This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Capital Gazette journalists Rob Hiaason, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smith.
The headlines this past week have been devastating. For myself, not since the night of the election have I literally felt so physically nauseated all the time as I have this past week.
*The U.S. government offering a trade to immigrant mothers seeking asylum from terror: you can have your kids back if you will immediately self deport
*Three major disastrous decisions by the Supreme Court, on abortion rights, on Trump’s Muslim ban, and on organized labor, followed by
*The announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, then revelations that his son when at Deutsche Bank worked closely with Trump
*The perhaps less noticed but even more harrowing headlines that tropical forests suffered near record tree losses last year and Antarctica is melting at a much faster pace then predicted
*Topped off by the murder of five journalists at Maryland’s Capital Gazette by an angry white man with a gun and a history of violent threats, stalking, and sexual harassment.
We are critically ill. We are literally sickened by this enveloping toxicity. So I’m not going to be Chatty Cathy doll trying to cheer you up. I’m not going to add to the lies around us by saying I’m sure we’ll get through this, or that it isn’t as bad as it seems. I’m not sure, and it is as bad as it seems—possibly worse.
We can’t believe this is really happening. That’s part of the problem. Progressives, well . . . progress. We fight for something and when we think that’s won, we consider it a done deal and move on. Not so with our adversaries. They spend all their energy in staying at the same place however old a place that is and however much the world has changed around it and them. So we’ve always taken it for granted that time was on our side, which it is, and which is why the species has made any progress at all. Except that with Antarctica melting and the trees dying, time is no longer on anybody’s side.
Oh, we can believe the massacre of journalists, alright. Given the proliferation of guns in our society, plus a man occupying our White House who calls a free press the greatest enemy of the people, and given the statistics that some form of violence against women is almost invariably a red flag in the background of men who kill, I suppose it’s not surprising. But did you know that the Gazette is one of the two oldest newspapers in this country? It covered the Declaration of Independence—but on its second page, because local news as usual took precedent on its front page. Today, when we mourn the shrinking of local news coverage, we also literally must mourn the death of five reporters for simply doing their job.
The other headlines? Stunned disbelief. Because most of what’s happening is so illogical that the brain brakes and screeches as it goes into a skid of noncomprehension.
The sheer imbalance of the Court’s decision on abortion, for example: that licensed clinics providing the procedure must post signs informing applicants of such alternatives as pregnancy services and adoption–but even unlicensed pseudo-clinics that advertise misleadingly as crisis-counseling services yet offer false medical information and pressure applicants not to have abortions, they do not have to post signs about the alternative availability of safe medical procedures elsewhere.
Or, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her ringing, historic dissent, the pretense that the Court apologizes for the World War II Korimatsu decision that placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps, while at the same time the Court decides that intent no longer matters in the law, so all of Trump’s proudly anti-Muslim statements can be ignored regarding his Muslim travel ban.
Or the gutting of union rights after already-decided, long-established precedent—doubly dangerous because, as Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent, ”The majority subverts all known principles of stare decisis.” Which means that all previous Supreme Court decisions from Brown v. Board of Education (and earlier) through Roe v. Wade (and later) no longer need be respected as settled law. Roe is squarely in the crosshairs: 84 restrictions have already been enacted by various states since Trump took office.
We were counting on the courts—and in fact the courts have been coming through, upholding law and principles established by the Framers of the Constitution. Now we know that what we dreaded when cases reach the top was not excessive. For that matter, Trump has been stacking the lower courts with young right-wing judges who have been approved for life terms by the Senate in a swift, assembly-line fashion.
So what do we do. What do we do?
I can only offer you five tips about what I’ve decided to do, in the hope that this might be useful, adaptable by you for your style and circumstances.
1. It’s OK to despair. Face into the reality, no sugar coating. It’s OK to cry, and vomit, even turn off the news for a day. It’s OK that your hair’s on fire. Worry about your own humanity if it’s not. If any of the Framers were alive today, they might well despair. Remember that Ben Franklin said “We have given you a republic, if you can keep it.” They regarded this new nation—more, the idea of this new nation—as a grand experiment, and right now we’re having an extremely bad period in the laboratory.
2. It’s OK to be bitter. I’m still angry that Obama didn’t appoint Merrick Garland as an interim appointment when he could have. I’m still furious at people who didn’t vote in 2016. I’m still livid at people who didn’t vote for Hillary because they didn’t like her voice, or why did she stay with him, or she wasn’t warm and cuddly enough or she was too much of a harpy or a feminist or not enough of a feminist or any other moronic reason. I still have fits of rage about the purists: the Ralph Nader voters who insisted there was really no difference between Bush and Gore, and their later incarnations, the Bernie Bros and the Jill Stein voters who insisted Trump and Hillary were just the same. For decades, I have begged such people, please just think about how the court choices alone show you the difference. But they were so interested in their own purity—some still are—they refuse to see it. Well, glance at the justices appointed by Bush who would have otherwise been appointments under a President Gore: Chief Justice John Roberts (2005), and Justice Samuel Alito (2006). And of course we now have Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Trump, instead of whomever a President Hillary Clinton would have nominated. Not to speak of whoever is coming.
3. It’s OK to blame yourself. Did you do everything you possibly could have done to avert this moment? Send money? Volunteer time? Join a campaign? March and march and march again? Did you do more than argue with relatives and feel superior, or unfriend people on Facebook? Did you do enough? Of course you didn’t. I didn’t, nobody has, not Obama, not Hillary, nobody. So go ahead and blame yourself. Then take a deep breath, look around you, and rejoice. Because the Sombrero Galaxy doesn’t give a damn. And you have a chance for a do-over.
4. It’s OK to forgive yourself for what you didn’t do or didn’t do enough or did wrong. It’s still not too late. But you’re exhausted. You’re bone tired from the 500-plus days of Trump and the continual knot of fury in your throat. So first, do whatever you have to do to feel even temporarily better—sleep all weekend or go for a hike, soak in a bubble bath, listen to music, garden, watch movies, eat ice cream—whatever works for you. And also buy a cheap little cactus plant, to remind yourself about endurance against the odds. It’s OK to stop and bandage your bleeding.
5. Set a timer. It’s OK to despair and be bitter, to blame yourself and forgive yourself—but set a timer! When it goes off, time’s up and break’s over. Mine is two days maximum, but I suggest not a day over a week. We have four months until the midterm elections.
The Founders of this Republic were flawed men with a crazy idea. This week on Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan I offer some of their words about that idea, words that were stunningly prescient, as if they could foresee this moment in future history. I’ll offer more of them here, too, in next week’s post.
Those Founders, the Framers of our Constitution, gave us three equal branches of government. At this moment, two of those branches are controlled by men trying to make deep, permanent, transformatively violating changes to the Republic’s idea itself.
But there is a third branch, and it’s ours.
Four years ago only 36 percent of the eligible electorate cast ballots in the midterms. If more people had voted, Mitch McConnell would not be Majority Leader and would not have been able to block Obama’s nominated justice, Merrick Garland.
Some things we already know.
