How Evangelical Theology Supports a Culture of Sexual Abuse

Most people scoffed when Bill Clinton famously proclaimed that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” when his relationship with Monica Lewinsky became public. Now, evangelist Franklin Graham is asserting that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh actually showed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford respect by not “finishing” what she alleges was an attempted rape in high school that left her traumatized for decades.

White evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump and his nominee, both of whom have faced multiple allegations of sexual assault. While we might expect that a religious tradition that calls for moral clarity and sexual purity would resoundingly criticize sexual harassment and assault, instead certain aspects of evangelical belief actually perpetuate the culture of abuse that justify and apologize for such crimes.

(Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

Within a certain framework familiar to evangelicals, these responses make sense. For many in the faith, only intercourse is actually considered sex—which means that oral sex is not sex, grinding a pelvis against a women’s body is not sex and holding a girl down with your hand on her mouth is not sex. While these actions exist in a morally gray area of evangelical thinking about sin, they are not the Big Sin, outside of heterosexual marriage, of “real” sex—intercourse.

Evangelical notions of salvation and forgiveness also weigh heavily in perpetuating a culture of abuse. In evangelical thinking, one needs only ask God for forgiveness to be forgiven—and while one should be genuinely sorry and have intentions never to commit a sin again, salvation and forgiveness do not require any kind of apology or reparation to wronged persons.

In other words, God will forgive even if the perpetrator never makes anything right with the victim. In that case, evangelicals can easily accept that, even if Brett Kavanaugh committed acts of sexual assault as a young man, if he asked God for forgiveness, all is forgiven—and there’s no need for further action.

This kind of theological forgiveness means perpetrators can move on without any accountability or concern for the people victimized by their actions. That, according to many of Kavanaugh’s defenders, he is a good man who has lived an upstanding life since such high school misdeeds is evidence enough that he is forgiven and has no need to account for, much less atone for, what he did—despite its ongoing effects on the life of Blasey Ford, and the survivors who have now joined her in alleging him of assault and even rape. The perfect example of this theology of forgiveness shows up in mega-church pastor Andy Savage’s apology to his parish after an incident of his own sexual misconduct became public earlier this year.

Twenty years ago, Savage drove a high school student home from church; along the way, he stopped and pressured her to perform oral sex. When she reported the incident, the pastor of the church allowed Savage to resign his youth minister position without public accountability—and so, Savage moved on in his career with no real consequences. The incident only became public when his victim, motivated by Matt Lauer’s removal from NBC, emailed him to ask if he remembered what he did. When Savage didn’t respond, the woman went public. When Savage addressed the issue on a Sunday morning in front of his church, her offered an apology to his victim and to the church, and the congregation stood and applauded him. 

In evangelical culture, women are also often pressured to forgive their abusers, furthering a cycle in which accountability evades men like Savage. Once someone has repented and been forgiven by God, no one should continue to hold something against him—and, in fact, the woman may herself be sinning by refusing to forgive.

Forgiveness, of course, means there’s no need for any kind of restitution, which helps explain why most of the concern we hear surrounding Brett Kavanaugh and other men accused of abuse and assault is about them—the damage to their careers, the tarnishing of their reputations, the stress they must be feeling. Where is evangelical concern for the years of suffering experienced by these women—the effects of abuse on their lives and the damage to their careers, reputations, families and psyches?

Those things are unimportant, because what happened is in the past and should be covered by forgiveness. Men should be able to move on as if nothing happened. Women should get over it. All is forgiven, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

Evangelical belief in women’s submission also reinforces a secondary status that gives men much greater authority and credibility than their accusers when they allege harassment, abuse and assault. When beloved women’s evangelical leader Beth Moore, who herself believes in women’s submission, dared to challenge evangelical sexism and support for Trump in light of his mistreatment of women, evangelicals turned on her. Complementarians claim to believe in women’s equal worth with men, but maintain that God has ordained gender roles that involve women’s submission—yet, when Southern Baptists passed a resolution opposing women in ordained ministry, part of their reasoning was that Eve was “first in the Edenic fall,” thereby sentencing all women to subordination because of her sin, her unreliability and her sexuality.

Evangelical leader Paige Patterson once told the story of a woman he sent back home to her abuser who, after she showed up at church battered and bruised, asked Patterson if he was happy now. He saw her husband was also at church, for the first time, and so he said he was happy—because now her husband had come to the community. A female evangelical leader once told me that she had counseled an abused woman to go back to her abuser, commenting that if he killed her, which she admitted would be sad, it would be okay—because this woman would go to heaven, and her faithful witness might convince her husband to be saved.

In evangelical thinking, the only thing that really matters is if someone is “saved.” Everything else can be sacrificed to this end—including and especially women.

This salvation comes with only saying the magic formula. It goes something like this: “I know I have sinned against God. I am truly sorry. I repent of my sinfulness and ask Your forgiveness. I believe that Jesus died for my sins and was resurrected from the dead. I ask Jesus to come into my heart as my Lord and Savior. Amen.” And then: Presto! Salvation. No accountability for past wrongs. No demand to make things right. No need for reparations. From there on out, over and over again, simply praying for forgiveness will take care of any sins one has committed, and the sinner will never actually have to deal with the consequences.

Of course, not all accountability is ordained. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, evangelical men who have harassed and assaulted women have lost positions of prominence: Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, resigned despite having denied allegations of years of sexual harassment and misconduct; Paige Patterson, though now making an offensive return to the pulpit, was fired as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when trustees learned that he had twice prevented women students from reporting sexual assault to the police, including telling a campus security guard to leave him alone with one student so he could “break her down” so she wouldn’t report.

Those who have not been part of the evangelical subculture often seem utterly confused by evangelical responses to sexual abuse and assault. But within particular evangelical frameworks, the ability to look past sexual aggression toward women makes perfectly good sense. A theology that subordinates women and embraces forgiveness without restitution or atonement fuels congregations eager to absolve abuse in order to uphold it.

Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.

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Rape Culture from Steubenville to the Supreme Court

All photos are from the documentary Roll Red Roll, which explores the Steubenville rape case and the activism surrounding it.

In 2012, a rape case rattled the small town of Steubenville, Ohio—and forced the entire country to confront our culture of violence against women. As the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh move forward in the wake of mounting sexual assault allegations against him, we want to connect the dots between what we learned then—and what it compels us to do differently now.

In Bethesda, Maryland, a stumbling drunk 17-year-old football player and his friend are said to have pushed a 15-year-old girl into a bedroom. The football player allegedly pinned her down to the bed and groped her while grinding his body into hers. She remembers that he tried to forcibly remove her clothes and her bathing suit. She remembers that she was screaming, so he put his hand over her mouth to muffle her; she says she was afraid he might suffocate her. His friend allegedly stood by, laughing maniacally and sometimes egging him on. When the friend jumped on top to join in, he knocked over the football player—and that’s when she says she escaped.

In Steubenville, Ohio, two 16 year old football players were drinking at a party at a friends house. They dragged and carried a 15 year old girl out of the party and drove her to another friends house.  On the way, they took off her shirt and fondled her. When they arrived at the house, they took off her clothes, fondled and raped her. There were eyewitnesses in the room. She was passed out the whole time.

