My idol as a young, angry female college student was not an original one. Not that I ever could have claimed original estrogen-filled icons. I loved Alanis when I was in middle school, moved on to Gwen Stefani, Fiona Apple, Liz Phair. I had quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt on my walls and I invoked Elizabeth Blackwell and Madame Curie as my trailblazers. I even bemoaned, as if I was the first to ever do so, the fate of Rosalind Franklin, the true discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA, forever forgotten due to her lack of a Y chromosome.
In college, then, I predictably embraced Gloria Steinem as my new feminist ideal. Our birthdays were a mere two days apart and I had a round table discussion as her in an honors seminar. She even came to my university and spoke to my Women’s Studies class, taking one precious second to shake my hand before she left, sending me into fits of ecstasy and admiration.
She gave another speech that evening, open to the entire university, and I naturally attended that as well. During her talk, largely about the tendency of major universities to ignore any history that is not white and male, she stated that young women today didn’t even know what the glass ceiling is. She went on to insist that this was a failing on our part, as the older generation, and we needed to rectify it.
This was the day I stopped readily identifying myself as a feminist.
My sister is 11 years old and she wouldn’t understand the concept of the glass ceiling if you tried to explain it to her. She sees no boundaries for herself as a female. She aspires, with equal passion, to be both a doctor and a Broadway star. To insinuate to her that either is improbable due to her gender would sound as absurd to her as it is.
The fact is, I ‘m glad she feels that way. Why would I want her to know that there are still people in this world who would try to deny her her dreams on account of her ovaries, when the overwhelming majority of people recognize that there is no reason a woman can’t do everything a man can do?
I refused to join the American Medical Women’s Association in medical school for this very reason. I don’t identify myself as a “woman in medicine,” I identify myself as a physician, period. I don’t know why my sex has to enter into it. I don’t think of myself professionally in terms of being a woman. I don’t expect my patients or my colleagues to differentiate me on that basis, so why should I?
At the same time, I embrace my gender wholeheartedly outside the office. I feel comfortable in sweats and a t-shirt, but I feel pretty damn lovely when I take the time to put on a dress and some makeup. I won’t apologize for either. If a man holds a door for me, I consider it common courtesy. This is not because I am a woman, but because I am a person. I would hold the door for him too. And I do.
I don’t think about the fact that I am female all day long. I don’t dwell on the strengths or the weaknesses traditionally assigned to my gender. Frankly, I am to busy to spend time looking for offenses in popular culture or the daily news. I usually come down on the side of the offender when I do become aware of some dispute. I am so rarely offended, that it is hard for me to understand offense taken by others. My inclination is to defend the right to free speech, and, in general, to encourage everybody to stop being so damned sensitive about everything.
This is the perspective from which I write this now.
I woke up this morning feeling like a girl. I felt young and vulnerable and unsure. I am painfully aware of the lack of upper arm strength that I possess, the weakness of my biceps and the overall frailty of my frame. I’d probably be easy to restrain. Probably easy to pin down.
I’m ferocious when I’m angry, and I feel strong when engaged in witty repartee, but, let’s face it, all my angry flailing would likely amount to nothing in the face of a stronger, equally determined, male opponent.
Yesterday, I walked to my car with my keys gripped between my knuckles, as my mother taught me to do when I was young and lived on campus. I glanced nervously under my car and in the backseat before I climbed in. My hands shook while I sat through a subcommittee meeting for the second year medical student curriculum at work.
I am not a person who is afraid. I DO NOT live in fear.
Except that now I do. Because someone took the time to remind me that I am limited by my gender. I am naturally weaker than the average male I may encounter. I have less muscle mass and a smaller upper body. I may kick and scream and bite and struggle, but I would likely lose. I don’t own a gun. I’m a doctor for christsakes. I can’t shoot anybody. I preserve life for a living, I can’t imagine trying to take it.
What am I supposed to do? Go take self defense classes? Get really buff like some pissed off woman in an action movie?
Do I intrinsically have to live at the mercy of my gender?
I guess so.
And, more frighteningly, at the mercy of the other gender it seems.
I don’t stand for limiting anyone’s right to say anything. But that doesn’t mean people are always right to say anything. I may not condemn, but I will not support. Because words have power. I felt the anger and the violence oozing through the messages that I received yesterday. I felt the rage of someone who wanted to terrorize another person. Someone who wanted to send the message “you are not safe.”
And this person succeeded.
I’m sure I will feel safe again in the future. I’m certain that, as time passes and I remain undamaged, I will recover my feelings of strength and vitality and fearlessness. Feelings that, in part, have defined me in the past.
But for now, I’ll drive to work instead of walk. I’ll avoid staying home alone. I’ll sleep a little closer to my husband at night and I will let him go in first when we get home in the evenings. I’ll feel very aware of my long hair, my painted toenails and my preference for skirts in the summer. I’ll feel a little more “girl” for now. A little more what society defines me to be and a little less what I had defined Sydnee to be.
Words, especially words that we take the time to put down, words that we assign to our names and our faces, these words will define and outlast us.
Use them however you want.
But, if you use them recklessly, don’t have the audacity to be surprised at the outrage that may ensue.
The world is already hard enough.