Showing posts with label women's rights. Show all posts
Showing posts with label women's rights. Show all posts

Thursday, February 14, 2013

One Billion Rising (and One Writing)

If you haven't heard about One Billion Rising yet, here is the blurb from their website that gives you a little information about what they have planned for today.


Today, on the planet, a billion women – one of every three women on the planet – will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, and friends violated. V-Day REFUSES to stand by as more than a billion women experience violence.
On February 14th, 2013, V-Day's 15th Anniversary, we are inviting one billion women and those who love them to walk out, DANCE, RISE UP, AND DEMAND an end to this violence. One Billion Rising is a promise that we will rise up with women and men worldwide to say, "Enough! The violence ends now."
 There are flash mobs and dance groups all over the planet joining the event to raise awareness and add their voices (and dance moves) to the growing group of people calling for an end to violence against women and girls. 

I am inspired and happy to know that, in my lifetime, the volume has been turned up. There is some heat under this skillet and the energy is fairly popping.  There are petitions being circulated to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in Congress. There are media outlets committed to highlighting horrific acts of violence against women as well as consistently investigating and reporting on issues such as wage disparity and discrimination against women with regard to their access to health care.  

But mostly I am encouraged by the young girls I see every day.  

I am not naive enough to believe that flash mobs and petitions will serve to change the deeply rooted, firmly held beliefs of many (men and women) that women and girls are less than. Weaker of mind and body. Deserving of fewer opportunities. There are cultures, countries, and entire religious communities that embrace the notion that women and girls are rightfully subservient to men and their desires.  

Last night I witnessed, yet again, a phenomenon that pours a bucket of ice water over that idea.  Lola's fifth grade class spent two hours presenting scientific data and original art work to a room full of family and community members.  These ten-year old girls have spent countless hours exploring the natural habitat of fresh water and marine animals in our region. They have sailed the Puget Sound taking water samples and analyzing the data, stood in the pouring rain in their rubber boots to see salmon spawning and engaged in research that culminated in the preparation of Power Point presentations that were clear, concise, engaging and humorous.  

One group of girls was charged with learning about and presenting information on the Phylum Porifera, a group of organisms most of us know as sea sponges.  These creatures have no limbs, eyes, mouths or nostrils. They have no nerves to speak of and cannot move from one place to another.  And yet, these three girls dove headfirst in to exploring how they eat and reproduce, what their body structure is composed of, how they are affected by changes in their habitat and why they are important enough that we should care about them.  This is no SpongeBob Squarepants with all his attendant quirky personality. These are, by all rights, pretty invisible and boring creatures. And yet these girls talked about them with enthusiasm and knowledge.  Their portion of the evening was just as interesting as the talk on octopi and crabs.  Each of the girls knew enough about their respective phyla to stand and answer questions from the audience with poise and confidence.  

These girls are turning the tide.  They are encouraged to take up the mantle of learning and sharing their knowledge and they do it with gusto. They work in pairs and small groups to accomplish work that is challenging and frustrating and find reward in a job well done. 

Each group of girls made a mosaic of cut glass that represented one of the species in the phylum they were charged with.  There were multiple steps to the creations of these art projects and they took weeks to complete.  And yet, when asked if it was difficult to work together, they agreed that there were some creative differences along the way, but the conversation was then re-directed to the outcome. The pride they all had in their ability to work through challenges like that and create something they all had a stake in.  

It is occasions like this that encourage me more than anything else I see going on.  It is nights like that where I am reminded that investing time and energy in young women and girls to develop their own innate talents and ideas will reap benefits beyond measure. They will not simply dance in defiance. They will refuse to be subjugated because they know that they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They will have been steeped in possibility and opportunity and grace and it will not occur to them that they are any less than anyone else.  While I appreciate the importance of events such as One Billion Rising, I am made most hopeful by these girls who are cultivating open minds and open hearts and who will rise to one day become the leaders of the world.  

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Why Hillary Clinton is My Shero for Today

Photo from msn.com

I will admit that I supported Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 2008 tentatively. I was somewhat relieved when Obama secured the nomination and I didn't have to support her because she would have been the first female president ever. It wasn't that I didn't like her or what she said she stood for, it was, I think, that I didn't truly know enough about her. I had been watching her through the filter of the years she spent as the First Lady, through the filter of the media, through the filter of her disempowerment thanks to the painfully public mistakes of her husband.

I feel like I know her better now.  I am so pleased that she spent four years as the Secretary of State, living her ideals and making a name for herself that didn't involve her husband.  I was impressed with her calm approach to difficult, polarizing situations and her ability to vehemently defend her actions and beliefs.

I was incredibly proud of her words as she left the job yesterday:

"And that is the final lever that I want to highlight briefly. Because the jury is in, the evidence is absolutely indisputable: If women and girls everywhere were treated as equal to men in rights, dignity, and opportunity, we would see political and economic progress everywhere. So this is not only a moral issue, which, of course, it is. It is an economic issue and a security issue, and it is the unfinished business of the 21st century. It therefore must be central to U.S. foreign policy."

The entire article is here.

I will also admit that, while I passionately believe in equality for women and girls, social justice for all people regardless of gender, race, sexual identity or anything else, I sometimes worry that I live in a bubble.  I sometimes worry that, by pushing this agenda, I am somehow disenfranchising boys and men. I get a little defensive because I am afraid that it might seem as though I am being unfair to half the population of the world.

And then I take the dog for a walk and, as usual, things get a little less murky. Because what I am really hoping for, pushing for, advocating for, is equality and the understanding that women and girls are a vital part of communities all over the world.  I find the head space to remind myself that what I am doing is not taking away from anyone.  It is only when I buy into the notion that there is not enough to go around that I begin to feel guilty about adding resources to help women and girls around the world.

The first item on our "House Rules" list that hangs, laminated, in the kitchen is this:

No Scarcity. I agree to live by the knowledge that there is enough for all of us if we cooperate.
By advocating for women and girls, I am simply honoring their innate strengths - what they bring to the table - and hoping to build on them.  I am acknowledging that until women and girls are seen as important, valuable parts of each and every community, they will continue to be abused and degraded and not allowed to be part of the conversation.  They will be married off against their will, sexually assaulted and hidden away from society behind closed doors and restrictive clothing. They will be told to act and speak and dress in certain ways under threat of violence or humiliation or simply, being ignored.

"Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."  Buddha

In wanting a better life for girls and women throughout the world, I am not taking advantages or resources away from men and boys.  This is not a balance sheet or a seesaw where one side must suffer if the other does well.  Our world is an ever-changing, growing, moving mass of humanity that is capable of cooperation beyond our wildest dreams and when we light one another's candles, we all end up seeing better for it.  We are all raised to higher heights when we extend a helping hand to those in need.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Free to Be (You, Not Me), Revisited


NPR strikes again!  This time it was a program on race that played an interview conducted many years ago by Studs Terkel where he talked to writer James Baldwin about his newest novel, "Nobody Knows My Name."  At one point, Terkel laments a societal framework that sets Baldwin up to feel ashamed of his rich cultural heritage - one deeply steeped in gospel music, family, and food among other things - simply because he is "accepting of the white man's stereotype."
Baldwin:  "It is one of the great psychological hazards of being an American Negro....One is born in a white, Protestant country where one was once a slave, where all the standards and all the images...everything you see, none of it applies to you....I obviously wasn't white. It wasn't even so much a question of wanting to be white, but I couldn't accept what I'd been told. When all you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be."
At this sentence, my breath caught mid-way between my gaping mouth and my lungs. It simply stood still in my throat, unable to move forward or back.  I realized that I could not begin to plumb the depths of how damaging, how alienating it must be to feel as though you are at once pitied, reviled, and set aside simply because a vocal, powerful group of individuals sees you as shameful or less than. Simply because they have no idea who you are and no intention of learning who you might be. And no care for the fact that you had no hand in finding yourself in this color skin.

The next thing that struck me was the sincere knowledge that, today, the word homosexual or disabled or, in some countries female could be easily substituted for black.  And I began wondering how often I have been guilty of seeing another person as limited by something they cannot control, placing barriers around what I think they might accomplish or how they might feel. Stereotyping or pitying them simply because I did not see who they truly were beyond my own ideas of what they were.

The ultimate theme of the interview was that James Baldwin found the resolve within himself to dig deeply and find his own notions of himself and who he was.  He gave himself permission to own his American Negro status, to revel in his rich cultural history, to express himself beautifully in his novels and poetry.  He did this, in part, by looking to other black people around him who led by example. Who owned who they were without reservation or apology.

I came away determined to remember that breath-stopping feeling of acknowledgment. To force to the front of my consciousness my own preconceptions of what it must be like to be _____________ and realize my part in stepping back and encouraging others to own their own stories.  Not as some sort of reaction to any perimeters I draw around them, but as a wellspring of personality that finds its source within each and every one of us.  I live in hope for a world where none of us ever feels as though the over-riding message they are receiving is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be whomever they are.

*The entire interview can be found here. There are two other stories first - sorry I couldn't find the interview as a stand-alone, but you can jump to the final third of the audio and hear James Baldwin's rich, cognac-smooth voice with a steely edge of self-knowledge behind it as he answers Studs Terkel's questions confidently and thoroughly.

Monday, August 20, 2012

In General, It Takes Two to Tango


Abandoned newborn girl found in New York City

"That is very cruel," Audra Adams, a resident at the building project for the last 40 years, told the AP. "You couldn't knock on somebody's door or take the baby to a hospital or something? This was your only recourse? I hope they find her."


Missouri Republican: 'Legitimate rape' rarely causes pregnancy

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," Akin said.
Regarding his opinion on whether to allow for an abortion in such instances, Akin added: “But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. 
Notice a pattern in the above news snippets?  Look at the last sentence of the first one: "I hope they find her."  Now consider Akin's remark, "...the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Can we talk about why our instinct is to hold women responsible for all aspects of reproduction and childbearing?  Can we acknowledge that the first reaction of Ms. Adams was to vilify the mother? Can we point out that Akin's last resort (!!!) is to punish the rapist? That really, it was an afterthought if the female body fails to prevent a pregnancy from happening during a LEGITIMATE RAPE???  
Can we talk about the fact that until women are valued just as much as men in our society that this type of knee-jerk reaction will continue to occur?  That until men are held responsible for their actions with regard to their own sexual behavior women will always bear the brunt of contraceptive, pregnancy, infertility, childbearing and child-rearing activities? Including, but not limited to resource management, logistics, finances and emotions?  Because unless we're talking about artificial insemination, I believe it still takes two to tango.

Friday, December 09, 2011

President Obama Decision Fear-Based, Disappointing


From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:
"President Obama said today that 'as the father of two daughters' he supports his health secretary's decision to block over-the-counter sales of the Plan B 'morning after' birth control pill to girls under 17 years of age."

My response:
As the father of two daughters, Bubba once considered investing in chastity belts.
As the father of two daughters, Bubba has mentioned more than once that he is counting on me to talk him off the ledge when he considers shadowing Eve on her first date.
As the father of two daughters, Bubba is uncomfortable recalling what it was like to be a hormonally-driven teenage boy.

As the mother of two daughters, I realize that my girls may not always be completely honest with me about the pressures they face to do things that they aren't ready for LIKE HAVE SEX.
As the mother of two daughters, I am certain that my girls will make mistakes and I hope that they have the opportunity to clean up their messes and learn from them without it changing their lives forever.
As the mother of two daughters, I am appalled that President Obama, the man I voted for, would let his own discomfort with the notion of one of his daughters needing Plan B cloud his judgement on this issue.

I wish there were a world where girls as young as 10 and 11 couldn't possibly need access to Plan B.
If there is, we don't live in it.
And if I'm being totally honest, with this move, I can't honestly say that I trust Obama to protect abortion rights without requiring parental consent for girls under the age of 17. I don't see that that is much of a leap from this position, frankly. And that scares the crap out of me.

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:
"Sebelius, overruling the Food and Drug Administration, said there are too many questions about the safety of Plan B for girls who can bear children as young as 10 or 11 years old."

My response:

Are you kidding me? Where to begin?
1. Overruling the FDA? Honestly? One person decided, despite the legions of scientists and policy-makers at the FDA who actually TESTED THE DRUG, that she knew more than they did? I don't think so.
2. What about the safety of a 10 or 11 year old child GOING THROUGH PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH? Isn't that a consideration?

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:

"He [Obama] and Sebelius decided 10- and 11-year olds should not be able to buy the drug 'alongside bubblegum or batteries' because it could have an adverse effect if not used properly. He said 'most parents' probably feel the same way."

My response:

Bubblegum and batteries can have an adverse effect if used improperly, too, President Obama. When I used to work with mentally ill populations of children I can remember a rash of attempted suicides where the kids would purchase - you guessed it - batteries and ingest them so that their stomach acids would break down the batteries and release the acid inside, killing them.

And since when is policy made based on an assumption that "most _________ probably feel that way?" The reason we have organizations like the FDA is so that policy will follow accepted guidelines of rigorous testing and examination of the implications of different actions. We don't make decisions based on how we THINK other people PROBABLY feel.

