Friday, February 21, 2014

Girl On Girl

I took my 11 year old daughter to the movies a few nights ago. The film was Girl Rising, screened in the gymnasium of her former elementary school. Beautifully told, it profiles several girls in developing countries who are fighting for the right to gain an education. What I expected was to experience a sense of gratitude that my own daughters will never have to wage such a war, and perhaps to put some of the junior high school girl angst that my daughter has been recently exhibiting into some perspective as she compared her own life with girls her age in less fortunate circumstances. I mean, millions of girls around the world are fighting to simply learn the alphabet of their language, to understand basic math, for entry into a world of words much safer and more vibrant than her own, where poems float across the page and ancient fables keep her company. They'd love to be sitting where my daughter is, even to endure the torment that American sixth grade girls inflict on each other so regularly.

She gets it. I am raising her to be a champion of justice. I got part of what I bargained for. My daughter was moved. She felt grateful, appreciative even, of the comfortable privileges and pleasures she is afforded as a citizen of the developed world, and incensed that those privileges aren't a guarantee for every girl.

Me? Not so much. I should have emerged with a sense of gratitude that my daughters have shoes on their feet, let alone a school to welcome them. Instead I left infuriated and inspired to consider the truth for them. How much better off are they than the girls on the screen? Is it good enough? Are we, as a nation, doing enough in the arena of gender equality and the promotion of women's rights that I can relax into complacency? Am I comfortable that they will be cared for when they're not in my line of sight? In pouring over statistics on the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice, The State Department, The Centers for Disease Control, my local newspaper, and having sifted through the painful evidence of my own personal experiences, I find that the answer is a resounding NO. We've come a long way, baby, but there is much work still to be done.

Every day in the U.S., nearly 1,500 girls go missing. 74% of victims of non-family abductions are girls. 94% of victims of human sex trafficking in America are women, and the average age of entry into forcible prostitution is 12-14. 98% of all reported survivors of sex trafficking have previous involvement with Child Welfare Services, and many of them were in the custody of the state when they while they were being prostituted. This is a billion dollar a year industry, the sexual exploitation of very young girls. The basic principle of economics in a capitalist society means someone is paying. It's basic supply and demand. Enough men recognize young girls as sub-human sexual objects that millions of them are spending billions of dollars a year for a chance to abuse them. Others, short on cash perhaps, just rape them. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 5 women in this country will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Some studies cite this likelihood as an underestimate, that 1 in 4 is more probably accurate. 1 in 4 women in America report having experienced violence in an intimate relationship. It is accurate to say that 1 in 4 women will experience sexual assault, an attempted assault, threatening, stalking, domestic abuse or some combination thereof.

One of every Four. I have Three daughters. I am One mad mama.

So I've set about asking myself why this should be so. How is it acceptable in this wealthy nation, this technologically evolved nation, this educated nation, this nation founded in Christian principles, that we treat 20-25%of our women and girls as throw away objects and punching bags? Wait. Back up the truck... this Christian nation. Let's pop the lid off this one, shall we? Stir some shit up and see what sinks and what floats. If we're going to elect representatives (as we've done en masse in 2010 and 2012) who promote scripture-based legislation, how should we expect that to play out for women and girls? How does the bible weigh in on the role of women? There's lots of great stuff in there about the honoring of husbands and wives, about people glorifying God in their treatment of each other. But even in all that, there is also this long, dark shadow cast by Eve, who, through no invitation of her own, was created from, by and for the patriarch. Then she was like, Hey Man, none of this was my idea, I didn't ask to be born and you can't tell me what to do! (the war-cry of every 14 year old girl ever)... I'm going to eat this pomegranate.  After that, woman is often described as "weaker" in the bible, and implied to be more prone to stepping out of line. The role of a husband then is to keep his wife in said line.
1 Corintihians 11:8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake but woman was created for the man's sake.
(Then there's something about her needing to keep her head covered because of the angels. I think that is likely the source of frat boys' insistence that women aren't hot if they don't have long hair... very few of those dudes are angels.)
There's plenty of mention of woman's submissiveness, her servitude to man, and always with paying it back for that goddamned pomegranate.
1 Timothy 2:11-15 Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; She is to keep silent; For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
It's antiquated, of course, and progressive Christians know better than to impose a literal application of these passages. I'm not suggesting that contemporary Christians have a problem with women being teachers, or that they expect them to keep their heads covered, or even that they consider them lower in esteem than men. Unlike some of its more obvious and overbearing religious counterparts to the east, Christianity has steeped itself in American culture more subtly. That old separation of church and state is a very thin membrane... in some states it's more of a mesh these days, really. Like the midriff net shirts Madonna wore with suspenders in the 80s. In a far more subversive way than extreme religions impose restrictions on women, there is simply a current running through our culture that tells us we are here to serve man, and not to expect too much in the way of change.

In some countries, there is a blatant and overt attempt by governments and men to keep women in submissive roles. Those women know exactly where they stand. Our situation is a confounding juxtaposition of pop culture with emphasis on bare-it-all girl power, and a Christian heritage that subliminally pits women a peg below their male partners and counterparts. Is it any surprise then, that politicians who promote a Christian agenda should be systematically attacking our rights at state level?

