Bitch: It’s a Woman Thing – Progress & Challenge 2010
It’s been a heck of a year for the Ladies. We have declared ourselves at war – with the status quo and with the state of our second-class citizenship in politics, business, finance, religion, social, sexual and civil rights.
When Hillary Clinton’s vibrant and powerful campaign for president ended twenty-eight months ago, we thought women had lost. We wondered whether we were pushed to the sidelines again. A mere two years later, Hillary is one of the most important players on the world stage and women by the millions are inspired to lead through her example.
Hillary may have lost the bid for office in 2008, but she lit a fire in the women of America who didn’t even know that we had accepted second best. Her boldness gave us permission to step into the limelight. In a sense, she woke us up.
Of course I am speaking for myself here, but something in her valiant fight against the bad boys in Washington galvanized the sleeping champion in me. Wow – was I proud. It was exciting. I remember having the same reaction when she took on the entire Senate in the 90s paving the way for universal health care. What a woman, I thought – smart, strong, with the courage of conviction.
Through her bid for the top dog seat, we heard about Hillary’s ankles, her “bitchiness,” and all the stereotypical hype about whether a woman can lead. I ask you given the last ten years of endless war, corruption, and economic crisis in America, can men lead?
As I gather my thoughts on 2010, I am pleased to report that women have made real progress – in leadership, status, image, and in our growing support for one another’s advancement. We do have a long way to go, but it is a powerful start.
In early December, I attended a conference in Washington D.C. called Pathways To Power: Thriving as a Woman Leader. The discussion centered on women mentoring each other in leadership. Never mind that the host of a women’s conference was the sponsor’s male CEO, John Hart. (Is anyone as bored with male CEOs as I am?) But Hart is one of the good guys – passionate about the inclusion of women in positions of power. Why? I don’t know – but maybe because he believes like we do, that our male leaders, for the most part, have failed to make the world a better place.
One of the organizers of the event Erin Mann, the Women’s Leadership Program Manager, did a wonderful job collecting a wide range of inspirational speakers and setting the stage for all-important roundtable discussions. I sat with a dynamic group of women poised to rise to the top, including a couple of women who worked for well-known politicians.
A lot of important issues came up as the day evolved. One otherwise delightful speaker spoke to the crowd assembled as if we were children—scolding us for our alleged timidity and explaining we have to take care of our health. I appreciate the mama hen thoughtfulness, but really, we are fully empowered adults—that is why we were there. (There is a tendency for men who lecture women and women who lecture each other – to condescend. One of my goals for 2011 is to encourage an end to this unconscious prejudice.) She did point out that in order to change the world, we need to help each other. The recurring theme of the event was to encourage women to create a community of support.
Other speakers included Sally Helgesen, who wrote a book called The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership explaining how women’s natural tendency toward cooperation and collaboration is our strength as leaders. NPR powerhouse Cokie Roberts and her award-winning radio host daughter Rebecca Roberts inspired the mothers in the audience. Juggling career and parenting she said, “We did the best we could.” Her daughter’s obvious devotion was testimony to her success.
I had to miss leadership expert, Barbara Annis and author John Gray (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) to go across town and videotape FDIC Chairwoman Shiela Bair speaking at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) conference.
For the second day in a row at the CFA, I witnessed a leading woman on the national stage express her firm resolve to change the status quo in Washington. Shiela Bair remarked on the great accomplishment of winning “passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, closing the books on the doctrine of Too Big To Fail and creating a new consumer watchdog for financial products.”
Poised and confident, Bair taught financial regulatory policy at Amherst (UMass) before heading to the Capitol. She has been one of the few champions of struggling homeowners and a fierce advocate of responsible banking.
The day before Bair spoke, her consumer watchdog counterpart, a modern day Joan of Arc, Elizabeth Warren lifted the CFA crowd out of their seats with the promise to continue the fight for economic justice. Blonder, chicer and more strident than ever, Warren filled me not only with passion to continue the work of socially sustainable business, but with the hope that indeed it could be done. Warren’s success at creating the first consumer finance oversight board was a miraculous feat. Every bank and bank lobbyist in Washington tried to defeat her.
In the end, her sheer will and tenacity and the support of Bair as head banker helped establish the cause. With Hillary-like courage, these two fearless women, Warren and Bair, took on the thousand or so men that rule the world of finance and won!
Changing Our Story
Still rising before us is the mountain we continue to climb. At times in the 2008 campaign, Hillary’s body rather than her brain was a bigger topic for discussion for pundits, male and female—as were Michelle Obama’s arms, Sara Palin’s short shorts and Christine O’Donnell’s virginity.
