Shortly after the New Year, I read a post by a young woman of what it means to be a woman in a world of discrimination and indoctrination. The post, “I Am Reminded I Am a Woman When I Learn to Be Silent,” by Laura Jensen, is a powerful sentiment that I have seen reflected in many forms of media. The piece hit me in many ways that were both unexpected and obvious. It made me sad, reminding me of all the times catcalling had occurred to me. It made me angry and oddly comforted that this writer did what I did when presented with a situation in which I may be harassed; I attempted to hide in plain sight, downplay my identity and wish for invisibility. The plight of women is real. So is discrimination. Women, as well as, many identities of humans in all societies feel the weight of otherness placed on them by the dominant society. My initial take-away from this piece was that it was a straightforward post that needed no other evidence to support it. Women feel othered, littled, harassed and disrespected; it is an unpleasant, universal reality.
A week later, reminiscent of the author’s own decision to revisit her own initial response to the question of whether she thought often of her identity as a woman, I thought again about what feelings this piece evoked in me. There are other truths that the statements silence. While a majority of the time I may avoid a construction zone because I fear harassment, there are other times when I don’t. I asked myself the questions: Why didn’t I? Why should I?
This post is a thoughtful and reflexive response and an answer to those questions. I am very grateful to the author’s post and how it inspired me to think beyond. This blog post will first quote the original piece, followed by my own interpretation in bold.
I Am Reminded I Am a Woman When I Learn to Be Silent
I am reminded I am a woman when I have to decide whether or not to leave my hair down and potentially be harassed for it, or stuff it under a hat. Not that it matters; I’ll get harassed anyway, but if my hair is up, it gives me the chance to find another part of my body to blame.
I remind myself I am a woman when I decide to not allow other people’s opinion dictate how I dress. I am a smart, well informed and strong individual; despite the response I may get and no matter how I dress, I know that changing who I am is worse than changing my clothes.
I am reminded I am a woman when I walk across the street from my building and cringe at the sight of the sidewalk where two construction workers yelled obscenities at me at last week. “Thank you,” I want to say to them. “You made me afraid of coming home.”
I am empowered by my identity as a woman when I take my fear of the normalcy of street harassment and am not ashamed of my response to it. If I choose to walk down the same street of those construction workers, knowing that their gaze is on me/on my body, I am proud that my gaze is not lowered to the ground, but raised. My gaze is not behind, but forward. If I choose to walk on the other side of the street, I acknowledge my right to not be harassed and to counter that harassment with one even more powerful: respect for myself and my comfort.
I am reminded I am a woman when I quickly navigate alleyways to make sure I keep maximum distance away from the men standing, smoking, watching. Head down, headphones in. I am reminded I am a woman when I adjust my route to avoid the groups of white men in suits who refuse to let me pass them, refuse to acknowledge the way they were taught to take up space while I was taught to adapt to their bodies.
I am angry I am a woman in a society still in denial of the irrevocable existence of women, especially when I navigate alleyways to maintain distance from men. My anger is witness to the fact that they have learned to take up space and I have learned to adapt. I use my anger to make others aware of this educational discrepancy.
I am reminded I am a woman when the male barista tries to start a conversation with me about my weekend, and I am reluctant to respond because I have learned that welcoming discussion from strangers means I am at fault for anything that could happen next. I am reminded I am a woman when I feel guilty and paranoid for not answering his questions with a smile.
I am confident in my sexuality as a woman when a male – anyone – tries to start a conversation with me. I am my own person, just as everyone else is. We are at fault for our own mistakes. I do not need to apologize for asking to be left alone. I do not feel guilty for adhering to my own feelings, rather than fulfilling the expectations of another’s.
I am reminded I am a woman when I say “sorry” for the seventh time before noon, then apologize when people tell me to stop saying “sorry” so often.
I am aware I am a woman when my concern for the wellbeing of others is constructed as weakness. I honor others by respecting them, and it is the people who lack respect in themselves who do not know the healing and self-health of forgiveness.
