How Do You Put Rape into Words?

My name is Julia Rayberg. I’m 25 years old, born and raised in Boston. I was drugged and raped in Guatemala, where I live and run the nonprofit organization I founded five years ago. Although not much time has passed, I am filled with this overwhelming emotion to share the story with you.

Striving for justice within a legal system that doesn’t support women, I feel so out of control. The only control I have is to use my voice, to share my words with you in hopes that it can inspire you to use yours. Although it breaks my heart knowing that so many of you will relate as you read this, I only hope it empowers you to speak up, to stand strong together in a time where our country desperately needs it. 

When we silence a woman, we empower a rapist.  Be strong with me. Be loud with me. Let’s continue to make noise and demand to be heard. 

(Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

“Julia, you are a good girl,” he would say, while he shifted around weights, dictating my workout. His voice was gentle, always relaxed as he switched between English and Spanish. The gym was small but cozy in rural Guatemala. We worked hard during our daily one-hour sessions, ragged exhales and reps punctured by bursts of laughter and talk about life.

He was that boy who didn’t party much. He worked hard. He went to bed early and woke at dawn. He ate well. He was that boy who didn’t do drugs. He had a beautiful girlfriend in the States. He knew a healthy life. His Dad left when he was little. “I don’t have a father,” he’d say. “I could never treat a woman the way men have treated my mother.”

I respected him. I started to care for him, as a friend does, but I didn’t let it show. Guatemala is my home: I moved from the U.S. years ago; I’d worked in these communities and I’d seen these situations before. Too many times. I understood his life.

“Mom worked hard for us growing up, we were so poor. She washed clothes. I take care of her now. She deserves that.” I would nod in silent agreement, but kindly avoid getting too personal. I had put a wall up. I tend to do that. I hate vulnerability.

He shared that his brothers had better jobs than him, more professional. They would say things to him like, “someday you need to get a more professional job.” He told me they were more successful than him. But the question of why or how was never answered.

“Julia, you’re a good girl,” he’d say, as we talked about the organization I founded in his country, how important service work is to me. He’d tell me about the pro-bono soccer program he ran for the poor children in the town. He’d show me photos. We bonded over that passion.

The gynecologist consoled me while she examined my cervix. I shook, convulsing on the examination bed. She didn’t see the tampon that later exited my body eight days after my rape. It must have been high up.

“You’re a good girl Julia,” he’d say, “you work hard.” It was in this way that he invited me to his best friend’s birthday party, gently reminding me every day that week. “You are coming Julia, yes?”

Yes. I brought my own wine. “They’ll have drinks there,” he insisted. But I wasn’t interested in liquor. It was the early afternoon.

The house was fancy, modern, newly built. The music was loud and latino. It was a long walk from the entry door through the living room, where people gathered around a pool table. I flashed an uncomfortable smile a few steps down into the kitchen area. This was an introvert’s worst nightmare. The view was incredible. The balcony off the kitchen brought you into a wonderland. The most beautiful lake in the world—volcanoes, pure serenity. That’s where you could find me, staring off into the lake, for the time I remember anyway.

The other guests smothered my suspicions under a shroud of hospitality and welcoming. I tried to loosen up. Just relax Julia. Just enjoy. All I could focus on was the 12-year-old boy they hired to prepare food. I knew him. I poured my glass of wine and wished my new acquaintance a “happy birthday.” We cheered the birthday boy with a sample of the bottle of Bombay Sapphire he was gifted.

An hour passed and I topped off my glass of wine. I’d leave after this glass, I told myself. I was finished entertaining the unrelatable crowd.

Time froze. Or I guess maybe it didn’t, but it did for me. They were doctors, so maybe it was anesthesia. I guess I’ll never know. A shack by the river is where I woke up. The bed was soaked with my urine. I was completely naked. He was next to me. I felt like my heart wasn’t ever going to calm itself. I was so cold.

I lost control. Questions came pouring out before I knew what I was asking. Where am I? What happened? What time is it? Where’s my purse? I had nothing. I was taken without my belongings. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to.

But I still blamed myself.

When I was in college, I knew the life of drinking into a blackout. I was too experienced with that, actually; I gave up alcohol for three and a half years. From the age of 21 to 24 I committed myself to soul searching—hard work, mindfulness, self-love. Then I decided I was ready—gave myself permission to enjoy wine, be twenty-something, embrace life. A healthy, balanced life. A life I continue to live as I serve the impoverished communities of rural Guatemala.

“Oh dear, what have you done Julia?” I thought to myself. “How in the world did this happen?” It was so dark. His skin was so soft but felt disgusting against mine. My body rejected his as if it knew something I didn’t. I shook lightly but uncontrollably. My hands were unsteady. I felt sick. I was starving.

He gave me clothes to put on as he consoled me. “Nothing happened. You just drank too much, Julia. Don’t worry.” But his voice shook slightly. My reaction had filled him with panic.

Ten hours of the unknown. A dark ceiling and a blank stare. A pain so deep with a burning desire for answers. A lying boy and a bed of urine. Numbness took over. Suddenly I remembered the tampon. It was a “just in case” tampon I had put in before the party.

I told him in a panic: “I had a tampon!” He brushed me off. “You said some shit about taking it out.” He spoke to me in soothing tones. “Everything is okay.” “I saved you from the party.” “Nothing happened, Julia. You are safe. We did not have sex.”

Ten hours of the unknown. I wanted so badly to leave but the bedroom felt safer than the unpredictable outside, a Narco slum by the river. The ugliest family. So ugly.

He tried to push his body on mine. “Quieres? Quieres, Julia?” he repeatedly asked me, “you want?” in Spanish. I can still hear his tone. I numbed my body and mind. I replied, in a quiet monotone: “no.” Staring off at the ceiling, I laid awake, so alert, searching for answers, for hours while he slept. Dawn couldn’t come fast enough.

