This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.
When I headed off to college, my mother gave me a piece of folded-up paper with a message she thought I would need. She wrote it longhand on a page torn from one of the little notebooks she kept by the phone.
It said: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
It’s a quote widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, and it was a wonderful gift for a young woman setting off into the world.
I wish I’d kept that tiny piece of paper. For a time it was in my wallet, and then, after it got frayed and kind of dingy, I put it inside a sparkly bobby pin and kept it in a dresser drawer with jewelry and keepsakes. After several years and several moves, I lost track of it—but I’ve always tried to cling tightly to the idea that we have the power to reject any attempt to make us feel small or subordinate.
The key word is “feel.” As an African-American woman, my mother was acutely aware that a person, and a woman in particular, could be shoved into a lower rank in a very real and profound way. Laws could dictate where you could live or work and whether you could get a business license or own property or vote. Customs and social mores and self-appointed status checkers could keep you out of the boardroom or the clubhouse. But no one actually has the power to reach inside your soul and turn down the dial on your self-confidence.
My mother has a strong work ethic, but she also has a fierce “worth ethic.” Self-regard in the face of oppression is her superpower.
That word—power—takes on different dimensions viewed through a gendered lens. Power is most often associated with strength, which in turn is linked to physical prowess or financial might. The default assumption is that all of society benefits when men are raised to become powerful—their families, their communities, their places of work and worship. When women talk about exerting power or flexing their collective might by coming together, the assumptions are very different. It’s too often seen as a zero-sum game, in which women gain power at the expense of men and at the peril of larger society.
Could we finally be at a turning point? I came of age during a period of protest in the streets. Women have been marching and picketing and demanding their rights for my entire life. And as with most movements, progress comes in fits and starts, times of setbacks and periods that feel like a whoosh of momentum. The Equal Rights Amendment, first drafted in 1923, seemed certain to be ratified by the early 1970s but stalled. We are now in another moment of sweeping progress, most evident in the #MeToo movement—an astounding upwelling of emboldened and infuriated women saying time’s up to sexual harassment and assault. That revolt has produced a new wave of legislation, greater awareness, and immediate consequences for men who had previously gotten a pass or slap on the wrist for predatory behavior. Veterans in the struggle for women’s rights, used to disappointment, are hoping this really is a long-lasting movement, not just a moment.
This is an era of outrage and division, but there are strong reasons for optimism. We are witnessing an age when six women can stand on debate stages in the United States and credibly argue that they should be elected to the most powerful office in the world and when a woman is the speaker of the House of Representatives. We live in a time when a woman can become a four-star general or an Oscar-winning film director or a Fortune 500 CEO.
Around the globe women are gaining unprecedented power. They hold a majority of seats in the lower house of Rwanda’s legislature. Nearly two-thirds of the Spanish government’s cabinet ministers are women. The only country that banned women from driving, Saudi Arabia, has finally allowed it. Women have led almost a third of the world’s countries.
In a seismic development, the U.S. women’s national soccer team dominated the World Cup with such force, consistency, and chutzpah that it outperformed the U.S. men’s team in victories, viewership, and pop culture status. When you mention American soccer today, the women are the ones who symbolize the sport. But we still live in a time when those megastars are fighting in court to ensure they are paid the same as the men. Actually, it’s not even about equal pay for equal work; it’s equal pay for demonstrably more successful work. These are women who strut their success, reveling in their triumphs on the field and becoming role models for women seeking to challenge the basis for their second-class status.
For centuries women have been viewed as the weaker, more vulnerable gender. They have been rendered inferior, not necessarily with their consent, but with considerable help from social constructs and scientific research. British journalist Angela Saini documents how science has long defined and confined women in her book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (see essay “Once, most famous scientists were men. But that’s changing.”). Saini argues that male scientists used their studies and influence to amplify their own attitudes about gender (and racial) inequality. The results of their work “hardened sexism into something that couldn’t even be challenged.” And to make sure that women didn’t have the chance to prove the science wrong, they were denied the ability to flex their intellect or fully develop their talents.
