A Great Man

The other day one of the admins said to her boss, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” She meant it as a compliment to herself, but it just made me want to pick up a pencil and stab myself in the eye with it. If the woman’s so great, why is she standing behind some man?

But I don’t feel like a rant today—that kind of rage takes more energy than I can muster first thing in the morning. I have been thinking about women and leadership lately, as I try to take on more responsibility at work. Mainly I think for me it comes down to learning how to do it and then making it a habit. You know, the habit of making the decisions, of accepting that I can’t be perfect, can’t try to be perfect and still have the necessary forcefulness to have people respect my decisions. Also the habit of being the one in front, so to speak. (Get it? In front, not behind—har har.) Women do seem to be conditioned to stand in the shadows. I feel like I can pinpoint the year when I learned that girls don’t take charge, learned it from other little girls. I don’t know where they had learned it from, and honestly I wonder. Their fathers? I didn’t have one, at least not one that was around. Their mothers? I can’t remember mine ever correcting my behavior as unfeminine. But that’s certainly what girls did.

It was fifth grade, for me, when I tried to take charge of the girls in my class—lead, if you will. I get a bit squirmy just thinking about it, even now. Who did I think I was? That’s certainly what the other girls thought. “Who do you think you are?” Girls collaborate, create consensus, and no one is above anyone else, no one leads, there is only, sort of, a first among equals. It’s all become a hazy memory of sitting in one of the wooden cubbyholes on the playground, feeling as though I’d let my girls, my group, my clique, down. I didn’t want to be thought mean. There was some disagreement … I can’t even remember, have absolutely no recollection, what it was about. But the other little girls called me mean. And I knew girls were supposed to be sweet, were supposed to be nice, were not supposed to be stuck-up and full of themselves.

I was a naturally shy child, but I was smart, and I knew what I was. Not the prettiest, which girls were encouraged to be. I wanted to be pretty, to have long blond hair and a pretty round face, instead of brown hair and brown eyes and the face I had—long, thin, cheekbones where the other girls still had plump faces—a horse face. Not the fastest, because I hated sports. Not the sweetest, because, let’s face it, smart and sweet don’t usually go together. Not the funniest, though I tried. But the smartest. I felt, for a long set of years between the beginning of puberty and say, 22, that I wasn’t girly enough. I couldn’t be girly enough, because even though I wanted to be, it never fit. I didn’t care about boys, or what they thought of me, but I felt as though I should, and it only confused me. Boys were almost all stupid and immature and knew no more about anything than I did, but we were supposed to defer to them, so I did. I loved clothes, but not girly clothes—I liked jeans and boots and sweaters and blazers. You should see the dress I picked out for my confirmation at 13. My best friend wore a pink and lavender floral dress with a lace bib and a ruffled hem. I wore a navy and white shirt dress with navy and white spectator heels. My sister’s friend later borrowed the ensemble for a job interview.

I’m taking this trip down memory lane just trying to understand what happened, why I gave up on that early sense of “take charge” for a life in the shadows, a position behind that hypothetical, theoretical, “great man.” I think I felt like everyone expected me to fit into this mold that no part of me fit in, and the only thing I could think was to just disappear. I can’t be that girl, but I can give up that belief in myself, I can carve it out of me, that self-confidence, and hand it over. I can believe that you know how I should be, and that I’m less of a person because I can’t be. Neither a great man, nor a great woman.

I worry about my niece, now that she’s getting closer to puberty, to that age, to a realization that there is a way girls are “supposed” to act, and that it doesn’t always conform to who she is. She’s prettier than I was, and blond, but she’s also whip-smart, likes comfortable clothes, no fuss, and is a natural-born leader. I worry she’s about to be gutted, as I was, made to pay the price I paid for not being a proper girl—her self-confidence. And I hate for her to think she’s anything less than amazing, just by being herself. I can already catch a glimpse of the woman she’ll one day be—a great woman, I hope, one who doesn’t want to stand in anyone’s shadow.

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