My first memory of ever being told I was unable to do something because I am female occurred in a pew about six deep from the altar at a small Baptist church in southern Talladega County — a church in which I was raised. It was a church where, multiple times each week, I’d find comfort, occasional boredom, familiar faces, and great history lessons that sometimes morphed into an almost mystical examination of a magical world involving an apple, a serpent, nudity, and a sinful woman.
I remember one particular Sunday so well. I watched in utter awe as my uncle, the visiting pastor that week, transfixed the congregation with his fiery message and unyielding faith, building the passionate sermon into its climax. The whole church swept up with raised hands, assertive “amens,” and wails of salvation. It was in that moment I knew I wanted to be a preacher — and in that same moment I was told that girls cannot be preachers.
It was my first “aha” moment as a feminist, although admittedly, feminism was a word I wouldn’t come to know until many years later, and I wouldn’t realize its true meaning until many years after that. So, on that day in that church, as any obedient daughter would do, I accepted my limitations and happily went about being a kid.
Wikipedia tells us that “feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women that are equal to those of men.” Contrary to perhaps popular belief, it is not the act of burning bras or the hate for men — thankfully, because bras and men are two things I enjoy.
Since graduating college and pursuing a career in publishing, I’ve sat in many meetings with men that involved the seemingly humorous objectification of women through jovial banter and the passive attempts of inappropriate flirting. My usual response is a tactful acknowledgement and an intentional redirect back to the business topic at hand. As an owner in my company, I’m often assumed an employee to my business partner, a male some years older than me. In fact, at times, that is an assumption requiring my correction — when they refer to him as my “boss.”
My own grandmother looked at me when I was 29 years old and boldly asked, “When are we gonna get you married?” She was surely worried that, with my aging uterus and limited years to procreate, time would eventually run out for me to have children and to secure the foundation of a marriage — disregarding my passion for a career, for friendships, and for an ongoing participation in social causes.
It’s strange how, in the aftermath of this presidential election, texts, emails, and Facebook messages have swirled among many women in my social circle with words of, “Are you okay?”, “I’ve been in tears all morning,” and “I haven’t cried like this in years.” For my female friends who openly discuss — or secretly suffer with — their own experiences of sexual assault, for those friends who experience sexism at work, and for those female friends who saw Hillary Clinton as the symbol for nose-to-the-grindstone hard work, much of the rhetoric of the campaign was not only intolerable, but evocative of memories of pain and fear.
Why does all this matter, you may be asking, and why am I sharing these experiences with you?
A recent study, Women in the Workplace 2016, conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, interviewed over 30,000 employees at over 118 companies in the United States. The study finds that 67 percent of senior management level employees are male, compared to 33 percent female. Women make up only 29 percent of the vice-president level. Once individuals reach the c-suite, women make up only 19 percent of offices, compared to 81 percent men.
“In 2015, 90 percent of new CEO’s promoted or hired from line roles — positions with P&L responsibility and/or a focus on core operations — and 100 percent of them were men,” the study states.
There is a trove of articles and studies about pervasive gender bias and sexual harassment from the Journal of the American Medical Association to WalletHub. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, talks of the need for women to have skin “as thick as an old crocodile” to get to the top in a male-dominated professional field.
How Far Have We Come?
In 1919 the United States ratified the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Yet that same year, six states voted against the amendment — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Because enough states approved the amendment, women gained the right to vote in those states, including Alabama. It is worth noting, however, that due to Alabama state law, we weren’t allowed to serve on juries. In February 1966, a federal court mandated women have the right to sit on juries, along with the only two other states who also made it illegal, Mississippi and South Carolina. A short 13 years later, I was born.
The Institute of Women’s Policy Research released a study this year titled the Status of Women in the South. In the areas of political participation, work and family, poverty and opportunity, and reproductive rights, Alabama recorded its highest grade, which was a D. Under employment and earnings and health and well-being, we scored an F.
If we step outside of corporate America and policy, we see equally depressing messages for women. Amy Schumer, a stand-up comedian, writer, actor, and producer, posted an Instagram picture on September 21, 2016 of two magazines side by side. One was titled GIRLS’ LIFE, the other was titled Boys’ Life. The girls’ magazine had headline titles such as “Fall Fashion You’ll Love,” “Your Dream Hair,” and “Wake up pretty!” The boys’ magazine front cover, by contrast, urged readers to “Explore Your Future: Astronaut? Artist? Firefighter? Chef? Here’s How to Be What You Want to Be.”
As depressing or insurmountable as some of these studies, observations, or even history lessons may be, I remain hopeful, because without that data and knowledge, we would remain stagnant at best and regressive at worst. I see strong women every day, hard at work in Alabama, managing lively households, owning businesses, running marathons, caring for AIDS patients, starring in local productions, being elected to a judgeship, creating art, and on and on. And so do you.
If it’s true that we are shaped by everything we’ve encountered since birth — and if it’s also true that many of those experiences are so often out of our hands as young children — shouldn’t we, as the adults, take it upon ourselves to begin a constructive conversation with young girls and boys? Shouldn’t we be honest with ourselves and seek to rectify social norms that, whether directly or indirectly, inhibit young women from being equal? Shouldn’t we challenge ourselves to seek out these indiscretions and to, at the very least, notice them?
Shouldn’t we look at that young girl in a small Baptist church, and rather than tell her she can’t do something because of her gender, remind her in that moment of opportunity, that she truly and honestly can be anything she sets her mind to?
I’m reminded of something the late Maya Angelou once said: “I am a feminist. I’ve been female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”