Long-time friends of the football player who the girl says were at the party “have no memory of the alleged incident.” Her account is “absolutely nuts.” They note that he’s “a great friend” and they “have never witnessed any improper conduct by [him] towards women.”

Fellow football players relate: “I’ve been in that type of situation, and 9 times out of 10 the woman engaged in it.” “She has to take responsibility for going to those parties.” “These are good kids, they’re good football players.”

Community leaders remark that “he is an outstanding man.” She must be “messed-up,” and her coming forward “reeks of opportunism.” This is a “con job,” says the most powerful man in the country. In her community, others dismiss it all as “horseplay;” in their eyes, it was just “a couple of teenagers playing seven minutes in heaven.”

In town, people say that “it’s easier to tell your parents ‘you were raped’ then to admit you got drunk and let some guys have their way with you.” And besides, “I’ve heard unflattering things about this girl.”  Community leaders say “it was just a party that got out of hand.”

Dozens of tweets and social media posts from the boys in Steubenville told a different story, as did the many witnesses once they were asked to testify under oath. After a thorough investigation, a sickening reality emerged.

Now, it’s once again time for an investigation into the actions of high school boys—and a thorough examination of the ways in which our own culture silences survivors, justifies rape and normalizes violence. Brett Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, who is implicated in allegations against the Supreme Court nominee, should testify under oath. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick and any other survivors who come forward should be given the chance to be heard—and believed.

This is not a new story, but it’s one that should never have to be written and told again. If our leaders do the right thing now, 17-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls might just have a chance at living out a different narrative in the years to come.

Anurima Bhargava headed the educational opportunities section of the civil rights division at the Justice Department.

Nancy Schwartzman is the Director of the award-winning documentary Roll Red Roll about the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The film will be released widely in 2019.

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The Supreme Court, Sexual Assault and Seeing Red

With every passing day—with each sordid detail that comes to light about Brett Kavanaugh’s school years, with every aggressive and hypocritical word that passes across the lips of Senator Mitch “plow through these hearings” McConnell, with every victim-blaming tweet from the pussy-grabbing POTUS himself—my fury swells.

I am just a few years younger than Brett Kavanaugh. Some teenage counterpart of our nation’s current Supreme Court nominee strutted the leafy suburbs and ivy-covered campuses of the 1980s America in which I came of age. At the time, I wasn’t even fully aware of the sexism that surrounded me: Hell, I just had the misfortune of an in-flight viewing of the John Hughes classic Sixteen Candles—thanks, United—and was reminded that Jake Ryan, heartthrob to the ever-angsty Molly Ringwald role, was among the rapey-est of privileged white boys. But as a law student in the early 1990s, I watched with horror as Anita Hill’s testimony disintegrated into a circus of misogyny. I was surely not alone in translating that spectacle into my own career trajectory—a vow to use the law to crusade for women, challenge the systems, and course correct our society’s broken promise of equality

Fast forward to the here and now. 27 years later, multiple women have publicly come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault—and once again, our nation is reeling, and too many of our leaders are failing to take women seriously or treat them with respect.

Activists protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination have been assembling in front of the Supreme Court. (Lorie Shaull / Creative Commons)

Despite the grotesque politics of the last two years, I’ve found inspiration, even hope for progress, unlike any I’ve experienced in recent decades. A renewed camaraderie and sisterhood; activism and advocacy across diverse communities; millions who’ve taken to the streets for an intentional, intersectional feminism; swift power and impact from #MeToo and TIME’S UP across Hollywood—all of this has truly punctuated my work, deepened my resolve, revived my spirit.

But for the past two weeks, all I can see is red.

The Kavanaugh hearings are laying bare the ugliest of twin truths: the naked distrust and disgust in which women are regarded by men in power, and the willingness to believe, vouch for and dig hard for any rationale to excuse those same white, wealthy, privileged men from any shred of accountability. (She was drunk? Poor judgment! Slutty too! He was drunk? He knew not what he did. He was… a virgin? Good boy. Case closed.)

Honestly, it’s enough to make this 50-year-old lawyer-parent-feminist shove back hard at the men-who-stand-too-close on the subway and tell me to smile.

My anger won’t be swayed by partisan preference, either. Republicans who abuse women while touting family values are just as hypocritical as Democrats who abuse women while claiming the cloak of feminism.

Through all the rage, though, is a fresh recognition. The problem isn’t just the players and perpetrators—it’s our very systems of democracy and justice, which is compromised to the core. Sady Doyle wrote in a scorching essay last week for ELLE that violence against women is the ultimate structural assault, “built into our assumptions and our institutions, inflicted from the top down.” Worse, she called it “the intended outcome within a culture that is built to empower men at women’s expense.”

The intended outcome. In the midst of all this, that notion—so cutting in its stark reality—is resonant and enraging.

Those who exert political power—from Hollywood to the White House to the U.S. Supreme Court—also dictate the rules for those who are to be heard or believed. In a culture where men like Trump and Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves, Bill O’Reilly and Bill Shine, hold that power, women are forever stuck having to play by rules that we didn’t create—rules that are designed not to serve us, but to ensure that the power structures remain intact, and nearly always at our expense.

“Boys will be boys,” long regarded as an outdated model for excusing male violence, has become our national creed. Whether voiced to excuse the abuse of teenage girls at a party or the abuse of a woman taking the stand to testify, it is playing out now on the national stage in a most nightmarish of ways. And the path to Kavanaugh’s confirmation is only the beginning. If he is granted a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, he will shape our futures. He will determine our rights, our bodily autonomy, our dignity. He will hold the trajectory of our lives in his hands.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in the story she has so courageously told to the entire world, described how Brett Kavanaugh attempted to use his hands to debase her body and cover her mouth—but she, like so many survivors, refused to falter. Blasey Ford went on to reclaim her narrative, tell her story and shatter silence.

We must be clear: Come what may for the Court, our rage won’t let us forget this moment or those which have come before it. We will not go back. We will not stay quiet. And we will never stop demanding accountability or reimagining democratic systems that work for us all.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is an attorney and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.

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Some Teen Girls Never Tell

You may have noticed that teen girls are not contributing their #MeToo stories nearly as much as older women are. That’s because they’re afraid.

It’s because we live in a culture that does not respect girls and women, a culture where men that decide the laws that govern our bodies—and, according to the National Sexual Resource Center, perpetrate 96 percent of sexual assaults.

The bulk of the barrage of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport stories we’ve been seeing have come from women in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—many of whom are disclosing sexual assaults that happened decades ago. Their stories provide clear proof of the reasons that survivors still don’t feel they have a voice for what happens to them, even years after they are sexually abused.

That doesn’t mean they don’t carry enormous scars.

Teen girls are sexually assaulted, abused, harassed and intimidated at staggering rates. I’ve heard from thousands of women who have held their secrets for years in my line of work.
Adolescent survivors of sexual abuse often feel tremendous guilt and shame: They feel it was somehow their fault, and they begin to distrust their feelings. Although they intuitively know they are strong, our misogynist culture exerts such a force over everything that they retreat—they go inward, become afraid, push down the feelings and try to forget.

