Fun fact: I never considered myself a “feminist.”
I hated the word as well as the connotations it suggested. But my mother — my biggest fan and toughest critic — changed all of that.
She, too, started out as a reluctant feminist. Sure she believed in women’s rights. Yet, when she came to the United States, she strived to be the opposite: a quiet Indian immigrant, existing between the lines as a med school resident, striving to be the best doctor she could be, but never questioning authority or stirring the pot.
That was until the director of Yale School of Medicine told her she could be chief resident if she was more assertive. “Assertive” meant she was committed. “Committed” was a direct shot to chief resident, and “chief resident” meant she would be the BEST. She would be granted access to what was known as the “Vatican” of Yale medical school. At 27 years old, she would have instant street cred, clout and a possible bump in salary.
It also meant she could cut through a world that was not kind to foreign female doctors.
That 10-minute meeting on a chilly April day in 1973 changed the course of my mother’s life and ultimately mine… She was slowly changing the system from the inside out — paving the way for what my female counterparts and I would come to understand as the “pathway to success.”
Growing up she had high expectations for herself, my two sisters and me.
Along with her expectations, she had a list of rules. Two that stood out were the following:
1. Come home with straight As and
2. If you were making a commitment to something you had to stick to it, no matter what.
Sometimes those commitments were imposed on me. The most significant incident was the time I called her crying about how I was over living in New York City and wanted to come home.
“You can’t come back.” She said bluntly. Her words were like an ice pick to the heart.
“Why???” I wailed. “I don’t have a job, or a boyfriend and I hate my roommate. It’s not working for me here. I want to come back to New Mexico!”
She wasn’t hearing any of it. “When I moved to the United States do you think I called my mother to ask her if I could come home?” She said. “You can’t achieve anything from sitting on the sidelines wishing change will come to you. You committed to living in New York. Stay there.”
I said to the executive producer, “Make sure the camera angles are off her legs or I will walk out.” They moved the camera.
Distraught, I hung up the phone and cried my eyes out. What I didn’t realize was my mother was consciously putting me on my own path to changing the system from the inside out. She knew my childhood dream was to work in television and if I were to leave, it would ultimately R.I.P. at La Guardia airport on a flight back to Albuquerque. She also knew I do anything to make her proud. With resolve, I dried my eyes, blew out my hair and went to meet a network executive for lunch.
What came next I would have never imagined, mainly that I would eventually be one of ten South Asian women to be on national television network.
My mom’s commitment to “committing” never wavered. This was evident yet again when I became a contributor at Fox News and co-host of a show on Fox Business.
Around the time I started, a beautiful thing was happening in the American socio-economic and political fabric.
There were rumblings that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was going to throw her hat into a bid for president. Gender and racial diversity became important talking point. Mommy bloggers were on the rise. A woman’s voice was being heard. But was it being listened to?
I wasn’t so sure.
While doing research on Fox Business, I came across a clip of my close friend and anchor of the show I was going to co-host berating another close friend and ultimate power woman Kelly Cutrone on live television. The segment was supposed to be about how a working single mother can also be CEO of her own company. Instead both anchors hit her with questions like “Do you have a man? Are you married? Why not?” And the most despicable: “What happened?”
I was stuck between my moral obligation as a woman to tell this man and friend to go f*ck himself and wanting to be a part of a new TV show. Naturally I turned to my mother for advice.
“You need to do the show,” she said.
“But… I… my friend Kelly Cutro-,” I stammered.
“No negotiations unless it’s about money” she said cutting me off. “You already committed to it. You have to do it. Kelly will understand.” And just like that, the call ended and my mother was off to operate on another patient.
But her message was loud and clear: the network was giving me a platform and a built in audience to express my views. My job was to carry the torch, be brave and do just that, despite knowing all too well the “built in audience” was wildly conservative. Kelly experienced the worst of it on live TV. But this was my chance to “infiltrate from the inside out” and make change happen. For my mom. For Kelly. For woman-f*ing- kind.
My first test of my feminist fierceness wasn’t while I was on live. Instead, it was during a commercial break when a fellow guest was put in the “leg chair.”
Her skirt was on the shorter side, and sitting down exposed a lot for all the wrong reasons. I knew that wasn’t what she wanted so as a co-host I said to the executive producer “make sure the camera angles are off her legs or I will walk out.” They moved the camera. I stayed for the rest of the show.
The scales of feminism shifted in our favor.
The second was while I was on air and an emaciated blonde, controversial news pundit was forcefully trying to make her point about how women should stay in the home while men worked. She was scary. I could have shrunk away. But instead, I hit her with facts about single working moms, statistics that showed having a mom as the main breadwinner does wonders for girls and their self esteem and the family unit in general. She couldn’t refute me. I had won on national TV. My mother had watched that segment. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was proud.
My days at Fox News weren’t always filled with me overtly trying to carry the feminist torch.
Most days I was empowered, listened to and held in high esteem. But on the days I wasn’t, I knew I had to work extra hard. Quitting because someone said something off color, commented about my looks or because someone was being extra creepy on air wasn’t an option. It made me want to fight harder. I still fight every time I am on air whether it is at Fox News or at a different network. That’s the thing about gender bias: it doesn’t discriminate.
The feminist movement is not a sprint it’s a marathon and so was my mission to change the way women were perceived in news. It’s not going to change overnight, but I knew if I stayed committed and on the inside, we as women would ultimately win.