Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m in the middle of a feminist version of that Billy Joel song We Didn’t Start the Fire. Here’s some of what I’ve learned in the last few weeks:
- A courageous journalist, Lauren Wolfe, has made a film about sexual violence as a tool of war called Women Under Siege. A couple of weeks ago, when she wrote with Gloria Steinem about how sexism defines a “cult of masculinity,” and how this vision of manhood hurts both men and women, someone hacked her website and posted sexist pictures on it. In addition, she received many comments pushing back against the idea that the cultural definition of manhood might have anything to do with violence against women.
- One in four college women report surviving rape (15 percent) or attempted rape (12 percent) since their fourteenth birthday. And our culture is encouraging it—most of that encouragement is not in our mainstream media, but it is beginning to creep in.
- Sex trafficking is a growing problem: there are over 32 million people enslaved around the world, and out of that number 80% percent of the victims are forced into sexual servitude. Many of these people are brought into the United States; many others are American children.
- While protesting a bill that would require women to undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound before an abortion, 31 people were arrested for peacefully sitting on the steps of the Richmond Capitol building. The protestors were held on buses for hours, their hands handcuffed, without being allowed to use the restroom or have food or water.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
For years I’ve blocked news like this out because it gets to me too much, and in some cases it makes me feel powerless (though that, in fact, is far from true). But this news is unblockable—it doesn’t feel like something that is happening “out there,” something I can switch off. This news feels like a series of live wires that have been flung into my living room, sizzling and raw.
I haven’t slept well recently—I’ve been waking up with words I should write or words I have written or battles that have been waged or need to be waged firing through my brain like nervous missives from cyberspace. I must calm down, I tell myself. I must focus. And I must have faith.
This is the state of mind I was in when I went to a Women’s History event on Longwood University’s campus entitled “That Takes Ovaries.” It was an open mike event based on the book That Takes Ovaries: Bold Females and Their Brazen Acts, edited by Rivka Solomon. I went to the event consciously, in search of inspiration and motivation. How have other women done it? How have they kept going when there is so much, without getting burned out or cynical?
Inspiration, it turned out, was the appetizer. What I really got out of that evening was encouragement and nourishment. Here’s what lifted my spirits:
- The energy of the students in the room. The students who attended the event were fantastic—full of fire, faith, and acceptance of one another. As a teacher and an older woman, it was fun to watch them just be themselves.
- The stories of small acts of courage. I heard many stories of women and men advocating for women’s rights. You can’t hear that much good news without smiling.
- The personal support. I told the story of beginning this blog, and a friend encouraged me to speak about what I think still needs to change. I hadn’t realized, until then, how much I needed to be physically in a roomful of supportive feminists, just for my own self.
- The words of Bobbi Ausubel. Bobbi was a leader of second wave feminism. She is currently 75 years old, and for the last ten years has been working internationally to end sex trafficking. She led the event, and continually reminded us that nothing, not even wearing pants at a University, has come to women without a fight.
- The words of Dr. Deneese Jones. Dr. Jones, Dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Longwood, told her story of quiet, determined success against formidable odds because of race and gender. Listening to her, I felt consciously fed—both by her story, which is impressive, and by her dignity. Here, I thought, is a role model.
Last night, my heart started to understand something my brain already knew: the stories of other women’s lives can do more than inspire me. They can provide me with respite.
And I don’t have to go to a special event to find them.
While I was at this event, my husband was across town with our kids, at my son’s first t-ball practice of the season. A friend of mine gave him a present for me, and when I got home he passed it along: a crocheted pink uterus and a form to send to my local senator that reads: “Get your prehistoric laws out of my uterus! Better yet, here’s one of your own.” I love my crocheted uterus. If the friend who made it had been with me, she could have stood up to proclaim her own act of courage: “Today I made a crocheted uterus and mailed it to my senator. Then I made another one for my friend, so she can do the same.”
A small act, but one that makes you feel better. About yourself, and about the state of women in the world. About your own ability to be courageous, and affect change.
From now on, when I get to feeling like the fire is raging out of control, I’m going to walk away for a while and find some nourishment. I’ll definitely buy That Takes Ovaries and read the stories in it. But I’m also going to ask my friends—male and female—to tell their stories about courage and women’s rights. That, my friends, is chicken soup for the feminist soul.