What being a woman means to me: A Writing Challenge

A friend issued a writing challenge, asking to answer the following three questions. Below is my entry.


(1) What does being a woman mean to you?

I realized right away that the way I wanted to answer this question was to start highlighting the many incongruities with the concept of “womanhood” and what womanhood actually means to me. In other words, it was going to be an essay about what it doesn’t mean to be a woman.

It doesn’t mean I like shopping, or babies, or makeup, or that I have a vagina. Being a woman has nothing to do with my anatomy or my hobbies or my sexuality or my talents.

So I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what it does mean.

I think that being a woman means learning to adapt to a world that insists on making decisions for you. It tries, at first, to make you believe that this is the world you want to live in – because “decisions are difficult, and women are weak, or emotional, or incapable – and as a woman, it is a relief to be given all the answers.”

And when, as a woman, you begin to question that – because, at one point – we begin to question that, you face the many ways that the world continues to manipulate you into staying inside the nice, comfortable box they have designed for you.

I think that being a woman means learning to adapt to being consistently underestimated. Some adapt quietly, some react with defiance – but regardless, it is a fact of life for a woman.

I think that being a woman means absolutely nothing, because “woman” is a socially constructed label.

Being a woman means that I am a person.

And being a person carries far more relevance in my world than being a woman.

(2) What about being a woman do you want or would you impart to your own daughter by the time she reaches adulthood?

Were I to have children, I would want them – regardless of gender – to understand and respect the power of living authentically. With respect to women, I would want them to understand that our society will attempt to erase their individuality while simultaneously selling on all the ways they can be more special. I want them to understand that so they can never fall victim to it.

I also want them to understand that those who hold tightly to the systematic oppression of women are often as much victims of the patriarchy as we are. When we confront these ideas, we are confronting their stability. Instability frightens people. Fear makes people feel attacked. People who feel attacked attack back.

I would want them to understand the difference between forgiveness and understanding. One must strive to understand their oppressors, but to forgive them is a personal choice, and not one I’d likely to make without a sincere apology.

At the same time, I want them to understand the power that forgiveness gives them over their own pain. When they are ready, I want them to embrace that power for themselves.

I want them to understand the importance of respecting nuance, imperfections, and the diversity of perception. I want them to embrace the challenges of facing our own imperfections and learning from them to become more enlightened members of the human race.

I want them to love themselves and to not feel like doing so is a sign of selfishness. I want them to love themselves so well that the people who love them have a template for how it’s done properly.

An I’d want them to know that regardless of who they are, who they love, or how they choose to express that love – they would never lose my respect, unless they willingly harmed people without consent.

(3) What would you impart/share with her around the age of 13-14 as she’s entering her teen years?

There’s a part of this I’ve written before:

By the time my step-daughter wanted to read the Twilight series when she was in her early teens, I’d already read them. I told her she could read them on one condition – we had to have a chat first, and we’d have to have another chat before she got to the final one.

All her friends were reading it so she agreed to the chat.

Here’s the gist of what I told her:

This book makes the bad guy sexy. He wants to hurt her but he loves her. She is the ONLY one that drives him this kind of crazy and because he loves her so much he holds the whole “I want to kill you” instinct back. This is not a healthy relationship. This book will make you want that guy, and it’s okay to fantasize about that guy – but that guy is not the right guy when you start actually dating.

By this point in her life, my step-daughter had not yet given us many clues as to her sexuality. She had admitted she liked boys, but had not denied that she might also have an interest in someone who was not a boy.

And if she had shared with me that she might be into dating someone other than a guy, I’d probably have done a lot more reading with her on what some of the challenges and hardships that are inherent in that. I’ve recently become aware, for example, that there is inadequate-to-zero sex-education for lesbian teenagers leading many to find out much later than necessary about safe sexual practices, and have some confusion over what “losing one’s virginity” even means.

So, yeah. Right around when the hormones are about to hit – my priority would be to help my daughter prepare for them.

Good Girls Revolt (quietly?)

