Away from victimhood and into strength

The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace. By Lyokoï88; Creative Commons license.

For all of its well-deserved successes, the demagoguery of the #MeToo movement has led to this widespread belief that all women are powerless victims, controlled by and subjected to the sexual appetites and whims of all men. American women, according to 21st-century progressive feminism, are perpetually under the boot of The Patriarchy and are helpless to save themselves from men, who are, by nature, evil.

I call bullshit. Women, are we childlike puppets, or are we free agents, equal in intelligence and power to men?

Of course, there are vast, interconnected systems of injustice still at work in our country. It is both blind and naïve to pretend otherwise. And many continue to perpetuate the myth that women are weak and bad and less than. But what I cannot fathom is why modern feminists are repeating this very same lie. Can we not see that we are working with misogynists when we invest so much in this victim mentality?

We lose—and our daughters lose—if we continue to parrot the myth that women are powerless. As a recently pregnant person, I am overwhelmed by the tremendous strength of women. It is one of the hallmarks of our sex. We are incredibly powerful, capable, and beautiful creatures. We are long-suffering and determined. We are intelligent, wise, collaborative, and creative. We bring forth life, for God’s sake. (Relatedly: Stop patronizing pregnant women.) I trust women immensely, and I trust us to take our lives in our own hands.

Yes, men continue to perpetuate great harm against women, every day and all across the world. Yes, countless women live in daily fear because of the men in their lives. Yes, I continue to conduct myself as a person who should mistrust unfamiliar men, choosing the routes I walk and the public places I frequent with great caution.

And this may be our situation for a while. I hope and pray that the world continues to get safer for and more supportive of women everywhere, as it has been trending toward lately. But I think so often of the shallow platitudes that we offer our little girls. We read them books about Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhart and tell them about “girl power” and dress them in silly onesies that declare that “the future is female,” but we don’t seem to believe any of it ourselves, wallowing instead in fear and investing in this fashionable identity of helplessness.

We are doing the dirty work for our oppressors: You want women to be subservient? Great, we’ll strip ourselves of power so you don’t have to! We’ll continue to only talk about ourselves as underlings and victims. That’ll make it easy for you to carry on with the oppression and fear tactics and stereotyping. You’re welcome.

Womenfolk, let’s return to our true selves and to our deep, inborn reservoirs of strength. Let’s look to our mothers and grandmothers and all who came before us. Let’s stop talking about ourselves as if we’re indentured servants in a vast, conspiratorial patriarchy. There is much to be done. Less whining, more work.

Stop patronizing pregnant women

My beautiful mother, upon having recently brought me into the world.

One of the more unpleasant surprises in my first trimester was my discovery of the widespread condescension heaped upon the pregnant.

I did not expect this. I have lived in and managed my body for three decades now. I have been married for eight years. I have been working for ten. I have a mortgage. I have managed to keep myself alive thus far. But should I be trusted to gestate? All on my own? That doesn’t sound safe.

I don’t know if there is an American pregnancy lobby, but I have felt affronted by it just the same. As soon as I made the terrible mistake to start reading articles about pregnancy, I discovered this looming paternalistic conspiracy to treat women like ignorant cows. Women are thick-minded mammals who won’t question “science” or the accuracy of “studies,” even when they plainly contradict themselves. They don’t know enough to keep themselves from killing their babies willy-nilly! They don’t get that babies are the most important thing! Without us, the sanctified lobbyists of American pregnancy, they wouldn’t have a clue about how to take care of their bodies or their babies!

If you’ve ever looked at a patronizing pregnancy app, you get hit with this tone immediately. The consistent approach of these popular apps made me batty. Early on, I was curious about how the baby was developing and what was happening inside me at each week. I downloaded two apps, BabyCenter and The Bump, but I eventually stopped looking at them altogether because of all of the condescension mixed with fear-mongering. The apps present you with (1) a feed of terrifying articles (one was literally titled, “Top 50 Pregnancy Fears.” Others: “Are you miscarrying right now?” “What happens to baby if you have just one drink”) and (2) a flood of condescending advice that is written as if for an ignorant child. And then there’s typically a message board from the pit of hell, with hordes of terrified women asking and giving each other medical advice. In sum: Pregnancy apps are bad. Don’t use them.

