In the past week or so, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how I was “taught” to be a woman in our society, and how that relates to being a woman in science and academia.

Reading about Senator Elizabeth Warren being silenced on the Senate floor reminded me of a moment in 2013 when I was watching the end of a livestream of Wendy Davis’s filibuster effort against Texas HB2  – specifically, I was reminded of the moment when Sen. Leticia Van de Putte asked “at what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” after she was not recognized by the Presiding Officer.

Criticisms of Sen. Warren were all over the internet last week – and, not surprisingly, amongst the general dislike and political party based insults, there were many gendered insults and comments along the lines of “she’s a disgrace to women”, as well as gleeful posts celebrating the fact that Sen. Warren was “finally shut up” and “finally told to sit down”. At the same time, a few posts about the Super Bowl halftime show were still making the rounds on my social media feeds. A common theme here? Lady Gaga shouldn’t have shown her “flabby” stomach – it was distracting, or even “disgusting”.

And again, I thought back to late 2013, when I read the Divergent series. Something that struck me as I read (mostly late at night during a particularly bad bout of insomnia) was how often the main character, Tris, is described as being physically small. And during those sleepless nights, I reflected on how often I was told that being physically small is valued. In order to be desirable, we should have flat stomachs, gaps between our thighs, and no flab or cellulite anywhere. 

As we’re being told that “perfect” looks are important, we’re also told that girls and women should behave a certain way. We’re told to sit quietly. We’re told not to argue, especially with men. We’re told “don’t raise your hand in class too much, because the boys won’t want to date you if they think you’re smarter than them”.

Sometime in 2013 it really clicked for me how tightly related these concepts are – women are told to be small, in every sense of the word. This realization came to me after a particularly rough patch in grad school. I had been struggling to assert myself and take ownership of a project, and it wasn’t until my mentor pointed out to me that I wasn’t doing these things that I realized how deeply entrenched this “perfect woman” idea was. I realized that I had so deeply internalized this whole value system – don’t speak up too much, don’t draw attention to how smart you are, be quiet and pretty and thin – that it was directly interfering with my ability to succeed in grad school. I had to decide which was more important to me: being what I had been told was a “good woman”, or being an academic scientist. After some serious self-examination, I decided to work on speaking up, being more assertive, and valuing myself for my contributions. I was never a rebel, but I made a choice about how I value myself – it largely isn’t the way I was taught to.

Reflecting on whether the values I was raised with were the values I wanted to live my life by has been extremely helpful for me. 

Last week, watching these two different but related critiques of strong, successful women invade my social media feeds has me reflecting again, with mixed feelings. I’m relieved that I have reached a point where these ideas are no longer entrenched in my thoughts about myself (or other women), but I’m sad that these criticisms are so quickly thrown at strangers on the internet. And yet I’m hopeful, because #ShePersisted, and so will I.

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