I wanted to share a letter that I just sent to Governor Peter Shumlin regarding his address at the Women Can Do conference last Thursday. I’m concerned with the message he gave to high school girls, and more concerned with what that means about his underlying understanding of women’s opportunities in our state.
Dear Governor Shumlin,
Last week I attended the Women Can Do conference in Randoph as a chaperone. Around 500 high school girls were in attendance at the conference, which was intended to offer girls opportunities to explore careers in which women are under-represented, such as firefighting, construction, and science. You spoke at the beginning of the conference to welcome the girls and offer your support of the conference and its mission.
I appreciate that you took the time to offer your support of Vermont Works for Women and this conference; it was a wonderful gesture to the girls that Vermont as a state cares about equal opportunity for all. However, I felt your speech missed the mark and communicated a hurtful message to the girls in attendance.
In your speech, you spoke of your daughters’ strength and creativity; I appreciated how you connected to the girls in the audience through your personal stories. Then you went on to say that you supported the career exploration planned for the day and that not only could women do these jobs, but that women could do them better than men. I believe you said some variation of the sentence “you are better than men” two or three times. Again, I appreciate the sentiment of support – but telling women they are “better than men” is just as harmful as if you had told them they were worse.
Gender stereotypes hurt everyone, even when they’re positive. Telling women they are more creative or communicative than men may sound like a good message – but it implies that men are not creative or communicative. This message reinforces gender roles which harm everyone. When men feel like they need to rely more on their bodies’ strength than their creative skills, it hurts men. When women feel like the burden of communication is on them, it hurts women. The aim of feminism is not to lift women above men. The aim is equal opportunity for all – and equal opportunity cannot exist as long as we divide men and women with gendered expectations. Equal opportunity depends on the idea that we fit the right person with the right qualities to the right job, and that fit does not depend on any qualities that are supposedly “innate” or dictated by gender.
I’m worried that you missed an opportunity to impart a message of empowerment to high school girls, and instead gave them a message which reinforces the sexism that the conference was designed to address. I would encourage you to chat with some of the many people doing work around gender equality in our state before making further addresses on this topic.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope to see further dialogue on this issue in our state.