Teen girls who report face the same kinds of questions and comments as women like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who have come forward about being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when they were in high school and college. They’re asked what they were wearing and why they brought it on themselves and why they drank and why they flirt. They’re told that boys will be boys and that they’re making too big a deal out of it and that it was harmless.

The list of girl-blaming and girl-shaming assumptions goes on and on. Teen girls are caught in a culture that blames survivors. They are told that they brought their assaults on themselves, or that they deserved them. It should not need to be said in 2018, but sexual abuse, assault and misconduct are never the fault of the survivor. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, know this. It was not your fault.

Blasey Ford is a woman whose conscience will not allow her to keep still. Decades later, she still remembers what she wore, how she felt, where she was—if not the precise address, at least the room, the boys, the surroundings. She remembers feeling like she could have died. She remembers Kavanaugh’s hand over her mouth. The trauma stayed with her enough to bring her into therapy, to confide it to her husband, to tell her friends—to be willing to come forward and tell us all so that she might help prevent a sexual predator from ending up with a lifetime appointment to our highest Court, presiding over cases that will affect the lives of women and girls for years to come.

I have spent more than three decades as a psychologist working with adolescent girls of every race, class and circumstance who have survived sexual abuse and assault. I help them to find their voices so they do not let the abuse dig deep into their psyches. I have received many phone calls and emails in the past week from teen girls and women who are triggered by Blasey Ford’s retelling of that night in high school. They tell me they are scared for her. They remember their high school and college almost-rapes.

Many women and girls haven’t spoken up yet, even in the midst of the #MeToo movement—but if we’re honest, nearly every single woman has experienced sexual harassment, assault or abuse. Every day in my practice, I bear witness to their ongoing traumas: the persistent physical discomfort, the continuing fear of enclosed spaces, the newfound fear of intimacy, the disruptive nightmares and migraine headaches.

We can help teen girls and young women facing trauma by showing them support, and by letting them know that they do not have to hold on to shame, self doubt and self-blame for decades.

We do that when we stand with survivors.We do that when we stand with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and the women like them carrying trauma. We do that when we let them know that we believe them.

Survivors of sexual trauma need our voices now. Think of your daughters, your nieces, your neighbors. Think of yourself and speak out until your lungs ache. Say it once or twice or over and over again: We believe you, Christine. We believe you, Deborah. We respect you, we thank you, we honor you. Thank you for bringing more light and hope to the millions of girls and women who have been hiding in the darkness for far too long.

Dr. Patti Feuereisen is the author of Invisible Girls: The Truth About Sexual Abuse, which will be re-released in December 2018. She is also the founder and director of Girlthrive Inc., a non-profit awarding teen girls and young women with thriverships, and a private practice psychologist in New York.

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Brett Kavanaugh and the Creation of the Rapist

I think feminism made Kavanaugh a rapist. I don’t mean to say that he didn’t commit vile and violating acts, or that he wouldn’t have been doing so by his own decision. It’s just that those acts, back then, were not yet attached to the species we now find so familiar—the rapist, the sexual harasser, the man who makes #MeToo possible.

Activists hold up police tape in front of the Supreme Court building. (takomabibelot / Creative Commons)

Michel Foucault taught us long ago that one is not born a sexual species, that instead one becomes one through a variety of discursive practices—expert knowledge, activist movements, laws and culture. That is why the homosexual did not exist until the 1800’s; even though bodies with similar naughty bits got together for pleasure long before then, they were not considered a particular sexual species, not yet. When, in Ancient Greece, men were the insertive partners with male citizen youth, they were not gay, nor were they straight; when Sambian boys fellate Sambian men in order to ingest their manhood and become men themselves, it is not, at least within their cultural context, pedophilia.

Acts of sexual violence and sexual assault seem to have been around since the beginning of recorded history—but those acts did not necessarily produce the rapist, despite producing misery for the women who were raped. But the current #MeToo movement—not to mention 50 years of feminist theorizing, legal intervention and activism around sexual violence—has resulted now in new sorts of sexual species. We have finally named the rapist, the workplace harasser, the serial jerk who ignores consent.

That leaves us with a few questions which we can never fully answer, such as: Why me?

I was 16, maybe 17. He was 18. I remember the party. I remember he tackled me onto the ground. I remember he was a high school wrestler. I remember I couldn’t get out from underneath him. I remember everyone laughing. I remember not having words like “attempted rape” for such behavior, because it was “funny,” and also this was someone I knew, someone I had dated in an earlier grade, someone who called me a “bitch dyke” when I finally did get out from underneath him by punching him in the throat.

I can still feel the shame and embarrassment of being almost raped in front of everyone I knew. I can still feel the anger at my girlfriends for doing nothing. But it never occurred to me that what he did was illegal or even outside the norms of typical high school jock behavior. Because it wasn’t.

Which leads to the next few questions: Is being a straight man the same as being a rapist? Does being a straight man demand you “overcome” the protests of women and girls, using violence if necessary? When people say “boys will be boys,” are they really telling us that violence is central to straightness? Not an aberration, but a norm?

White femininity demands sexual innocence, making it nearly impossible to say “yes” without being a whore; black womanhood is denied the possibility of innocence, making it impossible to say no. Angela Davis has already explained that rape laws were written for the “protection of men of the upper classes, whose daughters and wives might be assaulted.” All women—of all races and ethnicities, across sexualities and gender identities—know that sexual violence is a very real possibility.

If, in fact, violence is central to the way in which normative heterosexual males express their desires; if, in fact, it is not unusual or deviant in any way, but rather, universal and “normal”—then we absolutely must stop discussing this or that man as the problem and look more deeply at how all men must take responsibility for the rape culture they both create and perpetuate, even if primarily through their silence or lack of intervention. There can be no good guys in this scenario, because all guys are implicated—if not through their own violence, if only through their silence.

This is not the time to hear Mitch McConnell’s “concerns,” or even Chuck Schumer’s. To quote Senator Mazie Hirono: “I just want to say to the men of this country, just shut up.”

The last question is the one I hate asking the most, because I do not believe Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land—but I am forced to ask it anyway, precisely because I suspect the answer is no.

Was my attacker a rapist? If, in 1983, a man jumped on a classmate at a party and tried to have sex with her in front of everyone; if, in 1983, everyone was laughing, and no one in the room, not even the young girl struggling underneath him, thought it was rape—is it? I’m trying to figure this one out, to let the unsettling idea that these acts, though vile and disgusting, might signify differently in different times and cultures.

No sexual act has meaning outside of culture. There is no straightness before the invention of the homosexual. There is no white femininity before the invention of Black womanhood. There is no rapist before the invention of a fully human woman, one who should have control over her own body. These things are opposite sides of the same coin; dependent on one another to make sense.

The notion of any woman as fully human is the yet unfinished project of feminism—and, much like the homosexual in 1883, the rapist in 1983 was blurrier, less clear to the observer, less stable as a knowable entity. He was not a rapist then, but I know he is a rapist now.

That is how sexual species get born. That is how women become fully human.

