I’m not a historian but I am a woman and Women’s History Month reminds me that without the help of incredible women working over many years, my personal history would read very differently.
This point was driven home for me earlier this month as my husband and I watched Makers: The Women Who Make America. It was driven home even more deeply by 26 women who shared with me their thoughts on the kinds of questions I haven’t asked or answered in a long time, if ever. I sent them eleven sentences I asked them to finish (to see them all, play the video above). The group includes mothers, teachers, lawyers, judges, students, marketing executives, accountants, and women who have had to work at any job they could find. Some are married. Some are not. Some have been and are no longer. This is a very strong and mixed group of women but we know that there are many women from all walks of life and philosophy who are not represented here. This will be something to work towards.
One thing is clear: as women we have the power to influence other women through our words, our example, our work, the art we make or love and share –and not always in ways one might expect.
Doing this made me realize that I don’t spend enough time talking with other women about things that matter. I hope that this exercise is the beginning of many conversations I will have with the women in my life and women I come to know. I’ve decided to tuck these questions away and use them like those little cards people hand out at parties called, “conversation starters.” I invite you to do the same. Even better, use the comments section here to add to the conversation with your answers and even better questions. If nothing else, we will have paused together for a moment to reflect on a piece of history both past and perhaps shape our stories-in-the-making. All the questions appear in the video so go ahead and play it if you’d like a quick look.
Finally: this kind of conversation is not just for women. There will be men reading this who are at home with children while their wives work or serve in the military, there are men who have watched their daughters come of age during times of huge change followed by significant setbacks, there are husbands who have struggled, adapted and, struggled some more to figure out their roles in marriages that are influenced by the jobs available or not available to women along with the expectations society still has of men and of women. There are sons who have never sat down over a cup of coffee with their mothers and asked them what being a woman in today’s world means to them.
If that is too much to start with, then just ask a woman who her favorite female character in a book or movie is. Then ask her why. You’ll both probably learn something.
Okay, I’ll shut up now and let these wonderful women speak. Or, rather, I’ll show you their answers. Each section below shows the question asked and provides a link in blue to the answers right below the photo. Clicking on the link will take you to a few slides with all the wonderful answers. If you’d like to see everything all at once, scroll to the end and click onto the link “Women Talking to Women Master.”
Women who offered us insights over the years might be surprised at what “stuck.” Wisdom reflected here ranges from practical safety “cover your drink when you go to a party” to the inspiring “you can do anything.” Perhaps most poignant is that some of the women responding here could not point to a woman who offered wisdom along the way.
Sometimes the people who love us the most give us bad advice. Which means it’s a good thing when we ignore it or find our path in spite of it. These answers provide required reading for anyone thinking of giving any advice to any woman.
A list that features everyone from Pearl S. Buck to Chelsea Handler is worth a look. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) made the list along with Isabel Allende, Margaret Mitchell, Ann Patchett, Alicia Keys, Lalita Tademy and others.
This list confirms that art can inspire us or show us the kind of women we would like to be (some of the time anyway). Some characters draw admirers from all ages (Nancy Drew, Scarlett O’Hara) some show us that we really should be reading more.
Not surprisingly, Hillary gets lots of mentions but so does Malala Yousufzai, one of the youngest women to show courage and vision in the face of oppression.
The right to vote, access to birth control, access to education for all women regardless of race, the women’s movement of the Sixties and Seventies have profoundly impacted women’s opportunities.
Education. Poverty. Health. Equal pay. Equal rights. These are running themes when women list challenges faced by women in the US and around the world. The answers reflect that nothing should be taken for granted and that we have a long way to go.
This is just a sampling of the thoughtful responses inside, one representing each decade. Reading all of them will give you a very clear sense of the impact a few words can have and the vacuum that exists when no one offers them.
- Looking back I would wish that I had been encouraged to think bigger.” [Anonymous 1930s]
- “I can’t say it would have made any difference if a woman encouraged me because I came up in a male-dominated world. Women need to actively mentor other women continuously. We need to open doors for each other the way men do. Every time we move forward an inch, we need to reach back and bring a woman along with us.” [Rae 1940s]
- “Stay in college.” [Joleen 1950s]
- “Stay in Europe.” [MJ 1960s]
- “Have the confidence to trust my instincts. That advice came from a male mentor. But it would have meant more coming from a woman because women, I think, have to work harder at developing confidence than men do.” [Elizabeth 1970s]
- “Be strong but always keep an open mind, things are not always as they seem.” [Elisa 1980s]
- “Speak loudly and without apologies.” [MEW 1990s]
These answers are packed with with the lessons these women have learned and want to offer to young women preparing for their future. The beauty of these is that there is more than one voice from more than one generation. Individually and together, they can get a conversation started with a teenage woman near you.
Overall, the optimists outnumber those who view the future of women with more caution. The optimism is rooted in the strength and gifts of today’s young women and in the examples set by women who are leading the way in politics, human rights, business, education and more.
If you would like to see the entire slide deck in one go, here is the pdf version: