#Dontmesswithme: Nancy, Bella, Gabrielle, Tarana, Melinda, Oby, and Other Women’s Lessons in the Power of Your Voice
Issue 116 — December 8, 2019
Like so many women of her generation, especially those first to hold powerful leadership roles, Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi displays a measured affect even under the most challenging situations. Despite being perpetually in one political cauldron or another, she wears the elegant mask of a woman who learned long ago how to avoid being disregarded as too emotional, too angry, or even the slightest bit out of control.
That made it all the more delicious when she clapped back smartly at an obnoxious mansplaining reporter with my new favorite hashtag: #dontmesswithme.
This is the link to the video clip of Pelosi saying “Don’t mess with me.”
The power of a woman’s voice, once ignited, is not to be underestimated.
But it’s only powerful if it’s used.
I thought about that when I saw “Bella Bella,” a one person show about the late Congresswoman and all-purpose rabble rouser, Bella Abzug. Talk about Lessons in the Power of Your Voice.
It wasn’t just ironic that Bella was played by the raspy voiced Harvey Fierstein. Bella had the audacity to speak up in what was then almost exclusively a man’s rough and tumble world of politics. The first female member of Congress from New York used her bullhorn voice and matching personality to vanquish all kinds of injustices. ( You can read about them all in Suzanne Levine and Mary Thom’s book Bella: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed off Jimmy Carter, Fought for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook up Politics Along the Way.)
“Bellowing Bella,” they called her.
Her strategy of being preemptively loud and go-to-hell-if-you-don’t-like-it was the opposite of Pelosi’s. And I found out quickly upon meeting Bella in her later years, long after she held no official position, that most people still didn’t mess with her.
Let’s face it, whichever way women choose to deal with that double edged sword, they will be mocked, baited, dismissed by a world conditioned to hear men’s voices, read that white men — as the authorities. (You know, because men can keep their emotions in check, like Brett Kavanagh compared to Christine Blasey Ford.)
Too often women’s voices have been silenced by abuse. It has taken courageous women like Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement to give voice to the outrage of sexual violence and harassment, too often kept quiet out of shame or lack of self-worth or fear of retaliation.
Without Burke, there would have been no Blasey Ford, and Harvey Weinstein would still be a media mogul collecting approbation and Oscars rather than revulsion and probably jail time.
And sometimes women have been silenced by their own complicity with the social norms of the day. Like Dorothy Seymour Mills, who did the lion’s share of research and writing the definitive history of baseball but her husband claimed authorship, barely tossing her a wet noodle of thanks in the acknowledgments.
She approached me with her story a decade ago and after his death, when she finally summoned her voice to demand her due recognition. Her recent obituary when she died at age 91 revealed how she only gradually gained the strength to speak up for herself because silence has been culturally bred into her.
I was privileged to be in the auditorium at the UN 4th World Conference on Women when Hillary Clinton read this “Poem to Break the Silence.” It had been given to her by a young woman from Delhi, just before Clinton delivered her iconic declaration,“ Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”
“Too many women in too many countries speak the same language of silence. My grandmother was always silent, always agreed. Only her husband had the positive right, or so it was said, to speak and to be heard. They say it is different now. After all, I am always vocal, and my grandmother thinks I talk too much. But sometimes I wonder. When a woman gives her love, as most do, generously, it is accepted. When a woman shares her thoughts, as some women do, graciously, it is allowed. When a woman fights for power as all women would like to, quietly or loudly, it is questioned. And yet, there must be freedom if we are to speak. And yes, there must be power if we are to be heard. And when we have both freedom and power, let us not be misunderstood. We seek only to give words to those who cannot speak-too many women in too many countries. I seek only to forget my grandmother’s silence.”
“That is the kind of feeling that literally millions and millions of women feel every day,” Mrs. Clinton said, and you had to imagine she spoke from experience.
I still get goosebumps. But it’s a very long way from this poem’s compelling message to full and equal human rights for women, let alone gender parity in leadership positions, power, and pay.
Because these biases are all culturally learned and that’s exactly why they are also baked into our own thoughts and behaviors. “It’s hard,” as writer Sally Kempton said, “to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” We might think we are choosing not to speak, but it isn’t a true choice.
Are you voiceless by choice? Gabrielle Union certainly isn’t.
In her excellent piece deconstructing Gabrielle Union’s firing from “America’s Got Talent” for being “too difficult” and her hairstyles “too black,” despite being the show’s most popular judge according to the entertainment paper of record Variety, Maisha Kai notes: “Growing up, I was constantly told to ‘shhh!’ Whether I was right or wrong, happy or in distress, I was repeatedly reminded to lower my voice and take up less space — even while being simultaneously assured that I could be anything I wanted to be and that my gifts were worth sharing with the world.”
This kind of self-realization is why so many women immediately came to Union’s defense. We understand viscerally how she is judged more harshly than a man would be in similar circumstances.
We need to listen to her voice and the voices of other courageous women like Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, former World Bank Regional Director, Africa and co-convener of #bringbackourgirls, who told the women leaders of the International Women’s Forum’s global conference in Stockholm I attended in 2018, “It is time for women to play big, be bold…we need to be strategic and choose big issues to work on.” And most importantly, “When you are as educated as the women in this room, you are only voiceless by choice.”
“You have a voice, don’t be afraid to use it!” philanthropist Melinda Gates says.
The biggest lesson for women in today’s world that I believe is flush with opportunity despite persistent remnants of implicit bias, stereotype threat, and culturally learned barriers in our own minds is this: no one can break the pattern of silence as assent but us. No one can set our #dontmesswithme boundaries but us. No one is likely to speak out against patterns of gender-based abuse and violence unless we start the conversation.
So, don’t be afraid. Or more properly, speak even when you are afraid. Choose power over fear. And use the power of your voice to do one thing every day that says clearly to all the world: #dontmesswithme.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.