When I was about 5, we were up at Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. I had run down the trail ahead of my parents and brother to the parking lot.
I was happy, safe. confident. I knew this place well. It was a favorite spot for our family, and so I felt a bit proprietary of it.
A mother and her daughter were standing by the plexiglass box that held the brochures about the ancient rock formation, and I wanted one. So I ran over, reached around, and opened the box. Just as I reached in, the woman said to her daughter, “Honey, move over so the little boy can get in there.”
I felt a blow to my heart. It was the first – but not the last – time I was misgendered, and it felt like this woman had missed something fundamental about me.* My confidence (coupled with my short hair, I imagine) led this woman to believe I had to be male, at least that’s how I see it now, because a demure little girl wouldn’t go after what she wanted so boldly.
I walked away before I started to cry.
When I got to the car, I couldn’t explain to my parents why it bothered me so much. They listened but then said it was an honest mistake, that I didn’t need to be so upset. I couldn’t help it.
In college, my roommates and I stood in our apartment kitchen in the semester before graduation and talked about what we valued about ourselves. I was righteous, and I said I valued that I was a Christian and a creative. My roommates, all women, said they valued being women first. I told them that my gender didn’t matter to me, and they looked at me askance and with a little bit of disappointment.
I wasn’t lying then, or at least I didn’t think I was. I really didn’t think it mattered.
That was before I realized that the many of male students in my class would get graduate school acceptances, job offers, and prestigious connections that I didn’t even know I was missing.
Last week, I read Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant essay “if I were a man,” and I felt myself nodding and wanting to send this to every person I knew. Here, here was what I had been feeling as a woman writer in this world. Solnit says:
Like most women, even after the age when strangers demanded I give them a smile, I’ve had complete strangers come up to me to unload their theories or stories at considerable length, without reciprocity in the conversation, if conversation is the term for this one-way street. We know the reality of this from studies about how boys are called on more in school, and grow up to talk more in meetings, and interrupt women more than men.
I was fired up when I finished reading it. Angry. Frustrated. Awakened. It took me a long time to get there.
Almost immediately, though, I started to put the blame on my lack of achievement on myself – I wasn’t aggressive enough. I was impatient. I didn’t take the traditional path. Clearly, the fact that the male writers I know have had more success in almost every way that I have was because I had failed.
Then, I got mad all over again.
Here’s what I know. I have worked tirelessly for 7 years as a full-time writer. I have blogged. I have social media-ed. I have networked – good glory have I networked. I have invested – with joy and sometimes weariness – countless hours into getting to know, supporting, advocating for writers. I have written six books and published them on my own. I have built an editing business from scratch and now out-earn my beloved husband who is completely fine with that.
And still, most of the white, straight, male writers I know have had more success – measured in terms of book contracts, mailing list subscribers, book sales, and page views – than I have had. If they have put in the same effort I have, they have had more more quantifiable success than I have achieved . . . and while even now my impulse is to say that’s because of something I didn’t do, I’m not going to claim that. I’m going to call out the fact that this is because they are male in a society that still privileges men. Period.
So women writers, we have to fight harder, work longer, strive more to get that success if we want it. Them’s just the facts. Men writers, it’s your job to use your privilege to help us get to where you are – recommend us, tell people about our books, read us, follow us, subscribe to us – and tell other people to do the same because, well, you didn’t earn all you have just from your hard work.
If it only took hard work, we’d all be equal, but we know there’s more at play than that.
If I was to answer that question about what is fundamental about who I am now, I would say this:
I am a woman who writes because that is who God has made me to be. I am a woman who questions but who also speaks her mind without apology. I am a woman who understands and who has a perspective worth hearing.
Or at least, I want to be that woman, and I’m becoming her more every day.
*I cannot imagine what it must be like to be someone living in a body that is, in all physical ways, the wrong gender for who a person is. This one moment was so painful to me. . . a lifetime of this pain, oh, Lord have mercy.