Yes, as a parent, the notion that Lola would need to sneak down to her local drugstore to buy an emergency contraceptive is terrifying. Because she is so young. But what about when she is sixteen? I hope against hope that both of my daughters will feel as though they can come to me if they are in any kind of trouble and I am working hard to create an atmosphere like that in our family. And I'm damn lucky. And so are Eve and Lola. Scores of girls don't have the luxury of a stable, supportive family. Some girls are neglected, abused, and even sexually exploited by their family members. So, please, Mr. President, don't use the emotionally evocative image of a 10-year old girl to justify your decision based on fear. Your daughters will grow up. And I hope that they feel comfortable coming to you and Michelle for support when they screw up, no matter what form that mistake takes. In the meantime, there are so many other girls for whom you are creating a hardship and a barrier to taking some control of their own lives, girls who are 13, 14, 15, and 16. Girls who we know, thanks to information professional organizations like the Guttmacher Institute, ARE HAVING SEX and are AT RISK FOR UNWANTED PREGNANCIES.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Miss Representation and the Beauty of the Internet

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago I saw that the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) was offering an encore presentation of the documentary "Miss Representation" and I set my DVR. I finally found a couple of hours the other day to watch the show and my emotions alternated between disgust, rage and sharp sadness. The film breaks down the role of modern media in perpetuating negative stereotypes of women and girls in a clear, concise way that is an absolute call-to-action.

I found myself cringing from time to time as I agreed with some of the people interviewed for this documentary (among them Katie Couric and Lisa Ling and others who are not household names but are doing really important work). Not because I didn't want to agree with them, but because I have always identified myself as a bleeding-heart liberal - one who believes in freedom of speech and expression. The atrociously misogynistic Go Daddy advertisements come to mind. I can't stand them and the way that women are portrayed, but I have always respected their right to exist. I can't say I still feel that way after watching this film.

As they began to detail the ways in which female leaders are judged in the media (Hilary Clinton was not "assertive" or "certain of her convictions," she was a "harpy" and a "bitch;" Sarah Palin was not judged on her knowledge of issues - or relative lack thereof - but on the way her skirt highlighted her ass and whether or not she had gotten breast implants) I began to laud the physical anonymity of the Internet for helping women's voices and opinions be heard without this kind of scrutiny. Organizations like Moms Rising and Emily's List can amass the voices of many women and present convincing arguments - or at the very least, convincing power - without having to dodge the conversations about whether their leader is a dyke or a man-hater. Let's be honest, anytime a strong female role model has come out to challenge the status quo, regardless of her message, she is instantly judged by her physical attributes. If she doesn't look like one of the original Charlie's Angels, she is instantly pronounced a lesbian and that somehow is supposed to mean that when she opens her mouth, we hear the voice of the parents on every Charlie Brown special, "Wah wah, wah wah, wah wah." If she does look like a pinup, she is carefully examined for any trace of plastic surgery or asked about her exercise regime or diet, as if those things trump the message she is trying to convey. The internet eases some of the pressure in that way. The more women can clearly articulate their positions in writing and band together as groups to support a common cause, the less power the media has to derail their momentum by commenting on her boobs or her fashion sense.

While I still feel that it is important for us to address the way women and girls are treated in the media, I am relieved that there seems to be one place where our words speak louder than our looks. Now, go out there and use it to the best of your ability, folks!

And if you haven't yet seen "Miss Representation," please go see it. Whether you're single or married, have daughters or sons, are female or male, it is an eye-opening documentary that features the voices of men and women alike. Go here to find a showing in your neighborhood.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Culmination


At Eve's school, they have Culmination ceremonies instead of mid-terms or finals. The purpose of these gatherings is to demonstrate their proficiency with the material they have been studying to their peers, teachers, and families. The school very much has a "stand and deliver" philosophy that encourages the girls to truly achieve mastery of each subject and understand it in a way that they can then teach it. The point is to ensure that they aren't simply cramming their heads full of facts that will promptly be forgotten once they lay their pencils down.

Last night, we went to the second such ceremony and, just as I was the first time, I was struck speechless. The theme last night was "Literary Salon." The girls have been studying fairy tales, both modern and ancient, and their impact on culture and were tasked to create their own books, complete with illustrations. In addition, they have been talking about personal identity and were asked to create what Eve's teacher calls a "river" poem, honoring many of the tributaries that flow into them to make each girl a whole. Finally, they have been studying music (guitar, keyboards, singing, and music theory) individually and as a group. The girls performed in groups, recited their poems individually, and read their stories aloud to the family and friends gathered in the room. Not only were they asked to memorize poems and music, they were asked to find their voices and their courage to speak publicly and showcase their talents and creativity.

The grand finale came as each and every girl in the class sat down with her guitar and they played and sang "Lean On Me."

"Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow.
But if we are wise
We know that there's
Always tomorrow.

Lean on me
When you're not strong
And I'll be your friend.
I'll help you carry on.
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on.
Please swallow your pride
If I have things
You need to borrow.
For no one can fill
Those of your needs
That you don't let show.

Lean on me
When you're not strong
And I'll be your friend.
I'll help you carry on.
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on.

If there's a load
You have to bear
That you can't carry
I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
If you just call me.
So just call on me, sister
When you need a hand.
We all need somebody to lean on.
I just might have a problem
That you'd understand.
We all need somebody to lean on."

I was absolutely (to the intense mortification of Bubba and Lola) brought to tears. These girls, each of them so different, were really singing this song to each other. There are girls who come from broken homes, lesbian homes, girls being raised by extended family, African American girls, girls from Cambodia and those of Latina descent. There are girls on scholarship, a girl whose father was recently killed in Afghanistan, girls with learning disabilities and one who is repeating fifth grade. There is a girl adopted from China, another who has never met her birth father, and others who wish they hadn't. There are girls who are proficient in mathematics and others who are great with music or art. There is a girl with a debilitating anxiety disorder and one whose mother recently battled breast cancer. These girls know all of these things and more about each other and yet they banded together when everyone was cleaning up last night after Culmination to ask their teacher to let them perform an impromptu song for us all. They have spent evenings together camping on the beach in the cold, wet Pacific Northwest, cooking meals together and pitching tents and holding each others' hands and heads as they got seasick on a boat. Despite their differences, they are united in their accomplishments as young women of passion and humor, ideas and love for life that literally brought me to my knees. This is not a group that is concerned with gossip or fashion, boys or competition for the spotlight. This is a group of young women who are well on their way to finding out who they are as individuals and recognizing their strengths as a group. And I, for one, am honored to be a spectator of it all.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Repression by Any Other Name...

Two recent international news items have wormed their way into my consciousness of late and, while I confess that I am uneasy about my relative lack of knowledge on the subject, I am somehow still compelled to wonder out loud. Both issues have at their core, the issue of Muslim women wearing head coverings, often called hajib or naqib.

France banned the wearing of any overt religious symbols in schools in 2004. These were not limited to Muslim headscarves by any means, and the purported reasoning behind it was to somehow erase visual differences between citizens in order to promote a more cohesive society. The most recent proposal would ban women from wearing their naqib in public at all, again supposedly to promote acceptance of others in French society, but also because some lawmakers are offended by their belief that Muslim women are often forced to don these head coverings and they want to rid them of this discrimination.

Today MSNBC ran a story about women in Turkey who are effectively barred from getting jobs because of their choice to wear headscarves. Because Turkey is a "secular" country, these traditional head coverings are prohibited for public officials and women in public places. There is a fragile balance between the Muslim ruling party and the secular bureaucracy and much fear on both sides that the scales will tip in the other side's favor. The women are left wondering if they will be able to use their education and passion for careers and lives outside of their homes and places of worship.

For me, this issue has very little to do with religious or political beliefs and simply leaves me scratching my head. For the people who claim to be advocating for women's rights by banning the headwear, I wonder how much of their rhetoric is genuine versus an excuse to get rid of something that makes them uncomfortable. I know the issue is complicated, and it may well be that some women are forced to dress in this manner by the men in their lives, but isn't it just as repressive to force other women to remove their naqib when they don't want to? I truly believe in the notion that individuals ought to be free to express themselves in most any way they choose, so long as it isn't offensive or hurtful to others. And if there really are women who are feeling intimidated or abused by their husbands or fathers, in any way, maybe the French government ought to spend their time beefing up domestic violence resources rather than telling others how to dress. At this point, there is a small minority of French citizens who are being singled out and forced to act in ways they aren't comfortable with and, as an American, I can only see trouble coming down the tracks.

In Turkey, the issue seems that much more insidious because of the blatant nature of it. There are those who are unashamedly vocal about their discrimination against women who wear headscarves and see no problem denying them access to the professions for which they have trained. I know of no similar way in which men are set apart from society because they choose to display their religious preferences. It seems to me that, while there are some complex issues involved, this is just one more way in which society is attempting to control women and I, for one, hope it backfires by causing powerful women from around the world to band together and raise their voices in protest.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Empowering and Understanding


Lola decided to play lacrosse this Spring instead of softball. She has a good friend who wanted to play and there is much more movement and action in lacrosse - simply more her style. Practices are twice a week for an hour and a half and they play two games every Saturday. It's definitely a commitment. Especially in the Pacific NW in a La Nina year. They've been at it since February and I think I can count on the fingers of one hand (okay, one practice) the times it has been sunny for practice. After the first week, I took to bringing an old paper bag with me when I picked her up so she could put her muddy cleats in the bag before getting into my car. By last week, I was putting a beach towel down in her seat so that her mud-splattered backside wouldn't ruin the upholstery. And when I say "backside" I don't mean bottom. I mean that it looks like she stood facing a wall while someone took a paintbrush dipped in mud and flung it at her body, splatter-paint-style.

She is in Heaven.

In hail, strong winds, pouring rain and, yes, even snowfall, her solid 4'3" frame hurtles across the field, spraying wet clumps of grass behind her as she chases the ball. Without fail, halfway through practice she slows down slightly to unzip her sweatshirt, peel it off, and fling it to the sidelines because she's sweating from the effort. A grin adorns her face for each and every one of the 90 minutes she is on that field.

Last week as I sat in the car with the heater warming my toes and my heated seat on to its full potential, I wondered whether the coaches would call practice off. The baseball and softball players had long since gone home and the black clouds had that particular electricity to them that warned of a thunderstorm. I half-wished they would call it off so I could get home and start dinner early. But in that same moment, another thought pushed that one away. The boys weren't going home. Their lacrosse practice was still on - I could see them in the farthest field, crashing their helmets and shoulder pads into each other with abandon, the way boys in middle school do because they know they're too young and strong to get hurt. Yes, it was wet. Yes, it was cold. But these girls weren't in danger of suffering anything they couldn't handle. Of the four teams of girls, only one has a female coach, and none of the coaches, regardless of gender, was about to call off practice. Whatever their reasons, I decided I didn't care. Knowing that Lola was out there having the time of her life and receiving the message that she was strong and capable enough to practice in inclement weather was terrific.

Eve is playing basketball with her classmates this season as well. She is not much of a 'team-sport' kid, but when her school fielded a 5th grade team and she realized she could play with girls she knows who are her own age, she got excited. This age brings with it self-criticism and a shyness borne of comparison like no other. Among her peers is one girl who is smaller in size than Eve, several who are slightly taller or bigger, and two who could pass for 7th graders. Two have played basketball before, but the rest of them are newbies. The coach treats them all the same. She mixes up the scrimmage teams, runs drills where she stops each of them at some time to make a particular correction or explain something further, and plays with them. At the beginning of practice, held in a local community center that is usually full of older boys playing the rough, NBA-style ball, she makes sure to shoo everyone out of the gym and shut the doors before beginning practice. She gets it. But while she makes that concession for them, she is tough with them in other ways. They are not allowed to sit down for the entire practice. They can rest and take water breaks as necessary, but everyone on the team works their butt off. She makes sure they know what their bodies are capable of and shows them time and time again. Eve is so proud of her ability to do things she never thought she could. She convinced herself long ago that she is more a "creative-type" than an athlete and, while she enjoys messing around on her bike and shooting baskets in the backyard, she was fairly resigned to the fact that playing a sport on a team wasn't for her. She's discovering just how wrong she was about that.

In very different ways, my girls are both learning that pushing themselves in a safe environment is a powerful feeling. I am terribly grateful for coaches and organizations that provide them the opportunity to spread their wings within these comfortable boundaries. It makes me that much more committed to ensuring that girls everywhere find places like these in their lives in order to empower themselves and better understand their own abilities.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: Hey, Shorty!


Well, it turns out my most recent book review wasn't my last one for Mandy Van Deven of Elevate Difference. She and two of her co-workers at Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), have written a book that every mother, educator, and lawmaker ought to read. It is my distinct honor to have gotten an advance copy of the book for review.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Hey, Shorty: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets”
by Joanne N. Smith, Mandy Van Deven, and Meghan Huppuch of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE)
The Feminist Press

Most of us think about sexual harassment in the context of the workplace and would be genuinely surprised to know just how prevalent it is in the world our teens and pre-teens inhabit. Of course, there are incidents so extreme, both in the media and on episodes of Law & Order, that we sit up straight and feel the bile rise in our throats: teachers taking advantage of students, gang rape in the bathroom of a local park. But what about the pervasive, everyday climate of intimidation and pressure that exists in the hallways and locker rooms of our nation’s middle schools and high schools? And what does the tacit acceptance (and/or denial) of this culture teach our children about how to interact with each other? Is this how bullying gets so bad that children choose to drop out of school and deny themselves the opportunities to thrive that they deserve? Is this how we end up with teens deciding death is easier than living with a daily regimen of taunting and overwhelming negative pressure to be something they aren’t, don’t want to be, and couldn’t possibly live up to?

“Hey, Shorty” is the story of an extraordinary organization called Girls for Gender Equity (GGE). Ten years ago, they embarked on an ambitious mission: to uncover and define the ways sexual harassment affect New York City’s public school students. Borne out of a desire to give girls equal opportunities to engage in sports and gather together to share their strengths and challenges, Joanne N. Smith started the project. Fairly quickly, she began to realize that, despite the existence of Title IX, there were formidable barriers to overcome. Despite overwhelming agreement that both gender bias and sexual harassment existed within the community, there was little acknowledgement of either of these things as a pervasive problem that prevented girls from exploring opportunities on an equal playing field with boys.

Over a period of ten years, GGE fought to define sexual harassment and help students understand the insidious ways it affected their lives in and out of school. They enlisted student ambassadors to create surveys and educate their peers, all the while empowering these teens as solution-providers. They struggled with beaurocratic obstacles and lack of funding and found ways to energize the communities around them and find partners to join their cause. The amount of light that GGE is responsible for shedding on this pervasive issue in one of the biggest school districts in the nation is astonishing and exciting. As a woman who considers herself fairly open-minded and liberal, I was nonetheless shocked to discover that my notion of what is “acceptable” or “tolerable” behavior in schools was very much colored by my unwillingness to stand out or stand up for myself as a woman.

“Hey, Shorty!” is a primer for any group intent on addressing issues of bullying and sexual harassment in their own community. With practical advice on how to find supporters and engage individuals as voices for change, this book is one of the most important things any administrator or educator can read in preparation for dealing with tough issues among their students. As one of the authors says, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The women and girls of GGE have done it already and are happy to share the blueprint.

There is a public book launch on April 13th. If you are interested in attending, please follow this link.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Women's Rights: Convergence


I am in the center of this wheel. Instead of the spokes radiating out from me, these spokes are coming toward me, feeding me and offering up wisdom and feeling. I have been feeling something coming for a while and, at this point, my challenge is not to assume what it is or prescribe some action, but to sit and wait and honor what comes.

If you read the last post, you'll know that I recently discovered "Girls Speak Out" by Andrea Johnston. I read the acknowledgements section and discovered the name of her agent, which prompted me to send out a query letter about my manuscript "Rock and a Hard Place." Reading Gloria Steinem's foreward prompted me to contact her and express my admiration for her years of work and service in liberating women in this country and around the world.

The book I was assigned to review for Elevate Difference this month is called "A Strange Stirring" by Stephanie Coontz and traces the impact of Betty Freidan's "Feminine Mystique" on an entire generation of American women. Reading the history contained in this book and being reminded of the myriad ways human beings have of oppressing and belittling entire groups of people has given me much food for thought. But, you'll have to wait for the review to get any more on that. Don't worry - I'll let you know when it's on the site.

I support many groups that champion women and girls and on my Facebook page, my eye has recently been caught by media coverage of sex trafficking of young girls, including the news release that there are scores of young women and girls being shipped to Dallas to "entertain" partygoers and bigwigs attending the Superbowl.

In addition to local groups, I am part of World Pulse, an organization that exists to raise the voices of women around the world. They recently put out a call for members to write letters to the new executive director of women's issues for the UN, letting her know their hopes for her tenure and I was inspired to share my five part dream for women and girls everywhere
with her. So far, I've gotten some very positive feedback on it.

Eve started learning about puberty and sexuality at school last week and, thanks to her teacher, has come home wielding pages of questions she was assigned to ask a trusted adult for her homework. This prompted a really lovely discussion the other night about my experiences with puberty and how the world has changed in the short time period between my adolescence and hers. She is concerned about menstruation and sexual orientation and exploitation and it is my job to give her accurate information and help shape her decision-making about her own morality. I am struck by the fact that this conversation never could have occurred in my 1970s world, but at how lucky I was to have a stepmother in the 1980s who was willing to at least scratch the surface with me.

So I am spreading the word for now. I forwarded the link to Girls Speak Out to all of the parents at my daughter's girls school and I've offered to brainstorm with anyone who is interested about putting together an action group. I've become recommitted to getting the word out about my book and, come h-e-double hockey sticks or high water, it's getting published by summer. Even if I have to do it myself. And I'll continue to sit here in the center and listen and absorb the information coming my way. My heart is filled with optimism and calm and patience. I know that so long as I act out of love and compassion with an effort to educate and enlighten my actions will be met with open arms and my words will fall on the ears of those who need to hear them the most.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Two Links, Please!

Sorry, not sausage links. But I think these two are better than pork bits, although pork bits are tasty. Don't get me wrong...

A Link for Writers

Mira Bartok's memoir "The Memory Palace" is one of the first books I downloaded to my new iPad. While I wasn't certain how I would feel about reading without the feel of paper in my hands, there is no doubt about this book. It is lovely, well-written, engaging, and enlightening: everything a memoir ought to be, IMHO. In any case, at the end of the book, I discovered that Mira has a website where she highlights writing opportunities (grants, fellowships, residencies, etc.). Anyone who is looking for a leg up ought to check it out.

A Link for Girls (and those who care about them growing up to be strong and independent)

Yesterday I had some time to kill before a doctor appointment so I wandered into (where else?) a bookstore. One book appeared to be surrounded by that surreal Heavenly light that sucked me in like a vacuum and hollered, "Look at me!" so I did. In my current search for ways to empower women and girls a book entitled "Girls Speak Out" with a foreward written by none other than her majesty Gloria Steinem, it's no wonder I was drawn to this book. Also in its favor was the fact that it is a used paperback and, thus, inexpensive. (I'm certain Bubba wishes my New Year's resolution had had something to do with spending less money on books. Poor guy.)

Anyway, this book is several years old and was written as a guidebook for girls ages 9-15ish who are seeking ways to discover and honor themselves as they try to navigate the murky depths of adolescence in a consumer-driven society. I was glowing before I finished reading the introduction and foreward. And then I found their website. If you go, make sure you give yourself enough time to stay a while and marvel at all of the wondrous things Gloria and the author, Andrea Johnston, have inspired girls AROUND THE WORLD to do since this movement began. You won't be sorry.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I Feel Some Action A'Comin...


I do love NPR. In the multitude of moments when I am alone in the car, bustling between basketball practice and the grocery store or coming home from dropping a child off at school, my first act, before even putting the car into gear and pulling away from the curb, is to switch the radio from "Kid-Approved Pop Station" to my local NPR station. It is then that I can truly settle in to my seat, breathe deeply, and shift from chauffeur-mom to intelligent adult. Ahhh.

Occasionally what I hear is disturbing. Most often it is enlightening, educational and informative, but from time to time I am reminded of some of the most difficult details of life in other areas of the world. Last Thursday it was a report on the prevalence of wartime rape in parts of Africa. There are many women whose husbands have gone off to fight civil or tribal wars and are living by themselves, wholly undefended, when rival soldiers invade their villages and brutally rape them, knowing that this is a punishment more profound than death or disfigurement. For the women who have yet to be married, this effectively seals their fate, rendering them unfit for a mate for life. For those who are married, their husbands will be compelled to find another, more suitable mate upon their return home. For the women themselves, they are held in a uniquely painful place of shame for the remainder of their lives. Culturally, a woman who has been sexually violated is forever marked as filthy, used, disgusting. In many cases, these women are forced to leave their villages for fear of bringing shame on other members of their community.

Despite the knowledge that these women are entirely helpless against weapon-wielding rapists, driven by mob mentality and the knowledge that this is one situation they can find themselves in control of, it is the women that are held accountable for the despicable treatment they receive. Not ever having experienced a culture such as this, it is still not much of a reach for my imagination, knowing that so few rape victims in our "civilized" country are loathe to come forward because of shame. For those women who have been ostracized from their own families and communities and gone on to become voices of strength and power and knowledge and empowerment for other women who are suffering similar fates, I am even more impressed. Their strength and resilience and willingness to overcome the barriers in front of them is inspiring and gives me hope and somewhat of a personal mandate to help. I don't know how yet, but I know myself well enough to recognize the seed of passion for this particular issue that has wedged itself deep inside me and will soon call for action.

*photo from financialpost.com

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One More Word About Bullying


Bullying is in the news everywhere these days. I see friends on Facebook posting notifications about meetings at schools. Last week at Eve's school, they held a Community Meeting to talk about the rash of recent suicides by teens who suffered at the hands of their peers. Do an Internet search of blog posts on bullying and the results will overwhelm you.

The thing is, bullying is not a new phenomenon. It has evolved with our culture and stretched its skinny fingers into cyberspace where it is easier to hide, but it isn't new. Nor does it stop when we leave school.

Driving home from dropping Eve and Lola at school this morning, I was listening to NPR. Steve Inskeep was talking to Tina Brown of "The Daily Beast" and she was recommending her favorite stories to listeners. One that struck me was this article in the NY Times about women in Afghanistan setting themselves on fire to escape abusive marriages. Such instances are not isolated. Women all over the world resort to desperate acts with the tools they have available when they are faced with a lack of options. This is not any different from a gay teen committing suicide in order to escape ridicule by his or her peers.

When I began to see bullying in this light, I noticed it everywhere. Any time a situation exists where one person has power over another, bullying can happen. When there is a group of people who exploit that power for their own personal gain, even if it is for entertainment, and isolate their victim from others, desperation occurs. While our survival instincts are strong, it is often more tempting to end our own suffering and, when we have few avenues to achieve that, suicide becomes an attractive option.

Before we can begin to address the issue of bullying in schools, I believe that we need to identify all of the ways in which we as adults engage in similar behaviors. We need to come to terms with the fact that there are so many times when we are guilty of the same kinds of acts that abhor in our children's lives and fundamentally change the way we view and use power in our lives.

Can you think of some other examples of adult bullying behaviors in the world?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Dream, Part Five


Part four is here.

My final wish for women and girls everywhere is that they have choices. That they be presented with options and given the freedom to exercise their will. Certainly this doesn't mean that young girls ought to be able to make difficult or momentous decisions beyond their developmental capabilities, but it does mean that we need to assess their abilities closely, listen to them when they talk to us about their desires and beliefs, and take those into consideration when we help them choose their path.

When we are given options, we are given trust and responsibility. Inherently, we are being told that we are valued as independent or semi-independent entities who can be relied upon to weigh variables and decide accordingly.

When Bubba and I began giving our daughters an allowance it was initially very difficult for me to let them spend it. Their weekly spending money actually only comes out to one third of their allowance, given that we put one third into a savings account and the other third into a charity account which they are free to donate at their own discretion. Lola uses her money every Thanksgiving to "buy" turkey dinners from the Union Gospel Mission for homeless people in our area and Eve generally sends her money to a local animal shelter. Their savings accounts are to be used for big-ticket items that are strictly "wants" versus "needs" and must be pre-approved by Bubba and me, but their spend money is fairly unfettered.

I don't know whether it is because Lola is the younger child and used to hand-me-downs, or if it is just her personality, but she tends to forget about her allowance within 40 seconds of getting it. Eve, on the other hand, mentally spends hers half a million times before the cash ever hits her hot little hand. I'm not sure "burning a hole in her pocket" is accurate because I don't think the money ever makes it that far.

Over the years I have had to learn to bite my tongue when Eve tells me about the new song she's going to download or the cheap notebook she wants to buy. When she used to get the Scholastic Book Order form from her classroom, she would tuck it under her arm, head up to her room, and sit in the beanbag circling items and counting on her fingers for an hour. More than once she has blown her stash on books that take her less than 15 minutes to read and come sobbing to me that she wasted her money.

But therein lies the rub, doesn't it? Along with choices come consequences and unless we have choices, we can't learn how to make more difficult ones. Without suffering the sometimes negative outcomes of our rash decisions we would continue to make poor choices over and over again. Learning can't happen without mistakes. Mistakes can't happen without action. If we aren't trusted to take action, we can't learn or grow.

My wish for women and girls everywhere is that they be given the chance to test themselves. I want them to be nurtured and cared for and have a safe place in which to make mistakes, but that won't mean anything unless they are given choices to make. Too often, as people in power, whether benevolent and loving or dictatorial and fearful, we trick ourselves into believing that we know best. All too often, I've discovered that I can be surprised when I stop and take the time to listen to others' perspectives. There are things which I couldn't possibly have known or circumstances I was unaware of or deeply held beliefs I wouldn't haven taken into account that may drastically change my point of view. From time to time we all make choices we wish we wouldn't have, but being given the freedom to choose is worth the possibility of screwing up. Just ask someone who doesn't have that freedom.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Dream, Part Four



Part Three is here

One of the most insidious by-products of being valued less than others is the feeling that you have nothing to offer. There is nothing so disheartening as the notion that you are either completely disposable or that your efforts are in vain and the fruits of your labor unnecessary.

In the early twentieth century, as the economy in America began turning from a subsistence model to a production model, women became increasingly disenfranchised. In the subsistence model, everything they contributed to the household, from farming to childrearing to producing clothing and food for the family was seen as vitally important to the family unit as a whole - not more or less valuable than any other member of the family. As men began to leave the household to seek paid work in factories and towns, women were left with more of the household chores but were valued less simply because it was money that made the world revolve and they were not paid for their efforts.

As my children grew from toddlerhood into true childhood they began to ask for ways to contribute. Even before then, they loved to play with toy versions of my vacuum cleaner and run the dustcloth over the coffee table and bookshelves. Today, they take pride (and, yes, sometimes complain mightily) in taking out the garbage, feeding the dog, and setting the table for dinner. Last Saturday night they shooed Bubba and I out of the kitchen, prepared a menu with beverage choices, cooked a pot of pasta and made a fruit salad and a green salad and served us dinner at a table lit with candles. The idea that they were grown up enough to produce an entire meal for us tickled them for days and Lola still presses me to tell friends and family about their endeavor.

Today seems a particularly salient day to be making the point about how important everyone's contributions are, given that tomorrow is Election Day in the US. There are thousands of individuals who will choose not to throw their ballot into the mix simply because they don't have any faith that it will make a difference one way or the other. The simple idea that one's opinion doesn't count removes most of the motive for sharing it. Why the heck should I vote if the outcome is already decided? Why should I raise my voice and articulate my thoughts if nobody is listening?

It is up to us to create a space where everyone can add their talents to the pot. Everyone must feel as though they have something to offer in order to feel empowered and valued. We need to create an 'economy' where we honor contributions of thought, emotion, and action that don't necessarily result in monetary compensation. It is useless to be part of a community if your voice doesn't count as much as everyone else's. The feeling of pride and self-worth that comes from knowing you have added some value - even if it was to offer food for thought - goes a long way toward encouraging individuals to continue contributing. Enough practice with this and the sky is the limit.

Continue to Part Five

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dream, Part Three


"Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they are supposed to help you discover who you are."
Bernice Johnson Reagon

Part Two is here.

None of these pieces of my dream for women and girls can exist in a vacuum and while many of us can and do challenge ourselves regularly, it is so important that we experience inspiration and encouragement from others as well. Whether it is a boss or a mentor, a parent or a teacher, or simply a throw-down from a friend or adversary, often those obstacles placed in our way by others are more likely to get us moving than any we could make for ourselves.

When I think of times I was challenged I have a difficult time containing the list. It appears in my head as one of those trick cans of peanuts you can buy at novelty stores and as soon as I pry off the lid colorful snakes come erupting out in all directions. I attempted to categorize them and quickly realized that it didn't matter.

Giving someone a difficult task to complete or asking a question that prompts them to really think deeply and introspectively is truly a gift. Not only does it give them the opportunity to test their skills, but it sends the message that you believe they are capable of completing the task. My daughter whines and drags her feet and avoids doing the homework that is the most challenging for her, but when she finally resigns herself to doing it and makes her way, however arduously, through the process, she is always rewarded with pride in her own efforts and work ethic when she is finished.

If we live in a world where we marginalize certain groups of people by not asking them to do things that require creativity and focus, hard work and critical thinking, we are doing them a disservice. So often we would rather be in a position of influence and power where we simply give others orders or tell them what we think instead of asking them to do the messy work of finding answers and coming to conclusions. For so many years in this country we believed that women were not capable, physically or mentally, of doing many of the things men could and we didn't allow them to test that theory. They were not challenged because it was automatically assumed that they couldn't rise to the task.

My father wanted sons. He got one, but then I came along. And for the first few years of my childhood, I was compliant with my parents' plan that Peter play soccer and I dance ballet. Gradually it dawned on me that because Dad coached my brother's soccer team, my brother got to spend a heck of a lot more time with him than I did. Every Saturday we would pack a cooler and a blanket and head out to watch Peter run around on the field with his team as Dad stood on the sidelines hollering instructions to them. I wanted to do that, too! I didn't want to be sitting on this damp blanket eating orange slices and watching them chase each other around. Put ME in, coach!

I lobbied. I fought. I pled. I batted my eyelashes. I drove my father nuts. Finally he decided that the only way to shut me up was to put me on the team. That Saturday I got my very own black-and-white striped polyester jersey, put on some of my brother's old cleats, and Dad sat me in the goal. I was the keeper. This was the ace up his sleeve. I was to be the goalie in a game of soccer between two teams made up of boys three years older than I was. He figured I'd run screaming off the field before the first quarter was over.

I think I probably gave up ten goals that game and I know Dad was pissed. He did not like to lose. Neither did I. I was bruised and sore, grass stained from cheeks to ankles, and more tired than I had ever been, but you couldn't have wiped the grin off of my face for anything. I had just proven to myself, if nobody else, that I could rise to the challenge and at the age of eight, that lesson stuck with me for a good long time.

Let's do all of the women and girls we know a huge favor and put them in situations where they are asked to do just a little bit more than they think they can. Let's be sure to let them know that we have confidence in them as they embark on this lifelong journey to discover just who they are and how amazing they can be.

Continue to Part Four

Sunday, October 24, 2010

'Dream,' Part Two


Part One is here.

“Man is a special being, and if left to himself, in an isolated condition, would be one of the weakest creatures; but associated with his kind, he works wonders.” Daniel Webster

The second part of my dream is that women and girls feel connected. There is nothing so challenging, supportive, inspiring, comfortable, or exciting as a community. Ideally, each of us has several overlapping communities in which we can move as members. We have co-workers or schoolmates, family ties, groups of like-minded people who share our interests in hobbies or passions, and each of these people supports and challenges us in different ways.

So often, young girls who see themselves as 'different' are afraid to find community. They are embarrassed or ashamed or simply unsure of themselves and end up isolating themselves to the point where they cannot share their gifts or their difficulties. For many of these girls, this translates into their adult lives and they move through their days without any touchstone of reality except their own, which is often skewed.

In many cases, this makes these women and girls easier to control and manipulate and, whether by conscious effort or not, they are preyed upon by all kinds of people. In the wild, it is the lion pack that picks off the zebra who separates from its group. It is the same with humans.

I would like to see a world where girls are taught that their communities are rich with opportunity for them and encouraged to find their own place in them. I want to see them connect with each other instead of working to alienate those girls who are different from them. It is developmentally normal to want to conform in the teen years, but we need to learn to respect those who don't. I want us as a society to recognize our strength in connection to each other, in learning from each other and sharing ideas without anger or ownership. I want girls and women to feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves and use the leverage of these groups to push themselves farther than they thought possible. Often all it takes is one interested person, one mentor, one like-minded party to spark the connection. And the impact that this simple act can have on the self-worth of a young girl or lonely woman is monumental. Validation is a powerful tool and it is through connection and community that we can nurture each other and, in turn, ourselves.

Continue to Part Three

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I, Too, Have a Dream

At the recent breakfast fundraiser for the Women's Funding Alliance, each attendee had two 3x3 slips of paper sitting at his or her table setting. At the top read: My dream for women and girls is...

