Women Who Don’t Burn

Not that long ago a friend pulled me aside and said, “You know, if you lived a few centuries ago, I think you’d have been burned at the stake.”

It was meant as a compliment, and I took it as one.

Because what he meant was that outspoken women, loud women, women who didn’t sit still, who pushed boundaries or dreamt or loved or worked outside the tight confines of the lives assumed for them, those women were often rounded up and burned as witches. Because there was no room for them outside a witch pyre.

Fast forward two centuries. Those same women were labeled hysterics and chained inside concrete institutions instead. As we evolved the punishments for women who refused to sit down and shut up when told to became less physical. We simply shunned them, banishing them to the bottom tier of society.

Nowadays witch burning is metaphorical rather than literal. We don’t tie women to a wooden stake anymore. No, today women get shamed, harassed, and threatened in the media.

Same shit, different century.

Four centuries removed from barbecuing women and we still don’t know what to do with women who don’t STFU.

Oh sure, we may be far from the madding crowd taking pleasure in watching a woman sizzle and fry, but we’ve moved to a place where the madding crowd takes pleasure in metaphorically burning women in public discourse.

The pyres are now cable news shows, the logs op-eds, and the match is social media.

Same shit, different burn.

It’s not easy to be burn resistant, not when society whispers in your girlish ear that you’ll be admired more for your bust line than your by-line, when from the first doll you’re given to the last child you birth you’re told women must be compliant and nurturing. We are still very much a society in which the most revered thing a woman can do is produce children, a society which applauds you for your achievements but with footnotes and codicils and a thousand pages of fine print.

We use women up until they’re no longer useful–usually around the time they hit their sexual sell-by date–and then we throw them out like so many old newspapers. Women who have failed, or lost, the train wrecks of society. We put them on the recycling pile where they’re expected to go gently into that good night.

But every now and again a woman comes along who picks herself up and refuses to go away. A woman who is resistant to the flames which were supposed to engulf her.

‘GNAGH!’ ‘HAA!! HA,HA,HA,HA!’

Hillary Clinton is only the most recent in a long line of women who will not burn. And boy, have they tried.

I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life, she said way back in 1992. And boy oh BOY, that one line managed to set off  a catastrophic string of witch fires that have burned with near consistency for thirty years. She may not have the dragons, but this woman has walked out of more fires than Daenerys Targaryen.

And that drives people nuts.

We generally don’t know what to do with women who refuse to succumb to the flames we place them in, women like Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama, journalists like Lauren Duca and Anita Sarkeesian, even entertainers like Madonna and Beyoncé. Women who have learned to walk through the flames rather succumbing to them.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Hillary Clinton recently wrote a book. Like countless others before her, she wrote a book. Last time I checked, no one was forcing anyone to buy it, or read it. I highly doubt it’s on any high school required reading lists. Yet the book is selling well, and her supporters are lining up to hear her what she has to say.

And people are going ape-shit.

Ultimately this isn’t about whether or not you like or support Hillary Clinton. In fact, ultimately it’s not even about Hillary Clinton, the woman. It’s about not knowing how to cope with women who refuse to go when some tell her to go, to shut up when some tell her to shut up, to stay down when they tell her to. In the case of What Happened, it’s caused so much frothing outrage that entire news cycles have interrupted natural disaster coverage and policy unveilings just to opine on whether or not she has the right to continue to exist in the public sphere.

But of course it’s not just about a book. It’s not even about what’s in the book. If, and only if the book was a four-hundred page opus of self-flagellation perhaps it would have been about the book. Because generally it’s only when a woman lays herself bare at the altar of self-sacrifice we begin to feel the stirrings of sympathy. Only when a witch’s skin begins to pucker and burn are we able to dredge up a modicum of empathy.

But when a woman doesn’t do that?

Whoeee, mama. Pitchforks and hunting parties and more women rounded up and burned.

This is not about what is in the book. There is ample room to discuss the merits of Clinton’s writing style. There is room for disagreement.

What there is no room for is the insistence that she sit down and STFU. That she no longer gets to have a place in the public sphere because someone else is telling her not to. Plenty of politicians write books. I can’t think of another one who was told, before the book had even come out, that he had no business writing it.

