Mainstreet Women: Unpacking Main Street

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Mainstreet Women Question #1:  Tell me a little about where you live, your main street or what you consider main street to be. (Post 1 of 3)  

“People think they speak for women. I don’t know who these women are they’re speaking for – they’re not me, not my friends or family.” (Beth, MS)

Main Street + Women were my tell-tale heart in the run-up to the 2012 elections. What did pols, pundits, and the President mean when they called us all Main Street? It felt vital to know, to understand before exercising my citizen muscle and casting my one precious vote. Frankly, I felt dumb:  had I missed the Main Street memo?

First I did what people the world over do:  I googled it. Gulp, about 820,000,000 results.

Result one. Main Street® according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (who registered the trademark, one of the reasons we’re called “Mainstreet” Women):  Main Street is the economic engine, the big stage, the core of the community. Our Main Streets tell us who we are and who we were, and how the past has shaped us… Our Main Streets are the places of shared memory where people still come together to live, work, and play. (http://www.preservationnation.org/main-street/about-main-street/)

I loved the Trust’s idea of a place to come together! It reminded me of growing up in Ord, Nebraska (pop around 2,000), smack dab in the middle of our nation.

GROWING UP ON MAIN STREET

Growing up in Ord, main street was understood. It was our ‘downtown’ where the courthouse centered us, our local businesses clustered, and farmers met for coffee in the mornings. As a teen, I burned up considerable gas driving up and down ‘main street’ looking for friends, and as my parents frequently (and correctly) lamented, “trouble.”

With Ord roots, the Trust’s Main Street definition made perfect sense:  economic engine, coming together, shared memory. Yet in the swirl of campaign ads, the debates, and the election-obsessed U.S. nightly newscasts, nothing I heard seemed authentically connected to Main Street. If Main Street is the economic engine, why did it feel like an afterthought at the parties’ conventions? Were we coming together?

I decided to ask the wisest people I know:  other women.

DOWN ON MAIN STREET:  REACHING WOMEN

Fifty-two women in 35 States/DC (ages 29 to 79) told me about their Main Street or what they considered Main Street to be. In research lingo, the Mainstreet Women are a convenience sample. They cannot, in research terms, be considered representative of all U.S. Women nor are they a statistically significant sample size.

But make no mistake, these women are not homogeneous. They are not from one political party, do not all share religious affiliation or faith identification, they don’t come exclusively from urban cities, they are not one race or ethnicity, and some are new to the U.S.A.

The women immediately bolstered my spirits:  they weren’t sure what Main Street out of the mouths of politicians and pundits meant either!

MAINSTREET WOMEN & MAIN STREET MYSTERY

“Honestly, the first time I heard Main Street as the term used to describe most Americans, not just the 2%, I was confused. If I used that term, Main Street, then neither of the presidential candidates can really identify.” (Amie, TX)

“I don’t know what Main Street means. Is it the 99% or the 97%? I do feel there’s a bit of us and them.” (Marjorie, DC)

“As far as Main Street, defining what it is not is easier to me. It is not Wall Street or upper management of corporations – there are some good people, but I’m not talking about the average Joe/Jane who is working there. Most of the federal government jobs are not Main Street to me either because you don’t get fired for doing a crappy job or incompetence; you just get moved around.  And I say that as someone who truly believes that the government can be an agent of change to improve people’s lives.” (Jeannie, NC)

I don’t like the use of the term Main Street as it aggregates us into generalizations that do a disservice to us all. I don’t think of myself as Main Street and I don’t think there is a Main Street.” (Kathy, CT)

MAINSTREET THEMES

While each of the 52 women’s voices and experiences are snowflake unique, here are the themes I heard from talking with them:

  • About 40% of women described Main Street as a philosophy, a mindset for living life
  • Almost another 40% talked about Main Street in terms of people, with socio-economic class underpinnings
  • Several talked about intentionally choosing their Main Street so that they and their families could experience the rich diversity many of our nation’s communities and neighborhoods offer
  • Quite a few described their neighborhoods in loving detail, with warmth in their voices

Sadly, some women’s voices caught in their throats as they explained how they live in silence on their main streets. They shared that they felt afraid to voice their opinions because they hold views contrary to the majority where they live (political party, religion, or other ideological stances). They told me that they had purposely been shying away from political discussions because, as one said:

I think there’s a layer of fear hanging over this country that infiltrates every part of our lives. Fear that dignity and respect for each human will not be there. Fear that our freedom is being taken away.

That fear, that silence, is one reason I’m so grateful that Mainstreet Women spoke with me and are allowing me to broadcast their voices into the world. As Gloria, NY reminded me yesterday, “we can’t expect leaders to speak for us, we have to be honest, forthright, authentic – we must choose power over fear – we’ve gotta stay in the game.”

NEXT WEEK

Next week, Parts 2 & 3 of Unpacking Main Street — how women define Main Street. After that, I’m honored to share how women define themselves:  what they really care about, what they’re proud of, and how being bold helped make them who they are today.

Women (and like-minded men) are welcome to “like” and join us on the US Mainstreet Women Facebook page.

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