“Slut!” a pair of boys yelled out of a red sports car. I think it goes without saying that this is inappropriate and offensive, but what frustrates me even more was my initial reaction: I’m not even wearing anything revealing. Yes, the two men who decided to yell slurs at me are rude, misogynistic and just plain dumb, but I’m pretty troubled that my first thought was not anger at the men for thinking they had a right to judge my worth by my appearance, but rather that their judgment itself was incorrect. This train of thought implies that had I been wearing something other than knee-length pants and a black shirt, their response would have been acceptable. I know this isn’t true, and I actually spend a lot of time thinking about and analyzing dynamics like this, but in the moment, it wasn’t my knowledge or my actual beliefs that took hold, but rather a cultural sentiment that I actively disagree with. We are socialized to expect certain things from men and women, and it’s really hard to disengage from those cultural norms.
This summer the expectations of women are not always this explicit. It’s the man at a coffee shop who tells me to stop being so emotional about climate change- that we need to take a more objective view, it’s the folks at church who ask if we ride in skirts, or who cannot say we are smart, driven and inspiring without also remarking on our beauty- who call us the biker girls, it’s the assumption that because we are women we are idealistic, cute and ultimately weak. By qualifying each compliment of our work with a comment on our physical appearance, it suggests that as women our worth is intrinsically tied to our attractiveness. By characterizing us as innocent, sweet girls, it implies that we are not to be taken seriously.
I don’t hold any anger against any of the individuals who express these sentiments, at the men who automatically take on paternal roles when they see a group of five young women. None of these people are individually at fault because it is a culture we all participate in, myself included. We are socialized to not take women as seriously, to expect them to step back rather than speak up, to take up very little space. We must actively work to catch ourselves when we do enforce these gender norms.
This movement can be really discouraging for a lot of reasons, constantly wondering if the work we are doing will have any impact on the world at large, but it’s a lot harder to remain hopeful and strong when you’re constantly being told that you are naïve and weak. A lot of the time it’s unclear if people don’t take us seriously because we’re women, because we’re young, or perhaps just because we actually are naïve. I wonder if the teams with men on them are treated any differently. On a good day, I’m able to accept the fact that these people actually do believe in us, and have simply internalized certain attitudes about what to expect from women, but on a bad day, I begin to doubt myself, to wonder if these reactions are really part of the system, or if it’s because I come across as naïve and overly emotional. I internalize these judgments and then unconsciously perpetuate the system by constantly second-guessing myself.
Because this is a female-dominated movement, it is crucial that we begin to break down these assumptions of women both internally and externally to harness our power. Many “female” characteristics are actually crucial to our work, such as being emotional. We are dealing with deeply painful realities, and it is through our honest emotions that we can connect with people, but when we see these attitudes as women’s attitudes rather than simply human, we devalue them. It is not enough to simply stop the construction of all new fossil fuel projects if while we we do so we ignore all other forms of oppression. In the process of fighting climate change, our movement must build the kinds of relationships and systems that we wish to see in the future.