We Were Lawyers Once

Brigitte, Jan and I started as summer associates on the same day. We met over a group orientation lecture at nine and by noon were having an exclusive tell-all lunch. We went to different law schools, but were about the same amount pretty. We hoped to have successful summers, return after our third year of law school and make partner in seven years. We had high expectations, despite the low odds.

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Brigitte was French. She had silky black hair cut in sharp ledges. She had a lean body, a decisive manner and a plush accent. She wore stylish dresses and pointy shoes. She had cat-eye glasses she didn’t need and a pocket pup she never saw. To relax, she sprinted on treadmills and skimmed gossip magazines. She went to Columbia Law School and was married to a nice banker from a rural family in Kentucky.

But Brigitte didn’t like Kentucky, and she didn’t like rural. Within a few weeks, she told us she didn’t like her husband, either.

Jan and I were single, and we didn’t like being single. Jan grew up in hallowed circles which bored her. She had a socialite mother and a reclusive father; she wintered in New York City and summered in Maine. She disappointed her mother because she didn’t care about parties, and she disappointed her father because she didn’t make valedictorian. She devoured her first book in kindergarten and her first kiss in college.

I was a farm girl from the Midwest who was allergic to animals. I came to New York City to till a more fertile soil. I browsed the dictionary for fun and found going to bars hard. I had five brothers and craved a sister. I had a subscription to the New Yorker by middle school and wrote bad poetry about the bad boys I worshipped from afar in high school. I was good at close textual analysis but found summarizing cases hard. I was adept at painstakingly looking for clues. I favored navy and voted Democrat—but occasionally Republican—and my name is Margaret, but people called me Meg.

We learned the ways of the firm quickly. We billed our hours. We billed our dinners. We billed our rides home in dark cars along the dark river, glittering with bright lights. We were type A to a tee. We worked in a tall building with a marble lobby. Our conference room walls held sepia photographs of costumed conquerors: a helmeted Ghenkis Khan, a curly-headed Alexander the Great, a one-handed Napoleon.

We let our other lives dwindle away. We lived only for ourselves, our firm and our clients. We knew our clients by number, each by each. We lost ourselves in our work. We delighted in losing ourselves, for in that, we sometimes imagined we found ourselves.

We watched lawyers flirt with other lawyers, date other lawyers, marry other lawyers and have affairs with other lawyers. We heard lawyers say bad things about other lawyers. We bragged about which partners worked us the hardest. We bragged about which partners were called off of yachts in order to return to work alongside us. Vacations were expendable. We believed we weren’t.

This was in 1989, after the first wave of feminists had paved the way. We felt our way was clear: We knew that making partner was part luck; we had to peer into the crystal ball of business and predict which practice areas would be harried in the future. We were banking on a frenzy of work so ferocious and fierce that it could include us.

Brigitte figured out the finances first. Our firm had a strict hierarchy—the partners were paid in lock step, so first-year partners made two million dollars, second-year partners made two million and change, and so on. First-year associates could boss secretaries and paralegals and no one else; second-year associates could boss first year associates plus secretaries and paralegals. Paralegals could boss new paralegals. Secretaries could leave at five.

Our offices had windows that looked out at other windows. The partners had more of these windows. The most senior partners had corners of windows. We had doors that led to halls. We had doors that we could close but that everyone left open.

Jan, like all skinny women, fixated on our cafeteria. It served food from around the world on our fortieth floor. I, like all tired women, focused on places to sleep: The firm had built cubbies for napping, like in Japanese train stations, but no one was caught dead in those cubbies.

We arrived late. We left late. We were on time to meetings. We watched suns set, moons rise, stars fall. Out of the ashes of other companies, our bank account balances rose. We had lovely friends whom we rarely saw. We made plans we always cancelled. We stopped making plans.

We could see the trajectory of our lives, how we would rise in the ranks because we had what it took. Actually, we weren’t sure we had what it took. The thing was, we loved the work. We complained. We grumbled. We gnashed our teeth. But deep down, we loved opening boxes. We loved sorting files. We loved solving other people’s problems. Sometimes, we imagined that we could apply the same rigorous logic to our own problems. Better yet, when fully immersed in the problems of others, we imagined we had no problems. Tethered to our clients, we floated free.

We envied and scorned the paralegals. We handed them the boring work that we didn’t want. They stamped papers and kept lists, but they had deep friendships born of shallow occupations. They had a camaraderie we envied. Theirs was a one-year job, two years at most—then they would be released to travel wherever they pleased. Some of them went to law school; many of them did not. They had been cured of the legal bug by being given the most boring work. They had no idea how exciting the difficult work was. We shielded them from the excitement.