Quick question: Did anyone discuss Mike Huckabee’s legs or sexuality?
Despite the efforts we make to change the language of oppression, Hillary’s personal determination to succeed branded her a “bitch.”
Riddle: what’s man with a few extra pounds who forcefully expresses his views to other people? Answer: a CEO, senator, congressman, investment banker, economist, media pundit, uh well…a man.
My biggest concern is when we as women support these stereotypes ourselves. Women continue to call each other the B word and not just on Reality TV. Each time we call ourselves a diminishing name or reduce ourselves to mere objects of fashion and fluff, we undermine our pathway to power. Yes, you can be fashionable, thin and lead. Yes, you can be frumpy, fat and lead. It doesn’t matter.
One panelist at the Pathways to Power conference, Reshma Saujani, who lost her Queens, NY election bid for Congress in 2010, was inspired by Hillary Clinton’s call for women to run for office. Saujani expressed her frustration with a New York Times journalist who interviewed her in August 2010. Rather than report on her Ivy-League training, her innovative entrepreneur-centric and tech savvy proposals, or her experience as a hedge fund attorney, the reporter spent 600 of an 800 word article discussing the candidate’s wedge heels. Exclaimed Suajani, “And she was a woman!”
This year, as I continue to inspire myself and other women to rise to our greatness, I hope to encourage us to move away from a history of betrayal. Through the centuries, women have been betrayed by brothers, fathers, husbands, lovers, civil, religious and political leaders. To stop that cycle of abuse we must end this ancient habit ourselves.
We don’t need to undermine each other through our language, judgment or deed. The Bitch, wh**re, victim, the good girl, the bad girl…These names are no longer useful. They represent old and antiquated labels that stand in our way.
When we take our power, we are who we are. We make no apology and need no explanation. That is the page I take from men. They don’t explain their shoes or pantsuits. They don’t defend wearing flats or heels. They don’t apologize for being chic or dowdy. They simply do what they do. And so should we.
Despite our many victories this past year, we continue to fight limiting beliefs in our own minds. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the first woman to be elected as both state governor and U.S. senator, was the keynote speaker the first evening of the Pathways conference. She relayed a discussion she had with a group of highly accomplished women including the former Chilean president. Each had wondered before embarking on their leadership mission whether they were “good enough.” I thought about the men I know who have confidentially shared their doubts with me – the main difference between men and women is not the level of doubt, but simply the willingness to publicly express it.
A vibrant and outspoken woman in the crowd asked the senator, “How can we get men to support us in our leadership?” The senator replied she didn’t know and explained that her husband had supported her political roles. But I was struck by the question. I can’t imagine any man attending a leadership conference and asking how to garner feminine support to step up and lead. Men just take charge, because they know someone has to.
Shiela Bair and Elizabeth Warren see themselves as leaders. They don’t ask how to get male support for their cause; they get it anyway. Men follow them, not because they are women, but because they are brilliant and courageous and have something important to say. Their single minded conviction to give voice to the voiceless galvanizes support from both genders. Women and men who see economic and social justice as a moral imperative look to these women to expand the movement. And they don’t let any of the aggressive male heavyweights gunning for their failure move them out of the way.
There are so many men who see women as equals and embrace us as leaders in this new century. We have to see ourselves that way before we can get there. The truth is you are good enough. You don’t need permission to take the lead; you already have it by virtue of being alive.
For the sake of changing our story, women have to support each other in our climb to the top. We are only second best if we believe ourselves to be. I think of Hillary’s tremendous success and the amazing path she carved out for the rest of us because millions of women got behind her as a leader. We did not call her the B word; we called her strong, courageous and heroic.
The theme of the Pathways to Power conference was to inspire women to create a community of support. In order to do that we have to eliminate patterns of betrayal that block our path to power by banishing disempowering and belittling words, labels, and attitudes from our vocabulary and our minds. Because if we don’t do it, who will?
So the next time you are about to call yourself or a fellow sister a “bitch,” bite your tongue and think again. Not unless by B-I-T-C-H you mean: beautiful, intelligent, talented, compassionate hero – then I guess that would be you.
Monika Mitchell firstname.lastname@example.org
TEDWomen Conference, December 2010
Icelandic financier Halla Tomasdottir, spoke on how “feminine values” helped her cope with her country’s financial crisis — a crisis turbocharged by her male peers’ love of risk. “We need to embrace the beauty of balance.”