Helping Girls and Women Win

Earlier this month, Sarah Thomas made history when she became the first woman to referee an NFL playoff game, sparking news coverage of topics like the recent push for women officials in the NHL and the rarity of female officials in professional sports. What was often overlooked in these discussions was the incredible dearth of female referees at the grammar school level, and the impact it has on girls.

The absence of women leaders is a major part of a cyclical series of disparities for young women in sports. Having more women officials would help give young women athletes a wider understanding of their opportunities and what they can accomplish—not just in sports, but in all of life.

I’m a former basketball player and high school hall of famer, but I never wondered why the majority of coaches and referees were all men until my own daughters were playing the game. In my daughters’ school, for example, a new gym was opened after the eighth grade girls’ basketball season was completed but just in time for the start of the boys’ season. Similarly, girls had to wait until fifth grade to start competitive basketball—whereas boys got to begin in third grade.

As a nurse and servant leader who is used to advocating for patients, I immediately went into action to make my voice heard and fix these gender-based inequities. The outcome: an eighth grade girls’ basketball tournament was held the year the gym opened, and now all girls now have the opportunity to compete in a girls’ basketball program in their own gym, just as the boys do.

But this goes beyond establishing better facilities and expanding opportunities for girls to get on the court. Young women athletes need to see women in roles of leadership as coaches and referees.

The number of women referees in professional sports is dismally low: 1.6 percent in the NBA; 0.8 percent in the NFL; and a whopping zero in the MLB and NHL. The number of female coaches is equally low. The problem is even more evident at the youth level—where girls’ participation numbers in sports are higher, but there’s an even lower amount of women in sports leadership.

Even the bright spots highlight the bigger problem. Earlier this summer, Hanah Shehaiber made history when she refereed for an Illinois High School Association soccer state championship game, because she was the first female in Illinois to serve as the center referee ever.

The participation of girls and women in sports decreases at the high school and professional levels.  Between 2009 through 2015, of those aged 15 and older who played basketball, only 10.5 percent were female. The lack of female sports leaders at the youth level is worth noting here—as is the urgency of the potential negative health and school performance implications for girls who choose not to participate in sports in high school.

Research shows that connections to female leaders provide girls with the confidence they need to become leaders themselves, and increasing female coaches, role models and media images of women playing sports is necessary to improve girls’ participation in sports.

That’s why we need to get a head start. The lack of female leadership in sports needs to be addressed early on, when girls are playing in grammar school. Female leaders like those found in the Girl Scouts of the USA provide examples of what girls can accomplish, and organizations like the Girl Scouts provide young women with the example of female leaders that empower them to be leaders. Youth sports needs to provide similar mentors to women referees to increase their visibility on all playing fields.

Women, especially those who participated in sports programs when they were younger, can also help close the cycle of gender inequity in sports by coaching and refereeing girls grammar school and high school athletic games. From my own experience, as a girls youth basketball coach for over 12 years and as a girls basketball youth referee when I was in high school, I know how rewarding it is to empower girls to be the best they can be in sports. If there are no female officials in sports programs in your community, the easiest way to rectify that is probably through completing the requirements to become one. (You will not only serve as a female role model, but also make some extra money for yourself!)

Although the need for referees at the youth level is high, women are rarely seen in part to feeling unwelcomed in the role. A 2014 study found that uncivil work environments—including lack of mutual respect from male officials, perceived inequality of policies, lack of role modeling and mentoring and even gendered abuse—pushed former female referees toward their eventual resignations, echoing the experiences of women who work in other male-dominated professions.

Marian Wright Edelman, an advocate for children’s rights has stated that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Increasing the number of female officials in youth leagues will show girls participating in sports what they can accomplish when they are older, will eventually increase the number of female officials at all levels of sports, and allow females to be connected to a sport they once loved playing. That’s a scenario where everyone wins. 

Mary Heitschmidt, Ph.D, RN, is Director of Clinical Research, Co-Director of the Center for Clinical Research and Scholarship, Assistant Professor at Rush University Medical Center and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

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Can Miki Come Back After Her Downfall at THINX?

She has always loved breaking taboos.

THINX founder Miki Agrawal at Burning Man.

It started when she and her twin sister faked their gender at age five, disguising their long hair under helmets and pulling on shin guards to break into a boys’ soccer game in the playgrounds of Montreal. By their teen years, Miki and Radha Agrawal reached the Canadian National Championships. The identical twins were in a race over who would be first to change the world.

But nearing age 30, Miki was burned out from running between her two successful organic pizza cafes in New York City. Radha had just broken off an engagement and become a fixture at a sports bar, drinking every night until she passed out.

The twins were spiritually untethered. They had no community. They began to feel the burnout that hits so many millennials, particularly entrepreneurs.

“I just love the taboo space,” Miki often said. Few words are more verboten than the one that describes everywoman’s healthy menstrual flow.

In 2010, when Miki hatched the idea of designing a luxury underwear line for “people with periods,” she had a tiger by the tail. THINX was the first major successful innovation to hit the women’s sanitary product market in 75 years, since tampons. Posters appeared one day wrapped around posts in Grand Central station, with beautiful young women showing off their bikini panties and sports briefs without a trace of embarrassment.

Miki earmarked a portion of the proceeds to go to a partner, Afripads, to serve poor girls across Africa. While traveling, she’d discovered many young women drop out of school at 13 or 14, ashamed to have nothing to hide their time of the month but unhygienic materials like rags, leaves, or bits of foam.

At the peak of Miki’s phenomenal success in 2017, she was scorched by scandal. The first hint of trouble was when her “public relations girl,” Chelsea Leibow, demanded a raise only a month after she was hired. The 25-year-old’s only previous employment had been as a nanny. Leibow gave herself the title of High Priestess of Period PR and insisted her name should be on all emails, not the founder of the company. Miki kicks herself for letting her antagonist stay on for a year.

Fired in December, 2016, Leibow re-appeared in the office to threaten her former boss, demanding $250,000 or she would go to the media with allegations of sexual harassment against Miki. Agrawal says she refused what she called an “extortion” attempt.

But serious problems with her company had been looming. Her executive life coach, Lauren Zander, saw that Miki was headed down a dangerous path long before the scandal. Working at breakneck speed to build her business, Miki took shortcuts and made decisions and deals that left her vulnerable. Zander told her outright that she had ignored the most significant aspect of building a successful team by turning the hiring of her staff to another person. And she had no HR department.

Many online blogs and magazines shared Leibow’s story: Agrawal had an “obsession” with the young woman’s breasts, touched them without consent, and asked her to show her nipple piercings to other employees. She and a few other staffers complained that Agrawal often disrobed in the office while trying on new products and would FaceTime into meetings from home while sitting on the toilet. Leibow also described her boss as having “an aggressive management style” that made Leibow too intimidated to speak up. Up to one-third of the 30-person staff had quit since January of 2017.

At a board meeting in New York that March, the CEO was forced to step down. “The board had been looking to replace Miki as CEO well before Miki left,” I was told by the new public relations manager of the reorganized company, Leesa Raab. Several other new executives told me they had wanted a corporate bottom-line person.

She had also made a classic mistake of new entrepreneurs— giving her board 51 percent of the company. Her board members took advantage of the scandal about to hit the press to fire the founder.

Miki’s “takedown,” as she calls it, happened just as the #MeToo movement was bringing sexual harassment into a serious national conversation. It was toppling scores of powerful men who would lose their exalted positions in places like Hollywood, Silicon Valley and all over the media.

