i went to school for nineteen years. when i finished my master’s degree my sweet momma asked if i would – one day – work on a doctorate. i emphatically replied, “not a chance!”. i felt that i had reached my terminal degree, so to speak, and that all the rest – all that education, work experience, talent and intuition and tenacity and wisdom gained along the way – would serve me well.
i am 64 today. sixty-four. six decades plus four.
and i am a woman. woman. she/her/hers.
and this is the 21st century. the 2000’s.
yet, sitting on the couch the other day, watching new amsterdam – cast with actors in many female physicians’ and specialists’ roles – i stood up and cheered for the female character who firmly stated, “i didn’t go to school for twelve years [med school] to learn how to smile more.”
what – exactly – is the propensity for people to tell – specifically – women to “smile” or “smile more” or “just smile” or some similar iteration in answer to conflict, to agenda, to management riddled with prejudice? the question i ask – would you tell a man to “smile” or “smile more” or “just smile” or – truly – any iteration as such?
the continued thwarting, silencing, harassing of women is insidious. and forever. as in – forever.
“there is a pull, a fiercely ingrained pull, to mute a woman’s voice until it coos. to press it down until it is as small and sweet as a pastel after-dinner mint. to control it. to silence it.”
“and still, she speaks. she tries to be heard. but very—too often—her voice is ignored … or belittled, mocked, critiqued, or shouted down.”
“if a woman utilizes her voice in a powerful way, or shakes up systems that are firmly in place, she will be subject to an abysmal, hack, silencing-method known as punishment.” (fiona landers – we have always silenced women – damemagazine.com)
“learn how to smile more…” i put new amsterdam on pause and rolled my eyes.
smiling more and keeping silent…when is that appropriate action in one’s workplace? is it appropriate – palatable – with a minimal salary and no benefits? is it substantially more appropriate – indeed more palatable – with a substantial salary, full benefits and retirement? do leaps and bounds of higher financial reward translate to keeping-one’s-mouth-shut even in the face of maltreatment? is a silent smiler in the upwardly-mobile ranks helping those on the lower ladder rungs? where is the line (or is it a ladder rung?) between generative transparency and closed-lipped acquiescence? where is the respect?
my sweet momma – who died at almost 94, a woman before her time – was a smiler. i – like most people – love to smile. i can see her smile in mine, the thinning curve as she grins, the crinkling of her eyes and the crease just above her top lip. she was a promoter of joy and kindness and – as the basic tenets of all the work i do in the world – i would like to think i have brought those forward, from her.
i found a small pocket calendar she sent me. i had saved it in a drawer in my studio for fifteen years. there is a handwritten sticky note on the back in which she directs me to “read the motivations through these pages” and to “start with the cover”.
the cover quote reads, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” (mahatma gandhi)
smiling-on-demand – even being a “sweet pastel after-dinner mint” – does not get one anywhere. conversely, not smiling-on-demand, not being a “sweet pastel after-dinner mint” can get one destroyed. but, in fact, smiling-not-for-a-real-smile’s-sake and the act of being a “sweet pastel after-dinner mint” and staying quiet about any prejudicial wrongdoing or malfeasance is an abhorrent manipulation, a coercion, shutting down strong, smart, valuable women – employees – time after time. and for what purpose? is this not perpetuating the oppression? just what responsibility do we have to each other, to the next? are we the change or aren’t we?
i’m 64. i’m still standing and cheering.
so is my sweet momma.
and we’re both smiling, just not on demand.
read DAVID’S thoughts this MERELY-A-THOUGHT MONDAY
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