Sisterhood of the Traveling Musicians

From the archives: August 3, 2012

 I spent the last week teaching voice at Girls Rock Dallas, a camp created solely for women who want to make music.  The experience was everything I could’ve hoped for and more.  I learned so much about the power of sisterhood and the beauty of women working together.  Moreover, I was forced to confront some irrefutable truths about the conflicting natures of my existence. 

That sounds really serious and daunting.  Let’s rewind. 

When I left my home in Dallas, TX for my first year at Scripps College, I was petrified.  Not because I was headed away from the land of biscuits and gravy and into the land of unsweetened tea (though that was a rude discovery).  Not because I was going to be living 1500 miles away from my friends and family.  Not even because my college career was beginning with Outdoor Orientation, which would be my first experience camping in the great outdoors.  (For the record, I learned very quickly that this city chick and the wild woods do not mix.  Neither do carnivores and TVP.) 

I was petrified because Scripps College was a women’s college.  And, for the first time in my life, I was going to have to live with a bunch of girls—and no boys. 

Here’s the thing:  I wasn’t a cool girl.  I wasn’t popular.  Growing up, most of the people to whom I was emotionally close were boys.  I had a few good girl friends, but I always felt most comfortable with the boys.  In fact, “I hate girls” was a phrase that I used freely.  That wasn’t the only phrase, either: 

“I’m never going to be a girly-girl.” 

“I don’t get girls.” 

“I’m not pretty enough to hang out with them.” 

I self-identified as a “guy’s girl.”  I hated makeup.  I didn’t understand the female obsession with purses.  I listened to pop music religiously, but I didn’t have in-depth discussions about which  ‘N Sync member was the hottest or which pop princess had the prettiest hair.  I was really scared of the girl circles—you know, the spaces where girls would gather and whisper conspiratorially about the faults in other girls: 

“She’s so disgusting.  It’s like she never brushes her hair.” 

“I heard she’s a lesbian.  Like, she actually likes other girls.” 

“She could be pretty if she wasn’t so fat.” 

I had come to the conclusion in junior high that some girls were pretty, and some girls were smart.  In my mind, the two could not co-exist without some kind of war in the aisles of the cafeteria.  I knew I wasn’t a pretty girl—not by the platinum blonde, stick-thin standards, at least—so I made the decision to be a smart girl.  And, by route, I shunned the pretty girls. 

The idea of suddenly being thrust into a world where I had to not only communicate, but LIVE with the pretty girls was terrifying.  In fact, the terror remained until I spent my first night on the Scripps campus in the company of a myriad of fellow first years. 

There were lots of pretty girls.  There were lots of smart girls.  To my astonishment, most of the girls fell into both categories.  But, to my complete surprise and relief, NONE of the girls felt the need to form the evil girl circles and start voting the less conventional chicks off of Style Island. 

See, this weird thing happens when boys are removed from the equation—girls get supportive of each other.  They stop tearing each other down.  They stop competing with each other and start competing with themselves.  And, as a result, everyone grows—together. 

All of the women I met at Scripps had big dreams, big plans, and big brains.  Most importantly, though, they had big love.  The conversations I overheard about other women were drastically different. 

“She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.” 

“She’s SO talented.” 

“She’s got that kind of beauty that’s effortless.” 

Jealousy became reverence.  Spite became awe.  Hate became love. 

I’m not saying girls never got into fights.  I’m not saying that no one ever argued.  I’m saying that our first inclination wasn’t to devalue each other. 

I’m not sure where women learn to hate other women, but it’s a terrible thing.  Living in the cocoon of strength and sisterhood created by Scripps College was an indescribable blessing.  Leaving it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. 

When I graduated and made the decision to enter the workforce as a female musician, I entered an obviously male-dominated industry.  I did not expect the sexism to be so blatant, though.  I’ve walked into open mics and had people ask me which guitar-playing dude was my boyfriend.  I hear the following on a regular basis: 

“Pretty girls shouldn’t have to carry equipment.” 

“How does your boyfriend feel about you playing in bars?” 

“Honey, that’s a man’s job.” 

As a musician, I hang with the boys.  And there’s a misconception at work—that, to hang with the boys and eradicate the blatantly sexist comments above, you have to hang LIKE the boys.  I can’t get excited about sparkly things, or I’m a ditz.  I have to make sure that I never trip in my stilettos, or I’m just some guy’s ornamental puppet.  I have to carry all of my own equipment, or I’m a high-maintenance diva.  (Sidenote:  Who created these labels?  Why do we allow ourselves to perpetuate them?)  I sometimes feel like I have to be twice as talented as the boys just to be taken seriously.  Otherwise, I’m just a pretty girl who sings.  And remember, I’ve never been a pretty girl. 