*We know it is likely there will be some forms of interference from Russia or elsewhere in these midterm elections, and we know that the Trump regime has done nothing to protect us from that; on the contrary.
*We know that the Republican majority in the Senate killed the filibuster on Supreme Court justices, so a simple majority can approve one—and they have the votes.
*We know that women’s rights, the right to reproductive freedom, voting rights, marriage equality and other same-sex rights, racial and partisan gerrymandering, affirmative action, constitutional violations in the criminal justice system, corporate purchase of elections, immigration policy, and the erosion of the wall between church and state—all the core issues of democracy are now endangered, and openly so. They tell us what they want to do. Believe them.
But this we also know. We must be on the streets, yes, but especially in the voting booths. We must organize voting turnout as never before, in such numbers as to compensate for Russian meddling at the polls and for an energized Trump base.
The Founders gave us a system, and that system is being tested as it has been only once before. The executive branch has been stolen. The judicial branch has been kidnapped. Nor is there any clear leadership, as there was with Abraham Lincoln, to lead us out of the wilderness, even though that route led through a civil war.
It’s just us.
But perhaps that was inevitable. Because it means that what we face in November—and in our organizing, between this moment and November—is the absolute core of the idea of the Republic, the heart of democracy. It is the voice of the people. It is the cactus plant.
The United States has withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the world’s most important human rights body.
The US did so ostensibly to protest the Council’s frequent criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians—although Israel itself still participates. The US now joins Iran, North Korea, and Eritrea as the only countries refusing to participate. Perhaps, given the events of this past week, on top of events of these past months, the withdrawal is tragically apt. We no longer deserve to be there.
Trump’s so-called executive order reuniting immigrant families was a photo op in response to pressure, an attempt to staunch the chaos his administration bleeds in all directions; an attempt to address the rising fury of most Americans at acts he commits in our name.
The “executive order” is not retroactive. There are no plans to reunite the illegally incarcerated asylum-seeking parents—for which read “mothers”—with the now almost 2500 children already scattered across the US. Furthermore, there is no effective tracing system for even locating them. On the contrary, Trump is ordering so called “tender age facilities” to be opened for infant inmates, including babies under one year old who have literally been seized from their mothers’ nursing breasts. Make no mistake. We are seeing only the tip of the horror to come. Most of these children are under the care of untrained, unlicensed caregivers who have not, for example, been vetted for pedophilia.
But here’s what happens when whistleblowers drown out dog whistles. Here’s what happens when a great free press does its job. The smuggled-out pictures of children kept in cages and audiotapes of their sobbing for their mothers woke up a nation.
So, after fulminating for days that he would never back down and be “weak,” after the Trumpists even cited the same Bible passage used during the Civil War to justify slavery, after insisting an executive order couldn’t overturn a “law” that actually didn’t exist, Trump capitulated. He bluffed his way through a signing ceremony, claiming his “personal compassion” had overridden others’ counsel. But he was still strong you understand, tough, still for zero tolerance. He hunched at a cabinet meeting in his familiar, fortress position: arms folded tight across his chest, body language reeking defensiveness and fear. He has reason to fear. He’s feeling the pressure. Pressure works.
His own party is in an uproar, with both House and Senate Republicans finally joining Democrats in protesting his policy. Starting with American Airlines, other carriers began refusing to fly children to facilities around the country since those along the border were already so crowded. Hundreds of employees at Microsoft demanded that the company sever its data-mining relationship with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Employees and TV and film creators at 21st Century Fox publicly denounced their corporate cousin, Fox News, for its deliberate lies in covering the border crisis. Governors—mostly Democrats but some Republicans as well—from at least eight states (and growing) announced they would withhold or recall National Guard troops from efforts to secure the border. Pediatricians, psychologists, nurses’ associations, teachers’ groups, and numerous other organizations began planning major demonstrations across the country and in Washington DC for this weekend.
We learned how to start, encourage, and join this snowball effect from the #MeToo Movement. A dazed nation is waking up. Pressure works. The more pressure, the more it works.
Still, a vast tent detention camp has been constructed in the desert, since the usual migrants-shelter hub in America—the four-county Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas—is jam-packed. Hey, it’s good for business! Or didn’t you know that the business of housing, transporting, and detaining migrant children along the southwest border is a billion-dollar business? BCFS, a global network of religiously affiliated nonprofit groups, has received at least $179 million in federal contracts in the last two years; one recipient is Catholic Charities, which sees its work as “nonprofit and humanitarian.” Several large defense contractors and security firms are also in the system, including General Dynamics and MVM INC., which, having previously contracted with the government to supply guards in Iraq, recently put up job postings “seeking bilingual travel youth care workers” in South Texas, to accompany the children as they are being scattered around the nation. The migrant shelter industry is booming.
Four American military bases in Texas and Arkansas have been ordered to prepare beds for sheltering as many as 20,000 “unaccompanied alien children,” which is what the kids are called after having been ripped from those who were in fact accompanying them. This is according to a Pentagon spokesman—though other federal agencies offered conflicting explanations about who would be housed there, e.g. detained families together.
The rules keep shifting; there is chaos on the ground. Volunteer lawyers are combing the system in search of migrant children, trying to reunite them with their parents. As for the rule of law, Trump is pumping up the prosecution while eviscerating the defense: He had Sessions secretly shave the budget for immigration public defenders before announcing this policy in the first place; and now he’s ordered the Pentagon to send 200 JAG lawyers (Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the legal branch or specialty of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and Navy) as prosecutors, though immigration prosecution is not their specialty. Is Defense Secretary Mattis going to act like the independently thinking “grownup” he was hyped to be, and join the governors in taking a stand that they won’t permit their National Guards to participate in this cruel, chaotic catastrophe? Will he dare say No, the job of American soldiers is not to build detention camps and prosecute immigrants? Don’t hold your breath.
But all is fine and dandy, since immigrant Melania Trump flew to Texas, had her photo op, visited with children catatonic with trauma, and was back on her plane within 75 minutes, wearing a jacket printed with white capital letters “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” Well, I don’t care whether this was stupidity, coarseness, oversight, a gross let-them-eat-cake moment, or a sadistic jab at those of us who do care. It puts her beyond pity.
We feel it. The tension building, the pressure. We yearn for November and the elections, yearn for Special Counsel Mueller to lower the boom, desperately yearn for this long national nightmare to be over. But we also dread facing each day with the knowledge that it will get worse before it gets better. Myself, I cling to both past and future in this hideous present.
I cling to the past because it helps us understand. Because history not only repeats itself, it stutters. The U.S. government tore Indigenous children from their homes and families, severed communication between them, and sent them to dreaded Government Indian Schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages and observe the belief systems of their peoples and nations. African children in the new America were often born of rape, born into enslavement, and were sold off separately from their parents at auctions and in private deals between plantation owners. The cries of women reaching for their children as those children, straining back, arms outstretched, screaming, are borne away—none of that is new, here in the New World, the land of the free.
I cling to the past because I can’t forget the famous quote from the Old World, during the Holocaust, the Shoah, from a nameless little boy maybe 10 years old, as he was being hauled away during mass arrests after the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. The child looked back over his frail shoulder and cried, “You won’t be forgiven. Not any of you. Not ever.”