I’ve googled my attacker. I think he died this summer; he had kids and grandkids already. He wasn’t a judge or anyone important, just another guy in a sea of guys who express their desires in violent and violating ways. There’s no point naming him; he was Joe Average. Kavanaugh, however, could potentially control women’s bodies for a long time, so it’s important that we be able to name him for what he is now, to name what he did then and take it as seriously as our culture couldn’t before.

Even if Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez didn’t know it in 1983, rape is what it means to try and have sex with someone, and sexual assault is what it is when you push your genitals in someone’s face without their consent. Even if nobody told them then, we must be here to remind them now.

We must be here to believe them. We must be here to echo them when they name their experiences.

Laurie Essig is a professor of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies at Middlebury College and the author of Love, Inc., Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding and Chasing the Happily Never After.

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The Transformative Power of Women’s Anger

In Rage Becomes Hera must-read new book that is perfect for our times, Soraya Chemaly—writer, activist and director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project—explores why all of us, women and men alike, are so uncomfortable with women expressing their anger.

Protestors at the 2017 Women’s March in London. (Caroline Gunston / Creative Commons)

We see it every week in the headlines: A woman expresses rage and she gets called hysterical, crazy, unhinged, nasty or a poor leader. (Meanwhile, when a man is angry, he’s more likely to actually gain influence and be rewarded. Some angry men even get elected president.)

In her introduction, Chemaly reflects on this dichotomy, explaining who is allowed to be angry and who isn’t:

In some cultures, anger is a way to vent frustration, but in others it is more for exerting authority. In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men, as criminality; and in black women, as threat. In the Western world, which this book focuses on, anger in women has been widely associated with “madness.”

Reading Chemaly’s book is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have spent years, even lifetimes, suppressing our rage in order to make the right impression. She unpacks scientific studies, conducts in-depth interviews and shares her own personal experiences to analyze why society views angry women as dangerous—and goes further to explain why all this anger suppression is bad for women, and for society at-large.

Ms. digital editor Carmen Rios will be interviewing Soraya Chemaly next week about Rage Becomes Her and the power of women’s anger. Follow Ms. on Facebook to tune in to the conversation LIVE!

Chemaly also argues that women’s anger is one of the most powerful tools for creating lasting change, positing that anger about inequalities that exist in the world can be transformative, and that when rightful anger, expressed collectively, is channeled into action—as we’ve seen with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and with the VDAY movement to end violence against women—it is a disruptive force.

“It is not just a coincidence that we are at an uncomfortable strategic inflection point for the rights of girls and women just as we face grave threats to democratic values and the health of the planet,” Chemaly writes. “One cannot be separated from the other. This is an era of angry women and women willing to make noise.”

I know this from my own life. I was brought up to be a “good girl.” In the South—and likely elsewhere!—that meant smiling frequently, never raising your voice and never complaining. Polite and politic and quiet.

I’ll share a cautionary tale about suppressed anger from a former “good girl.” I was teaching freshman and sophomore English at the University of Georgia while working on my doctorate. At the end of the first year while preparing for my salary review, I talked to a colleague who had the exact same schedule of teaching as I did and the exact same level of education and experience.

He told me his salary. It was a lot higher than mine. Armed with this information, I went into my meeting with head of the English department and—very nicely, in a polite and measured (politic) tone—asked for a raise, the amount of which would make my salary equal to that of my colleague.

He smiled, noting that while I had positive reviews from students and colleagues, my request for a raise wasn’t possible. Again, politely, I wondered: why, if my reviews were good and my credentials the same, was my male colleague was paid more? With another condescending smile, he responded: “He has a family to support.”

I remember feeling anger welling up, but instead of demanding fair and equal pay for equal work in a non-polite voice, I smiled through slightly clenched teeth and reminded the dean that I, too, had a family to support: a two-year-old child and a husband still in school.

He sympathized with my burden but held firm: the budget was set, no raise.

Had I been in touch with my anger and been able to express it constructively, firmly demanding fair treatment, I might have walked out with the raise I deserved—or, at the very least, the ruckus my anger would have created might have led to a review of the wage gap then, instead of much later.

There were other instances in those first years where I continued to follow the “good girl” strategy, but when the same differential in pay came up in my second teaching position, I let my anger and indignation show. Without a smile, I suggested that perhaps an organized protest among the other women facing similar wage gaps might be more effective than negotiation.

That time, I got the raise I asked for—and I learned an important lesson that righteous anger rightfully expressed can lead to positive outcomes.

I encourage you to read Chemaly’s informative and inspiring book—a game-changer for these game-changing times which offers women ways to let go of all that childhood and early adult learning that expressions of anger are unladylike and dangerous.

Yes, anger can be dangerous—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When righteous anger is expressed and acted upon, we can become rightfully dangerous for ourselves and for others.

“This is the real danger of our anger: it makes it clear that we take ourselves seriously,”Chemaly writes. “This is true in our homes and in our public lives. By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood,’ we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.”

So let’s be angry and dangerous—and change the world.

Originally published on Pat Mitchell’s blog. Republished with author permission.

Pat Mitchell is known for her leadership in the media industry as a CEO, producer and curator. She partners with the TED organization to co-curate and host an annual global TEDWomen conference and is the chair of theWomen’s Media Center and Sundance Institute boards, a founding board member of V-Day, a member of the board of the Acumen Fund and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The first woman president and CEO of PBS, she most recently served as president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media; she is now a senior adviser to the organization. She is also the former president of CNN Productions, where she executive produced hundreds of hours of documentaries and specials, which received 35 Emmy Awards and five Peabody Awards. She was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 2009.

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#DearProfessorFord: We Heart the Hashtag Offering Christine Blasey Ford Solidarity, Support and Sisterhood

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who late last week publicly claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at 15, originally wanted to remain anonymous. In July, when Kavanaugh’s name was noted as being on Trump’s nominee short list, she reached out to The Washington Post tip line; later that month, she told Senator Dianne Feinstein her story—through a letter which made explicit her request to protect her privacy.

Now that Blasey Ford has courageously come forward—demanding an FBI investigation into her allegation and a delay on any vote until the investigation is complete and she has had a chance to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee—she has found herself in the spotlight, and she has become the target of an onslaught of harassment, threats and insults.

In the midst of this mayhem, celebrities and feminist figureheads came together to send Blasey Ford a message of solidarity and support. In a viral video released today by Paola Mendoza, artistic director of the historic 2017 Women’s March, celebrities like Eva Longoria, Julianne Moore, America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn and Gabrielle Union; feminist writers and editors like Cindi Leivi and Tavi Gevinson; movement leaders like Ai-jen Poo, Monica Ramirez, Andrea Pino and Jamia Wilson; and many others thank Blasey Ford for coming forward and declare themselves “her sisters.”

“We know how difficult it is to stand up to powerful people. We want to thank you for publicly sharing your story of sexual violence,” the women tell Blasey Ford. “The behavior you described was wrong and runs directly counter to upholding the law and promoting justice.”

The women also note how unfair and difficult the circumstances were around Blasey Ford’s telling her story. “We applaud your courage in coming forward for the public good, and we will be with you as you face the inevitable backlash,” they assure her. “You are strong, and you are not alone. You are a survivor. Millions of us have your back.”

