Because a sit down talk with my eight-year-old daughter, Summer, doesn’t just happen — too many after school activities and time spent on homework and preparing snacks — I’m putting together a cheat sheet on what two feminists taught me about being female. This is for when Summer’s phone battery has died and she’s waiting— waiting for a bus to come, waiting for a train to come, waiting for… the answers. My cheat sheet goes like this:
Summer, darling, I’ve met a lot of amazing women in my life and here’s what two of them taught me:
Gloria Steinem and I were once standing side-by-side next to several guests at an event to support young writers, The Girls Write Now Awards. I was in charge of wrangling the celebrities and gently herding them towards the requisite publicity banner for event photos.
Gloria Steinem looked sharp in a fitted black top and black pants, complete with a sparkly pink belt. As for me, I was wearing gum. Well not exactly, but I had offered to be a human valet and hold people’s stuff that they didn’t want in their photo. So when a guest pulled a wad of gum from her mouth before smiling for the camera, I said, “I’ll take that” and she stuck it on my pointer finger. I also held Gloria’s small, fabric purse along with a few heavier designer bags from other guests and a glass of white wine, not mine, for a guest who didn’t want her drink memorialized by Getty images.
I was feeling awkward. Summer, you will feel awkward in a crowd one day, and just know that you are not alone. In this state of awkwardness, I turned to Gloria. She came closer to me. We looked at each other.
And then I said “Gloria, what do women do?”
She clutched my wrists, laden with baggage, and looked me straight in the eyes. “You fight,” she said firmly.
Summer, I often think of what it means to fight. Fighting for a spot in line, fighting to finish an interrupted sentence, fighting for justice, even the petty local injustices, like when I refused to listen to the Patsy’s pizza manager when he ordered me to fold up your carriage that you were still in, asleep. I knew lifting you would wake you and you were fighting a cold and needed that sleep. So I told the manager, “No.”
Of course, fighting isn’t easy and it doesn’t always leave you happy. After my fight with the manager, we left, sad and hungry, and your brother cried from the altercation.
I was trying to find Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Penn Station. I was charged with picking her up and bringing her in a taxi to an event. Summer, you have been with me to Penn Station so you know how crazy it is there. I gazed down at my patent leather red shoes. If you’re ever in a moment of panic, darling, look at your shoes. They can provide helpful distraction, and even joy, in moments of need.
In an effort to retreat into magical thinking, I instinctively clicked my heels together, like Dorothy does in the Wizard of Oz. As I fixated on the minutia and the mechanics of clicking my feet together — did Dorothy click her heels together, or was it her toes?—I repeated the mantra, please help me find Chimamanda, and suddenly felt a presence. Clutching a rolling suitcase, Chimamanda had found me.
Chimamanda was an active listener. Active listening means you really are mindful and compassionate to hear another person, not just the self-talk in your head or the script you’re rehearsing until it’s your time to speak. Chimamanda was really listening to me. I know this because I felt this.
In the taxi I nervously filled the silence with chatter. I told Chimamanda that I’d love for her to sign her book, We Should All Be Feminists for you. I offered her a Sharpie and she quickly and decisively wrote: “Summer keep writing. Keep doing,” and added a smiley face. I told her Summer was only six and I would wait before giving her the book. She looked me straight in the eyes, not unlike Gloria, and said: “She can get it now.”
Those simple words reminded me that, yes, of course Summer can get it now, she can get that we should all be feminists at any age, even age six.
When we finally reached our destination (I had given the taxi driver the wrong address), the door to the venue was locked (I accidentally went to the wrong entrance). Chimamanda didn’t flinch as I helped her roll her suitcase up another ramp only to realize that that wasn’t the right entrance, either. She waited, with effort, and the right door opened eventually. I think she does that a lot in life.
It would be a few hours later when Chimamanda was called to the podium to receive her award. She would speak to the audience and give this speech, which I hope you’ll always turn to in moments of awkwardness or when you simply need help navigating life:
I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women and self-professed feminists to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable.
And I say that’s bullshit.
So what I want to say to young girls is forget about likability. If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multifaceted place that there’s somebody who’s going to like you; you don’t need to twist yourself into shapes.
I love you,
Molly MacDermot is a Senior Communications Advisor and Editor at Girls Write Now.