I know that I'm tipping sacred cows here. I understand that I am stepping on the toes of some of the people I love most in the world. To them I can only say this: I understand that you are a person of faith. My intention is not to shake that faith. I am also a person of faith. Like you, I also believe in things that I can't see: my daughters' boundless potential, their possibilities, future accomplishments, the strength and wisdom that will come to them as they grow. I also see something more tangible. I see recent laws, rooted in Christian scripture, which limit them, oppress them, shame them, and undo protections of their health. I'm not asking anyone to question their faith. Rather, I am searching for the consequences of the Word as it manifests in a world that is increasingly dangerous for girls. I want to explore the caves of culturally acceptable norms that do not vanquish evil and wrongdoing, but encourage it. A sort of cultural spiritual spelunking, if you will.

I recognize that thousands upon thousands of faith-based organizations are committed to helping women who are the victims of poverty and assault. But where have we, through bible-based legislation, been complicit in abetting the criminals and blaming the victims? Where have we assumed that our experience is universal, and that our sense of morality can be spread like buttercream across the nation? Where have we aided in shaming girls, in boxing them in? Where have we created the very poverty and abuse we seek to amend? Where have we placed female modesty and patriarchal reverence ahead of womens' safety?

Steubenville, Maryville, small-town USA, somehow we continue to hear of girls being raped, the crimes against them photographed and digitally distributed in evidence of HER shame. And of police investigators and a compliant township who still hold some bizarre 14th century notion that the onus is on a girl to keep from "getting herself raped" while the rest of us look on, some of us in horror and disbelief, others in agreement with such backward logic. She shouldn't have had so much to drink; she shouldn't have been wearing that; she should never have been there in the first place...

Attacks of our wombs on the street and in the fraternity yard are met with equal ferocity where ambitious Tea Party politicians preach from the pulpit of our state houses about the sins of birth control, abortion, sex-education and welfare. Make no mistake, the scripture-based lobby has tremendous influence over policy, most notably policy that affects women and children. I listened to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (one of D.C.'s most influential Christian lobbys), on his radio show a few weeks ago as he labeled food stamps for single mothers a "surrogate husband." The implication being that if we remove supplemental food assistance from a mother and her children, she will be encouraged to "find a man to take care of her" and be in compliance with biblical family values. Today in this country, 41% of women live at or below the poverty level. Cases of extreme poverty more often affect women, and the rate for single mothers is especially alarming. Mr. Perkins, I'm not sure where you're keeping this stash of princes on white stallions, but for God's sake, let them out. I bet it reeks like hell in that storage unit! There must be millions of them in there!

Fundamentalists like Tony Perkins and scores of Tea Party legislators argue that a return to Traditional Family Values is the cure for the ails of women, and I submit that those are what got us here in the first place. The assumption that women have men to take care of them resulted in lower wages for equal effort, in inferior legal recourse for abuse inside her home, in pushing her to the margins of society. In such a system, she is less likely to be educated, less likely to contribute to the GDP, less likely to seek justice for transgressions against her. Her thoughts matter less. Her inclinations outside the home are seen as trivial. Isn't it nice that she has a hobby, sacking groceries at the corner store on her feet for 9 hours a day? 

What say you, Mr. Vonnegut?
Women are so useless and unimaginative, aren't they? All they ever think of planting in the dirt is the seed of something beautiful or edible. The only missile they can ever think of throwing at anybody is a ball or a bridal bouquet.
While the men of the world were busy bloodying the earth, shouting about boundaries and resources, women have been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) planting the seeds of what is beautiful and edible. Women in what is now the developed world have been slowly but steadily rising from the shadow of Eve for centuries. In the last hundred years we've witnessed the fight to vote, to own property, to make decisions about our own bodies. We've fought for equal treatment in the workplace. We've taken the witness stand in testimony against our objectification, our harassment, our right to make decisions for our families and our communities. And the women who do the fighting? They're the lucky ones who aren't being physically or psychologically restrained from participating.

Policy steeped in patriarchal religious scripture is dangerous. The effect is to demean women, to marginalize us, to revoke our hard-fought rights, to enable our abuse and mistreatment. Power up, sisters (and brothers, thank you!). Vote. Vote. Vote. Someone's life is a stake. And until we vote out every last motherfucker who is complicit in creating or continuing policies that are killing women and contributing to their disempowerment, their spiritual and economic poverty, donate. Formula, diapers, time and money to organizations that are helping at street level.

I am not learning quietly, I'm asking questions. I am not modest. I am not servile. I will not submit while my sisters are raped, beaten, impoverished, marginalized. One in Four. One in Four.

One in Four is not a park bench to pause and catch my breath.

I am the face of feminism. On the outside, I may not look like much. I smile and pour coffee. I nourish and nurture anyone I can get my flour-dusted hands on. I wear a bra. Most days. Okay, not today, but yesterday I did. I look like almost any other lady, but my guts look like this:

I want you to be nice until it's time to not be nice.
I am the face of feminism, and someday I'm going to blow the lid clean fucking off this joint.
I will read. I will study. I will learn. If you try to stop me, I will just try harder. If you stop me, there will be other girls who will rise up and take my place. - Girl Rising


  1. I'm late to this party, but holy crap I love this post. I've been Angry As Hell for several months about this and I appreciate your words. Preach, sister.