But you know what’s also bad (or less than great)? OB offices. My office, which is presumably composed of nice doctors, told me to have a six-week visit with their “pregnancy education nurse,” whom I’ll call Janice. This is basically a visit so that a nurse can lecture a pregnant woman, who is, by all accounts, a knocked-up dodo who has no clue what she’s just gotten herself into. Janice, at least, talked to me this way. Janice was a well-meaning senior citizen. She wore a giant platinum crucifix and struggled with her Dell laptop during the duration of our visit. She calculated my due date with a hand-held plastic wheel (which I thought was a cute, old-fashioned touch).

Janice was friendly, but she was also the peculiar mixture of being both condescending and deeply uninformed at the same time. She ran me through a litany of commandments without explaining the rationale behind a single one.

“And you’re not drinking, right?” she asked, pen hovering over a check box. I wasn’t, but what if I was? What if I had been, just a few weeks ago, before I knew I was pregnant? What a terrible way to lead into that question. And then she didn’t give me any reasons why I shouldn’t drink. All of her questions were framed this way. Another exchange went like this:

“You don’t eat sushi, right?”

“Well, I do enjoy sushi, yes. Why shouldn’t I have sushi?” I asked.

“Because of the mercury.”

“But mercury still exists even in cooked fish.”

“Well. Yeah. I guess that’s true. But you still shouldn’t have it.”

I didn’t ask another “why” because I knew she didn’t have an answer. (I knew the answer, and I knew that sushi really isn’t that dangerous; if you are sketched out by the quality of a sushi place, don’t eat there, regardless of your gestational capacity.)

Later, I was given unsolicited advice from a male osteopathy student about what position I should give birth in if I don’t want to “tear horribly.” The best position, according to him? And I quote: “The traditional way, flat on your back.” Aside from the absurd use of the word “traditional,” this was his counsel, despite the veritable reams of evidence that birthing on your back is the worst position in which to bring a baby into the world. (Importantly, it has only been considered “traditional” since we started having male OBs deliver babies instead of midwives, because it was more convenient for them to catch babies if the woman was working against gravity, on her back.)

This is the American baby bias—baby trumps mother, every damn time—that makes me feel insane. The sacred fetus is to be protected at all costs from that woman it’s growing inside. Women’s knowledge about their own bodies and their own wisdom about birth is repeatedly discounted in favor of the establishment, which often seems to feature a loud chorus of male voices.

As Rachel Cusk writes in A Life’s Work (which is extremely grim for different reasons, and which I do not recommend):

“The baby plays a curious role in the culture of pregnancy. It is at once victim and autocrat. It is a being destined to live only in the moment of perfection that is its birth, after which it degenerates and decays, becomes human and sinful, cries and is returned to the realm of the real. But in pregnancy, the baby is a wonder, a miracle, an expiation.”

The mother is a dangerous interloper. She can’t be trusted! She’s a clueless breeder! She may be creating the all-important life, sure, but does she really know what she’s doing? She needs to be told. She needs to be bossed around and micromanaged. She needs a long list of everything she’s not allowed to do anymore, and then she should be shamed repeatedly, for the rest of the child’s life, if she forgets or ignores a single thing.

As Danya Glabau writes in “Sins of the Mother,” published in Real Life:

“The imperative to do more and be better is not only a question of the well-being of the person carrying the child. At stake (so we are told!) are concerns that are bigger than us and yet seem to depend on us: the future of the national economy and the health of the species. When pregnant people fall short, they fail not only themselves but the imagined heirs, nations, and biological kin by whom they could have done better.”

I’m already sick of it, and I’m only halfway through this pregnancy. Because here’s the thing: Yes, children are precious. Yes, some mothers-to-be could be knocked-up dodos. But we must stop treating women like they are no more intelligent than the infants they’re carrying and then scaring them into submission.

I’m furious about it, and I’m enjoying using my fury in productive ways for the remainder of this pregnancy. Here’s to smart, capable women, who have been bringing human beings into the world for millennia—and down with all of the misogynistic fear-mongers who lurk behind every baby app and cash register and desk.

Further reading that does not patronize the pregnant

(What do all of these pieces have in common? Women authors. I’ll listen to thoughtful, educated men on most occasions, but I’m not taking any birthing advice from them.)

