Women, are we the Enemy?!
by Michelle Jester
I’ve contemplated writing this post several times, only each time I went to write it, something didn’t feel quite “right” just yet. That was until my daughter transferred from her college in New Orleans to a community college locally. Larry and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have her closer. While New Orleans isn’t that far from us, it seemed a world away at times. On her enrollment day at BRCC, something happened that prompted me to finish this post that I’d started a dozen or so times before.
Years ago, after Alexis' second semester in college, her positive college experience changed. A new employee moved into the Veteran’s Affairs position and she not only refused to help Alexis on many occasions, but also said and did a number of things, to her and me, which proved she was not the right person to be helping Veterans or their dependents at all. This woman caused so much anxiety and undue stress for Alexis that spanned over three semesters. It was her inexperience at the least, illegal at most, (I’d much rather use the word ignorance, but a VA Rep asked me to keep it at “inexperience,”). We met with the office of the president of the university, filed complaints and ended up eventually having to file a Formal Congressional Complaint about the situation. A new chancellor was hired, apologized to us for the mistreatment, and worked out a resolution for Alexis. By then, however, a lot of the damage was already done.
Our experience with this new employee at the University reminded me of an event that sparked one of the most pivotal times in my life. Just after we’d bought our first house in Virginia, I was set to speak at a women's conference. I had a radio campaign that gifted Valentine’s Day photography and makeover packages through my business running on the radio for four weeks prior and it brought me to the attention of one of the conference directors. While the conference was small, I was especially excited, because it was the first one I'd been ask to contribute to that wasn't coordinated through one of the local churches or for military dependents.
I worked on my speech all week. It's funny to remember how important I felt having a computer. Larry bought it from a friend (thanks Tate) and I used it often. Matter of fact, I started The Funeral Flower on that very computer. Anyway, with Larry's mean editing skills we honed the speech until it was perfect. I printed two copies on our continuous form paper printer, put them in my portfolio and safely tucked it away in my satchel.
Sidebar: Larry had just bought me the satchel so I would look, and more likely feel, professional. He believes in having quality accessories and he is right, that one satchel carried me through my first company and boosted my confidence professionally.
The day finally arrived. Larry was deployed and I had one of my best friends watching Jaymes-Irish (Thanks Bridget) and I was ecstatic! I arrived at the designated time and was taken to a holding room with the other speakers. I mingled as usual, but the atmosphere was definitely different. Making my rounds through the tight space to meet all the other women and engage was hard enough in such a small area, but to say the mood was tense would be an understatement.
Soon, a man came to usher us to the main building. He warned us that it was pouring down rain and handed us umbrellas to share. He also said we could leave any valuables, such as purses, because the door would be locked until the end of the day. I immediately thought of my satchel; the new one Larry bought me. I didn't want it to get rained on, so I eased my portfolio out of it and left it sitting safely on a chair.
Not long after, I was scooting through the rain with my umbrella-partner in a line of women.
And I started giggling.
Another sidebar: I always giggle when I'm running through the rain and I have no idea why. I assume, because it makes me feel like a child, but again, I really can't pinpoint it. My daughter says it’s because my spirit animal is a little yellow duckie. I honestly can’t disagree.
Anyway, there I was giggling, running through the rain and I glanced over at my umbrella partner. She was looking at me like I had lost my mind, which quickly caused me stop giggling. I remember feeling the odd sense of extreme insecurity. The last time I'd felt it was right after we had Jaymes-Irish years before. Then, as I'm known to do, I tripped slightly (anyone who knows me well enough knows I'm a total klutz) and my portfolio went flying out of my hands... into a deep puddle of water.
By the time we made it to the main holding area and I opened the portfolio, with all the other women watching, I found that everything was soaked. Both copies of my speech were ruined and my entire brand new note pad was useless. I heard one of the women laugh and thought how awful that was. It only added to my overall unfamiliar insecurity. Panic set in for the next few minutes. Then, I stopped and prayed. I decided I would write down as much as I could remember and simply do the best I could. I still had an hour and a half until my time slot, so I removed my pen from the portfolio and began asking for a sheet of paper.
Then, the pivotal time, the moment that my life truly changed.
The first woman I asked, who had a portfolio like mine, with a thick notepad, said “no,” adding she needed her paper. I remember being shocked that she'd said no. Of course she didn’t owe me her paper, but it was shocking she wouldn’t give me a sheet. I moved on to the next woman. One after another, and with a variety of excuses, I was told that I couldn't have a sheet of paper. One had a smirk on her face and I remember thinking she had to have been the one who laughed, although I can’t be sure. Everyone had paper except for two of the younger women, one who had her speech written on the folded up paper in her hands, the other had her speech on index cards. I resigned myself and had all but given up when the younger woman who had her speech on index cards, came up to me with a pamphlet from the conference. She said there was space at the end for conference attendees to take notes.
I wanted to cry. Not because of the insecurity and betrayal I felt at all the women who wouldn’t help me; I wanted to cry because of the one woman that did.
Inspiration hit me suddenly and I started writing. Everything just poured out into those few small pages in the back of that pamphlet.
As the conference commenced, I watched from the special section up front as a couple of the speakers got up, one after the other, to speak. Each of them talked about the power of determination and perseverance. How nothing should stand in your way as you power through and overcome every obstacle. They each gave a list of their accomplishments in life. I realized my initial speech had been similar. When it was my time, I took a deep breath, walked across the stage, adjusted the microphone for my height, and started.
