Written by Beverly Guy-Sheftall Tuesday, September 25 2012
While professional women have made extraordinary gains in the workforce over the past 50 years, our struggles for parity with men are ongoing. I am wary of many advice-oriented blogs, though ostensibly helpful to working women, because they conjure up old messages about traditional femininity norms that I believe render us less likely to advance in competitive work spaces. Tips about being seen and not heard give the impression that “feminine” attire is more important for moving up the ladder than assertive behavior.
More disturbing, prior to being canceled, were the efforts a year ago of Republican New York State Sen. Marty Golden, who was holding tax-funded career enhancement etiquette seminars for women in his Brooklyn district on “positive deportment and the feminine presence.”
In a recent article that appeared in “Administrative Science Quarterly,” Victoria Brescoll, a professor at the Yale School of Management, attributes powerful women talking less than powerful men on the job to their fear of being perceived as too aggressive. She explains, “When men talk a lot and they have power, people want to reward them either by hiring them, voting for them or just giving them more power and responsibility at work. But when women do it, they are seen as being too domineering, too presumptuous. Women perceive this, and that’s why they temper how much they talk.”
Growing up in the 50s in Memphis, Tenn., I knew I was surrounded by very smart, hard-working black women, but few around us seemed to notice, and if they did, these women were often distrusted or considered troublemakers, especially if they were outspoken. My own mother, Ernestine Varnado Guy, is still one of the smartest and most assertive women I have ever known.
Frustrated as a mathematics teacher in the public schools, she chose to work in the male-dominated field of accounting in the business office of a college campus, long before the women’s movement advocated for gender equity in the workplace or the need for women and girls to have greater access to STEM disciplines. I discovered after she died (too soon at age 62) that her transcript from Lane College, where she majored in math, had all As and that she had completed the bachelor's degree in three years rather than four. While she never fulfilled her professional goal of becoming a CPA — probably because of the demands of being a single mom with three daughters — she underscored for us the importance of pursuing one’s dreams even if they remain elusive. I also remember that what got noticed about her more often was her extraordinary beauty, her common sense, her strength but not her intellect or her “talking back.”
The most memorable and impactful example of my mother’s loud resistance to authority took place when I was in the ninth grade. It was 1958 in the Jim Crow South, when the public schools were controlled by powerful white men. Upset by conventional gender norms that positioned females as, first of all, homemakers, she petitioned school authorities to waive their home economics requirements for female students in Memphis and demanded that I be allowed to take typing, which was reserved for juniors and seniors who were presumably headed for clerical jobs. Male students, on the other hand, were required to take auto mechanics and shop.
This act of defiance on my mother’s part sent several clear messages to me early on: that learning to be a homemaker was not as important as preparing for a career; that the skills of a typist would be more useful to a serious college-bound student; and that one could resist white patriarchal authority. Her petition was granted, so I may have been the first Memphis public school girl to escape obligatory homemaking classes!
Much later, I would come to fully grasp the usefulness of political anger, even outrage, in my evolving work for social justice. This meant “talking back,” which especially girls were discouraged from doing when I was young. It meant finding the courage to resist stifling gender norms in both my personal and professional life about appropriate behavior for “good,” “lady-like” women. It meant journeying to distant and unfamiliar places, wearing the clothes I wanted to wear, writing the books I wanted to write, speaking with conviction and authority, taking unpopular stances, changing my mind, refusing to be quiet, risking being misunderstood, choosing the friendships I desired and advocating for my passions. Fears I might have harbored about being too aggressive or even the stereotypical “angry Black woman” had been dismissed.
Giving yourself permission to be angry – politically – is one of our most precious gifts as women because it fuels change and a better world. My political anger was awakened most recently – like thousands of us – by Republican Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” during an August 19 television interview surrounding his bid for Democrat Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat. His claim: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” In other words, females have innate biological mechanisms that prevent unwanted pregnancies!
What I longed for was not more “noise” in the media about the rantings of a misguided, individual male, but rather a serious discussion about deeply held cultural notions concerning the idea that women get pregnant when they have orgasms. So goes the logic: If women get pregnant during an “alleged” rape, it must be illegitimate since she must have enjoyed it! I was overcome with joy recently in my women’s studies class when students expressed their own anger about tenacious gender-specific stereotypes that are cross-cultural and cross-generational.
As I reflect upon my journey to becoming an elder, what I cherish most about the value of political outrage I learned from the poet and critic, Audre Lorde, who writes in “Sister Outsider” (1984): “For women raised to fear, too often anger threatens annihilation... We were taught that our lives depended upon the good will of patriarchal power. The anger of others was to be avoided at all costs because there was nothing to be learned from it but pain, a judgment that we had been bad girls, come up lacking, not done what we were supposed to do.”
I have been fortunate to craft a life in which my intellectual passions and political anger could be put to good use. Establishing a women’s center at Spelman College, teaching women’s studies wherever I can and struggling in diverse feminist communities with amazing comrades – this is the work that has sustained me for over four decades. My idea of a “good girl” means demonstrating compassion and generosity, acknowledging my privileges, being thankful for the support I’ve received, and recognizing and working on my flaws. I am still talking back, hopefully with more wisdom. I am even more outraged. My mother would be pleased.
More from impassioned women:
Statistics about sexual violence against Native American women are shocking and devastating. Read about the women who are dedicated to ending the normalization of rape on the reservations.
The youngest and first woman to be a partner at Goldman Sachs, Jackie Zehner now serves as the CEO of Women Moving Millions, which aims to to mobilize unprecedented resources for women and girls.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy jumped at the chance to co-direct "Saving Face," a documentary that sheds light on the brutal acid attacks women are victims of in her native country of Pakistan and surrounding areas.
Beverly Guy-Sheftall was 16 when she began attending Spelman College as an English major and has certainly had a lasting impact on her alma mater, where she returned to become a member of the faculty in 1971. She is co-founder of Spelman's Women's Research and Resource Center (WRRC), which has been a stronghold for feminist activism and networking opportunities for over 25 years. Among the many resources the WRRC has provided black women and feminists is SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, of which Guy-Sheftall is a co-founding editor.
A pioneer in the world of academic feminism, Guy-Sheftall served as president of the National Women's Studies for two years and is on the board of directors of the National Council for Research on Women.