Women and Leadership

Women and Leadership by Rachel Kaufman - Photo by Avrah Ross

Over the summer, I went to a Jewish leadership camp. On the first day, the people in my cabin were introduced to the president of NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth), an association for Jewish teens in America. The president was 17 years old and was very skinny and small, had long brown hair, bright green eyes, and looked delicately beautiful. When she talked, her voice was high pitched and calm. While she explained how she and the rest of the national NFTY board would be at Kutz Camp for the summer to grow—and to influence us as we grew as leaders—the energy in the room magnetized toward her. People listened with respect. I, however, began to feel tense and annoyed. Who did she think she was? She probably would be one of those pretty, popular girls who thought she was better than everyone else. She wasn’t a real leader.

A few days later, I was talking to my friends Josh and Isaac (all names have been changed). Josh started complaining about how Sarah was leading an activity and “was being bossy and an annoying bitch.” After a few seconds, Isaac furrowed his brows and looked at Josh with a look of both disgust and thoughtfulness, “Josh, don’t be sexist. Sarah is such a strong leader and a compassionate person. I look up to her so much.” I suddenly made the connection between being repelled by Sarah and my own subconscious views about what I thought a leader had to look like. It wasn’t that I thought one had to be male to be a leader, but I didn’t think a strong leader could be too girly. I saw a female leader as someone with a low, deep voice; someone who was serious and tall and who didn’t care about boys. I began to look inward and realize the low expectations I had subconsciously set for myself. I had always discounted my opinions and felt that I should follow the suggestions or opinions of others—usually male— because I thought I was too feminine, and therefore my opinions were invalid. I had valued my beauty above my intellect because I thought that is what I thought society saw as the best thing about me. I realized that I had sometimes used the male attention I got to feel worthy. Putting this in writing makes it seem so obvious, but these views had been ingrained into my outlook on the world for such a long time that I didn’t question them. I ended up telling Sarah how she had helped me see for the first time that I could be a leader while embracing my femininity. We started talking about similar experiences as women in the world and both ended up crying. We saw ourselves in one another, and for the first time, I believed that I was capable of being a leader and impacting the world the way that I was.

After watching the Democratic convention, I was very impressed with Hillary Clinton and the other speakers. I observed that none of the women speaking were wearing dresses, but masculine-looking suits instead. I thought about this on a smaller scale and realized that I had seen almost none of my female teachers wearing dresses, and then finally thought about myself. Any day that I am speaking in front of my class or acting in a position of leadership, I wear a flannel and jeans or something covered up and not too girly. I feel that people will not respect me if I wear something to “showy,” or that they will think of me as weak or not serious for wearing something “feminine.”

A few days ago, my friend gave a very insightful and powerful presentation to my class. As she sat down, the people at our table, including me, congratulated her and said what a great job she had done and how beautiful she looked. One of the girls at my table jokingly remarked that her passion was sexy, and another one looked at her endearingly, saying that she just looked so cute up there. The next person to present also sat at our table and gave an equally powerful speech. When he returned to our supportive table, we complimented him too, describing ways in which we agreed and disagreed with what he said, while commenting that his words “really made me change my view on the matter.” Everyone at my table had good intentions, but we ended up seeing strengths in Emma for her physical beauty, and taking Daniel seriously for the content of what he was saying.

What does it mean to be a man? This seems to be an important and commonly discussed question, not just in our culture but all around the world. However, never in my life have I heard the question, “What does it mean to be a woman?” After thinking about this question, I began to realize that people think being a strong woman means exceeding the expectations for being a woman, and reaching those of what it means to be a man—being powerful, strong, and respected. People never ask you to try to be a woman, because in our society, being a woman means being sexualized and weak. Instead of trying to “man up,” we must redefine for ourselves what it means to be a woman and embrace our femininity and strength!

Bringing up the subject of feminism with people can be very uncomfortable. Many people will claim to have feminist views, but not be feminist. In the past, I have not considered myself a proud feminist either. I imagined I wouldn’t be a good one and could not live up to the title because I fit too many female stereotypes. I felt that being feminine made me a bad feminist. A lot of people I know claim to be equalists, but would not consider themselves feminists. The prefix “fem” seems to have a negative, demasculinizing stigma.

By the end of camp, I had started participating in discussions and was thought of as being a “smart kid” for the first time. I never realized how much a stereotype could actually influence my life and affect the way I thought about myself. This issue is so important because we want girls to know that even if they are not stereotypical “angry feminists” and they are bad at sports and love to shop and have a high-pitched voice, they are not bad feminists and can be accepted as leaders. I think that all girls should be able to feel that people will take their opinions seriously no matter what clothes they are wearing, and will absorb what they are saying and not focus on how “hot” they look. We need more feminine female leaders because we need all kinds of views and representation. I am still trying to remind myself that my views are valid, and that I am capable of being a leader.

Accompanying Photo: “Girls in Front of Cityscape Window” by Avrah Ross
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