The Woman Divide
I returned last week from a trip to Washington D.C. where I joined over 500,000 of my fellow humans on the Women’s March; pink-hatted, sign-carrying and fired up. I didn’t see anyone famous, though I rubbed shoulders with a lot of good natured regular folks. Being on the streets of DC the day after the U.S. inauguration was like being a molecule of dust in a tornado. Even so, I represented just the 49%. When I heard that 51% of white women voted for Donald Trump I felt as though someone had punched me in the gut. Seriously? A sexist, misogynistic, pussy-grabbing flesh bag is preferable than a woman who accidentally deleted a few emails?
I’m mad. Really mad at these women. So mad I couldn’t possibly have a civil conversation with one of them. I tried. On the train into town from the airport, the evening of the actual inauguration (you know, the one that was viewed by more people than ever in the history of inaugurations – they just didn’t happen to be in Washington) a woman with a big Trump button on her lapel sat down behind me. After a minute she leaned towards me.
“So what is this woman’s march anyway?”
“Well,” I started out calmly. “It’s a coming together of people who don’t agree with the policies the new administration wants to implement.” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘Trump’.
“So what kind of things are you concerned about?” I believed she was genuinely curious.
“Things like health care, women’s rights, education, the environment.”
And then, out of the blue, she says, “Well, Obama never did anything for me! I’m a small business owner and I’ve had to pay more taxes and it’s hard on us.”
Rather than point out that I didn’t consider my vote to pertain only to my own economic self-interests I said, still keeping my cool, “What do you think Trump is going to do for you?”
She looked into the distance and began to nod her head, as though she were taking cues from an invisible coach on the other side of the train. “I think Trump is going to make America great again.”
She got out at the next stop before I’d had a chance to pick my chin up off the floor. Then I heard that unfiltered voice inside my head say, ‘Goddamn, idiotic woman!’
I hate dividing people into demographics, but when it comes to self-interests, women are perhaps the most divided demographic in the world. We divide ourselves over race, economic status, abortion, motherhood, body size, religion, career or no career. And then we fight about it. As a privileged white, middle class woman, I sometimes feel the only thing preventing me from doing what I want in the 21st Century – thanks to the tireless work of suffragettes, feminists and the men who supported them – is other women. Remember Phyllis Schlafly, the lawyer who led the rampage of a campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment? (Oh sorry, did you not know that women are still not equal citizens in the USA?) She once said a woman would be president of the United States “over my dead body.” Well, she died two months before the election and I thought it was a sign we were finally stepping over her. But apparently we have more than a few women to fill her shoes and believe, like she did that:
The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap.
What I think underlies the white female support of Trump is a deep seeded distrust of other women. Because even if she didn’t agree with Trump’s policies her vote was a repudiation of Hillary Clinton. Even if you thought Hillary was a deplorable candidate, to vote for Trump was to vote for a deplorable human being, one who gets his power from smashing apart anything in his way and has been reliably deemed a ‘malignant narcissist’ by more than a few psychiatrists.
Sadly, this attitude is wrapped up in the messages we got as kids concerning the role of men and women. As lovely as it might sound that women are of great support to their husbands and families, that has too often resulted in a deference to the man, the father, the ‘head of the household’. As soon as our son’s see this happening, they will also begin to treat their mothers as second in the hierarchy. And our daughters will internalize this. They may fight against it as they come of age, but image after image in our culture continues to portray women as things to be desired, taken care of, and relegated to the domestic sphere.
And we raise our boys and girls differently. There was a TED talk, given by Reshma Saujani founder of Girls Who Code, in which she stated that boys are encouraged to be brave and girls to be perfect. Some women may rise up in a chosen career, but they are still woefully underrepresented at all levels of government and business. And one of the reasons why, Saujani claims, is because women are more cautious and would rather not attempt a project, or go for a job, unless they felt they couldn’t fail. A report she cites found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. Saujani says she thinks it’s evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious.
Not so, the feminists of the 60’s and 70’s. They rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty. By the time I got to college in the 1980’s we didn’t feel we needed to fight for much anymore. And we weren’t sure we wanted to be associated with the radical, hairy armpitted feminist. So we took it for granted that many of those battles to be treated as equals had been won and we could simply get on with our lives as females without impediments. Then in the 90’s we embraced the cult of motherhood which rewarded – not with any real support systems in place such as paid maternity and subsidized child care – the stay at home mother. She was praised foremost for her selfless devotion to the household (Hello, Martha Stewart), the kids (Hothouse/Helicopter Parent), and the husband (Victoria’s Secret was suddenly everywhere). I blame Martha Stewart for being single handedly responsible for the crushing perpetuation of perfection among us high achieving women who made the domestic front their new career.
Amy Chua, author of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ justifies her relentless drive for perfection from her own daughters. She rails against the slide into self-indulgence she sees in kids. But even though Chua claims it was a self-mocking memoir, it stirred a lot of debate regarding the responsibility of parents to drive their children to succeed. And since Chua had two girls, we read how their spirits are nearly broken by the incessant browbeating from their mother to do better, to practice until they were perfect.
So now the US has a president who would rather see a woman walk down a catwalk in a swimsuit than pilot a spacecraft. I guess my only hope is that the women who supported Trump, will continue to die out and we’ll replace them with women who are not afraid to be brave well before they need to be perfect. This upheaval has also helped me become aware of my own sexism. I assume a man can fix my car better. I like to see men deliver the news (although Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes fame smoked them all). I even berated my son once for hitting a girl when, really, it shouldn’t matter that she was a girl and I’d just sent him a message that hitting a girl was worse than hitting a boy.
I truly believe the future of our society starts at home with how we raise our kids. And even if you don’t have daughters, it’s essential that we raise our sons to believe that men and women are equally capable. I may never be able to be a firefighter or solve complicated math formulas, but that doesn’t mean I’m better suited to staying home and cleaning the house. That means women have to first and foremost believe in themselves, dispense with perfection and take risks. The confidence we exude when we are grounded in a strong sense of ourselves as women will affect our kids more than anything we will ever say to them. And it will be harder to comprehend ever giving power again to a hateful man who prefers women be pretty and quiet.
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