Women need to own our authority
Why is it so hard for women to own our authority? Why do we spend so much time seeking the opinions of others and looking for authority outside of ourselves? And how do we reclaim the power and sentience that is rightfully ours?
Here’s what I’m seeing: The world is full of “experts”, some of whom actually have various kinds of wisdom or expertise, others whose knowledge or methods are more questionable. And surrounding many of them are throngs of bowing and scraping devotees, desperate to gobble up each pearl of wisdom they utter.
Some followers will be long term, parroting and defending “their” expert to the ends of the earth. Others will allow themselves to be swept along with the tide for a while and then start looking for a replacement when they disagree with something. Rinse. Repeat.
But what’s really going on here?
Women are conditioned not to trust ourselves, so we go looking for authority elsewhere. We learn from a young age not to trust our own instincts and that our safety often depends on pleasing those who hold power over us. Nearly everything in our culture teaches us there’s only one right way to be a woman and that there are serious consequences for deviating from this.
It feels easier to find someone to tell us what to do.
This culture that has gaslighted us since birth. Women and girls are taught that our bodies are purely ornamental and not really ours to govern. We learn to view opportunities for women as scarce and other women as competition. If we speak out about this, we’re often pitied, derided or pathologized. Stepping into a position of authority can open us up to ridicule, vitriol or even physical danger. In short, we get the message that anything less than a performance of patriarchally defined womanhood is a failure.
The result of this is that many women go through our lives as if we’re walking on a tightrope. The consequences for stepping off of the path are real. Is it any wonder that we feel compelled to find someone who looks like they have things figured out and just follow along behind them? I’ve seen this happen in personal growth spheres, antiracism circles, educational institutions and corporate spaces. It feels so much easier to just find someone to tell us what to do.
So, what’s wrong with that? Teachers, experts, mentors and friends can be an invaluable part of our journey. They can inform us, challenge us and allow us to see things in a different light — but our authority must come from within. The problem happens when what we’re really looking for is someone to tell us what to think. We surrender our power when we stop being a seeker and become a follower.
Are you looking for information or perspective to critically analyze for yourself or are you hoping someone will tell you what to think?
Sometimes the problem starts with the source. In a patriarchal society, might is right, so taking a “my way or the highway” approach is often rewarded. There’s no shortage of people who are more than willing to capitalize on this for their own gain. HINT: If someone tells you that their way is the only way for you to think, grow or be empowered, they are categorically full of shit. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.
But even in situations where a teacher or expert isn’t demanding unquestioning fealty, the problem can be at the receiving end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a facilitator try to get someone to draw their own conclusions and being met with a version of “but just tell me the ‘right’ answer.”
Does this sound familiar? If so, how can you stop surrendering your authority?
If you’re showing up to a seminar, hiring a professional or even just following someone on Instagram, think about what you’re hoping to get out of that relationship. If you’re not thinking for yourself, making your own determinations and forging your own path, then you’re just handing over all of your power.
Your power is yours to give but it’s also yours to keep.
Ask yourself: Are you looking for knowledge, information or perspective that you’ll synthesize and critically analyze for yourself? Or are you showing up hoping that someone will tell you what to think?
Critical thinking takes work and courage. It requires a willingness to be uncertain and lean into discomfort. It means running everything through a lens, filter or process that is yours and yours alone.
It also means there are times when you will be wrong. That you will make mistakes and you will do harm¹. There is no way around this part. It’s part of the messy process of being human. But if you’re using your own wisdom and logic, you can figure out how to minimize your harm and how to clean up your own mess with integrity.
The bottom line is learning to trust yourself. This will probably involve unlearning a lot of the things that you’ve internalized over the years. It might take a while and it may feel terrifying at first. Your power is yours to give but more importantly, it’s also yours to keep.
¹ I had a great conversation on this with Andréa Ranae Johnson. Listen to it here.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I thought long and hard about whether to use the word ‘guru’ in the title of this piece. I’m conscious of not wanting to appropriate this term and also find that because it has been so co-opted in English speaking culture that there isn’t really an equivalent. It also speaks uniquely to the tendency for women, especially white women, to journey beyond our own cultural traditions to seek a different authority that the one we have been raised in.