My mom and dad attended every single parent teacher conference during my K-12 experience. They kept going even though they heard just about the same thing at every single one. They never let me sit in the room with them. I always had to wait outside and pretend not to hear adults talk about me. Every single time.
After some initial banter, the teacher would say something to the effect of, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith, you’re not the parents that I need to talk to. Why are you even here?”
My dad has a hearty laugh, and it would bellow out. He loved hearing that—every single time it was said. The teacher would show my work, discuss my grades, and say lots of nice things.
My parents, who thought I should always hear some criticism to ensure that I didn’t start to think too highly of myself, who inevitably ask: “Ok, but what does Danielle need to work on?”
And then, without exception, I would hear some version of, “Danielle talks too much.” It was usually said in more coded language, like, “Danielle can be a little chatty.” But it was the same thing.
My parents would laugh again, and say something like, “Yes. That sounds like her.”
The meeting would always end cordially. On the ride home, I would be told everything I had already overheard, and be reprimanded about my talking.
But it never changed. I wasn’t talking just to talk. I wasn’t talking to disrupt. Sometimes I was speaking up for other students. Other times, I was speaking up for myself. From an early age, friends and family determined that my career would involve talking—and I knew it too.
So why was my talking so unwelcome?
A few things this week got me thinking about the importance of letting girls talk—if their doing so is not disruptive to classroom learning, of course.
First, my failed quest for design icons: This week I tried to find an icon depicting a woman at a podium engaged in public speaking. I found dozens of such icons depicting men in public speaking settings. I found exactly zero of such icons for women. The only women depicted in icons speaking were wearing headsets as if to signal that they were customer service phone representatives. That was at once quite telling and annoying.
Next, a woman was told to “shut up” on national TV: I can concede that both sides were engaged in a heated debate and not much yielding was going on. But, there’s literally no excuse for any woman to be disrespected and dismissed in that fashion. I have a hard time believing that if a man had been interrupting and interjecting he would have been told to “shut up.” It all brings me back to this question of why women speaking, especially speaking up, is so problematic.
Finally, I learned that my #shero Cathy Hughes talked too much, too: I was thrilled to listen to the most recent installation of NPR’s How I Built This podcast featuring Cathy Hughes. I was struck by Hughes’ astonishingly early discovery that she was meant to be the first Black, female nationally-syndicated talk radio host—and also by the visceral reaction of the adults in her life. Some of her teachers told her parents that she needed to have a psychology evaluation. Her own family found her odd. But, undeterred, she practiced her radio show every morning in the bathroom, and yes, she talked too much in school. What if Cathy had stopped talking?
I’m a storyteller, a communications strategist, and a social impact leader. My passion is helping people, especially women on a mission, articulate their own unique, authentic and powerful leadership stories in ways that inspire others to invest in them. I founded my company, She Thinks Purple, because I have this unrelenting belief that there’s tremendous power in stories. Stories, after all, are the only means by which we communicate information such that it is understood at once by the mind and the heart. We simply cannot afford to tell little girls to stop talking, or we’ll lose out on too many stories yet to be told. The future belongs to the best storytellers—and our girls must be among them.
Danielle Kristine Toussaint, founder + CEO of She Thinks Purple, is a storyteller, strategist and social impact leader. She has been the writing pen behind op-eds and speeches for Huffington Post, Forbes.com, and TEDx. Danielle holds a B.A. in Political Science and African American Studies from Yale University and a M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash