“Be kind. Be brave. Be safe.” -Words that I speak to my students every. single. damn. day.
Note: I started this blog post on Thursday. Today is Monday, and I’m still having a hard time hitting ‘publish.’ I am a strong woman, the head of an organization, who has put men in their place figuratively and physically so many awful times, and yet, I’m still concerned that once I hit ‘publish’ it will out ME as being something that I’m not comfortable with. The shame of being a survivor is huge in this society, and I hope and pray that the shame of being a perpetrator and abuser is at least half as bad. ______________________________________________________
Last year, a few days after I was hired as the Director of a K-8 charter school, I was attending a meeting at a nearby high school of a neighboring district. The state department was in the area and had summoned all of the superintendents and charter school directors for a meet and greet and discussion on new ESSA requirements under the Obama administration.
I was introduced to the commissioner of education for my state, a lovely woman named Brenda, and also to many principals and superintendents from surrounding districts. I was an oddity, as a newcomer to the group, and I knew that there would be some curious questions.
It didn’t take long before the tribe established a pecking order. I was introduced to the superintendent of a large district. A group of men, all superintendents, stood around us in a circle while he shook my hand and said, “So, you’re the new director out there, huh? Well, hubba hubba.” The men standing around us shuffled their feet, a few laughed nervously. I tried a smile, half hoping that it looked more like I was baring my teeth.
“Nice to meet you.” I said. I shook his hand hard, probably harder than I needed to. I made eye contact. I dropped his hand.
“You’ve certainly done well for yourself, I’d say. ” He said, and took a step towards me, laughing. A man standing next to him, one of the principals in his district, stepped forward, between us, introduced himself. We shook hands and he offered to show me to my seat at the front of the auditorium.
I was so thankful to him, and also mad at myself that I needed a conduit to get me out of that situation. Hubba hubba? I thought. Who says that? What is he, a Bugs Bunny cartoon character? Done well for myself? What does that mean?
I was the only woman in the room, and youngest by at least a decade. Did I feel unsafe? No, not really. Did I feel harassed? Absolutely. Men don’t say ‘hubba hubba’ to each other when they are being introduced to other male authority figures. Men don’t say to a man they’ve never met before “You’ve certainly done well for yourself.”
But if I had rolled my eyes at him, or turned and walked away, or refused to shake his hand, the men in the room would not have remembered the comment that he made. I would not have been celebrated for my fortitude, bravery, or strength. All anyone would have remembered was that I was rude. That’s misogyny.
I sat in my seat, the rest of the men settling in behind me, and I felt suddenly very aware of my outfit, of my lipstick, of my relative youth and my gender. It’s taken me years– literal years– to tell myself that it is okay to dress in clothes that I like and wear make up if I want to. Basically, it’s taken me my entire adult life to convince myself that I don’t need to hide that I’m a woman. I can wear red lipstick and also know more about education policy and reform than the men sitting next to me. I can have mascara on and still understand statistics and data analysis. It’s not my fault if men sitting all around me feel threatened by my intelligence. It’s not my problem if they want to focus on my gender, on my body, or on my clothing.
This has been a hard few weeks for me. When the #metoo movement started, it took me days before I finally felt like I could raise my digital hand on social media, and then I immediately wished I hadn’t. Some men close to me have asked if maybe I could do some kind of timeline explanation, so that people can see how all-encompassing misogyny is in our society– how there is nothing that will protect or shield a woman from it. I am a strong woman, the head of an organization. I am overweight. My husband thinks I’m gorgeous, but don’t plan on seeing me on the cover of a magazine anytime soon. I don’t go out of my way to be caught in precarious situations, I do not think anyone could accuse me of dressing in a suggestive or promiscuous manner. I am married now, but before I was married I did not date around a lot. The basic point I’m trying to make here is that if there was ANY ‘kind’ of woman who should be insulated from sexual harassment and assault, it is this lady right here. There IS NO KIND of woman who gets victimized. The common denominator is NOT the women involved, it’s the men. (I mean really– how bull shit is it that I’m giving you all these credentials for how I am totally qualified to talk to you about this? This is the society we’ve built, where I need to prove to you that REALLY, really, really, this wasn’t my fault!)
In regards to developing a timeline to help people understand the culture of misogyny, patriarchy, male fragility, and suffering, as I have explained to a few people close to me, but also not really to anyone, I have things locked down deep inside of me, in a place where I cannot visit. Words that I cannot write or say. And for most of my life, that’s been how I have been able to stay on the right side of the “survivor vs victim” mountain. It’s been hard for me these last few weeks to read stories about women “speaking their truth” and “owning their place” because I feel physically unable. I think it’s sheer madness. I feel like it would be dangerous, and unhelpful, and silly for me to speak up more than I have. I feel like a kite without strings, and I do not know how I would ever get myself back down to earth.
I look at my 7 year old daughter and weep big broken-hearted tears, because being 7 years old was the last year of my childhood. I don’t think about being 8, or 10, or 12, 13, or 16, or 18, or 20. Sometimes my kids will ask me a question about my childhood, and I have to really think about it, because it almost seems like it all happened to someone else. I am proud of who I am, but I don’t think about what it cost who I used to be. No one can go back in time and save that little girl. I have always felt like the best that I could do is protect the woman that she fought to become.
For a long time, that meant making myself as ugly as possible, so that no man would possibly want to be in the same room as me. It meant being combative and angry, stronger than them, smarter than them. It meant speaking up when I felt like the room wanted me to be quiet. It meant saying no when I felt like the room wanted me to say yes. It meant not smiling at their stupid jokes, not playing nice when they were “just being friendly” and flirting with me, and not listening to them when they were off topic. It meant flipping a bird– sometimes literally– to people who wanted me to follow convention. Because I had learned the hard way that being a female was not just a liability, it could be dangerous.
And in the end, I have been awarded the highest praise of all– men who tell me in tones of adoration that they sometimes forgot that I am a woman. Isn’t that sad? How messed up is that? And I’m in a safe field of education– imagine how women in engineering, computer science, or police work feel.
This is what being a woman is, and it’s pervasive and constant. One time after a job interview, the person who called me back asked why I hadn’t had my nails done before the interview. One time I got drunk at a party in my own apartment and had to fight two different guys out of my own bedroom in one night. Once I was walking with my brother away from a bar, and a guy tried to grab me. When my brother stopped him, the guy suggested that they could share me– he talked about me like I wasn’t even there. Just within the last month a presenter at a conference literally winked at me and called me sweetheart while I was disagreeing with him in front of a room of people. Two weeks ago, as my 7 year old and I were walking down the street, a guy came out of a bar and wanted to hold Maren’s hand. I put her on my other side, and kept walking. He walked right behind us down the whole block, trying to get Maren to talk to him.
Last October, when I watched our now President describing taking part in sexual assault on the news, I knew there was no way that he would be elected (I mean, I grew up back when an otherwise successful President was impeached for having consensual sex with an adult, has enough time really passed that the same people who wanted him tarred and feathered would elect someone confessing on national television to sexual assault?)
On election night, watching returns with my husband, I felt like my insides were being squeezed with a fist. Men and women that I know and care about voted for this man. They will look at me and say that it’s because of his fiscal policies, or as a rebuke to the DNC, or because his vice president is a known evangelical Christian. I watch the news and see Sean Hannity mansplaining how 32 year old men can have consensual relationships with 14 year old children (Newsflash: They cannot, it is not a thing), and on the floor of our government we have lawmakers describing how child sexual abuse is okay, citing MARY AND JOSEPH as an example. I get so angry. I want to scream. I want to hit somebody. How can you not get it? How is this hard to understand? When you are raped, there is someone else INSIDE YOUR BODY. When you are assaulted, there is someone else USING YOUR BODY, making your body do what they want. When you are a victim of rape, assault, or harassment, your needs and wants have no merit to your abuser. Your body is a vessel, and you are less than nothing. You are dust. When I meet people who tell me they voted for Trump and justify it with one reason or another, I just want to say to them: This is what I am worth to you. Your estate tax and a wall for Mexico was worth more to you than your sisters, mothers, and daughters, one of six of whom will be raped in her lifetime. Because if you think that abusers are not emboldened by this endorsement of their bad behavior, you are sadly mistaken.
And men will say to me, “Well for God’s sake, what do you want?” And I want to shake them. It’s not that easy. It’s an entire system of misogyny. When we were kids, my little sister wanted to be an astronaut. Adults asked her how she would be able to be an astronaut and also have a family. Have you ever heard anyone ask a male child that kind of bull shit question? At a hockey game recently, men that I respect and admire watched a cheerleader fall down, and were expressing their dismay that her skirt had come up facing in the opposite direction, so all they got to see was her exposed cleavage. Did they make the same comments about the male hockey players when they fell down? I could go on, and on, and on. When’s the last time you laughed at an off-color joke at work with your buddies? When’s the last time you saw a colleague say something uncomfortable to a woman, and you didn’t step in and stop him? When’s the last time you watched a buddy take a woman from the bar home, who was maybe too drunk to say no, but you didn’t do anything because it was none of your business? You guys are IN the locker room that Donny is describing.
Being a woman should not be dangerous. I urge you, men, to talk to the women in your life about times when they have made accommodations for their gender– such as not going for a walk alone, or not going into certain parts of town alone, or not going on vacations alone. Talk to them about times that they felt afraid and no one helped them, such as when a male makes a joke about their appearance, or puts them down for being a girl, or touches them at times when touching isn’t warranted. Ask yourself if you’ve ever had to think about any of these things. Have you ever been afraid to walk into a room full of women?