Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Loudly Carrying a Big Stick
If this is true, your grandchildren may be reading about me in history class, one of these days. Let’s just hope it’s for good reasons.
I learned early on that being the polite little Southern girl my grandparents would have preferred I be, never really got me anywhere. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I was observant enough to realize nobody paid much mind to the quiet girls. So the older I got, the louder I got. And for a while, I had no brakes and no filter.
Age took over, at some point, and with it came two things that helped to temper my personality – self introspection that brought a greater sense of self awareness, and getting to a place where I had to choose my battles, because there wasn’t enough ME to go around.
Years as a criminal prosecutor brought its own interesting element to the equation, it made me not care about much. For years I walked around in a weird sort of haze where my empathy had been impacted, my cynicism had grown, and my patience had completely disappeared. Throw a few ridiculously bad bosses and you have the perfect recipe for a general sense of apathy. Not giving a flip at its finest.
You can’t read this quote, however, and not talk about the elephant in the room, the ever present double standard. Recently, I was watching an episode of a show that originally aired in the 60s. One of the main characters, a male lawyer, felt that the woman he was defending was acting irrationally and immaturely and threatened to, and did, in fact, turn her over his knee and spank her. Like a child. Which she was not.
Now, if that’s a consensual thing you’re into, that’s your own business, but under that set of circumstances, it was…what?
Shocking? Not really for the time.
Okay? Under no set of circumstances.
It’s a good illustration of how far we’ve come. But then I think about some of the things I see today, and it’s clear, we still have far to go.
A woman in an online social media group posted the other day soliciting advice. A co-worker had called her ‘sweetheart’ and she was conflicted as to how to handle it. The comments on her post were fascinating. Everything from “Sever his head.” to “Ignore him.” There were things people suggested, I had never even considered.
That prompted me to think about my time in the professional world, and I must confess, there were no small number of comments made to me. Comments that would NEVER have been made if I were a man. When I was the new kid on the block I struggled with how to address these comments, some as innocuous as calling me sweetheart or darlin’. I eventually found my comfort zone in this approach: those who had said something a little sexist, or a bit demeaning truly meant nothing by it. It was so ingrained in how they’d been raised, it was as natural as reciting the weather, and it didn’t mean that person thought any less of me. On the occasions where the speaker was clearly trying to remind me of my place in the whole scheme of things, I simply used it to my advantage. And that also ended up serving me well. Nothing is more self-satisfying than having someone condescend to you and underestimate your capabilities. The speed with which you can turn around and decimate them, can be dizzying.
But at the end of the day, the way in which the world perceives you, and in which you react to the world, ultimately depends on where you are in your life. There will be times when you feel like everything is conspiring against you, and times when you feel like Queen for a Day, and it’s all part of the same story.
And that’s what you can take comfort in.
It’s ironic that anytime women rebel against the establishment, anytime we question the status quo, anytime we refuse to accept less than, unequal, or inferior, anytime we raise our voices and demand to be heard, we are ill behaving troublemakers. However, there remains a sense of hope that we never seem to shake. A mindset of eternal optimism and a thought in the back of our minds that by sheer will, perseverance, and determination we can change the things we don’t like, expand that which doesn’t include us, and rewrite a future that we help to shape.
We are the ‘crazy ones’ Apple founder Steve Jobs spoke about. We are the unapologetic rabble rousers who are finding our voice and making history. And if we change minds and hearts in the process, then isn’t it all of us who benefit?