Thursday, February 11, 2016

Cultivating Voice

On the way home, I stopped by the hardware store and bought mulch.  I spent some hours sweating in the dirt with my plants and then finally melted into a chair at the kitchen table, with my laptop, to make reservations for my vacation.  I reached into my bag for my check card... it wasn't there.  After retracing my steps a few times without any luck, I sank back down in the chair to call my bank to cancel it and send me a new one.

I'm on the call with a gentleman who is asking me identity questions and then says "We'll have you set in no time, young lady.  Let me just - "

"Excuse me," I interrupted.  "I am a grown woman.  Please don't call me young lady."  I heard the words coming out of my mouth as if I were listening third person.  The voice that said the things was strong, unwavering, confident.  There it was.  It happened.  He made some brief excuses about being an old man but otherwise was very apologetic and the call ended with a new check card on it's way.

The ease of that moment was brought to me by the letter I and much practice.  My voice on the matter was not spontaneous.  It was cultivated.

Several months ago, an adult male counterpart referred to another grown female identified peer as "young lady", and although it made me shift uncomfortably, I struggled with why it felt uncomfortable.  It was a relatively 'normal' term to hear but, even though it wasn't aimed at me,  I suddenly felt like a little girl being scolded, in the shadow of this man. He continued to use the term with regularity while it took me six months to puzzle through the following  :

Young lady is defined as "a woman who is not far advanced in life; a girl." or "a form of address used by an adult to a girl".  Culturally, the term 'lady' is polite for a female identified person and adding the young to make 'young lady' is a term of endearment of any female identified person around them, including girlfriends or fiancees and other ladies of polite society in need of guidance, protection or scolding.

Historically, protecting,  guiding and scolding or disciplining the women folk was the norm.  People born with lady bits couldn't hold land, didn't work, couldn't vote and were pretty much property to be dowered off in marriage - or to be stoned or burned at the slightest disobedience, depending upon how far back you want to go.  Female identified people were largely depending upon the 'care' of and deferring to their male counterparts - or betters.

This is not history though.  This is 2016.  And although society around my is still sexist to some degree or another, I am a woman who's life experience, career, property and relationships are hard won with my own effort.  I can vote, hold land, own a business and I don't need coddling or caring for or looking after.  I have not benefited from the kindness of the men around me and often have accomplished things in spite of the sexism of the men around me.

In that context, in today's American culture, to call a grown woman "young lady" is demeaning.  He was demeaning the women around him, including myself, and I didn't like feeling that way.

When I had that realization, I was ready to say something, finally.  He listened, apologized, citing being an 'old man stuck in his ways'.  I needed to speak up again a second time before the person stopped doing it - at least around me. Each time I spoke up, I did so knowing that there could be consequences but I needed to speak up.  

And so when the gentleman on the phone called me young lady, the objection flowed from my mouth without pause, smoothly and unerringly.   This is a thing I had practiced and cultivated.

Having a Voice requires cultivation.  It requires a knowledge of self, me, I - conviction.  Then it requires a cessation of polite and instead a practice of being frank but civil or cordial with the bravery to damn the consequences.

  Photo : Speak up for Peace / Tania De la Paz / CC 2.0

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