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Mile Marker One: Remember Who We Are
The foundation chapter for the book explains pressures on women to "forget" who we are and suggests strategies for remembering the infinite possibilities open to us.
Mile Marker One: Remember Who We Are
All my life I've wanted to be somebody. But I see now I should have been more specific.
—Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin's collaborator
It's a challenge to create fully realized lives without road maps. What women have taken the road to power before us and how did they do it? We hardly know, since the few markers they left have been demolished or overtaken with weeds. During the last generation, we've unearthed some of the signs and learned to read symbols previously misunderstood—or erased. But these precious guides to diverse life scripts continue to be few. Growing up in "a man's world" has created voids that we fill with imagination, if we follow an impulse to escape the one narrow route that is visible. We are constantly creating something (our lives) from nothing.
Just like God did, but we don't get near the credit.
With no good map in hand, imagining that we are capable, that we make great engineers or heads of state, is still unthinkable for most women. Our mental map is dated; it comes from the old world and gives us an image of a universe in which we aren't the heads of anything. We're usually the hands—and the heart.
This outdated map is still being re-issued. For instance, when a would-be senator from California was recently found to have an undocumented nanny in his past, his first comment was that his wife had made the decision but he, "as head of the family, should have vetoed it." (Uh oh, Father didn't know best.)
The reality is that women, as heads, have created a powerful global movement, opening many new roads. To continue traveling, we have to keep expanding our picture of what our lives could look like.
It's hard to remember our capabilities when we have so few accurate mirrors: powerful, public women whose presence reminds us, "I can do that too!" We've never had a woman visibly and openly orchestrating national policy. When Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to lead the national health plan, she was widely vilified as a power-monger only too eager to step in and make decisions abdicated by her hen-pecked husband. (All strong Presidential wives, like Rodham Clinton, Nancy Reagan or Eleanor Roosevelt, have been accused of usurping power.) We've learned that we can influence policy so long as we settle for the back seat, the "power behind the throne." Too often our brain is the stealth brain, remaining safely under cover, running no risk of igniting other female intellects. Thus we remain invisible to each other, and even to ourselves. So we "forget," or never notice, how often we actually lead the organization, generate the strategy, or write the books, so pleased are we to have any role at all.
Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.
—Ann Richards, former Texas governor
We still aren't used to seeing anyone other than men—usually tall white men—be in charge of the really big things. Even our money, that paper that makes the world go round, is imprinted only with that one visage. Everyone else is seen as incompetent or, if too clearly capable to be so easily dismissed, overreaching.
With this kind of distorted road map, leading to constant dead-ends, how do women get an accurate sense of their capabilities?
We need new maps. And there are many ways to create them.
Some of us paper our walls with markers. When put together, they lead us in a new direction. In my study, for example, I look at a page torn from a newspaper, picturing all the women in Congress. I see a collage I made in a seminar, magazine headlines pasted on bright red paper:
THAT'S WHEN I DECIDED THAT MY NEXT HERO WOULD BE ME, AN ENGINE MOVING 79 MPH, THE FAST TRACK.
I have a poster entitled, "Sanctuary: The Spirit of Harriet Tubman." Remembering Tubman, a woman who was definitely on the fast track—as she not only rode, but created an underground railroad to free enslaved African Americans before the Civil War—keeps me moving along on my own journey. On my study wall I also see a "Women and Physical Power" calendar, with its photo of a focused teen winding up for a pitch, and am reminded that reclaiming physical power is part of remembering ourselves. I see an envelope from my son addressed to Joan Lester, Author, sent when I first began to realize I was one. I have poems and notes from friends, letters from women I admire, publicity posters from my bookstore readings.
We must hear the voices and have the dreams of those who came before us, and we must keep them with us in a very real sense. This will keep us centered. This will help us to maintain our understanding of the job we must do.
—Sonia Sanchez, essayist and poet
I also look at images of Aunt Jemima as even she has changed. Seeing the shift from plantation cook to professional woman reminds me that our work has made a difference—and that we're only halfway there, for she's still somebody's aunt, with no last name. (Can we envision a CEO called Aunt Jemima?)
Over my printer I've posted a collage of old women, mounted on neon pink paper showered with sparkling stars. A drawing shows one gray-haired woman with arms thrown back, standing tall beneath the words "I Survived 5000 Years of Patriarchy." There are newspaper photos of several blooming hundred year olds. One, Audrey Stubbart, is a full-time columnist. And there's a radiant hiker, seventy-five-year-old Cecilia Hurwich.
My walls give me constant, subliminal support. They become the bread crumbs showing me the way.
