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The Self-Help Revolution: What Women Do Right
IF YOU COULD PLAY GOD AND CREATE THE PERFECT LEADER FOR OUR times, what would this person look like? You would want this person to be wise, able to comprehend many sides of complicated issues, and create novel and innovative solutions to problems. You would want the perfect leader to be working for the good of the whole group, not just for personal power or glory. The perfect leader would inspire others by understanding their perspectives, capitalizing on their strengths, and overcoming their weaknesses. And the perfect leader would persist until a job was done, even if it meant personal sacrifice.
You've just described a woman. Women lead with wisdom, integrity, and inspirational power every day, in their families, their workplaces, and their communities. They often aren't recognized for this leadership, because they don't wave their arms and ask for recognition. Instead, they simply harness their strengths to get the job done, fix problems as they arise, and help people in need.
I believe the strengths that women bring to every corner of their lives fall into four groups, and that every woman can harness these strengths:
· Women have mental strengths, namely, a particular form of mental flexibility that allows them to be creative and nimble in finding solutions to problems they confront. They focus on getting things done, not just on doing things their way.
· Women have identity strengths that allow them to maintain a strong sense of themselves and their values in whatever situations they find themselves. They can deal with change and uncertainty, because their sense of themselves is not dependent on what they do or have, but who they are.
· Women have emotional strengths— the ability to understand their own feelings and those of others, and to use this understanding to cope with distressing circumstances. These emotional strengths also allow women to anticipate the emotional consequences of various life situations, which makes them particularly adept at making major decisions.
· Women have relational strengths— understanding others' perspectives, which then helps women create strong social networks that support them during stressful times. They seldom indulge in rage and arrogance, even when they are justified in doing so, and look for mutually satisfying ways of solving conflicts.
Every day, women utilize their strengths to lead others to better lives, whether it be their children or partners, their neighbors and friends, or their coworkers or employees. In quiet ways, and in bold ways, they take others by the hand and lift them up, they build and nurture lives, they create and inspire organizations, and they leave a radiant mark on the world.
Transforming the World
Women are transforming the world and transforming the face of power. Women- owned firms make up 40 percent of all privately held businesses in the United States, employing 7.3 million people and generating $1.1 trillion in revenues per year.1 In 1972, women held only 18 percent of managerial and administrative positions in the U.S. government, but by 2002, that percentage had increased to 46 percent. In 1979, only 3 percent of members of the U.S. Congress were women, compared to 17 percent after the 2008 election. Women have been elected to statewide executive offices in forty- nine of the nation's fifty states.2
Outside the United States, women are also making big political gains. Angela Merkel, the fifty- two- year- old physicist turned politician, became Germany's first woman chancellor in 2005, ousting the incumbent Gerhard Schröder. In 2006, Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist, was elected Chile's first female president. Reformer Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf became the first female president of an African country (Liberia). And Han Myung- sook, a former dissident once jailed as a political prisoner, was inaugurated as South Korea's first female prime minister in April 2006.
These trends in women assuming major leadership positions are inspiring. But women have been transforming the world for millennia by unleashing their strengths to meet the needs they see. Every day, in simple, unobtrusive, but powerful ways, women enrich their own lives and the lives of others. Let me illustrate with the story of Terri, a forty- two- year- old stay- at- home mom in the tiny town of Stonington, Illinois. Terri is the last person on earth to think she is powerful and strong, but she has had a huge impact on her community and the lives of hundreds of people. One day in early December a couple years ago, Terri ran into a woman she knew casually, named Annette, in the grocery store. The conversation naturally ran to what their families were doing for Christmas. Terri began to name the toys she had gotten her two kids when she noticed a twinge of sadness in Annette's eyes and a slump in her shoulders. It turned out that Annette's husband had been laid off a few weeks earlier, and the family was already desperate for money. There would be no toys for Annette's children this Christmas. Terri comforted Annette as best she could, and then the women went their separate ways.