The STD was evident. The three different antibiotics burn my belly. “Take every 8 hours for 7 days.” The “variety pack,” I call it. The “I have no idea what you could have, but please take all of the above” pack. The nightly vaginal injections bring tears to my eyes every time.

Ten hours of the unknown. But I am strong. I went to the police and they told me to leave my house. But I am strong. I started making noise and they started watching me. But I am strong. I showed the police the dirty shack by the river and they pointed out his web of criminal family members. But I am strong. I thought I knew my friend but he only knew his premeditated rape. But I am strong. I learned that they’re drug dealers in Guatemala, but I’m not afraid. I am strong.

I went through the forensic exam required by Guatemalan law — the reason women don’t report rape in this country. “Stand here. Open your legs. Squat. Get on all fours. Face down.” The drape over the exam table was dirty and stained from prior exams. I asked the male doctor if it had been cleaned, but I don’t think he liked that question. I was a mess. The room was cold. He performed a full body exam.

I sobbed as he took photos and entered my body. Raped again. But I am strong. I thought for days about how to call and tell my family thousands of miles away. How do I comfort my Mom? How do I prevent my Dad from killing him? My poor sister and brother, I know they’ll be heartbroken. Carrying the weight of their pain is worse than carrying my own. But I am strong. Four women came to me, all drugged and raped by these individuals. They never spoke up, but I’ll speak for them. We can be strong together.

While my mind is consumed by strength, my entire body aches.

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman is on repeat. I don’t know why, but it just feels good. “Keep going, Julia, this is your fight to fight,” the voice inside in my head repeats, a beautifully broken record. I reflect on Dr. Seuss. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change. It’s not.”

How do you put rape into words? I’ve asked myself this for days. And today, on the tenth day after my rape, it only feels right to recognize my ten hours of the unknown. For the sake of women who have gone through it, the ones who weren’t so lucky and lost their lives before they could speak. For the sake of the five-year-old girl who walked out of the forensic examination room before me, hysterical, tiny, her little body absolutely defeated, who was with her two older sisters. Hours and hours of unknown darkness between us. All rape survivors. My eyes connected with the eldest sister, 13 years old. We didn’t need to speak, our eyes exchanged condolences. I wanted to throw up.

How could I not do it for them? I’ll be your voice. I’ll do it for the young girl in me who experienced something once before and couldn’t speak up, only go numb, who put herself away, hid and felt shame. I need to do it for her. For the sake of justice, I will continue to fight, and I will not be afraid.

I am strong.

This post originally appeared on Medium. Republished with author permission.

Julia Rayberg is a 25-year-old entrepreneur from the South Shore of Massachusetts. At 19, she founded a nonprofit organization in Guatemala called Worthy Village, which works to build pathways out of poverty for women and children by providing economic opportunity, healthcare and education. 

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Who’s Your Daddy?

The first time I found myself smitten with a Daddy was back in the 90s. But was it the first time? I didn’t yet know what I knew.

I talked to my friend on the phone. She wasn’t just another sociologist, she was one of my significant mentors. “Why is this Daddy-thing hot though?” I asked. “I mean, it’s fascinating and I’m in it to figure it out, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t totally hot. It doesn’t make sense though.”

I continued musing: “The stuff we play out is not even fresh. The scripts are recycled. Highly gendered power games based on ownership, upholding patriarchal themes about strength and frailty, purity and goodness. Daddy is a hack. And it’s totally hot nonetheless.”

She listened, but I could tell she didn’t know what to do with this. We were both dykes, for one thing. (Sometimes I forget that’s salient because it both is and it isn’t.) She was normally interested in my social curiosities, but what could she do with this?

“Well,” she said, “you can’t be a sociologist all the time.” 

Dark is the author of The Daddies, a book exploring how patriarchy shapes our relationships.

I don’t remember if I said it, but I know I thought about it a lot over the years that followed: I can’t not be a sociologist all the time. This is how we think. Whether or not we can unsee the ways in which power relationships and patterned interactions scaffold the social world, there are definitely themes that are unwelcome for discussion in academic and polite company.

Intellectual and creative freedom being higher on my list of life goals than employment and acceptability, I started inquiring and cataloging. Who’s your Daddy? Who’s my Daddy? And what do we all mean when we utter that phrase that had gained cultural cache in the 90s, though it’s been around a long time? (Spoiler alert: We mean a whole lot of things, depending on who’s talking and who’s listening.) 

The thing is, I had met Daddy before—I just didn’t remember at first. I’d been taught, like everyone in my culture, to salivate on cue, to recoil on cue, to vote on cue, to love on cue.

Socially, we’ve made a pact to ignore our Pavlovian responses to patriarchy. Feminism taught us we should only have negative responses to patriarchy—when the truth is, we have a range of responses embedded in our desires and behaviors, and some of those responses are ecstatic and operate like need or hunger. Even when consciously, we want to dismantle systems that harm us all. Even when consciously, we want to turn our children into soldiers for causes that are destroying the planet and rendering the wisdom of our bodies mute, or at least indecipherable.

In order to dismantle patriarchy, and still nurture the vital human force of masculinity, we have to understand our draw and repulsion to Daddy: the nurturer, the dominator, the destroyer, the lover. I had the tools to do that.

As a sociologist—and, in particular, as a qualitative researcher, an auto-ethnographer and a poet—I had the tools to do that. I also became keenly aware over the following decade that the academy, including the universities and faculty themselves, were one type of Daddy, and that self-analysis was not his thing, so I took the tools sociology gave me out into other parts of the world.

I study what I want—including gender and sexuality and how power exists and is recreated in intimate interactions and then patterned back out into social structures. Including Daddy. 

When we have greater understanding, we have greater choices.

Kimberly Dark is author of The Daddiesa lesbian leather-daddy love story, an indictment of patriarchy and a call to self-love and cultural transformation. 

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Views from the Frontlines of a Historic Candidacy and a Feminist Uprising

I wasn’t on an official assignment when I set out to document Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign; I was simply an enthusiastic Hillary fangirl who also happened to be a professional photographer.