After Mendoza tweeted the video message from her account, the corresponding hashtag—#DearProfessorFord—became the top trending topic on Twitter. In a watershed moment, women from across the country began to send their own supportive messages to Blasey Ford.

Some thank her for her courage.

Others demanded that she be given the opportunity to seek justice that was denied to Anita Hill in 1991, who came forward with sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee (and now, sitting Justice) Clarence Thomas. Hill spoke out earlier this week to urge Senators to make time to listen to Blasey Ford and investigate the allegations she made.

Many women, however, used the tag to share their own experiences—once again illuminating, much like the initial #MeToo explosion, just how widespread and normalized sexual violence remains around the nation.

Mendoza’s star-studded video ends with one simple but uplifting message: “We believe you. Signed, your sisters.” As the night goes on, more and more women are signing on to that same letter of support.

Miranda Martin is a feminist writer and activist and an editorial intern at Ms. She has written for a variety of publications and been published by The Unedit and Project Consent. Miranda recently graduated from University of Wisconsin La Crosse with a major in Interpersonal Communications and a double minor in Creative Writing and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She loves to travel, read, exercise and daydream about the fall of the patriarchy.

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From Accusatory Questions to Accountability in the Fight Against Workplace Sexual Harassment and Abuse

When I was in my early thirties, a man raped me as I was walking to my car after a labor rally. I was by myself, and I was attacked at gunpoint. I later found out it was a toy gun. This only added to my shame.

I’d like to say that I have completely processed and healed from my assault. Much of the time, it feels like I have. I have a fulfilling job as an organizer for social justice. I care for my beautiful daughter, who just celebrated her first birthday, and I have a loving family that lives close by and supports us. Despite my trauma, I live my life with purpose, optimism and hope for a brighter future.

But simmering below the joy and success of my day-to-day life, in ways that still wake me up in the middle of the night, my assault lives with me every day. It’s hard to feel like justice has been served when there is seemingly no plan to address the culture that led my attacker to my car to terrorize me that night, and that results in one out of six women experiencing rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

For a long time, I haven’t known what to do with my lingering feelings nor how to channel them. Until now.

When the #MeToo movement captured the country’s attention and cast a spotlight on what had long been in the shadows—the rampant sexual assault and harassment that occurs in workplaces throughout the country—I knew that it was time for me to do something public about my personal attack.

I was disgusted by the whispered conversations and finger-wagging whenever someone spoke up. Those reactions underscore the power dynamics that feed this societal pattern of abuse, and they perpetuate a culture of harassment and assault.

I was tired of the same victim-blaming questions: Weren’t they flirting earlier? Did you see what she was wearing? Why didn’t she report it right away? He’s such a great guy—are you sure you didn’t misread the situation? Instead, I started thinking about the questions we should ask: What was the power dynamic in their relationship? Did she feel empowered and secure enough in her job to report her boss? Are there policies in place to make sure there is a fair process to address the issue?

While our whole culture needs to shift, one place to start is our workplaces—and not just by ousting individual abusers. Since the brave victims of Harvey Weinstein lit the flame that roared into the #MeToo inferno, no industry has been immune to the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault allegations making headlines every day.

Three-quarters of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported, likely because 25 percent of the women who suffer from them have identified their harassers as men with influence over their careers.

It’s time to force organizations and institutions to take a hard look at how their office cultures fuel, justify and even reward rampant sexual harassment and assault. It’s time to demand that they fully evaluate their practices and policies, both official and unofficial, that allow harassment to occur. It’s time to call out leading organizations across sectors and industries to disclose what they are doing—or not doing—to address this epidemic.

As employees and consumers, we deserve to know whether corporations require non-disclosure agreements or forced arbitration; whether they have clear reporting mechanisms; and the percentages of women, people of color and LGBTQ people in their leadership—as well as whether they are paid comparably to their white, male counterparts.

To truly dismantle our destructive culture, corporations must be part of the solution and join with survivors and advocates to address the structural and systemic causes of the abuses of power. I created the We Believe You Fund to both hold corporations to account and provide them with the tools and resources they need to address the systemic challenges that allow sexual harassment and assault to go unchecked. While I may never be completely free from the trauma forced on me by my rapist, I plan to do everything I can to ensure that my young daughter lives in a country where women are respected and safe.

I believe that everyone, regardless of where they work and what work they do, should be able to earn a living free from fear of sexual harassment, abuse and violence. It’s time for CEOs, C-suite executives, shareholders, trustees and the other powerful individuals who call the shots in every sector to stand up and say the same.

JoEllen Chernow is the founder of the We Believe You Fund, an organization identifying and eliminating the culture of harassment, assault and victim shaming that results in and maintains rape culture in workplaces. 

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The Ms. Q&A: Why Lingua Franca Founder Rachelle Hruska MacPherson Wants You to Buy a Resistance Sweater

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson is a vocal champion of women’s rights—and her latest venture weaves feminism into fashion.

After studying Psychology at Creighton University, MacPherson explored several fields before founding Guest of a Guest, a humorous online social diary that chronicles the nightlife and daily culture of high-society New Yorkers. Just two years after its genesis, in 2009, Guest of a Guest received 2 million views monthly—and MacPherson, born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, was named a global media icon.

That year, MacPherson also launched Lingua Franca, an ethical fashion label specializing in high-end cashmere sweaters that sport embroidered slogans, often custom-made to suit the expressions and opinions of their customers. Every Lingua Franca sweater is embroidered by hand at the brand’s New York City offices, and the company employs 50 embroiderers, each earning an hourly wage of $25.

Witty, light-hearted and often politically-charged, Lingua Franca sweaters took off in the wake of Trump’s election. In the years since, Hruska’s resistance sweaters—proclaiming “time’s up,” “power to the people” and even “I miss Barack”—became signature celebrity styles at Women’s Marches and beyond. (Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and Connie Britton are just a few outspoken supporters of the company; Ms. contributor and Periods Gone Public author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf has sported one emblazoned with the phrase “menstrual equity.”)

MacPherson talked to Ms. about mixing feminism with fashion, finding consumers who care and which sweater she’s been sporting these days.

What inspired you to launch Lingua Franca?

After the birth of my second son, I suffered from horrible postpartum anxiety and my therapist suggested I find something to do with my hands to help with it. My grandmother had taught me how to embroider as a young girl, and I thoughtlessly picked up an old sweater one cold winter afternoon and embroidered “booyah” across it. I posted the photo on Instagram and started getting requests from friends to do their old sweaters—and Lingua Franca was unwittingly born.

How would you describe Lingua Franca’s target demographic?

Consumers who care. 

How did you select embroidery and knitwear as a mode of political expression?

When we started, we were hand embroidering hip hop lyrics, which I felt were the “lingua franca” of our times, onto fine cashmere. I loved the juxtaposition between hip hop phrases with embroidery—a predominately “woman’s craft”—and fine cashmere. I loved the meaning behind our name, and absolutely adored the idea of a common language among people.