Our job was more like swimming down an ever-narrowing channel, where we watched other people gasp and head for the shore along the way. Only a few of us would be hardy enough to handle the work, the stress, the late hours, the early mornings, the lack of outside friendships and inner love, the excesses, the deprivations and the expectations—our own expectations most of all.

Some lawyers told war stories about how they had been summer associates in the lean years. They’d been channeled into departments instead of sampling them all like ice cream. They were told to curb their interests for the sake of the firm’s interests. They were to tighten their belts and fix their eyes on the shiniest prizes. They worked inside and didn’t go out.

We had the good fortune to be summer associates during a fat year. We had a happiness committee whose sole job was to lure us with merriment. The happiness committee bought us box seats at the Met and the Open. It organized jubilant dinners at upmarket restaurants where we ate cured fluke and skewered shrimp.

The committee hosted cocktail parties at partners’ gracious Upper East Side apartments. We reached these dwellings by giving our names to doormen who wore uniforms that struck us as vaguely military. We swilled our drinks and milled about, chatting casually as if we had grown up in formal homes with Stark carpets and opulent fabrics.

Even Jan, whose home sported five Stark carpets, seemed caught up in our whispered admiration. Brigitte turned the bone china upside down to check its provenance.

We heard loudly the silent message: if we worked hard enough we, too, could make partner, buy these apartments and eat in these restaurants. It was a package deal.

We were entranced and ironic. We mocked and yearned. Afterwards, when we returned to our walk-up apartments, we saw that our windows needed treatments. Blinds no longer satisfied us. Our eyes were opened.

We knew everything there was to know about our partners. We knew their middle names. We knew their children’s middle names. We knew where they bought their first Porsches and their second homes.

Sometimes, we were left open mouthed about the expansiveness of other lawyer’s brains. We could tell within minutes which of us would make partners in seven years, in a bright line. We repeated stories about our partners’ quirks. We hoped that one day people would tell such tales about us, but we doubted it—for to become partner, we had to suppress our louder laughs and our most peculiar peccadillos. Once we made partner, we knew we could let rip. But we worried that if we suppressed something too long, we’d never get it back.

We remembered with misgiving the stories in our biology textbooks about the kittens whose eyes were sewn shut at birth by curious heartless scientists. After six weeks, when the kittens’ eyes were finally released from their stitches, they were blind. They had lost their chance to learn to see, poor kittens.

Here are some of our partner stories.

Jeremy Gilmartin was said to have taught himself to read upside down so that he could spy on the notes of the opposition. We wondered how hard it could be to read upside down. We tried it and failed.

James Peapoint took to rollerblading down the firm’s long halls. James was good at law but not so good at rollerblading. We flattened ourselves against the walls when we caught sight of him, his dark suit jacket flapping and his elbows jabbing at the air. The secretaries laughed politely into their headsets when he creaked by.

Freddy Smith the Fourth gave all the firm speeches. Freddy Smith the Fourth was first rate funny. He gave off the cuff sounding talks which he practiced for hours. Those of us who worked for Freddy Smith the Fourth loved him. He got leaping-out-of-his-shiny-shoes excited if someone else did a good job. He had enough confidence to go around. He praised us for excellent work. It made us do our best. We loved him. We praised him back. Praise and love was in the air for any of us lucky enough to work for Freddy Smith the Fourth. He napped in his office every afternoon. His secretary warded off visitors. She loved him, too, in that platonic way Freddy inspired so generously. Freddy had a good wife whom he loved. We loved him most of all for loving his wife despite the feminine bright-eyed adulation. It gave us hope.

Freddy Smith the Fourth always settled his cases. He told us there was too much risk in litigation, because he couldn’t control the outcome. Sometimes Freddy Smith the Fourth said racist things under the guise of telling us what his grandmother used to say. Sometimes he said sexist things under the guise of telling us what his grandfather used to say. We shifted in our shallow seats. But Freddy was a senior partner and smart and his clients loved him, too. We wondered which of these qualities protected him most.

Whenever he had a speech to make, he would skip his afternoon nap. We heard him practicing his jokes aloud behind closed doors. We heard his pregnant pauses. We heard his calls and his responses. We learned more from minutes spent listening in at Freddy Smith the Fourth’s closed door than from hours opening gilded cumbersome volumes in the law library. Even the smartest funniest lawyers had to practice and pretend they didn’t. We learned that being the best wasn’t natural.

