Balancing Between Power and Protection

04/10/2011 09:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Recently with the death of two boundary-busting women, Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro, one can wonder how these women were able to balance their power and activism with their roles of wife and mother. These women took risks in their careers and at times were both lauded and condemned for the choices they made.

Historically, women have often been both patronized and protected. Until the late twentieth century, women were programmed to follow a man's lead. This held true across the whole spectrum of behavior in relationships between the sexes, from waiting to be kissed, to waiting for a man to make the next move, to waiting to be asked to marry. Women were the passive ones in the relationship while men played dominant roles. Basically, social programming sent a clear message to women to "keep your mouth shut and do as you are told to do," whatever that happened to be. Even though many women have been liberated and operate from a place of strength, the residue of this social programming still remains in some women.

Any social revolution where individuals in groups are expected to evolve from one role to another is never simple or painless. Because a social revolution requires institutions to change, it also requires individuals' cultural views of themselves to change. Extreme changes by a woman may cause discomfort for the individual's family, friends, and community. Both Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro experienced criticism for some of their choices but it did not cause them to hesitate or abandon a more beneficial course of action. Elizabeth Taylor used her clout to form the AIDS organization AMFAR. She was one of the first celebrities to champion HIV and AIDS fundraising when it was not popular to do so. Not afraid to demand what she was worth, she was the first actress to receive a salary of $1,000,000 for her role in Cleopatra. Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to run for Vice President during a time when some in the country were unsure whether a woman could balance the demands of holding high political office with family.

Women have to find a balance between power and protection. They have to have a discussion with the people in their lives -- husband, friends, family, church, work, neighborhoods, and organizations -- about the significance of striking this balance. Women may also have to do a better job compartmentalizing their roles (e.g., being a high-powered attorney at work but not bringing all of that power and aggression into the household).

Women also have to be acutely aware of the cost of the power role. Women may want the jobs and prestige men have, but they must understand the cost to their children and relationships from these choices, because society often doesn't tell them that there is no free lunch.
Sometimes, a woman has to take action to be treated with respect rather than make excuses for others who treat her disrespectfully. Many women are prone to look the other way and ignore bad behavior. They explain away shoddy treatment by their kids, friends, husbands, siblings, lovers, and colleagues. Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo highlighted this fact in their book He's Just Not That into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys.

The book discusses women who refuse to face the reality about men who disappear after only a few dates or who didn't want to be bothered with them at all. This book shows that many women have a hard time holding men accountable for disrespectful treatment in the early stages of a relationship. What happens when they have to deal with someone with whom they have a longer history? Many women let the shared times cloud their judgment when it comes to asserting themselves in order to receive fair treatment.

Because others won't take responsibility for their unhappiness, women have to take ownership of their own well-being. This means being a full-fledged adult and taking risks. A woman who lets family and friends make her decisions sets herself up for disappointment and possible abandonment when things go wrong. Since many people will not own the bad results of what they advised her to do, she will have to bear the consequences alone. It is folly to live out someone else's dreams. Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro lived their lives on their own terms, breaking ground in their fields when women had more obstacles and societal judgment to overcome. There is no better time than now for women to design their own lives in a powerful, self-confident way.