Talking Back & Acting Up: A Metaphor for Women’s Self Definition

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Talking Back & Acting Up: A Metaphor for Women’s Self Definition

By Stephanie M. Crumpton
Special to YWCA USA

Stephanie M. Crumpton
Stephanie M. Crumpton

It took me a minute, but I’m glad she’s around.  Some of you shake your head when you think of her, but something about her still commands your respect and maybe even your secret adoration.  Who is “She?”  The woman who just isn’t scared to speak up and organize her wits to act when she encounters images and experiences that thwart women’s power.

Back in the day she was the girl who was always talking back to authority figures at school, and acting up against rules that didn’t make sense from her point of view.  And that’s the very thing that got her into trouble (raised eyebrows) every time: her audacity to own and act from her own point of view.

I’m talking about internal clarity that will not allow them to sit quietly in the face of wrongdoing or social rules dictating what she should and shouldn’t do, or how she should or shouldn’t be just because she was female.

The truth is that she learned that behavior somewhere.  Somewhere along the way somebody taught her to listen, believe and act from the center of her being – not the socially prescribed limits of gender.  Although she paid for it (with a bevy of labels: un-lady like, insolent, fast, disobedient, bad, attitudinal, the one with the “mouth”)….

Talking back and acting up was her way of moving from intuition to action.

Hmmm…  Maybe that’s what we need: reminders of what it looks like to talk back and act up against experiences that disrespect who we are and what we know is possible in our lives.  Can they help us disrupt the isms (sex-ism, race-ism, class-ism, age-ism, heterosex-ism, able bodied-ism, looks-ism) and their related controlling images that we’ve internalized about ourselves and others?

Think about the last time you stood rooted to the ground where you stood, dazed by the tremendous amount of traffic in your own head about how to be and show up as a woman.  I’m talking about the traffic in our heads about what we may have to face in a world that is incredibly critical of women.  It’s the traffic that’s capable of de-centering the most grounded ones among us.  It may go something like this:

“You should do this, but not that, because that just isn’t what women are meant to do.  How should I hide my curves (busts, bottoms and hips) at the office today?  Is my hair too short or long, the right color and texture?  Am I the right color and texture? I hate my body!  Does this make me look too young, or am I too old?  Am I smart enough?  Too smart?  Maybe I better downplay myself to play it safe?”  The list is long, and it’s not just impacting grown women.  Our girls are dealing with it too!

I am personally thankful for the moments when “she” shows up in my mind like a much-needed traffic cop who blows the whistle on all of that noise.  Having halted the noise, she directs me inward towards self-definitions that steady me as a I dare to find out just what it is that I can do in this world.  In the same way that I remember “that girl” who talked back and acted up, I also remember not wanting to be her.  The fact is she scared me.

More than a fair share of us have been taught to dislike them because they dare to go against so much of what we’ve been taught.  But, in a world that teaches women to stifle their creativity and abilities to make others comfortable, don’t we need some new lessons?

What if we reframe talking back and acting up and consider it a metaphor for the kind of self-definition that empowers us to counter images and experiences that would limit our mind’s ability to conceive possibilities.  What if talking back and acting up is really about challenging the ism’s that underscore oppressive images in the media, structural oppression, and the injustices women face every day?

Talking back and acting up is about those defining moments where voice and action come together in the public and private spheres of our lives to move us towards something new.

Defining moments in the lives of women are the ones that show us what we’re really made of in spite of how we’ve been socialized to accept images and social roles that limit us to small lives dictated by the interests of others.  They are the makings of important counter narratives that ground us when we choose to do battle, reject, resist and override images that deny our dignity and power.

It’s only recently that I’ve developed an appreciation for women who talk back and act up.  They have shown up at just the right time in my own life (and psyche) to encourage me to throw out the old ways and chart courses previously un-navigated (personally and professionally).  My guess is that I’m not alone.

As the YWCA reaches out to do the next generation’s work of empowering women, I’d like to hear your thoughts on “her.”  If you are in fact “her,” I want to hear about who taught you to act from your own center, and how you encourage the same in others.  Drop us a line in the comments section.  Tell us how you “talk back and act up” to define yourself as woman.

Stephanie M. Crumpton is a writer, consultant and researcher.  Her work with non-profit and state agencies has focused on transformation in the lives of marginalized communities, violence against women, mental health and spirituality as a resource for social transformation.  She consults with the Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta and various other non-profits.  She is currently researching women and self recovery from intimate violence for her doctoral dissertation.  She lives in Atlanta.

12 responses to “Talking Back & Acting Up: A Metaphor for Women’s Self Definition

  1. I know what you are talking about, as I happen to be one of the same kind.I work at a place where two men are the bosses and have all ladies coworkers around,none of the ladies has the courage to speak up about anything being done wrongly in the office, when I did you and spoke Face to face with them they have started hating me,their attitude changed and one of them said indirectly that “I am lacking social skills”.Sometimes my husband does that too, leave aside the fact that I have win two awards in the field that I am in.

  2. This. SO this. I always wished I was the kind of woman who had that voice. That I WAS that woman. But I was always too worried about getting in trouble and scared. Then, when I became an adult, had a kid, got divorced, remarried, had another kid, I finally realized that life was too short to walk on eggshells. I have since been a lot louder, though I wish I had a megaphone sometimes.

    I ignored extended “helpful” family’s “worries” and ignoramus’s sexist challenges (but the woman needs to stay home with the kiddos, a man can’t properly take care of kids–this was a doozy–sexist to both genders) to become a long haul trucker for a while. I refuse to cook or clean because that is a woman’s “job” (though I have no problem sharing a cooking/cleaning schedule with other members of the household, as long as they also respect the schedule). Went back to school at age 37 and finally got my bachelor’s degree at age 39. Now at 41 I’m planning to walk across America. So many people have asked me if I’m going to bring a gun, or a dog, or aren’t I afraid of being assaulted it makes me sad. Of the research I’ve done so far, of the dozens of dozens of people who have done this (crossed the US on foot, whether walking, hiking, or running), maybe a quarter to a third of them were female and only a small handful were solo. The rest partnered with other people or had support vehicles with them.

    Women can do phenomenal, exciting things. They just have to push aside the societal claptrap that guilt trips them into squashing their dreams in favor of the home & hearth. I’ve got kids, yes, but I’m doing it anyway. No one would judge a man harshly if a man left his kids at home to do something like this. Instead of having children glued to our hips, why not share the glue duty? Women CAN be tough and men CAN nurture. I’m wanting to walk to inspire women to live their own dreams, live their own lives.

  3. “Also, I’d be so damn tempted to wait till she falls asleep and poke ’em with something sharp.”

    WOW that’d be murder!!! Either she’d die or she’d kill you or perhaps you’d kill each other in the scrap… FUNNNY

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