A Woman's Worth: Joining the Fight for Gender Equality
I’ve been sitting on a post about being a woman for a long time. I’ve been afraid to share it. The stories I’ve written are personal, they’re uncensored. I’ve feared what my parents will feel when they read them, if they’ll wonder why I’ve never shared the information or if they’ll be embarrassed by my candid words. I’ve been afraid of what people will think of me, a person who never spoke up. But today I was generously reminded of the standards of sexism while joining a Facebook discussion I felt I needed to speak on.
For context, here is the Facebook post, which has now been deleted:
It’s been years since I participated in any kind of social media fight. I’m 21, I’m way too old for this. But seeing a Facebook status of someone who used to hold a certain prominence in my life that was utterly sexist prompted me to express that fact. The post was filled with angry responses and insults, so I decided to take a less-harsh path and simply state my point of view. I attempted to post with no triggers and little emotion, just a factual understanding of the point of view so many of us tried to express: that the wording of the post is sexist by calling out women when it’s very easy to prove that the issue mentioned expands throughout the sexes. Here is the exchange I ended up having:
Don't worry, he made sure to comment back and give me permission not to answer him again. And in his defense, he was much kinder to me than he was to other women speaking out on the post.
“Look how you’ve made this explode because of your raging feelings. Look what you’ve done,” says a man who has chosen to post upwards of 20 times on a post that already held nearly 220 comments. Yet, take the men speaking in degrading words out of the equation. It is my fault for contributing in an even tone, simply expressing that the views stated, and even more so, the follow up defenses, can be taken as discriminatory.
So, I owe this Facebook post a lot. It’s the reason I’m posting the below piece of writing I’ve been thinking about for some time. It’s the reason I’m a feminist, and it proves that my experiences with sexism are valid. My point of the below piece goes hand in hand with the ideals listed above: that for some reason, men in power or men who hold a certain ego, believe they determine the worth of a woman. It's the reason our birth control is up for discussion. It's why some men call out your appearance on the street. It isn't all men, and this fight isn't about ripping anyone down. It's about educating those who hold hurtful words and engage in harassment of any kind. It's about being respected as equal beings, those who hold their own value and self-identifiable worth.
Interestingly enough, the people involved in this online incident were also a triggering point in posting my original anxiety piece. I guess what goes around comes around, not always how you'd expect it.
Sometimes it takes a push to speak out. That can be something as large as a media storm surrounding an industry executive, or something as small as an insignificant voice trying to mock your right to an opinion. So in the name of speaking louder, here it is.
What does it mean to be a woman?
That question has multiple answers, depending on who you ask. The world will tell you being a woman is being soft, delicate, impressionable. It's keeping your mouth shut and your opinions quiet. You may be tough, but you may not show it. You may be strong, but there is always someone better to lift the heavy things and do the grimy work. Being a woman is having a knife at your throat and three at your back. There is no good option, no safe way.
The internet is trying to tell me I am a slut, and my government is following.
I took my first birth control pill when I was 12 years old. As a Catholic School student I was told not to tell a soul, because birth control is the devil and 12 year olds shouldn’t be having sex. But I wasn’t.
Lying in a full-size bed on the edge of Lake Michigan, in a laundry room with broken machines, I felt the pain for the first time and asked my mom to call an ambulance. It was the kind of pain that makes you thrash, when settling your body only amplifies it. Side to side I threw my legs, grasping my pelvis while loud tears ran down my cheeks. Side to side and pulse and pulse to the tune of the broken washer that wouldn’t let up. I screamed, louder than I’ve ever had to, eventually into a pillow so the neighbors wouldn’t hear. My mom held my hand until I had to thrash away and deal with the pain alone.
They thought I wouldn’t graduate eighth grade due to the amount of school I missed. My friends thought I played hooky. I think sometimes I let them believe it. Because my secret was my secret, a silence I carried alone, something no one would understand.
But my government tells me this is wrong: there should be no help for this. If what I’m using to mute my pain can also prevent babies from growing inside me? It’s sacrilegious. The term “endometriosis,” no matter how big, scientific, technical, is only an accessory to preborn-murder.
So the internet calls my kind of women whores. They say they won’t pay for our need to take our clothes off, to jump on the first man we see. They say there’s no other use, that we make it all up to support our promiscuity. But to the women like me: these accusers will never know the pain we’ve felt. The stabbing so hard it makes you puke. The ripples of pain that make us lose consciousness. The inability to stand, the weak muscles. The sadness. I don’t know how to show it to them. Do you?
The internet calls me a liar. They say my pain is fabricated, they say my stories are too. They say the men in the world must be kind, considerate, loving, toward me. They say I’m overreacting when I complain.
Standing on a crowded New York subway in morning rush hour, my anxiety begins to grow. Reader, if you know me, you know I don’t like it here. I’m underground. I’m alone. I’m sleepy and hungry and if this train stops, you better believe the first thing I do is grab my Xanax. I cannot be stuck here. I cannot be… I feel a hand grab between my legs, under my winter coat. I feel a body press against my back, closer than he should be even in a rush hour car. I like to think I’d be aggressive in a situation like this, that I’d throw a punch. I did once at a house party in a similar situation. But here, in this rush-hour commute, I am being violated and I do nothing.
