Solidarity with Black Women Journalists Beyond the Briefing Room

It’s been nearly two weeks since Donald Trump lashed out at three black women journalists over the course of 48 hours. The president accused Yamiche Alcindor of asking a racist question, called a question from Abby D. Phillip “stupid” and instructed April D. Ryan to “sit down” as if she were a child—and called her a loser who “doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing.”

The National Association of Black Journalists issued a statement calling Trump’s finger-pointing insults “appalling and irresponsible.” Trump’s behavior toward journalists often is, regardless of their race or gender—but the targeting of black women journalists is especially noticeable within a White House press corps that is still mostly white and mostly male.

Although Trump’s behavior was unseemly, it was unfortunately not surprising. Based on research I conducted on the experiences of black women television news managers, insults like the ones that came from the president come regularly, too, from white men within newsrooms. Theirs are often less overt, but that doesn’t make them less serious.

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Election night vibes!

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Harvard psychiatry professor Chester Pierce coined the term “micro-aggression” in 1970 to describe covert racism that continued to plague blacks after the civil rights era; in 2010 psychologist Derald Wing Sue created a classification system to explain the different levels of micro-aggressions and expanded the concept beyond race. Of the 40 black women news managers I interviewed, many said they experienced micro-aggressions on a daily basis.

Most black women journalists who entered the ranks of management at television stations in the late 1970s and early 1980s experienced blatant insults like the ones Trump issued last week that Sue calls “micro-assaults.”  One research participant was told that “news from a woman’s mouth sounds like gossip.” Another was managing a network news show on the day Martin Luther King’s birthday was first observed as a national holiday when she overheard her colleague asking: “Who do those n—— think they are?”

The subtler version of a micro-assault is a micro-insult, which Sue describes as “interpersonal or environmental communications that convey stereotypes, rudeness and insensitivity that demean any part of a person’s identity.” The perpetrator does not recognize the slight as a snub.

Many African American women repeatedly spoke to me about more subtle slights that questioned their educational background, their skills or their ability to lead. Sometimes supervisees asked extra questions in order to delay or avoid executing the woman’s directives; sometimes, staff members assumed the woman was incompetent until she proved otherwise, whereas her white male counterpart was assumed competent unless he proved otherwise. “They doubt everything you say,” one participant told me.

The most common insult the women described was what I call I Just Said That Syndrome (IJSTS), often during meetings where a woman’s suggestions were ignored. “I can say something three times and everybody would sort of go on with their way,” one participant explained. “Then you let a white male say it and then it’s a genius idea.” Women of all races and men of color often experience IJST–a type of micro-aggression that Sue calls a micro-invalidation, because the experience essentially renders a person and their ideas invisible or irrelevant.

Trump’s attempts to diminish the journalistic abilities of Alcindor, Ryan and Phillip were bold and in-your-face. But it is the day-after-day attacks, no matter how covert, that may have the most long-term effect. One white male news executive in the study acknowledged the phenomenon by calling it “death by a thousand cuts.”

These cuts bleed.  They hurt and can provoke unnecessary stress.

I hesitated several days before even writing this piece because whenever I write about women and or race, the trolls come out. However, as an educator of future journalists, most of whom are women, it is incumbent upon me to prepare them for the reality that they, too, could face demeaning behavior because of their gender, race or sexual orientation—despite their hard work or leadership.

I want journalists who are pummeled daily with micro-insults and micro-invalidations to know: I see you. I am with you. I am you.

Instead of being surprised, I want them to be ready.

Ava Thompson Greenwell is a journalism professor at Medill, Northwestern University and also a doctoral student in African American Studies. She has been teaching broadcast writing and video storytelling since 1993 and is a former news reporter at WFLA-TV, WCCO-TV and WEHT-TV. Her research interests include the history of black women journalists in television news.

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Ms. Muse: What Happens When You Give a Girl a Pen

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.

“I am from” were the first three words of the poem I read to the kids. Sitting around a long table, they began work on their own poems, stories and songs. A new girl sat next to her younger cousin, who translated my words into Spanish for her.

K—I’ll call her by her first initial—was from Puerto Rico, and perhaps 15. She didn’t speak, but smiled when I handed her a new spiral notebook, a pen and a poem.

But it was in English.

What a fool I am, I thought. I’d expected bilingual kids but wasn’t prepared for the possibility of non-English speakers visiting my free drop-in writing workshop. We met at a public housing complex in Northampton, Massachusetts. Each week, the kids worked to create a literary journal for their community. In that moment, I knew K’s cousin had translated the writing prompt we’d all discussed, but I didn’t know how well.

Slowly, K opened the notebook without picking it up. Her gaze fell upon the first lined page flat on the table in front of her. Unsmiling, she stared at that page. K picked up the pen and held it tightly but did not write. Her cousin whispered something in her ear.

K started writing. She did not stop. Other kids came and went, munched on snacks, whispered and laughed between spells of writing—but K never looked up. I didn’t see when she turned that first page. When she finally stopped, she placed her notebook on the stack in the middle of the table; she nodded yes when I thanked her for contributing work and left with her cousin.

When reading the kids’ writing later that night, I saw K’s first words: “I am from.” With clear, looping letters and a strong sense of self, she’d written a page of choppy English. Excited to learn that K could indeed write in English, I read about her family, her “music favorite” (reggaeton), how much she liked school, her one “favorite boy.” K stressed that she preferred Puerto Rico, but her parents “like the Northampton.” She pressed so hard with her pen that the other side of the paper felt textured with her backward, Braille-like, “invisible” writing.

Over it, she wrote a title: “Poetry.” Then, in Spanish, two stanzas—translated here by poet Lisha Adela García.

Black Letters

“Del cielo cayó un pañuelo bordado…” (Anonymous)

A handkerchief embroidered with black
letters fell from the sky.
Ask your mother if she would like
to be my mother-in-law.

Yesterday, I passed by your house
and they threw a lime at me.
The juice hit me in the eyes
and the blow in my heart.

The first line of K’s original, “Del cielo cayó un pañuelo bordado…” (Out of the sky fell an embroidered handkerchief), repeats like an epigraph the first line of a well-known Spanish love poem. But instead of colorful embroidered letters, K makes them black, turning the flying handkerchief into a page of writing—suggesting the image of a love poem or letter falling from heaven.

The speaker tells her lover to ask his mother, in a diplomatic, charming manner, if he can marry her. But the black letters foreshadow the second stanza—a blunt, pained remembering of how she’d just been treated by his family. Remarkably, the speaker has not given up, and defiantly instructs her lover in how to appeal to his mother from her perspective, so she might accept the narrator as a daughter. While I don’t encourage young girls to spend much of their time thinking about marriage, it’s in every Disney fairytale. And I liked K’s twist.

K’s poem has haunted me since I first read it 12 years ago. I never saw her again. Where did she go? Where is she now? If a poem this intriguing can fly out of a girl onto the page when she’s handed a pen by a stranger, what else is she capable of writing?

Years later, Hillary, a 16-year-old Ecuadorian American girl, showed me a poem she’d written in response to an English teacher’s writing prompt: “My Name” from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

My Name Has No History
(after Sandra Cisneros)

In English my name means happiness.
In Spanish it means too impatient.
It means loneliness; it means hopeful.
It’s black and white. It is the name
you read in the newspaper.
Not a traditional name. In my culture,
my name has no background. No history.