I began attending and photographing campaign events in my head-to-toe “Vote For Hillary’’ look in 2016. (My favorite shirt, which I designed myself, read “The Revolution Is Female.”) By the time the campaign came to New York for its primary in April, I had cultivated an engaged and public-facing space on social media where users published posts about our shared support for Hillary’s candidacy. I also used the space to share my photography and organize local meet-ups.

There was a revolution brewing in the United States—and millions of us were ready for her.

On April 18, the day before New York’s primary, I made my way to the New York City Hilton to photograph Hillary’s Get Out the Vote rally. I arrived hours early with the hope of securing a spot near the stage, and when the time came to enter the Trianon Ballroom, I noticed a wave of excitement was underway. A group of supporters, including new friends, were being invited to stand behind Hillary’s podium.

I had a moment of indecision: Do I hold my highly coveted position at the front of the stage that I waited hours for, or do I cut loose and become part of the sign-waving backdrop of supporters in this historic moment? Of course, I chose the latter—and am so grateful for that spontaneous decision. The room erupted in cheers when the powerhouse of Democratic women began filing onto the stage: U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, former President of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards and Hillary Clinton herself. Even better, I was also able to discreetly capture a few powerful photographs from my unique perspective.

Photographing Hillary Clinton and her supporters in 2016 was the highlight of my life. We didn’t see Clinton supporters being represented in the mainstream media, but we were the majority. Clinton won the popular vote by millions, and though she lost the electoral vote narrowly, which was beyond painful, in the days and weeks following the election I saw women turning this pain into action.

Admittedly, I wanted to put down my camera and cry forever—but if Hillary was not going to give up, how could I? Our second chapter was just beginning, and I wanted to be there to document it. 

This February, I decided to bring my election and resistance photography together into a coffee table photography book: The Revolution Is Female: A Historic Candidacy, A Popular Vote and a Feminist Uprising. (When I announced I was doing pre-orders for the book, Hillary herself tweeted about my effort; my pre-order minimum was exceeded by hundreds orders that same day, and my book went into production.) 

I also included essays and quotes from women in the movement. One of my favorites is from New York State Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins: 

We are at an important crossroads for women in our state and nation.  The #MeToo movement has brought the scourge of sexual harassment and abuse of power out of the shadows and has awoken the consciousness of our society. Change is coming. Women are going to lead!

The Revolution is Female has a beginning and a middle, but no end. Instead, it has one more beginning—the launch of our future. I titled the three chapters “I’m With Her,” celebrating Hillary Clinton, her campaign and her enthusiastic supporters; “Resist,” representing the fierce feminist movement that rose from the ashes of an illegitimate election; and “Onward,” marking our persistence and progress as resilient women in politics, healthcare, arts, finance and beyond.

When women participated in the Women’s March movement, which would become the largest worldwide protest in history, we knew Hillary started something really big. Following the march, our momentum grew stronger, and women began to run for political office in record numbers, many for the first time. Last month, many of them won.

We are at an unstoppable moment in history for women. It is my hope that The Revolution Is Female will honor Hillary Clinton’s quest for an equal America—and provide a voice for the many who have fought, and continue to fight, for women’s rights and equality.

Click here to buy a limited edition gift set including The Revolution is Female exclusive to Ms. readers!

Kristen Blush has over 15 years experience in photojournalism and commercial photography. She’s based in New York.

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Three Ways Young Feminists Can Find and Foster Their Own Girl Power

Over the past few years, the words “girl power” have been used as a rallying cry for empowerment and strength in the ongoing fight for women’s equality. I feel goosebumps spread on my arms when I say these two words with power and gusto—like many other feminists, I am enthralled with the idea that girls deserve to be just as heard and recognized as their male peers.

To me, “girl power” also suggests bringing a youthful set of eyes to challenging gender norms—and instilling a sense of power in our rising generation of future feminist leaders. Girl power does not have to just be a saying. For girls everywhere, it can be a way of life.

I have three major pieces of advice for girls looking to find their power—from one young feminist to another.

Girls at the Youth Dialogue sessions during the UN’s 62nd Commission on the Status of Women. (UN Women / Creative Commons)

#1: Start with self-acceptance.

The first step to igniting social change is self-acceptance. For girls, being your own biggest fan isn’t just a good way to boost your self-esteem—it’s a survival mechanism, and one that defies social norms. While young boys often receive affirmation and praise from their parents, teachers and peers, this is not always the case for girls—many of whom face criticism or even punishment for being true to themselves, which can lead to self-doubt.

If girls learn how to trust themselves and see what makes them special, instead of listening to outside voices, their confidence and spirits will soar. This mindset allows for greater success, whether it be in making friends or proving your point. For me, this all started when I began to take satisfaction in my wins, however small they were. Once it became a habit of mine to pat myself on the back, I was better equipped to face the world.

#2: Start standing up for yourself.

As young women, our gender and age are often used by others as excuses to ignore our ideas and opinions. That means we have to be fighters.

Girls learn early on that if they do not defend themselves, no one else will brave the battle for them. It’s unfair that girls have to work harder than boys to be seen, heard and respected—but nevertheless, we must persist and we must do it, because our words and perspectives are just as valuable and necessary as anyone else’s.

In just my lifetime, the world has witnessed a rise in strong, powerful female leaders bringing their voices to the masses. But high-profile activists and Washington heavyweights like Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—and even stars like Ellen DeGeneres, Yara Shahidi and Kesha—had to challenge others, and learn to fight for themselves, in order to smash ceilings, brave the odds and reach the influential positions they have today.

Girl power comes from recognizing that you are unique and being true to yourself, even in the face of trolls and critics who will try to put you into boxes. I have been told that I do not act like “other girls.” What does it even mean to be like “other girls?” Does it mean being submissive, quiet, clean-cut and well-behaved? If so, that’s fine by me—I embrace being inquisitive, opinionated and bold.