The conversation niggled at Terri for the rest of the day, however. She knew there were a lot of other families in the area in the same position as Annette's family— farmers were struggling and manufacturing plants had been scaling back or moving out in recent years. Terri imagined her own children waking up on Christmas day with no toys under the tree and her heart ached. Terri called her best friend, Rosanna, and the two women began putting together a plan to raise money for a toy drive. Terri and Rosanna made announcements for donations at their respective churches the following Sunday. They got local businesses to place donation boxes at every check- out stand. They convinced the elementary school's PTA to hold a bake sale to raise money to buy new toys. By December 18, Terri and Rosanna had raised nearly two thousand dollars. With this fund in hand, Terri visited the local discount stores and persuaded the store's managers to sell her toys at cost.
On December 22, Terri and Rosanna laid out the dozens of toys they had acquired on tables in the American Legion Hall. At 6 p.m. the doors opened, and needy families, who had been identified by church leaders, school teachers and principals, and workers at the local food pantry, poured in. Excitement filled the hall as the children picked their toys. Parents beamed to see the joy on their children's faces and felt a bit of relief from the weight of their economic plight. In the years since that first toy drive, the community's involvement has grown, with nearly ten thousand dollars being raised and hundreds of toys being distributed to families in need.
Terri's success in organizing this toy drive was the result of the many strengths she brought to the task. Terri discerned that Annette was distressed by tuning into Annette's demeanor and what Annette was not saying about her Christmas plans. She took Annette's perspective and understood what it would feel like not to give her children toys for Christmas. Faced with the daunting task of organizing a toy drive in a few short weeks, Terri remained confident that she could pull it off and persisted despite the discouragement of others. She rallied her best friend and the huge social network she had built in her town and then devised multiple pathways toward reaching her goal of raising enough money to buy toys for the needy children.
Women like Terri can be found in every small town, sprawling suburb, and urban center in the world. They set their sights on doing things that express their personal interests and values and nothing stops them from accomplishing their goals. They connect with other people in ways that engender cooperation and support. They find creative ways to get around roadblocks. And they make their communities and worlds healthier and more vibrant by their everyday acts of leadership.
For thousands of years, women have used their strengths to rise above even extreme adversity. There are famous examples, such as Mukhtaran Bibi, a Pakistani rape survivor who transformed her trauma into a movement to change traditional anti- woman laws in Pakistan. Time magazine recently named her as one of their 100 Most Influential People in the World. Around the world, women have organized to protect their families and themselves from injustices wrought by powerful governments, terrorists, and economic forces. During the "dirty war" in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, thousands of people were taken to detention camps and "disappeared," most likely killed by the military. The mothers and wives of these "disappeared" formed Las Madres del Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) in Buenos Aires, silently demonstrating in the plaza outside the presidential palace to demand the return of their family members. They risked torture and death, but continued to demand information about their loved ones. Once democracy was restored in 1983, Las Madres called for the prosecution of the killers, despite death threats to themselves. These women, many of them uneducated and poor, helped to bring about major political change and justice by marshaling their own strengths and the strengths of other women on behalf of their families.
Others are not famous but are nonetheless heroines for their courage and resilience. One is Jody, a lovely brown- eyed woman whose son played goalie on my son's soccer team. Ten years ago, Jody had what many of us would think was the perfect life— two healthy, beautiful children, an attractive, successful husband she adored, and a thriving career as an executive at IBM. Then, when she was only twenty- nine, Jody's dream turned into a nightmare. Her husband, Len, who loved to bike, swim, and run cross- country, dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of thirty- three. Jody was initially devastated and overwhelmed at Len's death and her new role as a single mother. But within months, Jody mobilized a wide range of psychological strengths so that she could rise above her grief and reshape her life. She drew emotional support from her many friends and practical support from her family in getting her children's lives back to normal. Within a couple of years, Jody was leading support groups for young widows, helping them claim their identities as strong women, use the social networks they had available, and be creative about how to overcome the obstacles they faced as a result of the death of their husbands. Jody says, "Women are so much more resilient than they are given credit for. A tragedy like losing your husband can force women to recognize their power and learn how to use it."