Which is why I cling to the future. Because they won’t be forgiven. We, a free people, can see to that. We can refuse to despair, we can transfer the pressure that is suffocating us outward, into energy, into every demonstration and action we can think of and create. Pressure. More pressure. More pressure. Because pressure works.
I know I’ve been raving on about words even more than usual lately, but that’s because to abuse language is to abuse thought itself, and we are drowning in abuses of thinking. Rethinking refreshes the mind.
Here’s a recent example: A choir master in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region had teenage schoolgirls perform a nude “traditional” performance that then was widely shared on social media. He defended this as a “cultural” tribute to the Xhosa ethnic group, but it drew fury from women. Ironically, South Africa’s new constitution guarantees wide-ranging equality and shows signs of feminist consciousness—although that conflicts with the county’s high rate of sexual assault and violence against women. It also conflicts with the way many in South Africa regard tradition, and sometimes with a sensitivity (certainly understandable) about cultural issues. The choir master was quoted as saying defensively, ”We are proud of our Xhosa tradition.” But Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, said that educators “should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage, but there was absolutely no need for these children to perform naked.” The “reed dance” is performed each year in rural societies in Swaziland and in KwaZulu Natal province. It is danced by teenage schoolgirls clad only in small aprons, with their breasts and buttocks completely exposed; it stems from a “tradition” of virgins dancing in hope of being chosen by the chief or king for his harem. A recent report published by the (Angie again!) Ministry of Basic Education noted that schools were grappling with the effects of racism, colonialism, and apartheid, but “little attention has been paid to gender issues. The previous emphasis on ‘Great White Men’ has simply been replaced with ‘Great Black Men.’”
Well, thank god for Minister Motshekga. Her voice echoes that of women from the Zulu ethnic group with whom I met at length when I visited KwaZulu Natal. Some of them had walked for three days to make this meeting, and one, Tozi—who smiled and introduced herself as an “unruly woman,” to applause—said she knew she’d be in trouble when she returned to her village. Although unlike the others she had no husband to fear, the village headman might have incited other men to burn down her hut again or steal her goat in her absence. Still, she felt it was worth it, because she wanted to tell this visitor about a new Zulu tradition that had arisen during the HIV-AIDS epidemic: the lie that if a man was infected, sleeping with a virgin would cure him. “This is killing our young girls,” Tozi said, and she was willing to risk her life to stop it. Another woman at the meeting, Zandile, said, “Zulu or Xhosa, all us women live lives bound by traditions—but whose traditions? Men’s traditions. We have never had a chance to establish our traditions, as women. But at least we can start by stopping—we can stop obeying traditions that are not ours.”
At the time, and today still, the profoundly radical wisdom in those words strikes me as central to the entire global Women’s Movement. Child marriage? Arranged marriage? FGM? Suttee? Sexual slavery? Tradition. Dowry? Battery? Purdah? Literacy (women and girls comprise two thirds of all nonliterate people)? Culture. Prostitution? Male majorities in congresses all over the world? Male heads of state the norm? Religious rituals and rules, damnations, hypocrisies? All cultural, all traditional.
Whose tradition, whose culture? From the Passover seder to the Catholic mass, from foot binding to the casting couch, from the concept of a male god to the concept of patriotism: all patriarchal. If aspects of some traditions and cultures feel meaningful to individual women or evoke their loyalty, that’s fine, and I support their right to observe them. I even support their right to try and reform them (the “feminist seder,” the “Jesus was a feminist” argument, etc.). But let’s not confuse cultures and traditions with anything generic, let’s not assume everyone had an equal say in the practice that formed them.
What if women, and men of conscience as well, were always to put the adjective “patriarchal” before the words “tradition” and “culture”? To start by stopping, which would probably begin with the naming, as usual. Then there might come a day when those who follow us would look back and wonder how we could ever have existed in such bondage, and they might celebrate our process toward freedom from it–which might become a tradition.
Here’s another example. At this moment, thousands (no one can get an accurate number) of children, including infants, are jammed into detention centers now so crowded that Jeff Sessions’ Department of Injustice is moving the kids into tent cities where the average day heat is 96°. They have been forcibly separated from their parents—for which, read “mothers”—with whom they were traveling to the United States, being “smuggled in,” according to Trump and Sessions. Many of these women were and are seeking asylum, so, by U.S. law, they are entitled to a respectful, thorough investigation of their situation by a court before any adjudication is made about their status. But Sessions has de facto nullified that law. Now, if you arrive claiming death and deprivation awaits you in the country from which you are fleeing—before you even have a chance to prove that—you are arrested, and your child is snatched from you and detained elsewhere. Even during the internment of the Japanese American population in virtual concentration camps during World War II—a lasting stain on this country’s history—families were kept intact. This sadistic policy has shocked most American citizens and even managed to disconcert a few Republican congressmen and senators.
Sessions has also changed U.S. practice on the definition of requirements for asylum, making it virtually impossible for asylum-seekers to gain entry by citing credible fears of domestic abuse or gang violence in their countries. In doing so, he reversed an immigration appeals court ruling that had granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had been sexually, emotionally, and physically abused by her husband. (Indeed, immigration court judges are stepping up to complain that Sessions is usurping their roles.) Few asylum-seekers are granted permanent entry into the United States, anyway. In 2016, for every applicant who succeeded, more than 10 failed. Domestic-violence victims gained eligibility after the 2014 case of a Guatemalan woman who had suffered a decade of marital abuse, including acid burns and punches while pregnant so severe that her baby was born with bruises. Under the Obama administration, more women were permitted to claim credible fears of domestic abuse–but that’s gone now. In his ruling, Sessions wrote that asylum claims pertaining to violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors would not qualify, that claims could no longer include victims of “private violence,” by which he means, basically, violence against women.
Private violence. It’s instructive to remember that just a few years ago, Amnesty International—that supposed beacon of freedom that now defends the rights of johns, pimps, and the sexual exploitation industry—held that same position about “private violence,” and Human Rights Watch shared that attitude. All through the 1970s and 80s we feminists pounded on the doors of A.I., which insisted that since virtually all persecution of women was not done by state actors, that was outside their concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union refused to act against battery, because that would be invading the privacy of the home. It took decades, but the growing pressure from women changed their minds. Why? Because women worldwide live in “the private realm.” We do most of the work in political protest movements, but rarely lead them, so the Putins and Erdogans and Kims don’t go after us the way they do oppositional male leaders. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is an exception: he seems to feel that it’s reasonable to charge women who want to drive with treason. But that’s rare. So if you restrict asylum to those being persecuted “by the state” you have neatly eliminated women.
Glance back at the above-listed atrocities perpetrated on women, defended as “culture” and/or ”tradition.” Add to that list economic impoverishment (the face of poverty worldwide is a female face), environmental disaster (women are the fuel gatherers and water haulers of the world, and 80 percent of Africa’s farmers are female), and war (women and children constitute 90 percent of refugee and displaced persons populations). All of these, now, are officially considered “personal matters” in the United States of America, “private violence.” In November if not before, we will have to force Trump and Sessions to revoke these morally sickening policies.