Society should be able to handle your unfiltered, true self. Resist the instruction to bend to their will—insist instead that others figure out how to handle you as you really are.

#3: Support your sisters.

It’s still true: We’re stronger together.

Girls like us must support each other if and when we challenge the world. Part of being a feminist leader is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other women as they take a stand. Two years after women rallied behind Hillary Clinton, helping to deliver a historic popular vote win to the first-ever female candidate for president, women voters staged a sequel—and elected a historic number of women to office across the country.

When we support each other, society changes. When individual action becomes collective action, girls everywhere see changes. Girl power must go beyond our own empowerment—our goal must be to create real change once we find our voices.

Hannalee Isaacs is a hardworking high school student from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. An optimist, feminist and change-maker, she hopes to encourage the ones around her to be socially active and use their voices. When not volunteering her time, marching or being an active member in her synagogue, Hannalee enjoys spending time with her dog, family and friends.

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‘Tis the Season to Be Notorious: The Feminist RBG Holiday Gift Guide

No one personifies the slogan “she persisted” better than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This “tough as nails” 85-year-old Queen of the Bench has not missed a single day of oral arguments in 25 years—even after cracking three ribs in early November, she was back in the office (and to her vigorous exercise routine) just days later

Luckily, the cult popularity of this fierce feminist means the holidays are a wonderful time to celebrate her with your feminist friends and family. There are plenty of RBG gifts and novelties to choose from—but we went out looking for 10 of the most notorious gifts for everyone on your list.

There’s no truth without Ruth—and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t spend the season spreading her spirit of feminist righteousness!

#1: RBG on a Small Screen

The award-winning documentary RBG, about the life and times of this Goddess of Justice, was selected by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures as the Best Documentary Film of 2018. Directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, RBG was funny, smart and entertaining. Buy it on DVD here.

#2: RBG on the Big Screen

On the heels of RBG, Hollywood is getting in on the action. Directed by Mimi Leder and co-starring Kathy Bates as feminist attorney Dorothy Kenyon, On the Basis of Sex, out December 25, 2018, stars Felicity Jones as the one and only RBG and follows her life from Harvard Law School to her work with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project—and her first successful sex discrimination case before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1972. Sign up for FanAlert to be notified as soon as tickets are available.

#3: RBG on the Printed Page

If you’d rather give a book, there’s The Unstoppable Ruth Bader Ginsburg: American Icon, Antonia Felix’s photo history with biographical essays as well as excerpts from Ginsburg’s speeches. For the more erudite, there’s Ginsburg’s My Own Words.

#4: RBG at the Gym

As the oldest sitting Supreme Court Justice, RBG attributes her longevity to her exercise routine. Learn her secrets with the bestselling book The RBG Workout. And pair it with RBG’s Super Diva workout T-shirt.

#5: RBG, But Make It Fashion

Wear your devotion to the nation’s Greatest Dissenter with RBG clothing. There’s so much to choose from—T-shirts, tank tops, leggings, skirts, sundresses, and scarves. Perhaps a Flaming Feminist tee (her own self-ascribed label), RBG “I dissent” leggings or a pink Notorious RBG onesie for your favorite baby feminist! Or just wear her on your body with an RBG temporary tattoo.

#6: RBG on the Go

Carry her with you with an RBG Tote Bag.

#7: …And RBG When You Get Home

Decorate your walls with RBG posters. 

#7: RBG’s Dissenting Look

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a special collar she wears when she dissents to decisions of her conservative fellow justices; she famously wore her “dissent collar” on November 9, 2016. Now, you can wear your own! Whether a necklace or a pair of earrings are the perfect fit, you’ll look good and do good: 50 percent of the profits are divided between The Bronx Freedom Fund, the International Refugee Assistance Project and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

#8: RBG Forever

RBG litigated many of her pioneering women’s rights cases while she was at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. Celebrate her legacy by making a donation to the ACLU on a friend’s behalf.

#9: RBG in Action

My personal favorite: The RBG action figure with gavel, white gloves and a commanding index finger to point at whoever needs to be schooled.

#10: RBG All Over

Once you’ve assembled your series of RGB gifts, you can package it up with RBG wrapping paper.

Short on funds? Just share the Hamilton-inspired RBG rap video with a deserving and dissenting friend.

Carrie Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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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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Healing from Hate: How the KKK Took My Health Away

My father was many things: an alcoholic, a violent angry man, a criminal and a racist. When I was five years old, he joined the Ku Klux Klan; eventually, he became the North Carolina faction’s Grand Dragon.

Protestors in Los Angeles rallied in 2017 against the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism nationwide. (Molly Adams)

Sometimes, in the dead of night, my father would load me and my mom up in the car and drive around committing heinous crimes—turning us into accomplices. On the first such occasion, he told me to lay down in the backseat floorboard and instructed my mother to hold the steering wheel. I heard a barrage of gunfire; scared but curious, I rose up to look out the window and saw him riddling a car parked in front of a house with bullets. Another night, I rose up to see him lighting a rag that was tucked down inside a glass bottle filled with gasoline on fire; once ignited, he threw it through the front window of an apartment, and the curtains went up in flames. Later, I would overhear him admit that it was the home of a white lady who had a black baby.

My father’s violence wasn’t just reserved for “others;” he also terrorized me and my mother. Once, during an argument with her, he shot a very large tree limb out over our heads. I was so shaken, so afraid that he would kill me, that later that night, when I needed to use the bathroom, I was too afraid to go down the hallway. Instead of making my way to the bathroom next to his bedroom, my mother sat an empty lard can down on the kitchen floor for me to defecate into.

These memories may be difficult to read. They’re difficult to write. But I acknowledge that my suffering pales in comparison to the hurt that was suffered directly by people of color and their supporters and loved ones in the community in which I lived because of my father. My heart aches for the long-term suffering that was incurred at the hands of people like him.

