The Conversation

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I want to tell you the story of a conversation—a conversation between two women, two colleagues, two friends. Because I think you’ve probably had a conversation like this at some point in your career. And if you haven’t, you probably will.

The background to this conversation is simple, familiar, and largely irrelevant. I was working in an organization in which the men were paid more than the women by virtue of being given more assignments. More assignments meant more pay. After a few years with the organization, I began to raise the question of how assignments were handed out. I asked questions of the male director, who gave the assigments. (Was it seniority? rotation? matching assignment to writer?) I invited all the members of the group into the conversation through all-group emails: soliciting their input, listening to their perspectives, and expressing my own thoughts and feelings on the subject. It was important to me that the discussion include everyone, even the men, who I knew wouldn’t be too jazzed by the topic.

Now comes The Conversation.

The most senior woman in the group called me on the phone. Let’s call her Julia, because I like that name and I still like this woman, even though we’re not in touch any longer.

Julia had been with the organization since its beginning, over a decade before I joined. She was more than ten years older than I was. I respected her intelligence and experience. I appreciated her forthrightness. I admired her work. I liked her humor. And I considered her a mentor in terms of working within the organization. We had also, over the years, become friends and were peers in our professional world outside the organization. 

Julia began The Conversation by saying that when she looked at me she was reminded of her younger self. She said that she had made the same mistakes I was making now and that she wanted to help me avoid those mistakes.

She told me I was angering the men in the group. (This wasn’t news to me: they’d already made that plenty clear in their reply emails.) She told me that I was “sounding” wrong. That I lacked political judgment. (This is true, then as it is now.) Discussions like these, she said, were delicate. They should be private. Whispered. Handled one-on-one—never as a group. Alliances should be formed and then a strategy implemented. Everything should take place behind closed doors. In smoke-filled rooms. That’s where power was exchanged.

The gist of what she was saying to me was Stop talking about this in the open! Stop talking.

Hmmm. What was so dangerous about talking? I wondered. While Julia continued, I puzzled over this question. I remember thinking that there was something deeper going on here. That there was a parallel conversation taking place, but I couldn’t quite hear it.

Julia went on, explaining things to me. Her arguments became more pointed. Pointed at me. She began to explain to me who I was. She told me I was ambitious. She told me I was aggressive. And she told me that she sensed a deep well of anger in me that was coming out in some pretty unattractive ways.

(She also said I was strident. Now I ask you: Have you ever heard that word used to describe a man? Ever? And since a dictionary definition of the word is “presenting a point of view, especially a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way,” doesn’t the word have as much to do with the listener as with the speaker?)

So the parallel conversation, the one I had sensed but couldn’t quite hear, was Julia telling me, You have flaws that are shameful and un-female and ugly. And you need to shut up before everyone else sees how ugly you are.

Why is it so seductive to believe what other people say about us? Is it because we’re flattered that they’re thinking about us at all?

But even as I listened to what Julia was saying, I heard a humming in my head. I know I’m supposed to call this a “voice,” but it wasn’t, because the word “voice” implies words, and this humming was below the level of language. And still, without words, it was there: quiet, insistent, and filled with meaning. The humming floated questions in my brain, What’s wrong with being ambitious? Why aren’t women allowed to be aggressive? Is anger off limits?

It was Julia’s comment about the “deep well of anger” that tipped the scale for me. Even my own highly active self-critical voice knew that this wasn’t a match. (That self-critical voice shouted, That’s not what’s wrong with you. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with you!)

And if Julia was wrong about that, then wasn’t it just as likely that she was wrong about all of it? Or at least her spin on it: that there was shame and humiliation for women who were ambitious and aggressive and angry? And that the consequence—angry men—must be avoided at all costs.

Humming, humming, humming.

All my life, I’ve struggled to hold onto my sense of myself in the face of someone else telling me who I am. When I was younger, it was my sisters who held great sway over my identity. And later, it was teachers and boyfriends—and one particularly terrible therapist. And after that, as I made my way in the world of children’s publishing, it was editors and agents and librarians and readers. And here I was, old enough to know better, and yet I might have stumbled in the midst of this conversation with Julia—because she was older and spoke with that particular voice of authority and seemed so damn certain.

But I could still hear the humming in my head. The humming of friction, of electricity running through a wire. The sound a tuning fork makes when it’s struck, sending out one, clear note. It came from deep, deep within me and told me that what Julia was saying wasn’t true about me, and I didn’t have to accept it and internalize it as the truth of my own identity. I had a choice. I could listen to her and still make up my own mind about who I was and who I wanted to be. A smart, aggressive, ambitious, successful woman who sometimes gets angry but is confident enough and skilled enough and compassionate enough to express that anger in a productive, healthy, and respectful way. At least, that's the goal.

Humming. Humming. Humming.

I began to wonder if Julia heard a humming inside her head, or if that sound had been drowned out years ago by the myriad voices telling her who she could be and what she was allowed to want. It is so easy to internalize these voices and take them on as our own. I found myself thinking, as Julia spoke, Do you hear what you're saying— one woman telling another to sit down and be quiet? Can you hear the humming inside your head? Or has it grown too faint?

I think this was the first time in my life that I managed to keep my compass pointing north, despite the magnetic pull of millennia of female naming and shaming and silencing.

And that’s the point I most want to make, and I hope that it’s the piece of this experience that will help you in the future. If we keep straining to listen to that quiet humming inside of us, we get to be who we are. Without silence or shame.

I left that organization years ago, and I’ve since joined lots of groups of wonderfully supportive, smart, loyal, talented, funny, got-your-back women. Women of KidLit is one of them. So the message of this post isn’t you can’t trust your sisters. Or that you should never accept an honest piece of criticism offered with love and support. It’s just that it’s really important that you listen to the humming in your own head, and give it a place of honor when someone—anyone—is telling you you’re too much this or too much that for their pleasing. Because chances are you’re never going to end up pleasing them, and you’d probably hate yourself if you did.