jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that

Strong Women

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This morning my NPR One app broadcasted a segment about Hillary “flipping the script” on Trump by proclaiming that he’s too unstable to be trusted to run the country.  It’s nice when Hillary and I agree on something, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

No, today I’m here to talk about the realization I came to while listening to that segment–the realization that half of our civilization has been gaslighting the other half for, well, its entire history.

Fifteen or twenty years ago I had a conversation with my grandmother wherein I said that I didn’t think a woman should be President of the United States, because, you know, we’re so emotional.  So soft.  She commended me for my insight.

Let’s talk about the women in my family for a minute.

We’ll start with my Nana. She was born after her parents came over from Germany, but not by far.  More than anything, she wanted to be a concert pianist, but her father was no idiot and recognized that she was the hardest worker out of his passel of kids (8? 10?  I can’t remember).  So while her sisters became artists and so on, Nana worked on the farm.  She married a farm kinda guy, and they lived in a tent-house, which is where you build a wall three feet high and pitch a tent on top of that, and voila, you have a house.  She gave birth to my grandmother, and five years later to my great uncle.  My grandmother tells me that her little brother’s birth was a big deal, because her mom got to move from the tent-house to ‘the big house’ for the occasion.  Grandma was born in 1927, I believe, just before the Great Depression.

During the Depression, Nana was never out of work.  If you remember your history lessons, you’ll know that was unusual.  For a while, she worked in a chicken plant, and she worked ‘by the piece’ (that would be paid-per-chicken) instead of hourly, because she was such a hard worker, and so efficient, that she could make more that way.  She’d also sign up for the Kosher shift, which meant hand-plucking instead of putting the chickens through the wax bath.  Why?  Because that way she could save up the down, and make pillows and a mattress (comforter? The legend is fuzzy).  Her husband died when their son was 16, and she carried on, strong and hardworking.  Grandma tells me that one day, when the two of them were working in an orchard, a helicopter crashed nearby, and Nana ran to rescue the crew.

I often lament that I’m not more like my Nana.

Grandma was moved around a lot as a kid.  I don’t remember how many schools, but she lagged behind in the usual way of kids who are moved around a lot, and never did graduate.  But when she was around 18, Nana showed her a news story about a new cosmetology school, and Grandma enrolled.  After school she’d take the trolley to the cannery and work a full shift there.  While in the city for her cosmetology exam, she met my grandfather.  They had three children, and built two brick houses with their own hands.  My grandfather was an irresponsible and flighty man, and although she’s never said it, I suspect my grandmother took care of the family more by force of will than anything else.  After her marriage ended, she bought a house, and in the 35+ years she lived there, she only called a plumber three times.  I never saw a household or yard care problem that could intimidate her.  Even without a diploma, she got a job with the school district, and worked there until retirement.

My Mom, Grandma’s daughter, spent my childhood kicking ass. Oh, not mine, although when a neighbor boy bragged about his karate class, Mom gathered a couple boards and demonstrated her own karate skills on the sidewalk in front of our house.  I don’t think the neighborhood kids sassed my mom.  No, Mom spent my childhood arresting people.  After her divorce, with us kids still at home, she went back to college, worked 12 hour shifts deep in the desert guarding a government facility, and, among other things, singlehandedly dug a giant tree stump out of the yard so she could plant a garden in its place.  She’s not scared of home repair projects either, and I’ll warn you, she’s a crack shot with a pistol.

The women in my family are strong.  So it’s a little baffling that 20-odd-year-old me would feel that a woman couldn’t handle the presidency.  But then, isn’t that what she was taught?  Don’t men treat us as though our differences are flaws?  Don’t they insinuate that if we get angry or upset, it’s our hormones?  If we disagree, we’re being irrational?  When is the last time you even heard a man called irrational?  Certainly they aren’t called hysterical, because the very word means ‘of the womb,’ literally a term coined by men to state that women are driven crazy by our uteri. And if a woman dares to raise her voice, she’s not speaking firmly or strongly, she’s not shouting, oh no, she’s shrieking. Shrieking, we’re given to understand, means a woman has lost control. Men do not shriek.

Is it any wonder that I once had a manager tell me I wasn’t a good leader because I sometimes cried?

It’s time to refuse to measure strength and leadership with a man-shaped yardstick.  It’s time to stop letting men define women. And it’s way past time to stop holding each other to that definition.


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