There are no documented cases of women using their corporate power to intimidate women employees to offer sexual favors, on pain of losing their job. One former THINX employee explicitly said that she doesn’t believe Agrawal was actually pursuing a sexual relationship with anyone at the company; rather, she called it performative. “She’s not a predator and it’s not malicious, but that doesn’t make it right. And it all boils down to the fact that she has no conception of it not being right.”

Breaking the taboo against respecting employees’ privacy was not forgivable.

“I didn’t protect myself,” was all Miki would say at the time, given the “non-disparagement” agreement she had signed. Miki’s second book, Disrupt-Her, will be launched January 29, published by Hay House. The “manifesto for female entrepreneurs” does not address her professional or personal passage since the scandal.

The media today is rife with “cancelling” notable people, usually for disappointing fans’ expectations. People as seemingly bulletproof as humanitarian Bill Gates, Gwen Stefani, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West met this fate. Once people are cancelled, they are victims of human boycotting; no matter what they say or do, they are virtually written off. It’s perfectionism gone to an absurd extreme. No one who dares enough to become publicly successful does so without making a stupid mistake somewhere along the line.

This story is about a tribe that has saved this flawed female entrepreneur from cancellation.

A glimmer of enlightenment came to Miki Agrawal when she dared to go to her first Burning Man festival in 2011. She was 31. The ethos of Burning Man is to live in the moment, just what she needed.

Miki and her twin sister let their natural entrepreneurial minds flip the whole scenario of late-night clubbing. The twins’ inspiration was, “What if we took all the positives of nightlife—music and dance—and did that in the morning with no drugs, no mean bouncers; instead, a welcoming committee to give you hugs?”

I first caught up with Miki in 2012 when she was she was bouncing out of her Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft at 5:30 AM to run for the subway in her four-inch high stacked silver sneakers to beat the crowd of a thousand-plus that lines up at Pier 40 on the Hudson River for the tribal dance party they call Daybreaker. Dancing at dawn? That’s the point. This sober rave was meant to convert millennial office slaves and startup entrepreneurs from drug-blasted club-goers to sunrise lovers of yoga, dance and underground music.

The twins were DJ’ing together, joining in on this ground-breaking generation of female DJs  Their athletic figures were skimpily clad; Radha’s in a sequined bustier and fishnet stockings, Miki‘s in a braless crop top stenciled with “Feminista”—or was that Radha? It’s impossible to tell the twins apart. Both sported bejeweled captain’s hats.

These days, crowds of over a thousand are happy to pay $40 to join this cool phenom and dance for two hours while being ferried past the Statue of Liberty and filmed by a drone. In its first two years, it had become an urban craze.

The twins’ mother is Japanese and was passive in the face of their domineering Indian father.  He was the parent who instilled their burning urge to compete. They were sent to French school on weekdays, Japanese school on Saturdays and Hindi school on Sundays, emerging with a polyglot identity and the ability to fit in almost anywhere.

They left home at 19 to immigrate by themselves from Canada to the U.S. and strive for the utmost reaches of the American dream. With the help of financial aid, they both graduated from Cornell University and beelined to New York, where they both began careers as investment bankers.

That safe choice was blown to smithereens by 9/11.

Never before had Miki overslept her alarm. It kept her from being incinerated in the Deutsche Bank office in Building Two of the World Trade Center. “9/11 was my wakeup call—the aha moment,” Miki says. “Do I live an actualized life, or not?”

She wrote down three things she wanted to do with her life: play professional soccer, make movies and start a business.  Her soccer career with the New York Magic was cut short by multiple injuries. Video production was too confining. She wanted to be her own boss.

The usual generational solution for millennials who feel lonely and abandoned by America’s institutions is to live at home as long as tolerable. One-third of millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 still live at home with parents. Women in their twenties and thirties flee to Facebook for friends and to Instagram and Snapchat for followers. They desperately seek to portray a dream life from carefully curated images and videos, often signing off after many wasted hours only to feel more empty.  Too long diapered in internships and haunted by college debt, they may stick with a shitty 9-to-5 rather than risk trying out different career options.

Not Miki and Radha. They took gigantic risks and had the benefit of failing early, but they still felt isolated. “We were working our asses off to do startups. We had no safety net. At the end of the day,” Miki admitted, “we felt alone and drained. We needed a community.”

Older friends told the twins that Burning Man was a utopian experience in community living, unplugged from all the electronic devices and commercial transactions that run our lives. Everybody shares. In 2011, the twins joined some 68,000 creatives for a week to help build a city from sand in the barren Nevada desert and fill that magical canvas with art installations.

“Radical self-expression” is one of the principles giddily practiced—men love to dress up in tutus; nubile women show off their pastie-covered tits; strangers exchange gifts and favors, art and music and maybe sex, all in pursuit of a higher level of happiness.

Miki met her soulmate at Burning Man. Andrew Horn was not only handsome, he was already a social entrepreneur, like her. He was only 24, but he had started two non-profits—one for children with disabilities and one for disabled adults. Actually, they had met four months earlier, but Andrew admitted to me, “Of course I was intimidated. Miki is a force of nature.”

The young man was still trying to figure out who he was and, as he told me, not ready to get involved with a formidable woman seven and a half years his senior. Andrew brought his own tent to Burning Man, determined to sleep by himself. After too many mushrooms, he could barely pitch his tent.

Miki was not nearly so restrained. “He was the most romantic man I’d ever met and we made each other laugh.” So Miki searched the desert until she found Andrew in his tent at four in the morning. Peeking inside, she was overjoyed to see him sleeping alone. She planted herself outside and debated for an hour, “Should I crawl into this kid’s tent?”

Andrew awoke with a yelp. “‘Oh, Miki?” And he pulled her all the way in. “We spooned the rest of the night,” he told me. After the two spent four days radically expressing themselves together, they were “Burning Man married.” Andrew wore a gifted Brooks Brothers suit over his bare chest. Miki was also transformed, a swath of sheer white chiffon wrapped around her half-naked body. The ceremony was performed by a Rev. FunkPocket on an artistic replica of an ocean pier..

But it turned out that Andrew had been addicted to porn from age 12. He’d had some 70 one-night stands but never a relationship. The next year, the couple returned to Burning Man in an RV with six of their closest friends and dozens more who were eager to bear witness to their second, more serious, “Burning Man marriage.” It was still not an official paper marriage, but Andrew whispered to me: “We feel committed for life.”

It was out there, nowhere in the Nevada desert, where apocalyptic flamethrowers set a wooden man to burn, symbolic of letting go and starting fresh in life, that Miki and Radha hit on the idea of founding their tribe. They named their communal “family” Boom Spiral.

“It’s the opposite of the Doom Spiral in economics, where everything gets worse and worse,” Miki told me. “In our tribe, we enhance everyone’s well-being and awesomeness.”

That includes the “well-being and awesomeness” of Taylor Conroy, a 26-year-old meditating zen surfer who was obsessed with building businesses that make change in the world. He was close to folding his first startup, Change Heroes. Miki and Radha heard about the company that offered a video platform for young, purpose-driven philanthropists.

Miki held a pow-wow for him, and her tribe members all insisted: “You can do this—just power through.” Shaking hands with Conroy, Miki slipped him $10,000. He parlayed that pre-investment over the next few years to raise $3 million from donors in over 40 countries to fund schools, anti-sex trafficking efforts, and water projects—before he turned 30.

The anthropological definition of tribe is “a social group consisting of people of the same race”—okay, these are almost all white, except for Miki and Radha; “they speak the same language; hold the same beliefs”—de-commodification, self-sufficiency, human connection; “share customs”—half the tribe today are repeat “Burners”; “and a common purpose”—to use their success as entrepreneurs to change the face of education, eating habits, energy production, philanthropy, music, dance, media, toilet habits, you name it.

