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.

Men and women at parties

Home in March
Our living room in its natural state.

Something I dislike: Going to a party in which the men only speak to the men and the women only speak to the women.

I’m going to hazard a generalization here, but this happens far more often when we’re in our Christian circles than when we’re not. Christians, even modern ones like us, still mistrust the sexes. There’s a lot of gender baggage there, skating under the surface.

Non-Christian men, in my experience, tend to talk to me as if I were an equal, as if I could generate a conversation that would interest them as much as a conversation with my husband. They ask me about what I’m reading or what I think about some recent event or to weigh in on a dog breed dispute. This is not so with most churchgoing menfolk or womenfolk. The women talk in a corner about womanly things (probably babies), and the men talk at the mantel about manly things (sports, news, culture). God-fearing men will speak to me kindly, but only as long as they have to.

At gatherings such as these, I am grateful for female company, because it is safe and comfortable, but I am often looking longingly at the closed circle of male conversation. I could do without the football analysis, but they are often talking about ideas. They’re debating some theological point or evaluating some political story. I want to talk about ideas! I don’t mind hearing about people’s children—I love my friends’ children—but I like a healthy mix of baby stories + everyday philosophy.

I have guesses as to why we women, especially in these circles, shy away from discussing ideas. It’s not that we don’t have any ideas, but again, it’s the experience of growing up in and living within a highly gendered culture. We’re wired to take care of things, whether it’s our houses or spouses, besties or babies. Caregiving, more often than not, leaves little room or energy for theory-making. And so we talk about the people or things we look after: our jobs, our kitchens, our children. We leave the debates to men, who have that kind of mental leisure.

I am perpetually frustrated by this division, but I accentuate it in my own way, too. I like talking about my charges with other women. I like taking care of my house and my incorrigible dogs. And I will always love—and preference—the company of women. But I also like talking to men. Like any restless animal, I want a diversity of conversation. I want to talk about diapers and cryptocurrencies. I want to discuss recipes for homemade cleaning products and half-baked defenses of predestination. I dislike feeling excluded or relegated to only one sphere.

And so I try to do my part, whenever I host dinner parties or gatherings, to mix company, to seat women next to and across from men, to create a space for conversation that can involve everyone at the table. We could learn a great deal from each other if we would take the time.

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.

Women in my family have taught me

Advice from the women in my family.

My mother

Christmas 2015Buy nice hand soap. Make your home a warm and welcoming place for guests. Be a kickass business owner who isn’t afraid to negotiate, with everyone, for everything. Never settle for uncomfortable jeans, even if they’re on sale. Take care of your nails (stop painting them). Sit down and eat a good meal, mostly derived from the earth, and don’t worry so much about hard-core exercise. Tend a garden. Take walks.

My grandmother Lucy

Ma-Maw getting some bun cuddles.Take care of your face. Invest in expensive face creams. Be proud of your family; tell them how proud of them you are whenever you see them. Create and cherish family traditions. Find your signature scent and do not deviate. Write and send cards to people on every conceivable occasion.* (*At Ma-Maw’s funeral, a woman came up to me and told me that Ma-Maw sent her dog a birthday card.)

My grandmother Loretta

GranBe direct with people about what you want; don’t hedge. Laugh a lot: loudly and daily. Tell stories and crack jokes in every social interaction. Making fun of people is a nice way to show that you care. Consider the needs of dogs, first and foremost. Take risks and do not give any weight to cultural opinions. Show off your legs.

My sister Kelsey

Easter 2016Be confident about yourself and your appearance. Marie Kondo your entire home; if you bring home one new thing, throw out one old thing. Reserve time for kissing and cuddling. Take care of everyone around you; be uncannily prescient about predicting others’ needs. Prioritize your own needs on a long road trip (e.g., chicken nuggets and a milkshake).

My sister Grace

It's so hard having hot sisters #farsonsSee the whole damn world. Do what you want with your life and ignore conventions. Hoard creative material and ideas and make no apologies for the rats’ nest that is your childhood room/closet. Dress like you just went on a trip to Japan and found out that your life calling is to be a potter (who also owns a motorcycle and two pit bulls). You can never have too many notebooks.

My great aunt Lib

Found photo: Aunt LibRead everything and write long letters full of great sentences. Tell stories in every conversation. Invent your own catchphrases and use them liberally. Preserve an irreverent sense of humor in all circumstances. Be a lady who gets things done and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.

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.

Woolf, more on street harassment, and simple things

How Virginia Woolf did not age well (or, rather, she aged very rapidly) and yet she maintained this essential quality of light elegance, quiet composure. In contrast to her brilliant, racing mind? I feel somewhat obsessed with that photograph of her, from 1938, just three years before she died; her limpid expression, the angle of the camera, the light behind her.

In the grim state of affairs regarding women’s public safety, my conclusion is thus: You simply cannot trust men you do not know. This sounds dark and cynical, but I feel dark and cynical about the state of women’s freedom and the outrageous lack of respect for women as human beings. A close friend worked at the same hospital as Hannah Graham’s alleged murderer and rapist and said he was the nicest, gentlest guy; so did many of his friends. “So, now knowing all of this, and knowing how I found him to be such a trustworthy person,” my friend said, “how can you trust anyone?” We let the question fall and didn’t answer, because what could we say? Who can you trust? But “anyone,” to me, is the limiting factor. I’d answer that you just can’t trust unfamiliar men with your physical safety, ever. Because Lord knows a woman isn’t going to rape you and then throw your body in a stream.

We were talking about this case again with friends around a bonfire and the daily reality of street harassment came up. Except that the men around us — thinking, respectful, generous men — seemed somewhat shocked that this was a daily reality for us women. We women all agreed that we were always on alert, everywhere, even in daylight, even in familiar places. Stories about harassment that had happened just a few hours prior bubbled up. The men were silent. But none of it was unusual to the women. Constantly checking our surroundings, whether day or night, watching for suspicious characters, cringing when walking past a construction site: these are not behaviors that men commonly concern themselves with.

Someone said, “Well, they’re just yelling at you; they don’t have any real power over you.” But men who harass you on the street do, unfortunately, wield a form of power over you. Because they make you afraid. They make you feel unsafe. They make you frightened of your surroundings, mistrustful of society at large. They make you feel exposed and vulnerable. This is how a patriarchal society works.

I have to quote Rebecca Solnit again, because I feel like I just can’t get over this:

Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Please, look me in the eye and tell me that we don’t need feminism. That women have enough rights already. Say it to my face.

We talked about ways to respond to street harassment and didn’t come up with any workable solutions. Responding, to me, is giving such a man what he wants (recognition that his words have affected you), even if that response is a middle finger (or a thumbs down, as someone cutely suggested). I’ve always chosen to ignore, to steel myself to wear an unfeeling mask. But I don’t know if that does anything to resolve this ongoing issue.

Every time something as horrific as Hannah Graham’s murder crops up in the news, every time a man shouts an obscenity at a woman in the street, the only refrain I can recall is you are not free, you are not free, you are not free…

As a corollary to this conversation about street harassment, my friend Tara made an interesting side note. “No one hollers at you when you have a bunch of babies strapped to you,” she said, with a wry smile. That interested me. I wonder if other mothers would report the same? Street harassment is negated if you are accompanied by small children?

A woman will also never experience catcalling if she is accompanied by a man. Presumably, that woman is owned by her male companion and she is therefore protected, as his property, from verbal abuse. So there’s that. (Which also enrages me in a different way. That even the basest men somehow respect this misogynistic code of behavior toward one another — if a man has “his” woman with him, “his” woman is therefore ineligible to receive harassment. But a woman daring to walk alone? Open season!)

Virginia Woolf, June 1926. (c) National Portrait Gallery. #virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf, June 1926. National Portrait Gallery.

This devolved rather quickly. I had intended to write about simple, pretty things.

Like how my rosemary has flourished in the front yard. Like the way Eden leans against my chair while I am reading and looks directly into my eyes with an unblinking, expectant stare. Like the fact that I am savoring Lila and reading it with worshipful patience. Like having lunch with Guion on the deck on a weekday, with the dogs sunbathing, with the leaves fluttering to the ground, with the yellow jacket persistently hovering over your raised spoon.

Ambivalence, grace, and the choice to have kids

No one ever asks a man, “Are you planning on having children?” But it’s a question that is often lobbed at women between the ages of 20 and 40. And it’s a question that I often ask myself. Am I going to have children?

Ann Friedman’s recent piece on women’s ambivalence toward having children struck a chord with me. Like the women Friedman characterizes, I am open to having children, but I’m also not sure if I particularly want them. I find that many of my childless friends express a similar sentiment. It is, perhaps, one of the first times in history in which women have felt confident enough to say such things out loud.

Growing up, I never envisioned myself as a mother. I did not play with dolls or play-act at breastfeeding or other mothering activities. At a young age, I was teased, by my older female relatives, for my considerable lack of maternal instinct. I preferred reading and bossing my peers around; I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother. I baby-sat often in my teens, and even now, I am still quite adept at diapering an infant, but I never particularly loved watching other people’s children. Unlike many of my female friends, I never begged to hold people’s babies; I didn’t know what to do with them. I preferred the solemn six-year-olds to the babies every time.

Partially because I’ve never imagined myself as a mother, I find the joys and trials of parenting very difficult to envision. As an outsider, I just see all of the sleep-deprived, home-bound, strung-out young parents — who, by the way, are doing incredible jobs at raising their children with great love and daily sacrifice — and think, “Why would I want that?” Because I’ve never experienced or even witnessed these parenting highs (naturally, because they surely occur in the intimate, private moments between parent and child), they seem so foreign when mothers describe them to me.

