A Feminist by Default
By Liesl Ayers – Southwell
Owner and Artistic Curator of The Little Road Said Go
You can find out more about Liesl and The Little Road Said Go at her blog or listen to her episode of The Grit City Podcast.
I’ve always been an “If you build it, they will come” kind of gal. My parents raised me to be that way. I wouldn’t say they taught me the standard “work hard and reap your rewards” way of thinking. They taught me more to constantly work on bettering myself as a person, and if I did that, I could do or be whatever I damn well pleased. My parents never rewarded me greatly for doing a good job, and they never made me feel inadequate for doing a poor job either. They always taught me to continue learning from my triumphs and my mistakes, and they taught me that both were good lessons to have.
The problem I think we all struggle with in life is that we expect greatness to validate our work, to validate how we define ourselves as a person and as an individual. The honest truth is you can never be the best at anything. Nope, just let go of any fantasy you have of being the greatest because it’s only an illusion. There is always room to grow, always room to learn and become better. There really is no making it to the top because the top just keeps getting higher and higher, and more complex and more colorful, and it’s up to you to abide.
Being a woman and owning your own business today is a big deal. Bigger than you would think. Through our history, women who owned businesses have been given little to no recognition as to their impact on economic growth. The U. S. census didn’t specify ownership of a business based on gender till 1997, but, according to the National Women’s Business Council, today women-owned businesses make up for 16% of all U.S. jobs, and have an economic impact of 2.86 trillion dollars. Now that’s something to shake a big threatening stick at! You know, if you’re the kind of person who likes to shake proverbial sticks. Today women are literally picking up those sticks, pressing play on their “Don’t Stop Me Now” Queen playlists, and rising to the their place in the world. Right now, if all U.S. women-owned businesses were their own country, they would have the 5th largest economy in the world. Though they may not have a smooth road to success quite yet in today’s society, women are effectively breaking down walls and building something new and unique, a new type of standard that’s catered to the equal rights of women in the workforce.
Before I opened The Little Road Said Go, I worked for many years teaching art and development to little kids. My heart was full of love for the families I worked with. I went to art school, and I actually felt like I was using my degree to do something good in the world, which, for an art student, is somewhat rare. I actually fundamentally really loved that job in many ways, but the moment I started working my way up through management, the more I found myself being constantly stressed and unhappy. I now had to treat the co-workers that I loved and cared for as if they were expendable objects. I would like to just be completely clear in this next statement: Teachers and artists are not expendable objects, and treating them as though they are really diminishes the human experience, not only their own, but to the generations of kids they are working to develop.
Once I started taking on management, I became someone who was constantly at my bosses beck and call. My email would ding at me throughout the night to the point that I would just get up and answer it. Waking up and dealing with whatever issue needed attention at the meek hours of 3 am was better then laying there and letting anxiety build over it, and still not getting any sleep! Virtually every morning was some sort of disaster that had to be eradicated; less it would be my head. One of my bosses would keep in contact with me through Skype as he jet-setted through Spain while the other one would push and bully from the comfort of his extravagant gated-community home. I never realized how engrossed I had gotten in the whole mess until my Dad traveled up to Seattle to visit me and found himself forced to set me straight. I had taken some time off to spend with him, but calls and emails still came in constantly, and the phone never stopped ringing. So much so, that my Dad finally said to me,
It was a wake up call. If you knew my Dad, you would know that a swift talking to such as that, is something you perk up and take notice of, because it’s just not in his nature to get involved in someone else’s affairs like that. It forced me to finally take a good look at myself. I was working 80-hour weeks and was averaging less than minimum wage when all was said and done. I had once brought up the issue of not receiving overtime for the excessive hours I was working, but was met with Trump-like pursed lips and a stern backlashing.
