The Importance of the Tribe

Throughout my time in the Great Books Program at the University of Notre Dame, I’ve studied philosophy, art, literature, music, theology, history, poetry and ethics from Homer to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In this program, texts are selected to communicate the foundations of Western thought and are dissected and thoroughly discussed in seminar-style classes of 15 people or fewer. Out of the 90 core texts by 73 different authors that program participants read during four years, women contribute only six great books to this Western canon.

It’s difficult to decipher a comprehensive foundation of Western thought when half of the population is so dismally underrepresented. It’s also difficult to be the person in the room who insists on discussing gender in the text – again and again. 

I’m often asked, “Why is it important to emphasize a female perspective if all viewpoints are equally valid, regardless of gender?” Variations of this question are posed in classrooms, boardrooms and workplaces across the country. If feminism simply means equality between men and women, why is it necessary to create spaces specifically designed for women’s voices? 

Even at the 10th annual Women’s Fund of Door County luncheon – an event organized by the only fund in Door County specifically committed to supporting women – I heard speakers preface sentences with “Not that men aren’t important, too …” and “Not that women are better than men …” 

In a panel discussion held before the luncheon, one panelist admitted to squirming at being identified as a “woman in business” instead of simply a “person in business.” I agree that a designation based solely on gender is unnecessary, except for the fact that input from all people is not valued to an equal degree. Almost every professional woman has a story about being asked to get coffee, enduring inappropriate comments about her appearance or receiving less credit than male peers who completed equal work. Almost every working mom has felt overwhelmed by the expectation to “do it all” – and to have it all under control, too.  

Panelist Sandra Martinez of Martinez Studio spoke about how she once had to take her father with her to meet a banker to ensure that the banker would take her seriously. For Martinez, being a successful businesswoman is often about taking all the help you can get from anyone in your network, then working your butt off to make sure that next time, that banker knows how smart and motivated you are. Success often depends on your ability to relentlessly advocate for yourself, especially if you’re initially underestimated based on your gender.

Stephanie Propsom, a panelist and attorney for Fincantieri, echoed Martinez’s point: “Take all the help you can get, and push it up a notch so that next time, they won’t come to the guy that helped you out – they’ll come to you,” Propsom said.  

I can relate to the importance – and difficulty – of self-advocacy. I consistently notice myself apologizing before asking questions. In class, I’ve kept track of how many disclaimers I include before stating an opinion, however reasonable that opinion may be. The urge to qualify may seem to be an easy habit to override, but speaking with confidence is daunting when there’s little support in the room for your perspective. 

Self-advocacy is part of the puzzle, but it’s only one piece. Thankfully, no woman is an island, and the other key to success is to surround yourself with women who encourage you and who understand exactly where you’re coming from. 

“Control your own door,” Martinez said. “Don’t allow anyone in who does not support and cheer you.” 

Often women feel isolated in their experiences, especially when they feel as if all the women around them have it together. 

During her keynote presentation, Kim Anderson Kelleher, a Gibraltar High School grad, spoke about the importance of support and friendship from other women. She knows a little something about hard work and self-advocacy because her very impressive résumé includes a position as the first female publisher of Sports Illustrated, as well a global publisher position at TIME

In that post, she was once scheduled to attend meetings in nine countries over the course of 11 days. She had young children at home and was feeling overwhelmed, isolated and uncertain. After reaching out to female peers, she was shocked to learn that they could all relate to her situation. They offered support, encouragement and advice gleaned from their own experiences. Today Kelleher calls her ever-growing network of female friends her “tribe.” 

At school, my friends and I work together as a “tribe” to hold ourselves accountable for unnecessary apologies and disclaimers, and we try to hold each other accountable in our self-advocacy. We remind each other that we are smart and hardworking and deserve to express ourselves without disclaimers. 

As women, we’re getting better at realizing that “having it all” doesn’t mean that we have to be quiet about the difficulties inherent in balancing work and home life. That being said, I still know so many women who believe that vulnerability equates to some sort of feminine weakness, and that they have to tough it out alone in order to be successful. 

In reality – and as evidenced in abundance at the Women’s Fund of Door County luncheon – when women get together to share experiences and allow themselves to be vulnerable with one another, the result strengthens not only those individuals, but the workplace and community as well.

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