It’s Women’s History Month, and while that sounds like a stroll down Feminist Lane (“Oh no, we’re going to hear unexpected hard-hitting news about Anne Bradstreet“), I want to talk about some women who are making women’s history. Women committed to women’s evolution–they have taught me a lot about the ways in which we must support one other–and how we’ve been raised not to. My friend Elizabeth Debold (Dr. Elizabeth Debold, for those who care), a brilliant thinker who talks a lot about the importance of not turning on one another; of being there for each other when we succeed or when we fail. It sounds obvious, but think about it: When Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook came out with her “Lean In” idea–exhorting executive women to sit at the table; to NOT sit on the sidelines–what was the first thing we heard from women? “Oh, easy for HER to say! She’s already rich and famous! Easy for HER to ‘lean in’. What about those of us who will never be executives?” And so forth.
Who needs men to ridicule and demean executive women when women will do it for them?
When my mother wrote a humor column , “The Wit Parade,” in the Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA), she wrote it under the byline, “E.E. Kenyon.” The initials suggested that she might well be a man. Why not claim her gender and put her real name (Ethel Elizabeth Kenyon)?– Because, she told me, “No one thinks women are funny. No one wants to see jokes picked out by a woman. No one would pay attention.” Granted, she wrote a hundred-plus years after George Eliot made a similar decision, but her point–that no one would have her back at JAMA if readers found out she was a woman and rejected the column, was well-taken. (When I had my first magazine column in Mademoiselle, under my own name, my mother said “Well, lucky for you to have the name Dalma. It could be a man.”)
“She’s right,” says the wonderful master improvisation performer and teacher, Holly Mandel. Holly, like Elizabeth (above) cares deeply about women’s evolution–hence, the name of her program, “Improvolution.” She insists that everyone in her classes go to the mat for each other–no matter how disastrously they may fail. In fact she wants them to fail–in a safe, caring, collaborative setting. “Women risk everything when they do stand-up, and the last thing they need is to take the huge risks they have to take, fall flat on their faces–as male comedians have long said they would–and then have other women turn away from them. I tell them, While you’re here, we have each others’ backs completely–or don’t be in my class.”
Look, we’re trained to be wary of each other. We’re trained to think we’re after each other’s men; we’re after each other’s jobs; we’re after each other’s friends, money, lives. Let’s make history. Let’s consciously bury the fear and envy that Patriarchy (yes, I know, but there it is) instilled in us centuries ago, and tell our colleagues and our friends, whether they succeed (and everyone attacks) or fail (and everyone attacks): You did good, sister. And don’t worry, whatever they say about you, I’m here. I have your back.”