I can’t even talk about Alabama because, if I do, if I even start thinking about it, I’ll start hating on people and that’s contrary to where I want to go with my life at this point since I’ve resolved to stop making people I differ with my enemies and to start finding common ground with them but there is no common ground to be found with people, men and women, who would force a younger me to have a stranger use a wire to end a pregnancy that I couldn’t have a doctor end because he would be breaking the law and so I had to take my life in my hands because that was less terrifying than what would lie ahead if I continued to be pregnant, and that’s what I’ll think about if I think about Alabama, that they wouldn’t care about the wire, it wouldn’t mean anything to them, but it could have killed me.
Sit in front, don’t hide
Your body is a statement
Presence claims its space
I was raised to be secondary.
That never occurred to me until the other night when I was talking with a friend about his possible retirement. It’s a big challenge for anyone whose work life has been central to their identity.
But I realized that it was less of a challenge for me than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love my work. I did. Almost more than anything.
When I quit, I felt like I had nothing left to prove. I’d already exceeded people’s expectations of me. Actually, I’d probably done that five minutes after taking my first professional job forty years ago.
All I was supposed to do, all I was shaped and raised to do, unwittingly, just naturally because that’s how it was, was this: get married and have children. And maybe help my husband if he was in a situation where my help would be needed which, if I made a decent match, would be unlikely.
Remember I am a person who took shorthand in college. I wasn’t a gal in the aim high club.
So when you think about how I was raised and what was expected of me, I’ve done okay. Moreover, being raised with low expectations gave me a weird kind of freedom. Nobody expected much of anything from me. So in that context, my whole professional life has been gravy.
In contrast, my male friend, having been raised to be primary, feels burdened by the expectations laid on him by his parents, by society, by himself. Though he has done an extraordinary amount, he can’t be finished yet. There is a pinnacle he thinks he hasn’t yet reached. It’s burdensome, those expectations.
I think things have changed for women and men but I don’t know that to be true. And until this conversation it never occurred to me really that I was raised to be secondary. But I was. And it has had its peculiar benefits.
I have been spending a lot of time lately in the company of women. We are smart and experienced and all about changing something that is bad into something good. We have a million ideas, reinforce each other, tell each other the truth, and laugh an enormous amount.
Our meetings are without pretense or posturing. If we ever had the habit of not listening to a colleague because we’re too busy formulating our response, we stopped doing that. Gone is the drive to one-up the last speaker, be smarter, cleverer, be the flaw-finder, oh lord, how much time women spend finding the stubborn stain in someone else’s ideas. “Yes, but…”
For much of my career, I was the flaw-finder and I was great at it. I carried a divining rod in my briefcase that could sniff out the cracks in anyone’s ideas. And I spared no one’s feelings. If something was flawed, I’d practically shout it out. It was like I just couldn’t wait to be right because you know, when I was right in my critique (or my attack more accurately), it was the men in the group who would be nodding their approval. The women just sort of steered clear.
It wasn’t that I was hungry for men’s approval, it was just the currency of the time.
So this year, the first year of my new life as an activist and advocate, I’ve had to rid myself of my old reflexes. Zeroing in on the flaws in others dead-ended conversations and made people want to avoid me, it made me want to avoid me. So I re-calibrated myself so I just shut up a fair amount of the time.
I’ve found that doing that allows me to appreciate the genius of other people. When I stopped trying to score points, I noticed that other people – women with whom I normally would have competed – were thoughtful and genuine, careful and strategic. So instead of shutting down flawed ideas, I learned how to sit patiently and let them take root and flower – other people’s and my own.
So maybe this would have been possible working with a group of men, I don’t know. With men, listening and resisting scoring points always seemed like deference, a deadly sin in my long, 70’s feminist book. But it doesn’t feel that way with women, not at all. Sitting with women tackling public policy feels more like a quilting bee with each of us holding up our end of the quilt and admiring each other’s stitches. It’s weird and I’m still getting used to it. But I love it, I really do.
When my daughter was born, it was the height of the 70’s women’s movement. I was determined that my child would be strong, brave, capable, respected. I wanted to give her a name fit for a judge. I envisioned her as a judge, her brass nameplate on the bench bearing the name I would give her. Her name needed to be regal, substantial. So I gave her a queen’s name – Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is a name with an infinite number of derivatives. Betty, Bette, Liz, Lizzie, Beth, Liza. Her name shrank for a while to Liz, which I liked an awful lot, but then expanded to her full judge name- Elizabeth – and I adjusted but not easily. She had become Liz to me. I saw her face and I saw Liz.
Unbeknownst to me, my daughter finally settled on Elizabeth as her permanent name which I shouldn’t have minded since I’d given her the name to begin with. With no warning, as if she should have to give warning about the use of her own given name, my daughter stopped being the person of derivatives and became her full self. I shouldn’t have been surprised since that was the plan all along – that she would be a woman of substance – but I was surprised and then I was glad. Satisfied, as if I had done this one thing right, given her a name fit for a judge. Or a queen.
My 12-year old granddaughter, the one with the black pants and black hoodie and black, straight-brim baseball cap, announced to me that she wanted to stop playing the flute in band because there are so many flute players, and instead she wanted to play the trumpet so I asked her why, why the trumpet?
“I want to be heard.” That was her answer.
I pondered this for a while. Yes, I thought. We’ve been waiting for you, waiting for this. We’ve been waiting for you to want to be heard and we are listening. Trumpet yourself. We are ready.
In my mind’s eye
I run, leap, stretch my arms
Lean muscle, hurling myself
Into a brown river, slicing
Like an arrow shot from my brother’s bow
I forget the self waiting
Plaid shorts and halter top
Worried the river held fish
That would slide against my legs
It’s a boy diving, I see his shorts
His friend waits behind him
It’s a statue of other people, not me
Though I could have been them
Had I known to be brave
“The Young Swimmers,” by James F. Hopfensperger