It was a Wednesday afternoon at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was scheduled to make a stop to speak with third, fourth, and fifth grade students. Excited to meet the star, students listened as he talked with them for nearly 40 minutes.
This sounds innocent, right? Just an athlete taking some time away from training to inspire the youth of America. Maybe that was the intention, but a part of Winston’s speech has been making the rounds, and “innocent” is the last word being used to describe his message.
All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down. But all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? We strong! We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time: I can do anything I put my mind to. Now a lot of boys aren’t supposed to be soft-spoken. You know what I’m saying? One day y’all are going to have a very deep voice like this. One day, you’ll have a very, very deep voice. But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men (are) supposed to be strong. I want y’all to tell me what the third rule of life is: I can do anything I put my mind to. Scream it!
Let’s not allow the most damaging words to get lost amid the rest of the text; “But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle.”
Silent. Jameis Winston stood in front of an elementary school class and actually said that women are “supposed to be silent.” This statement came from a man who was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in college, a woman who received death threats because unlike Winston’s suggestion, she refused to be silent about the way he treated her.
Winston has since apologized for his remarks, yet we know that communication is irreversible and once words are put into the atmosphere, they cannot be taken back.
While a message such as this aimed at young girls should come as a complete and utter shock, why does it feel it has lost some of its sting? It’s because even though it is 2017, somehow instances of these statements aren’t uncommon. Only a few weeks ago, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced and forced to sit after being accused of impugning fellow senator Jeff Sessions while reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor. This formal silencing elicited public outcry, as the relevant letter was directly about Senator Sessions and the fact that Senator Warren was banned from speaking resonated deeply with many women. It didn’t take long before a battle cry of “she persisted” was born from the words Senator Sessions directed at Senator Warren. Images of impactful heroines flooded the internet, serving as a critical reminder that female persistence has been a necessity throughout American history.
Even though these two instances over three weeks have gained substantial attention, this is nothing new. Women spend their entire lives battling these types of messages, even when they are not stated outright. Echos of “girls should be seen, and not heard” (a sentiment which stems from the Bible) permeates ad campaigns, television shows, and other forms of media, acting as subliminal messages often so subtle that a trained female eye could miss them. The fact this mantra is juxtaposed with “boys will be boys,” only adds insult to injury. How grand of a divide can society create between genders? Boys can run around, shouting and screaming, yet girls are expected to play quietly with their dolls and tea sets. The worst part is that we reinforce these stereotypes from about the time that babies grow into toddlers.
These messages to women, spoken or in print, whether directed to 6 year-olds or 60 year-olds, are simply unacceptable. Thankfully, many women out there are calling it out. And while at the present time, women are looking for men to say that these statements are unacceptable as well, it would be incredibly powerful if more men were out there trying to build women up from the start, because it would result in these types of reactions to be entirely irrelevant.
Imagine the positive influence a star athlete could have by walking into an elementary school and telling 10 year-old girls that they are just as strong as their male peers. Or the significance of a father not making excuses for his son’s behavior simply because he’s a boy.
These two examples are just the start. Every day, there are opportunities for men to make decisions that assist in making the world a more accepting place. If an obvious opportunity doesn’t stand out, now is the time to create one. Use your professional experience and head to a grade school classroom to discuss possible career opportunities for boys and girls. Purchase an empowering book for a special girl in your life and read it with her. Take the time to actively listen to women struggling with the way current events are making them feel. The list is truly endless.
Men not only have the ability to push back against the archaic expectations our society has in support of women, but to raise the standard and set a new bar. The most motivating aspect of this is if they act where other men can witness their efforts, they will undoubtedly inspire someone else to do the same. Men setting good examples for other men and therefore preventing future damaging messages from being conveyed is the first step to breaking the cycle of inequality.
So stand up, speak out, and be the example. Your wife, your sister, your mom, your girlfriend, your niece, and your daughter are watching. Don’t let the messages encouraging silence and submission be the lasting words in their minds. Find your voice and use it to empower women with words of positivity and support instead.
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