I walk a fine line between feminine and masculine, and I do it in six-inch heels.  Daily. 

When I walked into Girls Rock Dallas, I felt strangely like a first year entering Scripps for the first time.  I was petrified of working with women again.  I was worried that the girls would get catty.  I was worried that I wouldn’t be rock enough for the metal musicians.  I was worried that I’d be too soprano for the altos.  I was worried that, because I like heels and sparkly things, they’d look at me like I used to look at the cheerleaders in my high school. 

I’d forgotten about the magic rule where judgment disappears in the absence of boys. 

I was petrified of having to prove myself in the same way that I have to prove myself to every crowd, every open mic, and every male-dominated musical community. 

I didn’t have to. 

We started our first morning with a dance party—and ALL of the female counselors and instructors went out and danced with the campers.  The pierced, tattooed, pink-haired, sequin-adorned, heel-clad, Ugg-wearing…ALL of them were on the floor, grooving without a care in the world. 

This happened every morning.  Whenever campers were announced, all of the women cheered them on.  Whenever a band took the stage, they entered amidst the screams of proud instructors.  In the break room, girls of all shapes, sizes, races, and styles chatted amicably and animatedly about the power and talent of their campers and bands. 

It was Scripps all over again.  There was a warm cocoon of love.  The campers felt it, too, because they blossomed.  Their showcase was incredible.  Writing songs with them was incredible.  But watching them support each other?  That was the most incredible thing ever. 

I could go on for ages about the importance of love and tolerance—especially among women—but here’s the crux of the issues:  I think that all of us girls inherit some pretty scary biases.  But prejudices can be dangerous, so here are my corrected statements: 

“I hate girls.” – I don’t hate girls.  I love girls.  I hate girls who make their entire life about a man.  I hate girls who don’t respect other girls.  I hate girls who sacrifice their own strength, knowledge and passion because they’re scared to be different.  I hate girls that are afraid to say no to a boy.  I hate girls that are scared to figure out what they want.  I hate girls that don’t believe in their own worth and value.  Truthfully, though, I don’t hate these girls at all—I just feel really, really sad for them. 

 “I’m never going to be a girly-girl.” – I am a girly-girl sometimes.  I still watch football.  I still curse like a sailor when I’m driving through traffic on 635.  But I also love a good pair of heels, and I can easily spend hours in Nordstrom.  I have also solved the mystery that is liquid eyeliner, and I agree that its secrets are impressive. 

“I don’t get girls.” – I don’t get girls that don’t appreciate other girls.  I don’t get girls that feel the need to tear each other down.  I don’t get negative girls.  I don’t get judgmental girls.  I don’t get mean girls.  Society is mean enough; women should support and love each other.  I DO get girls that aren’t afraid to be themselves—even if that means that they’re married with children, pleated skirts, and pearl earrings.  Whatever decision you make, rock it like you made it on purpose or make a different decision. 

“I’m just not pretty enough.” – Pretty is subjective.  I saw a lot of women this past week, and I thought each and every one was beautiful.  Radiant.  Brilliant.  Passionate.  Nothing is prettier than that. 

Girl power isn’t limited to fierce black women who have the strength, courage, and audacity to sang lines like “if you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it” and demand to know “where my girls at?”  Girl power is for every girl.  Furthermore, sisterhood is for every girl.  Ovaries bind us in a way that we might not always understand, but we should wholeheartedly embrace it. 

And another thing?  Girl power doesn’t have a specific face.  There’s power in a stiletto-wearing beauty queen just like there’s power in a punk princess wearing platform combat books and a tutu.  It’s not the clothes; it’s the way you wear them.  It’s the confidence with which you present yourself.  It’s the knowledge that you stand for a gender that bears children and knits sweaters, but also slams sick guitar riffs, belts life-changing lyrics, and kills impossible drum fills. 

Girls DO run the world—if we stop criticizing each other and start working together. 

So what are you waiting for?  Go hug a sister.  Develop a bond.  Bring some women together.  And, from now on, every time you want to say something catty, say something nice instead.  Next time a bitter thought about someone’s appearance enters your head, rewrite your thought to “That girl is beautiful.”  Because she is…and so are you. 

If we want the rest of the world to believe in our power, we have to believe in ourselves.  And, like I learned at camp, GIRLS ROCK! 

 - Em :)