Like her or hate her, Hillary Clinton has every right in the world to tell her story. She has a right to exist, to write, to stay standing, to stay speaking. She has every right to still be there, walking away from that smoking pyre and marching into that good night on her own terms.

In case it wasn’t crystal clear from the great cookie quote of 1992, Hillary Clinton is not going gently into that good night.

And this is at the crux of it. This refusal, the audacity of some women to continue to exist, to be relevant to those around them, to simply not die. It outrages people.

Women, after all, are supposed to burn when we tell them to.

There have always been women who don’t burn. Maybe someday soon we’ll stop trying to fan the flames even higher and acknowledge that sometimes the ones we try the hardest to quieten are the ones we should be listening to the most.

 

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A Rock and a Hard Place

Recently a writer tweeted a comment in reaction to a female politician’s actions.

Women on Twitter correctly pointed out that in their experiences, as actual women, that particular advice

1. Wrongly shifts the burden onto women
2. Doesn’t do fuck all
3. Often has the opposite effect
4. Could be downright dangerous

Instead of actively listening to thousands of women who were contradicting his (likely well-meaning) advice with their real life experiences, he doubled down, effectively proving #3 above.

I guess women asserting themselves more forcefully only works if it’s not back at him.¹

I don’t think this writer’s advice was overtly malignant or malicious. More than likely it was poorly thought out, badly expressed or even just hasty. Or perhaps he really does hold the naive view that saying “No” more assertively is going to change the world. Heck, we all express ourselves badly on occasion. We all hold views that could be more nuanced, can all learn things from listening to those who are more experienced at living through a certain filter.

In this case there were literally thousands of women responding that in their experience–again, I can’t stress this enough, as actual women–his advice didn’t hold water.

Why?

Welcome to life between a rock and a hard place.

A woman exists in this space, caught between a rock and a hard place–whenever she must trust her own instincts (and the communal instincts passed down from woman to woman, girl to girl, generation to generation) in order to survive a given situation. Most  times it’s not life threatening–being talked over, interrupted, having your ideas stolen without credit. Being leered at, touched without consent, told to smile.

But sometimes there’s more at stake than your ego or a publication credit.

It’s quaint to think a loudly shouted “I said NO!” is enough to stop a rape or sexual assault. It’s just not true. What is true is sometimes a woman’s best chance of survival lay in another direction entirely. Yet if she doesn’t say no, the law, the courts, society (men AND women) assume consent.²

Death or rape?
Survival or assault?
Raped more violently or believed in court?

Rock and a hard place.

Even when a woman does say “no”, if it’s not loud enough, repeated enough, in the right pitch, tone, and key–we can come up with 1000 different requirements–it’s not enough. Why? Because even when a woman says “no”, all it takes is her rapist to contradict her. Report it and risk having her actions, dress, sexuality, alcohol consumption, and life choices questioned and judged, likely for naught…or try to move on with her life knowing her rapist got away with it. Rock and a hard place.

A woman who is sexually harassed at work must decide whether to speak out and possibly risk her career, a promotion, her professional reputation. She has to decide if reporting her grope-y boss to HR is worth that risk. If your employer is the US military, the ante just got upped.  Rock: ass-grabbing, leering boss. Hard place: a bad reference which could kill her job prospects.

A woman in a domestic violence situation must calculate the likelihood of her abusive partner following through with his threat to kill her, her extended family, or her children. She may have to decide between the rock of financial destitution or the hard place of a fist to the face every other Thursday.

A woman who is cat-called on the street weighs the risk of answering back. A woman told to smile more must decide. The rock of humiliation and anger? Or the the hard place of the real possibility of being followed, stalked, or physically threatened?

Women are killed for less.

Women know, instinctively and through experience, that saying “stop” or “no” more loudly, indeed saying anything at all, is sometimes dangerous–economically, physically, socially. When it is, she is forced to choose the least worst option.

When the least worst option is the humiliation of having to put up with a grope-y boss or some mouthy teenage boys calling you hot mama, you do those calculations in your head lickety-split.

It doesn’t mean you like it. Or invited it. It doesn’t make it okay. It doesn’t make it right. 

And yet time and time again, a woman’s choice between two shitty options is used against her. She must have liked it. If it really bothered her she would have said something. If it was true she would have come forward. I see well-intentioned comments to that end all the time .