I am reminded I am a woman when my depression is attractive to boys because it gives them another reason to protect me, a Plathian Tragedy who needs to be told she’s beautiful, whose brokenness beckons for callused hands to put her back together. I am reminded I am a woman when I am taught that I should be grateful for anyone who loves me, even if they hurt me – I’m damaged goods, after all, and according to one boy, it’s not easy to love damaged goods.
I am the keeper of my own self, my own body, my own health. As a woman, we are taught we are broken. As a woman, when people insist on this truth, I honor myself, by not believing them, by telling my story, by taking care of myself. The damaged goods are their corrupted viewpoint. I refuse to allow others to impact my identity and sense of self-worth.
I am reminded I am a woman when I am terrified to publish these words or say them out loud because I know Commenter 1 will tell me to stop playing victim, Commenter 2 will say men experience the same thing, Commenter 3 will tell me micro-aggressions aren’t important, and Commenter 4 will keep it simple by calling me a whiny, worthless bitch.
I am amused by the responses to my ideas of being a woman. Of the commenters who have no respect for my words nor my opinions. Their negative comments are a reflection of themselves, not of me, and I pity them their sad existence. As a woman, I know the impact of negative comments, but I also know the overwhelming power of positive ones.
I am reminded I am a woman when I learn it is easier to say “yes” more often than “no,” regardless of what I really want to consent to. I taught freshmen to ask each other, “is this okay?” but never taught them how to respond when society demands you be agreeable.
I am mindful I am a woman when I reflect on what I want and need. Consent is multilayered, it is earned, and it is a growing agreement. Growing in that, consent is not a one-time deal. When society demands you be agreeable, I am aware that I am a woman when I decide to agree or not, and am happier knowing that any decision on my part is supporting the eventual change in societal demands.
I am reminded I am a woman when I am convinced that my memory is faulty; that the street harasser didn’t direct it towards me, that the man who almost mauled me was drunk, that the boy who assaulted me truly loved me, that the sexist comment wasn’t intentional, that the eating disorder was survivable, that his hand slipped, and that’s why that professor touched my stomach, that it wasn’t really stalking, that the fear is unfounded.
I am afraid when I, as a woman, know how much is stacked against us. There are a million reasons why we are wrong; that women are prone to hysterical over-analysis and sensitivity. I am afraid when other women believe that lie, and I am brave in the face of every reason why my truth is not the right or accepted truth. I am brave when I say what happened, despite and because, no one may believe me.
I am reminded I am a woman when I master the art of accommodation. My mouth was created to memorize certain phrases: not that bad, could have been worse, grin and bear it, forgive and forget, happy girls are the prettiest. The patriarchy tricks us into thinking there is a binary called gender within which we all must perform. It then teaches men to act as if they can’t be bothered with emotion, even when bad things happen. It teaches women to believe nothing bad really happens to us in the first place.
I am conscious I am a woman when I use the language ascribed to women to point out faults in the dominant society. I am conscious of the ways the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual oppression falls on the shoulders of my brothers and sisters of color, of “abnormal” sexuality, of low income social class, of the minority religion, of “exotic” ethnicity, etc. I am conscious when I break that discourse and introduce a new one.
I am reminded I am a woman when I grow so immune to being afraid that I stop questioning whether or not I am really living.
I am living as a woman when I question. I question the fear, I question the truth, I question injustice, I question the norm.
I am reminded I am a woman when I learn to be silent.
I am reminded I am a woman when I speak. I may learn to be silent in speech or dress or manner, but I speak when I acknowledge this silence. When I am kind to those who experience silence or silencing. Especially when I listen. I raise my voice, or my pen or my mind to speak, not to shout out those who silence, but to teach them. I am a woman, and by being me, I teach others I am not an object, I am not to be underestimated, I am not to be ignored, I am not to be silent.
F*ck being silent
F*ck being silent. I am a woman.