Being a woman in a patriachy (many ways)

A lot of the women I admire are a certain way.  It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve ever seen Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton you get an idea about it.  There’s a certain sense (they have, almost always accurately) that they’re always right.  Non-apologetically.  There’s strong opinions and disappointment in people who don’t do their job.  And the disappointment is voiced in a specific way.  Again, it’s hard for me to explain.

I used to be more like that.  More confident.  More willing to take a stand.  More willing to believe in myself and my power.  Less willing to “put up with fools gladly”.  More willing to write off -ist naysayers as the tools or idiots they are.

I’ve drawn back.  Become socialized.  I’ve forced myself to do this, changed to become a “better person” and doing so I’ve lost some of my ability to win against odds.  Drive is still there, but not the will.  Not the ability to brush everything off and not get hurt.

And that’s hurt.

But it’s also who I am now.  Wishy-washy too much one way not enough another.

Maybe I’ve always been this sensitive.  Secretly worrying that I’m wrong, that I’m confidently making bad decisions.

And I know I seem confident and secure to a lot of women, and I am, or at least more so than average.  But that’s only because the patriarchy beats women down into under-confident second-guessers.  And I have a perfect family and a strong belief that my current level of sins and insecurities will not and cannot threaten them.

I can’t go back, and I’m not sure I would want to.  That’s not who I am anymore.  Once you see shades of grey, it’s hard to unsee them.  It’s maybe a little easier to be likable and soft, even if it means I’m less admired and have to put up with more excrement.  It’s hard to say.  Or maybe by fighting the patriarchy harder I’d be dealing with even more -ist poo.  But at least I’d be feeling virtuous about the fight.

It’s hard to say.



(Print it out and color it in!)

21 Responses to “Being a woman in a patriachy (many ways)”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    Perhaps what you are feeling is wisdom….not wishy washiness.

    It’s more difficult to be firm on a path forward when there is more than one road you can use to get to your destination. I didn’t really see or realize this when I was younger. I always thought there had to be only one “best” answer to any question.

    I used to hate it when people wouldn’t answer a direct question about how to go about doing something or what job to take next. But now, 20 years later, I realize that its because their own solution may not be a good match for me. The best answers are often the ones that come from within…not ones that are handed to you. A big demotivater for me is when I fundamentally don’t believe in what I am working on. If you feel it’s your own ideas you are implementing you are much more apt to be successful and productive. That’s why the really great managers I know will keep probing you with questions until you come up with the answer on your own, not hand you a mandate on how to do soemthing.

    Speaking of grey…I was interviewing creative people I knew for an innovation class I was teaching and one of the best quotes I heard was this: “Life is not black and white. Its,the grey where you find the creativity and innovation in any concept.”

    • hush Says:

      “Perhaps what you are feeling is wisdom.” Shades of grey, definitely.

      Sometimes powerful people keep their power by strategically refusing to engage. And sometimes silence and intentionally changing the conversation are the right answers in a given context. No one needs to respond, guns blazing, to every -ism and slight that crosses their path. How exhausting. We get to pick and choose. Sounds like you’re doing a great job.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      10 years ago, when I deliberately made the change, I would have called it wisdom. Today, I’m not so sure. Who knows what I will believe in another 10 years.

  2. Cardinal Says:

    I honestly think it’s part of aging, and agree with the commenter above that these attributes form part of wisdom. Being able to see the shades of grey, being open to one’s own vulnerability (and to other people’s), being willing to revise one’s own stance upon hearing how it affects someone else… These are valuable qualities to have, regardless of gender. And I view my efforts to value these attributes in myself and in my colleagues (and my children!) as a way of subverting the patriarchy without battling it on its own terms.

  3. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I can relate to you here with this. When I was younger, I was way more headstrong, confident, assertive, and opinionated. I could easily dismiss people as clueless and move on.

    I am not like that anymore. At all. Sometimes, I’m not sure it’s better and sometimes I’m sure it is. I feel way more vulnerable now than I ever did in my much younger years. I actually find myself a bit turned off by people who are like I used to be– Hillary Clinton and Pelosi are perfect examples. Sometimes I kinda want to throttle them because I find them to be so inflexible and that drives me batty. At the same time, I am grateful for their existence.
    The world needs all kinds after all.

