Overt and Covert Power

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This morning I was at an event put on by BePollen that focused on women in the workplace, particularly how they can influence others. One of the themes throughout the morning was the idea that influence is most powerful when it’s subtle. Speakers called out administrative assistants and secretaries as the silent power in many organizations, told stories of how they took bad situations and found ways to create influence and power, and pointed towards gatekeepers as a source of power.

It’s absolutely true that subtle influence can be immensely powerful. If you can get someone to do what you’d like them to do without them even realizing that you’re influencing them, you do have a lot of power. And taking a position that isn’t inherently influential and finding subtle ways to use it to influence others is a great skill, especially as a woman who may have a harder time reaching the top echelons of most organizations. Of course subtle power has its place, and flying under the radar can give you a lot more freedom than being in the public eye.

And yet this focus on “subtle influence” started to drive me a bit crazy after a while. One other theme that cropped up repeatedly was impostor syndrome. The question was asked over and over how we can fight against it, how we can keep other high achieving women from feeling like impostors, how we can continue to achieve while feeling as if we don’t belong. Something that wasn’t mentioned as part of this discussion is the fact that the face of power and achievement is still white and it’s still male. Of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies only 24 are women. No female presidents yet. Women only hold 18% of the seats in Congress.

Women don’t see other women in positions of power, so it’s no wonder that when they begin to achieve things themselves they start to question whether they truly belong or are simply faking it. They don’t recognize themselves as among the set of people who could have influence.

So when a group of women gets together to talk about influence, it makes me sad that we talk about subtle influence, about being behind the scenes, about being the power behind the throne. Why are we so afraid of openly saying and acting as if we have power and deserve power? A huge part of being influential is being visible. Sometimes simply existing in a space that is designated as “powerful” is a huge influence and shows young women that they can be in those spaces and have that power as well. A great way to fight impostor syndrome is to keep young girls from feeling as if there are certain spaces and ways that they should live in and act. It’s showing them a wide variety of choices so that no matter where they end up it seems appropriate for a woman.

Another element of this is that subtle power doesn’t garner respect in quite the same way that open power does. A big part of influence and power is having a platform. Unfortunately, the way the world is set up is such that more people listen to someone with a title. Having that clear and open title that says “I have power and I have influence” actually heightens one’s ability to do work. It comes with resources, it comes with respect, and it comes with an equal footing to others that you may want to influence.

I’m afraid that when we say how powerful secretaries and admin assistants are, we’re doing more than recognizing the seriously important work they do. We’re also reinforcing what kind of power is appropriate for women. We’re giving ourselves a consolation prize because we still don’t feel that we can be on equal footing with men as CEOs or presidents. We’re telling ourselves that we have the same amount of influence that men do, but if that were the case then why would we be having a meeting to discuss how to encourage women to embrace their ability to influence?

I don’t want to have to sneak in sideways to influence people. I would like to be able to equally and calmly express my opinion, own my power, and have others respect that. If I want influence, I want it to be the influence of running an organization, or influencing policy through my work, or writing a book that changes the way people think.

Perhaps it’s naive. Perhaps that’s not the way that power works. But when men talk about influence, they don’t have to couch it in terms of being subtle, of taking notes in meetings, of being a secretary who can gatekeep for the person who has the real power. They talk about running for office or starting a company. Why are women afraid to have that same kind of power?

There is a time and a place for subtle influence. But there is also a time for overt influence, for standing up and saying that we deserve respect, we deserve the attention of others, and we deserve our power. When did this go missing?

Gender: Female…I Guess

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I’m pretty clearly a cis individual. I’m pretty straight and I wear relatively femme clothes. I have a feminine haircut (although it’s short) and rarely (if ever) present in a way that isn’t quickly and clearly recognizable as female. When asked to identify my gender on surveys and such I answer “female” without hesitation.

And yet.

And yet I feel almost no attachment to the idea of being a woman. I don’t have any strong feelings about making sure people identify me as the correct gender (although when my mom said I looked like a twelve year old boy I was a bit miffed). At one point I was posed with the hypothetical question whether it would bother me a whole lot if my breasts were removed and I was pretty much not bothered by the whole idea. I could take em or leave em. I don’t really much care what my gender is. This is not to say that I identify as agender or feel uncomfortable presenting as femme, just that I only do it because it’s the path of least resistance. It’s easy.

I’ve wondered for quite some time now whether I would even identify as female if it weren’t for the strict policing of the gender binary. The more I think about my gender, the more I think that it is the way it is because I’m a rule follower, I’m not strongly attached to any gender, and I’m fairly lazy about my gender presentation so I end up firmly in the “cis” category simply because it’s where society has pushed all of my impulses. Want to dress up fancy? Buy a dress. Want to look pretty? Wear make up. I’m encouraged in some things and discouraged in others, an so I end up with the amalgam that most people identify as female just by not fighting back.