It’s new. Born with a chance of making
history. In my life, my name has been observed.
Picked apart even. I’ve been told it’s not special.
Still, I wouldn’t baptize myself under another.
My name has no history but it holds hope.

Hillary was born and raised in the United States, even named after a prominent First Lady, but she was living in and between two cultures. Her poem articulates the complex perspective of a young first-generation American.

I think of Hillary’s mother and father choosing to name their precious baby daughter after perhaps the most powerful woman in their new country and the world. I try to fathom what they might have felt at that time in their lives, inspired and hopeful, finding their way in a nation of immigrants, proving their desire to contribute and belong in so many ways—and then with a name, with their own blood. And I think of that girl growing up to write this poem one day, by chance.

Around the time K and Hillary wrote these poems, if you had passed either of them on the street and happened to speak, you would have met a shy, pretty, Latina teenager. But these poems reveal the emergence of powerful new voices and visions that we need.

This is what can happen when you ask a girl to tell a story and then place a pen in her hand.

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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#SquadGoals We All Should Have 

Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the internet by storm last week with an Instagram photo captioned with just one word: “Squad.” The post went viral, receiving nearly 190,000 likes and appearing in countless post-election stories, tweets and posts.

They used to say a picture is worth 1,000 words. But in today’s 24/7 news cycle, it’s worth hundreds of thousands. Ocasio-Cortez’s caption summed up the future we’ve been fighting for: a government made up of diverse women, who reflect the communities they represent. Women who have run as they are, and women who won as they are.

I’m thrilled that this photo is being recognized as #SquadGoals because that is exactly what women bring to democracy. They band together to lift each other up, break barriers and get things done. Figuratively and literally, this diverse squad–Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley–finally has seat at the table. These women represent the future of women’s leadership and a new era for women in politics and government. They give us hope that gender, age, religion and race are no longer barriers to holding a position of power in our democracy.

But the story behind that viral photo goes much deeper. These women did not come together to sit at this table by chance; they gathered to share their expertise and inspire more women from all backgrounds to run for office as part of a national town hall hosted by VoteRunLead on November 12. These women were part of a radical conversation at the Women and Power town hall, stepping out of their first day of orientation in Washington, D.C., to join us. They covered everything from voting rights and immigration to environmental justice, income inequality and health care, and shared what they have in common, how they each feel about being labeled “one of the first” and the change they hope to create. (You can watch the entire event here.)

This squad is part of a rising wave for change. Three thousand women ran for office this year, and one-third of the female nominees for the House were women of color–the highest number ever. History-makers include Kyrsten Sinema, who became the first openly bisexual senator; Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, the first Native American women elected to Congress; and Lauren Underwood, the youngest Black woman elected to Congress and a VoteRunLead alumna. They also celebrated historic victories in down-ballot races across the country, including alumnae Gerri Cannon and Brianna Titon, two of the three openly transgender women elected to State Houses this year, and 12 VoteRunLead alumnae taking over the Colorado House and Senate.

Even our losses show just have far we’ve come. Game-changers like Stacey Abrams, who was robbed of becoming the first Black governor of any state in the country; or veteran alums Kim Olson, who ran to be the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, and Eve Hurwitz, who ran for the Maryland State Senate.

Member-elect Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and a VoteRunLead alumna, said it best during the Town Hall: “This election has been about us fully creating an unapologetic invitation for people to participate in our democracy.”

For 15 years, VoteRunLead has empowered women to run for office as they are and build a campaign based on their own passion, ideas and values. We remain committed to turning this historical moment into a long-term political movement.

Whether you are young or old; gay, bisexual or transgender; Black, LatinX, Native American, Muslim or Asian; Republican or Democrat–we’re more determined than ever before to empower women to run for office, win and lead. Because those are #SquadGoals we all should have.

Erin Vilardi is the founder and CEO of VoteRunLead.

Watch the Ms. LIVE Q&A with Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead to hear more about the impact of women in politics, the energy on the ground leading into the midterms and her very own Ms. story. (And follow Ms. on Facebook to get a notification next time we go live!)

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The Ms. LIVE Q&A: Erin Vilardi Wants More Women in Politics

Ms. digital editor Carmen Rios sat down with Vote Run Lead founder and CEO Erin Vilardi to talk about the importance of women in politics, the energy on the ground leading into the midterms and her very own Ms. story.

Posted by Ms. Magazine on Tuesday, October 9, 2018

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Women of Color in Washington are Getting to Work—and Facing Down Their Detractors

After the midterm election was won by women of color with so many historic “firsts”—the first Muslim women elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar; the first African-American women elected in two states, Ayanna Pressley and Jahana Hayes; the first Native American women to ever enter office, Sharice Davids and Debra Haaland; and the youngest woman to do the same, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—our president was not in a good mood, especially when it came to journalists who happened also to be women of color trying to do their jobs.

April Ryan is an outspoken woman of color journalist who has been targeted by the President. She isn’t alone, and in a new era in Washington women of color are rising to fight back against the administration’s attacks on women, people of color and the media. (via

In a chaotic press conference the day after the election, the president told veteran White House correspondent April Ryan to “sit down” when she tried to ask him a question and said, “It’s such a hostile media.” He then chastised PBS NewsHour correspondent Yamiche Alcindor after she asked him whether he thought his pre-election campaign rhetoric was “emboldening white nationalists.”

“That is such a racist question,” he shot back, refusing to answer.

Later in the week, CNN’s Abby Phillip asked the president if he wanted acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to “rein in” special counsel Robert Mueller. “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot — you ask a lot of stupid questions,” Trump responded, shaking his head. He laid into April Ryan again, too, calling her “nasty” and a “loser.”

The next day, April Ryan called him out on his insults in a fiery op-ed in The Washington Post titled: “I’m a black woman. Trump loves insulting people like me.

She observed:

The White House has had issues with me ever since January, when I asked, ‘Mr. President, are you a racist?’ After his response to Charlottesville, after ‘s—hole countries,’ after ‘get that son of a b—- off the field’ and ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ it’s more than a fair question, it’s necessary. As a black female journalist, I’m going to keep asking it and continue seeking answers. That’s my job, and I am up for it.

Abby Phillips told Elle magazine she wasn’t at all concerned if the president thinks she’s smart or stupid. “I haven’t let [the incident] slow me down… That’s what I told every single person who reached out to me: ‘I’m totally fine, this is not something that bothers me, at all,’” she says. “It just gives me a little information about the kind of questions we need to be pushing.” In a lighthearted tweet, Phillips tagged Ryan and Alcindor, both women she admires professionally, and invited them to “go on a vacation, get brunch, hang out!”

News organizations are also standing up for their reporters. CNN released a statement defending Abby Philip, saying that her question about Mueller’s Russia probe was “the most pertinent question of the day” and colleagues took to Twitter to show their support, as well.

In the same way that journalists are shrugging their shoulders at Trump and getting on with their work, the new ladies of the House are showing all of us what they are bringing to the table. Representative-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted, after arriving in D.C. last week, “We did not come to play,” alongside a link to an article in The Cut. The headline: “Your Cool New Congresswomen Are Already Hanging Out.”