Some women personalize computer screen savers, putting on variants of I AM THE GREATEST to remind them of who they are. Others post notes in their cars, bathrooms, or on refrigerators: I AM SMART. I AM STRONG. Stitched in blankets, on pillows or wall hangings—we have found endless ways to affirm ourselves with positive statements.
At first the reclamations may feel fake. But stating our capacities—to think, play sports, make money—is simply a reminder of abilities in eclipse. They are there; we only need to make them visible.
Many women find sustenance in stories about those who preceded us, women who survived and, sometimes, thrived. We look to biographies or autobiographies of historical women who took transformative journeys, or to contemporaries and peers. We watch these women, looking for clues. How did each of them find the strength to become leaders in difficult circumstances? What decisions did they make that might help us?
I could not help noticing the great role women played in Pueblo society. Women owned the houses and actually built them. Children often got their mother's last name ... It made me a little jealous. Of course, the Pueblos were lucky. Unlike us poor Sioux who were driven into fenced-in reservations, they still live in their ancient villages, which had already been old when the Spaniards came.
—Mary Crow Dog, activist, author
We need this outer reflection of our possibilities because our self-esteem has typically been so eroded. (Research in the last twenty years shows girls' confidence as high as boys' until the pre-teen years, when it begins to dramatically decrease—if not collapse altogether.) Some female actors seek out strong roles to provide those reflections. As Geena Davis says in a Vogue article—whose title, "The Brainy Bombshell," reflects our dilemma and our parameters—" It's my responsibility as a human being, a woman and an actor," to choose roles that "women can appreciate and relate to," or that "at least don't denigrate women and make you feel cheapened and sickened for having watched the movie." Some women, like Barbra Streisand, Julie Dash, Penny Marshall, Maria Maggenti, and Jodie Foster, become directors and producers to make sure such roles exist. And fortunately, we have at least a few women out there writing them. Callie Khouri, the screenwriter for Thelma and Louise, said, "I just got fed up with the passive role of women. They were never driving the story because they were never driving the car."
When we do see women driving the story—and the car—we are riveted. According to Geena Davis, Thelma and Louise were never meant to be role models. "No one was saying, 'Go hold up liquor stores and drive off a cliff.' They were only examples of women who, for better or worse, took control. I think that's why women liked that movie so much," Davis says. "We fucked up a lot, we made some really bad choices, but the exhilarating thing was that we were in charge of our own destiny."
Some women find current real-life women for inspiration, women leading the kind of lives we'd like to construct. We watch the power and self-assurance of Maya Angelou as she speaks, we find role models in the few public women in office. We observed Enid Greene Waldholtz from Utah—before she was brought down by a classic "he done me wrong" scenario. She was only the second House of Representatives member ever to be pregnant, and the first in two decades. The transformation of the House culture (with a membership still nearly 90 percent male) is slow but, as Waldholtz said, "It won't be another twenty years before we have the next pregnant member."
In the work world, we are beginning to get a critical mass of women mixing pregnancy and power, thanks to the many bold women not scuttling out of sight to hide their expanding bodies. "It's kind of a humanizing element when I'm meeting with other representatives on the Rules Committee," Waldholtz told a San Francisco Chronicle interviewer. "I just use it as a way to get into discussions about other issues."
Apparently the pregnancy hasn't affected her brain. "You'd never know she was pregnant except from looking at her," said Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon, in a comment he intended as a compliment.
Anchor Katie Couric is another woman who used her visibility as a pregnant woman to model someone using her uterus and her brain simultaneously. Couric also features family/work issues, showcasing working mothers.
Some women, not seeing around them real-life images representing futures they want, look to fiction. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the Peabody award-winning journalist (and a role model herself as the first African American woman admitted to the University of Georgia) discovered a possible future in an unlikely place: a comic-strip. Brenda Starr was a fictional character, but she was the only female journalist Hunter-Gault saw when she was growing up.
"Brenda Starr, a beautiful white woman with red hair and blue eyes, was my fantasy role model," she recalls. "I loved this life of hers and thought it was very exciting. If I had not been given to fantasy, I never could have imagined myself doing something like that because there were roles set up for us, women like me, we knew 'our place.' That's where the title of my book comes from: In My Place. Our place was teaching or nursing—nothing wrong with that; it just wasn't what I wanted to do. Fantasizing enabled me to see beyond the limits of Jim Crow, and, while I didn't know how I was going to get there, I felt that I could get there and I fantasized about getting there, and the way was made. I partly made it, but it got made."
For each of us as women, there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises.