A partner named Jack Tripper married first a fellow partner, then an associate, then a paralegal, and finally his secretary. We saw the trajectory of the Tripper’s choices, how he climbed his way down the firm’s ladder. A partner named Jerry Jones dated first a paralegal, then a partner, then an associate. Unlike the Tripper, we who were expert pattern detectors could see no pattern to Jerry’s dating choices. Jerry seemed blind to hierarchy or decorum and had eyes only for beauty. Jerry was good at making women fall in love with him. He told every woman he dated that he wanted to marry them. It was his signature sexy move.

One evening, under the glaring lights of a cheerful conference room get together, Jerry moved close to Jan. Brigitte and I backed off, while Jerry told Jan that his wife had never understood him. Then he offered to lend Jan novels. A week later, Jan told us, breathless and blushing, that she was in love with Jerry. Brigitte and I said we knew. We didn’t tell her that everyone knew. Jan told us that two days after sleeping with her, Jerry told Jan that he wanted to marry her. But Jan didn’t know yet that Jerry hadn’t finished finishing his first marriage. He was only separated from his first wife. By the end of June, he let this choice morsel drop. By July, Jan discovered—and not from Jerry—that his current wife was actually his second wife.

Jan was mad at Jerry.; she didn’t understand how you could forget a marriage. Jerry didn’t like to date women who were mad at him, not when there were so many other beautiful smart women in the firm for Jerry to date, so by August, Jerry dumped Jan and started dating an associate.

In September, Brigitte, Jan and I hugged each other good-bye and returned to our separate law schools. But Jan wasn’t over Jerry. Every morning, she got out of bed and attended class in the humidity of Virginia, gripping her slick notebooks. By noon, she broke down and called Jerry, clutching the pay phone. Jerry spoke to Jan in a low seductive voice. Overcome by how male and sexy Jerry was, and how much more grizzled he was than any of the male law students, Jan had to take a depression nap after speaking to him. She missed constitutional law lectures for an entire month because of these naps. But Jan got an A+ in constitutional law. Now, years later, Jan has forgotten what it felt like to be in love with Jerry, but she still remembers that A+. She wonders what it says that she got the best grade in the class she taught herself.

After graduating, Jan, Brigitte and I returned to the firm. Jan now avoided Jerry. He had a way of looking at her like he still wanted to date her. It unsettled her. It tricked her into thinking Jerry pined after her. But Jerry had forgotten her. He just wanted her to think well of him. He liked everyone to think well of him. Jan complained to Brigitte and I about Jerry, and we agreed. We always agreed.

A female partner took us on as mentor. She coddled us and fed us lavender tea and purple-prosed slogans. Her name was Esmerelda White, but her nickname was Tappy because of her legendary speed at the keyboard. Tappy told us to resist the urge to tend to relationships at the firm. She told us the men wouldn’t respect us if we let them funnel us into administrative work. She said that the men respected only legal work. She said that if we wanted to make partner we had to bring in business. She said we had to make money. We had to work harder than the men. And we had to dress like ladies.

Together, trying to see Tappy past the stacks of documents on her desk, we laughed at those aging feminists, the ones who had so courageously carved the way for us. Those women had worn man suits and tied floppy bows around their necks. They’d tried to win in a man’s world by out-manning the men. We were determined to outman men by being women. We wore dresses and heels and pearls and, sometimes, pant suits. We walked to work in our sneakers and kept two pairs of dress shoes in our desk drawers—one navy, one black. Those shoes went with everything.

The junior male lawyers had their own outfit battles to wage. They biked to work in clip-on shoes and Spandex shorts. They kept dress shoes in their backpacks and suit jackets and ties behind their office doors. They changed when they arrived, but the sweat remained. We could smell it, but we never mentioned it. We never mentioned anything. It was a white shoe firm. A shoe polisher made the rounds once a week and bent over the lawyers while they worked. It was efficient. The lawyers tipped him well.

We kept toothbrushes and toothpaste and hairbrushes in our desk drawers. We groomed at work. We found our groove at work. We were often unhappy unless we were at work. We were often unhappy when we were at work. We were also happy at work. We had a love hate relationship with work. We loved the work. We hated that we loved the work. We told other people not to become lawyers. But we weren’t credible. We could have left law at any time but didn’t. We were like high school kids who said we didn’t study and pulled all-nighters.

We made a lot of puns. We had punny brains. We saw the potential in words. We could always hear what would happen if we twisted just one letter. Puns were revered by us, even as we mocked them. We couldn’t help ourselves. It was how we were wired.

We who were litigators wove plausible narratives to explain our clients’ more dubious decisions. Sometimes our clients turned blind eyes to the traders who made the most money. The bosses forgot to ask questions about how their junior traders managed to make exponentially more money than anyone else. The bosses ignored the security systems we had put in place for them. It wasn’t normal to make that much money. Those junior traders were cheaters. This was their downfall and our making.

One day, Brigitte let slip that Jerry had lent her a novel. Jan stopped wanting to have lunch with Brigitte. I had to see each of them alone. Jan wanted to talk about how nice Brigitte’s almost-ex was. Brigitte wanted to talk about anything but her almost-ex. I didn’t want to talk to either of them. We were tired of work and of each other.

The relationship became public. Brigitte finished divorcing her nice husband and married wicked Jerry. Brigitte and Jerry moved into a nice big apartment where Jerry’s nice six children came for nice short visits. Jerry said he didn’t want any more children. Brigitte said she didn’t want any, either. She ran faster on treadmills and her clothes became looser.

One day, one of the female partners, Magda, had a nervous breakdown. She was carted out of her home under cover of night. By daylight everyone knew. We knew because we were connected like an organism. A breakdown in one part of our firm meant a breakdown in all of us. We felt her cry as if it were our own.

Within a week, Magda recovered. She returned to her office and her workload. But we could see new twitches in the corners of her mouth. She couldn’t seem to control these twitches. Watching her, we felt our own mouths burn. Some of us, chastened by Magda’s breakdown, took meds and breaks. We made time to visit counselors, who told us that we needed to play more. So we stopped seeing counselors and worked more. We sensed we needed to spend time with people we didn’t have to pay to listen to us. Instead, we spent time with people who paid us to talk.

A few years after marrying Jerry, Brigitte made partner. Jan left the firm and became in-house counsel at a big bank. She married and divorced and moved house and forgot her first husband. She finally understood how you could forgot a marriage. She understood how it was better not to remember.

I stayed on but was passed over for partner. That’s what we called it. Being passed over. It meant I had been left behind. Instead of making me partner, they made me a senior associate. That’s the name for lawyers who were not good enough. Senior associates had two choices. We could leave or we could stay. I stayed.

I married a well-read accountant I met in a rare book store. We had three boisterous children whom we raised in a placid Fifth Avenue apartment. I ran in Central Park in the dark and squeezed an entire week of life into my weekends. I loved my husband. I loved my children. I loved my job. I hated that I wasn’t partner. It hung over me like a shroud. But I only hated it on the days when I thought about it. When I chose to count my blessings and do the work, I felt blessed. I had a choice. I could choose to be happy or to be sad. Every day, this choice confronted me.

Brigitte had a choice, too. She could turn a blind eye to the way Jerry’s eyes lingered over the long legs of the younger lawyers, or she could leave Jerry. But Brigitte thought she had a third choice: She thought she could get angry at Jerry; she thought she could yell. Jan could have told her that this was a bad choice, but Jan had left the state. Last we heard, Jan was living in a yurt in Wyoming with a park ranger. The more Brigitte berated Jerry, the more Jerry started hanging around a paralegal named Bambi.

I decided Bambi was too young to know Jerry’s history. I was wrong. Bambi knew because everyone knew. Bambi was one of us. But Bambi had something Brigitte didn’t have. Bambi didn’t care two hoots about Jerry. Instead, Bambi had an affair with Jerry but flirted with the male paralegals.

They were very cute, those male paralegals. They rolled up their shirtsleeves and loosened their ties. They carried litigation boxes for Bambi as easily as if they were filled with air instead of legal problems. Jerry grew his hair longer and dyed it blonder. He ate chemicals that made his diminishing hairline move backward, lower over his forehead like a time lapse camera. He switched brands of sports car and bought an Aston Martin. He eschewed his fitted Paul Stewart suits in favor of shapeless shiny Armani ones. He joined a gym and pursued the burn and the build and the playground experience.

We could have told Jerry that he was going to lose his battle with the paralegals. They were always younger than Jerry, every single year. And Bambi had no intention of marrying Jerry. Bambi was too smart to trust a man who’d an affair with her. She had a logical brain.

