I don’t know what it’s like to be black.
I don’t know what it’s like to be gay.
I don’t know what it’s like to be Muslim, Mexican, African, or Jewish. To be terrorized, tyrannized, marginalized, or oppressed.
I don’t know what it’s like to be shot in my car, hung from a tree, bombed in my bed, or whipped in the town square.
I don’t know the hardship of backbreaking labor that affords little but poverty while being denigrated for my immigration status.
I don’t know the anguish of putting my child in a rickety boat to sail a treacherous sea to be turned away by those terrified of our ethnicity.
I don’t know what it’s like to be judged harshly for my skin color, the shape of my eyes, the letters in my name, the gender of my lover, or the religion I believe.
What I do know?
I know what it’s like to be a woman. Specifically, a woman in America.
While the assignation may not typically engender tragedies like the above, it does come with its own list of degradations and diminishments, “isms” and marginalizations; mitigating and dismissing factors.
Being a woman in America is a full-time audition.
The history of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchal oppression is long and well-documented. From whatever angle viewed, it’s clear women have endured minimization, harassment, and violence throughout time in their quest to simply BE... be anywhere near a level playing field with men. They’ve had to transcend stereotypes and cliches of the most ignorant and egregious kind just to accomplish what men have systemically taken for granted: getting the vote, advancing in a job; even getting a job. Legally asserting their independence from and equality with their spouses. Maintaining their dignity. Being seen as valued and contributing members of society throughout their lives. Being judged for who they are and what they’ve accomplished rather than the chromosomes of their DNA.
And while — as with many marginalized groups — improvements have evolved; changes have been implemented, and new laws have forced society toward higher consciousness, being a woman in America remains a challenging status, one set on shaky foundation that is daily buffeted by persistent deficits in cultural and political empathy.
Understanding and accepting what it’s like to be a woman in this country is demonstrably difficult for some men, too many men, but even some women have trouble stoking empathy for fellow females who may live a different lifestyle, follow a different God, or vote a different party. If fact, during Election 2016 I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as many women rip apart, annihilate, or otherwise flay the predominant female candidate in ways that went far beyond, “I just don’t agree with her politics.” It was ugly and often irrational, and when far-left women like Susan Sarandon and Rosario Dawson sneered that female supporters of Hillary Clinton were just “voting with their vaginas,” or, conversely, liberal women who found Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina offensive were judged for “betraying one of their gender,” there was no arguing that sexist thinking is not specific to men.
But while women have been broad-stroked for those cliched tendencies toward in-demographic “cat-fighting”; for jealousies, envy, gossip, and competitiveness (bitchiness) toward other women, the behemoth in the room is, and will likely always be, the way men view, treat, and marginalize women... sometimes without even realizing it, sometimes couched in philosophical rationale; sometimes under the misguided notion that sexism doesn’t exist, doesn’t apply, or is otherwise a “cry wolf”... and sometimes with the full, blatant, and obvious perspective that they, as men, are more powerful, more worthy; more entitled, valuable, and dominant than the “weaker sex.”
When the Cosby trial deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial, the outpouring of response — as it has been throughout this story — swung from the trolling, “Those women were a bunch of gold-diggers looking for a payday,” and “If any of this was true why didn’t they come forward sooner?” to the defeated anger of, “Women are guilty until proven innocent,” “Bill Cosby’s mistrial is the reason I never reported,” and “Victim blaming in a rape trial...what else is new?”
I, of course, am in the latter camp. Because I’m a woman in America. And I have experienced, witnessed, tangled with, debated, fought, defended, and suffered through the conundrums of what that status entails. And I know, as any honest woman willing to face unvarnished truth knows, that most women face some measure of sexism and misogyny in their lives, sometimes in such ingrained, accepted ways that they don’t or won’t admit it: “It’s just the way it is.” “It’s men being men.” “It’s women being oversensitive.” “It’s... (fill in the blank).”
But you can’t fool me. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve dealt with it. I’ve helped other women deal with it. It’s real, pervasive, and demoralizing.