To house some of her tribe, Miki found a handsomely renovated 100-year-old Catholic church in Williamsburg. It had been turned into mini-apartments. “Three of our couple friends all moved onto the same floor with us,” she announced. The four couples could beg and borrow from one another, talk shop, or commiserate. Andrew saw their tribe as a new version of the sixties commune. I couldn’t hold back a laugh, having been a big sister of the Woodstock generation.

“But the sixties hippies followed Timothy Leary’s psychedelic prescription: ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’” I pointed out. “They were anti-capitalists, living off the land, making bread and love and accidental children. Isn’t your tribe using capitalism to foster your social purposes? Maybe even to justify living well?”

Their pocket duplex rented for $4,375 a month. That’s no sixties commune. Andrew acknowledged they were different: “We balance the ridiculousness of the way we’re able to live by trying to make the world a better place, and investing our time in things that are helping people.”

Tribes need rituals. I followed the couple and their tribe to their next Burn and saw them begin to invent rituals to celebrate couplings to come, conceptions, anniversaries, births—both of children and startups—and all the other passages as they grew from stage to stage into adulthood.

“This is a unique group among millennials,” says Esther Perel, a couples’ therapist and best-selling author of Mating in Captivity, who Miki and Radha invited to coach the tribe on intimacy and sex. They were most curious about polyamory, usually defined as having a deep attachment to one partner but also able to have romances with others. Lots of players in rich single precincts like Silicon Valley declare their marriages “open,” but usually end in a breakup, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher.

“Open marriage didn’t work in the sixties, or when it was tried in earlier centuries,” she says. “We are a jealous animal.”

I asked Miki how she felt about polyamory. “Andrew and I talked about it. We’re just not ready. Maybe in 15 years when we’ve tried every position, but now I’m thinking about having a baby, so I feel like ‘mine, no one else’s, he’s mine.’”

Perel quickly assessed the tribe as “warm and loving, but living in a sensory-deprived age.” The first piece of furniture Miki showed me in her new shared apartment with Andrew was a huge, low Indian bed in the middle of their living room—“a cuddle puddle.” (The twins picked up cuddle puddling at Burning Man, where people drift into parties over the course of an evening, sit close, hugging, drinking, talking, stroking in a friendly setting, going as far as their boundaries allow.)

Miki had always imagined herself marrying and having children.  She confided in me her recurrent dream:  She is  in a birthing tub in a little country house with Andrew in the water beside her. The family of their tribe is gathered around the tub. If all goes well,  Miki will enjoy an orgasmic birth. A midwife will help deliver the baby and the father will assist. The newborn will be passed around members of the tribe each of whom pledge to help raise the child.

The couple secretly planned their ritual of conception. While friends assembled for a tribal member’s birthday party, Miki and Andrew disappeared into a bedroom and Miki “pulled the goalie.” They say they felt their baby’s spirit form in the moment of joining. “It was sublime.”

But, as the Beatles warned us, life is what happens when one is making other plans. In her fifth month of pregnancy, Miki’s other baby, THINX, was wrested from her in the space of a few weeks. Its earnings, privately held, had increased by 20 times in the first two years, according to Miki. She had fantastical plans. “I want this to be a billion-dollar brand that influences a billion lives and eliminates the menstrual taboo for a billion women,” Miki had told me.

Andrew’s startup had attracted 50,000 customers to use his Tribute platform to record eulogies for living loved ones. Among them were Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss.

In Joseph Campbell’s famous mythic Hero’s Journey, there are three main phases: The Call to Adventure, The Ordeal and the The Comeback.

When I saw Miki shortly after she had stepped down as CEO and the media had blasted out the story in every form, she was fit to be tied. Five months pregnant and swimming in hormones, she swore that she would carry bitterness to the end of her days. When I received an announcement of the birth of Miki and Andrew’s son, I couldn’t wait to hear if her dream delivery had come true. Did the tribe rally ‘round?

“Oh my god, two weeks after I was fired, they burst in here with a boom box, food and flowers and said, ‘We’re having a party!’”

Miki and her son.

The week before her due date, Miki had DJ’ed at Daybreaker, belly bouncing. When she began having labor pains two days late, Miki invited everyone over for a dinner party. It began like a big meditation circle, 15 people all gathered round the cuddle puddle chanting in unison with the birth mother’s vibrations: “Ooohhhmmm.” It helped ease her contractions.

As the pain became unbearable, Miki succumbed to going to the hospital. She was given a drug that forces contractions. Instead, it squeezed the heart of the fetus and drove its heart rate down. A vaginal birth was not safe. An emergency C-section was performed.

When I visited Miki at home three weeks after her son Hiro was born, she was still “on the hamster wheel,” as she calls her non-stop entrepreneurial quest to change the world. She had already churned out two new patents and applications for two more. Her other business, Tushy, a portable bidet for adults, had earned a million and half in revenue, she said, and her mother-in-law was encouraging her to write a book. “It’s going to be a modern woman’s manifesto called Disrupt-Her,” Miki announced.

How, I asked Miki, did she and Andrew weather the storm of such a public failure? Miki’s defiant armor loosened. “I talked like three times a day with my life coach, going through every emotion. Sometimes I lashed out. Andrew and I would go to our coach’s house for a weekend and talk through all the stuff we were holding.”

No progress can be made to restore one’s professional standing until, if and when, the “cancelled” figure can allow her or himself to be vulnerable. The inner comeback must come first. It’s a painful process of self-examination and self-correction before one can move forward without carrying bitterness or blaming others.

After the takedown, Miki immediately went to work with her Lauren Zander, the best-selling author of Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap, Face Your Fears, Love Your Life.  “Miki was a mess,” the executive life coach told me in a recent interview. “She could not breathe. She couldn’t not cry. She felt devastated in every way. People didn’t believe her; she was betrayed by her board; the media piled on and on.”

Zander does not suffer whining. She is 48, a one-time teenage hellion who is now happily married. “We’re going to begin with a long list of post-mortems,” she told her client. The old Miki had to be put to rest in order to allow a rebirth. To help her come out of her bitterness and blaming, Zander told Miki she’d have to learn to take full responsibility for everything that happened around her.

How long did it take to lead Miki to the point where she could accept the truth? “Six to eight months,” Zander said. “She had to practice talking about it, coming to own it, and not being ashamed or venomous.”

The line that Miki and Zander kept rehearsing was “You let the fox into the hen house.” Miki was strapped for cash in doing her startup. The minute she realized she could get a better deal from another manufacturer, she insisted her current manufacturer give her a better rate. That was the beginning of the end. Zander smelled it. “I screamed at her: ‘This is dangerous, Miki!’”

But Miki was desperate to make payroll and grow the business. “She had high hopes that she could straighten out the problems later—don’t we all?” This is one of the biggest mistakes that startup leaders make. They’ll deal with the culture later, they just have to get the work out: “Everybody, heads down!” Zander has seen it happen so often to her clients, she sees it as the fatal flaw in building the culture of a startup.

“She needed to realize that because she’s such a force to be reckoned with— a visionary— she doesn’t see or hear what people are whispering behind her back—and she doesn’t care,” Zander told me. “The business was growing so fast, Miki paid no attention to whether people liked her or not. She didn’t take the time to develop relationships with the people working for her.”

In reality, the culture of a company is everything: the way the CEO runs a meeting, builds a team, manages deadlines, hears grievances and builds trust. Miki couldn’t see the impact her demanding style was having. Zander admits: “If you don’t really know her, you might assume she was a controlling bitch.”