If it were me I would have….

punched him
screamed
walked away
fought harder
divorced him
stood up for myself

Life is black and white to those who haven’t walked in someone else’s heels.

Contrary to the stereotype, women are great at math. Let me tell you about the mental calculations most women do at various points in their life. The ones involved in calculating the odds of walking home alone at night and making it home safe, alive, and un-raped. The odds of being free to continue walking if you snap back at someone cat-calling, dividing the salary you might lose if you report your co-worker by the rent that’s due. Women grow up tabulating these odds in the back of their heads. It’s second nature. When faced with these situations, you choose. And that choice is sometimes between a rock and a hard place.

This is what the women on Twitter and in feminist spaces are reaching out to say. Equality, even within laws that protect against things like assault and harassment–is far more complicated than simply saying no, or leaving, reporting.

If all it took was women saying “no” more firmly the world would be a different place. And a hell of a lot louder.

It is not fair to put the burden of survival, of a life unmolested solely onto women. Yes, women should and must be vocal, assertive, and aggressive at times. But men must also learn to listen. The burden is never on a woman not to get raped. The burden is on a man not to rape. The burden is not on a woman to say “No!” more loudly, to come forward more quickly, or to speak up. The burden is on the men who are doing those things to stop doing them in the first place. ³

What you are seeing now-the clap back, the outrage–it’s not a small coven of women intent on making the lives of men miserable. Women don’t hate men. On the contrary, most of us love them. We’re married to them, raising them, friends with them.

The sound you hear now is women chipping away at those rocks, pushing back against those hard places, securing even more public space for themselves. It’s women trying to forge a broader space to live, love, and work within so that they are not caught between those two shitty places. Rock. Hard place.

It doesn’t mean there’s no room for men. It just means that men must get better at sharing that space.

 

¹ Outrage Twitter may as well have been ‘hysterical’, ‘shrill’, ‘uppity’, ‘angry’ or any of the myriad of words used against women who are outside their ‘space’.

² Consent: It’s a Simple as Tea is an excellent way to teach consent to children and teens.

³Increasingly we are recognizing that men are victims of rape too. This is not meant to belittle the trauma of male victims, or to excuse female rapists, solely that it was an authorial decision to focus on male upon female rape/assault in this article.

Sorry I’ve Been A Shitty Friend: A Multiple Choice Form Letter

Dear (fill in name of friend here),

How are you? It’s been way too long, I know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of you and then said to myself, I should really (call/write/at least click like on your vacation photos) but I’m sure you know how it goes. No matter how organized I am, it seems like (life/the news/a hangover) is always getting in the way. It’s so true what they say. Time sure does have a habit of flying when you’re (procrastinating/bemoaning the state of humanity/binge watching Better Call Saul), doesn’t it?

Funny thing is, your name came up just the other day. Someone asked me, “Hey, how’s (fill in name of friend here)? (He’s/She’s) got to be almost (ready to move/ready to have a baby/done with school), right? And it really drove home how long it’s been since I (emailed/tweeted/tagged you in a photo)!

I’m so sorry I missed your (birthday/anniversary/relative’s funeral), I really have no excuse other than the fact that I am spending far too much time (arguing with strangers on the internet/drowning my sorrows in Pinot Noir/in the midst of an existential breakdown). Most days it seems all of my time is taken up by (numb shock/carpooling/debating the continued existence of humankind). I keep thinking things are going to settle down in the next few months, at least enough to (stop refreshing Twitter incessantly/clean my house/remember my kids birthdays), but who knows? Crazy world we live in, right??

And here we are half way through the year already! It seems like yesterday (the world was normal/school started/you moved). Time really does go by quickly. Did I say that already? Lol. Oh, God. I really have to stop using (texting/Snapchat/emoji) abbreviations before I lose all ability to (speak/reason/write) coherently!

But hey, (fill in name of friend), listen. You should know that despite how bad I’ve been at keeping in touch, I’m totally (stalking you on Instagram/following your exploits on FaceBook/relying on what my mom tells me). But it’s nice to get a (letter/email/social media comment longer than 140 characters) sometimes, isn’t it? Despite my (radio silence/passive aggressive comments/emoji reduction correspondence) I do think of you often and wonder how everyone’s doing.

