New Directions

A Woman’s Guide to Self-Reliance

Every spring I teach a course on the American Dream. That means I have the same conversations on this topic with some regularity. For instance, I can always count on a heated discussion of the fact that our American history of “rugged individualism” is, for the most part, a fiction. My students really don’t want to believe this is true.

But here’s an interesting fact: Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of the essay titled “Self-Reliance”–one of the most misquoted pieces of American literature–isn’t actually an advocate for being self-sufficient. We know that because he refers to the people who serve him (his maid, for instance, and his wood-chopper.) His advice, instead, is to develop your own sense of what’s right and wrong–to rely on your internal compass–rather than looking to others for approval of your actions.

Of course, Emerson conveniently ignored the fact that many people didn’t have the right to do what he advised. Women, for instance.

Women in the United States have had the right to be completely independent for a relatively short time. Perhaps that’s why the idea that it’s dangerous for women to be on their own is so pervasive in our culture. It attaches itself to actions large and small–from walking down the street to moving across the country.

I’m going to forgive Mr. Emerson’s oversight and call him a product of his time. And today, I’m going to offer up my own Guide to Self-Reliance for Women.

Use your voice.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds–we all saw what happened to Elizabeth Warren when she tried to use hers (and became a legend in the process.) Women’s voices are often characterized as inconsequential, even offensive. Gossip, chatter, cackling–those are all words used to describe women’s voices, not men’s. And they’re meant to make us question the value of everything we say.

Which is precisely why it’s important to use your voice. I’m not just talking about using it in the political arena, though of course that’s important. I’m talking about the refusal to be silenced by insults. That’s their purpose–to make you feel so hurt that you silence yourself, for fear of being made to feel that way again.

So refuse to let those insults do that work. Start the conversations you need to have. Let people know that you value your own voice, even if they don’t.

Forgive your own mistakes–especially when others won’t.

This is not a one-time project–there are pieces of my past that I have to let go of on a regular basis. We talk about regrets as something we can leave behind, but it’s probably more accurate to think of them as shadows: they’re always going to follow us around. That will happen no matter how many times we feel our cheeks burn with shame and tell ourselves You made a mistake. Let it go.

But we can also move into the cooling shade of forgiveness. In that place, where the shadows fade, we can see our whole selves clearly. We can acknowledge that there were reasons for the things we did, or didn’t do. We can call to mind moments when we’ve been better versions of ourselves.

In focusing on our willingness to do better, we remind ourselves that a lifetime of effort speaks louder than any one mistake.

Never surrender the right to become someone new.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca advises, “As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” Again, that’s harder than it sounds. Maybe you’ve had things figured out. Life was moving forward smoothly. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a curve in the road that you didn’t anticipate. Or you discover that the smooth road isn’t making you as happy as it once did. Now what?

As I mentioned earlier, we can learn from our mistakes–but we can also learn from our achievements. Success doesn’t happen by accident. Some of my very best students have been women who came back to college later in life, women who had realized that, if you can figure out how to get a 2-year-old to eat broccoli, you can do anything. Their success in parenting empowered them to try new things, rather than making them feel as if they’d given up that opportunity.

It’s never too late to become someone new, for whatever reason. I went to graduate school with a grandmother who was earning her Ph.D. just to prove to her grandchildren that learning never stops. She was an excellent illustration of the fact that It’s too late is rarely more than an excuse.

Take charge of your happiness.

Ever since Snow White promised that her prince would show up eventually–and, okay, long before that–women have been told to wait for someone to bring them joy. Not all women do, of course. But the wedding industry is a good indication of how many women have waited (impatiently) for their shot at the princess life.

Women are encouraged to find their happiness in others: a husband, a child, close friends. But how many women do you know who are unhappily married? That very fact tells us marriage, in and of itself, is not guaranteed to be a source of joy. Neither is motherhood. Or friendship. Not every minute of every day.

Being “happily married” just means being happy and being married at the same time. It does not mean that one flows naturally from the other. If you rely on someone else to make you happy, you neglect a responsibility that belongs to you alone. And that is true whether or not you have a husband, a child, or a network of good friends.


For women, being self-reliant means learning to believe that we already have everything we need. We have the initiative, the intellect, and theĀ right to choose the direction our lives will take.



  • Reply Grace February 13, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    I was never great at being self-reliant until a couple years ago, when I graduated college I went to living with roommates to living alone and then shortly after my husband left while I was in graduate school he is in the military and had to move before I was done. I definitely feel like a stronger person now!

    • Reply Pam February 13, 2017 at 4:50 pm

      Being a military spouse requires huge reserves of self-reliance (not to mention patience and flexibility.)

  • Reply Stephenie -Blended Life Happy Wife February 13, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    These are great reminders. So often we forget that we can build ourselves up, that we don’t need someone else to do it for us

    • Reply Pam February 13, 2017 at 4:47 pm

      Exactly! We know in our hearts when we’re doing what’s right for us.

  • Reply Kia February 13, 2017 at 7:15 am

    This is such an important message to remember and so articulately put! I teach in Japan and am acutely aware of how important it is for women to speak up and to be heard. Last semester I had a course in which the women were just not speaking in larger mixed groups in spite of how many of them had expressed themselves wonderful in smaller, single gender groups just moments before. When I asked the men in my group how that made them feel they replied that they felt a lot of pressure to speak and that they felt they didn’t know the women at all. I think this shocked the women who thought they were being respectful by always giving the floor to the men.

    • Reply Pam February 13, 2017 at 12:09 pm

      That’s so interesting, Kia. Many women believe being quiet is appropriate feminine behavior–that’s one of the reasons why “mouthy” is another word that’s only applied to women. But we rarely think about how much pressure that puts on men. All the more reason for self-reliance to be viewed as another expression of equality.

    Go ahead, tell me what you think.