To break through Miki’s wall of denial, Zander helped Miki establish three personal laws against repeating behaviors that alienate people: I will know whoever I hire, I will never try to be CEO again, I will always respect the art of building a great culture.

Miki and Andrew went through a lot of turmoil during her work on inner change. “Miki was accustomed to not needing help or nurturing,” Zander learned. From my observation of her demanding father and passive mother, the self-starter probably didn’t get much nurturing as a child. This crisis was the first time ever that she needed Andrew to take care of her, but she didn’t know how to ask.

“What Miki really needed was for Andrew to fight for her or let her cry like a baby,” Zander said. Andrew is a warm and loving person, but, like most men, Zander told me, his approach was how to “fix” the problem—by looking at all sides.

Miki has made great strides in how she handles talking about the takedown. Today, she is even able to bring it up: “If you Google me, you’ll read articles that say when I was four months pregnant, I was sexually harassing a woman I had fired.”

For all their work together, Zander knows Miki is still afraid that people won’t see her for who she is now. “I wish she loved her scarlet letter more— that she understood how special she is. She truly believes in changing the world, but she’s still afraid people won’t understand that about her and like her for who she really is.”

It had taken two years for Miki to help Andrew give up his porn addiction and fully enjoy their sexual intimacy. The couple had then begun pursuing what I call “slow love,” as opposed to the popularity of hookup culture and dateless sex. At every significant moment of their relationship, these two create a ceremony to deepen their commitment, which is witnessed and affirmed by their tribe.

Andrew designed her gold engagement ring with a space in the center to reflect their agreement to choose each other, over and over again, but also to maintain their separateness as individuals. Their deepening love and trust was endorsed by their tribe in many memorable rituals.

“When I think about my relationship with Andrew and all the obstacles we have overcome together, “ Miki said softly, “in business, in life, even in the sexual space—I’m so deeply proud of our partnership.”

On a visit to Miki, in June 2018, I caught her dashing in from a barre class in a running bra and biker shorts—still running. She summoned her babysitter to bring her infant son straight home. From the moment the nine-month-old baby boy appeared, Miki lit up as little Hiro pulled down her bra top to have a snack.

“If bad things hadn’t happen to you…” I began.

“…I wouldn’t have been able to be here for my baby,” Miki finished the sentence. “I was in the hamster wheel running so fast, I would never have been able to stop.” But stop she did, and her new M.O. as a calm and present mother was a stunning contrast to the driven disrupter of her first 35 years.

She cancelled 15 speaking engagements after being fired. She was now working from home, but on a book that could be set aside for Hiro’s dominant needs. The cuddle puddle was now a playpen strewn with toys.

And Miki herself looked different. A band of grey hair was showing. (She corrected me:  “Silver hair, I’m rebranding.”) Allowing her natural color to take over is another part of the passage into one’s late thirties—one day desperately wanting to look younger again, then embracing the reality of what I call not aging, but “sageing.”

“Silver connotes hard-earned wisdom,” she commented. “We should be proud to show it off.”

Miki’s dream now is to continue to break taboos through innovation. She hopes her book, Disrupt-Her, will expose the many ways in which women are indoctrinated to act out in business and life according to pre-prescribed behaviors.

In the afternoon, three of her male employees from Tushy dropped by to show her prototypes of a portable bidet. Her new CEO is Jason Ojalvo. She hired him away from Audible where he was head of the content production division. She doesn’t have to change her clothes or leave her baby.

I asked Miki if she still believes that it is possible to run a profit-making business in America’s market economy and at the same time pursue a social justice movement. “I absolutely do.” She spoke as an entrepreneur in the taboo-breaking business. “You weather the storms in business. But what’s most important is that you have people who love the shit out of you.”

Miki and Andrew moved into their new, fully grown-up home a month before their official marriage and seven years after their first Burning Man marriage—a testament to slow love. A gigantic sectional sofa sits in front of their new fireplace.

What happened to the cuddle puddle? Appropriately, it was moved upstairs to their new boudoir.

I asked Andrew how the usual distancing from friends once a couple has a child had affected the old closeness of their tribe. He barely grasped my point. “Miki and I exist as a central unit with a core orbit of about 80 tribe members around us,” he replied. “Concentric orbits of people in other cities and countries number, maybe 200.”

Being the romantic, Andrew had taken the last year to plan a DIY wedding where everyone would contribute to the tribal ceremonies. He found a rent-a-wreck boy’s summer camp near Cold Spring, New York—deep, really deep, in the woods of the Catskills. A private bus hauled the revelers up from Brooklyn and deposited them by dorms with wood-slatted camp beds. Most were then dressed in overalls and ready to prepare the outdoor dining area, bar and a stage in the amphitheater for a talent show of odes to love. Andrew had spent the last year planning it down to the yurt where wasted guests could get away from it all. I found him in his cabin writing his wedding vows.

Miki and Andrew at their wedding.

He showed me Miki’s wedding ring. He had designed it to slip into the space left between the two halves of her engagement ring. “That was when we wanted to be joined but separate. Now the wedding rings lock us together.”

That night, after a musical meditation and a buffet dinner, guests dressed in elegant versions of Burning Man outrageous picked up popcorn, Kombucha drinks and craft beers and disported themselves on blankets to watch a talent show. The twins put on an hilarious performance of a song they wrote together at age ten, constantly interrupting each other, ever the competitive performers, to the delight of their audience.

Saturday was the scene of two wedding ceremonies—one Indian, one Japanese—and a final inter-galactic joining, with Andrew in all white and Miki in sheer chiffon over a sparkly leotard with her signature Panama hat.

A couple of weeks before Miki’s book tour, I interviewed Miki and Andrew in the house the couple bought just before their marriage last September. It’s now the new HQ of the tribe with friends dropping in and out and an extra bedroom for out-of-town members to crash. Their son Hiro is center stage, a year and a half and kicking a soccer ball the length of the living room with his dad when he’s not racing toward Miki—squealing “Mama! Mama!” to jump into her arms and go dancing.

Andrew retreats to his study, where he’s preparing a podcast show. He launched his third social good business a year ago and now leads retreats for young men to work through a ceremonial rite of passage into mature masculinity. He’s what Miki calls a SNAG: Secure New Age Guy.

Radha drops in with her new husband. The twins live a 10 minute walk apart in Williamsburg. The uncomfortably overdo “geriatric” pregnant twin, already days past her delivery date, leaned back in a lounge chair so her beach-ball-sized belly could float up and take the pressure off. Radha talked about the greatest gift she’s had in life—an identical twin sister.

So much of our old B.S. is gone. Sharing motherhood has taken away all the silly competition we’ve had and replaced it with collaboration.” The sisters are on the phone 50 times a day, to which I can attest.

When I returned to Miki and Andrew’s place to say goodnight, they were at the kitchen island surrounded by friends all pitching in to make dinner. I had one last question: What does the couple do when they have a fight?

Andrew smiled. He will pull out the photo albums of their Burning Man experiences with the tribe. He piles them up on the cuddle puddle and waits for Miki to pore over them. It’s a reminder of all the beautiful times they have shared over the last seven years and an invitation to reconcile.

On one of the album’s last pages is their mantra: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Gail Sheehy is an icon of American journalism, a sought-after speaker and groundbreaking pioneer for women. She is the author of 17 books. Her landmark work, Passages, remained on The NYTimes Bestseller List for more than three years and has been reprinted in 28 languages. Gail was one of the original contributors to New York magazine and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984. She is a seven-time recipient of the New York Newswomen’s Club Front Page Award for distinguished journalism and three-time winner or finalist for National Magazine Awards. In 2013, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Books for a Better Life.