Not purely animals

Paris
Paris, July 2016.

I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.

I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.

(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)

In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.

(Perhaps it is no wonder that we keep to ourselves.)

Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)

“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?

This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.

It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.

Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)

If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.

I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.

Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.

We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.

The feminine feminist

Self

Some possibly contradictory thoughts and no clear conclusions. This waffling nature is where I seem to have staked my flag at the end of my twenties. (And I am happier to be here, living in the gray, rather than in the stark dualities of adolescence.)

Does femininity have any intrinsic qualities of its own?

Men defined femininity for us, and masculinity gets to claim the origin of all gender traits. Femininity seems most often defined as the simple absence of masculinity: Men are strong, thus women are weak; men are bold, thus women are cautious; men are violent, thus women are compassionate, etc.

But what I want to know is this: Is there any quality that is inherent to being female, as we suppose there is to being male? Some characteristic that marks women, because women are born with it?

I started thinking this some months ago, when some men were discussing how grateful they were to not have any feminine traits, as if it would be the worst thing in the world to be compared to a woman. (It makes me think of that traditional Jewish blessing, Thank you G-d, for not making me a woman…) Many men think this way and express it openly. Even now, a great way to publicly shame a man is to compare his behavior to a woman’s.

I was incensed, after this discussion, but it made me start to wonder: Can women have pride in their female-ness, the way that men so evidently have pride in their male-ness? Do we always have to be comparing ourselves to men and in opposition to women to get any respect or credit? I’m smart, not like those silly girls; I don’t cry easily, like most women; I hate shopping, unlike most dumb broads, etc.

Is there anything deep and true that women can lay claim to, outside of the jurisdiction of masculinity?

If there is, I suppose it must reside in biology. Men have more testosterone, and therefore they actually are more prone to aggression and violence than women. Women can create and give birth to children, which brings with it a whole set of hormones and evolutionary instincts that men have no need of. Naturally, this does not preclude the fact that aggressive women and nurturing men exist all over the place, every day, and we can shift gender presentations in the span of an hour. But that is not what I am after. I am after something else, the root of what it means to be a woman.

What is it? Where does it reside?

The next question, though, is that if there is any intrinsic quality of womanhood, is it even worth defining? Will it just lead to more subjugation and heartbreak among women? Probably.

It taunts me, this question, because of the lack of middle ground. I want to live in a gray space on the question of gender; I don’t want it to be either/or. But I’m not sure it can be found.

I guess I’ve never felt entirely female, but then probably lots of people don’t. But I think that at different times in my life I located myself in different places on the gender spectrum, and for many years, throughout my thirties, which is when I made that pilgrimage, I didn’t have any connection to the female gender. I wouldn’t say I exactly felt like a man, but when you’re talking about yourself you only have these two options. There’s no word for the “floating” gender in which we would all like to rest. — Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry, Paris Review

I womanfully put this aside for the time being.

Next:

Does the feminine feminist exist?

Yes. Of course.

But in what ways? Which patriarchal standards do you choose to reject and does it matter which ones? How do you justify your choices to men and to other women, when there will clearly be gaps and paradoxes?

For instance, I sincerely enjoy cosmetics and a swipe of red lipstick, but I think mini-skirts and stiletto heels are misogynistic. I have strong moral objections to even the notion of a Brazilian wax, but I am completely fine with dresses, perfumes and facials. I mow the lawn and yet I make Guion fix any machine that malfunctions in our house, without ever trying to figure it out myself. I want men to take me seriously and yet I flatter their masculinity in a conversation in all the ways I’ve been taught since I was young.

Upon recently finishing Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity, I was comforted to read of how often she — feminist icon of the 1980s, who only wore pants and never any makeup — faltered from time to time in her commitments to outwardly rebel against femininity. Despite knowing the sexist origin of her angst, she says she was obsessed with how her hair looked and couldn’t stop thinking about her body and how men saw it in clothes. She won’t shave her legs or armpits but bleaches her leg hair in the summer when she goes to the beach.

Brownmiller knows she’s trapped; she knows all of us women are trapped. Whatever choice you make, you lose. Because here’s the rub:

Men created extremely high standards of physical beauty that women have to meet, and then simultaneously mock us for being vain when we try to uphold these standards.

