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About the Author
Willa Shalit is the daughter of Gene Shalit and was the producer for The Vagina Monologues, which became a global phenomenon. She is also the co-founder and first Executive Direct of V-Day, the worldwide movement to end violence against women that grew out of the play. It was named one of Fortune's 100 Best American Charities of 2002. Shalit is also an internationally recognized sculptor and is the founder of The Touch Foundation, creating the Please Touch! Exhibition, which allowed the sight-impaired for the first time to "see" people of all races as well as famous people whose face they had only imagined. Shalit is the subject of the Emmy-winning PBS documentary Willa: Behind the Mask, and author of the book Lifecast: Behind the Mask.
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Becoming MyselfREFLECTIONS ON GROWING UP FEMALE
HYPERIONCopyright © 2006 Willa Shalit
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMaya Angelou
Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou was raised in segregated rural Arkansas. She is a poet, historian author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer, and director. She lectures throughout the United States and abroad and has been Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina since 1981. She has published ten bestselling books and numerous magazine articles, which have earned her Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations.
Becoming a woman is exciting, but it's ]lard. It's onerous, but it's honorable. It's satisfying, because people know a woman. When a woman is in the room, she doesn't have to talk loudly. She doesn't have to carry a six-gun. But people feel safe around her, all sorts of people, people she doesn't even look like. People whose color may be different and who may call God by different names. People from all generations feel comfortable around a woman. To grow up female with the determination to become a woman is to earn all the plaudits, all the accolades, all the respect that this society has to give. I believe you can't do it alone. I believe you have to have the ideals of women who went before you.
For me, these women are my grandmother, my mother,Pearl S. Buck, Madam Sun Yat-sen, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, a little, wan, white, female poet in the 1920s and '30s who became a recluse.
She wrote a poem that says,
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I hear him leading his horse out of the stall: I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning. But I will not bold the bridle while he cinches the girth. And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up. Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran. With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp. I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll. I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends nor of my enemies either. Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man's door. Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death? Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.
I've drawn from women in every culture and folk tale that I've read about. The great philosophers-European and Asian and American and African-have taken the wisdom from their grandmothers, mothers, fathers, and grandfathers that was spoken in common "kitchen" or "plantation" talk. They put the content into formal language, and those become philosophical statements of great pith and moment. The truth is the farmer, the peasant, the slave, the workman, and the workingwoman knew that birds of a feather flock together long before Shakespeare said, "Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel." They said, "Don't look down and bring somebody up. Look up and pull yourself up." My grandmother used to say, "It's almost impossible to make the richest clothes fit a miserable man." Listen to them without the trappings of academic ignorance. What they have to say is not all that important. It doesn't sound like it's Havelock Ellis, Kant, or Hegel? It doesn't sound as if it's Freud or Rollo May? Well, that's really stupid. If you sit there long enough, you'll hear "mother wit" that is applicable.
I believe that very few people grow up. Most people grow older, but growing up is challenging. Many people get older, honor their credit cards, matriculate into and graduate out of schools, get married and have children. They call that growing up, maturing. It's not. It is simply growing old. One has to assume responsibility for the time one takes up and the space one occupies. To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents. To grow up is to care not only about one's own self but about somebody else's, somebody yet to come. To grow up is to be in a constant state of forgiving. Forgiving yourself for not knowing better, or for knowing better and not doing better, and then releasing people from your own anger and angst. You must stop carrying them around in their ignorance and stupidity and cruelty, giving them purchase on your back, and always having them to poke and to pinch and to carry blame.
Growing up female is difficult. I have a son, and I was with him almost every day of his growing up, but I don't know what that was like, any more than he could know or anybody could know what it cost me to have a monthly period and not be able to explain why. I believe it's equally difficult for a male to grow up, but he may have more help because more men are empowered than women. When he's about fifteen or sixteen and doesn't know what to do with his hands because they're so big, his father and the president of the company and the principal of the high school and the president of the university and the chancellor have been there. They have sympathy (or him and can help him. Many times the only people women can identify with are not people in power.