As things stand now, what if you’re a Central American woman who has suffered decades of shattered bones from a brutal husband? What if both your sons were forcibly recruited into a drug gang; one of your daughters was abducted by a gang to serve them sexually, the other was kidnapped and sold into sexual trafficking. What if, almost insane with desperation, you flee with your two youngest children, one only four months old, to the land of opportunity and safety. You claim a credible fear of return. But you are shackled, arrested without due process; your children are seized—one from your nursing breast—and taken away while you cry and beg and vomit from shock; you can hear them screaming for you in the next room, you recognize their voices and shout back but can’t get to them, and then you find yourself behind bars unable to learn where they are, waiting in terror to be sent back to your country, terror of being sent back without your kids or with them, sent back to your death. A sign on the wall reads: Welcome to the United States of America 2018. It should read The Personal Is Political.
There’s no way I could or would avoid addressing last week’s flap over Samantha Bee’s use of “the C word” about Ivanka Trump. My favorite responses to the outrage over the comedian’s use of the word were both by actors, and both showed wit. Minnie Driver tweeted, “That was the wrong word for Samantha Bee to have used. But mostly because Ivanka has neither the warmth nor the depth.” And my friend Sally Field tweeted, “I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. A cunt is powerful, beautiful, nurturing, and honest.”
Etymologically speaking, Sally is close to the mark. The word currently spelled in English c-u-n-t is actually one of the oldest words in the English language. Linguistic scholars believe it to be derived from Indo-European names for the Great Goddess, variously known as Cunti or Kunda, the Yoni (Door) to the Universe—the same root that gave us the words country, kin, and kind. Related forms were the Latin cunnus, the Old Norse and Frisian kunta, and the Basque cuna. It appears in Old English as cyn and in Middle English as conte or konte (usually spelled with a k), and is closely related to the words ken (to know something), count (numbers, and as in to matter, to have worth), and the words cunning, knowledge, conundrum (a puzzle). In her exhaustive work, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, scholar Barbara G. Walker noted that other cognates are cunabula, a cradle; and Cunina, a Roman goddess who protected children in the cradle. Our own word cunning originates with kenning and ken—knowledge, learning, insight, and wisdom—and is still in common usage in Scotland today, as in “Do you ken it?” We can also trace the relationship with concipient—which is related to conceptive, and conceiving. Not to be confused with concupiscence, which means intense desire (though I would wager there’s a connection in there somewhere. . . . ).
Cuneiform, the most ancient type of writing, derives from kunta, which meant female genitalia in Samarian, the language of ancient Iraq. Even today, kunta is “woman” in several Middle Eastern and African languages. It was also spelled quna, which is the root of queen. Since priestesses were known to be administrators and accountants at the Temple of Inanna around 3100 B.C.E. when cuneiform was first used, scholars think it likely that cuneiform was originally the sign of the kunta: the women who kept the books (clay tablets) for the temple in economy, and for the redistribution of wealth that evolved from communal economics in ancient mother-cultures.
Back in England, the Kennet River still flows near the Standing Stones of Avebury and Stonehenge. This river was holy to the Druids and even further back—to older, local, matrifocal religions. It was a symbol of the sacred female, because life (food from fishing, irrigation for crops, mobility and thence trade) came from the river.
The way words become “dirty” is actually through a sort of ossification, a lack of use; words regarded as the most unutterable ones are almost always the oldest and the least altered words in a language. The word “cunt” was free of negative connotations when it was used by Chaucer, but later fell into disuse, then virtually became unspeakable—although still intact. That’s the category it remains in today, and Bee decidedly used it as a pejorative term.
But if instead you choose to use it in a non-negative way, because you ken its real meaning, then you may, like me, delight in learning a real word that means the power of a woman: cuncipotence, with the second c variously pronounced as a hard or a soft c.
If you’re a woman, I heartily hope that you are cuncipotent. If you’re a man, I definitely hope you’re not afraid of cuncipotence.
Aren’t words delicious fun? Etymology is like tracking the spoor left from where human thought has passed through.
And I ask you: Really. Outside of academia, what other blog post would be mad enough to offer you the etymological and political background of the word cunt?
Recently I spoke with one of the gutsy professional cheerleaders who has registered a formal complaint with the EEOC regarding NFL sex discrimination. You probably have read about the horrendous treatment meted out to cheerleaders, by management and team owners, as well as by boozed-up, testosterone-poisoned fans at games.
She said something that particularly struck me as familiar. In dismissing the notion that perhaps sexism was inherent in cheerleading itself, she repositioned it as “dancing.” It actually is, of course, requiring dance training plus sometimes onerous gymnastics—but without the respect paid to the Rockettes as artists or to gymnasts as sportswomen.
Yet cheerleading isn’t simply dancing, and isn’t gymnastics. Cheerleading has been created, formalized, commercialized, and positioned by team owners and fans as sexist entertainment, and they treat it as such, despite the expertise of those performing the cheerleading. Strippers also call themselves dancers. But you don’t hear professional dancers calling themselves cheerleaders—or strippers.
What was familiar, however, was the “classing up” of a disadvantaged situation, by the disadvantaged themselves.
One sure way you can detect classing up is that it’s used by those who are still in a disadvantaged position—very rarely by those who have managed to escape that position. For example, women still working as cheerleaders are (at least publicly) opposed to any protest against their being treated atrociously, but women who are former cheerleaders and no longer vulnerable to losing their jobs are supportive of the formal EEOC complaint and often even eager to become involved.
It brought to mind the currently prostituted women who call themselves “sex workers,” while those who have managed to escape the sexual exploitation industry call themselves “survivors.”
It’s not only the fear of retribution—loss of employment or other kinds—at work here. Neither is it merely denial of what’s sometimes too painful to admit. It’s partly a gesture, however awkward, at gaining or retaining a sense of human dignity. And it’s partly aspirational—that is, identifying with the powerful instead of with one’s less powerful self, which requires acknowledging one’s own deliberately buried experience, authentic but likely bruising. It’s something that goes beyond blaming the victim, into self-blaming the victim.
It’s shaming the victim. The shame at being so victimized is a shame created, instilled, and encouraged by the victimizers to keep the victims silent. As if it’s her fault, as if her humiliation is deserved. This may be the most pernicious aspect of sexual crimes against women: the stealthily enforced enlistment of the victim into believing and even further propagating the so-called innocence of the perpetrator.
The rape victim who “asked for it”: I shouldn’t have invited him to my apartment. The sexual-harassment target who “wanted it”: Maybe I was wearing the wrong clothes. The domestic-violence survivor who stayed with him: I got this black eye or broken arm or concussion from walking into a door. Try imagining a white, straight man whose watch was stolen in a mugging, blaming himself, and you see the pernicious absurdity of this internalized shame.
It happens over racism: that’s what having “good hair” and what “passing” was about: classing up. It happens over the perception and self-perception of many biracial people who choose to class themselves as “white.” For godsake, it’s just easier.