    And you never know, this might just be a new you for a little while like the old you was you for a little while. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately– how much we change through the years, how we wear different hats.

    I like to think that in my older years, especially if I hit the 70’s and 80’s I’ll go back to being how I was when I was younger. I’d like to think I will be less inclined to put up with fools gladly at that point in my life because who has time for that when you’re 80!?

  4. chacha1 Says:

    Activism is, in most people, a short-lived impulse. The strong will to be assertive, and to take no sh*t, and to actively push back simply doesn’t survive for a lifetime in most people. In the people who can and do maintain their activist spirit throughout their adult lives – people like Gloria Steinem and Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, since we speak of women here – you see collateral damage in multiple orbits around them.

    You have to put your passion into one thing at a time, is what it boils down to. Most people can’t sustain it because they don’t have the ambition to push past the fatigue and the conflict and the loss. Most people choose to step back and invest their passion in personal relationships and their personal economy. That’s called “normal” and it’s not a bad thing. Alternatively, people have a quiet “micro” life until their families are settled and/or independent, and *then* they find the urge to become activist. There is suddenly room in their lives for new passions. This is also normal and not a bad thing.

    It’s sort of like being a pop star. A lot of people out there have the chops (musicianship, dancing, writing) to do what Madonna did. But very few people have the will to do all the foul/dangerous and stressful/exhausting things she had to do in order to achieve what she has.

  5. SP Says:

    Haha, love the coloring page!

    I’ve never been the confident/assertive type. Not that I’m not confident (and I project confidence and competence – have received that feedback.) However, I am more quiet about it. Like, I’ll just go and do my thing, do it awesomely, and point out what I did. It works with some people (people who are generally open minded /fair), but a louder and more visible approach would likely work better with a lot more. Especially in the business world. I am not afraid to speak my mind, but the constant “being visible” and talking to be heard tired me out – both when others do it, and when I do it.

    So yeah, I’m not fighting the patriarchy, not really. I’m doing things that it discourages me from (science, leadership, etc.), but I’m more likely to go around the patriarchy than to battle.

    I’m glad we have fighters, but it isn’t a role I’d excel in or enjoy.

    Also, I much prefer “wisdom” to “aging”!

  6. becca Says:

    This reminds me a bit of a mentor I had in grad school. She would commiserate with all the patriarchy battles the grad students faced, but her primary contribution was to be a very nurturing mentor. She’d do things like refuse to serve on a thesis committee if she was the only woman- because *everyone* wanted her on their committee, and it cut down on the #s a bit, but also because if she was going to be on your committee she wanted the meetings to not be miserable experiences of being mansplained to, and she had found via experience that having even one other woman there could change the whole tone of the meetings.

    Ultimately, I admire what she did for us a lot and think she’s a wonderful person. If you want to be admired, nurturing people on a small scale instead of fighting battles on a large scale can’t be beat. However, be assured she was just as exhausted emotionally as if she’d fought the larger battles. Giving a damn is emotionally exhausting, no matter what. If what re-energizes you is being admired, don’t go the Hillary Clinton route. If what re-energizes you is getting shit done, well then it can get a little more complex… we all have to learn where our gifts lie. If you need any patriarchy battling with a non-conflict averse snarky tone, you can always give me a call…

  7. Norwegian Forest Cat Says:

    Oh gosh, this is all of the things I’ve been thinking lately. So much pressure to be all of the things to all people at all times!

    I’ve always been pretty no-nonsense and willing to throw some sass when I’m being mansplained to. I also have an exceptionally low threshold for BS, laziness, and other shenanigans when they have any impact on my work, and I make a point to say something when people around me are dropping the ball. I do this partly because I want my work to succeed, but also because I want theirs to succeed. This feisty part of my personality really blossomed in grad school thanks to my department head/Ph.D. advisor, who surprised me with his blatant feminism when I was getting ready to graduate and hit the job market. It’s really killer to have someone who will go to bat for you like that, and he encouraged this feisty party of my personality every step of the way.