The New York Times praised Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s deft use of social media in crafting an “accessible” behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in the Capitol. A #squadgoals pic of herself and fellow freshman Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib went viral.

“Best photo I’ve seen since 2016,” one commented. “This could be us some day,” said another.

As one Buzzfeed editor noted:

Back in July, I spoke with Aimee Allison, director of Democracy in Color and organizer of the She the People conference in San Francisco. We talked about the number of women of color running for office. One of the things she highlighted was their unapologetic authenticity.

“What Stacey Abrams said was: ‘I’m a Black woman and I’m leaning deeply into my base,’” Aimee explained. “‘I’m not going to try to be something that I’m not. I’m going to stand very proudly in who I am.’”

This was something we observed over and over throughout the campaign. Women were being themselves and running for office. Well, now we’re seeing women being themselves in office—and it’s a powerful, wonderful thing.

“Every morning that I walk through the White House gates, I thank God for the privilege of doing the job that I do, and for the trust and faith that my listeners put in me to ask for, and bring home, the truth,” Ryan wrote in her Post op-ed. “Every day, I try to remember that, to the best of my knowledge of my family’s history, I am only five generations removed from the last known member of my family to be enslaved, Joseph Dollar Brown, who was sold on the auction block in North Carolina. And I carry that knowledge with me, because I owe it to him to cover the presidency the best way I know how, no matter how much pushback I get.”

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 the Women’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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Uncovering Trump’s Techniques in Deception

My mentors describe magic as “committing the perfect crime.” I don’t actually subscribe to that thought: When I perform magic, I like to think of it as a fantasy we share together. (Think of the wholesome brand of magic that includes rainbows, fairies and the wide-eyed smiles of audiences.)

So what’s the appeal for me, deceiving other people like that? As another mentor explained: “Dear, it’s because everyone has a little bit of larceny in them.” If a performer memorizes some basic concepts, even the most bumbling conjurer can deceive.

Take Donald Trump, for instance.

Protestors have been demanding that Trump release his tax returns, but he has yet to do so. (Molly Adams)

When I see the president employing standard techniques in deception, it makes me cringe—because it works. Every. Single. Time. Trump presents his smokescreens so rapidly that before we can stop to analyze them, a new illusion has begun.

We as magicians employ standard techniques to create hocus-pocus for audiences. Together, we become escape artists from reality. I love transforming a roomful of cynics into believers—but some people hate being fooled. They want to understand the secrets. When they can’t, they throw out wild theories about what I’m really doing: She’s hiding it in her bra! The dove is inside her bracelet! (No, dear audience, it’s not in either of those places. It’s just magic.)

In this case, being fooled can be dangerous—so I’ve identified seven techniques that Trump uses so that we can keep watch for them before he suckers anyone again.

#1: Act normal.

Sometimes I’ll have something hidden in my hand, but I don’t panic. During the elections, Trump did not flinch—even though his lawyer just paid off porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money. Magicians don’t run if nobody is chasing them. Neither does the president.

#2: Become the convincer.

When an illusionist offers a deck of cards or a magic contraption for inspection to the audience, it’s used as a “convincer” that everything is “fair and balanced.” As a television personality that appeared in their own homes, people were convinced that the president was trustworthy. This sets people up to ignore facts.

#3: Take credit for everything.

When I first started in magic, a spectator demanded that if I really was magic, that I should give him a sign. Suddenly, the poster behind me fell off the wall. I took full credit for that. When anything great happens, Trump steps in to take credit, even if he didn’t do a damn thing. Remember that blooming economy during the first weeks of his Presidency?

#4: Use magic words.

Repetition causes expectation. Need proof? Say ’em with me: Drain the swamp. Lock her up. Build the wall. Fake news.

#5: Rely on a faulty account.

People are not great witnesses.Often, people will approach me after a performance and excitedly tell their friends what they saw me do onstage. They will claim that I floated ten feet in the air—when in actuality, I levitated 1.5 feet. Trump made 1,950 false claims over 347 days that were easily confirmed as lies, but hundreds of thousands of people don’t seem to care.

#6: Cover the smaller movement with a bigger one.

When I make a dove appear in my hands, that big dramatic moment allows me to perform a smaller action right in front of the audience. When the White house approved arctic drilling and refused to ban pesticides linked to brain damage, the administration also leaked classified information to the Russians—which is a breach of national security. Turns out too many of us were looking at the dove.

#7: Make your own rules.

I will inform the audience if I want them to touch a card, think of a card or cut the deck. The viewers never know what I have planned. I am always one step ahead. I make the rules, and people don’t think to ask twice about them. The White House created new rules under Trump that required Democrats to have Republican cosigners to make routine business inquiries. By the beginning of June, the administration had failed to reply to 275 such inquiries.

People are not outwitted by magic tricks because they’re not smart. Oftentimes, some of the most intelligent people in the room believe in the illusion because the performer takes advantage of how the brain works. Our minds accept information that is proven by the quickest logical conclusion provided—by being aware of these techniques, you now possess a more critical eye that can assess a situation a little faster.

Now you now have a choice: You can enjoy an illusion presented to you, or use this information to deconstruct what is really happening. Just be careful that you don’t become a cynical magician. As a conjuror, keep your sense of wonder.

There are con artists out there, but you also have the ability to create something wonderful—and change reality.

Maritess Zurbano, one of the few professional female magicians in the industry, performs mentalism and hypnosis and travels as a speaker around the world. She trained in Las Vegas and competed in the FISM World Championship of Magic.

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Thelma, Louise and #MeToo

I love a good road trip. I have since the summer I was 16, the last summer I spent in my hometown of Columbus, Indiana (which I jokingly call The Other Columbus, or Columbus-Not-Ohio). It’s a place people sometimes know for the mid-century architecture and the outlet malls—or for being the town from which Mike Pence sprang.

That summer, I got my first job as a waitress at a local rib joint and bought my first car. From that moment on, I never stayed too long in one place, preferring the possibilities of the open road to a life of the same-old, same-old. She’s independent, people would say. Tough. An adventurer.

Lately, I’ve had the good luck of traveling more than usual, to promote my first book—a memoir about cars, wanderlust, and the death of my only sibling, who killed himself two weeks after turning 29. The travel, though, has involved planes more than cars. On one flight to New York City, I watched Won’t You be My Neighbor, a documentary about Mr. Rodgers, whose show my brother and I grew up watching. Two women near me watched it, too, and when we landed, we looked up at each other, all drying our eyes. Look for the helpers, Fred Rodgers had said. Always look for the helpers.

On my return flight, I decided to avoid another public crying episode and selected Thelma & Louise, which I remembered as a story of women gone rogue—with some fun, some trouble, a little sex, and a Fonzie-jumps-the-shark kind of ending. But watching it now, after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, a year into the #MeToo movement—I realized it was a complex film about sexual assault and rape culture.

The difference between my memory of the movie and the film I saw devastated me.