It happens over homophobia: that’s what a different kind of “passing,” still ongoing in parts of this country, is about. Whole families, entire communities, collaborate in it, sometimes insist upon it, while everybody knows and nobody says—for shame.
Internalizing blame for one’s own oppression is something that happens in ageism as well, for instance when women especially are taught to lie about our age. It happens in terms of disability, depending on how much the disability or its effects are visible. Immigrants who Anglicize their names are classing up. The use of ethnic or racial slurs within specific oppressed groups may be claimed as a way of joking or a way to invoke solidarity, but it reinforces the terminology of those in power as well as the helplessness of the powerless. Children “class up” when they play grownup, because they see quite clearly that grownups have power over them.
And it happens over class itself. Lots.
The terms “Lower middle class” and “upper middle class” were coined precisely to aid and abet such distinctions. I can remember my mother saying she was a lingerie designer when actually she was a shopgirl who sold corsets in a chain store. Small details and large ones. I can remember her persisting in her claim that a necklace she gave me with orange plastic beads shaped like coral was the real thing from the Great Barrier Reef, and insisting that her grandparents had been nobles at the court of the Czar in Russia—when actually they were gutsy peasant “Shtetl” Jews scrabbling to stay alive at the border of Poland and Russia, despite periodic Cossack raids and the terror of pogroms. Classing up ensures that you admire the wrong people and adopt the wrong values.
I can remember myself as a teenager when, having discovered that in Europe there was a class called “the intelligentsia,” I instantly identified myself as part of that. It must be admitted that this was not only because I desperately wanted to become a writer, but also because it saved me from the uncomfortable decision to collaborate in my mother’s false origin story and her lies, or deny her, thus reject her, in stating the truth—which would also have included the truth that we were decidedly “lower middle-class.”
When the first fissure in that internalization cracks, it’s a moment of blessed, terrifying, liberating rage. The danger in that period is that the affirmation and rage can distort, turning solely outward, blaming others—any others—and blinding oneself to one’s own collaboration, even glamorizing one’s own oppression (e.g., many Trump supporters). Because only then does the real process begin: the daily application of burgeoning consciousness.
Then, accumulated acts of “noticing” require re-naming a lot of what had passed for your reality, and it takes quite a while until you can shift the responsibility onto where it’s deserved—onto the person, people, and institutionalized system that have their feet planted firmly on your neck.
What’s in a name?
The philosopher Susanne K. Langer wrote, “The notion of giving something a name is the vastest generative idea that ever was conceived.”
I would add that giving something the precise, accurate name—even if that necessitates re-naming—is an act of courage.
Stubborn people, us feminists. We never give up on anybody or any group—particularly the women of any group. Latest evidence, the Irish referendum on a woman’s right to choose her reproductive life: I rest my case.
True, we may have fantasies of gently abducting some male-supremacy-defending women, whisking them to some idyllic place, feeding them homemade soup, and engaging in nonstop consciousness-raising together until the great Aha! You too! descends on us all in a blaze of insight. But in reality, we older feminists have seen a whole lot of women (starting with ourselves) come round over the decades, and have celebrated each one freeing herself from patriarchal blinders at her own pace. Lately, happily, that pace is really accelerating.
Can it be that now, Christian evangelical women—some of whom as individuals have already made their feminism admirably clear—are coming around in larger numbers?
Such profound changes don’t happen easily or all at once. Things get densely entangled, of course, when mixed with culture and with avidly conservative politics. If changes happen at all, they happen one seemingly nonpolitical issue at a time, one moment of insult so intense that a few women friends crack the silence, first with one another, then a few others . . . and then more start to speak through the crack, which widens with each additional voice.
That’s what seems to be taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which claims 15 million members.
In the 1970s, a conservative takeover of the previously middle-of-the-religious-road Southern Baptist Convention led to the adoption of certain pernicious resolutions. They included the belief that the bible’s inerrancy required a ban on female pastors and the teaching that women must be submissive to their husbands. That conservative takeover was engineered by Dr. Paige Patterson, then president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and of late president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In between, he was president of the entire Southern Baptist Convention, and he remains a major figure in the Southern Baptist community.
You might recall that a few years ago, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter publicly left the Southern Baptist Convention because, despite their lifelong attendance and social participation in the church, Rosalynn was denied a deaconship by the all-male church leaders, since she was a woman.
But now, MeToo has manifested its energy, like a revelation.
It began with newly resurfaced videotapes of Patterson, which sent ripples throughout the entire Southern Baptist Convention.
The videos exposed how, in 2000, Patterson had told the story of a woman who’d been abused by her husband and had come to him for advice; he had told her to pray quietly beside the bed at night, though he also warned her to “Get ready because your husband may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” When the woman returned to him with a badly bruised face she said, according to Patterson himself, “I hope you’re happy.” To which he answered, “Yes, ma’am, I am. I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy because the husband had shown up in church that morning and asked for forgiveness.”
Patterson had also delivered sermons counseling battered wives to stay in abusive relationships and “be submissive in every way.” In one videotaped sermon, he told a story about boys leering at girls and mothers then scolding their sons—wrongly, he said, because “such a boy is just being biblical,” a quip that reliably invoked laughter from his audience. In 1997, Patterson made a disturbing comment for which he then refused to apologize for two weeks, until forced to do so. It was a comment in general about women: “I think everybody should own at least one.” Furthermore, a former student claims that back when Patterson was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and University, he discouraged her from reporting having been raped to police, and told her that she should forgive the rapist instead. She was put on probation for two years; the alleged rapist suffered not even a slap on the wrist.
Not that Patterson is the only such abuser of religious authority among evangelicals. On the contrary, there have been so many that the pattern gave birth to a fictional character, Elmer Gantry, a character that in itself became a stereotype.
For instance, Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of one of the most influential churches in the U.S., Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, had to resign recently after charges of improper conduct and abuse of power. Pastor Andy Savage resigned from his Memphis mega church after it came to light that he had sexually assaulted a high-school student years earlier. Les Hughey, founder and pastor of another mega church in Scottsdale, Arizona, resigned after several women accused him of sexual misconduct when he’d been a youth pastor in California decades earlier. And then there is the seemingly unshakable Christian evangelical support for Donald Trump, with his long, odious history of sexual misconduct and misogynistic attitudes—although recent polls have shown a slight but discernible slippage of approval for him among evangelical women.
All this has built up over time, and the surfacing of the Patterson remarks might have been the last straw. Keep in mind that evangelical women are highly capable people, many of whom have jobs outside the home as well as in it, run small businesses, and juggle all that with raising families, and creating church organizations, church suppers, community work, and so forth. As with the black church, it’s women who keep the wheels turning—but it’s men who get to ride.
So the revolt began with a few women, but soon more than 3,330 (and still growing) women affiliated with Southern Baptist churches and beyond signed an open letter calling for “decisive action” against Patterson. It read in part, “We are shocked by the video that has surfaced showing Dr. Patterson objectifying a teenage girl and then suggesting this is behavior that is biblical. We are further grieved by the dangerous and unwise counsel given by Dr. Patterson to women in abusive situations.” It goes on, rather blisteringly.
