The need to ask women and girls better questions

Last week, a twitter user wrote short bios on male scientists as if they were female to portray the ways marital status, children and looks often play center stage when it comes to women and their career achievements. This prompted me to rediscover a post I started many months ago after attending a lecture given by Lynsey Addario, a famed and accomplished photojournalist, at Fernbank Museum here in Atlanta. Her work, alongside 10 other female photojournalists, was featured as part of the Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment exhibit at the museum.

Lynsey’s biography is too extensive to cover in-depth, but she is an experienced war and conflict photojournalist and has worked in Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria and more. She was kidnapped in Libya while on assignment for the New York Times. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is being made about her life. Lynsey is only 41 years old and she’s kind of big deal.

Lynsey’s lecture, which took us through numerous photographs where she provided context and stories, was spell-bounding. When it came time for a short question and answer session with the audience, however, I was embarrassed by the questions she received. The lead off question was “What was your husband’s reaction to your kidnapping? Did he demand you quit?” I have no idea the type of stress her family must have been under while she was missing. By her own account, it sounds utterly horrific. But framing the question within the context of her husband, instead of asking how she herself felt after being released or whether she herself considered quitting, is condescending. I found myself wondering if the three male colleagues who were also kidnapped had ever been asked if their wives or partners granted them permission to return to work. Especially in this type of professional forum.

Unfortunately, questions that’s focused on Lynsey’s status as female, wife and mother continued. Lynsey was asked now that she is a mother does her decision-making differ about which assignments she’ll accept or is she “superwoman”; she was asked how she could emotionally handle returning to assignment after being kidnapped and witnessing the horror of war; she was asked how she carried her heavy equipment with such a “little body”; and so on and so forth.

I walked out of the lecture with a sour taste in my mouth. Here we were, in front of an accomplished photojournalist, and her gender, her role as a mother and her role as a wife reigned supreme. Zero questions were asked about her artistic process or about how she builds trust with such diverse populations. She’s photographed everyone from the Taliban to the U.S. Marines, often spending several weeks with each group. No one asked about how her personal politics affect her work. While the exhibit at Fernbank purposefully featured and celebrated women photographers, condescending questions should not have been the consequence.

Upon further reflection, the questions asked that night aren’t shocking at all. Focusing on a woman’s gender, marital status and whether or not she has children is a common experience for powerful career women. Heck, it’s a common experience for all women. I often feel frustrated when people don’t ask me questions about myself in social situations even as I make every effort to engage in meaningful conversation outside of my kids. Because I stay at home, I feel reduced to wife and mom, two roles that I cherish and love, but I’m more than that. Sometimes I question whether I’ve somehow lost myself in the process of becoming a mother and wife, but I realize women with careers are defined within these roles as well. A woman can have career success, but that success is often measured alongside her ability to be a “good” wife and mother. Whether we work or stay at home, women are valued as wife and mom first, everything else second.

This reality starts young. The type of questions Lynsey received that night mirror the type of questions women are asked our whole lives. I was raised by a feminist mother who fiercely protected me and my sisters from the often silly, often offensive questions young girls receive. “Do you have a boyfriend?” at age 7 was met with “Shannon has lots of friends, boys and girls!” Comments about our looks were always met with a counter about our intelligence. Growing up, I found these interactions between my mother and other adults amusing, albeit a little embarrassing. But now, as a mother myself, I recognize she was rejecting the standard line of questioning reserved for women and girls. She was demanding better for us and I thank her for that.

I already notice the difference in questions or comments made towards my son versus my daughter. My daughter’s outfits and shoes evoke squeals of delight, while my son’s clothes rarely draw notice. When commenting on my son’s cuteness, I hear statements like, “he’s going to be a heartbreaker” or “those girls better watch out!” For my daughter, it’s “you’re going to have to beat the boys off with a stick!” or “you and your husband are going to have your hands full come high school!” There are several problems embedded in statements like these, but for the purpose of this post, what bothers me is as a heartbreaker, my son is framed as independent, strong and in control. Needing protection from boys, my daughter is framed as fragile and not in control. While I know the friends and neighbors who make these comments are well-intentioned, words have power and shape societal norms.

So let’s talk actions we can all take. In this article, Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, addresses the need to fight the urge to comment on the cuteness of a little girl’s outfit or the bow in their hair. This is admittedly hard for me. I love girly things and let’s be real, little girl clothes are freaking adorable. But the focus on the female appearance that starts from infancy is damaging. As Bloom notes, “15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and 25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize.” Say what?

Bloom suggests asking little girls if they like to read, to name their favorite book or what they like best at school; anything that keeps the focus away from their physical appearance. I’d take it a step further and suggest we eliminate language around romantic relationships for all little kids. Not only do the usual catch phrases that I mentioned above paint boys as aggressors and girls as passive, but they reinforce a hetero-normative standard. As a mother to both a son and a daughter, I pledge to check my language.

On behalf of the audience at Fernbank that evening, I apologize to Lynsey Addario. She, like the majority of women and girls everywhere, deserved better questions.

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