Women's strengths don't only rise to the surface in response to tragedy, however. They are also demonstrated in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of women who ignore the real barriers to pursue their dreams with resolve and unswaying integrity. When Claudia Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968, women were not allowed to command men and there were no women generals. When Lieutenant General Kennedy retired in 2000, she was the nation's highest ranking female officer, a three- star general. Kennedy's first command was over a chaotic, drug- infested company in which an angry soldier threatened her life. She restored discipline and respect by relentlessly holding soldiers to the highest values of the army— loyalty, honor, and integrity. She eventually became the deputy chief of staff for army intelligence from 1997 until 2000, overseeing policies and operations affecting forty- five thousand soldiers stationed worldwide, with a bud get of nearly one billion dollars.
Throughout her career in the military, Kennedy risked disapproval and outright punishment from her superiors by standing up for issues she felt she couldn't ignore, including the shameful living conditions of some military families. In 1996, as a two- star general, she was sexually harassed in her Pentagon office by another two- star general, Major General Larry Smith. She raised the matter internally after the army announced that Smith was to become the army's deputy inspector general, a post in which he would have overseen investigations of sexual harassment cases. After her charges became public in March 2000 and were substantiated in a subsequent investigation, the army quietly rescinded Smith's appointment. Since her retirement, Kennedy, who remains fiercely loyal to the army, has nonetheless exercised her integrity by speaking out on the issues that really matter to her, such as the Bush administration's decision to initiate and escalate the Iraq war. The kind of integrity Claudia Kennedy has displayed throughout the course of her military career and beyond earned her the respect and trust of her peers. It has also inspired her subordinates to work hard, take risks, and behave with integrity themselves.
Given what women, including Lieutenant General Kennedy, are up against around the world, it's astounding how much they have accomplished. Despite being ignored, dismissed, even beaten down, women have honed their many psychological strengths, breaking societal chains that have bound them for generations, emerging as superb leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and players of the game.
Claiming Their Strength
Over the last few de cades, women's determination has led them to grab hold of opportunities to grow in strength, often by pursuing academic degrees. The result is a tectonic shift in the geography of education. For several years, girls and women have been outpacing boys and men on most indicators of academic success. Fifty years ago, women weren't even admitted to some U.S. colleges, including my own, and made up only about a third of the college population across the country. Today, women make up 58 percent of students enrolled in two- and four- year colleges in the country. The gender gap is huge in some colleges: at American University in Washington, D.C., 74 percent of the class entering in the fall of 2005 were women!
Women aren't just going to college in greater numbers than men; once they are in college, they are performing better by many measures. The 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement, which questioned ninety thousand students at 530 institutions, found that women spent significantly more time than men preparing for class, while men spent significantly more time than women socializing or relaxing. Other studies find that women are less likely than men to skip classes and more likely to complete their homework and turn it in on time. As a result, women are getting better grades than men, are more likely to finish college once they start, and are earning a disproportionate number of honors degrees at universities.
A great example of the ambition and drive of today's college women is Teresa, a senior at Yale who does research with my lab group. Teresa comes from a large, close- knit family in Mountain View, California. Neither of her parents went to college; instead they supported their seven children by running a small grocery store, doing house cleaning, and gardening. Fortunately, early in elementary school, teachers recognized Teresa's intellectual strengths and encouraged her to do well in school. She did so well that she earned a full scholarship to Yale. Still, she had to work to help pay for books and living expenses— this was how I was lucky enough to meet Teresa. She applied for a job in my research group to help run studies and enter data.
Teresa is a poised, articulate, and engaging young Hispanic woman with long brown hair and piercing brown eyes, and when she walked into my office for an interview, within five minutes I knew I wanted to hire her. In the two years she's worked with my group, Teresa has become central to much of what we do. Her ability to connect with people on a deep level has made her a tremendous interviewer, even with those with significant mental health problems. Her integrity, patience, and persistence have meant we could hand her even the toughest jobs and know they would be done well and on time. Her intellect and ambition made me leap at the chance when she asked if she could do an original research project for her senior thesis. Teresa's drive and motivation have enabled her to overcome significant economic disadvantages to become a valued student and colleague at one of the nation's top universities.
Teresa embodies the new image of women's strength. She is entirely focused on what she wants to do and how she can do it, not on the facts of her background that have historically held women like her back. When she sees an obstacle, she uses all her mental strengths to march right around it. She is tough as leather, but as sensitive and insightful as the best therapist.