A man across the train gives me an arched eyebrow as if to say “I saw that. We can do that, too.”
A woman in the car knows what’s happening. We make eye contact. She moves over. I cross the train and stand by her. No words are said. But she knows, and I know she’s been there too.
When the train doors open, I am running. I am trying to push through the crowd of people. The man who grabbed me is running too. He is keeping up. I need to lose him. I run through Times Square on an empty Monday morning. It's picturesque: can't you see this in a movie? I try the door for a gift shop, but it’s closed. Before nine, the streets are quiet. The man keeps pace, but drops to a walk when I do. As I enter my building he hangs back, but waits outside. I tell the building’s security. They lead me to a place out of sight of the windows and say they will take care of it.
And I never spoke a word about it until a therapy session a year later when the memory came flooding out with tears. I never spoke up because what was the worst that had happened? I wasn’t in danger, it wasn’t worth setting off an alarm. If anything, I would have been seen as dramatic. The above piece of writing is wordy. I’m sure it comes off as thick and long and overemphasized. But who is a stranger to tell me my experience is invalid if it is not their own? Who is the man that calls me emotional to tell me he would not feel the same? I’m not PMSing, I’m not inherently angry, I’ve been groped and touched and betrayed by a stranger who doesn't even know my name. And he's getting off to the fact of my fear, the fact that even for a moment, what is mine belonged to him.
The internet tells me I am lucky. I am beautiful enough to have this attention, why do I want more by speaking about my encounters? The internet will tell me I am easy, I’m a tease, that I’ve been asking for it. Not in my clothes? Then my body language. The internet will tell me no man has ever made an advance on a woman who didn’t want it. But I didn't want it.
As I get ready for work, I grow nervous. What day of the week is it? Will he be there? A man as old as my father knows where I work. He’s asked for my phone number. My boss has stepped in. He hasn’t come around for awhile, but sometimes I see him outside the store, walking by and glaring in. He slows down a little. I duck behind the counter. I don’t know how to shake the advances, so I run from them, afraid if I stand my ground I’ll make him violent. It’s a timeless tale: never speaking up for fear of making things worse.
And there are books of stories I'll never tell. Tales of kissing a crush, and him turning on me. Tales of verbal abuse and lost confidence. But it becomes redundant. How long can an essay be about men mistreating a pretty young woman? Long. It can be very long.
The generations above us say that it's getting better. That women are close to equal, that we are respected. But I haven’t seen it. In the past weeks I have seen an uprising growing. I have seen women speaking out against powerful men. I have seen them telling their stories and supporting each other on Twitter and Facebook and every site that will allow them to speak up.
But how are we making progress if the moment I speak my mind I am told I am “whiney” or “emotional” or that my “raging feelings” have created an unnecessary commotion? Why is it always me who is the problem? Me. Because I am the woman? Maybe that parka I was wearing on the subway was just too sexy. Maybe my cramps aren’t that bad, I just really like to complain. The attention. I thrive on it. I just want attention!!!
Whatever the excuse is, if it comes from the mouth of a man in power, it is viable. And it’s infuriating. To the men who are on my side, who do not call me less because of my hormones and my gender, I thank you. Your kindness and voice is what will make a difference when the same mouths harp loops of degrading lines. You are the men I'd like to know. You are the men I am glad to know.
There are battles I can not speak on, but I can fight for. I do not know what it is like to be a woman of color. I do not know what it’s like to be refused schooling. I do not know what it is like to learn to read in secret. I don’t know what an actual, literal, war on women is. I have not been sold into sex-trafficking. I was not married as a child. These things have never harmed me, but these stories must be told. They need an audience. Equal pay is important. But so are the rights of women around the world who don’t have the voices or platforms to speak up.
For them, for all of us, I will not be silenced. Not by the larger voices who call this a non-issue. Not by immaturity on social media sites. I will speak and tell my stories so that they may add a small step toward change and universal acceptance of my gender’s reputation as equal citizens. I will speak out when the amount of a woman's worth is determined by an insignificant voice.
To my fellow women, and the men who hold our hopes, the time is now to speak up. It’s not easy. But using your voice to reach your own, unique audience is crucial in spreading the word and starting the fight.
The best way to start is by demanding equality. I don’t mean pay: I mean respect. I mean a world where we don’t have to be afraid walking past a man on the street. A world where we don’t have to look down when cat callers approach, where we don’t have to watch our drinks at parties. A world where women can be whatever they want, and do whatever they want, without being criticized for falling short of standards created by unrelated beings. By demanding and receiving equal respect on a national level, we will gain the power to help others in worse situations. We can reach a world where every woman and girl has a right to education and a right to her body. What’s important is that we don’t forget who we are fighting for: every woman in every wrong situation. Not just ourselves.