Destroying the Dichotomy
Rethinking how society views women
(This is an updated version of a post from 1/28/15 on my personal blog, but I think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever written.)
A few months ago, I attended an amazing Women in Leadership panel (#Ad2WLP) put on by Ad2 MN. Of the 300–400+ people in attendance, 95% of them were professional women of all ages, spanning from eager students to long time professionals. Nora Purmort gave the keynote and the panel was filled with intelligent, witty, hilarious women such as Lisa Grimm, Nancy Lyons, Lili Hall and Julie Scheife. They were honest and raw, not only about their career experiences, but about their lives as driven, successful women. Questions were answered, advice was given. They advocated for raising your hand for whatever you can, but they also stressed not being cornered into the token note-taking-coffee-getting woman of the office. They also discussed how we, as a society, should stop spending so much talking about work/life balance as a “woman’s problem.” Personally, I felt totally in my element, surrounded by people who felt the exact same way I did: excited, hopeful, completely unstoppable. The atmosphere sizzled with pride and excitement. It was an incredible feeling; being surrounded by powerful women who truly wanted to listen to each other and support everyone’s future goals. I soaked up all the energy and left the event glowing and happy — tipsy on vodka cranberry, self-love, and female empowerment. I called my husband and gushed over how amazing it was to bond with co-workers and how amped I was after existing in the same space as such cool women. I was exhilarated by that “the world is at your feet” feeling. I also happened to catch a Blue Line light rail just before it pulled away. Basically, I was chalking this night up as the biggest win of 2015 thus far.
As the train continued on, I noticed the figure of a dude, probably no more than 21 years old, near the front of the car I was on. He held himself with the annoying arrogance and cockiness of a kid who hasn’t seen much of life. I was too far back to hear what he was saying but I was familiar enough with his gestures to guess he was yelling at someone sitting diagonal from him. A few stops later, the driver came over the loud-speaker to say they were disconnecting the last train car and could we all please move to the front two cars? As the handful of us filed out at the next stop, I noted that the person this guy was yelling at was a young woman who also couldn’t have been far past 21, if at all. It was obvious they were, or had been, a couple. While he wasn’t quite yelling obscenities at her, he continued to berate her as we took our new seats. This time he sat right next to her and was all but in her face, still yelling, to let her know he was very upset with her for apparently disrespecting him. The girl looked absolutely miserable, face red, eyes downcast, but didn’t say anything. I clenched my teeth and dug my fingernails into my palms, thinking of all the things I should have said outloud. I’m an advocate for standing up for strangers but I’m also an advocate for safety. I’m short, generally peaceful, and I was riding alone at night, so I chose to stay quiet. After just a few minutes in the new car, an older lady turned from where she sat and told the guy he needed to calm down. This, of course, made him furious; he went on and on about how she needed to stay out of his business before he really disrespected her. Then out of nowhere, an older guy who was sitting behind the couple leaned over and, very calmly, told the kid that that was enough and he really needed to learn to respect women. After more swearing and empty threats, this kid had the audacity to claim “she’s my girlfriend, I do treat her with respect, you have no idea and know nothing about us…” etc. The first woman pressed the button for the conductor and thankfully the kid got off at the next stop, although unfortunately the young woman silently followed him (after he kept yelling at her to “tell these people I treat you with respect” and followed her silence with “oh, it’s going to be like that?”). While furiously texting K what was happening, I swiped at my eyes as they began filling up with tears. I hate being a public crier but I was so overwhelmed.
First, it was such a shock to the system to literally go from a party bursting with female empowerment, many of the attendees women my age, to watching another young woman publicly humiliated by some loser boyfriend. Second, I have never, ever, ever, ever, ever (etc) seen so many strangers stand up for a woman they didn’t know. To see these strangers try so hard to do what they thought was protecting this woman, I was proud of Minnesotans and humanity. I was also so fucking terrified of what might have happened to that woman after she left the safety of a public area. If that kid thought he could talk to her like that in public, I have a sad idea of the types of things he’s willing to say in private. The whole experience, which took place in less than fifteen minutes and four bus stops, was a living reminder that for me of this dichotomy society splits women into: on one side you have a successful, powerful woman who doesn’t take shit from anyone, on the other you have a weak-willed woman who allows herself to be bullied without the self-respect to walk away. That line of thought is not only wrong, but so, so dangerous. It allows us to pigeon-hole and dismiss either mythical woman; one for being a one-dimensional bitch and the other for being weak. Let’s be real for a minute, it shouldn’t feel like a privilege to know my path and forge on with little resistance. I shouldn’t have to feel lucky that I’ve escaped being disrespected by men or other women for having a bright future. Let me be totally candid, while most of this post has been about having the privilege of knowing smart, successful, encouraging women — and being one myself — that’s not why this experience haunted me so much.
My mom had me at sixteen, by herself. My dad was never apart of the picture (and wouldn’t be until I was five). My mom had her mom for support, but my grandma dealt with a lot of her own problems involving hardcore drug abuse. My mom is incredible, I’ve watched her climb her way up the ranks of a well-known financial corporation with just her high school diploma. However, I’ve also witnessed her being held against the kitchen wall, off the ground, by her throat and watched black and blue bruises bloom on every part of her body. I’ve been plagued by panic attacks at the thought of leaving my sisters at home while I went to college or studied abroad. I’ve had to take late night phone calls from sisters, hysterical because of what they had to watch their father do to their mother, only to get on the phone with my mom who swore (through tears) that everything was fine and I didn’t need to come home. To this day, my pulse quickens at the sound of raised voices.
While my mother is one of the most naturally intelligent, hard-working women I have ever had known, I also have spent over 75% of my life watching my mom struggle to be a survivor of domestic abuse. It’s such a conflicting feeling to listen the mother you fear and respect, who taught you how to stand up for yourself and to never take any bullshit, plead for her life. She has always stressed to me and my two younger sisters how important independence is, particularly as a woman, and to never settle or compromise ourselves for a man. She gave the most beautiful toast at my wedding, citing my absence of relationship role models and praising K on his ability to love me as every single person deserves to be loved. Yet, as she gave her toast, my step-dad sat across the table from her and her eyes definitely glanced his direction before she said these things. It was a subtle reminder of all the power he had — and still has over her even though they aren’t together anymore. But the fact that my mom even gave such an honest, vulnerable toast, mentioning such intimate details in front of my friends and husband’s parents is a reminder of her growth. It’s also a reminder that I know only a fraction of her own personal story.
Witnessing those two events one right after another was a jarring example of the juxtaposition I feel like I’m facing in my own life. It’s complicated, straddling this line of being a successful woman and intimately knowing the intricacies of an abusive relationship when society makes these seem like two very different ends of the spectrum of roles women can play. I want to work towards dispelling the dichotomy of successful woman vs weak abuse victim (sidebar, it will never be your place to force someone to be a victim, a la Janay Palmer). It doesn’t exist. There is an incredible strength in the women who know abuse and there are terrible stories of struggle for women who have power and success. My mom is just one of many examples. These two experiences also highlight how vital it is we support the women in our lives, whatever their individual paths may be.
There is so much more to say and I could make so many different blog posts that relate to this topic, but I’ll leave you with this quote: Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. It’s cheesy and even I have rolled my eyes at the renditions that have made it around social media, but it is a sentiment that my core values are deeply rooted in. Everyone has a complex story to own and you should remember you probably only know the tip of the iceberg. Women are not one-dimensional. Take some time in your life to learn about other people’s journeys and offer support whenever you can.