, independence and opportunity. It addressed the huge economic, social and political disparity that existed between the sexes. Feminism was a promise of equality, choice and power for all women. Ten years later in 1973, Roe v. Wade was a huge victory in granting women’s right to choose abortion. These victories gave us control over our own bodies. They allowed us to reject the traditional labels of virgin-whore-mother that were imposed upon us. There was finally opportunity to choose our own path. These were hard-won victories we shouldn’t forget or let go.
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s was confusing. I was witness to a major societal shift where women were breaking traditions and boundaries (if not glass ceilings) through feminism. I read about women rising up in solidarity to help us all. It was a beacon of hope that maybe the world could be different than the one I knew. Yet, I never experienced any solidarity in my own house. I heard about women entering the workforce more than ever before to play ball with the guys and finally prove that we are just as good as they are, if not better. Yet, that type of ambition was never supported in my own house.
I desperately wanted to believe in the feminist ideal, but the conflicting messages were incessant … at home, on TV and at the newsstand. Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t playing Dick Van Dyke’s wife anymore … she had her own show as a single woman working as a TV news producer. Right on! But then, we had the woman in the Enjoli commercial. She had to bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan … all the while looking super sexy … to make sure he doesn’t forget he’s a man. Wait … what? How he feels is still our responsibility? All the top models on the runway and in magazines were 6 feet tall and looked nothing like the women I saw around me. And they certainly didn’t look like me. Fast forward to today where we live in a world of negative clothing sizes. Do you know anyone who is a size 00? What other evidence of female minimization do we need?
All these messages, even the feminist ones, were still telling me who I had to be, regardless of what I wanted. Through all that confusion though, I still believed in the feminist vision. And I assumed that all women must want to be feminists. How could we not want equal rights? How could we not want to finally feel powerful? Just because we say we are equal though, doesn’t mean it’s true. And when we’re told the same story over and over again, it becomes true. Fake news.I understand now that the feminist movement left my mother’s generation behind … and left me not knowing what was real. How can we ever be united when the feminist platform rests on such shaky ground?
In my mid-20’s, I was one of only two women that worked in a mid-sized design company. We put up with a lot lewd humor and school boy antics, but that was par for the course back then, right? On one Wednesday afternoon, everyone had gone out to lunch, except me. I grabbed a quick bite and was back at my desk well before anyone came back. I thought I was alone in the office. I wasn’t. There, in the glass-walled conference room, was one of the contractors, watching porn on the conference room television, while masturbating into a gym bag on the floor. He casually saw me looking at him … and jerked off faster. Shock. Confusion. Fear. Fear of what would happen, if I said anything. Fear of what would happen, if I didn’t.
I’ll never forget. I decided to tell our managing director what had happened when he was back in the office two days later. I nervously knocked on the door, went in and told him I needed to tell him something that was very difficult. He told me to sit down and spit it out. So, I did. He looked at me and then leaned over, put both of his hands on either side of my bare thigh and told me … “when men get older, they have certain needs.” Wow. I don’t remember the rest, because it didn’t matter. He didn’t care. And it was very clear that the contractor’s inappropriate behavior was more acceptable than my objection to it. I stopped wearing skirts to work.
Men wonder why we don’t speak up.
There are plenty of other times when I didn’t say anything … being grabbed, groped or told that I was a bitch for not capitulating to sexual advances. Or there was that time in college with one very persistent guy. My girlfriends couldn’t understand why I kept turning him down. They kept saying … he likes you, so why not just go out with him? I guess I was supposed to feel lucky to have someone like me. Anyway, he found his opportunity. I was at a party with my friends and had too much to drink. I assumed I was safe. I assumed my friends would protect me. They didn’t. Why not let him take me away? He liked me. And that was reason enough. I forgot … I am alone.
Women have to define safety differently than men.
Men expect us to compromise ourselves for them. It’s our fault when we do … and it’s our fault when we don’t. Feminism was supposed to release us from that responsibility. Feminism was supposed to have been our ticket to freedom, where we define who we are and our value to the world. That didn’t happen. Instead, we ended up in a different box. It might be slightly bigger than the old one … but it’s still a box. And feminism has become a dirty word. Fewer and fewer women are choosing to identify themselves as feminists these days. Feminism got turned into militancy. And we are not soldiers going to war.
My theory about what happened is that the feminist movement created change … but not enough change. White men opened the door to jobs in Corporate America and women declared victory. Now, we get to play on the same playing field. We won!