I’ve joked before with a few of my friends that when we get some free time, we’ll go on a road trip. We’ll play Thelma and Louise, we’ve said, only without the dying. We laughed at that part about not dying. Have fun. Don’t die. That’s all Thelma and Louise wanted, but it didn’t work out for them.

Thelma & Louise is about two women who want to take an overnight road trip to a cabin together, exactly the kind of thing I would do; exactly the kind of thing I do, every chance I get. Louise, the more tightly-laced friend played by Susan Sarandon, rallies Thelma, the comparatively relaxed and bubbly one played by Geena Davis. Thelma packs a gun—because oh, come on, Louise… psycho killers, bears, snakes!  I just don’t know how to use it.  So will you take care of it?

They spend their first evening in a restaurant. When they sit down, Louise says: “I haven’t seen a place like this since I left Texas.” She wears her hair up tight and worries when Thelma accepts attention from a flirtatious stranger. “You said you and me was gonna get outta town and, for once, just really let our hair down,” Thelma says. “Well, darlin,’ look out ’cause my hair is comin’ down!”

They drink. Thelma dances with Harlan, the local barfly who’d flirted with her. Once she gets she’s puking drunk, he hits her and tries to rape her in the parking lot. Louise finds them. She has the gun.

HARLAN: Now, calm down. We were just havin’ a little fun.
LOUSIE: Looks like you’ve got a real fucked up idea of fun.  Now turn around. Just for the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she’s not having any fun!
HARLAN: Bitch. I should have gone ahead and fucked her.
LOUSIE: What did you say?
HARLAN: I said suck my cock.

Louise shoots him dead. From this point on, the two women are pretty much doomed. After, Thelma asks why they didn’t call the police. “Only about a hundred people saw you cheek to goddamn cheek with him all night, Thelma,” Louise yells. “Who’s gonna believe that?!  We just don’t live in that kind of world.”

They don’t. Or didn’t. I didn’t, and don’t either. Which means you didn’t and don’t, too. So here we are—all in it, or in on it, together.

The women flee, tying knot after knot in their own nooses as they go. Louise’s boyfriend comes through with some money, but then a hitchhiking cowboy gives Thelma her first orgasm and steals it from them. (Notice the high price women pay for pleasure of any kind.) Thelma feels so guilty about almost getting raped, and then getting robbed, that she robs a convenience store to make up for it. Now they’re both wanted. When a police officer stops them, they escape at gunpoint, leaving him in the trunk of his car after shooting it a couple times for ventilation.

Thelma tells him to be sweet to his wife: “My husband wasn’t sweet to me,” she remarks, “and look how I turned out.”

Next they school a long-haul truck driver who’s been sexually harassing them for days on the road. They don’t harm him, but they do blow up his rig. Soon after, they’re cornered by cops and take the only way out—death by convertible and Grand Canyon.

Throughout the movie there are hints that Louise is triggered to shoot Harlan in part by her own past rape back in Texas, an experience she never discusses. She refuses to drive through Texas, creating a longer route to refuge in Mexico, a choice that doesn’t help them.

THELMA: You want to go to Mexico from Oklahoma and you don’t want to go through Texas?
LOUISE:You know how I feel about Texas… We’re not going that way.
THELMA: I know, Louise, but we’re running for our lives!Don’t you think you could make an exception just this once?!I mean, look at the map. The only thing between Oklahoma and Mexico is Texas!      

I’ve heard it said that children who experience extreme neglect eventually stop crying because they no longer expect their needs to be fulfilled. I see the parallel here in Thelma & Louise, which is to say rape culture, which is to say our country. Louise knew not to get help because, it’s implied, help never arrived when she’d been hurt and cried out before. Reporting rape often causes secondary trauma through questioning, blame and exposure. It’s like giving a hungry child who cries the belt instead of food.

Almost every woman you know knows this silence.

LOUISE: I said, I don’t wanna talk about it!!

I don’t want to talk about it either.

I know the girl I was when this movie came out in 1991—a girl who had already experienced multiple assaults—and I have little doubt that when I saw the movie, the assault and misogyny washed right over me because I already assumed that’s the way things went. Or, as David Foster Wallace put in the opening of his This Is Water speech: One fish asks another, how’s the water? The other fish responds, what the hell is water? That’s how rape culture works. By 16, I was steeped in those waters, acclimated to them, and, like everyone, I navigated that fishbowl the best way I could to survive. 

My parents never talked to me about sexual assault, though my mother did once save me from a pedophile who ran the Schwinn BMX biking team, of which I was a pint-sized member at age eight—the youngest by far, and the only girl. She did what women have known to do for ages: quietly remove themselves from the situation. She pulled me from the team, with my consent, and the pedophile carried on as usual, unaffected.

I did once fight of an attacker while hitchhiking solo in the wilds of Alaska. And I did hike a fat chunk of the Appalachian Trail, most of it solo, after I ditched my partner who fell asleep each night with mace by her head. She was terrified because of her past with assault, she’d told me, a topic that made me always reroute the conversation. True, two women our age had been found the summer before in the same area, bound, gagged and stripped, with their throats slit. Still, I found her fear repellent. I might have even said to her: You’re inviting bad energy. You’re making bad luck.

I already knew victims of sexual assault were seen as weak. I would be strong. I would drive all over the country. I would hitchhike alone in Alaska. I would hike the Appalachian Trail solo because my partner was too weak to keep up with me. I weighed 98 pounds, my breasts two sizes smaller than they had been when I was 15 and 16. I could become invisible, my friends joked, by simply standing sideways. I could not, and would not, be caught.

These stories are in my book—but the stories where I had been caught aren’t, because I still didn’t want to talk about it. Which has worked out pretty well, my whole life, because no one else seems to want to talk about it, either. No therapist has inquired, though I’ve had only two. No lovers have inquired. With one college boyfriend, I began, for the first and perhaps only time, to talk about one of my assaults. We were having coffee and cigarettes in a booth at an all-night diner built over a river in downtown Missoula. I tried to tell him because, at age 19, I could already sense that my past was affecting my present, my ability to trust and bond and be a healthy kind of sexual. He put up his hand and said: “I’m sorry. I can’t hear this.”

A few years later, I asked my first creative nonfiction teacher: “But what do I do about all the weird things, like the sexual stuff?” He’d become a mentor after reading my stories about growing up in a wacky family in Indiana. He was the first one to tell me I had a book to write, a memoir. He considered my question, looking me dead in the eyes for a moment, and said: “That stuff? That’s a different book.”

I was relieved. I had artistic approval to keep not talking about it.

Fifteen years later, a summary of the assault from the summer I was 16 found its way into a chapter of my memoir. None of my readers said much. Why would they? We’re all women. Such stories aren’t new to us. When the note came back to compress that chapter, again I felt relief. I cut the assault passage, though traces of it remain:

I grabbed on to [my first car] like a life raft and it anchored me against the undertow of being a gullible, self-loathing sixteen-year-old-girl in a town I never understood, a place I could never call home.

That’s how so many of us have learned to survive assault—by keeping lists of places we won’t go, things we won’t do, people we refuse to see. We amputate these parts of ourselves in the hopes that we will never let assault happen to us again. We leave jobs and relationships and entire states as a way to protect ourselves in a culture that won’t protect us, a culture where the roots of blame trace all the way back to the Bible.

