The Ottawa Citizen by Sarah Neville 18 January 2017
I hate crowds and I’ve never been able to sleep on a bus. I’ve got looming client deadlines, and my family’s weekend is packed: hockey games, birthday parties and piles of laundry. So why would I opt to spend two restless nights on a charter bus with 53 strangers, headed to the Women’s March on Washington? I’m busy, I’m tired, my family needs me. But I’m going. I have to. Here’s why.
The U.S. election left me feeling silenced. On Nov. 9, what surprised me most was how I couldn’t stop crying. My sons, ages 12 and 8, found me in the kitchen, weeping as I listened to Hillary Clinton reassure the little girls of America: “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.”
I recalled myself as a little girl, during the 1980s’ abortion debates, and my astonishment as my mother explained that yes, a bunch of men were, in fact, allowed to make decisions that would affect my body. In a flash, I understood the meaning of “the personal is political.” And who held power. It wasn’t me.
I told my boys that as a girl growing up in this world, I learned the many ways that my voice would be silenced, my opinions ignored, that I’d be objectified, marginalized and belittled. That I’d be evaluated on my looks before my brain. That I’d fear for my safety. I told them that I, and many women of my generation, and those before me, had waited our lifetimes to see a woman win this seat of power. The loss of this dream was a mighty blow.
In my work as a communication consultant, I’m called on to help professional women communicate with gravitas and presence, so that they can be effectively seen and heard at work. It’s tricky, as many women still struggle to find their voice when the track we’ve built for career success has been designed for assertive, charismatic, white men. Women are forced to negotiate a double bind when it comes to their communication and leadership styles: men can be seen as both competent and likeable, while women must choose one. Be too assertive at work; see “abrasive” in your performance review. Be too “soft”; risk being deemed “not leadership material.” Finding one’s voice is a minefield.
Having seen Hillary Clinton contort herself to this challenge over decades (take husband’s name! bake cookies! build the most impressive political resume in living memory!), it seemed that she’d figured out how to walk that tightrope. To see her lose to a raving demagogue with no political experience, who openly degrades women, immigrants and the disabled, felt like a smackdown. As the author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell observed days before the election, “the United States is a good deal less open to women in positions of power than it would like to pretend.” For those who’ve spent years adapting our behaviour to stay safe or succeed professionally, this was no news flash.
In the face of the inauguration of a man who maligns and preys on the most vulnerable among us, I feel the urgency to raise my voice. When assault on women has been legitimized, when climate change is being denied, when the White House is aligned with white supremacists, how do we express our fear, anger and outrage?
We protest. We refuse to be silenced and we come together to draw strength and comfort. We denounce a man who’s given licence to misogynists and racists to spout hatred at will. In Canada, we can’t afford to be complacent; similar sentiments exist here and are emboldened. Dark days are ahead and we will need courage, and heart. I’m going to Washington to take a stand. After two nights on the bus, I may need a nap on Sunday, but nonetheless I expect to feel invigorated.
Sarah Neville is a communications training consultant who specializes in diversity and women’s leadership. She is director of Open Line.