There are a lot of things that I want to tell the young women in my life. Sometimes I attempt to share my experiences, and maybe they take some of it in. Other times I feel like I’m grabbing them by the shoulders, shaking them, and spouting feminism through wine-stained teeth. Sometimes it’s a little bit of both.
Anyway, I want you to hear a few things before you head off into the wild blue yonder. I offer no warnings for you; the last thing you need is to be patronized. I simply want you to emerge stronger of mind and of heart than I did at 18.
1. Your voice matters. There will probably be a time that you walk into a room full of men, and you might be intimidated—it still happens to me—but remind yourself that you are bringing opinions and experiences that won’t be otherwise heard in that room. Speak up. Don’t let anyone talk over you. Your voice is essential to progress. (This is especially important for you ladies going into STEM.)
2. You don’t owe anyone anything. Not your time, not your attention, and not even a smile. And absolutely not your body. Some people feel entitled to all of these things simply because you are a woman. We are all conditioned to reply with a smile, even if you are declining their offer. Even if they make you scared. And a smile undermines your “no.” This is a vicious cycle that, unfortunately, I don’t think lessens until there is a ring on your finger. Maybe not even then.
Not six months ago, an over-fifty construction worker leaned up against the door jamb of my office and invited me over to have some “huckleberry vodka.” I laughed, and politely declined. I probably made a joke out of it as I always do. I was at work and it made me uncomfortable, but my first reaction was to laugh. I am still learning to say “no” at 26. Learn it now, and make no apologies.
3. If you follow number one and two, you will be called names at some point. It can range from bossy and overly-ambitious (here’s looking at you, Hillary Rodham Clinton), to bitch and c*** (again, here’s to HRC). Sometimes it will come from men and other times (frustratingly) it will come from other women. You have to consciously decide to not internalize the negativity, and that’s easier said than done.
Even more frustrating is the fact that acting on your justified anger usually makes this worse. Your stomach is in knots and you have to bite your tongue and tell yourself not to react, or sentence yourself to a brand new barrage of name-calling (“feminazi”).
4: Your body is not your worth. Your looks are not what you can contribute the world. Some people are going to see you as a woman first and a person second. You are not just a pair of legs or eyes or anything else. Throw up a big middle finger to anyone who makes you feel like you are.
5: There’s a whole lot of us. There is a network of women who have gone through the ringer for decades longer than I have, and they prop other women up and to pull them forward. A sisterhood. A whole lot of us have discovered that we are all on the same team. Tearing each other down is counterproductive; it’s hurting you. It’s hurting all of us.
So move forward. Live life exactly the way you want to. Be bold. Be unapologetic.
And remember that I got you, girl. We all do.