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Reflecting on joys and trials of being a woman

In “Becoming Myself,” Willa Shalit shares accounts from notable women about growing up female. Read Julia Stiles and Maya Angelou’s essays.
/ Source: TODAY

In “Becoming Myself,” Willa Shalit compiles a collection of original essays on the joys, trials, and unexpected outcomes of growing up female by dozens of celebrities, writers, and exceptional women, including Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, J.K. Rowling, Julia Stiles, Maya Angelou, Kate Spade, Helen Hunt, Zane, Patti LaBelle, Joyce Carol Oates, Lily Tomlin and more. Here's an excerpt:

From Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female
Julia Stiles
Dividing her time between Columbia University and the film industry, Julia Stiles continues to expand her repertoire by participating in a variety of projects that showcase her growing abilities as a young actress. A graduate of New York’s Professional Children’s School, she won critical and popular attention for her role in the film Ten Things I Hate About You, a variation on The Taming of the Shrew. That led to several other films based on works by Shakespeare: Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, and O, a teen-oriented adaptation of Othello. While attending school and starring in films, she has also worked in Costa Rica with Habitat for Humanity.

I grew up as a city kid in New York, so from a very young age I was taking the subway. It gave me an enormous amount of freedom — I could go anywhere I wanted — which my mother and grandmother did not experience while growing up. But that sense of rebelliousness still flourished in them. The women in my family have never bowed down to society’s restrictions. During the 1950s, my grandmother was a housewife in the suburbs, but when she turned fifty, she decided to start a career in journalism. It was very pioneering for that time. And my mother is an incredible artist. When I was growing up, she had her studio in the basement of our building. She was always home when I was a child, but at night she’d go down to her studio and work for hours. Around four o’clock in the morning, I’d hear the freight elevator coming up and I’d know she was finished with her work. She worked really hard and she sacrificed so much for me — it was amazing how she incorporated her career into being an attentive, loving, and caring mother. If I ever needed her, all I had to do was ring that elevator bell and she’d come right up to see me.

I learned so much from my mother — not all of it consciously. Most of it was through osmosis, overhearing her conversations and watching the way she acted. She never directly preached to me, which is probably why her teaching was so effective. She gave me a sense of optimism and a feeling of empathy for other people. She has always had the ability to look at the positive side of things and find the positive side of people. When I was in elementary school in the eighties, she was very involved in the AIDS movement in Greenwich Village. She made ceramic funeral urns for gay men who were dying of AIDS. She poured her heart and soul into those urns, and by fostering relationships with these men she would find a way to personalize the urns, painting some aspect of their life on them — sometimes she would make little clay sculptures, almost like a bride and groom on the wedding cake, and put them on the top of the urns. She always tried to make it more of a joyful celebration of the relationship, rather than something more morose.

Recently I had a conversation with my mother in which she said to me, “Oh, you always look at the positive side of things.” I said, “Well, I learned it from you.” I have a job that puts me in a different country every two months. There’s something kind of scary about that — you’re not in your comfort zone. My mother equipped me to embrace that uneasy feeling, to find excitement in those adventures. Once, after spending six months working abroad, I went to Iceland for another job. When I first got there, I was feeling a bit homesick, and she came over to visit me. She found so much beauty in that country; it was so different from New York City. Observing the way she acted in this new environment shifted my perspective. After her visit, I started embracing the differences and began to appreciate and cherish my experience there.

I definitely feel I had more freedom growing up as a female than my mother did. When I was in high school, I played soccer, and my mom was amazed by it. Title IX didn’t exist when she was growing up, so the concept of being a girl and being athletic was foreign to her. She had never even entertained the idea, because it just wasn’t a possibility for her. We’ve come a long way, but in some respects we’ve also taken steps backward. We have more freedom in our educations, in our careers, in our reproductive rights, but there is this regression toward the “Lolita” phenomenon, which really bothers me. I grew up with Madonna and other female icons who were sexual, but they owned it. They were in control, and they had the brains to back it up. Today pop culture is full of images of young women who are very sexual and provocative, but they’re not the ones in control of their image — they’re just put out there by their handlers for public consumption. They project this powerful image, but it’s not backed up by anything. They’re not really expressing anything; they’re using their ability to turn men on as a way of selling albums or movie tickets. It’s not even so much a feminist issue for me, it’s more of an artistic issue — it’s an empty product.

Whenever I read a script or a play, I read the female character and try to imagine it written as a male character. There’s nothing wrong with a female character’s being sexual or being comfortable in her femininity or being sultry, but I want to make sure the character has the depth that is usually found in male characters. The paradigm for a female character can go all the way back to Dante — the image of a woman as the muse. The male character is inspired by her, but that gets old after a while. I want to know what she is thinking, what her problems are. That’s something I can relate to. I think we’re getting there. There is good material out there, and a lot of really talented actresses who you are seeing in more and more meaningful roles.

