All Voices Must be Found and Valued: A Women’s History Month Reflection
When I was an undergraduate student at Iowa, my schedule didn’t allow me to take very many history or humanities courses. As a biochemistry major, I mostly took science courses but one of those exceptions was a women’s literature class. Many years later I still have the set of required reading books including one that I found especially moving – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I’m sure many of you have read it (and our own Tiffany Patterson has researched the book’s historical context). I remember having experienced the Hurston book as a powerful coming-of-age story about an African-American girl in the southern United States in the 1930s who is continually dominated by oppressive people and societal structures. Spoiler alert! The heroine works to define her own voice and place in the world.
While much progress has been made since the 1930s, we will always have more work to do. Women still struggle to find their voice to varying degrees. Even the most seemingly accomplished individuals at times have struggled. Take this quote from our country’s first female secretary of state, Madeline Albright:
“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.”
And just as important, institutions need to continue to make every effort to value all voices. In many ways our genders, other aspects of our identities, and institutional structures can constrain us and suppress individual voices. I have often been invited to speak on university campuses regarding my experience as a woman in STEM. In addition to sharing about my own path to finding a voice, I also cite research by Clair Shipman and Katty Kay referred to in a 2014 article in The Atlantic. The authors, who have spent their careers interviewing powerful women, concluded that a vast majority of them suffer from self-doubt in a way not shared by most of their male counterparts. They call this “the confidence gap.”
Studies report that while some men overestimate their abilities and performance, women are more likely to underestimate both. As an example, a study found that most women are only likely to apply for a promotion when they meet 100 percent of qualifications whereas men would apply when they had met only 50 percent. In the end, Shipman and Kay conclude that confidence is as important as competence. Is underestimating one’s abilities a learned behavior or is it due to a society that doesn’t encourage all? The article goes on to describe the environmental and natural differences across the spectrum of gender that influence confidence. As members of a university community, I ask you to consider ways to both help others find their voice and also ensure all voices are valued.
Related to “the confidence gap” is the imposter syndrome where even after a person has achieved success, they may doubt their abilities. Tomorrow, the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center is hosting a session on this topic and I encourage you to attend. Further, we just announced the 2019-20 Commons Reading as The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Please consider joining next year’s first year students, the VUCeptor peer mentors, and the faculty who serve as VUCeptors in reading this book. Such discussions and readings provide opportunities for our campus to advance our understanding of how identities are shaped, questioned and rejected. And give us insights as we strive to support the vast array of individuals in finding their voice, acquiring more confidence, and navigating different career and education paths.
As a university, our work together must be inclusive, continue well past a single week, month or year, and must acknowledge that those of all genders and gender identities might at times struggle and may not be heard. Finding one’s voice should not be a solitary pursuit. We must not only listen, but also help others aim high, step up, speak up, and be resilient in accepting the risk of failure or rejection that sometimes comes with pushing forward. I also think we can help others increase their confidence and find their voices by sharing our own stories.
Speaking of inspiring stories, I leave you with a few historical examples of famous women whose lives and work have been part of my reflections on the importance of finding one’s own voice and valuing the voices of others.
- Rosalind Franklin – A chemist and pioneer molecular biologist who was an uncredited, yet major contributor, to the discovery of DNA’s structure. Though she died without recognition, her story has been carried forward for others to learn from and make change.
- Georgia O’Keefe – One of America’s most famous artists, O’Keefe was considered by many to be a feminist artist working in a male-dominated world. She found her voice through creative expression and her distinctive style and ability to capture nature in a unique way inspires others’ creativity.
- Patsy Takemoto Mink and Shirley Chisholm – As trailblazing women marking firsts in their elections to Congress, they encouraged others to step up to lead. Mink’s efforts were key to the passage of the historic Title IX legislation, and laws for gender equity. Chisholm’s work and personal message of “unbound and unbossed” resonates with building confidence and finding one’s voice.
At Vanderbilt, where we believe in the power of community, collaboration and civility, and firmly support freedom of speech, we must stay focused, listen harder, and work together, as the Chancellor wrote in his essay, to ensure we continue making progress in fostering an environment where all are empowered to find their voice and be heard.
Susan R. Wente
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