Who do I get dressed for? For whom do I take care of my face? For whom do I apply mascara?

It is for myself. But it is also for everyone else — other men and other women. Like it or not, we’re all judged on a sliding scale of gender performance every day, most often in tiny, undetectable ways.

So, what is to be done? I think it is to take comfort in Brownmiller and take comfort in Carson and be OK with the floating space, even if we will never rest there completely. Be OK with living in and performing a little bit of both: the stereotypical femininity with dashes of stereotypical masculinity (who said that only men enjoy lawnmowers?).

Live with a perspective toward others and toward ourselves that is free and open-handed, especially when it comes to performing masculinity or femininity.

We’re all playing make-believe and dress-up anyway.

The freedom of the body

(For Kandyce, who asked.)

Visiting baby Auden
Meeting baby A., April 2013.

If you can control a woman’s body, you can control the entire trajectory of her life.

You can keep her at home, endlessly pregnant, and caring for numerous children. You can prevent her from getting an education and a fulfilling career and achieving even the basest level of respect in society. Don’t give her unfettered access to contraception or abortion. Don’t let her make any choices about her body and thus her life until you have given her explicit permission. Don’t let her assume for a second that she is a free agent. Keep her in her place, preferably with violence or harassment, both in public and in private. Constantly remind her that even her body is not her own. And finally, preferably, express all of these limitations with the backing power of your religion.

I have been thinking about physical autonomy lately — specifically, a woman’s body from the perspective of religion.

Far and away, religious institutions are the groups most concerned with controlling and restricting women’s rights, specifically, her body and her ability to make decisions about it.

This troubles me, as a person, and specifically, as a person who identifies as a Christian.

A hallmark of the most conservative branch of every major religion — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — is the urgent need to control women’s bodies. This is a natural belief, because women have traditionally been seen simply as the property of men. From the beginning of recorded history, women have not been human; women are objects, to be used, bought, sold, and controlled. Drawing from its patriarchal roots, fundamentalist religion is therefore obsessed with sex and ownership of a woman’s body. When she is young, her virginity is her most important quality. Centuries ago, brides were subjected to bloody-sheet tests; today, an American girl is bedecked with “True Love Waits” rings or publicly shamed for being a “slut,” both practices reminding her that a preserved mythical hymen and a virginal reputation is her highest calling. Keeping her veiled, literally, from male attention is crucial. She ought not be trusted to take care of herself; the male authority figures in her life will take care of that. Mutilate her genitals so that she cannot experience sexual pleasure. Keep her perpetually cognizant that her body’s sole purpose is for man’s use and for the production of offspring. When she gets a bit older, get her and keep her pregnant. Don’t let her make any choices about when to get pregnant and if to stay pregnant. Marry her to an eligible man, who will then assume responsibility for her body. She will still not be trusted to take care of herself. A man will do that for her until she dies.

I am a Christian, but I confess that it is sometimes hard to be one when I think about these historical remnants. I am even more troubled by the still-prevalent Christian attitude toward women’s bodies and autonomy. Today, Catholics and most conservative Protestants are very concerned about controlling a woman’s body and decreeing its proper uses, all with the purported backing of God Almighty.

Because I am only qualified to write about Christianity, as it is the religion I know well, I am thus limiting this discussion to Christian women. (But I’d still love to hear from you on this topic if you are familiar with other religions. Please chime in.)

As I have written before, Jesus valued women as human beings, which is really saying something, considering the time in which he lived. The early church also valued women as human beings, and we know that women were called apostles and priests and served as deacons and as leaders in the church.

But not too long after its founding, Christianity fell back to its strongly patriarchal roots. The revered church fathers — Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, among others — and later early reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley — have all said appallingly hateful things about women, along with hundreds of their fellow male theologians.

Church leaders today are a bit quieter about their hatred of women, but misogyny is still palpable in many of the conservative church’s teachings. For me, denominations obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and sexuality are the most vivid signifier of this entrenched Christian belief that women are evil, untrustworthy, and lesser creatures.