My experiences of growing up in a violent household of racist indoctrination caused long-term damages to my health and well-being. For decades, I had panic attacks and an increased heart rate; every muscle in my body constricted with the memories of fear, and from there, I developed stomach problems so intense that I would’ve sworn I was dying from something eating me up from the inside. I faced chronic and repetitive infections—bronchitis every few months, and trouble urinating without pain and burning sensations. My body would break down out of nowhere, for seemingly no present reason. I felt sick and exhausted from head to limb to toe.

I am 44 years old now, and to this day I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the trauma that came from my father’s hateful beliefs and behavior. My body experiences constant, chronic pain and ailments.

In 2002, when I finally got health insurance, I began to get diagnoses. I discovered that I had premature ventricular contractions of the heart—an irregular heartbeat that can cause you to feel like your heart stops and catches, affecting the breath. Next, I learned that my autonomic nervous system was shot; my cardiologist explained that my adrenal glands “got stuck on ‘fight or flight’ response and broke there.” The constant vigilance of my nervous system, the act of constantly looking out for the next threat, had caused them to shrink and wither up. My blood stream was filled with cortisol, a steroid hormone that acts as an immunosuppressant, and the chronic and repetitive releases of the stress hormone was causing widespread inflammatory pain in my whole body.

On and on I went, collecting further diagnoses. All in all, I suffer from nine diagnosed diseases and syndromes, all tied together in the package known as PTSD. On top of the physical illnesses that incapacitate me, PTSD is like a mental prison that I take spontaneous, unexpected trips to against my very own will. Triggered sometimes by the seemingly most insignificant things, broken by the “war” that is now over, the battles rage on inside me—in my memories and at the cellular level.

I was lucky to survive. I was lucky to extricate myself, little by little, from situations of violence and hatred. But although I now live in peace, much physical healing still lies ahead. Anyone who has been through the things I’ve been through—including spousal abuse at the hands of my first husband, and sexual abuse in my childhood—suffers like I have and do, and so do their loved ones. 

My story is a stark reminder that the impacts of violence and hatred are long-lasting, and that they span generations. In these times, that’s also why I feel the need to tell it.

Jvonne Hubbard is the author of White Sheets To Brown Babies, a memoir of her journey. She currently lives with her husband in Tennessee, where she works as an ACE certified Fitness Trainer as well as an AHF certified Holistic Yoga Specialist.

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The Ms. Q&A: How Linda Kay Klein Broke Free from Purity Culture

Linda Kay Klein grew up in “purity culture,” a movement that emphasized abstinence outside traditional heterosexual marriage and focused on the dangers of girls’ and women’s sexuality. Through its explicit teachings and related industry of books, purity rings, purity pledges and purity balls, the movement taught a generation of girls that any expression of sexuality could be a stumbling block for young men.

The result for many of these girls was shame, fear, guilt and anxiety. Klein’s recently published book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free documents her journey through purity culture and into healing, freedom and feminism.

Klein talked to Ms. scholar Susan Shaw about her journey—from one former evangelical to another.

I guess I’m about 20 years older than you, and so I came of age before the purity movement. In my fundamentalist Southern Baptist church, the message was clear: “Don’t have sex before marriage,” but it was for both boys and girls, and sex was defined as one thing: intercourse. Holding hands, kissing, hugging—those things weren’t a big deal in the church, and, while we probably weren’t supposed to do anything beyond that, we all thought that we could pretty well do anything up to intercourse without technically breaking the rule.

What changed between the 1970s and the 1990s?

The big thing that happened was the AIDS crisis. We as a country were in a state of crisis and really scared and looking at sex as a potentially life-threatening activity. A lot of different potential solutions were being developed, and one of the solutions given was this abstinence-only-before-marriage messaging, which started to be federally funded at some pretty big dollars.

Since the late 1980s, over two billion federal dollars have gone toward abstinence only before marriage messaging. A primary creator of abstinence-only-before-marriage content at the time was the white American evangelical Christian community, and a lot of them were talking about purity.

The purity movement emboldened the voices of people who had previously been fringe. It gave those voices a megaphone. However, the purity ethic that the movement was based on was around for a very long time before the purity movement arose. Many of our grandparents were raised in it.

I’ve heard some suggest that the purity movement was a way for evangelical Christianity to remain politically relevant. They had a potential solution to a national problem. As a nation we were afraid, and they had been teaching something locally that they brought forth as a solution to a national problem.

Within the purity movement, purity meant different things to different people. Some feel you are pure as long as you don’t have sex outside of marriage, by which they mean penis-in-vagina sex. For others, maintaining your purity requires something much more dramatic.

When I was growing up, some even argued that you can lose your purity if you have a friendship with an individual of the opposite sex that is considered too emotionally intimate, because you would be emotionally cheating on your future husband. Others said: “Don’t hold hands, that might make you lose your purity;” or “Anything is ok as long as you’re not lying down together, that’s where your purity gets lost.”

I think it’s so interesting that purity becomes the primary marker for Christian identity within this movement, rather than, say, love or even theological fidelity to evangelical beliefs about salvation or evangelism. What do you think it means for evangelicals when purity becomes the defining characteristic of evangelical faith?

To be clear, nobody would ever say this is the marker of your faith, but it’s a message people pick up, particularly single Christians—adolescents, young adults, older adults who are not married. The purity movement developed a purity industry that targeted single people, particularly adolescents and young adults.

So you were surrounded by purity products—by purity rings, by purity curricula, by purity pledges, by purity events, by purity music—though I think the product that most clearly implies that being “pure” is the most important way you can demonstrate your faith, even if it’s not said outright, is the purity Bible. It’s hard, as a young person growing up in the purity movement and being part of the purity industry, not to get the idea your purity is the most important marker of your faith.

Then, once you get married, you’re supposed to be safe. As a woman, your body is not as much of a threat to men in the community. It comes now under a man’s headship, so more of your energy can be put on other markers of faith.

