Last night I sat across from a smart, strong and energetic 14 year-old who passionately pronounced to me, “I’m not into this whole women’s empowerment thing.”
I took a deep breath, adjusted my seat and put my personal beliefs on hold for a moment so I could really listen and understand where this young woman was coming from.
She went on, “Personally I don’t think it’s just women and girls who need empowerment, EVERYONE needs empowerment.”
I nodded in agreement…this I could get on board with.
She kept going, however, her voice and words quickening as she continued to express herself. Periodically she scanned my face for non-verbal feedback about her opinions as flickers of insecurity flashed across her eyes.
“I just don’t think girls and women need any extra help. The girls I go to school with don’t feel like they can’t do things, they aren’t afraid to speak their mind, they feel like they can do or be anything that they want…”
I tried hard to stay present, but my mind couldn’t stop flashing on the stories and facts that I have witnessed in my lifetime…how reproductive rights in the U.S. and abroad continues to be threatened every day, how a third of the women I counsel are healing from a sexual assault indicative of rape culture, how in 2016 women still earn 79 cents to the dollar that men earn, how another third of the women I provide therapy for are in an all-consuming battle with their weight, body-image and relationship to food…my mind was spinning and the litany of defenses were endless.
And yet here was this young woman: bright, powerful, determined and on fire that we do not need women’s empowerment any more.
The room was alive.
I felt her, I felt myself.
I felt the weight of this topic and how it lives in our world today.
She was talking.
I was listening and asking a few questions, but mostly listening.
And then there was a pause.
She looked over at me, the summer evening sun casting a precious light over her young face as she earnestly asked, “What do you think?”
Here it was, one of those incredibly important moments as a therapist where the responsibility and complexity of my role lingered thick in the room.
An impressionable and passionate young woman asking me what I think about the need for women’s empowerment–the topic I have dedicated my personal and professional life to thus far.
I felt squeezed between history and evolution.
My educational privileges, the country, culture and time I was born in to enveloped me into the gospels of third wave feminism. I have buried my nose deep in the textbooks of injustice against women and have worked hard externally and internally to liberate myself and support the liberation of other women from this thing called patriarchy.
And I am not alone. I stand on the shoulders of the women in past generations who also worked hard and beside the women of my generation who are continuing to move the status of women forward in ever-evolving ways.
And so when I sat in front of this burgeoning woman and she told me there is no need for women’s empowerment, my first instinct was to react and to tell her why she was misinformed.
And then the words of Eve Ensler echoed in my mind, “Freedom does not mean I don’t have values or beliefs. But it does mean I am not hardened around them…”
My second, and more conscious instinct then emerged. Instead of assuming the battle stance and taking on the righteous task of educating this young woman with everything I have been taught, I softened, allowed her to be a mirror and focused on encouraging the seed of truth that was coming through her.
This truth that emerged before me is that the status of women worldwide is evolving and improving.
We are not done or anywhere close to it, but things are changing.
And so, I took a deep breath, found my authenticity, looked her straight in the face and said, “Hearing that you think there is no need for women’s empowerment anymore is a victory that I can celebrate.”
I felt the slight quiver in my own voice as I awaited her response.
Immediately the fear in her face softened and she smiled. “Really?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said. “And I want to tell you why if that’s okay?” She nodded openly and I went on.
“I am older than you and have listened to the generation of women above me tell stories about how few professional options they had. I can feel in my bones the reality that my great-grandmother did not have the right to vote. I grew up as part of the first generation that was consistently given the message that girls could be, do or become anything that they wanted and yet I still faced massive obstacles both externally and internally because of my gender.”
Her eyes were fixated on me as she gripped the edge of the couch with her hands. I went on.
“And so when I hear that you don’t feel burdened or held back or a need for a women’s empowerment movement, I am celebrating the generations of work that have been done to allow you the freedom to think and feel that way. Your thoughts about yourself are a victory for me and so many women who care about these issues.”
“Cool,” She said as she smiled and relaxed back into the couch.
We both took a deep breath.
Last night I had a major choice.
I could have intelligently and skillfully attempted to convert her into my women’s empowerment camp, triumphantly gaining another convert for “our side.” And yet upon closer examination, the true dedication in my heart to the liberation of myself and women and girls everywhere includes a vision where someday the new generations will not have to focus on women’s empowerment because it will no longer be an issue.
Not only would trying to influence her in this way have been a poor therapeutic choice, but more importantly I could have done some major inadvertent damage to the evolutionary impulse and force that is moving through her and so many of the girls in the next generation.
If I had not been willing to put my conditioning and perspective aside long enough to hear her views, I could have fallen into an easy and familiar trap:
As our time together drew to a close, she glanced back at me with that same earnest look on her face and said, “I really enjoyed this conversation with you.”
I smiled back at her, “Me too. I learned a lot. Thanks for such a rich conversation.”
Our connection and bond was palpable in the air and as I said good-bye to her for the evening, my heart swelled with love and appreciation for this fiery young soul.
Settling back into my chair, I looked down at my body. Suddenly, I was overcome with a wave of gratitude for my own freedom. I saw the clothes I had chosen to put on that morning, the office that I have the liberty to work from, the rights that I have to speak my mind freely, to earn money doing something that I love and the safety to go home at night without being attacked on the way or when I arrive.
My eyes welled with soft tears as I recognized the relative liberation in my own mind to think, feel and act in ways that are true to me. I felt the enormity of these privileges and keenly aware that so many women on this planet still have yet to attain these freedoms, these basic human rights.
So there I sat, my heart tender as I waded in the deep waters of paradox…feeling the utter privilege I have to teeter on the edges of past, present and future and my ever-growing conviction to participate and contribute fully as we usher in a new dawn for women and girls everywhere. As Ensler writes, “Freedom is not only being able to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity, but hungering for them and only trusting a situation when they are present.”
So no, the era of women’s empowerment is not over from my point of view.
But it is evolving rapidly and I for one want to be adaptive and awake enough to recognize the seeds of change when they are blossoming right before my very eyes.