And for a long time I didn’t even think about gender identity. I just went about my life and wore whatever I felt like wearing and ignored the elements of being female that I didn’t really care about (makeup? What’s that?). But despite the fact that I’ve never made any effort whatsoever to look, act, or be female, somehow I ended up squarely in the “lady” camp.

So I feel like I have to ask myself: if I lived in a society in which gender was more fluid, there was more of a spectrum, and things weren’t policed so heavily, would I even identify as female? The answer is probably not. Would I be happier and more comfortable in my skin if I didn’t feel like I had to follow certain rules and boundaries and ways of being because I’ve somehow ended up as a woman? Most likely. It isn’t like I’ve spent my life feeling deep anxiety about my gender identity, but perhaps if things were more fluid and open I would feel a bit more comfortable in my skin.

If I feel like this, someone who was raised by staunch feminists, who is surrounded by queer and non binary people, who has very little by way of gender enforcement in their life, and who generally doesn’t care a whole lot for performing roles for others, then how many other people must there be out there who are probably somewhere closer to the middle of the gender spectrum than even they might imagine? How many other people would identify in a different way if it had even been presented as an option for them? How many people wouldn’t even identify at all if we weren’t so fixated on gender as the end all be all category?

In terms of the larger questions about gender, sexuality, and oppression, this group of people is probably not at the top of the list of “people who need our help”. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that if we open the door for a wider variety of gender identifications in order to help those who truly are distressed by the current state of things, there are probably thousands of other people who will feel just a bit more comfortable, a bit more themselves. And while that shouldn’t be the focus of activism, it’s a great thing to keep in the back of our minds: there are tons of much quieter people out there whose lives will be made easier and better for all the loud, out, genderqueer or trans* people we know and are fighting for.

But it also makes me sad, because if somehow I, the most cis, straight person in the world, can have my gender identity damaged and distorted by the gender binary, then think of all the other people out there who have had small parts of them taken away. If all we see are the people who are SO hurt by the mandatory gender binary that they feel they must speak up about it and must fight back against it, then imagine all the smaller hurts and destructions.

Of course this is all speculative. I have no evidence that there are tons of other people out there who only identify as cis because they hadn’t even thought about an alternative, and who have suppressed certain parts of themselves in order to be cis. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be surprised. And if that’s the case then it’s just another little reason to push back against gender policing of all kinds.

Real Woman: The Bane of My Existence

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How much do I hate the phrase “real women”? Ugh. UGH. Real women have curves? Ohrly? So I am not a real woman? Am I a man then? No? SO WHAT AM I? FUCK YOUR GENDER ESSENTIALISM, IT MAKES NO LOGICAL SENSE, BECAUSE YOU DENY ANYTHING EXISTS OTHER THAN MALE AND FEMALE. Ok. Sorry. Had to get that particular piece of anger out of the way before I started for real, because there is some self-defeating logic in the gender essentialism of “real woman”.

Warning: if the first paragraph didn’t give it away, this post was written in a haze of post-Nyquil delirium. Is it coherent? No one knows.

So. The concept of a real woman. First of all, I don’t like it when we create false dichotomies. We have enough dichotomies that just naturally crop up in the world and it’s hard enough to keep our lives integrated and whole, so the idea that we need to introduce categories like real and fake just rubs me the wrong way. Very rarely is anything actually fake. More often than not, it’s not trying to be whatever you want it to be. This is particularly true when you’re talking about a construct that you’ve made up out of thin air (I might be willing to concede for example that there’s such a thing as fake meat because we all know what meat is and we all know that veggie alternatives are trying and failing to be meat).

 

So first and foremost the concept of a real woman is horrifically offensive because it tries to assert that someone else can tell you who and what you are, and that if your experiences don’t match their rules, you are not who or what you think you are and you can’t be part of the woman party. That’s bullshit. No one can tell you what your experience should be. If you identify as a woman then you are a real woman. You don’t need to pass any tests. You don’t need to follow any rules. You just need to exist. If someone else could come up to me and tell me that I’m not a real woman, they erase me and they erase my experiences. No one else knows me better than myself. No one can tell me who or what I am better than I can (unless we’re talking like a very specialized field and an expert…like an awesome baseball player could probably tell you better than I could how good I am at baseball. Answer: very bad). But woman is a very loosely defined concept.

 

No one agrees on what a woman is. Some people say it’s a vagina having person. Well that’s stupid because trans people and I don’t want to be reduced to my anatomy. Some people say it’s everyone who conforms to a certain set of standards, but those standards are usually arbitrary and different people have conflicting sets of standards. Uh oh. So there really is no objective measure of womanhood. None. Nada. Zippo. So how can anyone else tell me if I’m living up to the grand standard of womanhood? They cannot. If nobody can agree on what a woman is, then why is anyone more of an authority on womanhood than anyone else? Answer: they’re not. Because woman is an identity. We get to build it by being woman rather than trying to live up to some mythic archetype of woman.