Eve ate the apple and look what happened. No one wants to be the bad apple, the bruised fruit, the woman who let her hair down and killed paradise.

THELMA:  I know this whole thing was my fault. I know it is.
LOUISE: There’s one thing you oughta understand by now, Thelma, it’s not your fault.

It has been said that trauma can be passed on through generations, through DNA, or abuse, or learned behavioral patterns. Imagine the power of the silence behind sexual assault. Imagine it running up your family line, an inherited muteness you can trace back for thousands of years. Imagine generations so steeped in it that they are born knowing not to cry out, not to speak of it—whether it’s in the wiring of their brains, the architecture of their DNA or an inability to attach language to events, they’ve been gaslighted into un-remembering.

If you can imagine it, it might look a lot like Thelma & Louise. It might look so similar that a girl like me, well-versed in assault, watches the film and is so riveted by the characters’ independence that she sets her sights on the only kind of lust that feels safe: wanderlust. 

Be tough, she thinks. Be a badass. Don’t ever let them catch you again.

LOUISE: We’re not giving up, Thelma.
THELMA: Then let’s not get caught.
LOUISE: What are you talkin’ about?
THELMA: [indicating the Grand Canyon] Go.                                      
[Thelma is smiling at her.]

When I was young, I thought this ending too campy. I still possessed limitless energy and an irrational kind of hope. I didn’t yet know how small you become when delete one part of yourself after another.

For most of my thirties, I felt my experience with assault hadn’t much affected me, because I was a functional human—a mother of two with a husband and a Masters’s degree and, eventually, a full-time job teaching community college. But I see now the kind of emotional nerve damage I’d suffered, how I felt so much nothing about assault until I felt something, and how then it was the emotional equivalent of a lightning strike.

That’s why they call them triggers. That’s why Louise’s was so fierce and literal. I’m fed up with the Midwestern grin-and-bear-it notion of strength I was raised on, stoicism tempered with nicenessOn the plane, the ending of Thelma & Louise made the 40-something me cry because I have driven off too many cliffs in this lifetime already.

THELMA: You awake?
LOUISE: You could call it that.  My eyes are open.
THELMA:  Me too. I feel awake.
THELMA:  Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feelin’ this awake. Everything looks different.  You know what I mean. I know you know what I mean. 

I don’t want to talk about my assaults for all kinds of reasons. My experiences pale in comparison to what others have endured. I went to high school with a girl who would joke about vomiting during forced oral sex when she was 12, and we thought that story awful, but not uncommon. I also have my own family and emotional well-being to consider. And I don’t owe anyone my stories; they belong to me alone.

Is it possible, I wonder, to let them go without letting them out?

THELMA: Louise.  Where are we going?
LOUISE: I don’t know, Thelma!  I don’t know! Just shut up a minute so I can think.

I will tell you that Mike Pence’s hometown is my Texas, that since I was 15 and 16 I have never felt totally at ease in a dress and tights, that I am careful with champagne in the company of men. I will tell you that if I never again hear the Van Morrison song And It Stoned Me, my life would be better for it.

THELMA: Louise… no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.
LOUISE: You’re crazy.                 

EXT.  DESERT ROAD – DAY: Louise swerves off the road and begins driving across the desert.  All the police cars take off across the desert after them.  They are now being pursued by at least 15 cars.

THELMA: You’re a good friend.
LOUISE: You too, sweetie, the best.

The older I get, the more I notice all the women out there like me—holding the best parts of life in one hand while binding the rest together with chicken wire, duct tape and silence. The older I get, the louder the silence becomes. If you want to tell your story, or talk about your Texas, I will listen. I will try to be a helper, as so many of you have been mine. And if you don’t want to talk about it? I get it. I hear you, too.

Either way, I want to second what most of us already know: That the water is cold. The water is bullshit. The water in this fishbowl needs to be changed.

Melissa Stephenson’s writing has appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, The Washington Post, ZYZZYVA and Fourth Genre. Her memoir, Driven, was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July of 2018. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids.

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We Need to Invest in the Voices of Adolescent Girls Worldwide to Win Gender Equality

Research unequivocally demonstrates that empowering girls and young women is key to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals—reducing hunger and poverty, ending harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, drastically reducing maternal and neo-natal mortality, strengthening livelihoods and fostering substantive and transformational gender equality.

Investing in girls and young women is essential to creating a more just and equitable world—yet adolescent girls around the world often remain invisible, silenced and ignored. Their choices about marriage and education are frequently made for them by adults in their families and communities. Their knowledge of their own reproductive health and sexuality is limited or enveloped in taboo and myth. Their freedom to learn and earn is highly circumscribed by social norms and traditional practices that define where they can go, what they can do, who they can talk to and how they can act. 

Despite indisputable evidence that investing in adolescents is critical to improving global health and development outcomes, there’s little data to be found on what bilateral and multilateral aid agencies spend on adolescents—particularly adolescent girls. 

Girls can be powerful drivers of social change—yet funding that elevates them is scarce, and often doesn’t empower them to take leadership in determining their own futures. (UN Women / Creative Commons)

It is impossible to get a breakdown on the total amount of development funding going to youth and adolescent girls from Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee dataIn fact, recent analysis by the International Center for Research on Women of adolescent funding and programming highlights that it is extremely difficult to determine what percentage of Official Development Assistance funds go to adolescent programming across a number of domains like health, education, economic participation. Even UN agencies only intermittently report on funding streams and contributions to adolescent programming, with UNICEF and UNFPA being by far the largest investors in adolescent health and wellbeing. 

What data we were able to uncover for a few very prominent bilateral and multilateral programs indicate that adolescents receive a significantly small proportion of development assistance. In 2015, the Global Financing Facility, in support of Every Woman Every Child, identified an ongoing financing gap for reproductive health for adolescent girls worldwide, a gap that reached $14.4 billion dollars. Although young people represent 26 percent of people in the Global South, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that youth health received only 1.6 percent of global development aid between 2003 and 2016.

“Considering how important young people are for the future well-being and economic development of low- and middle-income countries,” one of the authors of this study, Harvard global health and social medicine professor Chunling Lu, highlighted, “international donors need to reconsider both the levels and the patterns of investments that they are making.”

As a result of collective efforts in academic and policy circles to highlight the importance of girls’ education, some key multilateral commitments have been set in place to increase funding for adolescent girls’ education.  Between 2008 and 2015, the World Bank supported the Adolescent Girls Initiative, a public-private partnership to promote the transition of adolescent girls from school to productive employment through interventions that were tested and then scaled-up or replicated when successful. The initiative was piloted in eight countries: Afghanistan, Jordan, Lao PDR, Liberia, Haiti, Nepal, Rwanda and South Sudan.

Reflecting on these and other initiatives, the World Bank Group recently announced that they had invested $3.2 billion over the past two years in education projects benefiting adolescent girls, surpassing the April 2016 commitment to invest $2.5 billion over five years. The investments have been largely concentrated across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and are helping provide adolescent girls ages 12 to 17 with access to “quality education at the secondary level, and ensuring they are enrolled in and stay in school.” 

