For my 16th birthday I feasted upon Robin Morgan’s groundbreaking book and feminist clarion call, “Sisterhood is Powerful.” As I hit the last page, my life’s journey was laid out before me: I would be a champion of social justice and liberation from society’s rigid gender roles.
Since then, I have lost sleep, friends, opportunities and almost my house in pursuing what to me is the most common sense social justice movement ever dreamed of: that each person is valued for who they are. Valued as people and members of their communities, not for their skin shade or whatever plumbing they’ve got between their legs. Simple right? Notice the lumps on my head? That’s from banging it on the walls.
I was on the same page as the late, great Florynce Kennedy, an African-American wit, civil rights lawyer and public intellectual. She said, “There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.”
As a teen and then young woman, my preparation for the inevitable and massive misogynist backlash was laughable. I had no one to comfort me when I would enthusiastically share with people my new epiphany, “Women and girls are not naturally inferior — it’s all a social construct!” and in return, receive verbal punches in the stomach from both women and men.
Women are just as socialized as men to believe women are inferior; ergo, when you present an alternative, people who you’d think would be on your “side” aren’t. And to no one’s surprise (or it at least shouldn’t be), women vary in their views just as much as men do. Shocking, I know!
As I turn 65 this coming weekend, I can say that I would not have lived my life any differently despite the sacrifices. I know it’s not polite to speak openly about sacrifice; many women are simply expected to sacrifice. Oh man, my life would have been so much easier materially if I’d kept my mouth shut about sexism and racism, including turning down a few wealthy men’s marriage proposals. (Not so heroic; it helped me to walk away since they were such dicks.) And it would have been a life that would have made me suffer from a bad conscience. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. Nor can I pretend I didn’t read “Sisterhood is Powerful.” And as great fortune would have it, two Justice Hurricanes — Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy — blew through Billings, Montana during my freshman year in college there, and I was a goner! I swore to become someone who Gloria Steinem would be proud to know.
What I have now, as do many of my social justice siblings, is a long view of my own life as an activist, and the benefit of scholarship in both gender studies as well as the politics and sociology of progressive movements.
There have been very few progressive leaps forward that haven’t met with violent hostility from people who reject change, even at the cost of their own well-being. Here’s an astounding example: Dr. Joseph Lister, who advocated that surgeons should wash their hands and instruments as the most effective, cheapest and simplest way to reduce injury and death by surgery, was considered a crank by other surgeons. Likewise, my advocacy to teach women and girls emotional, verbal and physical boundary setting IS the most effective, cheapest and simplest way to reduce injury and death by violent attackers. Simple, right? Sorry, no. I have had pushback from lots of people who I expected to support me. I’m also a crank, which is why I’m frequently cranky!
Amping the Crank Factor, I now have farshtunkena (it’s Yiddish; look it up!) 20-, 30-, 40-somethings who can’t wait to man-and-woman-splain basic feminist principles to me. I’m inclined to both celebrate and spank them. Leaving out the European disease part, it’s a tad like the Vikings telling the existing indigenous inhabitants “We discovered North America!”
No, you silly Vikings, you didn’t discover squat. If you have brains, you’ll stand on our shoulders and take the exploration even further.
Women’s Equality Day is Sunday, Aug. 26. Join me and a group of other badass women and men at Amy Simon’s “She Is History” to explore the lives of women most of us have never heard of and yet have been impacted by. The event is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, LA. For more info call (310) 308-0947.