Art by Christine Nelson
I was 4 years old during the 2000 presidential election, and quite fascinated with the concept of becoming a U.S. president. At 4, it doesn’t seem like such an insurmountable task to run a country, as I was perfectly proficient running the country of Beanie Babies in my bedroom.
It wasn’t more than two seconds after I told my kindergarten teacher my new career aspiration when some boy sitting next to me piped up to say, “You can’t be the President — you’re a girl!”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard those words, I could graduate debt-free. Too bad my dollar would only be worth 79 cents, according to a 2014 report on the current pay gap from the Association of American University Women.
As a Communication major and a woman, it’s become apparent to me that social expectations set by a male-dominated society have driven women to code their communication to mask expressions of power or opinions. There’s a reason why even a boy in a kindergarten class knew that girls aren’t “allowed” to be president. Alexandra Petri illustrated this careful act of linguistic acrobatics perfectly in her Oct. 13, 2015 opinion piece in The Washington Post, “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting.”
“Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry’s iconic phrase from the American Revolution, becomes, “Dave, if I could, I could just — I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know? That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”
Try a more modern quote, such as FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Our friendly woman-in-meeting’s version: “I have to say — I’m sorry — I have to say this. I don’t think we should be as scared of non-fear things as maybe we are? If that makes sense? Sorry, I feel like I’m rambling.”
If these translations sound familiar, it’s because they are. You don’t have to be in a meeting to hear a girl spin a turn of phrase like this; you could simply walk into a college classroom and wait.
Every day I sit in my classes and listen to girls apologize for speaking, for taking up too much time in discussion, for having an opinion. And if an opinion is expressed, half the time it comes with a disclaimer, mentioning how it’s “probably not right” or finishing off with an “I don’t know.”
In the academic setting, much like the workplace, women are conditioned to apologize for everything: taking up their professors’ time, asking questions, offering help — even reporting sexual harassment has become somewhat of an apologetic practice. We can never be too careful, because dropping the meek, gentle facade leaves us vulnerable to labels such as “bossy” or “feisty” or everyone’s favorite b-word. Just look at Hillary Clinton, a woman who has the audacity to run for the presidency — like hundreds of men before her — only to be stoned by the media with a barrage of these misogynistic words.
Because our female role models are treated like this in the public eye, it follows quite logically that women shy away from creating spaces for themselves in powerful roles. According to statistics from The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center, respectively, only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only 19 percent of our current Congress is female (which is, sadly, the largest number we’ve ever had). Those who do manage to break gender barriers suffer from criticisms in areas men don’t receive: We are simultaneously too fat and too skinny, too ugly and too pretty, too smart and too stupid.
There’s no middle ground for a powerful woman. The higher women get on the totem pole of accomplishment, the more they suffer from the sinking realization that the patriarchy of our own society does not want us there.
So here’s the challenge for all my Pepperdine ladies: Let’s stop cloaking our thoughts in superfluous disclaimers and start speaking like we deserve to be where we are, because we do. Our aspirations do not have to be limited to future first ladies, so we shouldn’t have to be afraid of speaking like the educated, powerful and influential women we are.
During a discussion at Georgetown University in February, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was asked when she thinks there will be enough women on the Supreme Court. She said, “My answer is when there are nine.”
When do I think there will be enough women in the White House? When kindergarten boys stop telling 4-year-old girls who gets to run the country.
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahelliotts