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Episodes: The women


Emily VanDerWerff

Jul 29 2016

12 min read


It's 1987.

I'm in Sunday School. The instructor is talking about fruits of the Holy Spirit, about the gift of leadership God might bestow on us. We might be called, she says, to serve the church or our community or our country.

But not the girls, she says. The girls have been chosen to guide the family. That's God's role for them. A woman as pastor or mayor or — she laughs when she says this one — president would be against his plan for the world.

We drink it in. After all, she can back it up with scripture.


It's 1992.

My sister is so mad at me for not doing what she wants that she whips me across the back with a garden hose. Big, red welts open up. I howl. She stumbles backward like she's entered a nuclear launch code, but I can see somewhere she's smiling.

She has always known what she wants more than I have, and she has also always been far more fearless in going after it.


It's 1994.

There are pigs everywhere. Somehow, the fence is down, and the pigs have scattered across the yard. My father is off doing other things, and the hired hand is out in the fields. So it's up to my mother and I to corral them back into their pen.

We gather boards to create the impression of movable walls, to herd them back toward the open gap in the fence line. We manage to push all but one of them back into the pen, where they trot over to the freshly poured food that we set as a lure.

The other one is wily, though. He slips past our boards and makes a break for the open lawn. My mom gives chase. When he slips past her one last time, she laughs, looks all around to make sure I'm the only one here with her. "Oh shit," she says, then laughs again.

The "family farm" means more than just, "This is a thing my dad decided we would do." She is in. 100 percent. We finally catch the pig.


It's 1997.

I like a girl I'm not supposed to like. She's been dubbed, by everybody, "weird." But I find her fun to talk to, and I think she's cute, too. This is a minority opinion, but I chance a visit to hang out with her one weekend. We play Mario Kart with her friends.

I don't ever tell her how I feel, because she might say no, and then everybody would make fun of me. And she has all these outsider opinions about politics and how women and men should treat each other, and who cares, it's weird. Everybody knows, so why tell her I like her, even though it's obvious she also likes me?

Years later, I learn she's an attorney, and a rising star in the state Democratic Party, and I think, well, shit.


It's 1998.

I've taken a friend from out of town to prom. At the after-prom party, we're sitting around and shooting the shit, and I'm slowly realizing that the night is slipping away from me. I didn't actually think she would fall in love with me, but I also thought she would fall in love with me.

At some point, I sneer to her and some other friends, "It doesn't matter what I do. I'm not getting any head tonight."

Now, in my 17-year-old self's admittedly meager defense, he doesn't actually know what that phrase means. (I am 100 percent serious about this. I was super sheltered and assumed it was simply some synonym for making out.) But she stares at me, in hurt and shock and horror, amazed that I am the sort of person who would do something like that, and a friend of mine says, "Todd! What the fuck!"

And I stumble after her and tell her I'm sorry and that I didn't know what it meant, and she somehow believes me. But the friendship, which had been fast, is just a little splintered, and it's all my fault.


It's 1999.

She is the first girl I have honestly, seriously, really, thought about having sex with. I am almost off to college, and she is my girlfriend, and I like her, and she likes me, and good Lord, that's an intoxicating feeling. (We don't. I'm still a good Christian boy.)

The time I love her most is when we are sitting on the floor of Barnes and Noble, a Bible between us, and she tells me she doesn't believe in God.

Then she allows that's not true. "I might believe in God. But I don't believe in this." She places a finger dramatically on the Bible, and she smiles. "This has hurt too many people I know."

It doesn't matter that I believe the opposite. If we had not been in Barnes and Noble, I would have been gone.


It's 2003.

She has beaten me out for the job of editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. In no way do I want to be her number two. In no way do I want to do what she asks. In no way do I even respect her.

The school paper is a mess. It's been in disarray for years, and both she and I have pitched plans to fix it. Mine essentially tosses everything out and starts from scratch. (When asked how I'll pay for it, I say, "We'll find the money somewhere.") Her plan is more cautious, more incremental, though just as focused on turning the institution around. She has a budget. She knows what to do.

She gets the job by a single vote of the school media board, cast by a guy who hates me because I'm kind of a brash, young asshole (shocking, I know).

After about two weeks of working as her managing editor, about as grudgingly as someone could possibly do something, I realize that she is really fucking good at this, and even though we are peers, I am learning from her, in ways that she doesn't make feel like she's "educating" me.

Within a couple of months, she's one of my best friends. By the end of the year, I'm installed as the editor-in-chief of the paper for the next school year, solely to try to preserve her legacy.