I showed the audience my pamphlet and the speech in the back. I told the same story I just told you: about being so excited to speak here, my husband helping me perfect my speech and buying me the brand new satchel. I told of the crowded room, the rain, and leaving my very special satchel behind. I laughed as I talked about giggling in the rain and then got serious as I addressed my sudden unfamiliar insecurity at the way my umbrella-partner looked at me in disgust. When I got to the part about nearly tripping and watching as my portfolio fell into that puddle, I heard a gasp cycle through the crowd. I mentioned the loss I felt when I opened my portfolio and found everything ruined; also the laugh I heard from one of the other women. Another gasp from the audience.
Then, I told the part about asking the women who were speaking at the conference that day for a sheet of paper. How all of them who had portfolios or notebooks full of paper had said no. Then I told about the one whom had her speech on paper, folded and wished she could help but had no extra. Then, I told about the young woman, about my same age then, who only had her index cards. How she brought me the pamphlet because it had empty pages in the back that I could use. How, as I was writing vigorously, that same young woman also brought me a cup of water.
Then, I said that the most important thing I think as women we can offer *is ourselves*; That when we lift up a friend, we all rise to new heights together. I told them that my dad raised my sisters and me in that basic principal and I never really knew what it meant, until the exact moment when the woman gave me a free pamphlet and simple cup of water.
I received a lengthy applause when I was done and several women in the audience stood. I felt accomplished. I felt I delivered the very message I needed to deliver that day and I had no doubt someone needed to hear it.
After being seated the next speaker was announced. She walked across the stage holding her notebook, evidently uncomfortable. A visible murmur broke out over the audience.
Her speech followed the same path as the other two before me. She lined out how women must persevere. How we must make our way no matter the sacrifice. She stumbled on her words a bit here and there, no doubt remembering what my speech and her actions earlier. Also, knowing that each audience member knew as well. She continued, explaining how we had to work harder than men. Then she laid out all of her many professional accomplishments for women throughout the years.
It was almost ridiculous to listen to after knowing she wouldn't give even one sheet of paper to another woman.
She received no applause.
Then, the young woman walked across the stage, index cards in hand, received a full house standing ovation. It didn't take long for me to realize it wasn't my message that mattered that day. It was that my message pointed everyone toward her message. Everyone listened intently as she talked about growing up with a mom who was drunk most of the time and a dad who worked a lot. He was a good provider, but left her to handle everything her mother neglected; including a younger sibling. I'm ashamed to admit, I don't remember if it was a brother or sister. (Likely because I was blubbering too much). When she was in middle school, her English teacher gave out an assignment to the class: write a paper about their home life. One day after school the teacher asked her to stay behind and the first thing the teacher told her, after all the other students were gone is, "You don't need a mother."
Of course the audience gasped, including me.
She continued to tell that the teacher explained that she needed to stop pitying herself and notice that God can, and will, put many women in her life that will help her. The teacher asked her if she had any unanswered questions that she would ask her mother if she could. She replied, "Yes."
The teacher responded, "shoot."
She told the attentive crowd how that day marked a new beginning for her. She would always recognize the women in her path that helped her.
When she first had to use the laundromat, because their machine broke, a woman showed her how to use the big machines and gave her detergent. When she first started learning to drive, a neighbor woman took her every day after school, in her car, to learn. When it came time for college and she didn't know where to start, an admissions woman helped her fill out paperwork and secure her grants, scholarships, and loans. When she first started looking for a job and needed a resume, a woman in the library helped her create one. When she got married, she gained a solid woman in her mother-in-law, who helps her all the time.
She learned through her young life that we all have women who help us. "Unfortunately,” she paused, looked at me and stated, "we also have women who don't. Sometimes, even women who will try and sabotage us."
She stated that she'd learned in her young years that often women who don't help were often ones who didn’t recognize when they were helped. They take sole credit for their achievements. Many may have grown up in their own self-pity, even used it to drive them to get ahead. While they do exist, very, very few women ever really make it all on their own.
She paused, the audience (including me) was so enraptured that you could've literally heard a pin drop, she then stated, “Somewhere along the way, we as women must make a decision. It is unavoidable. We must decide which woman we want to be: The hunter or the helper.”
She received a standing ovation as she walked off the stage. After her, many women left, in mass at first, then a trickle throughout the day. No more than ten or fifteen remained when the keynote speaker walked across the stage to deliver her speech. It was awkward and I did feel sad for her. Her notepad was still full, but I could see she regretted that it was. I’m pretty sure she became a helper that day.
Back to the situation that prompted me to think about that conference, upon my daughter’s recent enrollment at BRCC, Alexis was stressed having to go see the woman over the Veterans Department, with good reason, given her previous experience from the other school. Only this time, when she went, she found Ms. Deborah, a woman who spent time helping her and encouraging her. A woman who also at some point in her life made the decision to be a helper.
Unfortunately, back in the early nineties we didn’t have social media, so the young woman from the conference and I didn’t keep in touch (would love to find her!) I always regretted not getting more information about her, but I’ve learned since then that not all women are meant to stay in your life. Some are there for a season, maybe even as quick as a trip to the convenient store. Others will be in your life longer, like some of my lifelong friends. Some women won’t want your help because they aren’t used to it. They may even doubt it, because what woman helps another woman for no reason, right? We’ve all run in to the helpers and the hunters. We’ve all played the adversary as well as the ally.
I am thankful today to have many beautiful and gracious women in my life; women who help and inspire me. I have enemies, but I have more encouragers and for that I count myself fortunate. My hopes are that I do the same in return and always recognize those women who help me along the way.
Which woman will you choose to be? The hunter or the helper? The adversary or the ally? The enemy or the encourager? Sometimes, I think, we have to make that choice again and again.