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Hillary Was Right: Real Talk About the Deplorables

A curious common wisdom seems to have taken hold of the Democratic Party which insists that the President’s base can—and must—be won back. Trump voters, folks insist, are not really racist, or sexist, but rather misunderstood and dislocated by “changes.” 

(Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

There are some notable exceptions, such as the veritable breaths of fresh air that are New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Boston’s own Ayanna Pressley, but even progressive stalwart and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris appears to have quaffed this particular Kool-Aid.

“Over the last 10 years in our country, at least, we’ve seen an incredible amount of change,” she said in an NPR interview after a query about Trump’s victory. “People are reading about ‘the browning of America,’ and ‘the immigrants are coming,’ and we had Barack Obama as president, and then we had a woman running as president, and we had a Jew running for president, and gay people can marry and ‘oh my God, oh my God.’” 

Others, such as perennial Presidential wannabe Joe Biden, have offered similar sentiments as they position themselves as having enough of the right stuff and the common touch to successfully challenge Trump in 2020. 

But is it “understandable” that people feel “displaced?” What makes them wonder about “where they fit in,” or about “their relevance?” What makes them ponder whether they are “obsolete?” Why are they “resentful of this change?” What does it say about a group of people if they are angered by inclusion and diversity, or by movements toward more racial justice? Why are those changes not greeted with celebration?

This is a convenient story. It allows us to pretend that all of this finger pointing and synagogue shooting and shouting— “build the wall, crime will fall!”—is just befuddlement. And it allows politicians to insist that deep and abiding racial and gender animus is not driving Trump and his supporters. (Research shows it is.) Trump supporters are not really hateful or discriminatory, this story tells us—and thus, they can and should be able to be brought back into an electoral fold by a leader who understands their angst. 

But this story is also both incorrect and dangerous. Unless we reckon with the depth and staying power of white supremacy and toxic masculinity, we will never be able to do anything more than defend what little inclusion and democracy we have. 

The ideologies of racial and gender superiority may now have chipped from decades of activism, education and legislation, but they are still alive and well in the hearts and minds of many of our neighbors. How else to honestly explain the precipitous rise in bias-related hate crimes now that bigotry has been legitimized from the highest office? How else to explain active and explicit efforts to disenfranchise voters of color? 

It may be troubling to imagine that a portion of our compatriots have beliefs and values so at odds with those supposedly at the heart of this nation—tolerance, inclusion, democracy and equality come to mind—but, in truth, this has always been the case, and that means we must learn how to acknowledge it. Vast numbers of Americans believed slavery a legitimate and necessary social institution. Women were deemed unable to even exercise the franchise of the vote, and they were beaten in the streets for demanding it. 

Hillary was pilloried for deeming a portion of Trump’s base “a basket of deplorables,” beyond the pale of civilized disagreement. But was she wrong? 

None of us are blank books in which history writes a story. The narrative of rapid change provoking innocent (white) bystanders to lash out blindly is simultaneously patronizing and illogical. It presumes those individuals experience these changes with no beliefs and values of their own, no way to make sense of them other than fear and hatred—yet not all of us react to change the same way. 

If we all really valued inclusion and equity, the election of an African-American President and the prospect of electing a female president would be greeted with celebration, not epithets. Instead, these occasions were met with anger and violence. These reactions are only possible if and when people believe that this is a zero-sum game; that those jobs or positions of power or rights were always only theirs to begin with; and, perhaps most dangerously, that those clamoring for equality and inclusion are less worthy, perhaps even less fully human, than they are. 

Biden even acknowledged as much in a September speech to the Human Rights Campaign, where he railed against the “virulent people” who “remain determined to undermine and roll back the progress.” Walking back from this accurate assessment may seem politically savvy, but it is ethically dangerous. Any glance at the horrors of our last century should give pause to indulging in fantasies where bigotry is understood as innocent dislocation.

To not reckon with the misogyny that propelled Trump and ratified Kavanaugh is to close our collective eyes to the persistent view of women as objects to be used, not equal subjects and citizens. When 60 percent of Trump supporters hope not to see a woman president in their lifetime, and an avowed white supremacist such as Iowa’s Steve King is handily reelected to Congress, there is only so much wool we can pull over our own eyes. When Bernie Sanders explains the defeat of black candidates Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams by referencing the “discomfort” of white voters—or, in later clarifications, the racism of their electoral opponents—he masks the reality of the deep and ongoing active racism of a small but significant portion of the American electorate.

Politicians and pundits routinely normalize and explain away resentment and anger at social change in the hopes of winning back seemingly wayward voters. But perhaps tying our future to those who espouse our values is a better way to ensure that we have one at all.

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is published by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University and the Editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

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The Ms. Q&A: What Diane Paulus Learned by Telling Gloria Steinem’s Story

Diane Paulus has led a storied life in the arts with a distinctly feminist twist: In 2012, she became the third-ever woman to win a Tony award for Best Direction of a Musical for her gender-swapped production of Pippin; in 2015, she worked with the first-ever all-female creative team behind a musical to bring Waitress to life on stage.

Her latest project, however, is far less fictional—and much more movement-oriented.

This season, Paulus directed “Gloria: A Life,” bringing the story of one of the modern women’s movement’s most famous faces to the Daryl Roth Theatre and issuing a nightly call-to-arms in the process. Each performance follows Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, played by Christine Lahti, as she walks, quite literally, through her own life; along the way, it provides a pathway to understanding and empowerment for viewers rooted in a corrected version of feminist history that is more diverse and inclusive than any most of us have seen before.

The play’s unusual format—there is no intermission, and the second act is an open conversation between the cast, crew and audience about the issues that matter most to them—is distinctly Gloria. But the engaging performances that fill the black-box theater have Paulus’ name all over them.

Paulus spoke to Ms. about what drew her to the project—and how it challenged and changed her.

Diane Paulus (second from the right) with Gloria Steinem (center) and actors from “Gloria: A Life.” (@gloriatheplay)

I always start with an inception story: You have had a legendary directing career. How did you become a part of this particular play—and, by extension, Gloria’s story? What drew you to this project?

Daryl Roth, our producer, reached out to me about this project initially—and it was a no-brainer for me to get involved. I’m drawn to projects that I know will expand my mind and my soul. The chance to immerse myself in this project and deepen my understanding of Gloria’s life and work has been completely life-altering.

This is such a rich and uniquely interactive theater experience. How did this play upend the typical model of directing for theater? How did you begin to approach the task of telling Gloria’s story and calling the audience to arms in the process?

The whole point of telling Gloria’s story in Act I is to transform the audience and get them to a place where they are ready to share their own stories in Act II. We created an installation in the set design that was all about the audience sitting in an actual circle, so the physical space evokes the Act II talking circle. The audience is always present—there is no fourth wall; they are included and directly involved in the theatrical event.

What was it like watching this play come to life?

One of the most thrilling aspects of watching this play come to life was to experience the meaning this story had for our cast and creative team. The artists that collaborated on this play ranged vastly in age—from our youngest directing assistant, a recent high school graduate, to women in their fifities and sixties, all the way up to Gloria herself at 84. Throughout the process, everyone shared stories of their own lives, and in this way we learned about the history of the women’s movement up to the present moment through our own personal histories.

Watching Act II come to life has been similarly inspiring, hearing the audience share their own experiences about what resonated in the play for them. There have been so many emotional and galvanizing moments.

For so many, the play is a trip down memory lane. And for younger generations, it is an informative lesson of where we came from and what our mothers and grandmothers have been through.