Well, Paige Patterson was ousted from his position, after those thousands of evangelical women began calling for his ouster. You go, girls!
Of course, he was actually demoted to “president emeritus,” with pay and free housing, as before. He’s slated to speak at the annual meeting of the Convention, although the pressure is on for him to decline. He was not fired, as the women had wanted, and I’ll wager that his cushy retention will be a radicalizing experience for some of these women. Judging from their quotes to the press, that’s already begun.
Of course, it can be said that 3,330 signatories out of 7.5 million Southern Baptist women is a fairly humble showing, but so were the “Minutemen” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord: less than 80 at Lexington, and not that many more at Concord—but Lord Percy, who led the British in retreat after his Concord defeat, wrote back to London, “Whoever looks upon them [the Rebels] as an irregular mob will be much mistaken.” Indeed, around 15,000 militiamen surrounded Boston in defense against the British the day after these two battles occurred.
So these evangelical women protesters deserve our respect and support, as well as recognition that they’re not totally alone in their seemingly closed world. Young evangelicals have been trying, and in some places, succeeding, in changing their churches to become more open politically, especially on race and on gender.
It’s a cheap shot to dismiss all evangelicals in one lump—and dismissing all of any group in one lump is dangerous in itself. Decades ago I wrote, “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” Those four words still summarize a great deal of politics for me.
So if you are an evangelical woman reading this who has felt in the past that my writing has stereotyped you, I offer more than my apologies: my promise to try to break my own conditioning and never do so again. I will continue to vigorously defend my own feminist (and secular) positions, and I will remain intensely opposed to the extremely harmful and unConstitutional political positions taken by the Convention in particular and Christian evangelicals in general. But I can do that at the same as I listen for and respond to the voices of evangelical women—many of whom are bent, apparently, on reforming their church so it conforms more faithfully to a message of equality and inclusiveness. If you are at all like me, then perhaps the next time you encounter a woman who calls herself an evangelical Christian, you might look beyond the label (as you would hope she might do about you) and try to start a discussion, if you haven’t done so already.
The great strength of this country is its pluralism, as well as its separation of church and state (for the good of both). When women, the majority of the population, emphasize what we have in common with each other rather than how we are different, there’s no stopping us. MeToo is a starting place, and a brilliantly effective one for discovering and emphasizing those similarities.
It leads to a feminist epiphany. Or, as evangelical Christians might say, it’s a Come to Jesus Moment.
The key, I think, is to focus less on where a woman is coming from than where she’s going. And I for one trust women, once they dare to graze even the surface of their own anger, to recognize and respect each other’s righteous rage, to link arms, and to take it from there. Amen!
Since interviewing Maria Ressa recently for “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” I’ve been haunted more than usual by thoughts of my special sisters, women journalists. Ressa, a former CNN Bureau Chief, is one hell of a journalist, and founder of Rappler.com, an online news site under fierce attack by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian government.
Me, I’m a journalist, yes, but. I’m also an activist, who believes that “objectivity” is usually subjective. And I’m basically a writer, one all over the map. My foundational rock is poetry. But having fallen in love with the English language and decided I wanted to be a “woman of letters” when I was about nine, I grew up into someone who writes novels, stories, plays, essays, editorials, works of feminist theory, political analyses, polemics, and any other form of writing I can lay hands on—from grocery lists to broadcast/podcast commentaries to, now, blogs. So I doubt that I really qualify for the honorable title of journalist per se.
Women like Maria Ressa—single-minded, focused on news, targeting the story and following it against all risks, checking and rechecking and editing and paring and clarifying and finally publishing—to me, that’s a journalist. Women like Maria, who face death threats daily and must fight prison sentences for simply doing their job, getting the truth out by whatever means possible, are real journalists, newswomen.
This is not to ignore or disparage newsmen. A free press in general is the single most necessary ingredient for a democracy—which is precisely why it’s the first target for autocrats and authoritarians.
At least 42 journalists were killed last year, as reported by The Committee to Protect Journalists, and 19 percent were women, more than double the annual average of 7 percent. Of the total number of journalists imprisoned worldwide, 97 percent were arrested in their own countries and 8 percent were women, according to CPJ.
These women do their jobs by pushing against every hazard and obstruction faced by male journalists, as well as the additional obstacles and perils they had to face in getting the job and the assignment in the first place, plus all the other hazards that come just with being female in a patriarchal world. Sometimes, heartbreakingly, the harassment, threats, and sexual assaults they encounter come from their own male colleague journalists in the field or at home.
Lauren Wolfe, reporter, correspondent, and Director of the Women Under Siege Project of the Women’ s Media Center, has noted that often, those who are supposed to protect journalists in conflict zones, such as guards and drivers, can pose the biggest threats on the job. Sexual abuse is surfacing as one of the largest impediments to press freedom when it comes to women journalists—yet CPJ doesn’t track that in their annual reports. Online harassment is also experienced far more frequently by women journalists than by their male colleagues.
That fits into the pattern of online abuse of women in general, as documented and confronted by the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, which is dedicated to expanding women’s freedom of expression and curbing online harassment and abuse by offering information, tools, and resources. Ashley Judd—one of the earliest “mothers” of the MeToo Movement—is Chair of the Speech Project, and journalist and author Soraya Chemaly is the Director.
And now PEN, the international organization (with PEN America) has recently done a survey of 230 writers and journalists targeted by online harassment: Two-thirds reported severe reactions to being trolled, including refraining from publishing their work, deleting social media accounts, and fears for personal safety. More than a third reported avoiding certain topics in their writing. Writers were under assault for their viewpoints, but also based on their sex, race, religion, and sexual orientation. In response, PEN America has assembled an Online Harassment Field Manual, to equip and empower writers, journalists, and all those active online with tools and tactics to defend against hate speech and trolling.
These free, digital resources now exist—even if the solutions as yet don’t. As a co-founder of the
This week I want to focus on a small story that got insufficient coverage in the Trump glut of news, since it merely is about two of the most important founding principals of our Republic: freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
You may have heard that on April 16, Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan announced that Fr. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and the House chaplain since 2011, would be stepping down. A day later, it turned out that Conroy was not leaving voluntarily but that the Speaker’s chief of staff had told him to resign or be fired. Conroy duly tendered his letter of resignation, to take effect on May 24.
But then in strode Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader and former Speaker herself, to Conroy’s defense. Pelosi takes her Catholicism as seriously as her politics—yet she once endured a six-year estrangement from her mother, with whom she’d been very close, when her mother stopped speaking to her after Pelosi refused to abandon her pro-choice position. Now, Nancy was stubbornly fighting for Conroy, and as other members of the House, Catholic and non-, from both sides of the aisle, signed onto his defense, it became . . . well, a Thing. It seems that anti-Conroy feeling had been building for some time among Christian evangelicals in the House who felt that “this damnable priest” was embodying too well his Jesuit order’s reputation for being liberal and intellectual. For instance, the chaplain by tradition often invites members of other faiths to deliver the morning prayer in his stead, and Conroy had invited a Muslim imam not just once but twice. Gasp! Then, when the House was debating how to make their ultra-conservative tax bill even more conservative, Conroy had dared say in the morning prayer, “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” After that apparently incendiary comment, Speaker Ryan warned Conroy, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
Tell it to the loaves and fishes guy, Paul.
