A bright, funny, whip-smart grade-school girl I have the good fortune to know was venting to me the minute she got out of school about how frustrating her day was because of some of her classmates’ actions. “They make weird noises and start laughing and interrupt our teacher, and I hate it. They think they’re so funny, and the more we tell them to stop, the worse they get.” I didn’t want to assume we were talking about boys vs. girls, but as she went into detail, it was, of course, exactly that way. “They don’t respect the teacher or us, they just do whatever they think is cool. It’s dumb. The girls never ever do that, why do the boys? I’d be so embarrassed, I’d never do it.” I wanted to tell her that it’ll get better and they’ll grow out of it, but I didn’t have the heart to lie to her – so we commiserated about it and she felt better, having been at least been heard by someone.
In middle school, the social hierarchy starts to form rather quickly, and my weird little good-in-school-but-not-in-social-situations pre-depressive brain couldn’t make sense of most of it, but one phenomenon in particular upset me to no end. As I progressed grade to grade, there were less and less females around me in my AP classes. Girls I KNEW knew the answers to the questions being asked in class were no longer raising their hands, fighting to get to answer first. Quite the opposite – they were staying quiet, and nodding in agreement and giggling insipidly when the boys in class answered correctly. Being smart was clearly becoming uncool quickly. My female friends would now dart out of our AP classes, trying to not be seen anywhere near them or their AP classmates, and I was no longer welcome to sit next to them at lunch. I was getting pushed around in the halls and on the bus by guys AND girls and being called a loser and ugly and an egghead. I would go home fuming, my user-competitive self asking my mom why on EARTH anyone would want to dumb themselves down for anyone, let alone a boy. She listened to my rants empathetically, and always told me to keep being myself, but that it had always been this way, even when she was a girl.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a group of people that included a 60-plus gentleman (truly, he is one) about a rather nondescript topic, already taking into account his profession and personality in how I’m inserting myself into the conversation, and I was struck by how he regularly just jumped in on top of whomever was speaking with no hesitation when he had something to add. As a lady with a lot of opinions, I’ve had to learn how to listen as well as talk so as not to piss people off with my selfishness (which I used to do a lot), to respect the natural flow of conversations, and to not interrupt others. I’m always loathe to break those self-imposed guidelines and feel genuine shame when I do, not to mention that in debate-like situations I tend to second guess myself and hesitate to speak at all. For him, though, he just freely pontificates, and will not be derailed until he finishes his entire thought, no matter what. At first, it’s frustrating to me, because of my aforementioned rules but also because it feels rude and disrespectful to those around him, including myself. Once the irritation subsides, though, I’m always able to see that it comes from an honest place, that he is excited to share his knowledge, that’s it has most likely nothing to do with the sexes on his part, and that he genuinely doesn’t see that others are pushed back when he charges ahead conversationally, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel as if my ‘two cents’, so to speak, aren’t welcome or even necessary in any conversation with him or men of his generation.
In these situations and a billion more like them that I or any woman could recount at the drop of a pussy hat, the experience of being talked and shouted over by those with louder and deeper voices than ours, disbelieved, looked over, discounted, underestimated, dismissed, objectified, undervalued, put down, and left out, is, from the kindergarten classroom to the senior center meeting floor, a universally female one. A woman learns early to choose her words carefully to avoid sounding ‘bitchy’ or ‘bossy’ or ‘know-it-all’ or ‘selfish’. A lady does not speak out of place. A good girl does not rock the boat by presenting a dissenting opinion. Hot girls and smart girls are two very different catergories, and first and foremost girls must always, always, always chooses beauty over anything else. All of these things lead me to a very specific, do-able action that men can all take this International Womens’ Day, the official Day Without A Woman.
Step back and concede the floor. No matter how conscientious you are in general, take extra care to let others, especially women speak, and truly listen to them. Your opinions are absolutely valid, but you don’t know who else has an equally sound point to make that hasn’t had a chance to, who is afraid to, who is second guessing herself due to simply being raised a woman and being told, directly and indirectly, that her words hold less weight than yours. Teach your sons to listen and teach your girls to speak. Raising those around you up only elevates you more, and you will never regret championing those who haven’t had all of the advantages you have. Fight for us by helping us join the fight.
Starting tomorrow and on from there, listen. Just listen.