Saturday’s Women’s March will go down in history as a moment when women stood up and said, “NO! We will NOT be silenced! We will NOT be dismissed or ignored! What we think and need MATTERS!”
The women’s movement has had moments like this before, and yes, they did bring women together, and they did empower women to claim the rights we enjoy today. But marching alone will not stop women’s rights from being eroded. It will not help create a society where what women think and need has equal precedence to men’s rights and needs. Fighting for legal equality and political representation is only a part of the battle. The other part, and I believe a much larger part, involves empowering ourselves to understand the sexism and emotional disempowerment that we have internalized from our mothers, grandmothers, generational families, school days, workplaces, cultures, religions, and friends.
At the heart of the big political picture of what is happening to women’s rights today is the emotional silencing that we all do to ourselves, and each other, every day, in small and large ways, often without realizing it, because we don’t yet know the full extent of our entitlement to be listened to and have our needs honored. All too often we put our needs aside because we have swallowed whole the belief system I call the Culture of Female Service, that has taught women and men for generations that women are listeners not speakers, care-givers not care-receivers, and followers not leaders. We hear our mothers, daughters, family members, work colleagues, and girlfriends deny our truth by telling us that it isn’t the way we think it is, or that we surely don’t mean what we are saying, which is a typical sexist response designed to make us feel bad for having spoken up. Or the silent treatment response where our voice is entirely ignored by the listener, as they turn the conversation around to what they need, and what they think, and how we can support them.
I believe that the way today’s women’s movement marginalizes this discussion of how women internalize, and are co-opted by the sexism in their generational family, culture, and religion has contributed to the waxing and waning of women’s rights since the 1980s. This much neglected area requires that women resurrect their mother’s and grandmother’s consciousness raising groups. But, as I have learned, gathering alone in women’s groups, women’s circles, Lean In circles, or Red Tent circles, is not enough for women to be emotionally empowered. If we do not understand how we internalize sexism and the level of emotional entitlement women deserve to speak and be heard, women’s groups and circles cannot empower women to shake off the emotional shackles of sexism. Without this understanding, women’s groups and circles are in danger of being patriarchy’s ambassadors, because their members will pass on to each other the sexism they have learned to normalize.
Truly life changing women’s groups, women’s circles, Lean In circles, and Red Tent circles require that the facilitator understands how sexism makes itself at home in women’s minds, and how sexism creates a competitive, jealous, emotionally manipulative environment for women. The facilitator needs to understand women’s multigenerational experience with sexism, and how emotional silencing is passed on from mother to daughter, and how in all female relationships, women are set up to fight over their unvoiced feelings and needs, and the role stereotypes that restrict women’s choices and lives.
One of the key truths that I have learned over the last thirty years listening to women talk about their lives and mother-daughter relationships is that if we do not talk about, and understand our collective multigenerational experience of having our voices silenced, our reality denied, and our needs ignored, we do not have a strong enough platform on which to fight for the political rights that are in danger today. If we do not gather together in groups and circles that protect women’s voices, the misogyny in today’s families, society, and political and corporate climates will not be exposed. And if we do not learn how to truly listen to ourselves and each other, without blame, guilt-tripping, and emotional manipulation, women will continue to be divided, and therefore, highly vulnerable to being controlled.
As I say in my upcoming book The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, “A woman who knows what she needs cannot be controlled.” Women need to understand the depth of how true this statement is. When we know what we need and we don’t doubt that our needs matter just as much as everyone else’s, and that our emotional truth matters, and our voices matter, women become far less vulnerable to tolerating being silenced in their relationships, workplaces, and boardrooms. And women will be an even more powerful force that politicians and lawmakers cannot ignore.