Now, she's a lawyer, but the second she decides to come back to journalism, I'm beating down 500 doors for her. She'll get whatever needs doing done.


It's 2004.

My first boss is a woman, has risen through the ranks of one of those metro dailies that have long lists of white dudes in their power structure, and then maybe a person of color or a woman as a sop to whatever 2004 thinks of as diversity.

But my boss is not only intelligent but generous. She spends so much time making sure I have my head on straight. When I rent an apartment in a bad part of town before moving there, she calls me up to tell me to find a different neighborhood.

She makes me listen to Prince for the first time, for God's sake.

She teaches me about journalistic caution and misplaced modifiers and the countries that are in Scandinavia. And when it comes time to select one person from the temp program to continue on as a full-time employee, she doesn't choose me. I'm mad about it, but some part of me knows that she would have picked me if I was the best — I just wasn't.


It's 2006.

I am married. That feels like a weird thing to be at my age. Married. And I have been for a surprisingly long time.

My wife and I live in a terrible little town in the middle of the California desert, and she has gotten a job. It's not a great job, but it's one that she finds herself thriving in.

And it's intoxicating to watch her come to life. We both grew up assuming that I would write our story, and she would ride along wherever it took us. (She just didn't think that would be California.) But what I'm starting to realize is that I am wilting in the sun, and she is slowly but surely flourishing, waking up to everything she wants and hopes to become.

Even in the darkest days of our marriage, which are still ahead, I'll cling to that. Because, I realize, it's better, happier, sexier, when you want more for your partner than you do for yourself.


It's 2010.

My grandmother has died. Her skin looks like it could crack as she rests in her coffin.

The family gathers to tell stories and sing songs, to share this life that touched all of us. And as I listen to those stories, I realize, slowly, that even though she and my grandfather lived in a place where men were to be strong and women soft, they had somehow flipped that around. He was the kindest man you'd ever meet. She had a fierce loyalty and certainty that led her to attack whatever it was she wanted with pit bull ruthlessness.

They are still one of my model married couples.

He died in 1989, she 21 years later. Can you imagine?


It's 2014.

I don't know if I can leave my job. The new one has better pay and higher profile and super great people at every level. But I've built something at the job I'm currently in, and it's something I treasure and value.

And yet I also feel this itch sometimes, this sense that there are ways to run a business that could be better.

I finally realize what I'm missing in my second interview for the new job, when I talk to a woman who's very high up in the new publication, and she doesn't just ask me boilerplate stuff. She's skeptical of me. She wants me to prove I belong, not slide into an open job by default, as I have for too much of my life.

When she and my other new boss offer me the job, I realize that I'm not just leaving for what they can give me; I'm leaving to prove myself to them. I want to rise to their level, and that, finally, is what I realize I've been without.


It's 2016.

My boss asks if I've thought about stepping down from my impressively titled position, in favor of the person right below me, who is functionally my boss anyway. (She edits everything I write, after all, and I try not to make decisions without consulting her first.)

What my boss doesn't know is that this is kind of my nightmare. For the last year and a half at my old job, my superiors kept playing with the org chart in order to promote the person who had been my assistant to my superior. (Eventually they just do it without telling me.) It opens up more tension than it's worth, and it's part of some bad blood on my way out (though, fortunately, it's dissipated).

But this is different. Despite my paranoia and misgivings, despite losing the title, despite everything, I know that she makes me better at what I do, and she's also better at so many other parts of my job that I hate than I would ever be.

And it's not like I'm suddenly going to stop being employed. So I say yes. And realize I'm excited to find out whatever it is she wants to do with the section, because I know it will be tremendous.


It's 2016, and all of the best leaders I have known personally, in my own life, have been women.

I say that not as commentary, but as fact. Certainly, the world is full of terrible leaders who are women. And I'm sure I'll meet some of them soon enough.

But for now, I look back at the me of 1987, and I wonder if the girls in that Sunday School class were listening, too. I hope they weren't. I hope they're all better whatever it is they do than anybody else in the world.

It is a fucked up, awful thing to do to a little girl to tell her that she's inherently less than, just because of whatever it is you've been told to believe. But what it's taken me all these years to realize is that it's just as fucked up to do that to the little boys around her.

I don't know how we change centuries of these monstrous, oppressive systems, but that's okay. I don't have to know. I just have to listen to everybody around me, all of the women I respect and believe in, because they can tell me where to start.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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