I was floored by Bambi. She felt like a new breed of woman. She was a fierce, independent woman, free of need, free of love, free of hurt. It hurt me to know there were women like Bambi in our firm. I thought that being hurt by the male lawyers was necessary. Bambi implied that there were choices we hadn’t known about.

One day, Jack the Tripper summoned me and some of the junior associates into his office. He’d lost a case we’d worked on together. “I’m going to call the client and tell them I lost,” he said. “You need to learn how to handle failure.” He called the client on speaker and we listened silently. The Tripper did a good job. The client accepted his loss. The Tripper rose in our estimation.

Brigitte stayed on as partner in our firm even though Jerry, from whom she was now separated, was still dating Bambi. Brigitte watched Jerry hang out with the female paralegals, leaning on their cubicle desks, and her heart grew hard. She decided Jerry was pathetic. It was either that or stay in so much pain that she couldn’t work. For Jerry was smart, sexy, funny and cute and couldn’t help his need for approval. Deep down, Brigitte knew that she suffered from the same need for approval. But Brigitte’s misfortune was that she wanted approval from Jerry, and Jerry kept shifting his targets.

One day, the Tripper called me on his office to staff me on a new case. “I need a warm body,” he said. The Tripper looked at me expectantly from across his leathered partner desk. A smile twitched in the corners of his four-times-married mouth.

My smile froze. I could tell that the Tripper had practiced this line. The Tripper knew that I’d get the joke, even though the Tripper knew that he would never be as funny as Freddy Smith the Fourth. It was an inside joke, after all. We were all warm bodies. We went where the need was greatest. We were interchangeable.

I told myself to be a professional. I had to sit down but was already sitting. I took notes and documents. I returned to my desk. But instead of putting together a team, I put on my coat. From the elevator, I called my husband. He told me to calm down and not take it personally. I called Brigitte. She told me that the Tripper only said out loud what everyone thought. I called Jan, but she was unreachable.

I was hurt. I was hurt by my husband and the Tripper, but most of all by Brigitte and Jan. Because always sympathizing, always being reachable, anywhere, anytime, was our mantra.

In midtown, commuters walked uptown with their gazes fixed down. They bumped into me and didn’t slow. I headed to the park in my heels. I’d already run this morning in my sneakers, and I was tired and it wasn’t even ten. Halfway across Fifth Avenue, I decided to leave the firm. It wasn’t because I’d missed my middle child’s school play. It wasn’t because I’d missed my youngest child’s first steps and words. It wasn’t because I’d missed my eldest daughter’s first period. It wasn’t because I missed my husband. I missed all of this, all of them, so much, and I asked myself again if this was why. It wasn’t. It was because the Tripper had spoken from his heart and broken mine.

In the park, I lay down in the grass and looked up at the sky and spoke firming slogans to myself. I wouldn’t quit. I’d return to work. I’d be fine. I wouldn’t feel cold about the Tripper’s request for a warm body. I’d be a nameless cog in the firm’s well-oiled wheel. I got to my feet and trudged along slanting sidewalks. I followed a pigeon. It was a drab grey thing with an iridescent purple sheen. Its head bob-bobbed into the empty space in front of it as it walked. It looked silly, as if it were pecking for food in the air. It couldn’t help seeking with every step something it would never find. It was the fault of its architecture, the way it was made, to peck at nothing like that, over and over, forever and ever, Amen.

I worked on the Tripper’s case. I lasted a little longer. And then I didn’t. Brigitte stopped watching Jerry and became in-house counsel at a bank. I served on boards and did planks. Jan left the ranger, set out her own shingle in Jackson Hole and built her own business.

Now, years later, from the quiet of my apartment, hearing construction noises in the street below, I remember that I loved them all. I loved Brigitte, Jan, Jerry, the Tripper, Freddy Smith the Fourth, Tappy, Bambi—well, not really Bambi—the male paralegals, Jeremy Gilmartin, Magda Fernandez, James Peapoint, the scent of cardboard, the quiet eager tapping of keyboards and the way my heels sank into the carpets unless I walked on my toes. I remember countless cups of bad coffee and my shifting secret crushes and the calm logical discussions of our clients’ irrational choices. I remember each night seeking the warmth of my husband’s soul-cycled body, listening to my children’s heedless high-pitched giggles and being excited that the next morning I would get to dress up as if I, too, were going to a party where I belonged.