In the United States, there is a frightening trend of anti-reproductive rights, inspired by conservative religion. As the gay rights movement in the United States is increasingly achieving success with marriage equality, the women’s reproductive rights movement seems to be losing ground.* (*A point that Jill Lepore made in her recent New Yorker piece on the legal history surrounding reproductive rights and the choice justices made between privacy and equality.) Because we, as a culture often politically motivated by Christian thought, don’t care about women’s equality, corporations get to decide whether women can have access to affordable contraception and the right to a safe, legal abortion is being curtailed wherever possible. If you can control a woman’s body, you can control her entire life.

So, why is conservative Christianity fixated on women’s bodies and how can I still call myself a Christian and a feminist?

The first question merits a simple answer. There is power in tradition, and power begets the desire for more power. Conservative Christian denominations (Catholics, evangelicals, many of the so-called reformed church movements) care about controlling women’s bodies because (a) they always have done so and (b) they don’t want to be usurped. Subjugating women is an excellent way to maintain the power of the patriarchy in the church. Keep women “in their place” by denying them the power to regulate their own bodies. Don’t ordain them. Don’t let them hold any positions of leadership in any sphere, whether at home or in the church — and in this way, keep sinking your denomination further into oblivion and cultural irrelevance.

This, therefore, is my sincere hope: that denominations that refuse to accept women as people will die out. Hold to your precious patriarchal ideals for as long as you can, but I believe (and I think I have to believe, for my sanity) that such a misogynistic theology (and, indeed, many of the men who hold fast to it) are slowly and actually dying.

This hope is how I can still be a Christian and a feminist. I belong to a famously progressive denomination that ordains women and gay people, and this branch of the church gives me hope. I am blessed to know women priests who are changing the way that the church interprets gender. I am inspired by their faith and their hope for transformation. I believe that I belong to a religion that was intended to be FOR half of its most faithful adherents — women. We certainly got off to a rocky start, and we are still stumbling, but I don’t think we’ve seen the endgame of Christianity in relation to women.

Home and garden, May 2015
Forbidden fruit. (Baby apples in our backyard). May 2015.

In the meantime, what can be done for the majority of American Christian women suffocating under the weight of patriarchal tradition?

Campaign for churches to ordain women. Until women can be accepted at the highest levels of church leadership, major Christian denominations will never truly respect women as human beings and equal children of God. Elect women as leaders in a public, congregation-facing way. Start conversations about women in church history. Educate the clergy and laypeople; help men see women — and women see themselves — as equally valid partners in the kingdom of God. Preach equality. Don’t stop talking about this. And in this way, perhaps, women’s bodies — and hearts and minds — can be freed from the shackles of conservative religion.

Mercy and misogyny

Cherry tree in April

The other day, I glimpsed the profile of a young man who was the spitting image of a freckled fundamentalist boy from my childhood. I blanched and suddenly felt a spasm of terror. It wasn’t this boy, grown up (ostensibly because this boy still lives in the basement of his parents’ house), but I was still shaken. On the whole, I had a very happy childhood, and my parents are these lovely, fun human beings, but I dislike being reminded of the community I was raised in: the fundamentalist homeschooling enclave.

Primarily, when I remember that time, I recall the crushing sensation of misogyny. Of existing in a network of people in which you have no agency on account of your gender.

To list all of the overt and subtle misogyny I faced as a homeschooled girl would be exhausting. The anecdotes and comments still rise to the surface, however, in my daily life, even though I now feel so personally and ideologically removed from that community. Being told, by an adult man, that I was projecting sexual promiscuity because I wore lipstick to church once. When a young man, just two years older than me, told me that I ought to take his plate after he finished eating, because that was my job, as a docile, submissive woman. Reading comments from two fathers of my friends, on my teenaged blog, that I was a handmaiden of the devil and an agent of whoredom for writing that my friend should not be imprisoned at home by her father for 40 days for hugging her boyfriend. Countless remarks about how I should dress, how I should act, how I should submit to and serve men and boys.

My parents, thankfully, did not force this attitude on us. I wore power suits and heels so that I could tower over the scrawny boys in debate league. My sister was a champion in hockey (arguably one of the least traditionally feminine sports). But there were still vestiges of this pressure at home, to be the good, quiet Christian woman — even though my mother modeled leadership and authority, divorced from male control, on a daily basis. My sisters and I all turned out to be independent, confident feminists, because that is what my mother is, even if she would never call herself that.