Do these people keep my lights on? No…. not really. Nor have I ever paid for my electricity in this sort of fashion. What kind of statement is that anyway?! In today’s workforce, why is it wrong to voice concerns about how constantly working excessive hours is negatively affecting ones wellbeing, when it is actually against the law in the first place!! Whether it’s a corporate standard and legal gray area or not to lump overtime into salaried pay, it shows poor business and lack of compunction to threaten an employee who is basically just saying; “Hey, if you want me to work the hours equivalent to two full time jobs, you need to compensate me for that.” This is not rocket science here.
Then I took a long hard look in the mirror, and realized I had gained 50 pounds since I had started that position. 50 pounds!! I just didn’t get it. I was doing what I was supposed to do, working my ass off, moving up the food chain, reaching for personal success, but here I was, literally treating my family and the people I cared for the most like they didn’t even matter, getting my head chewed off for putting any ounce of feeling into the work I was doing, and against my own tenacity, had effectively been fine tuned to keep my head down and take whatever shit was thrown at me. After finally waking up and taking that hard look, it was easy for me to say,
When I say I was done, I mean I had a heartfelt last minute goodbye with my students, and then I stayed at the office till midnight packing every important document and company credit card into a manila folder, backed up every email I had ever received, and left it all in a tidy little pile on the front desk. At 6 am the next morning, minutes after my paycheck cleared the bank, I sent my professional, but “Seriously, get bent!” letter of resignation, effective immediately. Oh, it didn’t take long for the phone calls to start ringing in repetitively every couple of minutes! I simply picked up the phone and hung it right back up. There was no reason to let those calls even go to voicemail. This was me finally taking back control of my life, and my life didn’t include these people any longer. An angry voicemail certainly wouldn’t make me see any clearer.
Later that day, one of my co-workers told me how my now previous boss had proclaimed, “Doesn’t she know who I am? I can make sure she never gets another job in this city!”
I laughed…. Like, I laughed so hard I got a stitch in my side. It’s pretty presumptuous to think you have that much power over an individual’s future, let alone an entire city. Regardless of his proclamation, I did work again in that city. Sure, it was scary at first. I left without another job to go to, and I had no idea how it would all pan out. It was undoubtedly a leap of faith on my part, but, after all was said and done, I was only unemployed for a month. To be exact, I worked several jobs in that city with amazing bosses who encouraged me and who were some of my greatest supporters when I opened The Little Road Said Go here in Tacoma. When I look back, I’ve never regretted burning that bridge down in a blaze of glory. Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge. Of course, I had my Queen playlist on standby so how could I have gone wrong?
The thing is, I never really thought of myself as a feminist till I started my own business. I’ve just always been a stubborn child and found my own way to get what I want out of life, whether I had to re-invent the crazy wheel to get there or not. Feminism can be looked at in so many different ways, but for me, it wasn’t just about reforming the box. It was about breaking the box and building a new one that was catered to myself! Of all the many cultural issues we face on a day-to-day basis, I think it really comes down to this:
Just try….Try your darndest to do better, try to think in different ways, and try to see other perspectives than your own, but ultimately, just try to be nicer to one another. Don’t push your responsibilities onto other people; we’ve all got our own circuses to run. Build your community and use that to open people’s hearts to what our minds and bodies need as a human race. That’s all we can really do, make the conscious decision to be better, to keep getting better and to keep learning how to be better. Never tell yourself, “I’ve reached the top! I’m the best of the best!” Because you’re not. You never will be. You’re just a douche.
It tickles me a little bit to imagine one of my old bosses reading through this article, (knowing it's them I’m directly referring to). I’d like to think they might say to themselves, “I’m going to make a point to be more aware of how my impact as an employer influences the lives of my employees.” Unfortunately, it’s probably safer to say that they would think it was them that pushed me to become the businesswoman I am today. That their misguided influence ultimately shaped me into a stronger woman and business owner.
They would be wrong. I was just raised to be this way.
Photos by Justin Suyama of Suyama Images. www.suyamaimages.com