I would encourage a girl who is at that place in life to see herself as she would like to be. To try to envision herself with power. I married a man once because he was a builder. Part of why I married him stemmed from the fact that he was so intelligent. I said I would like to build, but I could never. He said building has nothing to do with physical strength and certainly nothing to do with gender. Building has to do with your insight and determination. He said that if you can see it, you can build it. See it in your mind's eye, see every part of it from the foundation up; then you call build it. That's true for a young woman. See yourself. No matter what the world is saying around you, imagine yourself with power. Try to see yourself with power. Not power so that you can get even with anybody else. Power so that you can become even with your vision.
Janis began her musical career at an early age, playing both piano and guitar. When she was fifteen years old, her song of teenage interracial love, "Society's Child," thrust her onto the national stage. Her debut album, released in 1967, brought her the first of nine Grammy nominations. Her single "At Seventeen" sold more than a million copies. After a performing hiatus from 1982 to 1992, she returned to writing and touring. In 2003, she co-edited Stars: Stories Based on the Lyrics of Janis Ian. Also that year, she married her partner of fourteen years, criminal defense attorney Patricia Snyder.
I had a very supportive family who really believed that intellectual curiosity was to be encouraged, if not demanded, so I was into everything-books, baseball, bicycles, pianos, guitars, puppets, you name it.
When I was eight or nine, my family didn't have much money, so whatever I wanted beyond the bare necessities for school, I had to buy myself. Since I always wanted paper and pens and books, there was a constant struggle to make some money. I baby-sat from the time I was old enough to, and I cleaned people's garages and yards.
Then I realized I could ]lave a paper route once I got a bike, but when I applied, riley told me that they didn't give them to girls. So I talked to a couple of the boys. One of them had a brother who had a paper route, and he wanted to make more money. I said, "'Well, how about if you give me your paper route, and then I'll give you back some of the money?" It worked out really well for everybody.
In my family. Dad cooked as well as cleaned, and Mom took out the garbage as well as drove the car. Everybody did whatever was necessary, which is very much the way my dad was raised. He grew up on a farm, and on a farm you have to know how to do everything. There was never that male-female division of labor that you see in some families. My brother and I both did the same chores, we both had the same things. I wanted blocks and fire trucks, and I got those.
My mother's family were European Jews who came to America. Very traditional. Her mother stayed home, and her father went out to work and gave his wife all the money at the end of every week. But Mom really was one of the very early women's liberationists, because both she and my dad had no use for any of that nonsense about girls not being as capable as boys in certain areas. I don't know where she got her liberal attitude toward child raising, except that she's a very, very smart lady. She read Dr. Spock from cover to cover a hundred times.
Men just don't think like women. I think they're hardwired differently. I'm convinced it's genetic, because the most sensitive, wonderful middle-aged guy I know, my uncle, is like that, and lay brother is certainly like that. They think differently. They're totally incomprehensible. There's nothing wrong with that. I think it's fine if we can all say we're all really different but we deserve the same rights.
When my ex-husband told me that he didn't make beds, I said, "Well, unless you want to sleep on the floor, that's what you'll be doing here." I don't have any patience with that mind-set, because to me it wastes a lot of valuable time and energy. I remember my uncle, who worked with what they used to call alternative lifestyles, talking to me in the early 1970s about a song I did called "You Got Me on a String." It's very much a period piece and talks about, "If my man beats me, robs me blind, as long as he doesn't leave my, I don't mind." My uncle came backstage and said to me, "You know, you really shouldn't be singing that. These girls are looking up to you, and that's just sending a really bad message." And that was early-1972 or 1973.
I noticed a lot of it as a performer. Boys didn't have to wear makeup, which means that they had half as big a suitcase as I had to tote around; it was assumed that I would wear makeup. When I didn't, people thought I was sick-physically ill. Stage lighting is not geared toward makeup-free faces, but it doesn't matter if you're a boy. As for clothing, I remember doing the Tonight show, and I had to wear a dress. I thought, Well, this sucks. I think, personally, that I look really stupid playing guitar in a dress. I was sixteen back then.
