My granddaughter is writing a story about her guinea pig, Ellie, so I decided I would sit down and write with her. Ava had Ellie for three years, but she passed away recently. Ava is writing about the things Ellie might have said if she could have talked. I like the things Ellie would have said.
I thought of all five of my granddaughters on Tuesday night, as I watched yet one more occasion in which a smug White man talked over and mansplained to a strong Black woman. Other than the spectacularly boorish behavior of one of the participants in the debate a week earlier, it was the the rudest expression of male behavior I have seen in a debate.
The evangelical world thinks Mike Pence is a wonderful example of what it means to be a Christian man. With all due respect, the evangelical world might not be fully aware of its own patriarchal prejudices. The lack of respect Pence showed to Senator Harris tells us just how far we have to go before we get anywhere near gender equity.
Since I’m hardly in a position to affect change in that male-dominated world, I don’t have high aspirations. I would be thrilled if just two things could happen. I speak about both in almost every speech I give to corporations and conferences. Both would at least start moving us in the right direction. I would like to leave a more equitable world for my granddaughters than the one into which they were born.
These two changes are incredibly simple. First, men, if you would just assume that a woman knows what she is talking about, and treat her accordingly, that would be a good start. Second, if you would stop interrupting women, and also stop others who interrupt women, then my joy would be complete. Well, it might not be complete, but I’d feel better about the state of gender relations than I do now.
Ever since I transitioned I have noticed how often I am interrupted. I began researching and discovered I was not imagining the change. Men interrupt women twice as often as they interrupt other men. And here is the thing. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I used to be one of the those who interrupted women. It is very troubling. Worse yet is the fact that I still do it. I am much more aware of it now, and stop myself and apologize, but it is not an easy habit to break. It is at the forefront of my mind in every meeting I attend. It is not enough to catch myself and apologize. I need to stop interrupting in the first place.
From childhood through their college years, boys are encouraged to think out loud. They are taught to be confident and sure of themselves and to speak up whenever they have a thought. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they bring that with them into their adult lives. Girls are taught just the opposite. Girls are taught that they have to be perfect, so when they grow up and enter the workforce, they bring that expectation with them. They know that when they do speak up in a meeting, their words have to be impeccable and succinct, because they know they are going to be interrupted.
When I was a man, I rarely had the patience to wait for a woman to collect her thoughts. If she didn’t speak up in the time allotted by men for other people to speak – about seven nanoseconds – then I spoke instead because, well, what I had to say was important.
It is humbling to realize just how entitled I was. I was painfully reminded of it all last Tuesday when I watched Mike Pence cut off Kamala Harris time and again. I wanted to scream at him to shut up and let her finish. Fortunately, Harris has learned how to handle rude men. She knows a woman has to respond to male rudeness carefully, and she does it perfectly. She knows if she is too strong in her response, well, there’s a word that is likely to be used to define her. If she doesn’t respond strongly enough, then she will not be seen as a leader. She has to ride the knife edge between responding too strongly and not strongly enough.
Kamala Harris was masterful at handling Pence’s interruptions. “I’m still speaking” merchandise has already made its way into the mart of competitive commerce. But the frustration is that she even needed to be masterful at handling his interruptions. It is quite a double standard we have created. Men are allowed to be boorish. Women are not even supposed to be annoyed, let alone boorish. The senator’s ability to handle rude interrupting men has been honed over her career as a prosecutor and a politician. I stand in awe. I have not developed the skill at silencing interrupting men that Harris has developed. I just get angry. But that is another thing women are not allowed to be. Anger is an acceptable emotion for men, but not women. It is maddening.
I asked Ava if boys interrupt her at school. She said, “Yeah, because boys are well, you know, kinda stupid.” I did not challenge her conclusion. All five of my granddaughters are strong girls. I’m glad. They have mothers and fathers who are not teaching them to be perfect. They are teaching them to be persistent. They will create a better world than the one into which they arrived.
I asked Ava, “I used to be a boy. Do you think I was stupid?” She thought about it for a minute and said, “Probably not, Gramma Paula, because you were transgender.” Oh, if she only knew…
And so it goes.