Furthermore, I also wonder, what is the point of having children? On a purely rational and self-preserving level, it’s so that we can have someone take care of us when we are old, because our beloved dogs won’t be able to afford our retirement homes. On the evolutionary level, it’s so that we can push our genes (regardless of whether they are genes worth preserving) onto the next generation and thereby further the human race — despite the fact that the world is already grossly overpopulated with our species. It’s the emotional level that I don’t understand. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a compelling reason for children from the emotional or psychological perspective. Surely that reason exists; I’m just not sure what it is. (If you are a parent, chime in!)

I reject the notion that because I have a womb, I ought to fill it with offspring. Further, I roundly reject the notion that God will love me more if I procreate. I am deeply opposed to any denomination or branch of theology that asserts that the more children you have, the holier you are. This is an incredibly short-sighted, reductionist, and offensive stance.

I am so glad that many people have decided to become parents. I know so many wonderful, loving, shining exemplars of mothers and fathers, and I know they do good, hard work every day to raise their little humans. I just don’t know if I’m cut out to join their throng.

In intimate moments, this is a conversation that comes up often among the women I know. I said all of these things, the sentiments above, to Tara, one of the best mothers I know, and was a little fearful to hear her reaction. Tara is one of those gloriously sympathetic human beings who was born to be a mother. She is smart and compassionate and sacrificial; her kids are her pride and joy, and for good reason (they’re amazing little kids). She seems to really revel in motherhood, in this beautiful, awe-inspiring way.

And so I was worried, to say all of these things to her. But this is what she said: “Abby, if you do have kids, that is great. God will give you the grace to be a great mom. And if you don’t have kids? That’s OK too. God will give you the grace for that too.”

It was such a simple sentiment, but it brought me to tears. No one has ever said that to me before. To receive such grace! And especially from a Christian mom, who have, up until this point, always said that I need to stop being so fearful, so selfish, so cold-hearted. To be told, regardless of what you do with your uterus, you are loved and accepted. I have been waiting so long to hear this from someone. It brings me to tears even now, just writing about it.

I have always assumed that I would have children, because that is what you do when you are a married person (and when, in my case, you are married to a person who wants children). But I feel no great fervor for child-rearing. And I am OK with languishing in this ambivalence for now. I have a few more years before the demands of biology start to become urgent. And then to wait, to receive grace for whatever comes.

I don’t owe you a smile

Last summer, when my hair was very long. Source: Guion.

To get downtown, I have to walk over a bridge, adjacent to a lane of often busy traffic. As any woman who lives here will tell you, this bridge is an epicenter for cat calls, whistling, and shouted comments from male motorists. You get used to it. You start to expect it; you even develop an ability to predict which vehicles are most likely to contain men who will harass you.

On this particular day, traffic was stopped as I was crossing the bridge. I’m walking, trying not to make eye contact, when a man leans out of the window of a truck and says to me, “Heyyy, baby, give me a smile!” I don’t look at him and keep walking. Then, in my peripheral vision, I see him lean back out the window and he screams at me, “You stuck-up BITCH!”

It’s jarring to be called a “bitch” by anyone, much less by a man you don’t know, who feels justified calling you that because you won’t smile at his leering, pock-marked face after he demanded that you do. Even though nothing physically happened to me, I was upset by the incident for the rest of the day. I finally realized why I couldn’t get the encounter out of my head: This was the first time, in my young adult life, that I actively felt like an object.

We talk about “the objectification of women” all the time. It’s a phrase I’m very familiar with and I’ve sat in university classes about just that topic. But I never really thought it applied to me. Women in the media are objectified; models on billboards are objectified; actresses are objectified… but me? I’d never felt that way before.

Like any young woman in my general age bracket, I’m fairly acclimated to street harassment, but this is the first time that it made me feel angry, exposed, and even a little frightened. As I finished walking down the bridge, I grew increasingly self-conscious. I wanted to disappear. (And, alternately, slash that truck’s tires.) I had never expected to feel this way, but there it was, that feeling I’d only heard proclaimed from podiums or academic columns: I am a woman and I am therefore an object, free to be publicly evaluated, insulted, bossed around, and lewdly scrutinized.

I don’t really have an “action point” for this post. I don’t have any happy promises to wrap up the ending. Recounting the little incident still makes me feel furious. I take refuge in expressing anger (and sometimes bits of humor) about the culture of street harassment with other women, especially Stephanie, who has lots of stories in this dehumanizing department. But we don’t have any solutions. You get used to it, you adapt. You vaguely dream of a world in which your daughter might be able to exist as a human being, free to walk on a public street without being regarded as a sex toy, a manipulable body who owes mankind a smile. But that is often too hard to imagine.