Caroline Coleman is the author of LOVING SOREN. She has an English degree from Princeton and a fiction MFA from Brooklyn College: www.carolinecoleman.com

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From Hope to Destitution: Life Inside Egypt’s Women-Only Village

The village of Al Samaha lies 120 kilometers from the bustling city of Aswan, Egypt, founded by the government as a “project” for divorced and widowed women who are typically ostracized in Egyptian society.

Al Samaha was meant to provide the women residing within it with a rare space to be self-reliant—but an attempt to create a haven for women exiled for their lack of male guardianship has become a prison for its residents.

Egyptian women gathered to rally for equality on International Women’s Day in 2011. (Al Jazeera / Creative Commons)

In Egyptian society, divorced or widowed women are often left with little to no means of financial sustenance. Women make up the majority of the nation’s unemployed population: A 2015 study revealed that 25.8 percent of women are unemployed, and that men are three times less likely to face unemployment. Furthermore, the social stigma surrounding divorce and lack of a male guardianship is deeply embedded in Egyptian culture, which forces divorced women to be looked down on and socially shunned—especially those from villages in Upper Egypt.

In 1998, in an attempt to alleviate government spending on welfare-dependent widows and divorcees, the Ministry of Agriculture created Al Samaha to mitigate government spending, propel women to enter the agricultural realm and provide relief from the negative social backlash these women face.

Instead, Al Samaha is a dead end.

Few interviews with older women in the village allow their true grievances to be expressed—but the residents, when given the chance, have been outspoken about the conditions they face.

Each of the 303 families housed in the village is given a hut-like home subsidized by the government and six acres of land to farm, but many women there say that the land is desolate and barren, making it nearly impossible for most crops to grow.

They complain of a lack of clean running water; one recounted that “the water is so dirty it is making our children’s skin peel.” Children in the village show symptoms of severe skin infections and diseases that they contract from the contaminated water that runs through it. In order to drink clean water, residents must wait for a truck from a neighboring village, which often does not come for weeks. For the duration of the time in-between deliveries, residents remain thirsty.

“If no truck comes for a week and suddenly we see one approaching,” Faiza Ismail, a village elder, explains, “we celebrate and cheer and let the rest of the village know that the vegetables have arrived and for everyone to hurry and collect their own vegetables and water… We don’t have any here.”

There are no health facilities in Al Samaha. Children run to the nearest village when someone falls ill to ask permission to use their trucks; the residents must be driven to Aswan for medical attention. “We need an ambulance,” Ismail declares at a convening of the village’s women one evening, “so if any of us fall ill after a long day of work we have a way to get them to a doctor or the hospital.” Most of the sick residents of Al Samaha do not have the luxury of traveling 120 kilometers for care, and so they are left with no options, even if they are stricken by curable and preventable diseases and illnesses.

The children of Al Samaha, by and large, are illiterate. There are no schools in the village, and they thusly have no means of education. They spend their days working in fields with their mothers.

“My husband passed away when I was 34 years old,” Ismail told Al Jazeera in a video interview. “I stayed here and raised my children and educated them and now two of them are married and the other two are with me. If I have a gallon of water I’ll share it with the other women in the village and if they have some water they share it with the rest of us. If we don’t hear from one of the women in the village we knock on her door to make sure she’s okay to make sure she hasn’t fallen ill or fainted or died from exhaustion.”

Although the living conditions in Al Samaha are extremely difficult, women like Ismail are persistent in their fight to carve out lives for themselves. “We know that one woman is stronger than ten men,” she tells the camera crew, repeating a common Egyptian phrase. “Otherwise we would not have survived here.”

Salma Elakbawy is a political intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She currently attends Rutgers University where she studies Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies.

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Claiming Public Space for Girls on International Youth Day

Today marks International Youth Day; this year’s theme, “Safe Spaces for Youth,” emphasizes the necessity of places where youth can gather and engage in constructive and meaningful discussions where they are free to express themselves. Citing positive effects of the “availability and accessibility of public spaces to youth such as parks, sporting facilities, cafés and community gardens,” The United Nations (UN) Youth Day program identifies creating public safe spaces as one of their priorities.

In 2015, UN Women declared public space to be “a social good, which should be safe, accessible, inclusive and available for all,” though many youth do not enjoy such accessibility. This is especially true for young women.

