This year marks the 36th installment of Women’s History Month in the United States. Congress first commemorated the month-long holiday in 1987, acknowledging March as 31 days for the celebration of women and for reflection upon their accomplishments and historical fights for equality.
Feminism and the empowerment of women have always been central to my being. As a young girl, I looked up to the inspirational women in life, especially my mother, family members and my close friends. An avid reader, I found some of my favorite badass and intelligent female heroes from novels. Hermione Granger from the “Harry Potter” series was my obvious favorite, and her admiration for learning and books (and her even greater love for being right) heavily resonated with 11-year-old me.
I attended an all-girls high school, a sisterhood that was incredibly formative, both intellectually and socially. The experiences I had in such an environment, from lamentations over the uniform dress code to lengthy discussions about the feminist perspectives in the classic novels we were required to read, made me the woman and student I am today. There is proof that girls with this kind of education exhibit greater self-confidence and are more likely to be politically engaged than those in a co-ed environment. With this and my own personal experiences, I find it to be absolutely necessary to attribute my feminist motivations to the women and girls I have been surrounded by my entire life.
These supportive conditions are not always the case for women, though. Whether it be in social situations, in professional environments or in academia, there is an invisible state of competition amongst women, a struggle for personal power amid the overarching goal of achieving equality with men. A “power dead-even rule,” a phrase created by Dr. Pat Heim, produces a situation where women desire to be “even” in rank and ability to other female professionals, and when one woman deviates — gaining an increase in status — she is rejected and ostracized. This response to an imbalance between women is entirely social, as there is an intense desire to be similar to others, both in terms of traits and success.
Along with this invisible ranking system, the prospect of receiving more senior roles also drives women to compete with one another. When the time comes for the distribution of high positions in the workplace, female employees are very unlikely to bring other women up the ladder with them. Women tend to equip themselves with more masculine emotional intelligence qualities in order to make themselves more assimilable to male colleagues and more successful, becoming more assertive and self-confident. These traits, in turn, can limit the ability to create quality relationships with other women, as we become less focused on being amicable and more focused on being respected by men. With this expectation in mind, the status quo is upheld, where masculine traits are held in high regard, and the system of professional leadership goes unchanged by women.
In this culture in which women must change themselves to act more like men, we lose out on the vital strength of a female support system. Historically, women have needed one another. They’ve banded together to fight a collective battle against measures, such as abortion restrictions, that pose a threat to their health and mental well-being, and laws that limit their citizenship. In times when women have failed to come together for a plethora of reasons — specifically racism — the full ‘feminist potential’ and the greater good have not been achieved. Achieving equality is a collective effort, the stamina and determination required are unable to be attained by one singular woman. Becoming reclusive, turning away from our emotional connections with other women and thinking solely for the advancement of ourselves is not sustainable — we need to better sustain the “women supporting women” culture.
A “supportive” culture can be something professional but can also be something more personal and emotional between individuals. It can mean being a shoulder to lean on in times of stress, or speaking out against sexism perpetuated against a female coworker or peer. We all need support, even if we don’t care to admit it. It may feel like we’re being needy, or that asking for help makes us seem “weak” and “feminine”, but having that person or group of people by our side can make all the difference. It makes us stronger, and it makes us better people.
In a society in which we are forced to change ourselves in order to adapt and succeed, our support networks come under threat. We adjust to male standards of behavior in an attempt to “fit in” so that we can advance our careers, but as a result of this change in ourselves, we risk damaging the incredibly important relationships we hold with other women. When we deny ourselves the feeling of empathy or kindness in professional environments, we lose pieces of ourselves, and we lose our female support network.
It’s not enough to break the glass ceiling — we have to disintegrate the cinder block walls we keep up between us women, which condemn us to a life of fighting inequity on the basis of sex by ourselves. Losing this support network of women is disastrous for our development; without it, we are doomed to a life where we stand alone against the harmful social and political structures that deplete our personhood.
We have to make permanent the culture of “women supporting women,” because without it, we can’t confidently make advancements in our journey towards progress.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.