Programs like Gender and Adolescents: Global Evidence, housed at the Overseas Development Institute in the UK, provide fundamental evidence on what investments work in transforming the lives of adolescents worldwide. The Responsive Research and Evaluation Fund is one of the few funds that supports more research and inquiry into adolescence—and this year’s focus is, specifically, on voice and agency. 

What is abundantly clear is that most research and programmatic funding tends to focus on adolescent girls as beneficiaries or instrumentally as key levers in achieving critical outcomes, such as lower birthrates and lower poverty rates—rather than as agents of policy and programmatic change. One group that has been aiming to change this paradigm is Rise Up, which has created a model of girl-centered advocacy and invests in girl leaders and their allies, providing them with the training, funding, resources and visibility to develop their own game-changing solutions for girls and women.

Since 2009, Rise Up’s network of over 500 civil society leaders and social entrepreneurs has advocated for over 100 laws and policies impacting 115 million people globally. The girls and allies in Rise Up’s programs advocate for sustainable social change by transforming the patriarchal norms, power structures and systems that continue to oppress and marginalize girls and women worldwide.

One recent example of Rise Up’s approach to girl-centered advocacy is a campaign that was started in 2013 to bring an end to child marriage in Guatemala. The practice is a widespread problem in the country, as pervasive poverty forces many girls into early marriages and unions—contributing to high rates of adolescent pregnancy and school attrition. Responding to these stark realities, Rise Up leaders collaborated with activists and civil society networks to advocate for a national ban on child marriage, and they supported girls who raised these concerns directly with legislators. Rise Up leaders created spaces for girls to share their own stories on national radio and television and to call for an end to the practice.

Enabling the girls to stand up for their right to delay early marriage was transformational for the girl leaders and played a key role in the passage of landmark 2017 legislation which removed a loophole in  2015 ban on marriage under the age of 18. (Between 2015 and 2017, judges could make exceptions and legally authorize marriages between adults and children age 16 and older.)

This example from Guatemala illustrates how investing in girl-centered advocacy and programming enables girls to play a central role in promoting meaningful change. Investing in girls as agents of this change is not only empowering for the girls but can be a powerful strategy to mobilize large-scale changes to the structural and systemic inequalities that constrain the lives of girls and their communities.

A shift to more girl- and youth-centered research, programming and advocacy is essential for development initiatives to foster greater youth engagement and more transformative investments in meaningful social change. Funding for programs that support young girls’ education and agency enable them to continue to learn and to earn, to postpone marriage and fulfill their aspirations. 

Donors and governments should do far more to break out their funding and development investments by age and sex, so that we can see how they invest in adolescents and across which sectors. We need investments in more research and programming, each informing the other—and resources should be channeled through partner organizations to the adolescent girls and boys, who are much better positioned to identify key concerns that affect their lives and advocate for the change they need.

Adolescent voice and agency is much-needed in the development arena—shaping programs and scrutinizing budgets—and should be treated as an end, rather than solely as a means, to achieve other development goals.

Sarah Gammage is the Director of Gender, Economic Empowerment and Livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women and an associate editor of Feminist Economics. She has more than 25 years of experience as researcher and feminist economist, including work with UN Women, the International Labor Organization and the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean.Sarah has a PhD in Development Economics from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague and a Masters’ and Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

7. Denise Dunning headshotDr. Denise Raquel Dunning is the founder and Executive Director of Rise Up, which advances health, education and equity for girls, youth and women everywhere. She teaches courses at the University of California San Francisco, previously worked for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and served as a Fulbright Scholar in Honduras. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of California Berkeley, a Master’s in Public Affairs from Princeton University and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Duke University.

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Black Feminist in Public: Tamura Lomax on Discourse, Power and the Misreading of Jezebel

Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.

Tamura Lomax is a black feminist independent scholar who received her Ph.D. in Religion from Vanderbilt University. She is also the co-founder, CEO and visionary for the online feminist and anti-racist publication The Feminist Wire and author of the recently-released Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture.

Lomax talked with Ms. about her new book, where religion and pop culture meet and the racial dynamics of the #MeToo movement.

Tamura Lomax (Lehigh University)

You describe your work as a Black feminist study of religion. How is this different from a Womanist religious study?

For womanist scholars, their work on the black female body has to do with: What does God think about this? What is the theological statement that we need to make? I am not interested in that. I’m not a theologian. I’m a religionist. I’m a religious historian so I don’t start with theological questions. As a religionist, I would ask questions like: Who is God? Is there a god? Who is this figure that people worship? What does it mean to them?

Jezebel Unhinged is a book about discourse and power, truth be told. It’s about the production of knowledge and how it turns into discourse, and how that discourse not only becomes powerful, but it becomes true.

When did you start doing this work?

Jezebel Unhinged emerges from my dissertation, but it’s not my dissertation per se. I really focused on discourse and the historical discourse around Black womanhood since the medieval period to now. I began this work in a masters’ program. I took a course called Sexuality and the Black Church, taught by womanist scholar Kelly Brown Douglas, based on her book of the same title. That class really opened up for me this whole new world of research. I began focusing on the Black female body in popular culture and popular religion, and the relationship between the two. It was that semester that I decided to do Ph.D. work and began focusing on not just religion, but also women and gender studies and African American Studies.

That’s when I linked up with Kimberly Wallace-Sanders. I took a course with her called Selling the Body. That work, between Kelly Brown Douglas and Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, set me on my path to begin this research that became my dissertation and now, Jezebel Unhinged.

Fascinating, because that’s my trajectory. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ The Black Female Body in American Culture is the course I took with her at Emory. That was in 1999. It was from her class that I really started to think more about representations of the Hottentot Venus, and that eventually became my dissertation, which then became my book Venus in the Dark.

That’s really interesting. I came in right after you then. I took her, I think it was 2002 or 2003. You had already graduated. Brittney Cooper and I were both in that class.

I think both Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Kimberly Wallace-Sanders have their stamp on the current crop of black feminists.

I don’t think Kimberly gets the credit that she deserves. She has an imprint on quite a few voices that are pretty prevalent in this work, not only in academia but also between academia and popular culture.

If any Black feminist scholar is talking about the body, it’s because they took a class with Kimberly Wallace-Sanders.

Absolutely. Those courses really gave me the language to say: Wait a minute, my body is not the problem. Black women are not the problem. Black girls are not the problem. The problem is with the gaze.

What I really liked about your book is the way that you were able to seamlessly weave both religion and popular culture, and also history and academic discourse. I hadn’t really thought of the actual archetype of Jezebel. We tend to think of it as a stereotype, but there’s a whole archetype. There’s an actual Biblical figure, Jezebel, and she’s the most vilified woman in the Bible, right?

She is absolutely the most vilified person in the Bible and absolutely the most vilified woman.

It’s interesting that the most vilified woman in the Bible then gets mapped onto Black women’s bodies from antebellum slavery on up to the present. How did we go from archetype to stereotype?

We already have this stereotype circulating in Europe before even coming to America. The stereotype of vilified and/or demonized hypersexuality gets attached to African women. On the slave plantation you have these women who are also being sexualized in very similar ways. I should say at the heart of slavery is also Christianity. You have slave women who are being raped, and they’re being trafficked. Slave owners wanted to be seen as Christian and good moral people, and not just good moral people, but the authority on morality.