    But, I realized around the time I was looking for postdocs that I might be more successful in the long run if I diluted out the spice with some sugar, especially with respect to getting people to want the same things that I want (even if it was just cleaning up after yourself in common lab areas). I decided to come to a department that has a lot of strong, well-respected women in it, and they are all terrific; perhaps it really is a numbers game, where once you hit a critical mass of women in the group, a vocal woman is seen as offering helpful suggestions instead of being a bitch.

    But, still I struggle with this! My coworker (singular) is really struggling because he is much, much more careless than I am, and is not willing to ask for help when he really needs it. It’s such a challenge to find the balance between being nurturing and being firm, especially with someone who is much less experienced at handling criticism from his peers. Discussing this with my SO makes me realize that this is really not a mental conundrum men find themselves in–when they offer criticism (especially to other men), it’s almost always interpreted as being constructive, not catty.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It really is a double-bind. I’m not even sure it’s possible to walk that line, and I’m no longer sure that the side I’m on is the side that’s better for me and for my goals to be on. There are benefits to being liked, but there are also benefits for not having to put up with so much crap (or at least not caring about it and mentally assigning full blame where it’s actually due– not suffering fools so much).

      • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

        One of my friends is on the board of a male dominated engineering school and they did studies about ratios of men/women and gender issues. Apparently the magic number for critical mass is 37%. When the student body population of women reached 37%, many of the gender issues they were monitoring went away at this particular university. When I was in school, it was a 5 to 1 ratio of men to women.

        So, at least one datapoint shows that it doesn’t have to be a 50/50 split for a work or school environment to “feel” normal, but it’s certainly a much higher number than 1.

      • Norwegian Forest Cat Says:

        I really wish there were a middle ground, though…perhaps being aware of when I’m being a little too harsh/sassy/feisty is good enough? I’ve been trying to make an effort to explain my intentions better to the recipient before I offer any constructive criticism, and try to make it clear that the only reason why I speak up is because I care about their work and their success. They usually understand best when I mention that if I didn’t care about their work or I thought that they were hopeless, I would keep my mouth shut. :)

        My former advisor was adamant that it’s better to be good than to be loved (at least when it comes to work things), and it’s certainly gotten him far in this life. But, he had a notorious reputation for a long time about how hard he was on people, and he nearly broke me while I was working on my dissertation. He refused to acknowledge this (even after I left the lab) because I came out of it on the other side with a degree and a job. Surely there is something that is a happier medium!

  8. Cloud Says:

    I think I’m moving in the opposite direction… maybe there is a happy, wise middle we’ll both land at? I’ve been wishing for wisdom a lot lately…. Wisdom to know which battles to fight and which to leave, wisdom to know how to keep working for change and still be happy in the (pretty damn awesome) life I have. Things like that.

    I think there is a difference between public persona and personal feelings, too. I can project confidence in public and still be a lot less confident at home when I’m just talking to my husband, for instance. I doubt we’re seeing anywhere near the full range for any woman in the public eye, because to display that would be to invite so much sh**.

    There is a lot for me to think about in this post and the comments, and I’ll try to come back and say something more substantial later.

  9. plainandsimplepress Says:

    “Once you see shades of grey, it’s hard to unsee them.”

    I like that. A lot. And see many others of your readers do, too. What do you bet this is a bon mot that will go viral in the spoken language…someday it will come back to you, out of the mouth of someone who’s ten or twenty years younger than you.

  10. becca Says:

    … listening to “You’re Aging Well” by Dar Williams reminded me of this post. Seems like it’s time for a listen.

  11. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Speaking of weird spam, apparently this post attracts Mormon spam…

  12. Louisa Rogers Says:

    Confidence and assertiveness are important, but so is a leader who is willing to say, “I screwed up.” And I don’t see many leaders/ politicians of either gender willing to really say that. The opposite of confidence– vulnerability– is also powerful. At 63, I like to think I’m better at holding back at times, not feeling I have to be heard, and listening than when I was younger. The word that came up for me that you’re rooting around is “nuanced”… another phrase for shades of gray. Maybe this is a time when you’re exploring quietness and self-restraint after earlier eras of activism. I see this as a strength. The more we can be comfortable with all sorts of seeming opposites, the more we have to draw from.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Haha, no, definitely not quietness and self-restraint, as those are qualities the women I admire have in abundance, but are also qualities of women who go entirely the opposite direction crushed under the heel of the patriarchy. That’s a different dimension.

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