At the time, we had dozens of part time embroiders from diverse backgrounds working in our offices: immigrants, students and even a refugee sewing for us. The day after the election, you could feel the heaviness in the air. Everyone was quiet and serious. For the first time in my life, I truly felt like I was able to understand political dissonance. The lives of the people I knew and cared about, the women I saw daily, were hanging in the balance.

We started slowly putting resistance phrases on sweaters for fun. Then, Trump tried to pass his outrageous and carelessly planned travel ban, and people were huddled in tears in the office. I decided at that point it was time to go full on in speaking out against this administration.

We started sewing away and we haven’t stopped since.

Why did you choose Lingua Franca—defined as “a common language between speakers whose native languages are different”—as the name?

One of the words we use to define our company’s core message is “respect.” It’s such a powerful short word that packs a lot of meaning. I believe that for us, as humans, to live productively and thrive as a species, we need to respect our differences and find the things that are common denominators. As humans, we do share a common language—it’s written in our DNA and it’s independent of race, sex, nationality, religion or gender. I remember, years ago, seeing “All In The Timing”—a play by David Ives which riffs on the real life experiment of the “Esperanto” language—and being totally fascinated with the concept.

As a company, at our core, and hopefully without sounding too righteous or trite, we are trying to do things that speak to this truth: humans want to do good. We hope to put more good in the world than bad. This means producing less at higher qualities with greater care than has been industry standard. We want to make sure that everyone that has a hand in making our products is being paid a fair and livable wage for their work, and we want to help out fellow humans trying to do good. For every sweater we sell, we donate $100 to a charity of the purchaser’s choice.

How do you select the phrases you embroider? 

I’ve always said that culture is my religion, and coming up with sayings surrounding the zeitgeist has been such a creative outlet for me. Giving voice to issues that are important to me has been a real joy of mine.

What is your favorite design so far?

It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but right now I’ve been wearing “give a damn” almost daily.

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People of Alabama: please “give a damn” and do NOT elect Roy Moore into our Senate. Even if you are able to disregard the nine women accusing him of sexual assault (minors), he has: 1) taught a class discouraging women from running for office, 2) referred to people as “reds and “yellows”, 3) Accepted money from a neo-nazi group, 4) Said gay marriage was “worse than slavery,” 5) Wouldn’t rule out the death penalty for gays, 6) Wants to rescind free trade agreements, 7) Is anti-immigrant, 8) Believes 9/11 is God’s punishment for legalizing sodomy. WHAT MORE DO YOU NEED ALABAMA?! (America?) Please get out and vote for #dougjones. Please try to put political party affinity aside and stop this cycle of insanity in our country!!!!!

A post shared by Lingua Franca (@linguafrancanyc) on Dec 12, 2017 at 1:02pm PST

“Feminist fashion,” from tee shirts with explosive political slogans to gender-bending apparel, has exploded recently, especially among millennial consumers. How does Lingua Franca distinguish itself in an increasingly saturated market? What makes you different?

People are incredibly fired up right now and I think it’s a fascinating and wonderful thing.

For us, it’s not about selling massive amounts of sweaters. It’s about celebrating slow fashion, hand-stitched craftsmanship, and the ideas of the messaging. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. Also, since everything is made to order, we can pivot very quickly and comment on the circumstances in almost real time, something I think larger corporate companies would not be able to do.

It’s infuriating to hear about mass companies that are concerned about feminist values or human rights making their garments in sweatshops. It’s disgusting that our president is producing hundreds of thousands of items for his campaign in China while also running on a platform of bringing jobs back to the U.S.

We aren’t perfect, but we have high standards, and are okay with charging more for our sweaters in order to uphold these standards. We are learning so much about the fashion industry—and honestly, it has made me, personally, a much more concerned shopper. I think buying less items from smaller brands that make quality products and respect their work force and their planet is so much more fashionable than “fast-fashion” trend-shopping. I’ve cut out shopping from fast fashion places like Zara and H&M out of my personal routine, no matter WHAT their shirts say.

In 2018, Connie Britton wore a signature Lingua Franca “poverty is sexist” sweater to the Golden Globes. The $380.00 sweater became a topic of controversy—many felt the price point clashed with the message. 

I think that episode was the best example of what we are constantly trying to do here: start conversations. It’s okay that it upset people. It’s okay that people criticized us. What’s important is for us to listen, and for people to engage in thoughtful dialogue. I’m happy that Britton’s choice in wearing that one sweater—as opposed to, say, a $10,000 gown—on the red carpet made so many people aware of organizations that are providing for women in need.

In this case in particular, the outcome is so much greater than the cost of critics. Income inequality exists, and it’s ridiculous not to call attention to it. I was happy to have a small part in this overwhelming debate on how to deal with this giant problem that isn’t going away.


Do you foresee a shifting price point?

In our cashmere sweaters? No. I do not see a shift in our pricing, for all of the reasons stated before.

We care deeply about producing products that are ethically sourced and produced. We care about paying people fair wages. We simply cannot do what we do and make any less margins work. But also? We think our sweaters are worth the cost. We hope people consider spending four times more on our one sweater, that they have forever, than one of lesser quality that they toss in a couple of seasons.

Fashion is perceived as a “feminine” field, but the majority of the corporate industry is dominated by men. How did you break through—especially with such bold and, arguably, divisive political designs?

Well, first and foremost, we aren’t corporate. I think most of the thoughtful and interesting fashion companies I follow are run by women, and most of them do not have corporate headquarters.

I am very fortunate in that I don’t have investors or board members to answer to. This started as a folly project and has grown into something that has given me a real purpose in my life. I’m protective of this brand and the capital—both time and money—that has gone into it.

Ultimately, as a consumer, I respond to companies that I can feel have some soul to them. I hope that’s how people feel when they discover us.

What’s next for Lingua Franca?

In a perfect world, our company will grow into something much more. Our ethos is sharing “a common language” and “giving a damn,” and these will be the underlining themes of future products we release.

We are working on a totally new product line, outside of fashion, for a winter launch. Stay tuned!

Livia Caligor is a sophomore at Cornell University majoring in Fashion Design Management with a strong belief in fashion as a responsive art form that reflects and drives political, cultural and economic changes. She serves as VP of Alumni Relations for Cornell’s Fashion Industry Network, VP of Logistics and Events Planning for the Cornell Fashion Collective and undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection museum. Livia loves sparring, dragging her friends to museums and galleries, exploring downtown NYC, reading 1960s literature and cooking eccentric personal recipes.

The post The Ms. Q&A: Why Lingua Franca Founder Rachelle Hruska MacPherson Wants You to Buy a Resistance Sweater appeared first on Ms. Magazine Blog.

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Ms. Muse: Jessica Helen Lopez on Writing like a Xingona, Poetry as Medicine and the True Honey of Freedom

We’re carving out a new discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry to nourish and give voice to a rising tide of female resistance—and you’ve clicked right into it. Click here to read more Ms. Muse.

“Poetry is coming out of our radio in our car. Poetry is coming out in conversation, in our slang, and our colloquial dialects,” Jessica Helen Lopez said as the featured poet on the New Mexico PBS show ¡COLORES!, a weekly art series for which she is now a host. In her life and work, Lopez reveals how poetry, language and identity are intimately connected—not a braid that can be unbraided.

