On January 21, 2018 I attended the one year anniversary of the Women’s March in Florence, Italy. A lot has changed in a year, and the turnout was almost twice what it was last year — still small, but present nonetheless.
As I stood in the crowd watching the people around me and the speakers, I was struck by the differences I observed between the women who had gathered. Those of us over the age of 40 were either alone or in pairs, our signs short and to the point. Our stories were about overcoming rape at school, sexual pressure in the workplace, and inequality. We had battled fears for a lifetime and were relieved for the opportunity to finally come out of the shadows to share. A woman in her 50’s with long red hair came up to me where I stood, looked me dead in the eye and said, “YOU! You look like you have something to say. Why don’t you get up there and share?”
I’m someone who isn’t afraid to let all my shadows out in my writing or teaching. And also someone who has never refused an invitation to get up in front of a crowd and speak. But in that moment I felt myself shrink down to the size of a pea. I felt invisible. The woman was right; I did have something to say… I just couldn’t bring myself to say it.
The girls under 30 — mostly students from abroad or expats — were in bigger groups. They were not afraid. Their posters were colorful and big, their arms linked together, cheering each other on when one of them got up to speak. They were confident, eager to do great things with their lives. How thankful they are to live in a time when women are empowered, a time where women can do anything. These young women were raised by strong women and would never let a man force them into any position they were not okay with.
And in that moment I envied them.
This younger generation will probably never experience being pushed up against a wall from behind by the owner of the restaurant they waitress at, feeling the man’s penis in her back, the weight of his entire body pinning her down, hot breath in her ear. They will hopefully never be told the things that man whispered to me as my table waited around the corner for their drinks — that if I breathed a word of anything he said or did to me he would fire me and there were 50 girls out there who could take my job in a second.
Today, post-Harvey Weinstein, a young actress will hopefully never know what it feels like to be asked to a hotel room or a production office at night for a meeting, only to find themselves alone and vulnerable. But I did. I know what it feels like.
One morning in late January I found myself in a dialogue with one of my closest female friends who lives in LA. She had posted on Instagram that she could not relate to the movement, having been raised by a very strong mother and in an environment where she always felt empowered and confident. She has always been someone that will never let anything or anyone get in her way, and I‘m fairly certain that if any employer ever tried to so much as graze her arm inappropriately she would tell him where to shove it. At first I found myself on the defensive, trying to explain to her what it felt like to be subjugated and made to feel ashamed and small, a victim of every circumstance at the words and hands of boys and men in positions of power.
And then I spoke to another friend, and she too echoed my friend’s sentiments, also having been brought up by a strong woman in an environment where she never felt disempowered — until later on, when alcohol and partying got in the mix, and she made some “bad decisions” as she put it, which she took full responsibility for.
These conversations caused me to wonder if this issue is generational or is it, rather, a matter on how we were raised? If I ever had a daughter, would I teach her to be strong, confident and empowered? Or would I pass on my experiences, fears and engrained messages that sometimes this is just the way the world works for girls and women, and to take it in stride and move on?
After all this, I feel that #MeToo is much more than just us shouldering each other’s tears, fears, and experiences. It is about empowering our girls to grow up to be stronger, braver, and smarter than we were allowed to be. Showing them how to respect themselves by learning how to respect ourselves. It is about teaching our boys the meaning of consent, not raising them to feel like they have some kind of leg up on others, and to respect everyone. #MeToo is about everyone finding that place inside of ourselves to connect with each other, come together, and raise each other up — so that every generation from here on out will look at this moment and know that each one of us played a part in something that changed everything.