The Conflicting Women's Realities

Last night I had the honor of moderating a women's panel hosted by the Harrison Public Library.  After hosting so many open mic nights, the head librarian thought I would be a good choice to present the panelists and ask the questions.  It was an honor and it was an enjoyable night.

There were four women presenting that night.  One was a physician, one ran a parenting advisory group, one was a yoga teacher, and one was a realtor.  The opening questions were all about whether they ever felt held back by gender expectations of what their careers should be and if they had mentors who helped them along.

The women all seemed to live charmed lives.  I don't want any reader to think that I'm saying they didn't work hard or deserve what they had.  They were all incredibly intelligent women who possessed determination and a strong work ethic.  Nonetheless, they had certain advantages.  None of them came from poor backgrounds.  They spoke lovingly of their parents who were supportive of all of their choices.  Only one of them had divorced parents, but her father and stepmother were both heavily involved in her life.  I don't think I need to say all of these women were white (this was Harrison after all).

The discussion shifted to families and the challenges of raising children while having a career.  Three out of the four women continued to work after having children, but admitted they scaled back when their children were young (or even changed careers).  The physician said she believed it was important to stay working so you are prepared to return to the workplace as the children age.  She negotiated a part-time position and worked for less prestigious institutions as a sacrifice.  Not a single women on the panel mentioned being married, but it was clearly implied.  I even decided to stir the pot and throw in a question about the importance of having a supportive partner while raising a family.  They all deflected the question a bit saying things like "It take a village," and support comes from all over the community. Not a single one admitted that they couldn't have done things like work part time or staying home with the children without the help of a husband.

The final questions were about #MeToo and issues of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Did they feel the tide was turning?  The parenting coach said that girls are thriving now and boys are struggling (no judgment against the societal support of girls, thank goodness).  All of them said society is working to raise boys properly and understand boundaries and treat women with respect.  They believed the tide would change.

These women were raised not only in relative economic privilege, but also raised in a progressive area of the country.  It is not surprising they were never told they couldn't achieve anything because of their gender or that they had a support network.  Sexism exists in suburban New York, but it's not as ingrained in the culture the way it might be in the Bible Belt.  What if they were raised in more religious communities that undervalued women?  What if they were raised in economically disadvantaged areas with bad schools?  What if they were single mothers, or raised by single mothers? The divorce rates are higher among the less educated and the economically underprivileged. What if they had overworked, working class, parents who were too busy putting food on the table to nurture their children's hopes and dreams?

They believe sexism can be overcome because here in wealthy, liberal, suburbia we can raise sons to treat women as equals.  There are plenty of places in this country where the Good Old Boys still rule and are working hard to keep it that way.  The panelists aren't looking at the red states where boys see their parents stand by a presidient who is accused of rape, tosses aside wives, and brags about sexual harassment.  Boys see that someone like this can occupy the highest office of the land, so what is their impetus to respect women?  Parents are subtly teaching their children that if a man claims to be a Christian and is in the right political party, he is a worthy man to be emulated.  As long as he supports discrimination against gays, denies climate change, and acts suspicious of foreigners, he's a good Christian and needs to be respected.  Can the panelists realistically believe change is possible when so many Americans see the world this way?

I know last night's panel was meant to inspire women to achieve their goals and live the life they want.  I simply wonder if the only women they can truly inspire are other white, upper-middle-class women living in progressive environments.  We need to hear other voices.  We need to find ways to support those other voices.  All women deserve the ability to pursue the life they want.  How would the women of this panel make that happen?

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