I think that women’s issues are slightly more personal, because it’s very easy to put myself in other women’s shoes. When women are in their teens and twenties, it seems that they are sort of afraid of each other, which is unnatural, because girls have such a sense of community. But we need to talk more. If women’s issues were talked about on a regular basis, they wouldn’t fall by the wayside. It’s easy to walk around wondering, Am I strange because I’m uncomfortable with the way things are going? Am I strange because I had this experience? Are my feelings unique? Do other women feel this way? We just have to open up, and inevitably we all realize that we are experiencing the same thing, but it is not talked about on a larger scale, unless we keep trying.

From Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female
Maya Angelou
Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou was raised in segregated rural Arkansas. She is a poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer, and director. She lectures throughout the United States and abroad and has been Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina since 1981. She has published ten bestselling books and numerous magazine articles, which have earned her Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations.

Becoming a woman is exciting, but it’s hard. It’s onerous, but it’s honorable. It’s satisfying, because people know a woman. When a woman is in the room, she doesn’t have to talk loudly. She doesn’t have to carry a six-gun. But people feel safe around her, all sorts of people, people she doesn’t even look like. People whose color may be different and who may call God by different names. People from all generations feel comfortable around a woman. To grow up female with the determination to become a woman is to earn all the plaudits, all the accolades, all the respect that this society has to give. I believe you can’t do it alone. I believe you have to have the ideals of women who went before you.

For me, these women are my grandmother, my mother, Pearl S. Buck, Madam Sun Yat-sen, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, a little, wan, white, female poet in the 1920s and ’30s who became a recluse.

She wrote a poem that says,I shall die, butthat is all that I shall do for Death.I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.But I will not hold the bridlewhile he cinches the girth.And he may mount by himself:I will not give him a leg up.Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,I will not tell him which way the fox ran.With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him wherethe black boy hides in the swamp.I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;I am not on his pay-roll.I will not tell him the whereabout of my friendsnor of my enemies either.Though he promise me much,I will not map him the route to any man’s door.Am I a spy in the land of the living,that I should deliver men to Death?Brother, the password and the plans of our cityare safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

I’ve drawn from women in every culture and folk tale that I’ve read about. The great philosophers — European and Asian and American and African — have taken the wisdom from their grandmothers, mothers, fathers, and grandfathers that was spoken in common “kitchen” or “plantation” talk. They put the content into formal language, and those become philosophical statements of great pith and moment. The truth is the farmer, the peasant, the slave, the workman, and the workingwoman knew that birds of a feather flock together long before Shakespeare said, “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.” They said, “Don’t look down and bring somebody up. Look up and pull yourself up.” My grandmother used to say, “It’s almost impossible to make the richest clothes fit a miserable man.” Listen to them without the trappings of academic ignorance. What they have to say is not all that important. It doesn’t sound like it’s Havelock Ellis, Kant, or Hegel? It doesn’t sound as if it’s Freud or Rollo May? Well, that’s really stupid. If you sit there long enough, you’ll hear “mother wit” that is applicable.

I believe that very few people grow up. Most people grow older, but growing up is challenging. Many people get older, honor their credit cards, matriculate into and graduate out of schools, get married and have children. They call that growing up, maturing. It’s not. It is simply growing old. One has to assume responsibility for the time one takes up and the space one occupies. To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents. To grow up is to care not only about one’s own self but about somebody else’s, somebody yet to come. To grow up is to be in a constant state of forgiving. Forgiving yourself for not knowing better, or for knowing better and not doing better, and then releasing people from your own anger and angst. You must stop carrying them around in their ignorance and stupidity and cruelty, giving them purchase on your back, and always having them to poke and to pinch and to carry blame.

Growing up female is difficult. I have a son, and I was with him almost every day of his growing up, but I don’t know what that was like, any more than he could know or anybody could know what it cost me to have a monthly period and not be able to explain why. I believe it’s equally difficult for a male to grow up, but he may have more help because more men are empowered than women. When he’s about fifteen or sixteen and doesn’t know what to do with his hands because they’re so big, his father and the president of the company and the principal of the high school and the president of the university and the chancellor have been there. They have sympathy for him and can help him. Many times the only people women can identify with are not people in power.

I would encourage a girl who is at that place in life to see herself as she would like to be. To try to envision herself with power. I married a man once because he was a builder. Part of why I married him stemmed from the fact that he was so intelligent. I said I would like to build, but I could never. He said building has nothing to do with physical strength and certainly nothing to do with gender. Building has to do with your insight and determination. He said that if you can see it, you can build it. See it in your mind’s eye, see every part of it from the foundation up; then you can build it. That’s true for a young woman. See yourself. No matter what the world is saying around you, imagine yourself with power. Try to see yourself with power. Not power so that you can get even with anybody else. Power so that you can become even with your vision.

Excerpted from “Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female” by Willa Shalit. Copyright © 2006, Willa Shalit. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.