Much of the research that tagged women as the weaker sex was flawed or biased. A body of work counters that early science, showing that women possess intellectual capabilities equal to their male counterparts. While men have greater physical strength and a height and weight advantage, studies show that women have a distinct edge when it comes to resilience and long-term survival.
So why do men hold more power than women today? Why does gender inequality persist? The explanation is so often: It’s just the way it’s always been. That’s simply not good enough. And that justification should crumble in the face of evidence showing that places with policies hampering or oppressing women lose ground economically.
Take Asia as an example. Slightly more than half of the region’s women work, and those women are paid less than men. Gender norms, barriers to education, and entrenched cultural forces could maintain that status quo, but analysts warn that countries impeding the advancement of women will pay a steep price. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that the regional economy would gain as much as $4.5 trillion in annual GDP by 2025 if women were no longer sidelined in the Asian workforce.
Every country on the planet should take notice. Those T-shirts and posters that read “The future is female” should warn instead “The future better be female!”
But the obstacles to power are deeply ingrained and aren’t easily overcome. You can write laws telling people what they can and cannot do, but you cannot legislate their feelings about themselves or others. We are still ambivalent about women and power. Studies suggest that women are more apt to be deemed “unlikable” or “untrustworthy” if they are perceived to be powerful, brash, or openly ambitious—traits that, by the way, are seen as management material in men.
New York University professor Madeline E. Heilman conducted a series of studies to investigate the reaction to successful women in jobs traditionally held by men. In one experiment she asked undergraduates to review nearly identical profiles for employees holding the position of assistant vice president for sales in an aircraft company. One of the employees was named “James.” The other was named “Andrea.” They were in the top 5 percent in employee performance reviews and described as “stellar performers” or “rising stars.” Their profiles provided no background on their personality or character. The students rated “Andrea” as more disagreeable and uncivil than “James,” who got more glowing responses.
That means the well-worn gender tropes don’t just describe how men and women allegedly behave, Heilman found, they also set a template for what behavior is suitable, and that behavior is “directly related to the attributes that are positively valued for each sex.” Women who are kind, caring, and gentle are valued and rewarded socially. Women who are ambitious, strategic, or direct—not so much.
As a society, we demonstrate a degree of trepidation and surprise about women taking the reins of power, because it’s still a novel concept. Women who become police chiefs and ship captains and construction supervisors are not just hailed as mavericks. They are also practically portrayed as unicorns. The greatest barrier that many women have to overcome is experience. Again, studies find that men often are hired for “potential,” while women with the same experience are deemed underqualified.
Our collective cultural narrative contributes to this bias. The phrase “women’s work” is limiting and stereotypical—attached to softer domestic tasks thought to be the province of women. Cooking. Cleaning. Tending. Gardening. But historian and activist Lisa Unger Baskin has been exploring women’s work going back seven centuries, and she has found quite a different story. Women have been holding up half the sky while toiling in jobs considered “men’s work.” “It is so important for our girls, and for women too, to see what they can do and be, so it is not just in their imaginations,” Unger Baskin told me recently. “And it is so important for men, for us all really, to see female accomplishment, because over centuries humans have been conditioned to see women as the weaker, less capable sex, when all around us there is evidence showing that simply is not true.”
Unger Baskin has spent a lifetime trying to add to that evidence file, amassing an astounding collection documenting women’s work through photographs, books, trade cards, artifacts, personal letters, and ephemera. She believes her collection, housed at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, is the world’s largest record of women in work and professional enterprise.
Women have worked—and succeeded—in occupations long seen as the province of men: as laborers, scientists, printers, navigators, and mechanics—sometimes purposely keeping a low profile to avoid reproach, but most often invisible simply because of their gender.
“I think that the stories that we can glean from what I put together, from my collection, say something about power, something about disenfranchisement,” Unger Baskin said. “The assumption that women did not do things that were always male dominated is just not true.”
Her collection grew out of curiosity and umbrage. She traveled to book fairs and rare book auctions, looking for signs that women were reading and getting educated and working all along. She discovered that women were allowed to inherit and run a printing press if they were widowed because the work was so important and the expertise so rare. As a result, there were several significant women printers in colonial America.