A. Warner/ICRW, Liberia

Public spaces are often male-dominated environments where violence against women—especially sexual harassment—is unfortunately far too common.

global report by UN Women states that women face harassment in parks, markets, streets, buses and trains in both urban and rural areas,  and regardless of the country’s level of affluence. The United Nations Population Fund reported that  “parents often keep their daughters inside the house, protected from any contact with males” by taking them out of school, increasing their domestic chores, or beginning to prepare them for marriage. And according to a Population Council report, “for many girls in the developing world, the opportunity to move freely in the community becomes limited at the onset of puberty.” Such restriction on young women’s mobility results in isolation from friends and insufficient social contact, which has negative effects on girls’ health.

By working together to make safe public spaces for girls, communities, youth leaders and local governments can help combat gender-based violence in public. Creating public safe spaces uniquely for female youth is a crucial first step towards transforming all public spaces into areas where women feel safe and towards changing societal beliefs about who should occupy public space and how they should occupy it.

Communities can be extremely effective when they organize to help increase girls mobility in public spaces by creating support groups, establishing facilities, or reserving time solely for girls at an existing community center. The act of reclaiming public spaces in their community that are usually reserved for men and boys is incredibly empowering for young girls, as researchers observed in the International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) Parivartan for Girls program.

ICRW, Parivartan for Girls

Parivartan for Girls engaged 12 to 16 year-old girls in a slum community in Mumbai through an 18-month program that combined training session in kabaddi, a traditionally male-only wrestling-like sport popular in South Asia, with empowerment workshops. The program culminated in a kabaddi tournament in front of an audience of over 500 members of the community.

Playing kabaddi publicly helped the girls claim agency over their own bodies and movement. Just as significant is that their parents, who had previously been reluctant to let their daughters out of the home, expressed pride while watching them play.

The United Nations Population Fund strongly recommends that safe spaces for girls are “women and girl-led.” In the Parivartan for Girls program, participants were coached by educated, unmarried 18- to 24-year-old female mentors; they acted as “positive deviants” because they countered cultural gender and marriage norms and set an empowering example for their young mentees. 

The positive impact of female youth leaders was also seen in ICRW’s recent ‘Tikambisane’ intervention, which engaged adolescent, HIV-positive girls in Zambia in six support group sessions that were all co-facilitated by two female peers living with HIV. Participants noted that having peers co-facilitating put them at ease and made them more comfortable discussing their experiences openly, and that their peer mentors “made them feel accepted and fostered a sense of unity.”

Safe spaces for girls are most effective when they are led by young female leaders—both of these programs remind us of the power of connecting girls with mentors from similar backgrounds with common experiences.

Robyne Hayes/ICRW

On a larger scale, to make public areas safe for girls, urban planning needs to be sensitive to and informed by gender. City governments should consider gender in their policies on infrastructure and urban planning. A city that is safe for girls needs to include clean, well-lit public toilets that do not have broken doors. It has well-lit streets and efficient, secure public transportation.

To improve the security of the transit system for women, the cities of Montreal and Toronto in Canada began to allow women traveling at night to get off between stops so that they didn’t have to walk as far to their destination in the dark. In Vienna, Austria, upon observing that, as girls and boys turned ten, the number of girls in public parks “dropped off dramatically,” but the number of boys stayed the same, city planners added areas for sports other than football and footpaths to increase accessibility. City officials noticed an increase in the number of girls using the space “almost immediately.”

Madhumita Das/ICRW, India

As a teenage girl growing up in Washington, D.C., I’ve been fortunate to enjoy broad freedom in my mobility. I generally feel safe while walking to the bus stop, riding on the Metro and traveling around D.C. Thinking of the girls whose parents did not want them to participate in the Parivartan program and play kabaddi, I realized just how lucky I am just to be able to play soccer at the local public park with friends — without fear of harassment.

Everyone plays a role in creating safe spaces for girls. Communities can contribute to this goal by creating empowering, girl-centered programs, and city governments can contribute by factoring women’s needs into their urban planning—but youth voices need to be included in all of these efforts, from project planning and implementation to monitoring and evaluation.

Now is the time to create safe spaces for youth worldwide.

Emma Markus is currently serving as Communications Intern for ICRW and is a Senior in the Communication Arts Program at Montgomery Blair High School. Emma also founded her own charitable organization called Give + Grow (Maa tsi //hoa), which sponsors girl’s education in Tsintsabis, Namibia, and is a writer for Affinity. She serves as the President of her school’s Model United Nations Club and is also a leader in its Girl Up Club.