It's not only college- age women who are seeing themselves as powerful, however. Research by psychologists Abigail Stewart and Carol Ryff shows that most middle- age and older women have a deep and abiding confidence in their identity, their values, and their purpose in life.3 They accept themselves and reject social pressures to think and act in certain ways, instead pursuing their interests and exercising their talents creatively.
The stereotype of women as unsure of themselves and their contributions, unwilling to lead others, and vulnerable under stress is just plain wrong, at least for the vast majority of women. Most women are secure in their beliefs and their goals. Every woman leads in a thousand ways every day, and women's styles of leadership are the most effective style for today's global economy. Women are extraordinarily resilient in even the most dire circumstances, rising above adversity to create powerful networks for change and to bring meaning to their lives and the lives of others.
The Evolution of a Revolution
Ironically, women's strengths have developed not only in spite of but in some ways as a result of the tribulations and challenges they have faced over the millennia. Because women have not had the physical strength or social status in our evolutionary history to demand that their voices be heard or their needs respected, they have had to develop ways to survive and thrive that have not required brute force or social power. Today, women and their children comprise the majority of people in poverty around the world, and across history, women have not been in positions to demand basic resources. So they have had to become extremely clever at taking what they have and making it work. As a result, they have developed strengths for seeing many ways around their goals, focusing on getting a job done rather than on accumulating power, and on remaining per sis tent and optimistic even when things look bleak.
Because women haven't had the physical strength to fight off attackers, they have learned to mobilize friends and family to protect them. Because women have been the primary caregivers to their offspring for thousands of years, they have developed unique emotional and interpersonal skills that have helped ensure their offspring's survival. Women's impressive ability to read and understand others' emotions may have emerged from their need to anticipate possible violence from males and to protect themselves and their children.
If women's psychological strengths have evolutionary roots, this means they have been present for thousands of years. Why then has it taken so long for women's strengths not only to become visible but also to become powerful instruments of social change? There have been, of course, many battles fought, particularly over the last century, to gain women the opportunity to exercise their strengths. Psychologist Wendy Wood of Duke University argues that new technologies also played a critical role in the emergence of women's strength.4 Washing machines, refrigerators, and micro waves have remarkably reduced the burden of keeping house and feeding a family since our grandmothers' day. Contraceptives have allowed women to avoid pregnancy if they wish. In turn, the freedom and opportunity created by these technological changes have allowed women to develop their many talents more fully. Indeed, technology has allowed women to become much more assertive over the last fifty years as they have entered the labor force, achieved more advanced education, and delayed marriage and childbirth to establish careers, according to research by psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University.5 In other words, social changes seem to be leading women to be more willing to claim their full rights to status and power, and to see themselves as competent beings. In addition, as it has become more common for girls to grow up with mothers who were working, had advanced education, and were themselves more assertive, girls have become much more assertive and have come to expect gender equality.
In her book No Turning Back, Stanford historian Estelle Freedman argues that the political and personal freedoms women have gained over the last century have forever changed women's expectations for themselves and other women. Freedman quotes Gertrude Mongella, secretary general of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, as saying "A revolution has begun and there is no going back. There will be no unraveling of commitments— not today's commitments, not last year's commitments, and not the last decade's commitments. This revolution is too just, too important, and too long overdue."6
I am not arguing that women are superior to men. To quote the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, "Whether women are better than men, I cannot say— but I can say they are certainly no worse." Instead, I want to spotlight women's many gifts, so that society and individual women can embrace and benefit from them, rather than deriding these very talents and qualities as "playing like a girl." It is time to reverse the meaning of "playing like a girl" so that it becomes a compliment rather than an insult. It is time to overturn the cultural stereotype of women as less than men. It is time for society to recognize and make the most of the extraordinary strengths of women for the betterment of everyone. And it is time for women to embrace and employ their talents so that they can reach their full potential.
Of course, some women are stronger than others. As you are reading about the strengths of women, exceptions may come to mind: "Oh my [sister/mother/daughter/friend] is not strong like that!" You may also object that you don't have a particular strength, or many of the strengths. Historically, women have been very hard on themselves, focusing on their weaknesses, ruminating about every flaw in their character, talents, and appearance. The media perpetuates this obsession with flaws by publishing endless articles and books on what's wrong with women and how to fix it. Even when a woman exercises her strengths, she may question whether she has the right to do so, and what other people will think of her for being strong. Advertising executive and author Lois Wyse said, "Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths."
