As women come together and share with each other, we have a great deal of power. Sharing gives us courage because we realize we are not alone. Sharing also helps us realize that our experiences do not have to define us. Beginning in February 2015, I’m blogging about my own experiences involving shaming, blaming, and silencing with the hope that these stories will encourage other women to speak up, speak out, and refuse to be silenced.
I also believe that sharing our stories allows us to learn from each other. I hope that others will benefit from my life lessons learned. I tell my college students that I’m 109 years old (which means I’ve had a lot of life experience). I think I could make a good argument for being that old given the life I’ve lived. Yet I’m still learning and I’m young at heart.
2015 Blog: No Longer Silenced
April 26, 2015
A cunning clothing merchant spent a great deal of money on hundreds of dresses purchased at a steep discount. This businessperson expected to make a significant profit while still selling the dresses at a good price. Yet when shoppers visited, they ignored the dresses. Desperate to sell this huge inventory, the merchant slashed prices to rock bottom. Still the dresses hung on the racks. No one wanted the merchandise. Then the clever merchant sewed designer labels on each dress and sold nearly all the stock at several times the original price. Moral of the story? Labels matter.
Just as with clothing, words can become labels we wear. The right labels communicate to ourselves and to others that we are valuable and deserving of respect. The wrong labels communicate that we deserve to be discounted, discarded, and disrespected.
There will always be people who try to label and define us. Yet we have a choice. We do not have to accept or become the labels others try to impose on us.
It is necessary to first recognize limiting labels that might have been internalized. Consider how you talk to yourself when discouraged. Do you say things like “I can’t believe I’m so stupid,” or do say things like, “I could have made a better decision, but I can learn from my mistakes.”
Next it is important to replace those limiting labels with ones that express who we want to become and how we want others to see us.
Finally, it is our right to refuse labels we do not wish to accept. When a clerk or salesperson calls me “Sweetie” or “Honey” I politely but firmly let them know that “Sweetie” is not my name and it is not appropriate to address me in that manner. Labels do matter!
Stronger than I Realized
April 20, 2015
The first time my mother died, I was about ten. She died for the last time just about three weeks ago. I remember how she once was so many years ago. She loved languages and was trying to learn Spanish along with Russian. She already spoke French and English. She took correspondence courses from the university and liked to sketch and play the piano. Though shy and socially awkward, she was a creative force in our home.
One day she broke. She verbally attacked one of my little school friends when she dropped by our house so we could walk to school together. “What’s wrong with you,” she shouted at my friend, Julie Jean. “Don’t you know anything about proper English?” Then mother went on to mock her. Julie burst out in tears and ran away. I cried too because I’d never seen Mother behave like this.
When I got home from school that afternoon, I saw Dad’s car in the driveway. He was home too early. I found out the ambulance had taken my mother away. She didn’t come home for over a month. She was sent to a hospital in a big city three hours away. Dad didn’t know if she would ever come back. My grandmother came to stay with my sister and me for a while.
Mother did come home, but she was not the person I remembered. She had undergone electric shock treatments. I could see the marks on her forehead where wires had been attached. She was prescribed strong anti-psychotic drugs. I still have images of her in my mind sitting in front of a window, staring into nowhere, smoking, cigarette after cigarette.
Dad expected us to be strong. He implied mother was weak. If he wanted to shame us, he’d say, “You’re acting just like your mother.” At the same time he’d say, “Don’t do anything to upset your mother.”
I started seeing my mother as weak, as broken, as an illness rather than as a person. I didn’t want to be like her. I wanted to be strong. Whenever my dad would yell, Mother would almost cower. Whenever my dad would say, “Never hit a woman, kick her,” mother would begrudgingly accept her place in the corner.
Mother and Dad came from two very different worlds. Mother grew up valuing education and aspired to be an intellectual. Dad grew up in a working class family and didn’t see the value of an education unless it was a means to a practical end. I am a lot like my dad, but in some ways, I’m like my mother too.
Because of my mother’s influence, I discovered art and music. I discovered education and the joy of learning for the sake of learning. Because of my mother’s influence, I am an educator. It has taken me almost a lifetime, but I realize now that my mother was a strong woman in more ways than I realized. In part because of her, I am a strong woman too.