 

If there is no objective, naturally occurring standard of womanhood, then the only reason certain people get to define it in certain ways is because they have power, either social or financial or political. That’s not a very good reason for some people to get the ability to deny your existence and your experiences. And defining certain things as “real” womanhood is extremely damaging to feminism and the idea that we should listen to women and their experiences. It denies us the ability to have choices, to be able to express ourselves in different ways, to have people accept us on our own terms or to hear what we have done and seen. It is gender essentialism at its worst, because not only does it tell you what you should be, it tells you that you are false or fake if you don’t do that: it tries to strip you of reality and existence if you don’t follow what it says. All in all, real women are people who say they are women.

Sexless Marriage: Is Intimacy Still Possible (yes, duh)

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I don’t even know where to begin with the Wall Street Journal’s article about sex in marriage. I am honestly completely disgusted by it, but I’ll do my best to express all of the harmful things that it manages to compress into a few pages.

 

The gist of this article is that if a couple has different expectations of sex, particularly if the man wants to have sex more than the woman, then it can be horribly emotionally harmful to the man to be denied that sex, and the woman should “step up her game” to keep him happy. The reasons it cites for this are that men need orgasms to stay happy, men can’t express their feelings verbally so they need sex to express feelings, and men don’t know how to feel intimate without sex.

 

Now the first and absolutely most important response to this piece is that no one owes another human being sex. Ever. Even if you’re married, even if he wants it, even if you told him you would. There is no circumstance in which you have to have sex with someone. It is your basic right as a human being to say no to sex whenever you choose. I don’t think this should have to be reiterated, but apparently it does.

 

To move on to the actual content of the article, the problem with a lot of the conjectures cited (things like “men express themselves through action not word”) is that they are a.unsubstantiated claims about an entire gender and b.not necessarily natural states of things, but probably socially influenced. Because of these things, a more reasonable solution to a man feeling hurt due to a lack of sex would be for both parties to try to come to some understanding of how to both get their needs met. The man could practice being open with words more often. The woman could practice intimate gestures like hugs or kisses. You can meet halfway. The woman is not obligated to solve all of these problems by “making the man happy”.

 

In addition, this whole article is demeaning to men, to the intimacy of marriage, and to relationships in general. If the only thing you feel your wife is good for is sex and you’re depressed because she isn’t meeting your need, then you may need to do some soul-searching about your relationship. If the only time you feel loved or intimate with your wife is when you’re having sex, you might need to make some adjustments to your expectations or ask your wife to do other things that indicate love (like maybe saying “I love you”). There are thousands of ways to express intimacy. There are thousands of ways to express love. Instead of trying to shame your wife into having sex with you, maybe pick up “Love Languages” or some other form of idiotic communication drivel and figure out how to talk to your wife because apparently you never learned communication.

 

Finally, the whole premise of this article is a bit terrifying to me. It seems to advocate emotionally blackmailing someone into having sex with you. If you ever watched an after school special as a kid that dealt with sex and losing your virginity, the boyfriend would always say “if you loved me you’d have sex with me”. And every single time the adults around you said that that was a really bad reason to have sex if you didn’t feel comfortable with it. This still holds true even when you’re grown up and married. “If you loved me you’d do it” is still a very horrible reason, even if it’s couched in terms of “I feel unloved when you don’t have sex with me”. Guilting someone into having sex with you is highly unethical and extremely scary. When people have tried to use this tactic on me, I have felt sexually violated. The fact that people are promoting the idea of doing this is almost as bad as promoting emotional abuse in a relationship.

 

All of the man’s actions in this story were incredibly passive aggressive. Keeping a journal of their sex record made it absolutely clear to the woman that she was not living up to his expectations and that he was keeping record of it. Telling her he felt unloved was guilt-tripping her. These things are not acceptable. His wife had just gone through a traumatic event, of course she wasn’t interested in sex. Maybe he would have felt more connected with her if he had taken the time to help her process the miscarriage and support her through a difficult time. Maybe he would have felt more loved if he had taken the time to really talk to her about what was going on and what they could do. Instead he chose to make it clear to his wife that he was unhappy and she was responsible for his unhappiness. But no one is ever responsible for another person’s feelings. If he feels unloved then it is his responsibility to figure out how to rectify that situation. It is not his wife’s responsibility to become his fuck-bot so that his hormones can spike and he can feel better about himself. She’s committed to helping him deal with his emotions, but she has not committed to taking on the role of a mother who fixes every situation that hurts her husband. No one can do that.

 

(The Funkes are not the ideal image of how to deal with a sexless marriage. Do not take your life lessons from Arrested Development.)