I am one of those people who would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy. I am also one of those people who takes a while to get to know someone, especially when I’m thrown into a whole group of new people. The result of those two things is that I am often “encouraged” to speak more in groups or on panels…
While I sometimes kinda sorta appreciate the sentiment behind it, mostly I get pretty fucking irritated.
Much of this “encouragement” comes in the form of “we need more women’s voices,” as was suggested to me in the context of the criminal (in)justice committee. That’s true. But women aren’t interchangeable. We don’t need just any woman’s voice. We need the women who are most affected by the issues we are talking about.
There are women out there who have been in prison. There are women out there who have been taking care of their kids, their brother’s kids, and their neighbor’s kids while everybody else is in prison. And they have been doing it making poverty wages, living in low intensity conflict zones, and completely erased from the public eye — unless it is to vilify them as crack whores or welfare queens. Those are the women who need to be heard and who probably have a damn good idea of what needs to be done.
And even when people are seeking out the women who can actually speak to the issue in question, their participation is just a diversity box that people are checking off. It is infuriating when someone suggests that “gender balance” has been addressed by having one woman on a panel full of dudes, as someone I was working with recently claimed.
Admittedly, even under circumstances where I should speak more, I don’t do it. I realize that is a problem. And while there are plenty of men out there who also hate being the center of attention, it seems to be something that the women I know struggle with more.
We are socialized in a way that encourages men to expect to be center stage and women to expect to be invisible. There are a lot of women who are brought up to be housewives and secretaries, to do invisible work, to be “the woman behind the man.” Not to mention how often visibility means a whole lot of unpleasant attention.
And all of us are brought up to believe that the only people that count are the dudes that make pretty speeches. That’s why everybody knows who MLK was and almost nobody knows who Ella Baker was, much less Diane Nash or any of the other women of that era. What I would really like to know is — Who typed MLKs speeches? Who kept track of all the vehicles that drove people around during the bus boycotts? Who brought the food to the nightly church meetings so that entire families could come out and plan direct actions?
Speeches are inspiring. But speaking is not doing.
The challenge for a lot of us women is that the expectation of being invisible often leads to wanting to be invisible. That’s a problem. But I think the challenge is even more difficult for those people who not only expect to be center stage, but don’t even seem to see all the invisible work that the charismatic male leader is just a symbol of.
We don’t need to be checking gender boxes. We shouldn’t be falling into the trap of thinking that center stage means more important. And we damn well shouldn’t be “encouraging” people to play symbolic roles. What we should be doing is thinking about what our role should be in a given context and then stepping up or stepping back accordingly.