I find purity rings given by fathers to their daughters and daddy-daughter dances to be creepy. What does the movement say to girls who are victims and survivors of incest when they tie girls’ sexuality to their fathers?

It’s definitely not talked about. Consensual sex is hyper-focused on, and non-consensual sex is silenced—not only in terms of how it is treated, but it’s literally not part of the conversation.

The purity ethic is one man and one woman in marriage forever. There’s no mention of consent or power dynamics. Within this ethic, any sexual expression—and unfortunately sexual violence is often categorized as sexual expression, not violence, in this community—that doesn’t match that framework is not only itself impure but makes the parties engaging in it impure.

The fact that we don’t talk about these things creates really problematic responses to them when they show up, because we’re assessing them by the same rules that we’re assessing consensual sex, since the ethic doesn’t stipulate not to, and implying in many cases that perhaps what happened was consensual or that the girl inspired it in some way.

I saw that, during the Kavanaugh hearings, 48 percent of evangelicals would have supported him even if they believed he had assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. You write about the purity movement’s general refusal to acknowledge sexual violence. Why do you think this is so?

The purity ethic teachers that men and boys are sexually weak when faced with female flesh, and that isn’t necessarily taught as a bad thing. The purity ethic requires one man and one woman, but it’s not just any old man and any old woman—it’s a hyper-masculine man and a hyper-feminine woman. Men being tempted by the female flesh is proof of their hyper-masculinity.

Because the purity ethic teaches women and girls aren’t very sexual, they are held responsible for protecting everyone in the culture from men’s sexual weakness. So it’s the girl’s and the woman’s responsibility to walk, talk, dress, do everything exactly right, not drink, not create any conditions for any possibility that the male weakness could be triggered and that men essentially could be made victims of the female flesh. The idea is that if women and girls would just be 100 percent totally non-sexual and never inspire a sexual thought in anyone else, if women and girls would just do everything right, then we don’t have to talk about consent because there will be no sexual expression, including no sexual violence, which causes a knee-jerk villianization of survivors.

As I read your book, I was struck by the centrality of shame and the impossibility of ever actually meeting the expectations of purity culture. It seems to me that shame then becomes a powerful tool for controlling women. Do you think shame controlled you and the women you talked to?

Shame was absolutely a controlling force over my life and over the lives of many of my interviewees. You can really see it in our adult lives.

In my early twenties, I ended up leaving evangelicalism in large part because of the sexual shame and my rejection of the notion I should be experiencing it. I thought that I would now be free of the sexual shame and fear and anxiety that had haunted me up until that point in my life, but that’s when I realized just how much I had really internalized the shame. It didn’t go away. It was still controlling me, controlling me now from the inside more than from the outside.

That was the time I was most afraid. I thought I was broken and would never be healthy or have a healthy relationship. Then I started talking to the girls I had grown up with in my evangelical church youth group. I started hearing about their experiences of sexual fear and shame and anxiety and realized I wasn’t alone.

There was a theme of anxiety—a number of people, myself included, were experiencing nightmares. The anxiety for some people was a quiet murmur that was always with them, whereas other people were having panic attacks and going to the hospital. Some lived with a quiet fear that we didn’t talk about, whereas for others the fear was impossible to hide or ignore. But the thing that is most problematic is this feeling of worthlessness that so many of us felt.

I remember a seminary professor of mine once telling us former fundamentalist students that no matter how far we’d come from our fundamentalist upbringings, some part of us still always worried about the possibility that the fundamentalists were right. Do you think you ever completely get yourself free of it?

I’m constantly thinking that I’m free, and then I find the next layer of shame. The latest layer was around this idea of telling these stories publicly and knowing that would elicit a public shaming. And it did. Certainly, the majority of responses I’ve gotten about the book are from people who are saying, ‘this is my story and thank you for making me feel not alone anymore,’ but there have also been people who are shaming me, and they’re saying exactly the same things that they said when I was growing up.

For a lot of years, when I knew I was going to tell this story publicly—and I was steadfast in that dedication—I faced a tremendous amount of fear of the attacks that would come when I did. The reality is that we do live in a world where it’s risky to tell your story.

The best thing that happened is eventually ,the shamings did come, and then they went from being very intense to trickling. And now the number of people being helped by the story far outweigh the number of people shaming me. I feel like I broke through this latest layer of shame, and I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt before.

Klein’s book explores the devastating effects evangelical Christianity’s purity culture has had on a generation of young women.

I had a student in the 1990s tell me that every time she had a sexual thought, she prayed for forgiveness. I tried to tell her that sexual thoughts were normal and not sinful, but she wouldn’t hear it. That seems an awfully high bar, to negate every sexual thought, but that seems to reflect the impossibility of purity.

I imagine that means putting a lot—if not most—of one’s time into trying to be pure. I imagine that also means there’s not a lot of time left for questioning, resistance or rebellion. I mean, if you’re spending all of your time and energy trying not to have sexual thoughts, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for asking deep theological questions or challenging how purity culture is actually controlling you.

What did your experience and your interviews tell you about the energy women put into trying to fulfill the expectations of purity and how they finally found the energy and determination to break away?

The purity expectations, and how ultimately unachievable they are, keeps your attention focused inward on your piety and purity in a way that prevent you from looking outward and considering what you were taught and whether or not it was healthy, how it’s impacting you, how it’s impacting others—in other words, the teaching creates a reaction in a person that can make it very difficult for the teaching to be questioned.

There are two ways I’ve seen people break free, and they are connected. One is through questions. Remember, this is a culture where you’re told the answers, how you’re supposed to think, how you’re supposed to believe, how you’re supposed to feel. And the other is through stories. Stories create the opportunity to question because often people’s real life stories challenge the myths about, say, how non-sexuality before marriage will lead to blissful sexuality after marriage.

You and your interviewees make the lasting pain and challenge of the purity movement clear in the book. What’s the payoff, though, for the women who stay? What do they get out of staying that’s so powerful it keeps them in this culture that devalues women, blames women and controls women?