Good bye, Mother. May you finally be at peace.
April 6, 2015
If you want to be treated with respect, you’ve got to have self-respect. In spite of our flaws and mistakes, I believe self-respect means we see ourselves just as worthy of dignity as any other human being. It means we should expect others to treat us with the same regard as we are willing to treat them. Yet too often girls grow up believing they are “less worthy” than others and therefore deserve less.
Consider how many girls have compared their own looks and bodies to flawless, manipulated magazine images of celebrities only to realize they themselves will never achieve perfection. Consider how many girls learn to keep silent rather than making suggestions or sharing ideas because they might sound too bossy. Consider how many girls constantly feel they will never measure up or that their voices are discounted simply because they are girls. Finally consider how many girls are told they are “less worthy” because they were born female.
Now consider the girls who start believing they are undeserving of respect because they are girls. When a girl starts believing she is undeserving, she has lost her self-respect. When a girl loses her self-respect, others will not treat her with respect. Instead, it is more likely that others will see her as someone who can be used, abused, and dismissed.
Because at one time I didn’t believe I was deserving of the same respect as others, I married someone I hardly knew right after I completed high school. I was led to believe that I would be lucky if anyone would want to be married to me. At the time, I also believed that my only choice in life was to get married. I was treated just like I expected to be treated in that marriage. It took me a lot of years to realize that I was the one who had allowed another person to treat me with disregard. I learned some valuable lessons that I hope some other women will learn a bit faster than I did. Here are some things that helped:
1.I started building positive relationships with other women who saw potential in me. These women helped me see that I could have dreams of my own and encouraged me to start exploring those dreams.
2.In spite of resistance from my former husband, I earned money of my own and started taking some college classes. Eventually I was able to earn scholarships and assistantships that paid for four years of graduate school. Getting an education opened a world of possibilities for me.
3.Thanks to friends who helped me become aware, I realized that I carried a lot of negative self-talk – I had internalized messages about myself that I had come to accept when I was growing up such as “I’m no good,” or “I’m just being bad.” I replaced those negative messages with thoughts such as, “My future and where I am going is what defines me.”
4.I developed a mission statement for myself so that I can stay focused and live a purpose-filled life. I have learned to advocate for things that I believe are important and am willing to speak up and speak out as part of my mission.
5.Finally, just like other women have done for me, I have tried to encourage other women by seeing the potential in them that they might not have recognized in themselves. By lifting others, we can make a difference in this world. What greater sense of purpose can we find than that?
Learning to Speak Up
April 2, 2015
I grew up with family secrets – lots of them. My father emphasized that I was to “never tell” about our family or anything that went on in our home. Because of my upbringing and a number of other events, I was almost mute by the time I was in my early teens.
I can understand why my teachers and other adults discounted me. I could not speak for myself. Because I could not speak, anything anyone else said about me became “truth” in many other people’s eyes. I was no good. I was a deviant. I was sullen. I was shallow. I clearly had nothing to offer.
Today I’m a speech and gender communication educator at a rural community college. I am also an advocate for women’s voices that have been silenced. I regularly work with women who have come from low income and / or highly dysfunctional families. I understand why it is so difficult to speak up for these women.
How do women who have experienced years of silencing gain the confidence and skill to find their own voices and to speak up? Here are a few of my evidence-based thoughts:
1.Women need safe places to express themselves and to connect with other women who have faced similar struggles with having been silenced.
When I’ve facilitated conversations with women about silencing and finding their voices, women have readily shared their own stories with each other. These conversations alone can help bolster confidence. When we as women come together and share, we realize we are not alone.
2.Women mentors can be helpful because they may see skills and strengths in us that we don’t yet recognize in ourselves. I was very fortunate to have two strong women mentors when I was in graduate school. The investment these women made in me gave me the confidence to fly with my own wings.
3.Developing public speaking skills in a safe environment can also help women find their voices. When I was much younger, I joined a speaking organization called Toastmistresses. It was just for women. I eventually felt comfortable and gained some confidence speaking in front of other women. What I didn’t realize at the time was that feminine speech behaviors that we learn growing up are not necessarily the same speech patterns and behaviors that boys learn.
