Imagine yourself at a dinner party with some close female friends. You share a story about a family member who is sick and how you struggle to keep working during this difficult time. Another woman shares her frustration about the inappropriate comments her boss is making towards her at work. A third woman describes some uncomfortable things that she saw recently on a trip to Central America, women and children living in terrible impoverished conditions. You bond over shared emotion and common issues. You empathize and relate to each other. You leave the party a few hours later feeling less alone, more empowered and a longing to have this kind of honest, open conversation in all parts of your life.
Now imagine that there were several thousand people at this dinner party and more than 100 leaders from business, fashion, entertainment, journalism, and philanthropy guiding the conversation. That's what it was like to be at the Women in the World's 7th Annual Summit in New York City.
From the moment that I stepped into the dark elegant theatre at Lincoln Center, I felt a sense of belonging. The speakers spoke "to" me, not "at" me. The topics on the agenda were things I care about deeply -- human rights, environmental conservation, freedom of self-expression, female entrepreneurship and so on. The style of talk was straightforward, unguarded and revealing. It felt so much more like a private conversation than a public forum.
It's quite astonishing to me how Tina Brown, the mastermind behind the event, made me feel this way. The place was packed; there wasn't an empty seat in the house. The speakers were national icons - Diane von Furstenberg, Laura Bush, Meryl Streep to name a few. I should've felt intimidated, distant, just another nobody. But I didn't. I felt like I was connected in heart and spirit to everyone in the room. I felt like I was inhabiting a world made of women, by women, for women - and I loved it. If the real world were like this, I would be a different person.
If I explained all of the individual sessions to you and what wisdom could be found in each of them, then we would be here all day. If you want that content, you can watch the videos on the website. Instead, I want to share my biggest 'a-ha' moment, which can be summed up succinctly in one word: Credibility.
For my whole life, I have fought for credibility. It started when I was a kid. I had to prove to my parents that I was "good" by getting A grades. Then as I got older, I had to get degrees and certificates to prove to clients that I was credible. I maintained a nagging feeling throughout my 20s and 30s that I needed permission to be who I was - especially since my chosen profession, Holistic Health, resides at the fringe of mainstream medicine and is still regarded by many as hocus pocus or pseudoscience. I constantly sought validation and confirmation that I was smart enough, good enough, worthy enough. I won't even mention how this manifested in my personal relationships!
Listening to the speakers say out loud so many of my private thoughts in a forum where they were regarded and respected - not judged, not criticized, not made to feel unworthy, confused or crazy - made me realize how rare it is that women get this attention on the stage, in the media and in the world. It's so uncommon for our words to be taken at face value, to be trusted, and to be held as truth without mountains of evidence. And this is something that we - not just me - have been fighting for, for lifetimes.
In her book, "Men Explain Things to Me," Rebecca Solnit says:
"Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty...Credibility is such a foundational power and women are so often accused of being categorically lacking in this department...Generations of women have been told they are delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once. To tell a story and have it and the teller recognized and respected is still one of the best methods we have of overcoming trauma."
For some time, I've been baffled about why the women I coach are plagued with shame, inhibition, self-doubt and repressions, but it "clicked" for me at the summit. It's not a personal failure that we have difficulty trusting ourselves, asserting ourselves, promoting ourselves -- it's cultural conditioning. It's a symptom of a system that makes it difficult to speak and nearly impossible to be taken seriously - to even take ourselves seriously. When I talk to women about their work, passion projects like making handmade soap or writing healthy children's books, they repeatedly say things like, "Oh, it's nothing, it's just something I like to do." They diminish themselves, make themselves seem smaller and less talented than they are. I find this tendency towards self-demoting to be heartbreaking but I get it. It makes sense. Why would your work be credible? You're just a woman with a silly idea.
Well, to that I will respond with one of the most powerful summit quotes from Diane von Furstenberg: "It's your duty and your privilege to use your voice." She also said, "I never met a woman who wasn't strong!" We need to take back our dignity, stop apologizing for nonsense, and honor and appreciate each other more. Surrounding ourselves with smart, passionate like-minded women is one of the best things that we can do. When we hear the brave voices of women who are not afraid to speak their truth, we discover our own voice and our own power. We are emboldened to follow their example.
If this essay resonates with you, share it with a woman who needs to hear it. We rise by lifting others.