Once, in a fit of maudlin curiosity, I asked my mother if she had wanted me when I was born. She said no. She said she hadn’t wanted to bring another woman into this world. I understood what she was trying to say, that the world can be a particularly difficult place for women, but I remember feeling lonely and a bit sorry for myself at the time. Today, I have a daughter and now my mother’s comments make me sad for a whole different reason. I adore my Goose. I wholeheartedly want her to live in this world, even when I threaten to make her live under a bush in the backyard with the bunnies if she doesn’t shape up. Those words of Mom’s, I don’t take them personally anymore. I know now those words were never a measure of my lovability (or lack thereof). Mom was simply worn out with being a woman.
Mom and Dad were high school sweethearts and, in all likelihood, poorly matched. An unplanned pregnancy led to a misguided marriage. Brother Mine arrived on the scene before I did and by the time I came along Dad had enlisted in the United States Army and was training to be a pilot. Not long after he shipped off to Vietnam. It was during this time that Mom seems to have discovered politics and feminism. After the war and the divorce, there was a period of time that Mom was enrolled in college. She spent a lot of time on campus and in the Women’s Center. As a result, so did I.
Though I was too young to grasp the entirety of the impassioned discussions taking place around me, I gathered that women were stronger and more complex than the portrayal of Ginger or Mary Ann or Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. I don’t know if Mom knew I was listening or if she cared. She didn’t always explain the intricacies of the issues to me, not unless I asked a direct question. Then she was often more direct than was strictly necessary. I spent a goodly bit of time in quiet observation and more time still in trying to seem worldly at the tender ages of 8 or 9 or 10 or 11. Mom took me to political rallies, feminist art shows, DFL potlucks, and marches. One particular art show featured photographs of female bodies. These photographs did not encourage or enforce the widely accepted standards of female beauty nor did they objectify the subjects ala Playboy or the like. They did, however, portray in shockingly graphic (even for a young girl who had seen Our Bodies Ourselves) images of female genitalia in such a way as to glorify the vagina without sexualizing it. Menstruation featured prominently in many of the images. Of course, I lacked the vocabulary and analytical experience to describe what I saw in this way. It embarrassed me, it confused me, and it made me think. Mom also took me to Take Back the Night Marches – electric and heady affairs. The urgency fairly crackled up the spines and through the veins of these women around me, wearing tee shirts emblazoned with NOW and ERA and chanting for equality and justice. I had a basic comprehension of issues like domestic abuse and rape and the general subjugation of women. Although, I remember wondering, at the first march I attended, why we needed to take back the night. Did these horrible things happen only at night? Would we need to patrol the streets in groups of twos and fours after midnight like vigilantes? Pity the man, with violence on his mind, who ran afoul of these Amazons firing off their anti-violence slogans with the same ferocity as a fist sailing through the air. It was much later that I came to understand night was also a metaphor for living in shadows and in darkness as second class citizens, shamed by birth and by violence.
When I was eighteen, my hastily packed bags and I left Minnesota for upstate New York to commence my four year tenure at a women’s college. At Wells I felt liberated. I felt strong. I felt far from my own experiences with the darkness of sexual abuse and date rape. I understood the inequities that still existed for women, but mostly I assumed that the biggest issues were part of a battle that belonged to my grandmother’s and mother’s generations. Besides, I was buffered by amazing women at an amazing institution. I was Super Woman with a pen and a poem. I no longer attended rallies or marches. I liked to think that I wasn’t political, as if being a feminist or being political was akin to being a leper or at least a buzz kill for my poetic muse. I wrote poems about mothers and fertility and sexuality. I sang the body electric so to speak (thank you Walt). In that remarkable Philosophy, Religion and Literature class with Professor Yates, I discovered Denise Levertov and her poem “Song for Ishtar.”
Song for Ishtar
The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
Her great shining shines through me
so the mud of my hollow gleams
and breaks in silver bubbles
She is a sow
and I a pig and a poet
When she opens her white
lips to devour me I bite back
and laughter rocks the moon
In the black of desire
we rock and grunt, grunt and
Her poet goddess metaphor and the symbolism of the fertile and sacred sow drew me in like the lunar tides. It spoke to me about the power of womanhood and the joy of sexuality and the rollicking coexistence of both.
But when I began teaching at an urban high school, I observed a disconnect between that base of feminine strength and objectification and subjugation of women in popular culture. The constant references in songs to women as bitches, hoes, and chicken-heads which infiltrated young peoples’ perceptions of women was overwhelming. The entirely impersonal ass up and face down form of dance seemed to imitate intimate sexual acts, but rendered them nameless, faceless and anything but intimate. The stories I heard about rainbow parties transformed young girls into lipstick wearing receptacles of male cum. I was often horrified and sad. The glory of womanhood and female sexuality was subverted and perverted into depersonalized sexual services. I was alarmed not just for the young women in my school, but the young men as well. Where were their role models for healthy, happy and whole human relationships?
