Thursday, February 11, 2016

Do the Work, Learn from the Mistakes, and Just Keep Trying

I've only been half paying attention to presidential politics. In my defense, California's primary isn't until June so there's no urgency for me to decide who I'll vote for.

Image from wikimedia.
CC Attribution 3.0 license
Photographer: Kai Mork
But I have not failed to notice the sexist undertones- hell, the overt sexism- in a lot of the arguments against Hillary Clinton. I don't dislike Bernie Sanders, but I really dislike the way a lot of people argue for him. I will obviously vote for which ever of them wins the Democratic nomination in the general election. The Republican field almost uniformly terrifies me, and I dislike and disagree with the ones who don't terrify me.

But this post is not about who will get my vote. Given the timing of my state's primary, that is probably irrelevant in all possible senses. It is about a surprising thing I've realized about Hillary.

I admire her.

The younger people in my audience probably have no idea why that is a surprising thing to realize. But I entered adulthood during the 90s, when people first started villifying Hillary Clinton. I don't remember completely buying into it, but I know I at least partially bought into it. Hillary was what you didn't want to be as a woman.

I bought into the idea that I could be different. That I could be one of the "cool" women who could just be one of the guys and would be able to succeed. That women like Hillary weren't suffering from any systemic sexism. They were just unpleasant, unlikeable women, and if they'd just be nicer, or do something better with their hair, or... I don't know what. But it was their fault people hated them. It wouldn't happen to me. Because I knew how to be friends with guys.

Or some such BS. I can't really remember the specifics. College was a long time ago.

I don't know what, exactly, changed my mind.

Maybe it started back in college, watching my male friends ridicule Anita Hill. Hearing them react to me getting a scholarship with "I wish a was a girl so I could get scholarships" despite the fact that I had an A average and they had B or C averages.

Or maybe that just planted a seed, which lay dormant for many years, fertilized with subtle sexism that I didn't even notice happening at the time, but which was also helping the seeds of self-doubt that I've carried with me for as long as I can remember grow and flourish.

It was watered by all the times I heard "I don't know how you do it" as a working mom. By all the BS published in the NY Times about breastfeeding vs. formula feeding, cry it out vs co-sleeping, etc., etc., and how those articles were always framed as being about the mother, not the parents. By all the times I saw my ideas claimed by someone else, and the way that someone else was always a man.

Until finally, I realized I wasn't any different than "those women." I, too, would hear that I should be less abrupt but also get to the point. I should be willing to stand up for my ideas but also shouldn't "get emotional." I should watch out for Dr. So and So because he likes blondes but also shouldn't offend him because we needed X, Y, and Z from him. And so on and so on.

By this time, I knew about the tightrope, and the double bind, and all that. But I thought I could navigate it. I thought I could be perfect enough to make my way through without stumbling.

The final, horrible realization was that I couldn't be that perfect. No woman can be. It isn't possible.

I've got to admit, realizing this knocked me off my game. I now realized that I was trying to do an impossible thing, but I didn't know what I should try to do instead. I've been struggling to get fully back on my game ever since.

Whenever I work through a "career values" questionnaire, one of the things that shows up as being really important to me is to feel like a respected expert in my field.

What I've got to reckon with is that I will never get that. I get some respect, for sure. But I will never really feel like a respected expert in any field, because no matter what, there will always be the "yeah, but..." rebuttal to my achievements. I know this from watching how the world responds to pretty much every woman I view as an expert in her field. There is always something negative attached to her achievements.

I've been puzzling over the way out of this conundrum of having something I really want in my professional life that I essentially can never have.

And here is where, somewhat to my surprise, Hillary Clinton shows me the way.

For my entire adult life, I have watched people try to tear her down. She gets the super-charged version of "yeah, but..." attached to all her achievements. She gets personal attacks. She gets held responsible for her husband's actions. And she just keeps doing the work.

I voted for her in the 2008 primary, but not with any great enthusiasm. I just thought she had more experience, and that Barack Obama didn't really have a plan for achieving his goals. (I supported his goals, though, and I enthusiastically voted for him in the general election, and have loved him as a president. But again, this isn't a post about my politics.)

I was impressed with Obama when he offered her the Secretary of State job, and I was impressed with Hillary when she accepted it. To be able to go and work for the man who had just crushed her attempt to reach a cherished goal speaks volumes about her, I think. She kept her focus on her goals and she did the work, and she was a very popular Secretary of State.

And now she's running again, and she has so clearly done the work to prepare for this race. She clearly took some lessons from her loss in 2008, and she's running a different sort of campaign.

And that is the inspiration I take from Hillary's story. When she fails at something, she learns from it. The more I learn about her, the more I think she could teach a master class in how to ignore the useless criticism and learn from the substantive critiques. It would be so easy given the flood of criticism she gets to just ignore it all, but she clearly doesn't. She has figured out how to filter out the BS and listen to the real stuff.

But most importantly, she does the work, and keeps trying.

Will that be enough to get her what she wants this time? I don't know. Should it be enough to get her the nomination? Hell, no. Every voter should look at her record and her platform and listen to her plans and decide if she deserves their vote.

But on a personal level, I find her story inspiring, whether she wins or loses. She is not perfect, but no one is. There are things she's done and choices she's made that I disagree with, but that doesn't matter in this regard. Her approach shows me the way out of my conundrum whether or not I agree with every policy statement she's made.

Do the work. Become the expert. Ignore the criticism that comes from falling off the tightrope or tripping on the double bind. Learn from the critiques that have some substance. Get better with every try.

And just keep trying.


Postscript: Just like this piece isn't about how I'll vote, it isn't about solving the structural problems like the double bind. It is about how I will get past the way those structural problems sap my motivation to work towards my goals. I want the structural problems fixed. I actively work to fix the structural problems. But they won't be fixed in time for my career, and I have things I want to do other than work to fix the structural problems facing women in the workplace. This piece is me trying to find my way towards working on those other things despite the structural problems.


  1. Engineering Elf10:28 AM

    I disliked Hilary's policies since she moved into New York seemingly just to run for Senator when I was in high school. Reading your post highlighted that it might not be just our differing view points that have contributed to my distaste. The longer I am active in engineering the more I understand what older women were trying to tell me during those college talks. Thank you for leading the way for those of us behind you.

    1. I think one of the things that makes sexism hard to defeat is that some aspects of it are invisible to you until you get senior enough to threaten the guys. So we all go through the same, sad learning curve. But I've learned something! I am now listening much more closely to what my elders are telling me about what aging as a woman is like.

  2. HRC is awesome. Tis all.

    Great piece, Cloud.


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