There’s certainly the payoff of receiving the rewards of being a “good girl.” You get the respect of the community. You get told you’re one of the good ones, not like one of those bad women. You get put on a kind of pedestal. And you get all the rewards of being in the right religion, and if you leave, you lose these rewards of being in the right religion including the assurance of your salvation and the assurance of your personal relationship with God; you lose your purpose in life; you lose your community that’s supposed to stand by you when the going gets tough.

It’s spiritually, religiously and socially a really big deal to challenge these teachings—because you might lose your “Christian” label, which has potentially eternal effects.

You write about complementarianism as a companion to the purity movement. That idea really developed in the early 1990s, and when I was growing up as a young Southern Baptist girl, I was given the explicit message: “You can be anything God calls you to be.” When I interviewed other former Southern Baptist women in ministry, that’s the message they told me over and over that gave them the strength to challenge gender norms among Baptists and claim their call, even to ordained ministry. I’m guessing that message—“you can be anything God calls you to be”—had evaporated in evangelical churches in concert with the rise of complementarianism. What messages did little girls receive instead?

Complementarianism would teach us: you can be anything God calls you to be as long as you remain under the headship of men, particularly in the American church and family.

In the family, the husband or father gets the last call. That’s one reason I think single women are perceived as so dangerous in the community, because they’re not under the headship of a husband or father. In the church you can teach children, youth or other women. You can “teach,” but you can’t “preach,” ever—which is one of the ways we get the subtle message that you don’t have a direct line to God, that you need to go through a man to get to God. You can’t preach because you’re not receiving direct revelation.

The reason I said the “American” church and family is because if you’re a missionary these rules might change, because an American woman in another culture is not always subject to the same limitations, which illustrates the nationalism embedded into this culture.

As you mention in the book, the purity movement is an artifact of white evangelical culture, even when it’s imported into communities of color. What’s the connection for you? Why do you think white evangelicals have created and embraced purity culture?

There’s something about the way we see sex as so dirty, so bad, so disgusting that it debases women who engage in it—which is rooted, in part, in Greco-Roman teachings about the mind/body split that were very influential on early Christian thinkers, but they also believed we had to procreate, so we needed a loophole. Something that allowed some women to be “pure” despite having sex, so they could be held up as good wives and mothers.

I think these theologies are related to the production of the “pure white woman,” a concept present in this country long before the purity movement or industry of the 1990s. The pure white woman is a desexualized woman, whereas people who have been deemed impure for various reasons are hyper-sexualized. Think of how we’ve historically hyper-sexualized African Americans or queer people, for example. This is something I heard Rev Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak about recently.

Then, in the 1990s, the purity industry exported purity products developed by the white evangelical world, bringing them to American communities of color and to communities around the world. That’s complicated. I remember when I realized how many people of color in this country, and abroad, were reading the same books I had read growing up, like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and interacting with the same curricula, like True Love Waits. There is a lot to unpack there.

How do you think purity culture reinforces heteronormativity?

This is another thing, like rape and abuse, that I never heard talked about growing up in purity culture. I think the idea of even talking about someone being attracted to someone not of the opposite sex seemed threatening, because it made it seem real or legitimate. But at the end of the day, anything that didn’t fit into the purity ethic we talked about earlier wasn’t considered pure, and the people engaging in it weren’t either.

The response to queerness was: “There’s something wrong with you. Something happened to you. So we have to do some psychological work to identify the trauma that is making you this way, or some spiritual work to figure out why you’re not accepting God’s will for your life. You’re broken and need to be fixed.”

How is feminism depicted within purity culture? Do you identify as a feminist? Did many of your respondents come to identify as feminist?

I do identify as a feminist, and many of those I interviewed do as well. Feminism is depicted very negatively within purity culture—truly the “F-word.” I think one of the reasons so many of the people I’ve interviewed identify as feminist all the same, or at the very least would align with the definition of feminism—of all people being equal—is because in order for a woman to break free from someone else having control over her life, she has to be empowered. She has to decide the people who told her to stay in her place are wrong, which is something you’re told you should not do as a woman. When you ultimately are able to feel autonomous and like your true self, it’s only after you’ve gone through an internal process that readies you to claim a very different relationship to your own gender than you were taught to have.

I’d like to add that it isn’t just evangelicals who are experiencing the kinds of things I write about in the book. The book focuses on how purity teachings impact white American evangelical girls as they grow up, but the themes I discuss—sexual shame, fear and anxiety—are experienced by men and individuals across the gender spectrum, people of color, people who were raised in other forms of Christianity, in other religions and in no religion. It really is a bigger conversation.

I’ve started to think about this book as a window into how this messaging impacts us when we are doused in it, when it saturates our lives, this toxic messaging. By looking at how being doused in this messaging affects one particular population, we can begin to wrestle with how this toxic messaging which is common throughout our society is impacting a far greater number of people who might be taking it in various doses and various ways.

This is not really a story about these people over here who are doing something totally different from everybody else. It’s a story about a population of people experiencing an intensified, deified form of something that has touched almost all of our lives.

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

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(More) Notes to Their Younger Selves: Five Pieces of Advice for Young Women of Color from Feminist Activists

“What advice do you wish you could give to a younger version of you?”

Last year, I asked four feminist leaders that question; recently, I decided to ask five women of color—my colleagues in the social justice field—the same.

These were their responses.

Feminists of all ages attended—and found inspiration at—the 2017 and 2018 Women’s March events around the world. (Joe Piette / Creative Commons)

#1: Find time to find your joy.

“Whatever that thing is that you think about all the time, that you can’t get out of your mind, that you will regret not doing — do that. My regret is waiting so long to nurture the creative side of myself,” says Brooklyn-based author and actor Nadia Owusu, who serves as the Associate Director for Learning and Equity at Living Cities. “We are fed this narrative that we have to ‘focus on our day jobs’ and advance in that space rather than doing the things that truly bring us joy. Sacrificing that to ‘succeed’ is not a wise move.”

