The Burden of the Exceptional Woman
That’s my mama and me. (I loved that bear, by the way.)
I was about two or three years old and my mother was about my age now — 36 or 37. My mom is a college graduate who made her career as a social worker. She and my dad were married for close to 17 years before they divorced and, together, they raised my brother who is nine years my senior and me. Around the time they divorced, though, my mother had a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know what it was at that time. All I knew was that if I didn’t stop that racket I was going to make her nerves go bad. I chuckle at that memory now. You know what I remember just as well? It’s a tie. The first is the day she took me to go see Clueless and to buy my first bit of makeup. Until that time, my mother and I didn’t shop or got to movies often because those things required extra money and that was something we simply did not have. The second is when, in a conversation from my boarding school dorm room at 16, she told me she didn’t have to take her “nerve pills” anymore. On both occasions I recall feeling my heart and eyes swell with affection I didn’t know how to communicate to her. What is it like to tell your mother you’re proud of her?
It wasn’t until I became an adult with a career, relationship, and children of my own that I truly understood how exceptional she was and still is. Yet, today, I struggle to feel exceptional myself.
Let me stop you here. Yes, I am a well-educated, young woman that is (relatively and certainly not without failure or mistakes) successful. I have people around me that love me deeply and fiercely. I have big dreams and want to change the world. I also love naps, Netflix, and bourbon. I recognize that my position in my immediate community is one that others are quick to say is exceptional — I happen to be the first African-American mayor of my small city in Maryland — but this isn’t a fishing expedition. I feel ordinary. And by ordinary I mean trying to make it all work just like everyone else.
Let’s rewind to December 2017.
I went to my doctor for an annual appointment and at that visit he asked me if I wanted to take a screening for depression and anxiety. He said I was in no way obligated to take it, but that he was obligated to offer. The high achiever in me said “Test?! Sure! I’ll take it!” I’m standing next to him, reading each question and circling the answers quickly. There were a few questions where I answered “almost every day,” yet I didn’t think it was big deal. Until, I looked at him and saw that he was writing a number on the back of a business card. He said, “That’s not normal. You should talk to someone.”
I went back over the test to see if I might’ve exaggerated in any way, but I couldn’t find a single instance. I’ve been awake at 3am almost every night/early morning since August 2015. My energy comes and goes, but everyday I show up ready for work and meetings. I skip meals on most days not because I don’t have a desire to eat, I just forget.
In the middle of everything else, I am not on my mind.
I followed his advice and scheduled a visit with a doctor to see whether I was depressed or anxious. Having the question itself made me anxious. My doctor is an African-American woman about the same age as me, maybe as old as 40. She asked me a few questions…probing to see if she could make a determination. I sensed her confusion. She then told me that it was hard to say because typically depression presents as not being able to go about your day, but that I was clearly functioning. Then she gave me the greatest gift in 15 words.
“But that’s not uncommon for women, especially black women. We tend to just plow through.”
We plow through.
Last weekend, I participated in an event that marked the location where suffragettes, the “Couriers to Congress,” convened in the City of Hyattsville before heading to deliver petitions to the Capitol. The theme of that event mirrored that of Women’s History Month for 2018 which is “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” In my welcome remarks, however, I wanted to challenge that theme. Thinking of the efforts of those women and those of women like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell whose unfettered right to vote wasn’t realized until 1965, well after their deaths, I proposed that it is not “nevertheless, she persisted,” but rather “of course, she persists.”
(I recognize the theme uses actual words spoken by Mitch McConnell. It isn’t an attempt to rewrite history, but to reexamine our usage of that quotation contemporaneously.)
Today is International Women’s Day and it’s one day you are certain to find any number of articles, posts, and tweets about “exceptional” women. They are women whose exceptionalism — as it’s proposed — many of us will never live up to. Yet, in the spirit of #PressforProgress shouldn’t we challenge the commoditized version of the womanhood that’s worthy of celebration? We persist; we plow through, because that’s what women do. But just because the plowing through feels normal and ordinary to us, does it not make us exceptional, too?
Progress, to me, is the unburdening of women — and African-Americans for that matter — of the ideal of being exceptional. The women we celebrate each year are exceptional for they’ve changed the world. And so are the women we see everyday for changing the world doesn’t require one to be universally exceptional. It requires each of us to be our own versions of exceptional, everyday because it’s the collective efforts of “ordinary” people that change systems, communities, and eventually the world.
Sisterhood is powerful and multi-dimensional. Recently I looked back at pictures from my campaign announcement back in December 2017.
I want you to see what I see.
I see women who support me and have supported me at various times in my life. These are women who are entrepreneurs, artists, nonprofit executives, architects, physical therapists, historians, librarians, scientists, teachers, and physicians. They, and many who are not pictured, may have not always agreed with me, but they have always been supportive. That’s exceptional. I didn’t notice the looks in their eyes or the smiles on their faces in that moment. Much like I didn’t notice the many good days that were had even when my mother was dealing with what was likely the worst time of her life. That’s the difficulty with exceptionalism. It clouds our ability to embrace the everyday wins.
Lately, I’ve watched countless women search for the answer to “what can I do to make a difference?” Their answers have taken the form of everything from wearing pantsuits to the voting booths exactly 16 months ago, to wearing pink pussy hats in January 2017, to attending a protest or rally every other weekend, to producing art installations, to hosting symposia, to training candidates, to deciding to run for office themselves. These women are pretty damn exceptional! And so, too, are the women who show up everyday to be counted at work, at school, and in the lives of the people they love. My hope is that as we #PressforProgress we add back in the experiences of the everyday woman in the canon of history because they — we — are the one’s that make the world turn.
So on this International Women’s Day, I celebrate you…you exceptional woman, you.