Notes to Their Younger Selves: Five Pieces of Advice from Feminists

“What advice do you wish you could give to a younger version of you?” was the closing question that Darren Arquero asked feminist leaders at a panel at the Haas Institute’s 2017 Othering & Belonging Conference called Building a Transformational Women’s Movement. Their answers are important for young (and old!) women everywhere to hear.

1. Get over it faster when you make a mistake.

“I believe women and girls, in particular, are socialized to analyze and police our decisions, ideas, initiatives, and failures to such an extreme that it can be immobilizing from launching or trying again.”

Malika Redmond is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Women Engaged, and she has noticed this tendency in women: “Often, we can dwell on mistakes made in our lives—whether personal, academic, or professional—‘replaying the tape’ or experience in our minds over and over again, which prevents us from dusting ourselves off, learning, being accountable, and moving on with elasticity.”

How many times have you walked out of a meeting and replayed the “mistakes” you think you made in your mind over and over again to think of every minute thing you could have done differently? Imagine if you were able to harness all of that energy and power to focus on moving forward and forging onward with new ideas instead.

2. It’s okay to take up space…

…and it’s okay if people don’t like you.

“As women growing up, we are shown that if you take up ‘too much’ space in a meeting or conversation or room or organization, you are labeled as ‘overbearing,’ ‘hawkish,’ or ‘shrill.’ Meanwhile, men who speak up are considered ‘strong leaders.’ We see the same norm in media images and the conversations that happen around us from a young age, and what’s reinforced is, “good girls play small and support the other people (particularly the cisgender men) to play big,’” reflects Vanessa Daniel, a mother and the Executive Director of Groundswell Fund.

As a result, we end up in a climate where only 20 percent of op-eds are written by women, and where women are four times less likely to negotiate for higher salaries than men. “Men speak up significantly more often in classroom settings and take up more air time because often they raise their hands before they have fully formulated what they want to say in their minds—meanwhile women often feel they have to polish their thoughts into a diamond before they speak up,” adds Daniel.

“We have to think about this: whom do we serve when we play small? It is crucial that we share our gifts and talents not only for our own leadership and development, but for what they offer to the world. So it is important that we as women disrupt that norm, and for that we have to stop worrying about pleasing everyone. Of course women can be oppressive and overbearing too, and we shouldn’t try to live in the mold that some oppressive male leaders have created—but we need to create a new model informed by our experience of being marginalized. We need to create spaces where equity is the norm, where dissent and critical thought are encouraged, where all people are empowered to speak up—we need to lead with kindness.”

An audience member also pointed out the pernicious role of the diet culture that many women subscribe to in literally diminishing us, making our bodies physically weaker in order to take up less space and be considered more desirable by society. Daniel responded, “We have a distance to travel to move away from putting ourselves in the center of a cis-male aesthetic. Prioritizing our own health and wellbeing instead of unrealistic societal standards of beauty is an important part of claiming our space.”

3. Check your acrimony toward other women.

“The way in which we are trained to act toward other cis women or women-identifying people is deeply entrenched in society—and it’s toxic,” says Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez, a PhD candidate in South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. “It shows up in these casual, everyday acts—to participate in everything from gossip to passive aggression to slut-shaming is to contribute to a culture that denigrates rather than lifts up women.”

How many times have you received a compliment from a man that is supposed to make you feel good by comparing you to another woman? “To be ‘more beautiful’ at the expense of other people is to feed off of your own self-indulgent belief in yourself by putting down another woman,” says Kat.

The same acrimony contributes to our societal hesitation to listen to people’s narratives, especially when it comes to sexual abuse or harassment, and the skepticism that leads to victim-blaming.

“It is so important to be able to stand up for another woman when she’s not in the room—and it’s remarkable when someone can do that.”

4. Remember that you are more than your pain.

“You are more than the pain you have unjustly had to endure,” offers Kim Tran, a PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and Executive Publisher at Third Woman Press. “As a queer feminist of color who works with organizations on racial equity, I know that we spend a lot of time unpacking our own marginalization and our own sense of oppression. But I believe that you have to exist at that strange intersection of navigating the fact that so much of your life is informed by oppression while not forgetting that you are also the resilient and imaginative force that lives beyond your own marginalization.”

“The goal of this work is not to be self-cannibalizing or always talk about racism. Our critiques and contributions should be in the name of making this a more just world. My goal is that hopefully one day my work will be obsolete. I don’t want to be a feminist critic forever—I want to have to stop having to bring up feminist critiques all the time.”

I often ask myself, “What would it mean to just exist for a day? Without second-guessing myself. What would it be like to live in the body of a white, cis, straight dude? As a queer woman of color, you don’t have that luxury.”

5. Don’t apologize for being a delicate flower and a boss at the same time.

“Just simply loving yourself—it can take a while to come to that, and sometimes life can beat it out of you,” Gutierrez shared. “But there is something beautiful about being young and headstrong…and being proud. It’s important to remember that affirmation need not come from anything further than my breath.”

I walked out of that panel less cripplingly self-conscious than I have been before, and feeling explosive in the fullness of my womanhood. Years of pain and guilt and mirrors melted away as I stopped holding my breath and felt this energy surging through me to burst out of the door and just be. A woman. Me.

It’s our job as women everywhere to lift one another up and hold our sisters and mothers and younger versions of ourselves accountable to these five things. And each of us has a responsibility to live life like a celebration rather than an apology.

This post previously appeared on Women 2.0. Republished with author permission.




Ratna Gill is a recent Harvard graduate passionate about poverty alleviation and child protection. She currently works at Living Cities, a nonprofit dedicating to creating jobs for low-income people, particularly people of color. You can follow her on Twitter at @ratnaruidosa.