I am a strong woman. At least, that’s what I always thought. The truth is that it’s easy to be a “strong woman” in the first world. It’s easy to have ambition beyond male-defined gender roles. It’s easy to support female friends. It’s easy to raise a fist in the air and make a sassy comment about wearing high heels only to smash the patriarchy. That’s why, in times when gender bias has jumped out of other people’s subconscious right before my eyes, I thought it would be easy to address.
Spoiler alert: it is not easy.
For most of my life, the world has been presented to me in very simplistic narratives. I really did grow up believing that the country was equal. As a kid, I was privileged enough that it rarely crossed my mind that I could potentially be treated differently than anyone else. Then, as I got older, I soon learned that the world was not equal as I had been led to believe, and especially recently, it became more obvious the ways that bias touched my life. I became a self-declared feminist, a soldier ready to do my part for the cause.
The problem is that soldiers are trained to see in black and white. They can clearly distinguish between our side and the enemy, between good and bad. But life rarely fits into nice little boxes, and I most often find myself navigating through gray areas. I’ve begun noticing instances in which I’ve not been taken seriously, when I’ve been underestimated, ignored or talked over, when my accomplishments or my intelligence have been questioned, or when I’ve been siloed into secretarial or administrative tasks. This is not the kind of bias that I can immediately classify as misogynistic. It’s complex and confusing, and there are so many confounding variables.
A comment will rub me the wrong way, and I’m supposed to suddenly grow ten feet tall and adopt a mystical glow around me like some Greek goddess while I put whatever foolish man dared to say such a thing in his place. Instead, I sit there paralyzed, my mouth firmly shut, and my head running in circles. I question everything: What did they mean by that? Am I misinterpreting this? Am I reading too far into this?
It’s like I’m somehow transported back to my little elementary school self, the one who was told that sexism ended 100 years ago when women got the vote. I sit trying to justify someone else’s behavior because that’s the habit that society has gifted me with: internally programmed misogyny, prompting doubt and disbelief around a woman’s opinion, even if that woman is me, myself.
On a few occasions, I have spoken up and tried to call out subtle biases in the moment. It has never gone well. It always started with good intent on both sides and a genuine desire to understand my point of view. However, as I explained what seemed to me very obvious and very logical, there was a disconnect. The boys on the other end didn’t seem to hear or understand what I was actually saying. Instead, they interrupted and talked over me, and did everything they could to justify themselves. The worst part, though, is the question that ends that entire conversation: “Are you sure you’re not looking for something that isn’t there?”
I understand where this reaction comes from. No one wants to view themselves as guilty of wrongdoing, and men are already subconsciously socialized to interpret rational arguments as irrational when they come from women. It is just extremely frustrating that subtle bias is so normalized, it is that easy for men to subvert ownership of any kind of harm they cause to women. Not only this, but that is the kind of comment that sends me into another round of questioning myself. What had seemed so obvious before becomes confused, and once again, internally programmed biases make me wonder if I was even justified for being upset in the first place.
No matter how “strong” you are, you can’t change the world in one conversation. People are willing to see fault in the world, but not fault in themselves. People are ready to commit to the idea of equality on a surface level, when in reality, real change requires a far more nuanced definition of the word.
I don’t want to be the oversimplified “strong woman.” That girl is like an illusion. She’s not “strong.” She’s one-dimensional and paper-thin. She falls over at the first sign of wind. She exists as a commodified version of feminism that doesn’t require actual work or struggle, and is only meant to sell “the future is female” t-shirts and laptop stickers.
That version of the “strong woman” is simple, but real strength and resilience are far more difficult to achieve. I am tired of trying to live as a caricature. All I want is to exist as a woman in all my complexity, unimpeded by socially constructed narratives of what that means.
I don’t know if I am actually a strong woman. But I am trying.