The First Woman Story

It’s 22 September 2019, at 8.15 a.m., and I’m on the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) travelling from Fukuoka to Hiroshima.

I receive a  message from my husband. The message contained the google doodle for the day that linked to an article about the first woman, a Japanese, to climb the Mount Everest. The newspaper’s article heading read, “Junko Tabei: Google Doodle celebrates first woman to reach the summit of the Mount Everest.” Junko Tabei was not only the first woman to climb the Mount Everest. She was also the first woman to climb all Seven Summits.

I am really enjoying reading this inspirational article and then I come across a phrase in the article that left me stunned. The phrase read,

she would rather be remembered as the 36th person to climb the world’s highest peak and not the first woman to climb the Mount Everest.

Well, it’s an honour to be the first woman to achieve any great feat, let alone climb the world’s tallest mountain and scale all Seven Summits.  For women, our circumstances are not the same. Elite performance for sportswomen is not the same as sportsmen. From women’s physiology to our psychology, there are more roadblocks to success for women when compared to men.

So, why can’t women accept the honour of being referred to as the first woman to achieve this or that? Why Junko Tabei rather be remembered at 36th person to climb the world’s highest peak and not the first woman?

As I mentioned earlier, I was in Japan for work. So, a few days later, I had a conversation with a Japanese woman, whom I will call Yoko. Yoko helped me understand a different perspective around the phrase “the first woman.”

Yoko told me a story,

“We had company awards recently, and there were three finalists for a certain category. One of the finalists was a woman. The award eventually went to a male and the woman’s reaction was, ‘Thank God, I did not win. Had I won, I would be the first and only woman to have won it.”

That statement spoke of a woman’s desire to be seen as equal to men. The phrase “the only woman” or “the first woman” feels like a subtle act of exclusion and takes away from the focus of the achievement and instead, throws a spotlight on the gender of the person, which has nothing to do with the achievement itself.

When singled out as a woman achiever, women don’t  feel like a trailblazer. Rather, they feel like someone who has been given a favour. When a handicapped kid runs a race with other kids, we tend to clap harder for the handicapped kid because of his/her unfortunate condition. Being a woman is not being handicapped, and we do not need to clap harder when women achieve their goals.

The intention of saying or writing “the first woman” or “the only woman” is helpful to describe the person who achieved something, but it doesn’t necessarily make women feel equal to men.

Whether one prefers to be referred to as “the only woman” or “the first woman” is also a personal choice.  Some women like the acknowledgement because they feel that, given their circumstances, they have had to work harder than men. Whereas, other women may perceive such phrases to negate their efforts and achievements. The story attached to “the first woman” or “the only woman” is built differently in each woman’s head.

I highly recommend that if you are the one acknowledging the woman, to first ask her if she would like to be addressed that way, or if you were addressed as the first and only woman, and you don’t like being addressed that way, to please speak up for yourself.

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