This isn’t your first feminist feat, on stage or on screen. Such a major part of this play is the notion, I think, that Gloria’s story is, in some ways, part of our own stories—and that we have stories just as wild and wonderful to share with the world, and which we must begin to tell to one another. How do you think the feminist movement shaped your own life, and your work? 

I went to an all-girls school growing up: The Brearley School in New York City. There was never any question that we could be whoever we wanted to be and say whatever we wanted to say. In high school, I marched for the ERA and I lobbied for Planned Parenthood in Albany. I actually wanted to go into politics—my goal was to become the mayor of New York. In the end, theater became the way for me to channel that impulse to bring people together and make change.

Now, having done this project, I have an even deeper understanding of how everything that I have been able to do in my life is thanks to the efforts of the women’s movement. 

I am so grateful to have had the chance to see this play—I attended the night Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a Ms. Contributor, led the act two talking circle. It’s such an immersive and inspiring event. I’m so curious about the vision that guided everyone toward the shape it ultimately took. What impact were you hoping each performance would have on the audience? What impact has it had which made you most proud so far?

In the play, Gloria says “every social justice movement has started with people sitting in a circle—like this. We called it consciousness raising… It’s all about sharing what’s wrong and what to do about it.” I am most proud of the simple fact that we’ve created a space for people to sit in a circle and to recognize that their own stories have value. I know that audience members leave the theater newly energized and inspired to create their own talking circles.

Yes, absolutely. As the run winds down to a close this spring, I am confident a league of driven and bold women will emerge in its wake. Now, just for fun: If you could invite any five feminists—from contemporary times or ancient history, or anywhere in between—to see this play and then join you afterward for a talking circle, who would you save a seat for?

I would definitely want to include the figures in our play—Dorothy Pittman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller.

And Joan of Arc!

Ms. readers can save over 25% on tickets to “Gloria: A Life” on Ticketmaster or by calling 800-745-3000 and using the code GLP65.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms. , co-host of TRIGGER HAPPY on Binge Networks and co-founder of Argot Magazine. Her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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One Woman’s Search for Herself is at the Core of “I Am the Night”

Picks of the Week is Women and Hollywood’s newest resource. We are often asked for recommendations, so each week we’ll spotlight the women-driven and women-made projects—movies, series, VOD releases and more—that we’re most excited about. Sign up for the Women and Hollywood newsletter at to get each week’s pick delivered to your inbox.

This Week’s Pick: “I Am the Night” Miniseries

For “Wonder Woman” fans, “I Am the Night” is a nice holdover until the blockbuster’s sequel lands in summer 2020, as director Patty Jenkins reunites with stars Chris Pine and Connie Nielsen. For everyone else, this six-episode TNT miniseries is an entertaining, thrilling blend of LA noir and bildungsroman.

Inspired by the life of Fauna Hodel and set in 1965, “I Am the Night” is about Pat (India Eisley), a young woman who finds out she’s adopted and sets out to find her birth mother. Her biological grandfather is Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a rich, well-regarded gynecologist with some very dark secrets. In fact, journalist Jay Singletary (Pine) torpedoed his career by reporting on Hodel’s alleged misdeeds. Jay—now working the sleazy stringer circuit to pay the bills—eventually teams up with Pat, aka Fauna, to find out the truth about her family.

As intriguing as the central mystery in “I Am the Night” is, Pat’s struggle with her own identity makes the show. She’s a light-skinned mixed-race girl being raised by a black single mother (Golden Brooks) in a small Nevada town. Like the other black citizens, she is routinely mistreated and harassed. But, for those who don’t know her, Pat passes for white. Things get even more complicated when Pat realizes she’s adopted and was born Fauna Hodel. Her birth certificate says her mother is white and her father is black. And that’s just the beginning of her journey. Each episode, it seems, Fauna discovers something new about herself.

“I Am the Night,” therefore, is the story of Fauna finding out who she really is. Hers is an extremely specific experience, of course, but it’s also recognizable to anyone who wrestled with their own sense of self as a teenager. Similar to her work in “Wonder Woman,” Jenkins—who directed three episodes and exec produces—gives her protagonist the space and screen time to pursue the truth about herself, process it and choose the best way to move forward. (Rachel Montpelier)

“I Am the Night” premieres on TNT January 28 at 9pm EST.

Women and Hollywood educates, advocates and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry. The site, founded in 2007 by Melissa Silverstein, sets the standard, defines the conversation, fuels coverage and reinforces messages throughout the specialized and mainstream media to call for gender parity on a daily basis. Follow W&H at @WomenaHollywood and Melissa @MelSil.

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We Heart: The ACLU’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg-Inspired Campaign for Workplace Equality

Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex is bringing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life back to the big screen—and with the launch of a new campaign, the ACLU is helping viewers find their own way back to the work that launched her legendary career.

Ginsburg co-founded the civil liberties organization’s Women’s Rights Project, paving the way for their groundbreaking work around issues including pregnancy and parenting, education equity and equal pay. All Rise connects that legacy to the current political moment—educating, empowering and mobilizing women to combat workplace discrimination in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

Through a series of digital tools, the campaign informs women about their rights at work and provides them with quick pathways to action. Interactive maps depict the status of legislation and policies impacting women in the workplace in every state, from efforts to outlaw pregnancy discrimination and end the wage gap to mandates for paid family leave and breastfeeding accommodations. Users can also learn in one click about federal initiatives, including the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Equal Rights Amendment, that would give women a boost in workplaces across the country.

Once they’re good and angry, visitors are then promoted to pass it on via graphics and promotional videos ripe for sharing on social media.

“RBG is a force of nature,” Lingua Franca, a New York based cashmere brand known for sweaters bearing activist messages, said in a statement. “She reminds us all that we all have more inner strength than we may know or believe.” The design house is one of many female-fronted fashion brands doing their part to spread the word about women’s equality, including Diane von Furstenburg and Soludos. “Egalite” wrist wallets and “All Rise” sweaters are also available for purchase, providing a fashionable twist for celebrating Ginsburg’s feminist spirit.

In conjunction with the campaign, On the Basis of Sex will screen in workplaces nationwide to raise awareness around the ACLU’s gender equality initiatives, and group tickets for theater showings are also being sold through the organization’s website.

The idea behind the All Rise campaign is simple: “It takes everyone to create real change.” Click here to get involved.

Katie Stone is a Ms. editorial intern. Originally from New York, she is currently studying journalism and communication design at the University of Southern California. Katie is the editor of Spoon University at USC and has also been published on Intersections South LA.

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Are We Making Headlines or Headway?

Try this: Think of your deepest, darkest secret. The one you can’t imagine telling anyone. We all have at least one. Imagine that if you tell this secret, something terrible is going to happen. People you love deeply, upon hearing your secret, will leave you. That is why we survivors fear telling our stories.

There’s a long list of other reasons. They’re all steeped in fear, too. My fear can fill a barn. I’ve been here before so I know what it is: my tongue prefers to push its tip up into my palate like it’s the first line of defense against my voice, and my tear ducts are working overtime constricting every few minutes to hold back the flood; my cheek muscles are swimming in salt water, and my lower lip is pushing back a tremor with all its might; my breath won’t go an inch deeper than the top of my lungs.

I know my fear by heart with my eyes closed. That’s what processing childhood sexual abuse can do sometimes—make you crazy-angry and crazy-scared.

(Charles Edward Miller / Creative Commons)

Beginning when I was eight and until I was 12, my father said, after every rape: “You tell anyone and I’ll kill you.” His menacing words held sway until I healed enough to realize, at moments like this, that I am not going to be killed for writing this article.

