In my early twenties, my friend Greg used to say about me, “Kayleen doesn’t like other women.” What he said didn’t bother me. I didn’t think it was an insult not to like other women. Instead, I’d tuck away his statement as if it were an affirmation. What I heard wasn’t “Kayleen doesn’t like other women.” I heard “Kayleen isn’t like other women.”
During this time, I tried to isolate myself from other women because I wanted to be a magazine writer. I thought that real writers were men. No one told me this. It was just something I knew, the same way I knew that now that I lived in New York, I had to pretend to hate Times Square. I believed that to be taken seriously as a writer, I had to separate myself. Standing apart from other women would help me avoid being penalised for my sex.
Of course this isn’t true. Men can’t put words in order any better than women can, but back then, I was convinced that being a woman would hold me back from this career. So I spent a lot of time trying to strangle my femininity. First, I ruled out working for a women’s magazine. What men were interested in, I thought, was important, and what women liked was frivolous and embarrassing.
This stereotyping makes me cringe now, but it was what I thought, generalising that I can maybe blame on my suburban Texas roots. In high school, the boys were football players and the girls were cheerleaders, and while there were many kids who were neither (including me), the caste system was set by those two types. I saw men as my heroes and protectors, and perhaps most important, as capable in a way women were not.
I wished I’d looked to women sooner, but it took me years of dismissing them before I finally understood what women can give each other. The group of girlfriends I finally arrived at were like a life raft I didn’t know I was looking for before I got on it. But when I moved to New York after graduating from college, all I wanted was to be one of the guys. I got a job at a men’s magazine called Details (it shut down in December 2015) and lived with two male roommates. In many instances at work and at home, I was the only woman, like during the weekly poker games at the apartment or the office meetings to brainstorm story ideas.
In these groups, I was conscious of acting only in ways the guys would approve of. To figure out how to behave, I watched them for cues. At the poker table, when they laughed, so did I. When they concentrated, I did too. I drank the same booze and ate the same junk food they did. I did not flinch when they wanted to discuss the fine points of different sex positions or take a nostalgic trip through the Internet’s dirtiest memes. When the game was going late, I never asked them to leave, even though I knew I’d be tired at work the next day.
Part of this was friendship. I liked these guys, they liked me back, and we all enjoyed hanging out together. But there was also part of me that sometimes felt like I was a guest at these gatherings (even though I was in my own home). I feared that as a girl I didn’t have a guaranteed spot in this group and tamped down any part of me that might put it at risk. I might not have wanted to talk about “2 Girls 1 Cup” anymore that night, but I wasn’t about to say so.
If I did, I would no longer be the kind of woman guys found it easy to be around. In the novel Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn brilliantly labels this creation a Cool Girl. “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they?” she writes. “She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2.”
In meetings at Details, I was even more on guard because there was the added element of professional admiration. My proximity to these male writers I looked up to made me even more cautious about not doing anything to endanger my seat at the conference room table. I never wanted to do anything that would make them question whether I belonged. A crass comment by a male editor was clearly a joke. I never challenged any of the story ideas that came up, including one about men justifying having their first affairs while their wives were pregnant, and consequently irritable and unattractive, or another about women in their forties becoming hotter than women in their twenties thanks to Pilates.
I thought I was the exception, that I wasn’t like other girls, but the truth is there’s no such thing as being like other girls or not.
Some of this was simply a junior staffer’s insecurity, but it was also a disavowal of my sex. I was so blinded by my quest to set myself apart from other women that it never occurred to me to push back on how we were being represented in the magazine. When we discussed whether a female actress would “go there” at a photo shoot — code for being willing to strip off at least some of her clothes in front of the camera — I considered the question instead of wondering why male celebrities were never asked to “go there.” That’s because I thought I wasn’t like the woman we were discussing. They were sex objects or troublesome romantic partners, but not me. I was a Cool Girl. I was in the room with the guys and, at the time, that nearness made me feel edgy, smart, and special.
In the reckoning over sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and the #metoo solidarity that’s followed, I’ve thought back on what I observed as far as predatory behaviour while I was single-mindedly trying to be one of the guys. In both my personal life and at work, the tales I heard about men and women hooking up were always from the guy’s point of view, presented either as a mutual decision or, often, as the woman being desperate. I never challenged these slants and didn’t bother to find out if the woman in the story might tell it differently.
Some of the women speaking up today have said that part of the reason they stayed silent was because they felt too isolated to be open about what happened or was happening to them. At Details, no woman ever approached me to talk, but I worry that might be because she thought I wouldn’t listen, and she would probably have been right.
A lot has been written about the whisper network of women warning each other about men to avoid, but when I heard these whispers, like about an editor making a sexual remark about a junior staffer in front of a male visitor to the office (and a stranger to her), I’m embarrassed to say that, at the time, it didn’t change my opinion of the editor.
But there did start to be moments when I wondered what I was doing, brought on by incidents that showed me that, no matter what, I’d never truly be one of the guys. When one of the poker guys had a bachelor party, I wasn’t invited. There were so many nights when I had been the only girl hanging out with them, but when it was symbolic, I couldn’t come. Another time, when I wrote “we” in a Details story, I was stung to see the editor’s note that said “Can’t use ‘we’ because it’s a woman’s byline.”
At the same time, my Cool Girl costume was getting uncomfortable. There was a part of me that was stereotypically girly. I liked to overuse exclamation marks. I took my nail polish colour seriously. I wanted to gossip about The Bachelor. Restraining these aspects of myself so guys wouldn’t recoil began to feel wrong.
I was also, for the first time, meeting other women who I wanted to be friends with. Some were writers and editors; others were fashion stylists or nonprofit executives or start-up founders. They were confident, funny, and observant. I was inspired by their opinions, enthusiasm, and drive — and dismayed at myself for taking so long to see women as individuals.
I’d once felt special because I thought I was the exception, that I wasn’t like other girls, but the truth is there’s no such thing as being like other girls or not. I was like me, and these new women I was meeting were only themselves too, a mix of temperaments and interests that I found intriguing. I wanted to impress them and began to pursue hanging out with them. In one instance, I spent months trying to schedule a dinner with a fellow writer. We’d met once before at drinks with her boyfriend, and I left that evening wanting to get to know her better. When we finally got dinner, I related to every single thing she said. We had the kind of conversation that felt like we’d scripted it, a continuum of agreement and empathy that went on for hours. When I left her that night, I was overjoyed with my new friend.
As I reached out to more women and expanded my circle of friends, I started to relax. Being surrounded by other ladies made me feel at ease, supported, and, most important, like myself. Today it’s like I’m part of a team, even if some of the women on it don’t know each other. We cheer each other, advise each other, and believe each other. I’m no longer the exception. I am part of the group.
When I was trying to be one of the guys, I wanted them to lift up me and my work. I thought that if they accepted me, it would lead to personal and professional respect. Instead, I found the bolstering I always sought from men in my female friendships. They’re not bound to me by blood, law, or even money, but my experience is that these ties are as strong and stretchy as any other key relationships in our lives. I’ve never felt as seen and appreciated as I do now as one of the girls. In these women I’ve found what I once upon a time thought I could only get from men: reliability and strength.
Kayleen Schaefer is the author of the new book Text Me When You Get Home, a memoir that investigates and celebrates female friendships, available now.