She discovered that Sara Clarson was working as a bricklayer in England in 1831, that Madam Nora led a troupe of glassblowers who traveled the United States in 1888 making whimsical sculptures, and that Margaret Bryan introduced math and astronomy into the curriculum at her girls school in London in 1799. She discovered that Maria Gaetana Agnesi wrote a widely translated mathematics textbook in Milan in the mid-1700s and that the German naturalist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian made the first observations and drawings of insect metamorphosis in natural settings.
As a collector, Unger Baskin often was not taken seriously. That worked in her favor as she snapped up documents, books, personal letters, needlepoint, engraved silver—things that no one wanted or understood—often for just a dollar or two at bookshops, book fairs, and flea markets.
She talks about her discoveries as if the women she’s rescued from anonymity are old friends. One that breaks her heart was an enslaved woman called Alsy, who lived in Virginia. Unger Baskin found her story on a fragment from an 1831 medical certificate in which a physician described a device to hold up Alsy’s prolapsed uterus so she could “be made usefull” again. His subject’s humanity was of little interest, but her labor was so important that he was tasked with getting her back on her feet. Unger Baskin said this particularly devastating story shows how women through time have been considered inferior and yet essential.
Enslaved and indentured women are included in the collection, along with items from Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, and Sojourner Truth. Unger Baskin sees her collection as a rearview mirror that can guide women as they move forward, imagining a future that is attainable but avoiding the mistakes of the past.
One of those big lessons is inclusion. Aspirational women’s movements of the past—reaching all the way back to the 18th century—have been led by and centered on white, educated, upper-class women. Even abolitionists fighting for the rights of the enslaved often kept those women at a distance socially. Sojourner Truth is known for rattling the conscience of the nation with her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, but there were tensions between Truth and abolitionists such as Stowe.
Truth “was not a Southern enslaved person. She was in the North. She was in New York State with Dutch owners,” Unger Baskin said. She was self-sufficient, spoke well, dressed well, and acted too much like an equal. That pattern would repeat itself in the suffrage movement and the equal rights movement and into second-wave feminism of the 1970s.
Examining women’s work over centuries, not as it was portrayed in tapestries and paintings and literature, but rather as it was actually conducted, with callused hands and financial acumen and clever strategy, is enlightening and heartbreaking.
Why don’t we know more about these brave women? How is it that their stories have been overlooked or erased? Most unsettling to me as I listened to Unger Baskin describe her life’s work was recognizing that so many of the women had to strategically build an audience for their work without calling too much attention to themselves, because they were operating well outside of their prescribed roles. Surviving as a businesswoman was a special art. But first each had to survive as a woman.
My mother gave me that slip of paper because she never wanted me to accept subordinate status. I had two sisters, and the mantra in our house was: “You are not better than anyone else, but no one is better than you.” It’s the language of equality, and I find myself sharing it with my own children. But is it the language of power? If we want to push our daughters to compete side by side with our sons, we have to be willing to teach them to be comfortable with making someone else uncomfortable with their talent and success. We have to teach them that the discomfort is not theirs to solve.
Power has its own language. Captains are powerful. Titans are powerful. Ringleaders and pacesetters are powerful. Now, ask yourself, when you were reading those words, did an image of a woman pop into your head? If the answer is yes, take a bow, and let’s hope your outlook is contagious. But if not, thanks for your honesty, and let’s get to work.
I have always admired the writer and producer Shonda Rhimes for her storytelling gifts and monumental success at the production company that bears her name. For more than a decade, Shondaland churned out profitable and wildly popular TV shows, featuring women, black, Latino, Asian, and gay characters in groundbreaking roles. Rhimes now has a multimillion-dollar production deal that gives her complete creative freedom.
Her success as a woman of color in Hollywood is beyond impressive. But what I most admire is her unapologetic embrace of her phenomenal success. She has no hesitation describing herself as a “titan,” which she surely is.