That people may actually read this article feels life-threatening to me, or so says my residual fear resulting from my sexual abuse experience. But deep down, under my anxieties, I know truth-telling is healing—even when the people you tell the truth to don’t want to hear it.

The healing I have gravitated to, chased after, beaten doors down for, took a very long time. Decades. What that did was build a spine for my voice to stand on. It constructed a foundation for the courage to speak to my family, all the while not knowing what their reaction might be, and ultimately lose most of them. They took whatever was left of their love for me and headed for the hills, and I withstood the blast of their departure from my life.

I am not the only one. Activism and creativity have been paths to healing for many of us, just as putting these words onto this page is for me. Individual survivors have long sought all kinds of spiritual and psychic healing, even on a cellular level. We get doses of medicine from our relationships—friends, partners, therapists, healers. Many survivors have healed enough to begin working on changing our lives for the better.

Now our culture needs to heal, too—so that it is no longer a place where there is so little sexual safety. How about adding that to the pledge of allegiance? With liberty, justice and sexual safety for all.

Our society now has enough evidence to understand that sexual violation is an epidemic, and incest is the grand underbelly of our rape culture. Letting it go on means we retain the breeding ground for other forms of exploitation and violation. If our culture refused to tolerate childhood sexual abuse, it wouldn’t tolerate any of sexual violence or harassment.

That isn’t to say that there has been a powerful, renewed upturn in social consciousness raising. There has. It started with the Women’s Marches in 2017, followed by the explosion of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Then came the Olympian gymnasts marching in time to the music of their victim statements broadcast out of a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan—damning not just one athletic doctor but the institutions that protected him for 20 years.

As all that emerged, this second-wave feminist heart of mine sat for months, too stunned to even know what to say—except for the occasional whisper about my fear of backlash, about my fear of those things that people say and do to refute, discredit and attack any of us who are telling our stories and fighting for justice.

I feel like my writing, my speaking, my telling is buried under a trash heap of facts. It’s a big heap. Priests and parents are raping children. Sergeants are raping corporals. CEOs are raping secretaries. Professors to students, therapists and clients, politicians and interns—it goes on and on. 

What we’re seeing now is an avalanche of truth-telling—an iceberg moving through our world, its eyes glaring out at all of us, wondering if it will be now that we, as a planet full of people, will begin to notice it, to consistently remember it and to finally do something about it.

That’s why, even in the midst of this moment, I keep asking myself: Are we making headway, or will these headlines just die down again? After the speaking up and shaming and after some perpetrators get taken down, there will still be an incredible amount of work to do. Institutions that have not held perpetrators and their protectors accountable will have to change the way they do business, and we will all have to redesign our environments in order to keep everyone safe.

If sexual violation is the iceberg, with sexual harassment being the tip made much more visible by the #MeToo, incest is its wide and harsh foundation, hidden in the depths of the ocean of our culture. As always, it’s only the tip we’re seeing. At the top of that frozen mountain are all the women voicing how they’ve been harmed, as well as some men. From movie stars to our next-door neighbors, there’s a tornado of women shouting. A slice of them tweeted #MeToo.

Great—no, fantastic. The more daylight shining on sexual violation, the more it can be eradicated. But what’s beneath the surface that can’t or won’t be seen?

Put on a wet suit and air tank, dive under the cold waters of social obscurity and find the under layers, and there reside those who can’t or aren’t ready to speak. Swim a fathom or two further down to all the battered, sex trafficked bodies. 

Now come back up to the surface—you’re almost out of air. Take a rest, warm up a bit and then put on another tank—a bigger one this time—and grab a buddy. Don’t go down alone. Swim past all you’ve seen so far, down to the place where all these other layers have grown out of.

It’s there you’ll find the incest and sexual abuse that’s been happening to children for ages, and is happening to children right now. That, my friends, is where all of this is stemming from. 

There has been a groundswell of deserved attention for the #MeToo chorus exposing workplace harassment and abuse—but hardly a whisper about the violations that happen in the home. That’s why I am adding my voice as a woman who survived incest.

Over 58,000 cases of childhood sexual abuse were reported in 2014, with 93 percent of the children knowing their abusers.  I need to add a caveat to these horrific numbers: 70 percent of victims don’t ever report. Those children, and their stories, are reason alone for us to make sure everyone gets validated for telling their story. These numbers are proof that we must have a continual avalanche of witnesses.

Until we stop the sexual abuse of children, none of these other outrages are going to end. Once the top of the iceberg gets melted down with the warmth of truth and understanding, the next layer gets exposed for what it is, huge and pervasive.

Every time I speak publicly I get asked: “What do you believe has to happen to end childhood sexual abuse?” Sometimes I want to say: “How the f#*k should I know?” But I don’t.

I say: “It’ll have to radiate from childhood sexual abuse survivors —telling the truth about our lives in ways that people will hear.” 

I know why I always need to breathe and stall before that pronouncement. It pains me to lay this burden of social change on the backs of my sister and brother survivors, as if they didn’t already have enough to deal with. But I know that rarely, if ever, does someone give up power and privilege. Almost all strides in eradicating sexism have come from women—same with civil rights and LGBTQ rights. Most hard-won bits of progress have been achieved by those on the short end of their respective stick. 

Survivors are more than witnesses. Our bodies are crime scenes. And something’s going to happen after we tell the truth. It depends on whom we tell, of course—like a support group versus family, a priest or a lawyer. But every single person we tell is going to have a reaction, and many of those reactions, sadly, will stink. (I can’t leave out the devastating fact that if you are not only a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but also dealing with racism, physical disability, transphobia or poverty, the scales of justice are stacked against you even more.)

Non-survivors have a job to do, too: believe those who tell you they survived childhood sexual abuse. 

I can feel a small flame in my gut stretching itself a bit, considering the possibilities of what a multitude of survivors and believers might come up with together for ending this soul-crushing epidemic. 

Anyone else interested in finding out?  

Donna Jenson founded Time To Tell and wrote and performs the one-woman play, “What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy,” which is based on her own experience of surviving incest and what she did to make her life worth living. Her book, Healing My Life from Incest to Joy, isa narrative of the choices she made and experiences she had that helped her heal from her childhood trauma. 

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Golden Mermaids: Lesbian Creativity Through the Ages

I edited and compiled Sinister Wisdom 111: Golden Mermaids, and wrote the introductory “Notes for a Magazine,” in the fall of 2018—while listening to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here is some of what I wrote.

It is early in the hearing; Dr. Ford just finished testifying. Senator Feinstein has just entered into the record one hundred, sixty letters supporting Dr. Ford from neighbors and over 1,000 letters from women physicians. The fact of these letters captures my imagination, and nearly reduces me to tears. These letters strike me as both congressional testimony and letters to the future, expressing perhaps promise or hope by women for a better future for all women. My hope listening to this hearing is that it is the last hearing needed for a Supreme Court nominee accused of misogynistic behavior. My fear is it will not be the last. Those letters, they contain the secret whispers of the future for how women will continue to speak out and resist.

Sinister Wisdom is like those letters entered by Senators as testimony. Sinister Wisdom as a journal has archived lesbian writing over the past 43 years. Lesbians write, and we enter it into the record.

Sinister Wisdom 111: Golden Mermaids, which officially published this month, offers testimony of lesbian lives today and features some of the best work from contemporary lesbian writers and artists. The words and images inside are a whisper and a promise to a future when lesbians are interested in reading the stories from these pages. 

