Last week, I was part of a panel that explored the question of why more women don't run for public office, sponsored by She Should Run. The Washington, D.C.-based organization is at the vanguard of researching the current landscape (women hold only 17 percent of congressional seats, for example) and dispelling the myths of women taking leadership positions.
As I listened, it occurred to me that we women relinquished our personal power. It's not surprising given the unrelenting attack on our freedoms and rights since the height of the women's movement in the 1970s.
Pam Shaw, a consultant with the Center for Education Innovation, asked each panelist questions based on her profession. Mine involved the role of women in the press. She began by asking whether being a woman affected how I approached journalism. My answer (in a nutshell): How could it not?
Being a woman is who I am. It's not everything I am, of course, but it is one of my reality lenses. I have others: being an immigrant and being white among them.
Since that evening, I've thought about what the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision really means to women. Regardless of whether your faith or morality allows you to embrace the decision in practice, it was still a game-changing victory for women in America. Ultimately, the decision provided a legal basis for claiming our bodies as our own. We are not the property of the government, or our husbands, lovers, or even that of our children. The decision also highlights that our sexuality is part of who we are. We can't disconnect from it, and we shouldn't.
One of the weirder effects of the women's movement is that many of us tried to be men. Women popped up everywhere wearing suits and ties, albeit more fashionable versions. We padded our shoulders to within an inch of our ears to disguise our lack of upper-body strength. We railed against women's roles of wifedom and motherhood, demanding that men share in them equally. We mistakenly thought that by growing virtual balls, we would magically open the doors to men's back rooms and stinky locker rooms. We thought becoming men would be easy.
Ultimately, of course, women can no more be men than cats can be fishes or trees can be puppies. Denying our fundamental essence never works for long. But thwarted in our giddy ideological pendulum swing, many of us simply went back to sleep.
We failed to organize strongly to withstand the onslaught of resistance. We didn't speak up enough about the powerful economic and religious forces aligned to roll back the freedoms we had scratched and bled to win. We failed to tell our daughters that freedom requires constantly struggling with those who believe civil rights is a zero-sum game.
Forty years later, conservatives are shoving women's backs to the wall. Again. We're not the only group under attack, but being women--regardless of ethnicity--cuts across all those other designations. Together, we are the majority. And that's powerful.
2012 is a much different world than 1973. This is a world where our access to information and our ability to network (aka organize) is, for most, ubiquitous. In this world, others hear our voices instantaneously and globally. And we don't require a megaphone, just an Internet connection.
I'm hardly a Luddite, but it's taken me a while to understand the power of social media. Even this late bloomer can't deny its power to shake up the status quo and unite people of like persuasions. My small Internet universe contains politicians, artists, teachers, mothers, fathers, and people of all races and sexual orientation. It contains believers of diverse theologies and experts in numerous disciplines. Daily, everything from silly animal tricks and bumper-sticker opining to uplifting quotes bombard me. But my network also gives me access to serious journalistic investigations and research into real issues that affect my life.
Most important, though, is social media ability to bring injustices and lies to light and right wrongs. Women should fiercely embrace that power. The playing field may never be level, but we can do our damndest to plow under the highest hills and fill in the lowest informational swamps.
The danger is that we'll end up doing a lot of ineffectual navel gazing. Machiavelli said that we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. It's good advice. We must be ever vigilant to the subtleties of sexism (and the overt attacks from people like Rush Limbaugh), becoming as finely tuned to it as some are to that of racism. And we can't hesitate to call it out at every opportunity.
That brings me back to women reclaiming their power. Some people--mostly white men by my tally--find the power every woman inherits as her birthright to be threatening. Primarily, the one power women have that men don't is the ability to bring life into the world. Without the power, some seek to control it. From burning witches and outlawing midwives, they would have us believe that they can't leave womanhood in our feminine, dainty hands. But as any woman who has birthed a baby knows, our hands are far from delicate.
Still, we've allowed the shouts of our persecutors to wear us down, and we've developed some bad habits. We obfuscate and soften our words; we don't speak up for fear of offending; we don't arm ourselves with facts. Instead of leading, we're conciliatory. We speak in soft and passive language and wonder why no one's listening.
Manifesting our power is also every woman's birthright, as it is for every man. Women are more than half the population of the world; yet we limit ourselves because we believe we can't win. First, it's not true. A woman is just as likely as a man to win an election, for example. Second, winning isn't always a worthy goal. Much of our strength comes from our bias for cooperation and compassion. Most women would rather be part of an effort for greater good than assume leadership. That's OK. Women are most effective when we cooperate and share the work.
What is damaging--to our sisters and to our world--is to refrain from enjoining the work at all. Fighting for our rights isn't something we can do once, then sit back and enjoy. Not if we expect to keep them, not if we want to give our daughters (and sons) a better world.