Women Keeping Other Women’s Secrets

I have been thinking recently of a woman I knew well for several decades, a person of many accomplishments who is now no longer with us. She was an important influencer of other women, who sought her out and admired her. Most notably, though, she was a confidante to other women who shared their deep secrets with her, trusting that she would keep their secrets. And she did.
It is hard, even dangerous, to be such a woman. In my various careers as a business person, spiritual leader, and teacher, I have known several women who have played this role. I learned from these women something that I think most men of power don’t know—that women know your secrets, and sometimes share them among themselves. When men have power—whether as employers or mentors or colleagues or romantic partners—they can become blind or at least oblivious to the secrets that women know. It is a human truth: those without power know dark things about those who do, partly because they need that knowledge in order to survive. To coin an expression, the slave knows the master far better than the master knows or cares about the slave.
We see this dynamic played out in the public sphere these days in the many trials, lawsuits, and exposes in the #MeToo sphere, where woman, often at great risk to their own reputation or livelihood, come forward at last with their dark secrets, and threaten men in power. The response of the man in question is usually epic denial, or what in the business world is called “powering through”—a revealing phrase that basically means lying through your teeth until you get what you want. I have known men for whom “powering through” was as natural as breathing. I have learned that when you come into an organization run by men and want to know what is really going on, ask the women. They know.
Sometimes women have shared with me the pain and cost being a confidante exacts on their lives. When I hear these things, my emotional response has been anger, wishing there were something I could do—and at times there has been something I could do. I suspect that the dynamics of my family of origin have predisposed me to these feelings. In my family my older sister was the victim of secrets, while I, the younger brother, was left alone to witness in silence, being too young and too small to protect her. Though I don’t remember it now, I think I must have taken a secret vow—as young children sometimes do—that while I was too small to do anything about it then, once I was bigger I try to make a difference. So I have tried to do that.
Keeping secrets is something women do for other women, because it is often all they can do. The things we are seeing now, going to court, going public, suing the man for millions—these strategies and actions can be dangerous. There is an old saying: if you want to attack the king, you’d better kill him. What that means is, if you attack the king and don’t kill him, the king will try to kill you, because as the king he has the power to do it.
These are time-worn dramas, the stuff of Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, playing out in today’s headlines. Will things ever change? We can ever hope, but I have seen enough failed efforts to know that change is difficult. I do what I can. That one of the things a writer can do, to say things on others’ behalf that are hard for others to say. That’s why I’m saying it now.

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