Certainly there are aspects of the issue that spark differing opinion and perspective, even amongst women. For example: I may be a feminist who strongly believes in gender equality, but I don’t subscribe to an extremist view of men and their maleness. As a woman with five brothers, a son, a husband, and loads of male friends, I have deep attachment to and respect for the male gender, and sometimes find women with perspectives harsher than my own to be off-putting: My “baby coach” had such a pejorative view of men that, as a woman about to give birth to a son, I stepped away in defense of my defenseless progeny. Charming actress, Mayim Bialik, might be sick of people calling women “girls,” but, to be perfectly honest, I like the term myself (if used as an endearment), and have heard men snarl “women/woman” with enough vitriol to know it ain’t the word, it’s the intent. I have female friends who bristle at any suggestion of male flirtation, labeling it as harassment, while I maintain it’s the intent and nuance that decides the line between playfulness and manipulation.
But still. Sometimes a duck is a damn duck. Sometimes a man is an abuser, a harasser, a crude, crass sexist. Sometimes changes in cultural norms make it difficult for people of one generation to understand what women of another experienced and were pressured by. Sometimes subliminal acceptance of women as “less than” makes it harder to believe sixty different women of substance, with sixty similar stories, than a man who admits to criminal behavior yet holds the “celebrity card.”
Being a woman in America means facing everything from those big moments of litigious abuse to the drip-drip-drip of confusing sexism that makes traversing life an exercise in dodge & parry. I’ve known many women who would agree with that statement; here are just some of their experiences:
- A young actress gets flustered about how to respond to a producer who puts his hand down her pants during an audition then tells her “you gotta be freer if you want to succeed in this business.” She attends the callback (because she’s determined to succeed and he’s a powerful figure), resists further attempts at assault; doesn’t get the job nor any future audition possibilities.
- A model, willing to shoot “art shots” with a known photographer, finds herself fending off attempted rape when said photographer crosses the line. She’s advised to keep it to herself, given their disparate statures.
- A waitress is commanded to “sit and have a drink” with her male boss just to get him to hand over her paycheck.
- A husband demands that his wife quit her singing job because he “knows what male musicians are like.”
- A writer whose face appears nowhere on her work and who maintains current skills and awareness of trends is fired for “aging out” of the online writing demographic.
- A smart, middle-aged women on social media is berated by a 20-something male who feels entitled enough to admonish her to be “ashamed” for criticizing a troller attacking her post about pay-parity.
- A record producer dismisses an experienced older singer in lieu of a younger one, remarking, “but I bet you were hot in the 80s.”
- A 70-something, male, Bernie Sanders’ supporter jeers that Hillary Clinton should “sit down and shut up because she’s a loser and has-been,” despite the fact that it’s the older man who lost the primary that’s out giving speeches as a matter of routine.
- Up-and-coming senator from California, Kamala Harris, is repeatedly interrupted and dismissed by male colleagues as “hysterical,” simply for being dogged in her questioning. The same is not inflicted about any male senators.
- A group of largely middle-aged men regularly sit in the chambers of Congress determining laws that impact women’s ability to control their reproductive decisions.
- A female TV host is insulted and verbally denigrated on tape by a man who boasts about grabbing women’s genitals simply because he can... that man currently resides in the White House.
- Sixty strong, capable women who, at a younger time in their lives (see #1), allowed themselves to be manipulated and assaulted by Bill Cosby, have repeatedly been called liars, cheats, and gold-diggers for finally having the courage to stand up and speak their truth. The jury deadlocked.
The list goes on. Those reading this will likely have their own lists, their own truths. Others will dismiss all points as whining and weakness. But I know. We know. And, luckily, many men know too. We saw hundreds of them carrying signs of solidarity at the Women’s March; we work with many of them, share life, love; marry and help make the world a better place with them. Many wise, caring, fierce women — and the spouses with whom they’re having families — are raising sons to be compassionate, ethical men of integrity and fairness, and daughters to be self-protective, smart, independent women of courage.
At some point the critical mass of all that cultural evolution will tip society to a place of gender equality and respect. With a government that’s fair and principled. With men who view women as equals. And women who are exceedingly clear on that concept.
It can’t come soon enough.
Photograph by Alexa Mazzerello @ Unsplash
Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. Details and links to her blog, photography, books, and music can be found at www.LorraineDevonWilke.com.