“Working on my creative writing has helped so much with my job, too; not that that’s why I write, but I believe that everyone should find a creative space — access whatever it is that draws you into new ways of thinking — for the benefit of your work as well.” Owusu shares, “when I’m creating something, I’m starting from my own ideas rather than external sources. In our work, it’s so easy to coast on tropes; writing forces me to trust my own gut reactions and ideas, and work outward from there.”

#2: Be fearless about committing to the things you love.

“There’s nothing wrong with making commitments that you want to make early in your life,” says Elizabeth J. Reynoso, “because they will yield gifts for a lifetime.” Reynoso, who serves as Living Cities’ Associate Director for Public Sector Innovation, has a background in human rights and sustainable agriculture.

“All sorts of relationships take commitment — whether with people or with what you work on. Learn as much as you can and keep an open mind and heart when you are young, but don’t be afraid of prioritizing the things you want to become your legacy — whether that’s generosity, resource management, culinary triumphs, family, business acumen, poetry. This will mean closing some doors and saying ‘no,’ but be intentional about who and what you keep in your life and what you let go of.”

Reynoso shares that this includes everything from doing “grand gestures” for friends we want to keep in our lives to choosing to specialize early in the fields of work we are passionate about. “You don’t want to look back and think, ‘I could have put more into that. I could have invested more — not just with my money but with my time and my heart.’ If you’re putting your whole heart into it, you won’t regret it.”

#3: Choose faith.

“Choose faith,” Brittany DeBarros tells me. “It sounds so simple that it’s almost offensive and yet in a world so often designed to tear us down, make us doubt ourselves, and perpetuate the suffering of our communities, it’s a radical act to consciously choose to believe in possibility. For some, faith means a belief in the divine; for me it means a belief in humans and their ability to love better, do better, reconcile, and heal.”

The activist and entrepreneur based in Staten Island added: “I also use the language of ‘choice’ intentionally. Some of us are more naturally disposed to optimism than others. I’m not talking about having a positive attitude (although of course that’s great if you have one). Choosing faith is more of a value and conviction. It’s being hurt and choosing to keep your heart open and your empathy flowing. It’s seeing the way people contribute to systems of oppression and believing that they can become more conscious. It’s going through crippling depression and believing you still have worth. And at its most dire, it’s seeing pain and destruction all around you and believing the landscape of possibilities won’t always be so limited.

“Today, with many battle scars and in perhaps the most horrifying moment America has seen in my lifetime, I feel more sure than ever that if we stop choosing faith, we have started contributing to the inertia of our own situations and the situations around us. So keep choosing faith and as Offred says in A Handmaid’s Tale, ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down.’”

#4: Accept the different parts of your identity without shame.

“When we are younger we are always trying to figure out the answer to the question ‘who am I?’” Hafizah Omar observes. “Remember that the answer to that question is always changing, and that’s okay.”

Omar is an Associate at Living Cities and an organizer in her community in Queens. She would tell her younger self: “you don’t have to feel guilt about different parts of your identity not ‘making sense’ together — it’s about accepting them without shame, since your circumstances and views change with time.”

She stresses that “you should never say ‘never’ — don’t judge people for their actions, because you don’t know what their situation is, and whether you might find yourself in a similar situation in the future. Not jumping to a moral judgment toward others will allow you to accept yourself more as you change and evolve. Continue to challenge what you believe in and how you see that manifest. Having values is not making a blanket statement — it’s about being able to interrogate yourself when those values are tested.”

Omar adds: “There’s a certain ‘coolness’ in the performativity of aloofness — learn to resist that, because it’s okay to like what you like, and to be giddy and excited about it.”

#5: Internalize the mantra, “I will not compromise my brilliance to make you comfortable.”

Tynesia Boyea is a mother of two and President and CEO of Reliance Methods. “Early in my career I had a peer tell me that I was ‘too effusive’ and needed to ‘rein it in,’” she shares. “Luckily, the senior executive of my department encouraged me and told me that I produce strong results because of the way I show up. But it was much harder to remember his advice when things weren’t going well. I remember a rough transition phase as a new manager — we had quadrupled in size in two years, and once again a few peers who were newer to the organization questioned my approach in our predominantly African-American market. Instead of standing firmly in both my market knowledge and lived experiences, I began to question how I showed up in the organization. I started mimicking the leadership style of other leaders to fit in until I had a mentor tell me, ‘Don’t be someone else. Be Ty. That is who our organization needs.’”

She took the advice to heart. “I wake up every day with the driving desire to be the best version of myself I can be,” she tells me, “to learn from the wisdom and experience of those around me, and to tailor my approach to the current situation and context. It is not unreasonable for me to expect that those I work with will give me that same respect, even if my perspective and approach make them uncomfortable. We don’t have to subscribe to people who want us to make ourselves smaller. We need to liberate ourselves to live boldly in our fullness.”

In sum, Boyea urges us all to remember: “The next version of loving yourself is embracing yourself. As women of color, we often mute ourselves as a workplace tactic or a political decision — what I’m learning is that I’ve focused for so long on making other people comfortable that I’ve been compromising my wholeness.”

I am truly lucky to have had each of these five women as a personal mentor and friend during my early years in the workplace. They have enthusiastically introduced me on conference calls despite my being the youngest member on the team; they have listened to my stories. They have told me repeatedly, “You don’t need any practice being smaller,” and read me Audre Lorde’s words to remind me, “it is better to speak.”

As I embark into the next stage of my career, these women’s words remind me every day to be fiercely faithful to my passions and who I am, while leaving space for myself to grow and play. Imagine living every day with an unbridled, open heart and filling it with the people, places and pastimes you can’t get out of your head, like there is nothing to lose — it’s simple and it’s freeing.

I commit to it because it has the power to be revolutionary.

Originally published at Thrive Global. Republished with author permission.