Gender discrimination is the only discrimination I’ve experienced, and so I cling to it, like a bitter badge of honor. I swap horror stories with other women. I delight in making eyes widen at parties with tales of indignities from my strongly patriarchal past.

I have become appallingly sensitive to misogynistic attitudes in other people, in art, in culture. Like my fearful German shepherd, my hackles go up at the first hint of danger and disapprobation.

If no one’s ever despised you for your sex, it is difficult to care about sexism because it is necessarily foreign to you.

Remembering this helps me have mercy on men who don’t think feminism is needed or that women have enough rights already. Most likely, these men have never had anyone oppress them because they were male; the very notion is unfathomable to them. No one has ever told them that, merely because they were born male, they are less intelligent, incapable of leadership, intended to be subservient, or a sex object open to public derision and comment. It is therefore difficult for many men to be empathetic with women on this front.

Lately, however, I have been wondering, what is the point? What is the spiritual fruit of this feeling of having escaped? What heart-based good can experiencing and enduring discrimination yield?

I think I am finally sensing the beginning of such fruit in my life. It is the first time I have been able to say the word mercy in conjunction with the men, both known and unknown, who have belittled me. I probably won’t ever forget the comments and attitudes espoused by the homeschool patriarchs in my past life, but with this added understanding, I can forgive. And that is surely a place to start.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Why I am not a lady

Even as a child, I have loved the boob grab. Photo courtesy of @jfarkle.
Even as a young child, I have been risqué with hand placement.

When I graduated from high school, an older woman (possibly a relative; I don’t recall) gave me a copy of this little pink book, How to Be a Lady. In theory, it was branded as a guide for contemporary etiquette, but it was mostly full of advice like: “A lady always wears pantyhose to church and never dons a pair with nicks or runs.” “A lady always crosses her legs at the ankles.” “A lady never initiates a date with a gentleman caller.” “A lady never swears or uses vulgar or graphic language.” “A lady knows when it is appropriate to drink using a straw.” And all that sort of vapid thing. Basically, it came down strongly on all the anti-lady things that I loved doing: never wearing pantyhose to church, sitting like a young bro, calling boys, using an ample dose of vulgar language (especially gratuitous sarcasm and potty humor), and never knowing when the moment called for a straw.

This book came to mind during a recent conversation in which a man I know told a prospective date that she needed to “act like a lady.” This injunction—much like that pink book—has never sat well with me.

“Acting like a lady” holds a lot of social currency in the South, the region I hail from. Aside from, perhaps, being a mother, being a lady is the most important thing a Southern woman can be. Best I can ascertain, being a lady means that you are polite, demure, coy, submissive, well-groomed, and super-boring. A lady knows how to host a perfect brunch and how to keep quiet at a dinner party when volatile subjects are being discussed and how to make cute handicrafts out of some old rickrack and sequins.

When a man tells a woman to “act like a lady,” he is asking for conformity to a rigid (albeit arbitrary) code of gendered behavior. Specifically, she should be quiet, mannerly, and easily controllable. She should not express a desire for sex. She should not make crude jokes. She should not enjoy a drink (at least, she should not say that she does). She should not run or shout or climb trees. She should avoid wearing pants too often. She should wait for instructions from a man before acting. She should not express her opinions too vociferously, and she should never argue with an authority figure. She should keep her emotions and her thoughts under control at all times.

I loathe this injunction, in any form, because all I want to be is a decent human being. I don’t want to be told to be a lady, anymore than I want men to be told to be gentlemen. I want people to be upstanding humans, first and foremost.

I acknowledge that there are certain virtues of ladyship, but they are applicable to everyone, regardless of gender: Be polite and kind to others. That is all that we need to say to each other.

You can tell me when I need to be polite and kind. You can tell me that I need to acquire a sense of decorum. You can tell me that I need to shape up and act like a decent human being. But don’t tell me to be a lady.

A woman’s ability to lead a full life

“For those who are troubled by America’s high abortion rate, the good news is that we already know what will lower it: more feminism. More justice. More equality. More freedom. More respect. Women should have what they need both to avoid unwanted pregnancy and childbirth to have wanted children. For motherhood to truly be part of human flourishing, it has to be voluntary, and raising children—by both parents—has to be supported by society as necessary human work. Motherhood should add to a woman’s ability to lead a full life, not leave her on the sidelines, wondering how she got there.”

