At 70 years old, if I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to use the words “fuck off” much more frequently. — Helen Mirren
I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all “crazy.” I have a suspicion—and hear me out, because this is a rough one—that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore. — Tina Fey
These days, I strive to be a bitch, because not being one sucks. Not being a bitch means not having your voice heard. ― Margaret Cho
Okay, here goes. For several years now I have been posting essays on this site about spiritual themes like meditation, equanimity, and compassion together with photos I’ve taken of peaceful landscapes or delicate flowers. This has all been, in part, I suspect, to confirm and reflect back to myself my aspiration to be “that kind of person.” You know, a spiritual type. After decades of standing on the overlapping battle grounds of social justice and union advocacy, I have created this blog, I am now thinking, not only as a respite for me, but also as a means of weaving myself a new kind of identity. I am an outspoken aging woman, after all, one who has been wrestling almost nonstop with various representatives of institutional power since I was a teenager.
So, even though I know better than to have fallen into such a trap — of course I do! — it now occurs to me that the refuge I have been seeking for decades in legitimate spiritual values and practices has been tainted by spiritual stereotypes. According to the vaguely spiritual style or “brand” I have in mind, I should be gentle, soft spoken, and agreeable. I should radiate peace, and perhaps even wear flowing Eileen Fisher-type clothes. A truly spiritual person, so the stereotypes suggest, does not spend energy constructing arguments or championing positions, nor do they display, or perhaps really even feel, anger or outrage.
This spiritual person takes long walks in the woods, does yoga, drinks green tea, and lives in transcendent detachment from the cares and seductions of the world. Critically, this spiritual trope is tangled up in a fair bit of sexist bullshit given how neatly some of these “spiritual” ideals dovetail with entrenched expectations that girls and women put themselves last, ignore their own feelings and needs, and defer to male authority. Certainly, it’s easy enough for me to mentally superimpose an image of a 1950s housewife on Valium with that of a blissed out meditator. To be clear, it’s not like I haven’t noticed and been troubled by this association before, but only recently has concern about it been catalyzed for me in a way I find impossible to ignore.
Here’s the story: Over the past several months — for very specific reasons related to the elected employee advocacy role I hold at my workplace — I have been treated to the distinctively odd experience of reading a few “managers’” apparently unvarnished opinions about me. I am talking about gajillions of emails between a few empowered individuals who happen to have a very specific professional investment in getting me to behave more “congenially.”To be fair, the words “crazy” and “bitch” never actually appear in these emails, but the coding is unmissable for folks who tilt even a skosh feminist.
In sometimes elaborate email threads, these managers repeatedly complain to, and commiserate with, one another about the “fact” that I am difficult, baffling, bullying, irrational and disagreeable. The bottom line: They wish I were “nicer.” Their condemnation of me is not about my professional ability per se and does not identify any misconduct on my part. The gist of it, rather, seems to be that they do not like me, and it’s a conclusion they repeatedly express in language that points to my failure to perform and be read as appropriately feminine. As one of my colleagues put it after reviewing these troubling emails: “It’s like they’re working to convince one another that they don’t have to take you seriously as a leader because you’re such a crazy bitch.”
Now it is one thing to be a woman and have your leadership credentials and qualities mocked and trivialized. At this relatively late point in the game, this kind of ridicule is, for me, while unpleasant, relatively unproblematic. Or maybe what I really mean is that it would be unproblematic if I weren’t also experiencing these sexist digs as translatable into an implicit attack on my spiritual identity. I mean I can handle being just one more crazy, dismissible bitch, but the suggestion that I might not be meeting the standards of my spiritual persona kind of gets to me. Could it actually be that all these years I have been cultivating a so-called spiritual identity that undercuts my ability to embrace my power and voice as an experienced, grounded, and authoritative woman?
Fortunately, I don’t think this is an especially difficult conundrum for me to address now that these helpful “managers” have helped me bring it into conscious awareness. I mean I know in the bones of my bones that there is no reason for any woman to have to choose between the qualities that make her an effective advocate for systemic change and those associated with her spiritual maturity and integrity. Although religious systems the world over have been eager to gauge a woman’s spiritual progress by her willingness to suck up to various gods and men, I do not buy it. Fortunately, there are also female spiritual icons for whom fierceness is not just an incidental characteristic, but is regarded as an expression of their sacred power. Although I may never drink blood or wear a necklace of heads like the Hindu goddess, Kali, perhaps I am ferocious enough to stand without shame before those who would dismiss me as just another crazy bitch.
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