Power has been denied women for so long that it can often feel like a garment designed for someone else. A generation of women are challenging this. U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Tennis great Serena Williams. Susan and Anne Wojcicki (sisters who are the CEOs of YouTube and 23andMe). General Motors CEO Mary T. Barra, TV superstar Oprah Winfrey, and all the women who have inspired the #MeToo movement that rose up to challenge a system that flagrantly disregarded women’s rights for decades.
When the stories of sexual harassment in Hollywood and then finance and then journalism and then everywhere exploded into a drumbeat of, yes, titans dethroned for sexually abusive behavior, a small group of women began meeting in Hollywood every day to collectively demand changes that would protect and uplift women. Their effort ran parallel to the #MeToo campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment. The Hollywood group was looking to create a movement, not a moment, and they called it Time’s Up.
Half of the early attendees and many of the financial supporters were women of color, and as their numbers grew with each week, so too did their focus, thanks in large part to a “Dear Sisters” letter written on behalf of female farmworkers. Those women, led by Mónica Ramírez, now the president of Justice for Migrant Women, wrote to the women gathering in Hollywood to express solidarity and explain that they faced a similar plight in the employ of men who took advantage of the instability and powerlessness that come with poverty and itinerant work.
The letter, which appeared in Time magazine, read in part: “We wish that we could say we’re shocked to learn that this is such a pervasive problem in your industry. Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well.”
Read aloud at a Time’s Up gathering in Beverly Hills by the actress America Ferrera, the letter set off a geyser of tears, said Michelle Kydd Lee, an early Time’s Up organizer and the chief innovation officer for Creative Artists Agency.
“This was just the crystallization of something that allowed us to rise above the crisis to the meta moment. Can we rise as sisters across race and class and create a new language together that allows us to celebrate our differences and truly, truly in sisterhood allows us to celebrate our link?” she explained. “On a hill or in a valley, we are all in this together.”
Within a year the group had raised $22 million for a legal defense fund to help women employed as hotel workers, health care workers, factory operators, security guards, lawyers, academics, and artists seeking equal pay, safe working conditions, and protections from sexual harassment.
Rhimes was able to create the kind of workplace she always wanted, but she knows that most women don’t have that luxury. In the months when the Hollywood women were meeting at least once a day, Rhimes was the one who pushed the group to think boldly, not just imagining how they could fix the system, but imagining how the system should have worked from the beginning, free of the power dynamics that instinctively conferred subordinate status to women.
Even in that moment when women were taking control and seeking to foster a truly global movement, even when they were coming together in a collective roar, gender stereotypes still could have a pernicious effect, creating a kind of knee-jerk reticence.
“I continue to find it really sad that people are afraid to ask to be equal,” Rhimes told me. And women “seem very afraid to ask to be equal,” she said, adding that she’s seen it over and over, “from the way women apologize and from the way women try to negotiate their contracts, from the way women stand up for themselves.”
Women who want to change the world, or to go as far as their talents or interests take them, sometimes have to resist or reject that little voice in their head that stokes our insecurities and suggests how we should or shouldn’t behave. It’s like a flashing “merge carefully” sign: Push hard or speak out or act up and be prepared to be seen as the angry black woman, the feisty Latina, the shrew, the shrill, the agitator, the troublemaker, the word that rhymes with witch.
Rhimes said a lot of the women struggled with the idea of demanding equality. “It was more about, ‘How do we make the men feel comfortable with the little pieces of pie that we’re asking for?’” she said. “It’s truly a ridiculous place to start, to ask people to give you a tiny sliver of what should already be yours.”
So how do you change a system that is designed to dole out less to women in terms of personal safety, respect, earnings, stature, or accolades? How do you refuse to give your consent when the system slots you into a lower shelf that says “inferior”?
Remember that quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt? It turns out she probably never uttered those exact words. In response to a question about a perceived snub, however, she had this to say: “A snub is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”
People invested in the status quo will always be looking for people who can be made to feel inferior. It’s the wobbly floor they stand on. But in this moment, where there’s so much promise and so much at stake, let’s make sure that it’s no longer easy to find women and girls who can be made to feel inferior. Let’s make sure they know their power and their place—as equals.