I spent the day yesterday watching the one season of “Good Girls Revolt,” an Amazon original that had sneaked under my radar when it was released a few years ago. It’s historical fiction based on the real-life 1970 lawsuit filed against Newsweek by 46 of their female staff for gender discrimination.

Only 10 episodes. Worth the watch when you have some time.

Anyway, as happens in most cases when there’s a female-driven ensemble cast, I find myself relating to pieces of each of them. And, as I’m pretty sure I’ve written before, I know this happens because characters in stories tend to be one-dimensional for a purpose, whereas real-life people can be unpredictable and have fluctuating wants/needs and personalities from day to day.

So, as much as I’d like to say I related best to the free-loving, fiercely intelligent, and sexually liberated redhead Patty, or the shy, stammering (until she gains some confidence) but passionate Cindy – I really felt kinship with the privileged, sexually and socially repressed, daddy’s girl Jane, played by Anna Camp.

It’s a character Anna Camp plays well…it’s similar to her role in Pitch Perfect, only set in the late 1960s and with far less puking.

There’s a scene in the last episode (spoilers) where she confronts her wealthy, privileged father and tells him she no longer wants to take money from him to support a lifestyle beyond her means.

He responds by trying to instill fear, “I won’t let you go live in an unsafe place” and then disregarding her ambition, “Okay fine, i’ll see you Thursday when you run out of money,” and then anger and projection, “What the hell do you mean you hired a lawyer to sue your employer – are you on drugs?”

Eventually he plays the hurt daddy card – the last possible card in the deck: “If you don’t need my money then you don’t need me. You don’t need anybody.”

Tearfully, she says she does need him, and somehow without saying it, she expresses that what she needs from him is love, emotional support, and to feel that he believes in her ability to achieve her ambitions.

And that’s where the break happened between this fictional character and my own experience. Because my dad didn’t respond to the tears, nor to the anger that followed. He still treats me like a first-class daughter, and a second-class human being. What’s more remarkable is how he still responds with pleasant surprise any time I show that I’m capable at anything.

What that’s caused is a break between the phi you all see here and the phi that is presented to my family. The part that sucks the most? I’m so proud of my accomplishments in this world, and they’re something I can’t share with them no matter what. They will never get to see what I believe are the best parts of me.

This morning, a friend of mine on facebook posted a status update lamenting that, when asked by a friend what she’s been up to, she felt she had to “self-edit more than half her life.” Because, since the election, she’s become a vocal activist, forming secret groups to help in the resistance, attending rallies and protests, informing herself, and contacting her representatives every single day.

“I am so much more than just a woman who goes to yoga, tennis and mahj, but some people just don’t want to or can’t know that. How long can any of us maintain this kind of charade….,” she asked.

And I wanted to respond, “Years.”

These things that drive us, that make us feel alive and give us purpose – these are the things we want to share with the world, and no-one more than those who mean the most to us. They are also the things that we feel we have to hide from those very same people because they won’t understand, and will belittle, ostracize, and reject us because it goes against their status-quo.

For the Anna Camp character to risk losing her father’s love was heartbreaking for me. There was a time when I believed my dad would respond the way hers did – eventually realizing that his daughter is a person who he helped raised to be capable of more than marriage and baby-producing.

But my dad didn’t make that jump. And I don’t think he will.

And so I hide the best part of me from him, because …

…because I don’t want to stop loving him.

Angry White Woman

I’m angry.

I’m angry, and it’s not just because recent events have exposed my complacency with an imbalanced system because I was under the impression that “things will get better.”

I mean, that makes me angry. It makes me angry to have been so wrong. It means I was believing lies and avoiding truths.

There was a time when I was actively avoiding truths. I wasn’t pretending they didn’t exist, I was just putting on the blinders so I wouldn’t have to see them. I knew they were there.