—Audre Lorde (1934-1992), New York state poet laureate
For some women, the best device for understanding our true capabilities is turning inward to filter out the world's "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts," the world's description of our "places," through meditation or journal-writing. Writing and sketching myself in my journal is a device I stumbled on years ago, a fail-proof method for bringing me back to myself when I've lost my center. As soon as I've written a page or two, or drawn a sketch of who I am today—oh, that's me!—I breathe more deeply, confusion evaporates, and I begin to smile.
Your instrument of remembrance can also be an Appreciation Book to write in when people express admiration for something you have done. Like pennies for a rainy day, such a book is there to shine out who we are when we most need it.
Another mechanism for remembering ourselves can be words that spur us on. Mercedes, a friend who is a politician, uses Eleanor Roosevelt's advice to women in politics: "Every political woman needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide!" Each time Mercedes reads this statement, which she has posted on her wall, she remembers that being attacked doesn't necessarily mean she is doing anything wrong. She just looks at the quote, adds another layer of skin, and pulls herself up again to go on out there. She relies on the saying, also framed on her wall, "It isn't the water under a boat which sinks it. It's the water a boat takes in." She vows to keep on floating, no matter who's trying to pour water on her career.
It also helps to have strong role models for inspiration. One of mine is a colleague and mentor whose progress down the road to power looks effortless, although I know it isn't. Like every other woman, Barbara has had plenty of reasons to give up and take a back seat. She is a solo working mother who contributes heavily to the expenses—college included—of many people in her extended family. And she is a dark-skinned woman in a country where "fair" means both light-complexioned and beautiful.
Power is the ability to get things done, to mobilize resources, to get and use whatever it is that a person needs for the goals she is attempting to meet.
—Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor, Harvard Business School
But Barbara never ceases to expand her vision of what is possible. Even when disaster hits. A few years ago her house burned to the ground while she was on one of her periodic business trips to South Africa. Everything she had gathered in her forty-four years was gone: gifts from friends all over the world, the only copy of computer disks holding her half-finished book, thousands of books, journals, notes for courses she teaches, never-to-be-replaced photos of her cherished niece who has passed on, and other irreplaceable objects representing an unusually full life.
After the first shock, and many tears, Barbara laughed, "I wanted a new house anyway. Been saying it for years." Then she focused on an outpouring of community love that surprised and delighted her, and on designing her dream house. Now, three years later, she is living in that house, high on a hill. It's a house with a view, brand-new, full of light, built exactly to her design. The old house was too dark, she always said, shaded in a pine grove.
How did she do it? Barbara found her way by setting up mini-support groups. Since she travels frequently, they are all over the world. Wherever she goes, she has someone to call for a few minutes, with whom she can be open about her fears—or her anger, so often prohibited to women. (Men got anger. We got crying.) Remembering our full selves means we get to do it all: scream and cry. And after rage or sorrow, surprisingly, there is often laughter.
In these support groups, Barbara gets reminders of who she is from people who understand that her feelings are just that. When she lapses into believing she "can't" or she "isn't," they understand that is sexism—or racism—talking. "Oh, that's just I.S.—internalized sexism," they say. "That's worse than P.M.S. Let it go."
And she does.
Another mode of self-remembrance was demonstrated to me this year by a new friend, Sam, a white woman in her early thirties who had never left Oklahoma until a few days before I met her in California. In fact, she hadn't left her county until the day she got in her car with her three daughters and drove to California.
I think if women would indulge more freely in vituperation, they would enjoy ten times the health they do.
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), suffragist leader
For sixteen years, Sam had been a battered wife trying unsuccessfully to get law-enforcement help. It never came, so one day she simply drove away—from her husband, her parents, and the town where she had lived all her life.
When I met Sam, shortly after her arrival in California, and she told me a little of her story, I asked her how she had gotten the inspiration to finally leave. She thought for a few minutes and then said, "One day, I just looked in the mirror and saw who I was. God didn't want me to settle for this awful life. I had to get out. I didn't deserve this torture."
Excerpted from Taking Charge by Joan Steinau Lester. Copyright © 1996 Joan Steinau Lester. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Foreword by Eleanor Holmes Norton
Setting Out On The Road to Success
Highway One: Getting Centered
Mile Marker One: Remember Who We Are
Mile Marker Two: Be Central
Mile Marker Three: Get Over "Nice"
Highway Two: Taking Action
Mile Marker Four: Set Goals
Mile Marker Five: Make Choices
Mile Marker Six: Take Charge Everywhere
Highway Three: Building Alliances
Mile Marker Seven: Build Women's Alliances
Mile Marker Eight: Support Across History's Divides
Mile Marker Nine: Develop Male Allies
Highway Four: Creating a Vision
Mile Marker Ten: Envision a New World
Every Woman's Action Guide Map For Success
About Equity Institute