So, it was very easy to attach this narrative of Jezebel, who is indeed the most hated woman in the Bible, to these slave women—to say no, we’re not raping them, we’re not bad, we’re moral, we’re not the bad people, they are, they are forcing us into these relationships, they are tempting us in these harmful ways, we’re doing things that we don’t want to do because they’re Jezebels.

The thing that ties Jezebel to slave women who were raped and trafficked and forced to breed is the misreading of Jezebel.

How is this biblical figure being misread here?

What’s interesting about Jezebel is that the narrative of her so-called whoredom is absolutely untrue. Jezebel is committed to her gods—plural—she’s committed to her husband and she’s committed to her people. People are often called “whores” in the Bible when they do not choose the God of Christianity, which is Yahweh in the Old Testament. It’s not necessarily sexual. Yet Jezebel is called a whore twice.

It has to do with two things, I believe. She chose to continue serving her own gods and not Yahweh. Jezebel marries into this culture. I’m not even sure if it was by choice. She’s married, regardless, to this [Hebrew] King Ahab. He has a god. His god is the Christian God. That’s not her god. She was never in relationship with that god. She brought her own gods with her.

What’s interesting about that is there are many people in the Bible who have other gods, and they may be called whores, but they are not killed and murdered and hated in the way that Jezebel is. You have the biblical writers really working hard to not only demonize Jezebel, but to demonize the power dynamic of her marriage since her husband yields his power to her.

How many times have we seen that in culture—where a person who wields a lot of power is somehow sexualized and demonized? That’s what happens to Jezebel. She then gets attached to slave women, who are said to be wielding sexual power.

In your book you examine the binary between being a “ho,” which of course is derivative of whore, and being a “lady,” and how that plays out not just in the church, but also in popular culture. Could you say more about this?

I think the systemic force of the binary is powerful. These are ideas that have been around for centuries, in terms of being sexual as not a good thing, whereas being this lady is a good thing. I don’t think that dichotomy is going away, but it can be lessened. It can be turned inside out. I would like to believe that, especially since so many women agree with it.

You hear women say sometimes: “Yeah, you can’t turn a ho into a housewife.” When these narratives are preached in the sermonic moment, women aren’t walking out and saying, “Hell no.” They’re standing up and clapping and saying, “Yes, that’s right! Amen!”

There is a constant narrative that female sexuality is dangerous. Of course, female sexuality is dangerous because our bodies reproduce. There’s this continuous struggle to own the woman’s body, to own her progeny. And in slavery, there was profiting to be made from the free labor that enslaved women reproduced. Because of these socio-economic forces, it then becomes difficult for women to regain control over their own bodies and to think differently about their sexuality.

An interesting counter-example in popular culture is Amber Rose. Even now I have male friends from college who hate her so much. There is this venom towards her, like “how dare she have a Slut Walk!” Like: “Is this your feminist?”

Yes, I’ve heard that.

Why does she make them so angry, and why do they call her a whore? She was in a relationship with [rapper] Kanye. She was married to [rapper] Wiz. But we don’t know of other partners.

I remember when she did a satire around the “walk of shame.” I love it, because people are like, “did you just have sex?” And she proudly responds: “I sure did!” It was wonderful. We’ve all heard of or experienced the walk of shame, the morning after. She’s turning that on its head. Here she is refusing to participate in this patriarchal narrative. We don’t know anything beyond this about her sexual partners, yet this ho language, this discourse, is still attached to her regardless.

I believe her slut walk emerged after Kanye talked about having to take 30 showers after dating her before he could be with [current wife] Kim Kardashian.

That “30 showers” remark was so racialized, because it was “I have to take 30 showers in order to be with Kim.” He was definitely creating this binary that was Black women versus white women, or Black women being located in this whore, slutty narrative, and Kim being the wife.

Absolutely. Subscribing to that dichotomy where the Black woman is always on the “ho” side, while the white woman, even if she’s had sex tapes, is on the “lady” side, which shows how black men like Kanye have bought into the racial hierarchy.

One of the things I argue in Jezebel is that the binary traps us in so many ways conscious and unconscious. The narrative is always there. I feel like religion intensifies the narrative. It’s the way that the narrative is told, especially when it is preached. That’s a very dangerous thing because then it’s: “God said it’s true so it must be true.”

It’s interesting that your book debuted in this particular moment of #MeToo. How do you view Jezebel Unhinged within this context?

I think Jezebel offers us language to critique the discourse that so readily demonizes Black women, women in general but Black women in particular, who get demonized for not only their sexual choices, but also when they get raped. Jezebel offers this very strong critique of patriarchy, and particularly Black patriarchy in Black communities, and the intra-racial violence that we experience. I don’t think that MeToo has gotten to that yet. I haven’t seen an explicit critique of patriarchy, especially its impact on young girls. My own experience began at 11, and in church, at that.

Right now, the movement is still on the individual level. You have to really get into systemic oppression in order for us to have that conversation.

The individual is significant. I think that’s how we get to the discourse in the first place. But now it’s time to move into the systemic, the institutional, the structural.

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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Why I Say #MeToo

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated with voices.

I would perform, sing and dance, and I loved to socialize. At the same time, my parents were fighting a lot—and even though their divorce was horrendous, it showed me that you can choose something different when things don’t work, and that was a gift. Especially with what happened after that.

Chicago activist protested in solidarity with survivors during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. (Charles Edward Miller / Creative Commons)

After my parents divorced, my sister and I would spend alternating weekends with one of them. When I was with my dad, my uncle would babysit. He was a man with a lot of authority in the family, and everybody loved him. I did, too. He took care of me and brought me comfort in difficult times—until the night he laid next to me, and the other night and the other night. I was asleep; when I wasn’t, I pretended to be.

I never dared to speak up.

As the years went by, I blocked it from my memory—all the while not seeing myself as anything valuable or knowing what I desired in life. But I knew that I wanted to help people. I came across speech therapy and realized that how people speak reveals so much about how they function in the world. It’s the things you don’t say that makes it interesting. I started singing again—even though being on stage, being in the spotlight and being seen was terrifying. For a long time, I wasn’t able to give myself the voice I desired, but I was determined to help people find their voice in the world.

How do you voice out what’s true for you? How do you even know what is true for you? One idea that changed a lot for me is that anything that brightens your world is true for you: that anything that is heavy isn’t true, that there is a different possibility. As you can imagine, the abuse was quite heavy. I started wondering: if this wasn’t true, what would be possible?

It didn’t mean it didn’t happen. It meant I wasn’t going to live a life based on what had happened.

If something is not changing, and you’ve tried everything, my advice is to flip it upside down and look at it from a complete different point of view. I had so many reasons not to create the life I desired: I had a terrible childhood; my parents divorced; I was sexually abused. But holding onto those things didn’t make me happier. 

When I tell people about the abuse, they go into the devastation of it. They make me, in that split second, a victim again. It’s not something they’re doing on purpose—it’s how we are programmed. I started wondering: What other choice can I make? How much fun could I have? If I was no longer a victim of my uncle, what would that give me? Ultimately, I found the answer: It made me the strong woman I am today.

