Friday, July 26, 2013

The feminist role model gap

My parents were never particularly vocal about their political beliefs, but I knew that their moral principles were simple: treat others as you would want to be treated, even if they think differently than you or you don't understand their perspective, even if everyone else is treating them poorly. Stand up for what is right.

In high school I became enamored with economics and studied it for 3 years, even taking a year of independent study in economics my senior year. When I went off to college, I started as a political science major with minors in economics and Russian. I was only a year in when the closed-minded debates dominated by the boys in my political science classes drove me away (that, and the Russian economy falling apart, which made me think maybe my timing for studying Russian economics was bad). I was 18, and at the time would not have called myself a feminist. All I knew was that my mother raised me to believe I could be ANYTHING I wanted to be. I just didn't have any role models in politics that I could look to and say "I want to be like her."

I really want things to be different today. I do, and in some ways, they are. In the learning industry and conferences where I present, women are more visible than in many industries, although often there is still a lack of representation in keynotes (that could be another whole blog post). The games industry, and the technology industry as a whole, has had massive publicity about the existing gender issues in recent years, but women are emerging as leaders and role models for future generations. There are more women in politics and some (I'm looking at you Wendy Davis and Elizabeth Warren) who are emerging as amazing female role models. But in politics it's been hard to find that female role model to stand behind, because so much of today's politics are wrapped up in the personal lives of the politicians and we still live in a culture that tolerates, and even protects, those that disrespect and degrade the value of women.

I was having a conversation the other day about my feelings about Hillary Clinton. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, I was adamant that while I thought Bill totally screwed up, that his personal life was separate from his ability to perform his job effectively. I was much more conflicted about Hillary's response, and her decision to stay with Bill still weighs heavily on me. It is true that you can never know what goes on in two people's marriage, and making assumptions or judgments about anyone's decision on how to handle their most personal relationships is presumptive and a little too tabloid-esque for my liking. However, when someone is in the public eye, it is natural to put yourself in their shoes and think about how you would apply your values to their situation.

I don't think I could stay. There are some hurts too deep, some behaviors too disrespectful, some patterns too destructive for me to work through. I have expectations of what's acceptable and what's not acceptable for me based on what my parents instilled in me. My beliefs have strengthened based on my life experiences, my past relationships and the mistakes I've made. My beliefs have strengthened because I have children, and I look at my daughters in particular and want them to stand up for themselves in all of their relationships. I want them to know that they deserve to be treated with respect, nothing less. I am trying to teach them the power of forgiveness but the danger of acceptance and how forgiveness and acceptance are very, very different.

So I look at Hillary Clinton, and I see a strong, amazing woman and I wonder how her marriage works now, having come through what was certainly a personally and professionally humiliating time, and if she feels like she settled and how anyone can reconcile feminist ideals of equality and respect with the acceptance of disrespect and dishonor in a personal relationship. I look at the movements on college campuses to abolish rape culture and to encourage women who are abused to speak out, speak up and protect themselves and their children...and the prevalence of the messages that children of both genders hear from a young age that good girls don't stand up for themselves and that boys can't help themselves. I think about my own past abusive relationships, where over time I became more withdrawn and became less and less likely to stand up and speak the truth about my situation for fear of upsetting the men who were hurting me or inconveniencing anyone else. I think about the lies that I allowed to be told to spare other people's feelings, all the while chipping away at who I was. I am glad that I have come through those experiences with greater wisdom and strength, but it made me realize that there's another gap of female role models.

I never had professional role models for who I wanted to be, but I also didn't have personal role models...women who were strong professionally and personally in the face of being disrespected in the most hurtful and personal ways. I didn't hear the stories of successful women who stood up for themselves when it became clear that their personal relationships were destructive or abusive or when they needed to weigh the value of a relationship to their value as a woman, as a human being. I'm not saying those stories didn't exist, but women typically allow themselves to be painted into caricatures in such circumstances: the rejected, angry shrew or the pathetic, broken sap or the faithful, forgiving wife who stands by her man and accepts his bad behavior. Where were the women who simple said, "no. enough. this is not ok"? Maybe their stories are less interesting, but they are arguably the ones we need to hear most.

I'm struggling as I hear the news of Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin. I don't know them; I'm not going to presume to make decisions for her. But if it was me? That is not ok. If it was my daughter? That is not ok. And if any little girl asked me, I would tell her she deserves more. I would tell her that any boy who would disrespect her and women in general is not worth her time, her respect or her loyalty.

Whether she likes it or not, Huma is a role model. She is politically successful in her own right and is one of those women who I may have looked up to at 18 when I was attempting to embark on a political career. What message is she sending young women with her decision to stay with her husband, not after just one incident, but after his pattern of behavior over years was revealed? That it's ok for your husband to disrespect you privately and publicly. What message is she sending young men? That it's ok to treat women like objects and that even strong, beautiful, intelligent women will accept even your worst behavior and stand by your side. Some are saying that Huma is noble, or brave. Holy cats, are you kidding me? Huma is simply a fantastic example of what rape culture produces - otherwise intelligent, confident and accomplished women who still accept the men in their lives treating women -themselves and others- like objects, not people.

It is not ok for my daughters to grow up thinking that's ok.
It is not ok for my sons to grow up thinking that's ok.

I want more role models who show what it looks like when women achieve equality with men, not just professionally, but in their personal relationships as well. We can have both. We just have to model what it looks like to accept nothing less. 


  1. This post is outstanding and has found me at the most perfect time. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thank you for the compliment :) It's nice to know I'm not alone, and makes me have hope that there are enough of us that can say "enough."