I remember when Geraldine Ferraro ran for VP of the United States on a ticket with Walter Mondale. While I was young, far too young to care about politics let alone understand political party politics, I was raised in the most powerful Republican stronghold in IL. Dennis Hastert, “The Coach,” and now disgraced and imprisoned sex offender/former Speaker of the House hailed from my hometown. The Republican machine in my county ran the state for decades. In the midst of that red political and religious conservatism, I internalized a radar for the intersection of politics, religion, and culture. And I somehow saw the world with very different eyes than my family and community.
It was nothing short of a miracle.
I remember pastors, teachers, and family members teaching me the opposite of what my fledgling self believed to be true in my bones. I would learn that Jesus loved all the children of the world “red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.” I didn’t understand the embedded racism in those lyrics as a grade-schooler, but I did notice that something was missing. Gender. Jesus may have loved children, but He (always male) definitely loved boys more than girls.
I developed my gender lens precisely because the people in my orbit were teaching me all the roles that I “should” play as a female. Lessons in restriction that made so little sense to me stood out in neon. Gender must be regulated or else. I did not have the words for it, but I learned from those regulations that gender was a construct. Simultaneously, teachers, pastors, and family taught me how to be a “godly” female and taught me that gender was “natural.” The glaring discrepancy was evident in my child’s brain. Nothing “natural” would require so much conditioning and fear-based threatening. Growing up in this environment taught me just how scared people were of a woman who stepped out of line and spoke her truth even though it tried to convince me that female submission was natural.
This is where Geraldine Ferraro enters my adolescent life story. I remember feeling curious and mildly excited (I was too afraid of eternal damnation to feel fully excited) when I saw news coverage of Ferraro’s VP candidacy. I watched her speak to a cheering crowd at the Democratic National Convention. I also remember people in my life saying that it was immoral for Ferraro to take a leadership position over men. My mother said that she worried Ferraro might start a nuclear war if her hormones took over her emotions. Comedians joked about her appearance. And I remember my Republican red community celebrating the landslide defeat of the Mondale/Ferraro ticket.
Lessons learned: Women who follow their dreams lose. They suffer ridicule and punishment. They are fair game for brutal criticism about every aspect of their lives. Their qualifications matter less than their gender.
Lessons also learned: It is possible to run for Vice President of the United States. It is possible to speak to millions of people about your vision. It is possible to want to lead.
For years I gravitated quietly and not so quietly toward women who followed their dreams while also telling myself that I would fail if I took that path too. That was the lesson I took from Ferraro. You could disrupt the gender norms if you were willing to pay the price. I looked for evidence of all the risks in my own life and there were plenty. I looked for the patriarchy’s punishment of women and I found plenty of examples. I personally felt the patriarchy’s punishment even when I tried to balance my feminism with the rules of the patriarchy.
But that’s the thing. The patriarchy does not offer space for wiggle room. It is a rigid system that punishes those who step out of the gender binary that fuels it. I lived my life under the Ferraro threat: speaking up will reign down punishment and criticism. So I tried to insulate myself against that punishment with my academic preparation. I thought that I could analyze and research my way to safety.
What I now realize is that I believed in the power of the patriarchy more than I believed in the possibility of liberation. It took me years of unlearning to realize this mindset. Today I believe in the possibility of my liberation because I know how the patriarchy operates in my life and in external realities. I no longer feel afraid of the patriarchy because I see it as my path to healing. Each time I bump up against a limiting thought that I learned from the patriarchy, I welcome it as a signpost in my healing journey. I won’t always love it, but I do welcome it with curiosity.
I can spot the patriarchy because I’ve been a feminist gender scholar for 20 years and because I’ve lived my life socialized as a woman for 50. I understand how it shows up as limiting beliefs, Imposter Syndrome, fear, and shame which also means that I can DISRUPT it. I teach my clients these same skills so that they can liberate their own lives and I can teach you too.