The idea was that everyone would complete this statement on one of the cards and slip it into the envelope at the table to be forwarded to the organizations' staff. The other card was for us to take home, complete, and share with the other people in our lives; co-workers, friends, family, etc. An evangelistic outreach, a tangible wish that would cause ripple effects in the community and get people started talking about how to realize these dreams.

My dream for women and girls is
  1. That they feel safe,
  2. That they feel connected,
  3. That they feel challenged,
  4. That they feel as though they contribute,
  5. and that they have choices.
Each of these concepts is so vast that I have decided to begin with the first one and write about my thoughts until I've unearthed every shiny nugget I can. Subsequent posts will explore each of the remaining issues. I hope you stick with me as I explore these issues.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Safety is so basic. Such a central spoke around which all of our other emotions and actions revolve. By safety I mean emotional and physical safety - being free from harm, both inflicted by ourselves and others. Although, it is my opinion that generally we don't seek to cause harm to ourselves unless we've been taught that by others.

Safety is the umbrella under which we fly. It is the basic assumption that allows us to go forth into the world and explore our limitations. If a child knows that they can roam freely within certain boundaries and someone will be looking out for them, they will seek with abandon. If a woman knows with certainty that she can speak her own truth without being ridiculed or physically attacked for it, she will learn to be her own best advocate. We have all seen dogs who have suffered abuse - they shy away from even gentle touch because they have learned that when someone reaches out to them it likely means pain. Women and girls who have been mocked or whose opinions are discarded, whose emotions are labeled as 'silly' or 'ridiculous' or 'overblown' stop thinking for themselves. Women and girls who are physically punished simply for existing on the face of the planet with a vagina have no recourse. We cannot change who we are, so we sink into the background.

I want a world where little girls grow up assuming that they will be watched out for, cherished, protected. One in six American women (as compared to one in 33 men) will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lives.* Add to this that less than half of all sexual assaults are reported to police, and you're looking at more like one in three women/girls sexually abused. In my neighborhood there are fifteen children. Eleven of them are girls. That means that in my neighborhood alone, at least three of these girls will be raped, molested, or otherwise sexually assaulted in their lives. I am not okay with that.

Nor am I okay with the fact that more than 25% of American women and girls have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lives. There are hotlines, crisis shelters, scores of resources available to victims, books written on the subject, self-defense classes, attorneys whose entire job it is to specialize in this area of the law. I want a world where women are not victimized. By anyone.

I want a world where women and girls feel safe to express themselves and their opinions without worrying about harm coming to them. I want a world where women and girls can go out with their friends at night without worrying about being assaulted. I want a world where we recognize the gifts that women and girls have to provide us with and we protect their voices and their bodies and allow them a safe place to explore their world and share their ideas with all of us.

I don't think that is too much to ask.
*statistics obtained from www.rainn.org - Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tough Conversations

The trio of girls huddled together at the kitchen table giggle nervously.

"It's not bad," Lola insists quietly.

"I don't even think it's true," her friend and classmate pipes up. "I think that she probably just made it up."

Eve's eyebrows raise in a combination of skepticism and discomfort. As the eldest, she doesn't want to betray her interest too much by adding her opinion, but she clearly has one.

"What's up, guys?" I ask, not wanting to overstep my bounds, but curious as to what has them acting like international spies.

Caught, they whirl to face me, on the other side of the kitchen and blurt, "Nothing!" Giggles erupt from behind their sweet, soft hands and their heads come even closer together as if pulled by an invisible drawstring. Just as I'm about to shrug it off, they decide to tell me.

Haltingly and from a distance of at least six feet away, Lola begins talking without meeting my eyes. It seems that there is a book on the shelf in her classroom that has prompted the girls to discuss and wonder and whisper. It is a book of stories authored by teenage girls that is meant to inform and inspire other girls, but at least one of the stories has them disturbed. Not necessarily unhappy, but certainly upset in the sense of the word that calls to mind a stick stirring up sediment in a clear pool of water.

Lola speaks slowly, starting from the beginning of the story and it soon becomes clear to me that the essay depicts one girl's experience of being sexually molested by her babysitter over a period of several years. Lola is too embarrassed to tell me in the same terms used in the book, so she tries to write it down. Before she can finish, I turn to Eve and ask her if what she knows about it. Standing next to me, she talks with a flat tone, looking into my eyes.

I am aghast. The phrase, "it's not bad" continues to run through my brain. How can she think that isn't bad? How did this book get into a classroom for first, second, and third graders? How many of these girls have read this book and how long have they been discussing it without any adult mediation?

We stand in the kitchen and talk about what each of these girls, seven, eight and ten years old, would have done in this situation. Lola and Eve are confident that they would physically fight back, kicking and hitting and the look of disgust on their faces convinces me they would. Lola's friend maintains that the story is probably not true.

They are all three shocked to hear me say that such things happen a lot more often than they know. Lola asks me whether I know anyone who was treated that way and I assure her I do, but that I won't name names because I don't think that is fair. She accepts this explanation, but wants to know more. I don't want to rattle off the statistics, that at least one of every four females in the world experiences sexual abuse of some sort in her life, and those are only the ones who are reporting it. Others like this young girl who were too frightened or confused go unaccounted for. I simply say that it is important for us to find ways to talk about these issues without embarrassment and share our experiences with adults we trust so that the people who are attacking women and girls can be held responsible for it.

I am so happy that these three girls were courageous enough to share this with me. While I am not thrilled about the way it was brought up to them, I know that the book will be removed from their classroom and the teachers will handle it thoughtfully. It turns out that the book was donated by a parent this summer and was not thoroughly vetted before it was put out on the shelf. (Upon doing some research, it seems that there are many such books, aimed at girls, kids, grieving families, pet owners, retirees, etc. and I discovered that they are full of difficult stories. Unfortunately, without reading the entire book, it would be hard to know whether or not it is age-appropriate.) I appreciate the intention of the book, but I can't imagine letting my seven or eight year-old (or even nine or ten-year old for that matter) read such stories without an adult present who could help them interpret and fully understand many of the concepts.

The fact that a mainstream, American publication like this contains multiple essays about sexual abuse (it does, I found the book and read it) makes me wonder how much we as a society have accepted the fact that our girls will be raped and molested. So much so that we can talk about it years after the fact and encourage girls to "tell" on their abusers. I think that doing so is important, but maybe it means that we need to have a much more aggressive campaign to prevent sexual abuse in the first place. Perhaps we need to teach girls and women to be open about the fact that their bodies belong to them and send the message that this kind of act will not be tolerated. We will not be objectified, groped, talked about lewdly or disrespectfully, or put in situations that are dangerous. Our civic leaders need to be completely upfront about the fact that the rules have changed and women will not be victimized any longer, and if they are, we will not waste time hiding or feeling ashamed. We will not, in any circumstance, decide that "she deserved it" or "she wanted it."
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