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt

What have frats done for us?

In the wake of the horrific Rolling Stone article about a 2012 gang rape at the UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, I have found it hard to control my emotions, waffling between rage and sorrow. It seems that sexual violence is the theme of the year in my town, the supposedly peaceful Charlottesville.

The residents I’ve talked to, many of whom are UVA alums, are grieved, but sadly, many of them are not surprised. The general sentiment is: Yeah. That sounds like something frats would do — and have done for years. And then there is the outpouring of feelings of powerlessness against an entrenched system of violence, adolescent stupidity, and misogyny.

This is my question: How powerless are we?

To me, there seems to be a very simple answer, or at least, a practical solution that could begin a tidal wave of much-needed change: Shut down all the fraternities (and not just for a few weeks, to pacify public outrage).

No, this wouldn’t solve the problem of rape. Sexual violence is often committed by men who are not frat brothers. No, not all frats are evil. Obviously, not all frats are raping women. There are some genuinely lovely and good-hearted men who are in or were in fraternities, and I am delighted to know many such men.

Phi Gamma Delta House University of Virginia-Fraternity from Negatives from the Charlottesville photographic studio plus an index volume  Holsinger's Studio (Charlottesville, Va.)  1890-1938  Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.
Phi Gamma Delta house at UVA. University photo archives, 1890-1938.

But let’s discuss honestly what this action could do. What are the advantages of the greek system in American universities? What have fraternities done for university cultures?

Advantages of frats

  • Having a bunch of friends that your parents purchased for you who are all in your same social class. Accordingly, a sense of unity, loyalty, and belonging within this artificial, homogenous family
  • Business connections. Hey, later in life, you may be asked to conduct judicial review of your own frat when it faces gang rape charges! Sweet deal.
  • Parties! Which naturally involve plenty of alcohol, with the added benefit of skirting the law on underage drinking (due to lack of enforcement)
  • Some mandatory community service

Disadvantages of frats

  • Parties! Copious alcohol + no law enforcement/adult oversight + groupthink = a perfect storm to generate a mass of bad decisions.
  • Hazing. Most panhellenic organizations will tell you that hazing is illegal. But most frats will admit that they still do it. Just a little bit. Just enough to maybe kill just one student a year (as was common at UNC). It’s just one human being. He wanted to fit in!
  • Frat houses that are private property (like many of the houses at UVA) create a perfect culture of protection for frat activities. You can wreak fairly unsupervised havoc to your heart’s content. A private frat house is also a perfect location to trap and rape women with zero consequences to yourself and your brothers.
  • When you do get in trouble, you benefit from a large degree of protection from university officials because you’re rich. Accordingly, your parents and your frat’s alumni hold clout, because they too are well off, and your university doesn’t want to piss them off by punishing you.
  • A culture that encourages a strong sense of brotherhood (aka idiotic male behavior), often culminating in a high degree of misogyny.
  • A culture that fosters racism and elitism. I can’t even remember how many times UNC frats got in trouble for racist and sexist parties while I was working for the student paper; too many times to count. The elitism is so blatant it’s almost not worth mentioning. Such organizations, like fraternities, that exist solely to exalt the most privileged members of society seem crass and anachronistic in 21st-century America.
  • The exaltation of tradition. Frats have existed for a long time and were often the first organizations established at American universities. There’s a strong feeling that we must protect frats, at all costs, because they have been around for so long. Particularly at such a university as UVA, which views history and tradition as a veritable religion, long-held customs and cultures are very slow to change — or even to admit that they need to change. (Reveling in that kind of circular logic of, well, we’ve always done it this way and therefore it is perfect and unchangeable.)

Some Surrounding Facts

  • Men in fraternities are more likely to commit sexual assault than men who are not in fraternities (NASPA Journal, 2007). The relevant and especially damning passage from this research on rape prevention:
    • Among men on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to commit rape than other college men (Bleeker & Murnen, 2005; Boeringer, 1999). Thus, rape prevention efforts often target fraternity men (Choate, 2003; Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, & Turner; 1999; Foubert & Newberry, 2006). Compared to their peers on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to believe that women enjoy being physically “roughed up,” that women pretend not to want sex but want to be forced into sex, that men should be controllers of relationships, that sexually liberated women are promiscuous and will probably have sex with anyone, and that women secretly desire to be raped (Boeringer, 1999). Beyond the aforementioned quantitative findings, qualitative research suggests that fraternity culture includes group norms that reinforce within-group attitudes perpetuating sexual coercion against women. These cultural norms have the potential to exert powerful influences on men’s behavior (Boswell & Spade; 1996).

