Women are taught to give. Their time, energy, and bodies are in service all the time. There is supposed to be dignity in this, even grace. Soft and fluid, women spin the world. They are sustenance, encouragement, and comfort. The depth of their love is the breadth of their worth. Their families come first. If a woman chooses not to have a family, she’d damn well better be extra dedicated to her work. Passion is their lot. To be woman is to suffer, for better or worse.
What women are not taught is how to give in ways that make sense. Instead, they are taught to give to others at their own expense. This, too, is in the recipe book.
Laurie Penny writes, “Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep them in check.”
For years, I did this with Steve. He’d ask what I wanted for dinner and I’d say I don’t care. He’d turn on the TV to stream a movie of his choice and I’d snuggle down to watch. His needs were my priority. His desires came first. I could always squish a little more of myself to make him comfortable and prove my worth.
Steve never required this. In fact, he was oblivious. He took for granted his right to choice. I expected this and acquiesced without ever really thinking about it. Like many women, I sleepwalked through life with him and operated by rote. I’d watched my dad dominate, my first husband dominate, and even my sons. It was their birthright like it was mine to pick up their socks. Waking up wasn’t easy on any of us.
At first, I blamed patriarchy for my conditioning. I could lay frustrations and insecurities at Steve’s feet and say, “Here. Look at these, you privileged jerk. You’ve never had to deal with any of this. You’re clueless,” though I seldom did.
Instead, I read feminist books aloud to him while he cooked. Listening, his eyes would wince with hurt. He’d apologize not just for himself, but for all men, and I appreciated that. We were making progress, taking baby steps to change our world. Then, the baby steps faltered. The effort didn’t work. Our fights returned.
I wanted Steve to change. He was the product of male privilege and his sense of privilege made me small. I couldn’t compete with his autonomy or confidence. We spent hours talking about how he could make room for me and what equality meant in our partnership. At first, he thought granting me equality meant he had to relinquish something. Then, he realized he just needed to step aside so I could step up.
Even the language we used was wrong. It wasn’t for him to grant me anything. He didn’t need to make room at the top. We needed a different way of looking at things, but it’s bloody hard to let go of everything you’ve been taught. Patriarchy is evil. So is the economic system it supports. We will not change personal or collective culture as long as we separate the two in our minds and hearts.
In August, 2009, Steve bought a bankrupt shopping center. It was the height of the recession and the world was falling apart. Initially, I wasn’t going to be involved in the project. I had my own business and thought shopping centers sucked souls, but I had a marketing background, had done some event planning, and could do a little desktop publishing. Most of all, I saw the writing on the wall. Business as usual died that year and we had to come up with something new or the project didn’t stand a chance.
The day after we acquired the property, Steve and I walked it again. Three beautiful buildings measuring more than 30,000 square feet sat empty in the summer sun. Tumbleweeds hugged doorways, hiding from the wind. Steve whistled a refrain from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. He could always make me laugh and didn’t fail me then.
Most of the tenant spaces were unfinished. Concrete floors, bare rafters, and exposed insulation taunted us. We were bleeding $25,000 a month. Shopping centers all over the country were failing, banks weren’t lending, businesses weren’t opening, and we had bought this. We either got it going or it would ruin us, but where to start?
The concept I developed centered on making individuals matter again. At the time, with the onset of online shopping, corporate conglomerates, and a political climate that rescued banks instead of homes, people felt lost, disconnected, and unimportant. On top of that, the vast majority were terrified of what might happen next. In our community, many remembered first hand stories of the Great Depression and its incumbent hardships. For us, building trust was more important than initial success.
With this in mind, I used three words to describe our vision. These were connection, convenience, and enrichment. We would build community, bring in businesses that provided necessary goods and services, and commit to enriching lives.
I sold the concept. Steve sold the concept. Newspapers and radio stations picked up the story. At a time when all was doom and gloom, our center promised hope and something more. We held our grand opening in December, just four months after we took possession of the property. Thirteen businesses opened with us and more than two thousand people attended the all day party we threw. It was the marketing coup of the year.
At the opening, people said, “Uh, good luck…”
Six months later, they said, “Wow. This is working.”
After a year, they said, “Look what we did.”
When the community took ownership of the center and what it had become, we knew we’d built something good. We had also taught a valuable lesson to those who would observe: Business thrives when it gives to the community it serves.
The center became our baby and took over our lives. My business took a back seat to its needs and I became a wife. I gave it all and got the prize, but when alone I cried.