Reclaiming ‘Opinionated Woman’
Walking into the large stone building that housed our garrison headquarters on the U.S. Army base where my family and I lived a few years ago, I excitedly ran up two flights of narrow stairs to the second floor and took a seat in a crowded conference room. I had signed up to participate in the garrison commander’s AFAP board/ steering committee.
AFAP stands for Army Family Action Plan, and it gives all military personnel and families a voice to express how the Army’s policies and practices affect their daily lives. I was very excited to be a part of this board and was full of ideas I shared. Halfway through the meeting, one of the two older women sitting to my left remarked contemptuously to her neighbor, “She certainly has her opinions, doesn’t she?” Both women shot me disapproving looks.
I was startled by the first woman’s comment; I hadn’t interrupted or spoken disparagingly to anyone. Why was she singling me out? Wasn’t expressing an opinion the purpose of sitting on the board anyway? And what about the men in the room who were voicing their thoughts? She wasn’t criticizing them.
I felt myself blush (what?), and for the remainder of the meeting, I kept my lips pressed together and stared down at the table. When the meeting adjourned, I realized I could not recall what had been discussed. I had used up all my mental energy trying to not participate, trying to not appear so “opinionated.” I left the room feeling tired and dejected. “Maybe this board thing isn’t for me,” I thought.
“What do you care what one idiot said?” my mother asked when we spoke that evening. “I’m embarrassed,” I replied. “Forget it,” she advised. “And don’t you dare resign from that board. Remember, you’re a Barnard grad! You have a voice — now, use it!”
Hanging up the phone, I picked up the latest edition of Barnard Magazine. Flipping through, my eyes fell upon a photo of several students sitting around a table. It was obvious they were discussing something that mattered to them. Not one of them was staring down at the table or the floor. Memories of the vigorous debates I’d participated in during my four years on campus flooded back to me. No professor or student had ever tried to shut me down. My mother was right. I knew in that moment that I was going back to the AFAP board and that I would never again stop myself from participating out of fear of being stigmatized as — gasp! — “an opinionated woman.” And I would take every opportunity to encourage other women to voice their ideas, too.
The following month, I pulled on my favorite Barnard sweatshirt, walked into the AFAP board meeting, found a place to sit well away from my disapproving critics, and took the first step in earning my reputation as an outspoken, opinionated, and determined participant. (Friends teasingly say they enjoy watching my “New York side” make an appearance every so often.)
The following year, when the garrison commander publicly thanked me and two other spouses for helping to bring the needs of the soldiers and families to the forefront of every discussion, once again, I felt myself blush.
This time, it was because of the applause.
Eve-Lynn Siegel Gardner is a freelance writer and author of the children’s book More Precious Than Gold.