“There is always room at the top; don’t let them tell you there is not.”
– Adam Ant (1980s British rock singer)
Preamble: my younger sister is one of the smartest (and wisest) people I have ever known.
This article is specifically concerned with tearing down chauvinist assumptions. It started with a friend of mine once needling me with an ill-considered comment before a tennis game, some thirty years ago: “Don’t let her beat you; she’s a girl!”
Because of the strongly egalitarian ethos with which I grew up, it stunned me at a young age to hear other people being judged by parameters that had nothing (NOTHING!) to do with their true merit.
“So-and-so can’t do it… because they’re black… or Indian… or female… or Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim, or gay, or disabled, or… [fill in the blank]”
Have you heard this one? “What do you expect from a girl?”
Nobody is created without talent. Everyone is capable of something worthwhile.
Now for the good news: the best will always thrive, and succeed… eventually.
And the bad news? It may take a lot more blood, sweat, toil, and tears than the next person. But if you keep your focus clear, and determination close, you’ll eventually get what you’re seeking… glass ceilings notwithstanding!
My sister is one of the smartest people I have ever known. She once effortlessly solved a computer problem that had stumped me and one of my (male) teachers for five hours… and he and I had, between us, over 17 years of university education and at least four graduate degrees!
So, if I may offer some advice to young women… including my own students…
Point the First: Keep your focus and intent clear.
At least, in your own mind! If you’re concerned with telegraphing your intentions to others, it may be because you’re too concerned about impressing others. If so, then re-evaluate your own purpose carefully. Others’ opinions don’t matter (more on that by clicking here); in the end, only YOURS DOES.
Another of the wisest people I ever met was a senior college official, who had studied at Vassar, and had lived in many countries with her husband (he had been ambassador to the USSR, Egypt, and West Germany). I learned to listen carefully every time these people uttered their thoughts.
She once pointed out to me a group of young college women who were partying raucously, and questioned why they would dress in sexually explicit ways at the same time they demanded to be treated equally… (and NOT like sex objects). Perhaps, she explained further, her generation valued equal rights more, because it was they who had had to demonstrate and fight for those rights in the 1960s. In her view, the young college men were confused because they were unsure how the young women really wanted to be viewed, and treated. (I think they were almost all a little confused at that age…)
Yes, yes… I know. You should be able to do, say, and dress however you want, without prejudice. But when people behave a certain way, they’ll get a certain response, female OR male. This is the real world, folks. So find another way to prove you’re as tough as the guys.
And don’t send mixed contradictory signals to your peers (female or male). Be clear what you want… and behave accordingly! You can be in control of your own situation without lowering yourself.
Point the Second: Save your energy for the uphill battle.
…because an uphill battle it will (often) be. You may sometimes benefit from well-intended (but reverse sexist) quotas that may work in your favour. But far more often, the world’s mechanisms leave a deck that is stacked against women. So instead of griping, and wasting your time protesting, and screaming… leave the tantrums to others… and just get on with the task!
And prove them wrong…
Life is not fair, as we have discussed (click here); get used to it! Your mothers and grandmothers had to! Conserve your resources and win… where maybe they did not.
“I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”
– DH Lawrence
Last Point: History will repeat itself in good ways, so make sure you’re part of it.
Have faith in yourself… and develop your own personal standards!
Dr Marie Curie, in the early 1900s, became the first person ever to win the Nobel Prize twice, a feat that has been achieved by only three others (all men, over half a century behind her).
Elizabeth I (Queen of England from 1558 to 1603) established her country’s military and economic supremacy, and her reign has been called England’s “Golden Age”.
Under her descendant, Victoria (reigned 1837 to 1901), Britain became the largest empire the world has ever known.
St Joan of Arc, without education or military training, led the French army to victory over the English in 1430… at the age of just 19.
Susan Travers, the only woman ever to serve in the French Foreign Legion (during World War II), was also one of the most highly decorated legionaries ever, for extreme bravery and calm under fire, in the Legion’s entire two century history.
Valerie Thomas worked as a senior NASA scientist from 1964 to 1995, and invented (among other things) the illusion transmitter, which revolutionised space travel and modern surgery methods, and allowed the development of 3D television. Even if you don’t know her name, you know some of her work; it was used in the original Star Wars movie.
Annie Oakley (as in “Annie get your gun”) was perhaps the greatest all-round sharpshooter of all time. Trained by her husband, whom she far surpassed, she set records and performed feats that nobody in over a century has managed to duplicate, in a field traditionally dominated overwhelmingly by men.
Dr Maria Montessori, who was discouraged from pursuing her schooling (because she was a girl!), excelled in medical school at the University of Rome, and developed scientifically based groundbreaking methods of education in the early 20th century that are used worldwide, to this day.
Margaret Thatcher, in 1979, became the first female British Prime Minister in history, winning three consecutive majority governments (the first PM to do so in some 150 years). Even her opponents so respected her, and were in such awe that they christened her “The Iron Lady” (as a compliment) after she won the Falklands War.
Benazir Bhutto became the first female PM of Pakistan, and was the first woman ever to lead a Muslim majority nation. Sadly, she was not allowed to die peacefully.
Aung San Suu Kyi played chicken (risking her life, literally) against the generals ruling Myanmar (Burma) for decades (they were afraid to have her killed), and finally prevailed. Like Louis Riel, or Morgan Tsangvirai, she won election to government but was prevented from taking her rightful seat… until recent years. She is still making history. I am hopeful that she will eventually be recognised as President of her country.
Finally, Felix Mendelssohn, famed 19th century German composer, admitted openly that his sister Fanny was a better pianist than he… but alas, her name is not remembered as well as his. Would it have been, had she been a man?
Such examples are not exceptions; they can be found through the breadth of all history.
I have taught many extremely capable female students; I expect you to do even better!
Prof Ling 🙂