Anyway, at some point Conroy realized that he had been elected to the post by the whole House, and that Ryan couldn’t demand his resignation after all. So he promptly withdrew it, noting that if they wanted him out they’d have to actually fire him without his cooperation. (Ryan should have known better than to ever mess with the Jesuits; the Jeddies usually win.) The Speaker of the House backed down. Conroy was reinstated.
All of which would be a small, amusing story about hypocritical political religiosity. Except for a little thing called the Constitution, except for a small group of flawed but brilliant radicals called the Framers.
Freedom of speech does not stop at the doors of the House of Representatives. Freedom of religion, by the way, also means the freedom to follow no religion whatsoever. In a strange way, Ryan was right in saying that a churchman should “stay out of politics,” although of course he had very different reasons for saying that, reasons that did not include the principle of the separation of church and state.
In truth, there should be no chaplain in the House of Representatives or the Senate to begin with.
Most of the framers were in fact agnostics, atheists, unaffiliated “Freethinkers,” or “deists,” believing in a sacred force of science or nature, and they were obsessed with the separation of church and state. In my book, Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating The Religious Right, I quote the Framers at length, and their quotes are incredibly bracing.
For instance, James Madison, called the father of the Constitution, opposed all use of “religion as an engine of civil policy.” He accurately prophesied the threat of “ecclesiastical corporations,” and in his great essay, “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, and Ecclesiastical Endowments, circa 1817,” he writes, “Is the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative . . . the establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of constitutional principles . . . better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of chaplainships for the Army and Navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. . . . Religious proclamations by the executive branch recommending thanksgivings and fasts are shoots from the same root. . . . Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers . . . such acts seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. . . .”
George Washington was a Freemason and a deist, always carefully referring to divinity as “It” and never mentioning the name of Jesus Christ in any of his literally thousands of letters. He weathered heavy criticism for rarely attending church; when he did, he stood during prayers while others knelt, and he always made a point of leaving before communion. John Adams was a Unitarian deeply influenced by the Enlightenment; one of his most famous quotes in a letter to Jefferson, reads, “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” Then there’s Thomas Paine: “My own mind is my church.” Ben Franklin, who called himself a deistic scientist, was memorialized by his close friend Dr. Priestly, who wrote of him, “It is much too be lamented that a man of Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever . . . and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers.” And of course from Jefferson, our legacy includes booksfull on the subject—including a razored and rearranged secular bible, The Jefferson Bible—all of which could be summarized by his simple directive, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”
How far, how tragically far, we have already fallen away from the vision of the Founders, when a Jesuit priest is censored for mentioning the rights of poorer citizens of the Republic—and when he does so as chaplain of the House of Representatives, a post that exists by now in habitual violation of the Constitution.
My latest book, Dark Matter: New Poems, is just out. It’s my seventh book of poetry and 23rd book in all, but I confess that I never get over the thrill of a new book—and also confess to feeling that it’s the best work I’ve done so far. Published beautifully by Spinifex Press, it’s available at all bookstores and all online booksellers.
This week I’m doing readings and promotion for the book, so there was no time to write the blog per se. Instead, I’m posting one of the poems from the book—a story poem—in lieu of a prose blog. An earlier version of this poem was published in The Hudson Review literary journal; this below is the later version that appears in Dark Matter.
National Geographic Society announcement, June 2006:
The 1600-year-old mummified remains of a young adult were covered with red pigment and bear tattoos, and her imposing tomb signified high status. It was discovered 400 miles northwest of Lima, Peru, near the summit of the pyramid Huaca Cao Viejo, a sacred site in Moche culture, which flourished well before the rise of the Incas. Among the burial trove–gold, fine textiles, semiprecious stones, weaving materials and needles befitting a woman–lay two ceremonial war clubs and 28 spear throwers, items found never at women’s grave sites but exclusively in tombs of Moche men. Nearby lay the skeleton of another, smaller woman dead from apparent strangulation, a hemp rope still around her neck. It was the rope, via radiocarbon analysis, that dated the burial of both women to approximately C.E. 450.
You are here, I know it. Where?
Come to me. I command you.
If I could see through this fog! I wander
and wait, calling out for you, Little One
of my Choosing, culled from the herd,
where are you? Come! I demand you!
You were mine the moment I saw you,
plucked you from filth to be granted my favor,
raised high by me, brought to the Great House.
How hard you struggled—so small,
but you kicked, spat, hit,
scratched, screamed—and I laughed
while they scrubbed you and wrapped you in silks,
laughed as you gorged on roast pigeon and mangos,
laughed as you cowered and glared at me.
You are near, I feel it. I command you to come
to me. I know you can hear me even through
this thick fog. Useless to fight me, you know it.
I always was different, stronger than all
of my brothers, my father’s true son, though
a woman. I set my mind and my teeth on it,
refusing to be not-man, female, less than human.
I was more than human, I knew it.
When the Others came from the north,
it was I who led the Moche into battle. I
cut down our enemies, laughed at their screams,
killed and killed until none were left.
My arms ached with killing. My enemies, my own
kind, both saw me then with wonder,
a woman of power, freak or demon.
I would be neither, but a god. From that day,
men would fear me, women flee me,
but all would worship me. I wore the condor-
feathered cloak. There was a price.
I was the object of their adoration,
not their love. How can the devout imagine
the unspeakable loneliness of their god?
Then, one day, I was hunting, and there it
was, hiding, squatting in its fetid hut,
a creature of huge eyes and rags. You
would come to love serving the god, though.
You alone loved the me in the god.
You watched when I bedded the man in the ritual,
then killed him once my belly swelled with my daughter,
the next god of war. When I fell, convulsing,
the last sight I saw was you bent above, weeping
for me as I died a hero’s death. Why now are you silent?
You are here, you must be, I left orders for it.
You know I cannot be alone with these weapons that slew
so many—the tools used to prove I was human—more–
I was god. That was the price. You were the gift.
You are here, I fear you will loom up
out of the fog as you did the day you seized me
by my hair in the corner of the hut by the meadow.
I had known seven summers. You took me
at seven summers only. You laughed. My father
groveled in gladness that I would be a slave
to She who was both man and god. There would be food
now, beer, gold, eager husbands for my sisters, an adobe
house, a private mound for when my parents died.
“You will be raised high,” my mother said.
I knew nothing. Only fear and loss. I would need
to forget fear and loss if I wanted to live.
But I wanted to die. Though never enough. So I lived,
the god’s favorite, crouched where you placed me.
At your feet as you sentenced captives to death.
At your table, tasting each dish for poison.
Beside your nightmares each night before battle.
Beneath your bed linen. Between your thighs.
You stank of blood and spices. Your voice softened
at my name. Naked, I smiled and danced for you,
I stripped off your armor. I bathed your scars,
some thick as rope. Once, after you’d slain twenty men
–in a single day, they said–I held the basin
while you vomited. I almost loved you then.
