“You need to be patient,” people would often tell me in my early twenties whenever I raised my feminist grievances about the world, “Change takes time.”
Patience. It may be known as a virtue, but it should never be applied to injustice. Patience is for people who accept the hand they were dealt and wait passively for the world to change. I believe that impatient people are the ones who unravel the injustice woven into the fabric of daily life. They are passionate enough about their cause to act with a sense of urgency.
By my early twenties, I had already grown to resent what it meant to be female. I had been sexually assaulted, objectified, belittled, threatened, coerced and discriminated against by both boys and men on countless occasions. I was keenly aware of how easily men could let my biological sex overshadow my identity as a human being. I started bartending as soon as I turned 18, resolving that if men were going to objectify me no matter what, then at the very least I had the right to make money from it. I felt comfortable with being female, but the outside world seemed dedicated to making me hate it. I was being forced to experience the world in a way that made me feel like a cheap accessory. It made me feel angry. Sad. Frustrated. Confused. Ashamed. Conflicted. Depressed. And sometimes, helpless.
I had a lot of things when I moved to New York City in 2009 at age 23 – crippling student debt, a lifetime supply of impractical shoes, signature millennial arrogance – but one thing I certainly did not have was patience for the status quo. Armed with a newly-minted undergraduate degree in Women, Gender & Sexuality studies and a bottomless to-do list of gender equality issues, I was ready to take the patriarchy by storm. I believed that the appropriate time for the next wave of feminism was now, and dammit, I was going to make it happen.
My women’s studies education was the best therapy I ever had. It gave me the words to explain what exactly I had experienced. I was finally able to make sense of what I had been feeling and why. Understanding my life’s journey from a philosophical and factual perspective gave me back my power. It validated my conscience.
At the time I moved to New York, I was ready to take my newfound enlightenment and unleash it onto the world. Surely other women were as fed up as I was. I could see the next wave of feminism on the horizon, and it was time for a change. On the surface, I was confident in my convictions – but underneath my tough exterior, I often felt painfully and profoundly alone.
As impossible as it seems in the present day, nine years ago, I didn’t see much of anything resembling a women’s movement. Feminist activism was a tiny subculture that drew little mainstream attention. I was frustrated that American women had been socially conditioned to be blind to their own oppression. The attitude I observed was, Sure, being female involves some “additional challenges”, but that’s just inevitable! It sucks, but oh well! I was surrounded by dialogue that positioned women as complicit in their own suffering, while men dodged all accountability.
Back then, when I mentioned gender inequality, many people were quick to remind me that women in America “had it way better” than women in many other countries, as though the more extreme versions of female suffering should put my mind at ease. It seemed that the bulk of American society was happy to shrug off any lingering gender inequality and subscribe to the status quo of “good enough”.
Once I had the education to understand my life experience, the world around me overflowed with examples of gender injustice. My days were filled with tiny reinforcements of a gender hierarchy that held me hostage, and each event sparked an invisible a pang of anger and resentment inside of me. Even a basic morning commute would contain a barrage of triggers. I’d be whistled at, told to smile, and watch a man on a crowded train sit down with his legs wide open, taking up gratuitous space. The term “manspreading” wasn’t even in our vernacular yet. We all just stood there and watched in silent acceptance as he demonstrated his God-given right to have more than everybody else.
At the time, I often felt like the only person who was seeing the gender hierarchy for what it was – oppressive, toxic and insidious. The complacency of those around me forced me to question my own experience. Why do I feel like the only one who cares? If American women aren’t playing with a fair hand, shouldn’t more people be talking about it? And perhaps most importantly: why do so many men feel the need to spit? Do they have some sort of undiagnosed medical condition that generates excess fluid in their mouths?
Over the next several years – say, 2010–2015 – I began to hear a gradual crescendo of women’s voices. As social media embarked on its quest for world domination, it provided everyone with an unprecedented ability to speak their truths on a public stage. Women shared their statements, stories and videos addressing various aspects of gender inequality that generated a “OMG YES!” response from millions of people. The experiences that had once been obscured by a thick fog of shame and a culture of silence emerged into the forefront of our collective consciousness.
But just as I was about to tie on my #girlpower cape and soar off into the sunset, the train I was riding took an abrupt turn into the 2016 House of Horrors. American women suddenly looked head-on into a new and hostile reality. The daily headlines were a constant reminder that our rights were in the hands of a bullying, tone-deaf administration. It forced many of us to replace our former understanding of what was or was not possible.
It is deeply unfortunate that the uphill climb for equality had to take so many steps backwards before mainstream society would sit up and take notice, but it seems this was exactly the wake-up call that many Americans needed. People who cared about equality and justice became acutely aware that they no longer had the luxury of being complacent about their rights and representation. Women heard the message loud and clear. If we wanted our voices to be heard, then we were going to need to rally together with unprecedented passion and determination.
I saw this new level of conviction manifest in the Women’s March on January 21, 2017. Over 5 million people turned out to participate in the march for tolerance and equal rights that went on to become the largest coordinated protest in U.S. history. TIME Magazine awarded its 2017 Person of the Year to “The Silence Breakers” of the #metoo movement, a hashtag used by more than 12 million people impacted by sexual harassment and assault. This was the year that people dared to speak out. For the first time, we saw a conglomeration of high-profile men being held accountable for having used their position of power to enable years of reprehensible sexual conduct. It forced the virgin ears of mainstream society to acknowledge a disturbing reality that they no longer held the privilege to ignore.
2017 was a challenging year for me on a personal level, and it often felt like the rest of the world was sharing my difficult journey around the sun. It was a year full of raw emotion and vulnerability, hard truths and flimsy lies. But if I put the pain aside, 2017 has one incredibly beautiful quality – it was the first year in my lifetime that women stopped suffering in silence.
Now it’s January 2018, and I no longer feel alone. I find myself in the midst of a rapidly transforming social climate that has finally stopped prescribing patience as a solution to injustice. I am thrilled to be surrounded by the most incredible army of humans who are ready to tackle inequality – the very people I didn’t know were out there only a handful of years ago.
I am hopeful that we have grown to accept that there is no such thing as a comfortable or convenient time to demand justice. Change is an imperfect science, but we know it is working when things become messy, controversial and difficult. Last year’s siege of social and political discord forced the complacent amongst us to wake up and realize that justice was far more important than being agreeable. Women aren’t asking for fair treatment anymore. We have assembled a united front to demand it.
If 2017 will be remembered as the year that women spoke out, then my wish for 2018 is that it will be known as the year that women took action. Let’s get women into more positions of power, from Congress to Silicon Valley to the boardroom. Let’s begin packaging up the things we incorrectly refer to as “women’s issues” – domestic violence, rape, harassment, discrimination – and turn them over to their rightful owner: men. Let’s insist on equal pay and demand our right to paid maternity leave and access to reproductive care. Finally, let’s start raising our sons to be the type of men that we won’t need to protect our daughters from one day. The time to build ourselves a better world is – and has always been – right now.