My mother is one of toughest women I know.
She survived an abusive marriage and found the courage to get free. She raised two incredibly headstrong children while also working high pressure jobs, put in the time necessary to heal herself, counseled other abused women, and dug deep to establish her boundaries and discover her personal joy.
When I think, “…woman, hear me roar,” I think of my mother.
And then I wonder: why does my roar sound so much like a squeak?
It’s not that my mother didn’t raise me with these values. In fact, both of my parents raised me to believe that there was no limit to the things I could accomplish. But once they divorced, I became the shadow of my older brother. I was a typical baby sister in full-force idolization mode, and the views of his social circle did not necessarily reflect such all-encompassing respect and acceptance.
As a teenaged girl, I could often be found tucked away on a corner of couch in my brother’s tiny apartment, silent and observant. I was such a common fixture that, eventually, the young men who paraded through all felt comfortable talking freely. What they had to say seemed perfectly normal to me. After all, I had nothing to compare it to. I listened to them make fun of the women they’d been with, breaking down their bodies into bits and pieces (who knew men actually judged the size of women’s areolas?) or saying things like, “She wasn’t much to talk to, but she sure was nice to look at.”
In short, typical young male behavior.
By the time I was in my twenties, my brother had formed a percussion ensemble, and I ended up travelling with them as they wound their way from one coast to the other. Although I was constantly surrounded by music, writing was my primary love. I took a Women’s Studies class that focused on women in literature—happily diving in to works by Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Marilyn French, and Marge Piercy, surprised to find so many of my own vague dissatisfactions with the status quo clarified for me so beautifully in the pages of their work—but when I tried to talk about this with my mostly male friends, they laughed.
They called feminists “feminazis,” as if wanting to stand up for equal rights was somehow equivalent to the attempted extermination of an entire group of people, and they dubbed my Women’s Studies class “’Ginar studies,” a term I found myself repeating in my attempts to be “one of the guys.”
Besides, it was only a joke, right?
It never occurred to me how truly derogatory and undermining it was—the way the term sought to reduce us to our reproductive organs instead of acknowledging the amazing things women have managed to produce outside of a womb. Deeper still, perhaps the derision stemmed from the gut reaction that a woman who finally gets a glimpse of what is possible might become a dangerous creature.
One who stops being pliant and tractable—or at least one who doesn’t laugh at insulting jokes.
But I took it all in stride. After all, I didn’t believe in “man-bashing,” and I thought that’s what feminists did. Personally, I loved men. The ones I knew were all smart and loud and brash and stoic and it never occurred to me to consider a life without men in it. My male friends never told me that my place was only to make babies and pot roast, so what was the big deal? By then, I was fully indoctrinated into the habit of making fun of women who tried too hard to take a stand or become the focal point for longer than it took to say something supportive to a man.
I never realized that, although it might have been okay for me to leave the kitchen and apron strings behind, they still very much so had a place for me—in the corner keeping my opinions and my emotions to myself.
When I finally got clear of all these influences, I eventually discovered that I had been programmed by a philosophy that might have suited the majority of mankind, but it certainly didn’t serve me. I had been turned against a part of myself, had been taught that there was something defective residing within me, an irrational core that I could never shake free of as a woman. And no matter how hard I worked, how educated I became, how calm I trained myself to be, how balanced in my views, no matter how rational, my brain was still going to process information in a way that was fundamentally different from the male brain—and they believed that way to be inferior.
So, what would my mother say to all this? The woman who roars?
She would say: this is complete bullshit.
Emotions don’t make you weak.
She would argue that women are the great connectors. Our willingness to fully experience and express our emotions draws us together. But so many women have been taught to doubt ourselves in a world where we are constantly questioned, invalidated, mistrusted, made to believe that our opinions are less meaningful, that our place is to be in service always to something outside ourselves—a husband, children, community, rules and regulations established primarily by a patriarchal system. Our bodies are legislated. We are told how to look and how to act. We are shamed for our natural selves, for our desires, for our voices.
We are ridiculed, threatened, and even hurt for daring to say no, to stand up when there is injustice or abuse. It is hard to imagine any time in which women were uplifted and celebrated for being powerful.
In ancient India, women played an important role, and, in Vedic times, they were considered equal to men in terms of education and religion. In fact, their only word for power, “Shakti,” is the concept of divine feminine creative power. In Hinduism, it is meant to represent the dynamic forces that move through the universe. Yet in modern times, our divine feminine self has been stripped away from us, made into something shameful, embarrassing, outcast and undesireable.
The unsubdued woman is thought to be a creature of whom we should all be frightened, not just men but women, too—a revolutionary force that threatens to strip the man of his own identity, as if his power and sense of well being is generated from his ability to care for woman only if she is first conquered and made submissive.
But what I can offer as an unsubdued, powerful woman is so much greater than old cultural expectations regarding gender roles and subjugation or stifling requirements could allow. What I can offer is a deep feeling nature that is tempered by reason, by respect, by love that does not seek to possess or be possessed, by honor, by acceptance and appreciation of the exceptionally beautiful spirit that lives within us.
We are all Shakti. The divine creative force that moves through us must, by its very nature, be a thing untamed. I have learned that the wellspring of that energy does not exclude our very human emotions.
It is not weakness to honor one’s emotional core. This is the same core that allows me to understand that those men who once talked over me, relegated me to the background, or invalidated my experiences were responding to something deep-seated, searching for their place in a changing landscape, searching as we all are for our value in a world that now asks something different of us—perhaps something more open and evolved than traditional roles can permit.
Today, I am learning to embrace all aspects of myself, to reclaim those things that are my birthright with the knowledge that true power isn’t about control or dominion over others.
It is a heart and voice connected that refuses to be silenced.
It is an agent of change, of liberation.
Author: Stephanee Killen
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: courtesy of the author