It's time to be honest with our daughters about the fight
“I’m a Girl. That’s my superpower.”
As I walked past the t-shirt with the Girl Power message, I felt the sting of oncoming tears. It wasn’t pride. It was pain at the half-truth we are feeding our girls as we seek to empower them. It was reality disrupting the wishful narrative.
It’s time to take a break from the hashtags, catchy slogans and cool t-shirts and be honest with our growing daughters about life as a woman in America. Yes, being a girl is your superpower, but around every corner is someone who thinks they have a pocket full of kryptonite.
You can and should try to be whatever you want, but you must know that there will often be people who will use your gender to try to dissuade you, to condescend to you, to undermine you or make you feel uncomfortable, to keep you from achieving your goals – or at least being paid fairly when you attain them.
They will use words like emotional, shrill, bitch.
Most damaging is that it won’t always be the obvious villain. It will one day (and many days) be someone you consider a friend or a respected colleague. They will look you up and down before saying hello or say something that you are supposed to take as a “compliment.” These little things will add up over time and there will be days, really difficult days, when you want to cry at the lack of progress and blame yourself.
America’s systemic misogyny and sexism is depressing and can be defeating. People voted for a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women, going into dressing rooms at beauty pageants and was heard ogling a 10-year-old girl, predicting he’d be dating her in 10 years.
It’s time to tell my daughter that the oft-talked about glass ceiling isn’t shattered at all. There are millions of tiny cracks and, at times, that just makes it rain painful shards of glass.
And while I will always give her perspective -- pointing out that it’s worse for women of color, those born in poverty, girls in countries that don’t allow them to go to school – having that perspective doesn’t make it less difficult.
She can’t thrive in the victories of past generations as I had hoped when she was born. She will still have to spend too much time and energy continuing the same fight to be treated equally, to be legislated for equally, paid equally. And the victories, large and small, won’t always be sweeter for the fight.
She is growing up in a country where as discussion about the NFL and anthem dominated this weekend, I watched Neanderthals on Twitter use the #takeaknee controversy as an opportunity for blow job comments against female sportswriters who dared give an educated opinion. It is a place where journalists and female members in congress fight through – and hide – daily sexual harassment. Maybe they will reveal it in a book months or years later and some will praise their bravery for telling the truth instead of noting a society that doesn’t allow them to feel free to speak out at that time and think they will keep their jobs or not face worse abuse.
She is living in a state where NJ assemblyman Parker Space recently repeatedly called his opponent a bitch and Governor Chris Christie, while saying the assemblyman should apologize for such an inappropriate insult, excused it as the kind of mistake we all make and called him a person of “good character.”
My daughter is a citizen of a country where, in 2017, yes, it’s not that big of a deal for a woman to be a cabinet member, but right now one is dismantling protections for campus sexual assault victims. Where men are trying to take away her ability to one day access affordable healthcare at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Where insurance companies could be allowed to deny payment for birth control, but congress will help throw money at erectile dysfunction. Where political leaders want to make pregnancy a pre-existing condition and tax feminine hygiene products as if they are a luxury item.
This is her world and, while it has certainly gotten worse in the last year, it was never what I hoped for her. There was always too much need to fight the same fight, too many moments illustrating the frustrating reality. I need only look at my own career to give her fair warning.
During a live radio interview, I was accused of sleeping with a player and ending his marriage. I was writing on deadline once when a colleague I considered a friend told me I looked “distractingly good.” I have listened in shock and sadness as people I respect protected and made excuses for a colleague’s appalling, misogynistic comment. Most recently, a visiting corporate executive walked by my cubicle and winked.
I have spent a lot of time after each of these events regretting my silence, criticizing myself for not having the courage of my convictions, experiencing the familiar guilt of not standing up for myself as I let down future generations of women.
I can’t even count the number of times I have given my daughter the speech about standing up for herself. But how can I give it to her in good conscience without telling her the rest – it’s not easy, at times, it’s not possible without life-altering consequences. When must you weigh the cost and put down the gauntlet for your own greater good? How do you forgive yourself for inaction?
My daughter’s world is still in too many ways, my world and my mom’s world – a place where a women’s ability to succeed is often largely about how well she puts up with the institutional sexism and the small acts of harassment that come each and every day.
It is all so sadly familiar and, yet in one way, a reality I could never have imagined for her.
Reading the newspaper on a visit to Washington, D.C. last October, my daughter asked me what “groping” meant. I explained the definition and the story about the multiple accusations against Donald Trump. Then, literally as we walked toward Pennsylvania Avenue, she asked me how anyone could vote for a person who did that. I told her I didn’t know.
The truth is I may not understand, but I do know. It’s because so many people continue to have little to no respect for women, discount their accusations of assault, believe men of power have a right to certain actions or the women brought it on themselves. It is because there are people who could be dismissive of all of that as unimportant compared to whatever issue they believe is important.
On November 9, I went into my daughter’s bedroom to wake her up for school and quietly started to cry. Could I ever again tell her that she could be anything, do anything? Could I ever explain to her how so many people – including many she knows and trusts – could discount the clear hatred, objectification and physical attacks on women and cast that vote for president, could knowingly set out to make her life more difficult?
Not a week later, I ran a 5K with her and her fellow members of “Girls on the Run,” an organization that helps elementary school-age girls be happy, healthy, confident and prepared for life’s challenges through a combination of social curriculum and running. I found tears silently streaming down my cheeks again as I cheered on the next generation of women, telling them they could do it. Just keep going. Keep fighting.
But they need to fully understand the fight to be properly prepared for it and we must be honest while somehow continuing to instill a belief in themselves, in the possibilities, in every empowering hashtag, march and movement.
I don’t have the answer, but I know now more than ever, we must arm our girls with the whole truth not a bunch of peptalks that will leave them confident but ignorant, one day blindsided by a reality they were never told existed.
Then the fight will continue and we will not give up -- not her generation, not mine and not the one that came before me. Because one day, I hope, her daughter will grow up in the more just and less difficult world I wanted for her.
One day, I must believe, her tears will flow in the face of true equality.