And when you fell I wept. It was so ordinary, like any
woman’s dying, no spear in hand, no war cry in the throat.
But then I joyed in it—I joyed that it was over and each of us
was free. Until that night, when I remembered
that your end would mean my own, to serve you
through the afterworlds, raised high in death.
I ran. I ran, such terror in my mouth I can still
taste it like the poison I had planned to slip you
after tasting your food someday, but never had.
Of course your priests and mourners caught me,
dragged me as they had when I was seven,
shrieking, fighting, to the tomb where you lay
swaddled in gold armor plates, encircled by
your weapons and my weaving. Freedom would be
forgetting fear, but I turned fear to hatred long ago.
I must find new afterworlds to walk alone, as your calls
echo through the space that yawns between us.
I never loved you–though I could have. That last
ensnarement beguiles me still, a slave’s desire
to speak to you, to make you understand. Except
for this: that day inside your tomb they forced
my face toward yours. I saw you stare at death
through inset turquoise eyes. I felt the rope fall, heavy,
on my shoulders, then tighten round my throat.
I sipped one final breath, knowing the last
sight I would ever see would be your face,
beautiful, severe, not seeing me.
Letter home from student interning at the Huaca Cao Viejo dig:
The local Indians are so superstitious! They shake their heads and warn us that when you disturb a tomb, the so called “spirits” rise and wander. They won’t say whose spirits, though. This lady, wow. What do you think? A queen? The wife or daughter of a military chief? Can’t be some mythic Amazon! We might never know. The professor says she might’ve been pregnant, maybe died of something called eclampsia, like convulsions. But he can’t tell till there’s a full lab analysis, which could take years. And the second woman? Might have been a suicide. I think they were lovers and she was in despair over the queen’s death. It’s so romantic! But the professor thinks she was a sacrifice. That would follow the common practice of ancient Andean peoples. They made a ritual offering of a virgin to the spirit of a high-born person during their funeral rites. Glad I wasn’t around then! He also says it’s absurd to imagine that the women were lovers, and extremely unlikely they ever even met, much less knew each other. But the rope! How great is the rope? What a stroke of luck in dating the find!
From Dark Matter:New Poems by Robin Morgan, Copyright Robin Morgan 2018, Spinifex Press, All Rights Reserved.
Historic Parliament Square in London pays homage to 11 male statues—mostly white, middle-aged, male aristocrats—but now, after nearly 200 years, the first female figure stands among them.
Hundreds of people, including Prime Minister Theresa May, attended the unveiling of the statue, which depicts Millicent Fawcett, a somewhat unsung figure of the feminist movement that led the campaign for women’s enfranchisement. Her statue was installed in part to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain this year. The petition to have female representation in Parliament Square was begun by Carolyn Criado-Perez, a freelance writer who had previously (and successfully!) campaigned for an image of Jane Austen to appear on the British £10 pound note—an endeavor that quickly made Criado-Perez the target of online vitriol.
Millicent Fawcett was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the main suffragist organization in Britain and a nonviolent movement. The choice of Fawcett–rather than the better known but more militant Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia—was deliberate.
Many women had been radicalized on “Black Friday” in 1910, after the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, called in riot police when 300 women attempted to enter Parliament to argue peacefully for their rights. After the ensuing mayhem, the government tried to cover up evidence of police brutality and serious physical assaults on the women, but the damage was done. It was under Pankhurst leadership, which split from the mainstream movement to form the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), that women held sit-ins and barricaded themselves at men’s clubs, disrupted men’s meetings, crashed royal garden parties and horse races. They escalated to flinging bricks through shop windows, and even to the use of bombs and arson, targeting homes of particularly anti-female-suffrage members of Parliament. They also paid dearly for their actions, by beatings (both domestic and official), imprisonment, and, when they went on hunger strike while in jail, by brutal forced feeding. Some women died.
Polite reformers are always celebrated earlier then impolite ones, and by the time the latter are honored—for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X—it’s been hoped by those in power that time will have buffed the sharp edges of their activism, their years in jail, their calls for disrupting the entire system, and often their tragic martyrdom. Only then are they considered sufficiently safe (over the remaining objections, to be sure) to have holidays named after them or have postage stamps wear their faces.
Certainly Millicent Fawcett deserves to be honored, and it’s good to have a woman, however much a token, in Parliament Square; you have to start somewhere. But one statue of one woman misinforms us. It not only fails to educate us; it actually mis-educates. Not all women won the right to vote when the Representation of the People Act finally passed on February 6, 1918. That law conferred eligibility only on women age 30 and older who owned or occupied property worth more than £5. That small victory was the culmination of years of peaceful marching and campaigning and and of militancy combined. It would take another decade before Britain extended the vote to all women age 21 and over.
Change does come, but slowly and with great reluctance. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund Inc. is still fundraising and advocating to place a statue of the two women’s rights pioneers in New York City’s Central Park, where there are 23 statues honoring men and none honoring real women. No, Alice in Wonderland, angels, and mermaids don’t count.
This got me thinking about the way statuary not only reflects our values but shapes them, the way monuments can mis-educate us, sometimes deliberately. All those heroic statues to soldiers and sailors from world wars, the plethora of “greatest generation” propaganda, came screeching up against the reality of profound loss when a young woman, a design artist and architect named Maya Lin, created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. Quiet, heavy, black, somber, reflective. But the names—the thousands of names. And interactive, so families could find the specific name that would never again answer to their call, find the name and make a rubbing of it.
That taught a lesson different from the glory of war.
And I thought of today’s still-raw controversy about “heritage”: the marble and stone Confederacy generals mounted gallantly astride their rearing warhorses, representing the treasonous rebellion of the Old South and its “gracious, civilized ways,” branding the myth of that message over and over on the conscious and subconscious minds of every passerby, every viewer. And with each branding, erasing the memory of human agony forced to make that so-called civilization possible.
Now, a new memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, hopes to teach another lesson. It was inspired by both the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which overlooks the Alabama state capital, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. It demands a reckoning with one of this nation’s least recognized atrocities, the lynching of thousands of black people in a post-Civil War decades-long campaign of racist terror.
And again: the names. The specific human being, the individual suffering. Only one example here. Mary Turner.
Mary Turner, who in an act of unthinkable courage maddened by grief denounced her husband’s lynching by a raging white mob, and was then herself hung upside down, burned, and sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
The magnitude of the killing stuns. The scale is made palpable by an outdoor cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the women, men, and children lynched there, most listed by name, but many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet a visitor first at eye-level, like headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But the floor descends steadily and by the end, columns dangle above, leaving the visitor in the position of spectators in old photographs of public lynchings, spectators gaping up at what they see. When it rains, the rain water sliding along the columns turns copper colored, and drips off the columns. This moves beyond metaphor. No structure could educate more plainly.
If statues must be built at all—and I myself would prefer trees—then they should be built by such artists as Maya Lin and the architects and artists commissioned by the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit NGO that was the visionary and the persistent energy behind creating this new Alabama memorial. They should teach us the whole truth. They should thaw our hearts from stone.