“I always wear my identities quite brazenly and with as much pride and/or exploration that I can pursue within my writing as a woman of color, as a Chicana, as a feminist,” she noted on ¡COLORES!, “and I often identify as a ‘radical feminist’ but sometimes just saying you’re a feminist is radical enough in a room. It’s dropping the f-bomb, literally.”

Lopez is the founder of La Palabra: The Word is a Woman, a collective created for and by women, and a member of the Macondo Foundation, an association founded by Sandra Cisneros for socially-engaged master’s level writers working to advance creativity, foster generosity and serve community. Her first collection of poetry, Always Messing with Them Boys (West End Press, 2011), made the Southwest Book of the Year reading list and received the Zia Book Award presented by New Mexico Press Women; her second, Cunt. Bomb., was published by Swimming with Elephants Publication in 2014, and her third, The Language of Bleeding: Poems for the International Poetry Festival, Nicaragua (SWEP) is a limited release in honor of her ambassadorial visit to Granada, Nicaragua.

Lopez is a nationally recognized slam poet and was the 2012 and 2014 Women of the World City of ABQ Champion and the Albuquerque Poet Laureate Emeritus and Poet-In-Residence for the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History from 2014-16.

More recently, she also served as co-(f)emcee for the 2017 Santa Fe Women’s March on Washington. While speaking and performing a poem on that cold day, her passionate, riveting voice appears to transfix her boisterous audience. Watching her makes me wish she’d run for public office. We’ll elect actors and reality TV stars—it’s time to elect poets!

In this installment of Ms. Muse, Lopez shares a new poem—and talks to Ms. about jumping out of the shower to write, writing as reclamation and thriving between languages.

Jessica Helen Lopez (Adam Rubenstein)

The Poem

I Have Many Names / Tengo Muchos Nombres

You may call me Malinche, goddess of grass
Indigena woman
of the kidnapped clan

Rosetta Stone[1] tongue
of glassy, rain-soaked, imperial jade,

Moctezuma’s poisoned
trade with the white-skinned transgressor,
-cloaked Cortes.

You may call me
flesh over the forged heat of Spanish, Dutch, and French blade.

The Mulatto/the Mestiza/Africana,
raped daughters of the Doctrine
of Discovery[2]

You may call me the descendent
of the deceased.

The disappeared. The Pillaged.
The blood-quantum, kick-back treaty fed by the belly-fat
of land-grant lies.

I have many names,
thousands years’ old names.
Ancient, mighty names.

Today you may call me
seven generations missing from my grandmother

Tonatzin. Malinalli. Tlatzoteotl. Ometeol

I am the blood-lineage, sacrificial ancestor,
progeny of the gone-missing women.

Call me Maquiladora, flower of the factories
Woman of Juarez[3]
twice-bit and betrayed
by my own kin and the foreign rapist

You may call me rage.

Tengo muchos nombres

You may call me soldadera, matriarch of the Mexicana Revolution.
I was never anyone’s lover,
no Pancho Villa bed warmer.
Bullets and braids, hands thick like the skin of tamal.
This is what you may call me.
No yo soy Joaquin.[4]

You may call me Llorrona, shape-shifter, picket-line provocateur.
Brown beret, skin-walker,
woman of the field.

Hands of callus,
picker of fresa, chile, cebolla and the grape on the vine.
We the legions of farm workers bent at the spine,
fingers deep into the dark earth.

Today they call me wet nurse,
wetback, paid under-the-table
brown nanny,
breast milk by proxy.

But I birth me
in the shape of me—

obsidian, flint and fired stone.
I am the bloodletting and the baptismal.

I have many names—

But you may invoke me as brown-skinned Puta[5]
Xola Xingona[6]
spelled with an X like the Mexica.

My ancestors run wild in my blood—
my mixed, colonized and triumphant blood.

You may call me double-tongued and code-switcher,[7]
river crosser, water diviner,
border dweller and burnt sage.

You know me as #metoo,
the bridged hair of Frida’s brow—
snapped spinal column survivor.

The late-night mariachi howl. Eater of filth.

You may call me Pocha[8], Jota[9], Bruja[10] and lit-from-within.
My name an anglicized

A deloused campesino[11]
somewhere in the middle of Indio,
California—fruit basket of the world.

But now
you may invoke me
with Dolores, Lorna, Sandra, Maria, Josefina, Gloria, Diana the Huntress,
Emma Gonzalez and Alicia Garza

Lorde, writer and patron saint who watches over us all

You may call me
la Cazadora,
with no regrets.

I am the Keeper of the Dead

Tengo muchos nombres

You may call me Thought Woman, carrier of stories,
jeweled egg of a diaphanous web.
My children spring forth from me, silver-headed
and spindle-soft, ready to re-create the world.
Seventh generation rising.

I am un mal flora,
the bad flower who grew despite
your attempt
to re-name that
which is nameless.

[1] “The first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times.” (Wikipedia)
[2] “In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories.” (Source.)
[3] “Hundreds of young women have disappeared from the Mexican border city since 1993—many of them teenagers who came to Juarez to work in the town’s foreign-owned factories, known as “maquilladoras.” (Source.)
[4] No, I am Joaquin.
[5] bitch, whore, slut, hooker, prostitute, tart, tramp, hustler, dyke. (translated with Google.)
[6] Translated from “Chola Chingona.” Latinas/Chicanas use the “X” as reclamation (as in Chicanx or Latinx). Brenda Gonzales-Richards, director of the California regional office for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, says “Chingona” means “Badass…someone who is not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, somebody that’s happy to shake things up when needed. Chingonas, she says, get things done.”
[7] “In linguistics, code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation.” (Wikipedia)
[8] “A term used by Mexicans (frequently pejoratively) to describe Chicanos and those who have left Mexico. Stereotypically, Pochos speak English and lack fluency in Spanish.” (Wikipedia)
[9] A derogative word for “gay” that is being reclaimed.
[10] witch
[11] peasant farmer

The Interview

Can you tell me about your process in writing “I Have Many Names / Tengo Muchos Nombres“? What do you remember about the poem’s birth? Were there particular challenges in writing and revising? 

Don’t laugh. But I was in the shower and washing my hair. I had been feeling the itch to write a new poem and had been recently inspired by some of the most Xingona local poets here in Albuquerque, especially Mercedez Holtry, Women of the World Poetry ABQ Champ and national finalist, and Eva Marisol Crespin, author of Morena, Swimming with Elephants Publication. I jumped out of the shower, still slick with soap and hurried to my journal. There I wrote some of the first lines of “I Have Many Names.”

I like to experiment with different aesthetics in my poetry. For some time I was enamored with persona pieces. Oftentimes I write confessionally, other times about current and relevant topics of struggles that POC [people of color] and Native people continuously battle. This time around, I sought to write a celebratory but truthful experience of Woman.

Later that night, I sat with the poem and wrote it in under an hour. Usually, I edit by performing my pieces. I read it the very next week at an International Women’s Day poetry reading at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Since, I’ve performed it a variety of spaces, including the UNM Chicanx Studies Department’s “Pachanga” fundraisers, a local favorite artisan showcase, “I’ll Drink to That” and more.