When you hear about the amazing strengths of women, you may be inclined to say, "Oh, I could never be that strong." Or you may think that even if you had the strength to fight back from adversity, or you learned to overcome your fears and stand up to be counted, you'd have little to offer— few talents, skills, or opinions that anyone would find valuable. You're wrong.
I challenge you, as you are reading this book, to focus on your strengths, and the strengths of the women you know, rather than on weaknesses. Notice how those strengths play out in small ways and big ways, and notice how much they affect other people. Become a woman of strength, build your strengths so that you can do anything you want to do with your life, and be brilliant in whatever you do.
Every woman was born with something to give, to her family, her community, and her world. In small ways and in dramatic ways, all women give every day— they give of their love and nurturance, their wisdom, and their abilities. As Audre Lorde said: "When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in ser vice of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."7
Being as Powerful as You Can Be
As women take up Lorde's challenge and dare to be powerful, they are sparking a revolution in the very concept of what it means to be a woman. Gone are the days when women were defined by what they are not: not physically powerful, not mentally tough, not ambitious— not men. Instead, women are now defining themselves in terms of what they are: mentally adept, solid and assured, emotionally astute, and interpersonally skilled. They are bringing these strengths to their care of their families, to the marketplace, to community ser vice, and to political leadership. And the world is a better place for it.
Every day, women rise above tired old ways of solving problems and relating to people to create wholly original solutions and relationships that improve their lives and those of people around them. Companies are making more money because women are bringing to the global economy their skills at working with diverse populations and at seeing many pathways to their goals. Communities and nations are recognizing the integrity and transformational leadership style of women and calling upon them to lead them into progressive change.
Women exercise their strengths most often in the context of their families and close relationships. They find creative solutions for their family's problems. They bring enormous patience and empathy to their relationships. They navigate the emotional upheavals of raising children and sustaining marriages, usually with deftness and success. Close relationships thrive because women bring their mental, identity, emotional, and relational strengths to every interaction, building, nourishing, and relishing in love and in growth.
This revolution spotlights women's strengths, not their weaknesses. Rather than focusing on the obstacles to their progress, women of the revolution deftly go over, under, and around these obstacles. They are not concerned with what women should or should not be doing. (Have children or not? Be in the military? Be national leaders?) Instead, women of the revolution are concerned with how women can do anything they want and need to do.
This is the "how to" book of this revolution. I will shine a bright light on the extraordinary strengths women are bringing to bear to change the world in increasingly powerful ways. Women have always had these strengths. But thanks to the liberation our foremothers won for us over the last century, and thanks to freedoms created by technology, women are now flowing through the doors of opportunity and showing up in boardrooms, parliaments and congresses, ser vice organizations, and educational settings. As women exercise their strengths in these venues, the eyes of the world are adjusting to the new vision of women as strong, clever, insightful, and inspiring. It's taking some time for the world to get a clear picture of women of the revolution. But I aim to help by documenting the ways women are redefining themselves and transforming the world through their strengths. In the meantime, I intend to give women the tools to claim their strengths and use them to live their lives to the fullest in whatever venues they choose.
Every woman was born with the capacity to be strong, including you. No matter how beaten down or weak you feel, I can help you build your mental, personal, emotional, and relational strengths so that you have the power to exercise your talents, pursue your interests, and express your opinions— at home, in your community, and in your workplace. This book is chock full of tools to build your strengths, exercises that any woman can do by herself or in the company of friends. Some of them may be difficult, many will be fun. But all will bring you to a place where you feel alive and vibrant and powerful.
Every woman deserves to recognize and claim her many strengths so that she can capitalize on the power that is within her. We need all women at the table of leadership and change, including you. There is too much to do, too many problems to fix, too many wonderful new things to accomplish. You don't have to aspire to have power and influence, but we can't waste what you have to bring to the table.
So join me at this table of strength— strength that will set you free to give all you have and to enjoy life to its fullest. A place is set for you. You are welcome, you are needed, and you will enjoy taking your place there.
Excerpted from The Power Of Women by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.
Copyright © 2009 by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
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