I was recently invited to give a keynote address on unleashing the power of women. My horror, when I agreed, was almost instant. Not because of my trusty old friend Crippling Imposter Syndrome but because I’m not uniquely qualified here. Yes, I have technical and policy skills about the pursuit of gender equality, but I haven’t overcome great hurdles. I haven’t scaled great heights. I’m just ordinary. I couldn’t figure out what I could possibly offer this audience about unleashing the power of women during the tyre-fire that is 2020.
In the end two things got me past this. The first is that an objectively fabulous woman recommended me for this gig, so I took her belief in me on the chin.
I had the realisation that I don’t want to hear from extraordinary women right now. I decided to lean into being ordinary.
The second was my realisation that I don’t want to hear from extraordinary women right now. I want to hear from people who go to bed early and refuse out-of-hours work calls. And maybe other women do too. So, I decided to lean into being ordinary.
Once I did, I relaxed. I felt like I had reset the terms of success, relevance and distinction in ways that work for me. And it dawned on me that embracing and celebrating the ordinary might be the act of feminist subversion we need to sidestep and challenge some of the more exhausting aspects of modern patriarchy.
The framing of the exceptional is largely a construct of patriarchal and capitalist assumptions about what is important. In this frame, success occurs via paid work, outside the home, and in the formal economy. It frames things like academic qualifications, high-ranking job titles and honors as more noteworthy than physical health, social and family life, contributions to community, and capacity and talent in unpaid and informal work. Success in these informal and personal spheres is discounted, even though these efforts underwrite our individual and collective wellbeing. And gendered norms driving gendered patterns of labour mean that women are responsible for much of this work, even when they also have ambitions associated with formal work.
Even when we do ‘important’ work women don’t get to determine what rates as meritorious and grants access to the first rung (well all the rungs) on the ‘important’ work ladder we climb to be exceptional.
Success in these informal and personal spheres is discounted, even though these efforts underwrite our individual and collective wellbeing.
The cultural and political capital that stems from attending the ‘right’ schools, links to old boys and intergenerational networks, and access to intergenerational wealth, create fast lanes (and ladders) for success. There are bonus points if you are male, white, cis-het, able-bodied and neuro-typical. In a bait and switch on those with less luck and privilege, we almost always fail to acknowledge when these unearned bonuses are levered to achieve personal greatness, instead holding up that greatness as example of what we all can achieve if only we tried harder.
And so women (and others) are frequently trapped. We still want to, or are socially and culturally obliged to, do all the life stuff, but we are also striving to be extraordinary through a prism of merit we did not construct. In this context, we ARE trying hard, but the field of success is small, and often works to exclude us, and that which is important to us.
It’s almost impossible not to internalise this. We compare ourselves with the peak and feel that we have under achieved. We downplay or feel guilty about doing those things not directly related to these forms of success. We question our relevance and contribution. We self-select out or increase our mental burden with self-doubt because we hold ourselves to an account of what is exceptional that cannot accommodate our diverse contributions, interests and realities.
It’s time to call nonsense on this whole construct.
I propose we reject this narrow patriarchal frame of what is extraordinary in exchange for a broader frame which reclaims ordinariness as of value and merit.
Sure, we could work to reframe what it means to be extraordinary, like efforts to move the needle on gender parity on Australian honours lists by working to actively nominate women. And while I applaud this and encourage you to nominate your mum, right now, I want a rest from reforming patriarchy – I’d rather reject it all together.
The radical act of embracing the ordinary side-steps patriarchy as the arbiter of success so we can accept that others may see potential and inspiration in us even when we feel ordinary.
Embracing ordinariness lets us rationalise important acts of self, family and community care, and pursuit of health and hobbies as legitimate and fulfilling ways to spend our time.
Embracing ordinariness lets us rationalise important acts of self, family and community care, and pursuit of health and hobbies as legitimate and fulfilling ways to spend our time and as contributing to our overall success as humans.
In reclaiming ordinariness we broaden our focus on where we seek inspiration and knowledge – not from above us, but from around us. And we can acknowledge that it is the relentless championship of ordinary people, for themselves and for others, that brings change.
This not a repudiation of hard work or excellence, or a rejection of expertise – which is possibly more important now than ever before – but a recognition that these things do not exist in a vacuum removed from the ordinary. It lets us empower ourselves and each other by valuing all the little and big things that make us ordinary and extraordinary at the same time and recognises that hard work happens all around us – it just doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
You might be excellent quilter, or you’ve got great squat form. Perhaps you’re successfully managing a chronic illness, or you volunteer in your local community or you’ve figured out how to grow carrots that are carrot shaped. Maybe you are doing the extra work of navigating a system that wasn’t built for, or which actively excludes, you. These are great accomplishments of which you should be proud – and I salute you. Patriarchy doesn’t know what it’s missing.
Owning the ordinary can give us space to have peace and pride in ourselves to take a damn nap or leave work on time to get to the gym without feeling guilty or address a room of people as an equal with something to share, rather than expert with something to tell.
I know this approach won’t end patriarchy but I have found embracing the ordinary is like taking a little holiday from caring what patriarchy thinks.
And if we ever needed to high five the ordinary acts associated with just keeping on going, and embrace being fabulously ordinary, this is that year. Give it a try.
Amy Haddad is a gender equality and social inclusion expert and Director of the Gender Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion Practice at Coffey International Development. Amy is trying to balance smashing the patriarchy with maintaining physical and mental health [naps], raising teenagers and trying to grow straight carrots. She has zero sourdough skills. These are her own views.