Now I have a son and a daughter. They are so young and so tender. They think their bodies are magnificent. They approach life with joyful abandon. They are uninhibited about love and affection. Dear Hubby and I could not help but laugh when Bear first announced his penis went from little to big to little again. When Goose inspected herself and innocently declared that her ‘gina was pink, Dear Hubby blushed and muttered, “I will not let her date until she is twenty, no thirty.” While it may be mildly embarrassing for my husband, we do not wish either of our children to feel shame about their bodies. Or their minds. Or their hopes. Or anything.
I realize now that so many of those battles for equality and justice from my grandmother’s and mother’s generations are as relevant and pertinent and urgent as ever they were. I read things like Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn and I am revolted by this seemingly acceptable culture of violence against women. Revolted I say. As in we need to revolt. We need a veritable revolution against violence. This problem is not epidemic. It is pandemic. Look at that bright and beautiful student Jyoti Singh. I could lie down in a fetal position and weep for a century over her, if I didn’t feel compelled to jump up and scream, “No!” Look closer to home, at the recent reticence to renew the Violence Against Women Act, because the bill was expanded to include women who were gay or illegal immigrants or Native Americans who live on sovereign native lands. Apparently raping an American woman is unacceptable, but raping a woman who is an illegal immigrant is okay. And we can’t just blame popular music or video games anymore, though I do believe the more ubiquitous images of violence become in pop culture the more acceptable they become in our lives. It’s not just the problem of third world culture or youth culture or urban culture, but the problem of the mainstream American culture. Look at the recent resurgence of hateful speech against women in the media and in politics, what has been dubbed the new “War on Women.” Look at the inane and scientifically preposterous assertion that women’s bodies will naturally prevent a rape victim from becoming pregnant. The implication being that if a rape victim does become pregnant as a result of violence, then it was not, indeed, rape. A revolution against violence is needed not just because of these lunatic proclamations, but also because even the well-intentioned freshman orientation curriculums on college campuses across the United States teach young women how to avoid being raped, but do not teach young men not to rape.
And the statistics for children are so not reassuring. According to a study done by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse. Think about what this means. In the average classroom of say 25 students, there are approximately five little girls and one little boy who have been robbed of their innocence. Imagine that. Literally.
The world I must send my children into each and every day is a frightening one and that I must constantly rely on my belief in the basic goodness of humanity and my hope for a better future. To that end, I have been thinking a great deal about what I will teach my children. I want them to know that I value and love them both to the moon and back. And that all humanity should be valued as such, regardless of gender (or race, or sexual orientation, or or or). I’ve decided a need an action plan of sorts. So here it is.
1. Seek out resources to help me best approach these ideas with my sweet kidlets*.
2. Provide Goose with strong female role models in person, in books and on television.
3. Provide Bear with strong male role models in person, in books and on television who respect women, indeed, all humanity.
4. Engage both kidlets in age appropriate discussions about gender stereotypes they see in the media and in the toy aisles and in the world at large.
5. Teach them to pay attention to and ask questions about what they see and hear.
6. Discuss the differences and similarities of males and females and the value of both.
7. Instill in them the fundamental truth that a person’s worth lies not in one’s appearance, but in a person’s works and words.
8. Reassure them that neither the government nor any religious institution has the right to make decisions about their bodies. That right is theirs and theirs alone.
In the long run, I hope to help Bear and Goose embrace an enduring belief in the equal and balanced worth of both men and women. I wish someday for Goose to inhabit her womanhood and Bear to inhabit his manhood in such a way as it becomes like a center of gravity deep within their guts – a center of gravity so elemental and unshakable that they feel perfectly able to revel in it without shame. Revel like the great sow moon shining in the night.
*Here are some links I think might be helpful:
If you have some ideas about teaching your kids about gender and feminism and being healthy whole humans, please share. Thanks.
**The paragraph preceding the action plan originally began like this: “I hope you are still with me – I promise to wrap this up very soon. I think the long winded-ness of my thoughts only serves to illustrate that…” I decided to edit that paragraph after receiving the following comment from a Wells sister. She is right, this topic is too important to make apologies for what needs to be said.
I just read your piece slowly from the first word all the way to the end. Here’s what I would take out: (I hope you are still with me – I promise to wrap this up very soon. I think the long winded-ness of my thoughts only serves to illustrate that)
I could have complimented every (every) other word you’ve written, so don’t take this too harshly. Just don’t apologize for what you are writing – it so needs to be written & read, every word of it. I’m glad to know you.