My mother knows 3 languages fluently and can get away with a good amount of a fourth. When we’re out to eat and someone is speaking a language she knows, she’ll sometimes jump in. “Hello,” she’ll say surprising everyone involved. On family trips abroad, we’d often stand behind her hoping she’d be the safest bet to reaching our destination. When we are home, a lot of people are confused by her and they’ll look to my dad for clarification. Sometimes people will roll their eyes. Other times they’ll interrupt and speak loudly and slowly. They’ll ask where her husband is.
When Hillary Clinton was running for president, her clothing and hair often came up. No one batted an eye when it was pointed out that her clothing might not attract millennials. People shrugged when her hair became a topic of conversation. It happened somewhere between discussions about why she would not win the male vote and her backstabbing husband. Her demeanor was constantly called into question.
She smiles. She doesn’t smile. She sounds fake. She sounds too emotional. Robot Hillary. Unfuckable. Untouchable. Weak. Witch. Woman.
When I’m younger, my mother grows increasingly frustrated with my clothing choices and my infrequent bathing. I don’t want to be a lady. It’s okay when I’m under 10, but as I get older it’s not so cute anymore. My mom takes me shopping and I drag my feet through the whole store. I complain loudly and tell her I have clothes. Your brother’s hand-me-downs are not enough, she says as she pulls a dress out of the rack. This. That. We argue on the way home from the stores. I speak up. I thought you said what’s inside is more important than what’s on the outside. My mother squeezes the steering wheel. It is. It is. But you have to be a certain way sometimes. It shouldn’t matter, I say. Well, it does for women. Her words are hollow and final.
In college, I take a class on international conflict. It is taught by a relatively new teacher, new to the University of Iowa, new to a class of juniors, new to confidence. She’s teaching political theory and what brings countries to war. A student raises her hand and says maybe women should rule the world and there would be no more war. The class giggles and one boy calls out and responds that nothing would get done if women ran anything. Everyone starts talking. The professor, new and nervous, speaks up as loud as she can. There would be no difference, she says. Except women would be in power. That’d be the biggest difference.
My mother is ignored when she stands in front of a room. It’s her accent. It’s her volume. It’s her content. She stumbles over a couple sentences and is forced to harden her tone so people will just listen. Women in the workplace, women in the workplace, she says over and over again. She tells the story about how she was taken advantage of in some of her first jobs in the United States. She didn’t know better. She says watch out. Know that this happens a lot. Stumble. She loses them, and she’ll spend the whole time trying to win the crowd back.
Hillary Clinton loses. She stands on a stage in front of a crowd of her supporters in Brooklyn and speaks with elegance and such courage. Everyone at my work is grouped around a TV, watching with complete and total attention. Hillary speaks directly to the women. Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams. You are powerful, she says. You are important. We are so strong. What she doesn’t say is that while this is a loss, but it will ignite a fire.
My mother kept her last name when she got married. Varela. It is my middle name and also my brother’s. It was my yaya and papou’s last name and half of who I am. It isn’t so uncommon now for a woman to keep her last name, but back when my mother decided to keep her own, it was more of a big deal. It never bugged her too much when others would talk about how strange it was. It was simply a break in tradition. It did upset her, though, that her children had a different name and therefore no apparent relation. How draining, to defy standards only to lose in a different way. Whose kids are these? My father’s.
Sometime during your early 20s, everyone is saying there is a choice to be made. Not just where to go, but who to leave behind. You cannot have both. You cannot have the career and the man. Whether it’s conscious or not, one becomes more important than the other. So one goes. But I don’t think it’s like that anymore. Men do not own women as they used to. Cannot own women. Power in choice comes in different forms and no choice should ever be more or less worth my own. If a woman stays with him, that is her choice. If she does not, that is her choice. If she keeps both, that is also her choice. I think that is good to keep in mind when people talk of choosing.
My mother has lived a life that will never demand an apology. But it deserves many. It is recognized and often forgotten. When I’m little and can’t sleep, I wake her and she jumps up in worry. She grabs my arm tightly and asks if I’m okay. I tell her I’m fine. But she’s my mother and she takes me back to my bed and sits there until I fall asleep. She stays up waiting, then wakes up early and goes to work – hair and makeup done. Skirt and blazer. A professional woman. Apologies for the misunderstanding.
Overthink a word. Why it’s said when it’s said, what it means, why it’s written, why it’s not. Recently, I was talking with my roommate about being told off. I said I’d rather be punched in the face than be told to “go fuck myself.” The words feel much more malicious. As if a person contemplated what to say first and then spoke. You don’t need much to swing a fist. It is seldom women are called powerful, and it is far more seldom to show it. Give a woman power, but never call it what it is. The word powerful is in fact powerful. And in that way, spoken so infrequently when describing a woman. Maculate a word and it’s all you’ll ever see.
My mother grew up being told how to be and what to do. Traditionalism at its finest. A world cut short for women. One path to follow and stay. But she didn’t. My mother left for something she didn’t know at all and kept going. No one granted this, she took it. No excuses or compromises. No appraisal. She knew what she deserved and went for it. She played the man’s game for years until she could make her own. She’s a woman then and now. My mother. What a powerful lady to have climbed so far that I could maybe reach the glass ceiling from her back.