Ryan (Age 10):
How many people in the U.S. are women?
A bit more than half of its population.
Ryan (Age 10):
Then how come we had all 44 men presidents, but not a single woman president?
Shouldn't we have had at least 22 women presidents?
Well....There have been great queens and women rulers.
Queen Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, Wu Zetien, Queen Seonduk, Empress Maria Theresa,...
Ryan (Age 10):
They never teach about these women at schools.
Maybe that is the problem. If people learn more about these great women rulers,
they will not be so hesitant to vote for a women president.
This is where we began.
As I watched a clip of Apollo 11’s moon landing for the first time on TV, I declared:
’I’m going to be an astronaut. I want to see the earth from the moon.’
‘Girls can’t be astronauts,' my brother said, 'You have to go to the air force.’
My brother, who was already in high school, had just blocked me from two future occupations.
I could not be a fighter pilot nor an astronaut. To this day, I remember so clearly the daisy flowers on the glass I was holding, and the feeling of my brain, stuck in gear, desperately trying to understand why...
It was nothing new to be told ‘you are a girl, so you should...’ in my family.
I was born to a family that boasts its origin to a queen who ruled the kingdom. But, living with a conservative father and two older brothers, 7 and 10 years my senior, who seemed so much more able, required a clear understanding of the do's/don’ts and cans/can’ts in the limited world of girls. This was, after all, Korea in the 1970's: a country where women’s right were wasted away under a 500-year-old Confucius dynasty, then Imperial Japan's occupation which treated women as disposables, and finally a cruel war that tore apart families and left so many orphans, widows, and rape victims. It was one thing to understand the rules of behavior as a girl, but it was a whole other thing to swallow that there were things I should not dream about because I was a girl.
Entering the awkward teenage years, I decided that I was going to be a boy. I dressed like a boy, and walked and talked like a boy. I played soccer and baseball and joined a band as a drummer. I got into a lot of trouble at school because my behavior was not that of 'a proper girl'.
I remember the horror on my mother’s face when a department store clerk looked at me and told her that the boys’ department was on the second floor. I received love letters from girls who fantasized about me as a boy. I got reprimanded at school because one of the students refused to come to school when she finally realized that I was a girl, and this broke her heart. Her father, a Congressman, was not happy. I was told to ‘correct’ my behavior and dress 'properly'. Dressing up like a boy gave me the feeling of empowerment: daring and fearless. But I realized that I craved the world to accept me as I was, daring and fearless, without the pretense.
In 1990, alone, I boarded a plane to the U.S., ‘taking a break’ from the best university for respectable brides-to-be in Seoul . The deal I made with my Mother was to get a degree in Interior Design and come back to find the perfect husband from a respectable family. At RISD, my first teacher was a young, beautiful, and intimidatingly intelligent woman in her late 20’s. She was a soft-spoken person, but in the studio critiques, she was the most fierce of debaters. The frustrating desire to converse with her pushed me even harder to study and perfect my English. One day, she asked me to come to her office, and said, ‘I just saw in your file that you are going to major in Interior Design. Is this true?’ I replied, ‘Yes…’ She looked at me squarely, ‘You should change it to Architecture. It will be harder, but you will be fine. You will be a good architect.’ I called my family that night and heard, ‘It is better for a girl to have a degree in Interior Design. Men are Architects, and women are Interior Designers.’ Hanging up, I made a decision to take the advice from the 'girl' professor. I changed my major to Architecture the next day.
Stories of women in Architecture cannot be shared here - it needs it’s own 200 episode TV series or an epic novel. One cannot believe the level of chauvinism in this field of men. Men who pride themselves in being society’s intellectual elites, embodying cultural sophistication. As an Architect now for 20 years, I've had to live with the unyielding demand to prove myself because of this. In a meeting, when you are the only woman, you cannot show any sign of weakness. Others in the meeting will second guess every answer you give them. You have to hit it right the first time, and on each successional question, while your male counterpart can say anything, even if it's totally irrelevant or incorrect, with no question of their abilities. I cried alone a lot. I had a punching bag and a worn out dart board in my office that scared a lot of male colleagues. I lost my temper screaming ‘I feel sorry for your mother!’ to a 6’-7” tall contractor who called me names. Something that, in a professional work setting, would only be done to a woman.
Then, I got to do something men could never do. I became a mother. I became a mother of a wonderful boy with a sensitive heart who has had a hard time understanding the illogical injustice and cruelties of the world. Also, I realized that the world that boys are pressured to inherit is no picnic either. Boys are heavily burdened and taught to be a certain way too. As my son got older, and his relationship with his girl friends changed, he began to ask a lot of questions about women in history. ‘Has there been a woman president? Who are the famous women warriors? Who are the famous women scientists?’ I, a self-proclaimed feminist, was astonished at how little I knew. Digging deeper, I was shocked by how many notable women there have been, and how little we teach our kids and ourselves about them. When I discovered information on these women, especially rulers, history often minimized their achievements or distorted the contexts. As I shared these stories with my son, I loved his bewilderment asking me ‘why didn’t they want her to be the queen?’ ‘why couldn't she publish her papers?’ Why indeed….
I see a pendulum swinging. I decided to be another hand to push it harder, channeling all the tears I had to swallow as a daughter, a sister, a girl, a woman, and a female architect. I want our girls and boys to see that women have been, are, and will be, equal partners in humanity moving forward. We have learned about all kinds of men in history: good, bad and ugly. It is time to talk about the women. Not as the men’s mothers and wives, but on their own. It is time to re-learn, re-think and re-view women: to inspire the girls and boys as equals, harmonious collaborators of our future; their future. Imagine what they can achieve together…
Leslie Y. Wilson