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Taylor and Caitlin

If you immediately added the last names, you may, like me, have taken note of these two amazing women who have captured the imagination and attention of thousands of devoted fans and admirers.  Generationally speaking, Taylor Swift is 34, a millennial and Caitlin Clark is 22, a member of Gen Z.  They represent for me high profile examples of why I feel so optimistic about the emerging generations, their generations, the millennials and Gen Z. 


While many think of Taylor Swift primarily as a singer and performer, I think she would first self-describe as a songwriter, and it is this creative genius and manifested authenticity that I most admire. Caitlin Clark has taken women’s basketball by storm and created new ways of understanding women athletes, but it is her creative genius and manifested authenticity I most admire.  Both are very hard workers, passionate about their “work” and its quality, which I also admire.  They earned what they have achieved, knowing others chafe at these earnings.


My response to both of them is a mix of fascination and gratitude.  They are the women I wanted, and did not have as models for my life and the lives of my daughters, and I celebrate that they are part of the lives of my granddaughters. Both Taylor and Caitlin know that they are challenging historical barriers, know that there will be consequences for this, and chose to act anyway. They are defining their achievements on their own terms, owning their excellence without apology. They are iconic figures in the two major ways we in the US fill our “free time”: sports and the arts, especially music.  They bring us joy; they complete us.


Taylor, older, has already publicly absorbed the high cost of those choices. Caitlin is likely to have comparable experiences, some already unfolding. Yet they are committed to weathering adversity, even the social media versions. Both place a high priority on being role models for young girls and young women, hoping to inspire them to invest in their own dreams, to believe in themselves.  Both have already established a way to “give back”, both in resources and personal generosity. Though I do not know what twists and turns lie ahead for these two women, today, with ease, I celebrate them.


I decided I wanted to post this blog to simply acknowledge them, maybe to say “Thank You”.  I spent a long time trying to grasp what I was saying “Thank You” for, and realized it has layers and complexities.  Having decided to write this “Thank You note”, I spent many hours viewing interviews, performances and ball games, the assessments of others, including the social media bubbles of criticism and jealousy and pettiness and cruelty.  I found myself always tearing up when a young girl, 4 or 7 or 10 years old, would be singled out for attention by her heroine and the overpowering reaction this evoked.  I watched many little girls have their lives changed forever.


I began to realize that though I am in awe of Taylor’s songs and performances and Caitlin’s basketball skill and abilities, I am actually attracted to them as humans, as persons who are, with their special gifts, creating something that transcends the gifts.  Some dimensions of this are already acknowledged: they are economic engines that have created whole new or dramatically enlarged revenue streams.  No one quite says this out loud, but the underlying reason that this draws so much focus is that they are women.  We unconsciously assume such developments are catalyzed by men, not women.  These women, however, are doing this and everyone is trying to figure out if this is good news or bad news.


They are “feminists” but clearly do not fit the popularized caricatures of the “feminist”. They do, however, clearly fit the dictionary definition of feminist: “an advocate of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”.  Taylor Swift summarizes much of this in her song “The Man”; she has spoken candidly about her frustration with critiques of her that reveal a double standard: some of what she does would be admired in a man, while she evokes dismissive judgments or disapproval. Caitlin Clark speaks passionately about her commitment not only to women’s basketball but all women’s sports and developing their potentials. She speaks proudly of significantly drawing larger attendance numbers than others, without actually saying that her numbers are larger than the ones men draw.


They are clear eyed realists, it seems to me, about the mountain they are climbing. What fascinates me is neither seems particularly tentative or queasy about the challenge.  I think this is what is striking and attractive for many who are their fans: they appear fearless and unstoppable.  Many women and their daughters simply “like them”: they seem like “normal”, engaging, personable,  young women you would want to have for a friend. I also think it is their capacity to grapple with the risks and resistances they have chosen to experience that draws forth the deep adulation and devotion.


There is, however, something that is more subtle, and even less likely to be stated out loud, but both women are what we in the US call “white”, that is, they are identified as members of the “advantaged” race. And of course, in many respects they are “advantaged”.  They are both from loving families who seem almost iconic examples of parents and siblings (only brothers!) who support their highly successful family member.  Both families made sacrifices to give their gifted family member a path to extraordinary success.  It all looks quite wholesome. Indeed, one of the complex dimensions of their journey has been the responses from women who are “not white”, a topic for another blog post.  This post simply explores the fact that these two women are identified as “white”.


What is usually less recognized and acknowledged is that “white dominance” never means “white female dominance”. On the contrary, “white dominance” refers to “white male dominance” and is predicated on the “white women” consenting to, adapting to, and accommodating, the dominance of “white men” and sustaining the inequities this creates usually by themselves often being subjected to serious inequities. Simply put, “white women” went along with the program and did get advantages but also paid a very high price in personal self-agency and authenticity.


To be fair, some “white” women do try to break free of the tyranny embedded in this cultural structure but find themselves timid, fearful, afraid of mistakes or failure.  Breaking free seems dangerous and they rightly recognize that there will be consequences for “defying” the well-constructed edifice of social mores.  Women who break the rules are often struck down. As someone who often spoke up, my sharpest memories are the swift or subtle reprisals and the women who quietly approached me in the hall and thanked me for saying what they were too fearful to say. Their gratitude was painful.


Taylor and Caitlin break that mold. Their stance is not defiant or manipulative or aggressive (though they have critics who claim otherwise to try to diminish them). They have simply said “NO”, and then went about doing what they set out to do.  The fear of failure or reprisal does not interrupt their commitments. You can try to stop them or interfere, but they will grapple, find another way to move forward, stay true to their “life work”.  They share a major goal: to inspire little girls to follow their dream no matter what. I feel that I have to note here that we all silently agree that it would be good to have someone inspire little girls like this.  The obvious question is why they would need it. 


A part of me wishes we could have an honest discussion about this last important point: it is difficult to get “white” women to own the fact that they have often “gone along” to avoid risking the loss of perceived “advantages”, even if it meant suppressing their own potential and possibilities. They are reluctant to acknowledge that fear keeps them from taking risks. They are often even more reluctant to acknowledge that they have taught their daughters to behave this way.


Taylor and Caitlin are showing us another way.  If it makes you uncomfortable to reflect on all of this, I recommend playing Taylor’s song “Shake It Off” on Spotify or Pandora while watching the You Tube recounting of the game where Caitlin Clark became the all-time leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball. This post is my simple gesture of affirmation and gratitude to two young women and their gifts to our nation, and to the world.


“For me, the process of embodying confidence was less about convincing myself of my own worth and more about rejecting and unlearning what society had hammered into me.”


- Lindy West-

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