Updated: Nov 13, 2019
I was squeezed into a crowded subway train one recent morning during rush hour. It was one of those humid-yet-chilly rainy mornings where everyone was a touch grumpier (including the usually sunny me!) and the car smelled like wet garbage and dirty feet.
The train pulled into a station, opened its doors, and an obviously pregnant woman walked on.
I clung to my pole peering around the vicinity, in particular at the handful of able-bodied, be-suited men sitting within spitting distance of her.
None of them moved.
Something inside me did, though.
“Hey! Why don’t you get up?” I said loudly, tapping the two closest to me on the shoulder and pointing to the woman as if speaking to my toddler nephew. I added, “She’s PREGNANT.”
Probably because he must’ve taken note of my simmering rage, one finally clambered to his feet, moved aside, and she sat down with a grateful smile in my direction.
A couple of stops later, the train emptied out, and I found myself sitting next to the pregnant woman.
“You have no idea how often that happens,” she told me.
“I’m so tired,” she continued. “And when I got that seat today, I almost cried with relief. And you know what? It’s always the women who get up.”
I was recently hired to give a seminar (An Empowered Voice: How to Speak Up for Yourself) to 25 women in a marketing agency, and I told them that story. They all nodded knowingly.
From there, we spent a lot of time talking about the fallacy that women don’t support other women (guess who stands to gain from that scheme?!), plus the fact that we need to double down on our efforts to stand up--literally and figuratively--for each other.
I’ve been really working on finding my own voice and standing up for myself.
It’s been a constant challenge for me, particularly in professional settings, particularly where I am intimidated. I am always looking for help, especially from other women.
Which got me thinking about a great story on this front that came out of the Obama administration.
When he took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women--often even high-level and powerful women like Valerie Jarrett and Loretta Lynch-- talked about having to elbow their way into important meetings. And when they got in, their voices were sometimes ignored.
So all of the female staffers banded together and adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to the person who made it.
This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to appropriate it. Plus in general, it made the women feel supported, and speak up even more.
They started practicing this amplification religiously, Obama noticed, and, according to the women, began calling more often on them. Ultimately, in Obama’s second term, the numbers of women in high-level staff/cabinet positions rose to parity with men.
And side note: to me that illustrates that so much of the gender bias we’re talking about today is so subtle (I mean, this happened in the administration of a male president who openly called himself a feminist), and not in-your-face like, for example, overt harassment.
Which also makes it both confusing and more challenging to address.
When it comes to empowerment, I’ve been saying all along that while the seed is with one woman (you, and me), I firmly believe in strength in numbers: the more critical masses of women get personally empowered, the more power we gain in society.
And the less men fuck with us.
My battleground continues to be the subway: on another recent downtown train, I sat among a group of chatty young women. It took me a second to realize that they themselves had formed a subtle phalanx around another young woman who wasn’t with them but who was getting relentlessly and aggressively hit on by a guy, but only sat there with wide-eyes, looking miserable.
My antennas went up, but before I could pounce, one of the young women finally said to him, “Leave her alone, dude. She wants no part of you.”
The train pulled into the station, and the man hesitated, trying to decide if he’d fight her on it, and continue his harassment.
Looking around at all of us (NOT afraid to make eye contact with him), he thought better of it, got up and walked off the train, his murmured “Fuck You” dissolving into the roar of the approaching A train across the platform.
The relief--among his victim and perhaps the collective group--was palpable.
But so was our strength.
On yet another occasion on the subway, I alone actually got between a woman and the man she was with (who was yelling at her as she cowered) to make sure she was okay. I asked her to get off the train with me at the next stop.
You know what? She didn’t do it.
So I’m not going to pretend like my actions saved the day, or that woman. I’m not a superhero.
But maybe my tiny show of support gave her the confidence to do the right thing for herself down the line.
Maybe not is equally plausible, because not everyone wants to change. That’s why empowerment can be elusive.
But the more more of us try, the more we change the world.