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Speaking Our Voices

Nina Winter, owner of TISSU Sewing Studio and me, preparing for the Vibration Community Fashion Show and Fundraiser for Camp Destination Innovation

My favorite quote of all time is by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich from an obscure academic article she wrote in 1976: "Well behaved women seldom make history." I bet by now you've been able to tell I'm a bit of a rebel, so I'm sure you're not too surprised that this quote is meaningful to me. But, there's much more to it than that.

The biggest reason I love this quote is that it destroys the "good girl" myth. From the time we're children, we're taught that "good" girls are passive, submissive, and compliant. We learn that our most important role to play is a "people pleaser," and that if we're good enough, we'll be rewarded. Of course, this is absolute hogwash, especially from the people that we expect to love us unconditionally.

We're told all kinds of things to beat down our initiative: "Don't draw attention to yourself." "Don't rock the boat." "Sit down and be quiet." "Get off your high horse." All the things we're told to "keep us in our place" and to punish us for being visible. It is considered out of line to speak up for ourselves, labeling these behaviors as being a "show-off," "nag," "hysterical," or worse.

It's no wonder that at some point in our lives, we make the decision that it isn't safe, or worthwhile, to speak our truth.

These messages come from everywhere! It may have happened from being scolded for speaking up when you were a kid. It could have been from a boss or coworker that didn't appreciate your ideas. This happens to all of us. Can you pinpoint what situations convinced you to stop taking the risk?

From the time I was a little girl, I've been accused of being sassy. Of course, that didn't stop me. Now that I'm an adult, I'm sassy and proud of it! After all, what is being sassy really? To me, it's about sharing an unpopular opinion, usually telling someone something they didn't want to hear. Which all circles back to breaking the "people pleaser" code.

These experiences created a belief that speaking up would create more pain. This belief caused us to withhold and question our voice from then on. It's not that the people in these situations did this to hurt anyone. Often, they simply passed on what they'd been taught. The cycle repeats itself, passing along how we're expected to act and which parts of ourselves to keep invisible. We withdraw.

Withdrawing is a way of protecting ourselves from being hurt. As long as we play by the rules, don't ask too many questions, bring up too many hypotheticals, or give too many opinions, we're safe. I see this every semester in the Entrepreneurship in the Arts class I teach at WSU. This belief makes it hard for most students to take risks to share what they're thinking. Especially when they see the class's response to the "over-sharers" (Insert eye roll here.) From a teaching standpoint, it's something to think about.

What we learn in our early lives becomes engrained into our attitude and belief pattern as we grow. Even when it no longer serves us, we've convinced ourselves that we need to protect ourselves, the same way as when we were children, and learn to be afraid to speak our voice, so we don't get hurt.

In trying not to be hurt, we end up hurting ourselves, by giving away our power and hiding our light.

What we all have to offer the world is so amazing, yet we doubt ourselves and let fear keep us from our purpose. I read an article several years ago about self-doubt and how selfish it is not to share our ideas. We think our opinions don't matter; our ideas stupid. We keep them to ourselves, rather than sharing them with others. Maybe it's not always the next great breakthrough, but our ideas can reach beyond us to inspire others in ways we don't even realize. But not if we keep it to ourselves.

Understanding how we learned to avoid speaking our voice, shines a light on where we are today. Looking at behaviors and attitudes that aren't serving us gives us the power to change them. Being reprimanded for acting "sassy" affected how I speak my voice. I had to redefine sassy into something positive – that I'm proud of today. From this knowledge, I've learned how to speak my voice in a positive way that helps me be heard, rather than coming off as salty.

I think this is one of the challenges with learning to speak our voice, because to many people, it means "telling it like it is" without considering the feelings of others and being hurtful or bullying. Most people don't want to live their lives communicating that way. They don't say anything because they don't know how to do this in a constructive way.

It takes practice.

Speaking our voice isn't something that comes naturally. Being a better communicator takes learning and practice. One of my favorite Finishing School classes is Tough Talks, where we talk about how to lose the fear of conflict to have productive confrontations, along with a template for planning the introduction to conversations that may be uncomfortable. It's fun to watch people gain more confidence in learning to speak their voice respectfully.

It's all about boundaries.

One of the most important things I try to teach at the Finishing School is the importance of boundaries. We have a hard time giving ourselves permission to have limitations for how we're treated. The "people pleaser" in us, doesn't want to disappoint others by saying "no" and there are people who know this and will take advantage of those good graces. Always being "nice" and accommodating, causes us to accept things that don't deserve our tolerance.

Take a risk.

Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand. Telling our stories is what makes us human and shows people the world through our eyes. When a person isn't affected by what's happening, it's human nature that they don't see or feel the impact until they're made aware. For change to happen, it takes people standing up and speaking the truths that no one wants to talk about - to shine a light on what has been tolerated in society, to convince others of what is intolerable in the light of day.

It is silence that has protected and emboldened predators, allowing many people to continue to be hurt over a long time. The history of silence is central to women's history, but we can't let oppression keep us quiet any longer.

Since words are often used to manipulate us, the more women show initiative to challenge oppression, the harsher the criticism will become. It's not surprising more laws are being passed to control women, and that the strong women who do speak up are getting condemned, harassed, and threatened. The Ulrich quote reminds me that making history is more important than "being good," how vitally important it is to speak our voices and be heard, and step into our power.

You are mighty,

Headmistress Jill

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