What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry? 

I am a Pocha. I do not speak Spanish fluently. My mother’s first tongue was Spanish. As a child, she was punished—sometimes physically, mostly shamed—in school for speaking Spanish. By the time she birthed me and my brothers, she thought it best not to speak to us in Spanish. She wanted us to succeed in the Anglo world.

I don’t blame her. She was doing what she thought best for us. To this day I speak in “Spanglish.” But I also incorporate Indigenous words such as Nahuatl (Aztec) into my writing. I have a long way to go in achieving the fluency I would like in both of these tongues. I am quite aware that Spanish is the colonizer’s language, but it is inherent in my rich identity formation as Chicanx.

I also am quite comfortable in code-switching my “street language” with the idea of “academic speak.” I grew up with a rich colloquialism of “Chola” verbiage and double negatives. I know when I say, “ain’t no thang but a chicken wang, que no (not)” in a collegiate environment that I am enacting a deliberate revolution. I can also get down with a mean academic syntax. Mostly, it was hip-hop, rap and jazz that contributed to my love of language. That, and being poor.

A library card goes a long way in freeing a young person’s mind. I could travel anywhere by reading a book. Storytelling and fiction were my first loves.

Do you seek out poetry by women and non-binary writers? If so, since when and why? More specifically, how has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?

When I was a college freshman at New Mexico State University—I did not graduate from there, rather dropped out, twice—I “saved” a copy of Sandra Cisneros’ Loose Woman from being thrown away. Someone was moving out of the dorm and handed me a box of random items such as half-burnt candles, tampons and books. I had never heard of Sandra Cisnero, much less her widely-acclaimed and radical collection of Chicana feminist poetry. I sat with that book as the sun went down. I read it from cover to cover and was changed forever.

I did not know that women writers like Cisneros existed. I went on to discover the works of Anna Castillo, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherie Morraga, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton and other amazing WOC [women of color] writers. But my high school classrooms never offered them. And my college language arts courses never included them.

When I first read Sandra Cisneros’ “You Bring out the Mexican in Me,” all of the synaptic cells in my brain fired at the same time. She taught me how to write like a Xingona. These days I am enamored by poets such as Siarra Freeman, Danez Smith, Rachel Camacho McKibbens, Jenn Givhan, Sharon Olds, Juan Felipe-Herrera, Fatima Asghar, Denise Frohman, Joy Harjo and others. As a spoken word artist—I have been slamming since 2005—there is no differentiation between “page” and “stage” poets. And some of the best rappers, singers, songwriters—like Kendric Lamar, Ice Cube and Lila Downs—are favorite poets.

What groundbreaking or ancient works, forms, ideas and issues in poetry today interest and/or concern you?

Slam poetry or spoken word is poetry for the gente (people). It is a democratization of verse. No longer do poets need to be canonized, white, cis, male or dead to achieve acclaim. Raul Salinas, the late great Xicanindio poeta said, “poesia esta en la calle” (poetry is on the street). Joy Harjo wrote: “The poetry ancestors scattered to all parts of the world. Each family of trees, animals, wind, stones needed a poet.”

Poetry is medicine, and everyone can access this form of healing.

As a woman, and as a woman who writes, what do you need to support your work? What opportunities, support, policies, and actions can/could make a direct difference for you—and for other women & women writers you know?

Honestly? I need time, resources and money. It’s a luxury to write. It’s a luxury I cultivate. I must cultivate the craft of writing while also balancing four jobs—yes, I have four jobs—parenting and activism and community organizing.

It’s hard. It’s emotional work. It’s healing and necessary but also taxing. We need more funding for the arts, for art-based grants, for residencies for women, women of color, queer writers. I am a teacher and I am constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel for opportunities for my student writers—but also time and resources so that I, too, can carry on as a writer.

What are your four other jobs? What is the activism and community organizing that you do?

I have worked at the Native American Community Academy Inspired Schools Network (NISN) for several years. For a while I was a guest artist, then a sixth-grade teacher at NACA for a couple of years teaching Indigenous History, Philosophy and Thought—humanities. I also taught a poetry elective at the middle school and now teach a dual enrollment class for the NACA High School; dual enrollment means that students are also earning collegiate credit.

The work I do with NISN is centered in reforming education and helping to start Indigenous community-based schools. We have schools in New Mexico—Pueblos such as Santa Domingo and Navajo, etcetera—South Dakota, Oklahoma, others just starting out in Denver and even along the U.S./Mexico border. I also work for the University of New Mexico Chicanx Studies Department and the Institute of American Indian arts as an instructor. Recently, I was hired to host the long-running ¡COLORES! show that highlights artists and leaders in the Southwest.

As an activist, I work to create awareness around issues such as immigration justice, intersectional feminism and youth advocacy.

What’s next? What upcoming plans or projects excite you?

I am honored to coach and mentor an Indigenous youth poetry collective, RezSpit, comprised of woke young Native women and queer writers. I teach college poetry classes through the lens of critically analyzing and responding to issues around race, class and gender and sexual orientation. I continue my work as an instructor at the University of New Mexico Chicana and Chicano Studies Department.

I was the City of Albuquerque Poet Laureate, and that has opened doors for me to continue my work as a feminist Chicanx writer. I’ll be the (f)emcee of our upcoming TEDx in Albuquerque, a speaker for a domestic violence conference and featured poet for a reframing of the epic Chicanx poem, “Yo Soy Joaquin,” that reclaims the presence of mujeres (women) in the long history of Mexican/Mexian-American resistance. I work with Native American Community Academy and continuously learn from our Indigenous relatives of Indian Country/Turtle Island.

What do you rarely get asked?                                                       

Do I write in other genres? (Yes. I have a love for non-fiction, fiction, screenwriting, essays and blogs.) Also, no one ever asks me how I identify. (I’ve come out of the closet. It was latent. But here I am, bisexual and proud.)

When did you come out?

I came out in slow increments. Mostly through my poetry and then conversations with family and friends. I wish I would have sooner but the powers that be—oppression and shame—kept me from admitting that I was bisexual, even though I had known this most of my life. I just don’t give a shit anymore about others’ judgements. I have a lot of queer friends and allies. It’s refreshing. I’m married to a cis man, and this confuses people sometimes, but my woke friends aren’t bothered. I can be queer and be in love with a male partner.

Are there other questions you would like to be asked? Something else you want to talk about?

The legacy I will leave to my daughter, who is now 16 years old and on the cusp of adulthood, is that I hope she breaks all the rules, just as I attempt to do through my writing. I want her to read my work when I am long gone and know that I loved her fiercely, though not perfectly, and that made my love for her authentic and true. I want her to know she has a ferociously loyal mother, but that I am also an erratic soul who did her best to pass along the survival skills my daughter needs to be healthy and happy.

Mostly, though, I want her to be free of any expectations of how she should live her life. I want her to experience the true honey of freedom.

She is the best poem I have ever writ.

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.

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The post Ms. Muse: Jessica Helen Lopez on Writing like a Xingona, Poetry as Medicine and the True Honey of Freedom appeared first on Ms. Magazine Blog.

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