  • About 30% of UVA’s undergraduates belong to a fraternity or a sorority.  (In contrast to other regional schools, UNC, my alma mater, has 17% of the student body involved in greek life; Duke University has about 38%.)
  • About 55% of sexual assault occurs at parties, and in about 72%–81% cases of reported rape, the woman was intoxicated.
  • Women were not officially (fully) enrolled as undergraduates at UVA until 1972. So, comparatively, this is a school that is still figuring out how to treat women as humans. Let’s be honest: The Great Demigod Thomas Jefferson wasn’t exactly a role model in this arena. (By contrast, UNC enrolled its first woman student in 1897.)

Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.
Members of Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.

Let’s be clear: This kind of evil, predatory behavior is not exclusive to UVA. While at UNC, I heard about a story a year about a girl being raped by her frat date, and I heard collectively two separate stories about women in our circle of acquaintances who suffered gang rape at frats. Being assaulted by frat brothers was a common horror story at UNC. A few miles down the road at Duke, my friend, who was in a frat there, reported that many Duke frats had “progressive parties” in which one of the rooms was the “date rape” room, into a which a girl would be lured and sexually assaulted, and then moved on to the next station at the party. These parties are still happening there today, and no frat has been punished for them.

Sexual assault happens at colleges all across this country, which is why this is a problem of epidemic proportions — even if the evidence is scattered and hushed, tending toward horror stories that women quietly share with one another.

Why would we not try to stop at least SOME of those regular assaults against women by closing down institutions that are famous for sexual violence?

Again, frat brothers are not the only agents of evil. There are plenty of other men out there who are committing sexual assault without the assistance of the greek system. But I earnestly believe that we can stop an enormous proportion of the problem of recurring sexual violence on campuses by shutting down fraternities.

If we shuttered frats, students could still join clubs. Parties would still be had. Gratuitous amounts of alcohol would still be consumed. And, sadly, I am not so naive to think that sexual violence would end. Women would still be in danger on a regular basis, so there’s that, to pacify the traditionalists.

But we could shut down a series of long-standing institutions that promote some of the worst sides of human nature: entitlement, machismo, sexism, recklessness, and a grievous lack of respect for human dignity. At this point, I think frats are beyond saving. They are too far gone to implement reform. The entire culture is morally bankrupt and has been for decades. Good men can exist inside this system, as we all know, but the bad that frats generate seems to far outweigh the good.

Is it not worth it? To make some wealthy alumni angry in exchange for improving university culture and perhaps protecting the lives and bodies of girls?

I don’t think university officials think it’s worth it; they’d rather have the money. Money wins, just about every time, when you put a young woman’s life on the scales.

Again, I’m not stupid. I don’t really believe frats will be shut down. Frats will continue to grow and thrive and rape. Those men who assaulted their dates will graduate and become prominent members of society. They’ll become fathers. They’ll pass on their beliefs to their children. And their little juniors will go on to college, join a frat, and start the cycle all over again.

But if we don’t start seriously questioning the worth of some of our most cherished institutions, our world will not improve. And we will continue to hear the same horrific stories, year after year after year. I am trying to be hopeful. In the meantime, I won’t stay silent about what I perceive to be a vicious cancer in our universities.

If the initial article didn’t make you angry, here’s some additional reading that might.

Ginsburg for Queen

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1977.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1977.

“Were I Queen, my principal affirmative action plan would have three legs. First, it would promote equal educational opportunity, and effective job training for women, so they would not be reduced to dependency on a man or the state. Second, my plan would give men encouragement and incentives to share more evenly with women the joys, responsibilities, worries, upsets, and sometimes tedium of raising children from infancy to adulthood. (This, I admit, is the most challenging part of the plan to make concrete and to implement.) Third, the plan would make quality day care available from infancy on. Children in my ideal world would not be women’s priorities, they would be human priorities.”

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg, quoted in Brigid Schulte’s excellent book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.