Finding Empowerment Outside of the Boys’ Club

November 18, 2016

via Wikimedia Commons

I cursed for the first time in second grade.

I was the only girl playing soccer at recessas usualwhen I said “crap.” I don’t remember in what context I said itit could have been because I missed a shot, or I lost the ballit doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I cursed (knowing very well that my mother would have been disappointed in me) because I wanted to be “one of the boys.” I wanted to be a girl who could hang out with the boys, and who was accepted and respected by the boys. In second grade, I thought all that would take was the word “crap.”

The phrase “boys’ club” is often used to refer to male-dominated workplaces. In these spaces, the voices of women are rarely heard, and even more rarely acknowledged. It is the opinions and the attitudes of men that create the cultures of these “boys’ clubs.”

Since the second grade, since the fateful day I said the word “crap” on the playground, I have tried to access, and become a member of, many different boys’ clubs. In the classroom, in the workplace, in extracurricular activities, I have tried to be “one of the boys.” I felt that my beliefs, my opinions, my jokes, were only validated when boys respected them, listened to them, agreed with them. If I could access the various boys’ clubs in my life, then I had achieved somethingI could be successful.  But this meant that to be “one of the boys” I had to stop being “sensitive,” I had to take jokes, and I had to fight tooth and nail to be heard among their voices. I had to be tough, clever, and witty, and yet never forget that my place among the boys was still the girl.

It wasn’t until recently that I asked myself why. Why I wanted so badly to be respected and accepted by the boys. Why most of my life had been defined by the boys I was friends with or tried to befriend. Why I had thought that to be successful and be validated, I needed the approval of boys. And most importantly, why it had taken me 19 years to realize that this is what I was doing and that it was problematic.

It wasn’t until the presidential race, and ultimately the election, that I got my answer.

My religious leaders have been men. My school presidents and principals have been men. My congressmen have been men. My presidents have been men. The powerful people in my world, who make decisions, call the shots, and are revered have primarily been men. The women I’ve looked up to have always been “firsts;” the first woman Secretary of State, the first woman Supreme Court Justice, first woman nominated for President by a major party. It is 2016 and when a woman gets elected to public office it is still a big deal to us, because the people in power have always been men.

It’s fair to say that I, along with the current generation of women, and the generations of women before us, have grown accustomed to the idea of men in power. No one explicitly told us that because we were women, we couldn’t be important, or powerful, or presidents. It was the opposite, actually. I was raised to believe I could do anything and be anything as long as I set my mind to it. My parents encouraged me endlessly. They taught me that there were no limits, nothing was impossible, and I was capable of almost anything. But these were just words. I was still living in a male-dominated world and it was this view of the world that drove me, and probably many other women, to look for this power and respect in the boys’ clubs of our society.

In July, Ezra Klein wrote an article in Vox examining why Hillary Clinton was viewed as cold and calculating by Americans but admired and described as “brilliant, funny, loyal” by the people who worked with her. The answer to this, Klein says, that Clinton’s strengths are strengths valued less by a country dominated and run by men. Clinton’s strength is listening. Unfortunately, the strength of the boys’ club is talking.

Klein’s article allowed me to finally articulate what I had been feeling my whole life. As a woman, I believed that in order to be powerful, I had to behave like a man, because stereotypically-male traits were what this country valued.

The value of male traits goes deeper than politics and power. The idea of the boys’ club goes back to the second grade. It’s in the classrooms, where male voices dominate conversation and debate, on the playgrounds where the boys’ jokes are always funnier, and in the school clubs, where men dominate leadership roles. In second grade, I thought the only way to be valued as an individual was by rejecting the fact that I was a girl. So I played with the boys at recess, I sat with with the boys at lunch, and I continued to do this as I got older. I made sure my social groups were predominantly boys, because I wanted to be respected in the same way they were.

Hillary Clinton didn’t play into the games of the boys’ club that is American politics. She didn’t yell over her opponents to be heard. She listened, and she lost. I thought that Hillary Clinton would be elected president and prove what I had believed my entire life, and what I had strived for my entire life, wrong. I wanted to be proved wrong. But maybe our country, and our world, aren’t ready to let go of the boys’ clubs yet. Maybe our country is still valuing men more than women.

In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton said “To all the little girls watching … never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” I want these little girls to know that these chances and these opportunities won’t come from the approval or acceptance of men. These little girls might not get to grow up with a woman as their president, but they can be the change and they can make sure a woman does get elected president. They can’t waste their time trying to access the boys’ clubs in our world. They have to make their own clubs.

As women, we need to be able to find our own strength and power and respect amongst ourselves. We need to show the little girls watching us, that we are just as valuable as men—that our beliefs don’t need to be validated by men to matter, our opinions don’t need to be validated by men to be important, our jokes don’t need to be validated by men to be funny, and we don’t have to reject that we are women in order be valuable.

Alli is a sophomore in the SFS.

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