Like those videos with the animals and the Sarah McLachlan song. I couldn’t watch them without crying and feeling completely heartbroken. So I’d mute the TV, go off to get a drink, or change the channel. I knew that my not watching wasn’t automatically saving all those animals from hardships. I knew that shit was still happening. All I was doing was trying to avoid the additional hardship of feeling helpless to do anything about it (other than send money).

Last year, I started doing a little more. It was either the #BlackLivesMatter movement or the Orlando Pulse shooting that woke me up a little and helped me realize that my blinders were a disservice to my convictions and the causes I believe in. They were making me complacent, and in some ways complicit.

Now, I’m no big social media star. My voice doesn’t have much range in the grand scheme of things, but it has some range.

So I started writing. It’s what I can do. Possibly not the very least, but pretty close to down there.

Then the Flaming Yam* became our national main course. I got really angry because it was pretty much proof that the reality I thought I existed in – the “things will get better” reality – was way off base.

I was so wrong. So wrong.

I tore off the blinders. I started to see, not just where the injustices play out in the media and in the lives of people I’ve never met, but even in my own family and in my own (in)actions.

I struggled hard last week – coming off the high of that incredible show of civil discourse in the March that exponentially eclipsed Captain Tangerine’s inauguration – I struggled with the heavy levels of criticism that came, not from those who oppose everything we stand for, but from within the community of my allies.

It was that feeling again. That uncomfortable feeling, but without the Sarah McLachlan song as a signal it was coming. Why? Because, in a way, they were right.

In every way, they were right.

Now, in reality – in my reality – I’d done as much for the BLM and LGBTQ causes as I did for the Women’s March.

I blogged about them. Again, pretty close to the least I could do. I didn’t show up in person for any of them, to put my physical whiteness on the line for the causes I believe in. I just blogged, under my pseudonym from the safety of my suburban home.

The difference, though, was my intention. If I hadn’t had to work that day, I had planned to go to the Women’s March in Los Angeles.

I had the intention of doing more.

So the criticism, while difficult to face – was right on the money.

For those who follow me on twitter, or who intersect with me on Facebook, you’ve likely seen a change. I’m a little more vocal now and there are a lot more political messages coming out along with the cute pictures of cats doing funny things.

But, I’m also done doing the very least I can do. Earlier this week, I rolled my window down and thanked a homeless man who rushed needlessly to move some things out of the way when I was driving past him. Before? I might have waved and smiled. I took a moment and viewed him as a person and not an extra in the story of my life. (That’s the writer in me that believes every piece of dialogue in a well-written story serves to inform the plot or move it forward, rather than the simple gesture of a hand wave that would have been forgotten by the next scene.)

I’ve RSVP’d and am planning to attend local marches and protests being organized to protest on behalf of a number of causes that don’t personally affect me. I am not black. I have great health insurance. I’m not at great risk of having an unwanted pregnancy. I have the right to marry because I’d choose someone that our oppressors wouldn’t find objectionable (polyamory notwithstanding). I’m pretty darned heterosexual, and as a widow, I’m given a bit more of a free pass for being an unmarried woman without children in this society.

I’ve gotten involved with my local Indivisible chapter and am planning to take a day off from work next week to join a group or citizens in a local visit to my republican representative in congress – a man who won by less than 2% of the vote in my district.

I’m reading a lot more, I’m fact checking a lot more, and I’m allowing myself exposure voices I care about who might not have the nicest things to say about me based on the way that I look.

As a fellow blogger wrote, “they don’t know what’s in my heart.” They don’t know that I identify culturally more along the lines of Latino than Caucasian. They don’t know my first language was Spanish and my parents were immigrants from Latin America, and great grandparents were from Syria and Egypt. They don’t know this by the way I look.

But for how long have they endured living a life where they are under constant scrutiny and prejudice for the way that they look? For how long have I benefited socially from the paleness of my skin and the blue of my eyes?

Maybe it’s time I walk a little in those ill-fitting shoes.

I’m “leaning in” to my discomfort.

I want to thank the people in my life who listened to me as struggled with this over the past week. I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. I had to do some soul searching and a whole lot of listening before I figured out why their truth was so hurtful, even though I knew it was true.