Times have really changed. The assumption was in those days that if you didn't want to grow up and get married and have a family, you were really weird. At least if you were a woman. I remember there were bachelors in my family and among their friends, and nobody thought anything of it. But if a woman was unmarried and in her thirties or forties, it was considered very strange, very negative. I remember a great quote from back then. Somebody said, "Why is it so many gay women have such a hard set to their chins?" And the answer was, "Because they know that no man will bail them out."
I first tell in love when I was twenty. There's an astonishment, I think, at any age when you're in love, that horrible, heady, desperate feeling that you can't get enough of the person, but it's always too much. There's all the hope when you're young of the promise of love being forever, that the person is the one who really understands you, who knows everything about you. I think it takes a certain level of maturity to come to the point where you understand that even if they don't always understand you, that even though they don't always know you, you can still love somebody very much. When you're young, you're really looking for perfection, and perfection at that age is usually a mirror of yourself.
It's a very complicated thing, being gay and being in love, or it was back then, anyway: The woman I was in love with, her family was never told point-blank. My family knew, and they were fine, but her family would not have been. Then I was outed in the Village Voice in 1976 when we were still living together. I'm sure that that caused some consternation. There was a writer whose purpose in life at that time, this gay guy, was to out as many people as possible. I don't remember his name. He went on a rampage for a few months, and he outed me and Elton and Bowie and a whole mess of people. It freaked me out for a couple of days, partly because I just didn't want to be dealing with it. I was young, and I really didn't want to be dealing with the inevitable questions that would arise. Even when I came out myself in 1992, 1993, and there was all this press, I tried to be very clear in my shows that this was not about excluding anyone. It's always been a worry for me that something like that will get everybody so off topic that they'll forget about what it is I do.
I went through a period when I was about thirty-eight, thirty-nine, or forty when I realized that I was never going to have a hit record again and nobody was going to invest that kind of money in me again. I found myself on the verge of becoming really bitter about it. It was hard walking through that, trying to make the transition to, "OK, if I'm never going to have a hit record again, since that's been the driving goal of my life for decades, what am I going to be when I grow up?" Hopefully, when you realize things like that, you use the realization to move yourself forward instead of backward. I think that's a really important thing, but I don't think you can do it until you again hit a certain level of maturity. I used to resent it so much when adults would tell me, "You won't understand until you're older," but there are an awful lot of things I now realize that they were absolutely right about-and that I could not possibly have understood until I grew up.
I think the big difference between then and now is that we now all have a vocabulary for things attached to growing up as a female. When I was eight or nine years old, there was no phrase "women's liberation." There was no "equal pay for equal work." Those weren't in the popular lexicon, they weren't subjects you thought about; you, just assumed that what you saw on TV in Beaver's house was the way everybody's life was. I knew it wasn't, because my family's life wasn't like that, but I'd say that pretty much everyone else I knew thought that way. So I think at first you can't discuss something until you have a language for it. You can't really think about something until you give it a name. First there's the language, and then, from my own personal viewpoint, there's maturity. There's the concept that there are things that I know now because of my age that give me the right, because of my age and experience, to speak out within the framework of that language in ways that probably wouldn't have occurred when I was younger.
The one thing I would say to girls is, don't settle. This country was founded by women like my grandmothers, who never settled for the life that they had before they threw it away to come here. To me, it's criminal to insist that a girl settle because she's a girl. So if somebody tries to do that to you, put them in jail.
Suzanne Malveaux is a CNN White House correspondent and one of the rotating panelists on that network's weekly current-events program On the Story. Before moving to CNN, she worked as a general-assignment correspondent for NBC News. Prior to that, she did general-assignment reporting for WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., and from 1991 to 1994 worked in the same capacity for FXT-TV and New England Cable News in Boston. She graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in sociology and has a master's degree in broadcasting from Columbia University. She is an active competitor in triathlon events.
It is a strange experience to be so close to someone that you cannot distinguish where your life begins and the other's ends. That's the way it was growing up with my twin sister, Suzette.
In early childhood, I remember the foot giving way, the slip, and then the tunable down the moving stairs, but I can't tell you whether I was the one who fell down the escalator or whether I was watching my sister take the spill in front of me. All I know is that to this day we both hesitate before we get on an escalator.
Excerpted from Becoming Myself Copyright © 2006 by Willa Shalit. Excerpted by permission.
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