I didn’t need May’s “More Voices” theme as a prompt to reflect on the role sexism has played in my life: Two recent experiences had already done so. I just saw a touring-company production of To Kill a Mockingbird. At one point, Jem rebukes his younger sister, Scout, for showing emotion—accusing her of “becoming more like a girl every day.” Shortly after, my great-niece, a stellar high school sophomore, shared an essay she’d written on gender stereotypes in The Odyssey—using quotes to show how Homer criticized women for displaying too much emotion and embarrassed men for displaying any emotion at all.
When I was a child, my older brother called me “Miss Niagara Falls” since I so easily cried—both happy and sad tears, depending on the situation. My former father-in-law used to belittle me for being emotional, even going as far as accusing me of raising my son to be too sensitive for a male and dismissing my daughter as a stereotypical female who let emotions dominate her. Many people have told me in a less-than-complimentary tone that I “wear my heart on my sleeve.”
This kind of sexism makes me feel uncomfortable whenever I dare to lay bare my feelings. To squelch my empathy and openness, I have tried to hide behind a wall of stoicism—a trait typically associated with men. If images of Ukrainians lying in mass graves threaten to keep me awake at night, I try to shrug off these visions by telling myself they are a natural consequence of war. If the senseless deaths of George Floyd and others haunt me, I berate myself—for, after all, my family is safe, and my tears, instead of making a difference, only cause me to look weak.
But it is tiring to spend a lifetime trying to avoid the sexist stereotype that deems women soft for being more emotional than men. It is challenging to try to replace my innate emotional response with a stiff-upper-lip one. Since I rarely succeed in freeing myself from the “crying female” stereotype, I often feel like a failure—a woman who has made herself vulnerable in a society that demands a type of strength that favors forbearance over tears.
I resent the fact that sexism has made me feel “less than” for being who I am—an emotional woman.
Ronna L. Edelstein