But mostly, I want to thank this woman for posting this video on facebook. This is the one that helped me come to terms with my discomfort. I hope you’ll watch it. I hope you’ll listen.

And I hope you’ll join me in doing a whole lot more than the very least we can do.

(Flaming Yam* taken from a comment someone left on a blog. I can’t take credit for it, but holy shit it gave me a good laugh this morning.)

Today’s Smile: An Alternative Fact

A long time ago, when everything that mattered in my life was a mess and I spent more time crying than smiling, I decided to try something to combat the sadness that would sometimes threaten to knock me down.

I would force myself to smile.

It worked reasonably well. Chalk it up to one of those “fake it ’til you make it,” strategies. The simple act of smiling made me try to think of something genuine to smile about.

I’m feeling pretty low today. The reasons are less important than the fact that it’s true.

So, here I am. Attempting to smile. Attempting to create the “alternative truth” that everything is going to be okay.

Here’s what’s good about today:

  • had a very productive work day. I know it’s the first of a series of very long, very draining, very intellectually intense days that will lead me toward my goal of promotion and reaching a major financial goal I’ve set for my team to achieve this year.
  • I had a long conversation with my brother, a stand-up guy who, like me, is very thoughtful before he commits to an opinion; and who is willing to listen to and be swayed by a strong enough argument. He’s also, like me, very honest – and doesn’t just pay lip service. If he doesn’t agree with you, he’ll tell you – but it will be tactful, respectful, and with his own evidence to back up his positions. I have a brother I can be proud of. My niece has a father who will likely never want to delete him from her facebook page, if and when such a thing were to exist when the time comes for her to join the cloud.
  • There wasn’t a lot of traffic today. Probably because a large chunk of our population was stranded by flooded streets. I got to work in good time, and the way home wasn’t so bad either.
  • I have fond memories from this past weekend and the time I spent with my partner in a very fancy hotel paid for by my work. He incorporated some things into our evening that I’d wanted for a long, long time. It was good. Very good.

But the smile still doesn’t feel authentic. That’s okay, I know that’s okay. The feeling of overwhelming paralysis driven by self-inflicted exposure to messages of hatred, intolerance, and bigotry will pass. I didn’t want to hide in the bubble. I didn’t want to wake up from a “news coma” and find out everything got so much worse and I didn’t even try to speak up.

I knew this would come.

I didn’t realize it’d be so soon.

Growing Pains

I can’t words right.

So, I’ll just spew it out:

This past weekend was a huge one for me on a professional level. I was given my opportunity to shine, and shine I did. The right people saw it. Ten years at this organization and, for the first time, I felt like I had my Board’s respect, approval, and support.

This past weekend was also a huge one for me on an emotional level. I watched via social media in between meetings, the awe-inspiring aerial shots of hundreds of thousands of individuals – everywhere – who…again, I’m overcome with emotions. To say they “stood in unified solidarity in opposition to a regime built on hate,” are the flowery words I want to use, but the impact gets lost in the fragrance.

Yesterday I felt something I first experienced in the days after 9/11, and very few times since then. I felt like the world had my back.

I’m so grateful for that feeling and for the resolve it inspired in me.

Both professionally and politically, what comes next is going to be a challenge. There will be hard work, long hours, countless unexpected setbacks, and several metric fucktons of frustration. We’re gonna hit that “in between stage” like when you have decided to grow out your hair and it’s past your ears but not quite shoulder length and no matter what you do, it doesn’t look right.

There will be temptation to give up and cut it short again, or maybe to cut corners by putting in some extensions.

But, if you’ve ever successfully grown out your hair, you know….

There’s a payoff when you get past that ‘in-between-stage’ hurdle and sometimes the healthiest way to keep growing is to trim it back a smidge.