To me, not being a victim means being willing to give up the stories I told myself about why I couldn’t. It meant asking myself: What would happen if I could? We don’t have to be victims of the past. I now know what’s true for me. I can even see how it contributed to my life. I’m willing to speak up and create a difference.

Your voice has value, too. If you don’t recognize that yet, it’s not too late to change what’s true to you.

Crystel Poetiray is a speech therapist and a life coach specializing in vocal and authentic messaging problems, an authorized Complete Vocal Technique teacher and a certified facilitator for Right Voice For You, a specialty program from personal development organization Access Consciousness.

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Feminism, Aging and Discovering Senior Space

I am a 70’s feminist. I retired at 63 from my time as a professor of english and women’s studies from the University of Colorado, and I’m now 76. The years between then and now were a period that I have come to call “senior space”—the time between middle and old age. Within them, my feminism evolved even further.

I went to graduate school at Berkeley in the sixties as a married woman with one, then two, children. Later, in the eighties, I became a full professor at a university that did not like, hire or promote women—especially married women, and especially mothers. My feminism, flowering in the early seventies, gave me a politics, a philosophy and a community. It supported my attempt to have a profession in the first place, for in the sixties it was against the rules for middle-class mothers to work professionally. It helped me not to give up after five years of rejection when, after obtaining my prestigious PhD, I sought work unsuccessfully as an assistant professor. It helped me to survive in, and challenge, the university where I finally did work.

This is a long story, and I will not tell it in detail here, although I do so in the book that I have just published: Discovering Senior SpaceBut a few examples will suffice.

In the sixties, for me, there was no feminism. There was no support—except from my generous husband—for me to go to graduate school as a young mother with a child. At Berkeley, professors told women graduate students outright that they should stop at their Masters and teach high school. We were not encouraged to seek out doctorate programs, where we would “only get married and drop out anyway.”

Only later, in 1971, did Ms. magazine’s famous “aha” moment come to me and save my self-esteem during that long period—after I achieved the PhD anyway, and no one would hire me for a tenure track position.

When the University of Colorado gave me a position as an assistant professor in 1974, I discovered, to my surprise and delight, that women were just beginning to try to form a women’s studies program and to think about courses about women. My own research and writing focused on women writers. I considered myself an “academic feminist.” I served on the first board of the new program, and created and taught the first courses on women writers in my department. (In the English department, only one or two women writers were ever included in the curriculum.) Later, I served on newly created committees for salary equity and affirmative action. I fought for women on the Dean’s Committee, and later on the Chancellor’ Committee for Promotion and Tenure, and in less formal ways as well. 

All of this was neither easy nor simple, but there was a small but growing community of women to support such work on campus. Earlier, when I was an Instructor at Bucknell, I had I joined a consciousness-raising group where women met to share our lives and difficulties. Most of our members were also instructors with PhDs. These groups were the backbone of the women’s movement throughout the country, and my group’s great achievement was to write a document on the status of women at Bucknell that we sent to every administrator and published in the school newspaper. I myself addressed the English department’s deplorable treatment of instructors—an issue still very relevant today.

Did it help? I think so. 

This is a condensed version of over 40 years, but it brings me the present—to retirement, and to aging. I had looked forward to this time. In the eighties, my life at CU had grown more and more difficult and unpleasant. My students did not “like” feminists, and my rank as full professor—and the only woman in my department and one of few in my university or indeed in the profession at large to reach it—did not bring the change in status that I had anticipated. I was still a woman. Even at the highest rank, I still did not belong.

I kept calling my early retirement “graduation.” I wanted to use the other gifts that I possess, including what I referred to as writing for the “real world.” As a creative writing major in college, I had been writing poetry, personal essays, even a novel, throughout my academic years—but I never included this work in my vitae, for it didn’t count at the university. I certainly had no idea of the great changes that had occurred in the world of trade publishing, but I did think that I would learn how to do it. I had retired early and ended my academic career for this new start.

Media, books and the world at-large told me in my mid-sixties that I hadn’t really changed at all, that “sixty was the new forty.” I believed them, and I was shocked by my growing sense of confusion and disorientation. Changes in my body and a diagnosis of severe arthritis in my back, hip, neck, knee and ankle didn’t help. More and more, I felt myself on shaky ground, and grew uncertain of my identity.

I needed to understand this new place where I now was living, and I found little out there in the form of guidance. Seniors in the pages of Arthritis Today were all depicted walking briskly, with their sweater thrown over their shoulders and happy smiles on their faces. What was the matter with me? I wasn’t always happy, and I couldn’t always manage that walk. So I wrote about it.

I wrote short pieces about my daily life and about my past. Slowly this writing coalesced into a manuscript, now my recently published book, that explores aging. Looking at the present took me to the past. Writing from my present perspective, I tell of my life as daughter, mother, grandmother, lover, teacher, writer, feminist. Through stories and reflection, I explore the threads of my earlier identity to see how they are woven together and how they might help to define who I am today: an aging woman.

This writing itself was an act of discovery. It showed me my selfhood, rolling along through time, adding on more experience so that things got more complex, and sometimes more perplexing, but staying at heart much the same. I continue to imagine a place for myself where I feel more settled, and thus stronger, more effective. Today, since I’ve been here for a while, and I haven’t fallen off the edge, I can see how the challenges that I experience are as much a part of this time as the vertigo.

Why is this book a feminist act? It is certainly not what I did in academia on committees or in classes or even what I wrote before, when as a feminist literary critic I brought a feminist perspective and feminist theory to my subject, and my scholarship was a part of my political activity.

But the book, using my life as example, attempts to understand a time, a condition, a situation, a state of being barely understood or even truly contemplated in our culture—no matter that more and more people are joining its ranks. Younger people don’t need and don’t want to know about it, and society at large pays lip service only to it. Let’s find some housing for those seniors. Let’s make some disabled parking places. Let’s provide lectures from their “superiors” and maybe offer outings in buses to keep them busy.

Many seniors are still very independent, working as they did before. (Hooray for Ruth Bader Ginsburg!) But whether they continue to hold jobs or, on the other extreme, become “burdens” to their families, what do they feel about who they have become?  What is it like to be older? Who really cares? Most seniors don’t tell—except maybe to their therapists, if they’ve got one. It’s more socially acceptable to dissemble. It’s easier for the world to believe that you haven’t changed.

Discovering Senior Space is an attempt (and there are others, for I’m not alone) to provide some answer these questions. To raise the issue that there are questions. My book is a drop in society’s bucket, just as my full professorship was, and still is, a drop in the university’s bucket.

I’m not “out there” anymore. I choose to be in here. But I am still working as a feminist, believing in my right as a woman to have a full life and not to be discriminated against, and not to feel guilt that my “issues” are embarrassing or my fault.

Working as a feminist, I wrote this book—hoping to help shed some light on today’s deeply ingrained ageism, and to offer information that is missing.

Suzanne Juhasz is the author of many books and essays, most recently Discovering Senior Space: A Memoir. She is a retired professor and the founding editor of The Emily Dickinson Journal, and in 1998, she received the Distinguished Senior Scholar Award from the American Association of University Women. Suzanne lives in Boulder, Colorado with her partner. She is a proud mother and grandmother.

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