4.Because women and men often orally express themselves in different ways and for different reasons, women’s speech is more likely to get discounted by males who hold positions of power. Women who also learn to effectively use masculine speech patterns (directness, strong reasoning, assertiveness, etc.) when appropriate are more likely to be heard.
Susan B. Anthony, a women’s rights advocate in the 19th Century understood that she had to develop a message that could appeal to both women and to men. She knew that the men who heard her speak were the ones who had the power to change laws and to support the changes she and other women wanted. With this awareness, Anthony developed a speaking style that was logical, rational, and fact-based but also had emotional appeal with careful use of stories and appealing examples. It was once said she could go toe-to-toe in a debate with just about any man. What a lot of people didn’t realize was Miss Anthony had a huge fear of public speaking! She practiced, got feedback, and was determined to stand up for what she believed regardless of how difficult it was for her.
5. I also believe girls and women can gain a great deal of confidence and skill when they learn the art of debate. I’ve worked with many women who have become fearless in their ability to debate just about any topic. When women develop the skills that are respected in larger arenas while still retaining the heart of their messages, they will not only feel empowered, they will have more power.
Women need to advocate for things they believe in. If we don’t do this, who will? Speak up. Speak out. Be the difference!
Women need to advocate for things they believe in. If we don’t do this, who will? Speak up. Speak out. Be the difference!
A Time to Speak Out
March 22, 2015
I wish I had been able to articulate what I had witnessed in a convincing manner. All I could do was read the article I had written for a local newspaper that I tightly gripped as the state legislative representative kept saying, “Can’t you just tell me in your own words what happened?” The truth was I could not speak my own words without reading them. I could not take a stand against injustice when I needed to do so.
I was about twenty at the time. I had written an article for local newspaper about what I had witnessed in a nursing home where I worked nearly full-time as a nursing aid just three years earlier while still in high school. I wrote about being left alone and in charge of approximately fifty elderly patients one afternoon. I told about how I got instructions over the phone to give one of the patients some morphine because he was in extreme pain. I’d never given anyone an injection before. I told about having to catheterize patients without any supervision and distribute drugs on a regular basis. I also recalled coming to work day after day and hearing Hattie Turner crying, “Take me away, heavenly father, take me away.” I prayed he did one day when I found Mrs. Turner’s lower body encrusted with fecal material because no one had taken time to clean her.
After I my article was published, a newspaper reporter called me and asked if I would be willing to testify at our state capitol at a hearing about nursing home abuses. I agreed to do it because I felt like the lack of oversight in nursing homes was deplorable. Yet when I sat in front of the legislator’s desk, I felt like a small little girl in grade school. I wore an inexpensive dress and a sweater. Nursing home operators and owners were also in the room. They looked like professionals who were ready to defend their practices. My dramatic recollections were discounted. I sounded like a silly child trying to make an unfounded claim against a sibling.
Fortunately, others came forward and shared other horror stories about nursing home abuses. The facility where I once worked was eventually closed down. I believe many nursing homes came under much greater scrutiny because there were people who could confidently and effectively demonstrate a need for a change.
My heart was willing, but I still hadn’t learned how to speak up when I needed to. No doubt there will be times when many of us will have opportunities to speak up for causes where we can make a difference. I believe it is important for us to be equipped for those opportunities.
I realized that I needed to learn how to speak up and speak out if I wanted to really make a difference when something mattered to me. I joined Toastmasters, an international speaking organization, so I could start practicing speaking up. I later went back to school and took speech classes. I eventually went to graduate school and studied speech communication. At this point, I have been teaching speech communication for well over twenty years. I have done so because I believe that everyone needs the confidence and skill to speak up and speak out when they can make a difference. What about you?
Reclaiming My Life
March 14, 2015
Anyone who knows me very well understands I am dangerously clumsy, and just about anything I touch is at risk. Fortunately, most of what I break can be replaced. However, people cannot be replaced. Each of us has a story that is ours alone and cannot be replaced.
March is women’s history month. The theme for women’s history month this year is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” This month I am choosing to share one of my stories with you.
The last time I broke a glass, I had an “ah-ha” moment. I saw a much younger version of myself in the shards of glass that I scooped up with a broom before disposing.