The next two years are the in-between stage. When the fatigue sets in – and it will – it might be time to get a trim. Pull your hair back into a ponytail for a few days if you have to. Watch funny cat videos. Go to a light movie. Read a book for pleasure. Take a bubble bath with a vibrating rubber duck.

Self-care must be part of this process, so we don’t all burn out before the next critical mid-term election.

What smut looks like when I’m feeling grumpy

I knew what she wanted. I could tell, from the way she looked at me that she wanted me to take her and make her mine. She was dressed to impress, I’ll give her that. That pencil skirt showed off her curves. And when she leaned over to pick up her purse from the floor, I saw the holy grail of cleavage.

She wanted me to notice, and I did. I sure did.

I licked my lips and gathered the courage to go talk to her. Chicks like that dig confidence. I had to show her the kind of man I was. I had to show her that I’m the kind of man that can take control the way she craves it.

I took the stool right beside her and waved the bartender over.

“Scotch. Neat.” I ordered. Bartender rattled off some labels. I didn’t know the difference. I picked one that sounded familiar and pulled it off like I knew exactly what I was getting.

“Come here often?” I asked her. It was cheesy, but I could sell it. I’m charming as fuck.

She took one look at me…just one look…I swear….

And walked to the other side of the bar.

Fucking bitch.

3:00 AM; November 9, 2016

I went to sleep when my candidate suggested that we do so. I can understand her not wanting us to be awake to bear witness to the hour in which she conceded this election to a reality television show star.

But, I woke up a few hours later and couldn’t help it. I refreshed the NPR page and saw that the nightmare was, in fact, a reality.

There are those who earnestly voted for him. And there those who refused to vote for either of them. Some of the former are people who fall into the category of “people I love,” distasteful as it might feel at the moment.

I keep hearing Haley Joel Osment’s voice in my head: I see racist people. Some of them don’t even know they’re racist.

Those same people are now calling for the “reunification” of the America they worked so hard to divide and segregate. They’re also the ones daring to question Secretary Clinton’s class for not making a public concession. WAIT, WHAT? NOW ‘CLASS’ IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?

There’s so much I want to be able to post on Facebook, but I have to be more careful and measured there, as the bonds of family could potentially be at risk. I did manage this, though:

I will defend my rights and the rights of the people I care for. Understand that I will not be forgiving of those who work for or support the dismantling of hard-won rights of women, the LGBTQ community, or people of color. In the coming years, watch what you consider to be a “joke” because we won’t be laughing. “Locker Room Talk” will not be tolerated. “She can’t take a joke” will not be tolerated. Hate speech will not be tolerated. I am setting my boundaries as a woman and as an ally to those who are frequently marginalized by a society that decided it no longer had to hide its ugly side. Be mindful of these boundaries if my continued presence in your life matters.

And it goes for people here, as well. Most of those who remain on my friends list now are not people who would give me cause to worry about any of this; but a few months ago I did unfriend someone for making a joke at the expense of trans people.

I see the emboldened already calling for us to get to work to make a difference in two years during the midterms and again in four if/when this country holds another election. And yes, …absolutely, yes. This experience, this election, has been a wake up call for me. I now see a truth that I was blind to before, and I saw it months and months before yesterday’s election.

This country is racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and intolerant.

I didn’t want to believe that and my head was in the sand, but it is no longer.

We got passive. I got passive. I relied on shit just working itself out.

I want to be wrong about this. I want nothing more than to be absolutely wrong about the doomsday scenario that is playing out in my head under four years of a reality show regime.

Fuckin’ rub it in my face if I am and I will gladly take it because this is one instance where I REALLY don’t want to be right.

I am scared. I know so many of us are. But, as I said earlier tonight – the scared will only last so long. Soon, the anger will set in – and with it, the drive to push back and reclaim the relationship I want to be in with my country.

Until then, for those who are frightened and for those whose lives are far more at risk in the upcoming four years because your outward appearance doesn’t blend in as well as mine does; know that I and so many others like me are in your corner. Call upon us as allies and let the strength of our voices together keep you as safe and protected as we can.

With love,

phi