Stop Telling Women What They Shouldn’t Do

Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing

Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing (Photo credit: Coast Guard News)

During this week’s Senate Armed Services hearing on sexual assault, Senator John McCain said that he could not support women joining the armed services due to the rape crisis.

Also in the news this week was a high school teacher who delivered the commencement speech at an Indiana high school. Peter Heck had this message for the senior girls:

“If you choose to have a career, God’s blessings upon you, but I challenge you to recognize what the world scoffs at…that your greatest role of your life will be that of wife and mother…To solve the problems plaguing our society, we don’t need more women as CEOs, we need more women as invested mothers.”

You know what woman need? We need men to stop telling us where we should and should not go. Believe me, we already know. While McCain’s goal is clearly to protect women from assault, his thoughts are misplaced. We shouldn’t be talking about holding women back from opportunity. We should be talking about keeping rapists from enlisting.

And while Heck clearly values family – certainly not a bad thing – his outdated gender roles are restrictive. He told the senior boys,  “To solve the problems plaguing our society, we don’t need more men as millionaire entrepreneurs, we need more men acting as fierce defenders of their wives and providers for their children.” No we don’t; we need fewer men hurting women. And we need parents; mothers and fathers, working together to both earn a living and raise families.

Women receive messages all the time about where we should and shouldn’t be and about what we should and shouldn’t do. From small things like what to wear, to big things like what careers to pursue, we’ve internalized the messages we’ve been fed all of our lives.

Take for example, my recent business trip to New York via train. I travelled home First Class, the only woman in that car. At one point during the ride I got up to use the restroom and I left my glass of wine, half full on my seat tray. When I returned, I knew not to drink it. I have internalized the message that I can never leave a drink unattended because that’s unsafe.

When we got to my home station at 10:30 p.m., the escalator wasn’t working. Some of the passengers, all men, headed toward the elevator. I did not, despite the fact I was carrying a very heavy bag. I took the stairs. I have internalized the message to never be the only woman in an elevator. It’s not safe.

These are just some of the small “shoulds” I live with every day. I also know I should not walk alone at night, I shouldn’t drink too much lest something happens to me and I’m blamed for it, and I shouldn’t go for runs too early in the morning.

Some of the bigger, more career-focused shoulds I’ve heard include: I shouldn’t be a Wall Street trader and I shouldn’t run for office, certainly not if I’m a mother. I know that a large portion of the population thinks I should be home caring for my children and I shouldn’t be at work. According to a new report from Pew Research, 51 percent of the people surveyed think children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job. I disagree.

I may not go for walks alone at night because that’s a personal safety issue, but I’ll pursue whatever career I want, whatever title I want, and I just might run for office too. Because I know businesses perform better when gender diverse teams lead them. And I know families thrive when parents take on the roles they are naturally suited for, not outdated gender-defined roles.

And so I do not want to hear elected officials and public school teachers talking about what women should and shouldn’t do. The solution to ending the rape epidemic in the military isn’t for women not to enlist.  It’s for rapists to stop raping. And the solution to caring for children isn’t for mothers not to work. It’s for parents to parent. I do want to hear what men in positions of power are going to do to help make the world a safer and more equitable place for women. Shouldn’t we all be focused on that?