When I was still in high school, my teachers were not aware that behind my bomb-shelled exterior, the shards of my life were being held together with duct tape. I lived each day on survival mode. Unfortunately, my troubled stares and inability to speak were interpreted as rebellion and indifference. I was labeled a truant, a trouble-causer, and a deviant. One of my teachers announced in class that she was tired of my “dagger-like” stares. I was suspended from school on more than one occasion. I felt as though my life and my future had been written off.
I didn’t trust teachers, administrators or anyone else. When I finished high school, I had somehow managed to get through school with a bit above a 3.0 without attending a lot of classes or ever reading an entire book. I didn’t remember the Latin I studied or the chemistry I completed. I suspected teachers gave me passing grades to move me through the system. I hoped to never deal with a teacher again. I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams that someday I would become an educator.
Desperate to put pieces of my life back together, I eventually made a decision to go back to school. At that time I was a young mother with two young children. The day I registered for classes at Mount Hood Community College, I sat in my car and cried. I cried because of fear and I cried because I was about to begin a new chapter in my life.
Eventually I found my voice. I learned to speak up and to speak out when I believed it was important to do so. Today I teach speech communication courses at a community college in Southern Oregon.
I imagine some of my students have also tried to hold their lives together with duct tape. When you are in survival mode, it is very difficult to concentrate. I just want all of my students past and present to know that I do understand, and I trust you will find the support and strength you need to move forward. Don’t give up on yourself. You can and will make it when the time is right.
Bullied not Beaten
March 7, 2015
Bullied but not beaten! I’ll admit it–I was like a seventh-grade version of Amy Farrah Fowler from television’s Big Bang Theory. I was nerdy, socially awkward, and had a wardrobe of ill-fitting clothes from the second-hand store. I actually did wear some straight wool skirts and cardigan sweaters to school which certainly didn’t do anything to enhance my chances of acceptance. At the time, one of my favorite personal possessions was my microscope. When other young teens were listening to popular music, I was listening to Bach and Chopin. I loved knowing the answers to math and was overly eager to raise my hand so that the teacher knew I usually had the answer before anyone else–not very smart. What I didn’t now was the rules for being a thirteen-year-old girl. I was supposed to fit in and look like the other girls. I was supposed to like the kind of music the other girls liked and talk in class, but not about assignments. I later realized girls who acted like they were smart weren’t considered smart at all because they were asking for trouble.
At first I just got pushed in the hallways by other girls and some of the boys in seventh grade. Then the bullying escalated to name-calling and tripping. Girls started telling me “Big Mary” was going to beat me up. I knew who she was, but my parents had told me girls didn’t fight. I didn’t want to fight Big Mary.
Big Mary started taunting me and spitting on me. She shoved, pushed, and did everything she could to get me to fight her. One day Big Mary and about a dozen other kids followed me home. Big Mary did her best to provoke a fight as she continued to call me names and spit on my hair. I managed to get home before anything happened. Much to my horror, the kids stood in front of my house and yelled crude comments about me.
My mother, who had her own challenges, was home but didn’t know what to do. She invited the kids inside our house and gave the kids some cookies. I hid in my room. Unfortunately, my mother’s efforts didn’t make much difference.
One day when I visited the girl’s restroom, Big Mary was waiting for me. She shoved me hard. I was afraid she was going to hurt me. I instinctively shoved her back. She shoved me harder, so I slugged her in the face. Then she clawed me across the face. Girls outside the restroom started shouting, “Fight, fight!”
Big Mary and I were hauled down to the principal’s office. The principal told both of us how disgraceful we were and how ashamed we should both be. He asked us what we had to say in our defense. Big Mary didn’t say anything. I couldn’t find words to say a thing either.
Big Mary stopped bothering me. I had changed. I quit playing with my microscope. I think I gave it away. I lost interest in school. Instead of attending classes, I started skipping school and hanging out with people who were much older than I was. I survived.
Today I’m an associate professor of communication at a community college. I can have my nerdy moments, but I’m quite comfortable with myself. Yet I see young women who haven’t yet learned they have a right to be smart and to be valued for who they are rather than who others think they should be. I have an opportunity and so does everyone else to help these young women learn to speak up for each other and to speak up for themselves.