Hannah Weintraub is a 17-year-old high school student and one of RH Reality Check‘s youth voices.
It’s no secret that some young women struggle to assert themselves with confidence, especially during the notoriously self-esteem busting teenage years.
This insecurity manifests itself in many ways—for instance, in the uptick that I add to the end of sentences so it always sounds like I’m asking a question. So many people have told me to doubt my opinion that sometimes I can’t help but question what I say. If the uncertainty doesn’t come at the end of a sentence, there is a good chance I have tacked it onto the beginning of my thought. “I’m sorry that I think this …” “I don’t know, but it could be …” “This could be wrong, but …” Many young women I know commonly use these qualifiers. I don’t hear young men apologize for their statements as frequently as young women do. And I am sorry for that.
Many young women are stripped of their voices if they become sexually active. Teenage women I know are often reluctant to communicate their sexual desires and many struggle to say “no” when they feel uncomfortable. We are allowed to touch and be touched, but we are taught that opening our mouths to articulate our needs is just not acceptable.
Why Aren’t There More Women’s Voices in Politics and the Media?
In the public realm, when women do gain the confidence to voice their opinions on feminist issues, for example, many receive backlash for speaking up. Nearly every woman who has fought for an advancement of their rights has had critics try to silence them with demeaning comments and attacks. Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Zerlina Maxwell, more recently—the list goes on and on. When I speak up for my feminist beliefs, I often worry that people will think I am asking for too much, that I am being too aggressive, or that I will be called a bitch.
“I am woman, hear me roar” has apparently not caught on just yet. Role models of the triumphant female voice are surprisingly sparse. In politics, which represents the voice of the people, women fill a dismal percentage of positions. There have only been 44 female senators out of the nearly 2,000 senators in our nation’s history. Politicians are responsible for speaking for the people. With few women represented, women’s opinions and perspectives are being left out of national decisions—many atrocious reproductive health policies are testament to this.
The entertainment and media industries, which also help shape public opinion, employ similarly low numbers of women. Women make up just 5 percent of top film directors. Female comedians are notoriously few and far between. A 2009 report from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University found that only 34.8 percent of newsroom supervisors and 37 percent of newsroom employees are women.
With a majority of our media outlets controlled by men, it is no wonder that women are often portrayed in a sexist and/or oversexualized manner. Women cannot control their images in television or movies if they do not participate in these industries, and women’s perspectives are often shut out of powerful positions in mainstream media. Some of the women who have been able to rise to the top in these fields—Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Sarah Silverman, for example—have created refreshingly new roles for women both as performers and writers. Before Sarah Silverman became a star, there was somewhat more concern that if you were a woman who talked explicitly about her sex life, you might not have a job in the morning. Imagine how women’s portrayal on screen could be reshaped if even more women were allowed into the upper echelons of these boys-club industries.
Sadly, many women are dissuaded from going into industries that are devoid of female role models—it’s not easy to be a trailblazer, after all. With men continuing to dominate politics and media, the lack of women in these crucial fields passes a similar message down to future generations. The gender gap even starts in student government.
It’s disheartening that so few women have managed to gain critical mass in these fields and share their ideas. It makes me wonder if the ground that I speak from is sturdy or if it will swallow me like quicksand and force me to be quiet.
This Is What Speaking Up Sounds Like
Still, there is a faint whisper of progress. Last year my younger sister and I headed into Washington, D.C., to attend a slam poetry performance. As my sister, who participates in poetry slams, and I sat in the audience, I was amazed by the confidence of the young women who performed. One after the other, these women slammed bombastic pieces that lit up the stage with vivid imagery and similes. Performers came from every demographic, and each was invited not just to speak her mind, but to speak it powerfully.
Their ability to speak confidently contrasts sharply with the many women who still find it difficult to speak their minds. In daily life, topics like sexual drive, insecurity, and sexual assault are seemingly off limits for women to talk about. But the slam poets I saw broke these social norms as they constructed rhymes and metaphors to describe, among other topics, abusive relationships, depression, and sex.
The freedom these women poets have onstage to speak up gives me hope that we as women are claiming our voices. These young women make me believe it’s possible for women to feel confident enough to speak up, to say no to unwanted sexual advances, and to speak out against cat callers and abusers. We have the right to speak, but we still need to clear the way so our voices can be heard.