So, in case you’re wondering, it’s not you! It’s (me/Brexit/Trump/Camus level existentialism). I really do feel bad about not keeping in touch, though. Honest!

Anyway, hope you’re all (well/sane/not contemplating the meaning of life from a ledge). Please keep me up to date. And let’s not let this long go by again!

All the best!

(Fill in your name here)

At Home on the Death Star

I think I might be a wee bit broken. A life spent increasingly online has done something to me, something that no stream of Distractify quizzes or compilation of cute kittens is able to fix right now.

It’s like I got sucked up by a tractor beam into the wake of the Death Star.

I’ve never thought of myself as an optimist. But I think I was fooling myself. Sure, there were spirals into depression and Woody Allen style NYC neurosis, but underneath it all, under the goth makeup and bad poetry of my youth, the self-deprecating gallows humor of my twenties, even now, amid the swirling eddy of my forty-something rage, was a belief in the goodness of the human raceThe belief that despite a never-ending string of Vaders parading across the world’s stage, the Jedis always win. Sometimes it takes a few prequels to get the schematics and come up with a plan, but the good guys prevail.

I’m beginning to think I was wrong.

Or at least that’s what a life spent online is causing me to think. And this cycle of uncertainty and questioning has a force choke on my sense of self.

In my quest to put my voice out there–as a flare, a guidepost, a way of joining with others to increase the volume, I may have gone too far, gotten lost in too many comment threads, traveled down too many rabbit holes.

It’s pretty dank and dismal down there. If the internet has become my own personal Death Star, right now I’m stuck in the trash compactor, walls closing in, stinking of shit.

Light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong. Which way do we fall on the scales? Sometimes after half a bottle of wine my husband humors me and we have a buzzy debate about the nature of man. Are we inherently bad, kept in check by some complicated contraption of rules and law held together with duct tape and a prayer? Or are we inherently good, mostly Yoda with a few Emperor Palpatines popping up along the way?

I keep insisting we are good. And besides, the nature of man is just that, I argue. Man. Everything’s been tried, my husband says, and it always devolves along the same pattern. No, no, I insist, not everything. And we pour more wine and debate some more until he tells me my allotted time for serious topics is up and there is a football match on television.

But lately my time online has made me doubt my faith in the Rebel Alliances of the world. That, in and of itself is a sad thing. And it is only made sadder because it’s something I brought upon myself.

In my own desire to be part of something, to be seen, heard, in the vain hope that a lone voice could add something to the conversation, my online life has become a pyramid–both an outsize monument and a scheme. I got invited onto the Death Star and I went. And now, after much wandering around, I’m feeling pretty comfy.

I don’t want to live my life with the bitter aftertaste I’m left with after any time spent online these days. I don’t want feel dirty, spent, laying awake at night trying to figure out if my online activities are an exercise in support or if it’s merely feeding my own ego. In reality, it’s probably a mixture of both, but the feeling of accomplishment–a reader reaching out, a civilized debate, conversing with like-minded people– is competing with darker forces.

I am living my own Empire/Rebel Alliance in my life online. The escape pod is in my line of sight: Log off, delete my accounts, go on my merry way.

Yet I don’t. That’s where the ego comes in, I guess. Building the pyramid. I mean, the Death Star was really nothing more than a galactic pyramid if you think about it.

How long can you roam around the halls of the Death Star without starting to feel like one of the troops, before a little bit of the darkness rubs off on you? What happens when the idea of blowing it up becomes hard to imagine because, hey, you’re just getting to know your way around.

I’m not sure what my role is here, or even if there is a role to fill. Life online has brought me joy, and it has connected me with amazing people I wouldn’t otherwise know. It has expanded my tribe and brought me success. It’s brought me laughter and it keeps me informed. But it has also brought me into contact with a dark side of human nature I wasn’t prepared for. Am I better for knowing it exists? Philosophically, yes. In reality? It’s like eating cotton candy and going to bed without brushing your teeth. You feel kind of gross and when you wake up in the morning, the first thing you taste is the very thing that made you feel sick.

Leia would keep looking for new ways to figure it all out. Old man Luke chucked it all in to go live on a craggy rock and do some soul-searching.

Do or do not, there is no try, right?

I’ll let you know. Unless I’m on an uninhabited rock somewhere, you know, without WiFi.