6,000 copies of back issues of Sinister Wisdom are currently stored in the Sinister Wisdom office in Florida. I call these back issues our “vault.” In 2016, I moved over 10,000 copies of back issues from a storage facility in Berkeley, California.

Over the past two years, Sinister Wisdom distributed about 5,000 copies of the back issues to readers all over the United States and around the world, giving new voice to lesbians of yore. That work continues. 

Every year, we mail a new back issue from the “vault” with every package that leaves Sinister Wisdom. These back issues represent a vault of lesbian creativity—they are the golden mermaids of our past anchoring us as we write and envision lesbian futures.

We will continue to donate copies of all available back issues to community centers, libraries, schools, prisons and other places where lesbian readers can find and enjoy them until there are fewer than 2,000 issues of the journal on hand. (If you know somewhere we should send copies, please be in touch. Storing some back issues is an important function of Sinister Wisdom; we are dedicated to retaining our herstory. At the same time, the number of back issues stored needs to be manageable and not require a massive storage facility.)

What will Sinister Wisdom be and do 43 years into the future? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, there are issues to read.

Start with the current Sinister Wisdom 111: Golden Mermaids and then read backward. Afterward, bring Sinister Wisdom your wild ideas and imaginings! Be a golden mermaid and join us in celebrating lesbian creativity.

p1030388-150x150Julie R. Enszer, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Maryland. She is writing a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2000 and is author of Sisterhood and Handmade Love. She is editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. You can read more of her work at

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How the Shutdown is Hurting Victims of Domestic Violence

The level of uncertainty for domestic violence victims and the programs that serve them is increasing as the federal government shutdown drags on with no end in sight.

Volunteers sort donations for a local domestic violence shelter. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Schaap)

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has recently learned that the federal offices funding domestic violence shelters and programs will remain open until March 1, 2019, despite the federal shutdown that is currently dragging on with no end in sight.

“All of the calls and emails, and the breadth of media coverage, have centered this issue for lawmakers,” said Kim Gandy, President and CEO at NNEDV. “The new March 1 deadline gives local programs some breathing room, but is in no way a long-term solution.”

Advocates at domestic violence programs are at high risk of being furloughed if the shutdown continues beyond the end of February, which may mean that no one will answer the call when victims reach out for help. Survivors of domestic violence rely on government-funded programs to maintain their safety and economic stability in times of crisis. In addition, many victims depend on safety net benefits, like housing and food assistance, which are threatened by this government shutdown.NNEDV continues to urge the President and Congress to work together to reopen the government and pass a spending bill that doesn’t harm survivors at home or those seeking safety in the United States. “It’s great to get a six-week reprieve,” Cindy Southworth, Executive Vice President at NNEDV, told USA TODAY, “but that’s not a budget. Let’s get spending bills passed, and victim advocates back to survivor safety and not worrying about having to stay afloat.”A government shutdown with no end in sight is destabilizing for victims of domestic violence, who may fear that no one will be there when they need help. Even when the government is open, more than 11,000 requests for services from victims can go unmet in a single day. It is unconscionable for such programs to be thrown into their own crisis by a government shutdown.

“If you don’t have anywhere to go, you’re going to go back,” Southworth told HLN. “I would hate for any victim to make that choice to go back to a dangerous partner because of the government shutdown.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence is dedicated to creating a social, political and economic environment in which violence against women no longer exists. Click here to sign up for updates from NNEDV about the shutdown.

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What Losing Roe Would Mean for Women of Color

Today marks the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade as settled law—and it comes after a whirlwind year of attacks on women’s health care, from the states to the Supreme Court.

women holding signs reading KEEP ABORTION LEGAL and KEEP CLINICS OPEN stand outside the supreme court.

The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court—and the Trump administration’s anti-woman agenda—have unique consequences for women of color. (Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

Despite the hostile climate facing them, feminists are not backing down. On Capitol Hill, Nancy Pelosi has reclaimed her gavel as House Speaker, and a record-breaking number of women have been elected and sworn in to Congress. And across the country, abortion rights advocates are doubling down on fighting for our health care and reproductive rights: Planned Parenthood has announced plans to expand reproductive health services, despite the relentless attacks and hostility to birth control and abortion that continue from the Trump administration; NARAL is also digging in their heels, shifting focus from fighting their opponents to advancing policy to protect women’s rights.

The shift in focus comes from renewed urgency around the issue. Just one day after the election, the Trump administration announced two policy changes that would allow employers to deny women no-cost birth control based on their religious and “moral” beliefs. These attacks on the women’s health provisions in the Affordable Care Act came on the heels of major proposed changes to Title X, the nation’s family planning funding program—which could stop women from being able to access care at Planned Parenthood, the nation’s most trusted family planning center, forcing them instead to see less experienced providers who wouldn’t even so much as mention abortion when reviewing their full range of reproductive health care options.

If the Trump administration wants us to believe that these proposals will change women’s minds about abortion, they’re going to need better data to prove it. Studies show that making reproductive healthcare and contraception harder to access increases rates of unintended pregnancy, leading to greater demand for abortion access. Further research has also shown that limiting abortion care leads to poorer health outcomes for all women. Plus, abortion is already as limited as ever—in just my own state of North Carolina, 90 percent of counties had no abortion provider in 2014.

The Trump administration’s attempts to further attack abortion access present even more of an acute danger to women in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh would be the fifth vote necessary to overturn Roeopening the door to criminalizing women for the reproductive decisions they make (and the doctors who provide the care they need) after also denying them the health care and contraception they rely on to prevent pregnancy.

But the present danger to women in losing Roe isn’t limited to risks to their health—it would also mark a direct attack on their freedom. Advances in medical technology are replacing traditional methods of DIY abortion care with medical alternatives, which means that overturning the landmark decision could leave women facing handcuffs, not looking for coat hangers.

Right now, nearly half of all abortions are conducted not via surgery, but with FDA-approved medications. Studies show that medication abortion is incredibly safe, resulting in complications in fewer than 0.4 percent of cases—but terminating a pregnancy, even with a very safe method like medical abortion, could become a criminal act subject to legal punishment like incarceration without a legal framework guaranteeing women abortion rights.

Women of color face the greatest threat in this scenario. They already have limited access to contraception and affordable health care and collectively face the highest rates of unintended pregnancy. (This is especially true in the south, where very few states have implemented Medicaid expansion programs under the ACA to provide the health coverage that low-income women need.) Women are also the fastest growing population behind bars, particularly women of color, who are the most likely to lack the resources necessary to avoid incarceration, or to pay the fines and fees to get out of jail once they’re locked up.

Roe v. Wade ensures that women have the right to not have children, and it protects those who do have them. The decision provides basic protections to pregnant and parenting women, who are now facing increased criminalization for addiction to controlled substances during pregnancy, miscarriage or stillborn births due to the war on abortion being waged by lawmakers across the country.

Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman, was imprisoned for a stillborn birth. Pennsylvania resident Kasey Dischman was prosecuted for a premature delivery while addicted to opioids. These cases are examples of a growing trend that strips women of their civil rights if they are deemed a danger to unborn fetuses. Without the protection of Roe, that trend could accelerate—especially given the context of the anti-women agenda we see from politicians currently in power. In Alabama, voters recently passed a measure that endows fetus’ with “personhood” rights for the first time, potentially making any action that impacts a fetus a criminal behavior with potential for prosecution.

There’s no better time for women to follow the lead of Planned Parenthood and NARAL and step up, get off the sidelines and go on the offense to protect and expand on women’s basic abortion rights. The stakes could not be higher, and the time is now.

Naomi Randolph is the Senior Advisor of Action NC. 

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