We gave up too soon.
What looked like capitulation towards equal opportunity was actually a scam … an illusion … a trick. It was always still their playing field … with their rules. We stopped fighting for women’s rights as soon as we thought we had a seat at the table. In reality, we were too busy running between the kitchen and the board room to ever really sit down. We charged into our power to prove our worth as working women. We had to prove it … because we knew the world still didn’t believe it. Hell, we didn’t even believe it. And in turn, we assumed men would step up on the home front in the same way we were in the world of work. Isn’t that the equal thing to do? They didn’t agree to that though. And for the most part, they haven’t.
In today’s world, we like to paint a rosy picture of stay-at-home dads who are asserting their rights to be caregivers at home. Yeah! Applause to them for stepping up! Really? I never got any applause for going to work. I never got any applause for having babies and getting back to work in 10 weeks, while still breastfeeding. And I was told I was lucky to have any time off at all. No one in the USA … the greatest country on Earth … is entitled to maternity leave (another shining example of social and political policy designed to keep women in check). And, in my marriage at least, being a stay-at-home dad didn’t carry the same responsibilities as being a stay-at-home mom. My (now ex-) husband was a stay-at-home dad for 7 years (that’s code for unemployed). He made sure my kids didn’t die, but beyond that, he refused to cook, clean, take them on a playdate or give them a bath. Why? In his words … because he didn’t have to. And, I do.
So, what happened to us? For those of us who believed in the feminist ideal, we again ended up conforming to some idea of who we had to be. Feminism didn’t free us. It gave us more responsibility. Somehow, by saying we wanted equal rights, we ended up taking responsibility for everything … at home and at work. That’s not equal. Feminism hasn’t protected us from misogyny, sexism or rape. That world hasn’t changed. Yes, Corporate America opened doors to financial independence for women. It’s still their game though. They have the home team advantage and we don’t even know the rules. And being liked doesn’t get you far in the corporate arena. I’ve never seen Barbie in a corner office.
Our feminist struggle for independence and freedom did move the bar for women … yet, we are still minimized. We make less money than men in the exact same jobs. We receive fewer promotions, less recognition and less opportunity overall. We receive less because we are less? Is that the argument? I’ve heard that the reason we receive less is because we don’t ask for more. We don’t use our voices. Ironic, right? And yet, my boss could put his hands on me … without permission … so, I must have been asking for it. Or at least, my skirt was. Why do we, as women, think we need permission? Men don’t. It is a self-reinforcing cycle. We are complicit … because we allow it. We minimize ourselves through unrealistic expectations, pressure and self-limiting beliefs. And our economy is actually invested in those very same things. Fashion. Food. Cosmetics. Skin Care. Weight loss. Corporate America needs us to doubt ourselves.
And after all this … I am a feminist.
The feminist vision is still powerful, regardless of how we lost ourselves in the execution. So, what will it take to finally achieve equality? We need to stop listening to our fear and self-doubt. We need to stop spending money on anything that profits from our fear and self-doubt. We need to stop accepting anyone or anything that makes us feel less than. We need to run for office and put a woman in the White House. We need to put women in positions of power within our legal system, major corporations and Wall Street. We need to insist on equal pay, equal recognition and equal consideration. We have the power to stop. Stop working. Stop shopping. Stop having sex. Stop talking smack about our girlfriends behind their backs. Stop participating. Stop being complicit. Stop teaching our daughters to play nice.
The women of Iceland stopped. In 2016, they went on strike. They refused to work, cook or care for their children for ONE DAY. And what did they achieve in just 24 hours? Wage equality. Icelandic companies now have to prove they aren’t paying women less than men for the same work. They believed in their power. They stood united. Their voices were heard. They didn’t ask permission.
Why can’t we follow their example? We have so many ways to connect with one another these days. Let’s give that connection a purpose. Let’s use it to stand united in our conviction. Let’s own our inherent value as human beings. Let’s support one another on this journey. Let’s play our own game and create our own rules. Let’s make sure luck isn’t the only thing that determines what happens to us. Let’s not forget.
My experiences are my own. A drop in the ocean. What happens when we combine our experiences? We are an unstoppable tidal wave of change.
Revolutions start with words.
Laura Miolla is a leadership and divorce coach empowering women to use personal and professional challenge as a springboard for positive change. Please contact Laura via moxielifeleadership.com or moxielifedivorce.com.