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The Ms. Q&A: Therese Shechter and Glynnis MacNicol on Being Child-Free by Choice and Changing the Conversation on Women’s Lives

As filmmaker Therese Shechter approached the age of 40, she decided to create her first documentary, I Was a Teenage Feminist. She is currently working on a new film, My So-Called Selfish Life, which documents the lives of women who are “choosing not to have kids in a culture where motherhood feels mandatory.” Writer Glynnis MacNicol had a similar reaction to turning 40, authoring the recent memoir No One Tells You This, which documents her fortieth year as a single and child-free woman. She also wrote an aptly titled New York Times piece on the subject, asking: “I’m in My 40s, Child-Free and Happy. Why Won’t Anyone Believe Me?”

In both cases, these women felt the need to respond to the lack of narratives that mirrored their own lives. By creating art as a medium of expression, they are effectively adding to the conversation about being child-free with no regrets.

The two women took a moment to answer a couple of questions from Ms. about their work.

Therese, what do you hope to accomplish with My So-Called Selfish Life?

TS: Someone once described my work as disturbing what we’ve come to believe is sacred about womanhood. I’ve taken that on as my mission statement no matter what film I’m working on, from exploring how the power of feminism can transform a life in I Was A Teenage Feminist, to challenging widespread myths about female sexuality in How To Lose Your Virginity. My So-Called Selfish Life is the final film of this trilogy, and in it I want to challenge possibly the most sacred female identity: motherhood.

The first thing I’d like to do is give voice to a community that’s been harassed and stigmatized for making a choice about how to best live their lives—a choice that doesn’t actually affect most people around them. On a larger scale, I want to shift the conversation about women’s roles in the world and challenge the idea that every woman’s greatest accomplishment is childbearing. I’m not making a film about how terrible motherhood is, but about how social structures present women with only one possible script for their lives. With reproductive rights under constant attack and the contents of our uterus seemingly everyone’s business, the right to control our bodies and lives is more important than ever. 

And Glynis, what was your inspiration for writing No One Tells You This?

GM: This book came out of me turning 40, feeling very powerful, and thinking like “why the fuck should I feel bad about myself?” It was this real sort of moment like I couldn’t believe what I’ve been led to believe, that I should feel bad about myself for my life, because all evidence in front of me suggests that I should be feeling pretty great. When I decided to write this book I felt that I was looking to my left and right seeing so many women leading similar lives to me and we didn’t have any stories or narratives around it or anything which felt very frustrating and very suffocating.

Why do you think there is so much stigma in our society about being child-free by choice?

TS: That’s the really the big question I’m exploring in the film. It’s still true that any decision a woman makes that veers from an accepted script of heterosexual marriage and children is suspect. When you give women economic and sexual freedom they start thinking about what they really want from their lives and sometimes the answer is that they don’t want kids. There has been a lot done about the stigma in our society of being child-free, but I want to go past name-calling to look at the reasons that stigma exists.

Also, we as a society cling to the mistaken idea that all women not only want kids, but are natural caregivers, and that anyone who doesn’t feel that way is somehow damaged goods. The directive to multiply is embedded in major religions. So, if you’re challenging centuries of embedded patriarchy, capitalism, religion and nationalism, you’re going to get pushback.

GM: The shame attached to all parts of women’s lives is extraordinary and the real shame is that we’re deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women navigating their own lives.

All stories end with marriage or a baby, we’re very uncomfortable with women on their own. And why is that? Who’s uncomfortable with that idea? Who’s uncomfortable with women out of their place? Who benefits from all of us feeling bad about our lives? We don’t. So I think we’ve all internalized the shame factor and the shame is attached to women being alone, and why is it bad for us to be alone? It is definitely not bad for us. It is bad for a lot of people who are in power and are complaining quite loudly right now about how alarming it is when women seem to take charge.

One recent statistic says that more women in the United States are child-free now more than at any other time. Why do you think that is?

TS: One of the often-cited stats is that one-in-five women now end their childbearing years without having a child, compared with one-in-ten in the 1970s. That’s a big jump, but there are several things going on here. First, there are a lot less teen pregnancies, and a larger percentage of women are putting off starting a family until they’re older, so fertility issues come into play.

But there’s definitely a larger percentage of women who are simply choosing not to have kids, because, frankly, they can. Having children can give a parent a lot of joy, but it also comes with sacrifice and expense and a loss of freedom. Working mothers are penalized for having kids, both in income and advancement, and let’s face it, they still take on the brunt of the work at home. Given the current state of affairs, it’s a choice fewer women want to make.

GM: We’re living in the first generation that has grown up with the possibility of women having some level of financial freedom or independence for the first time in history. And with that independence comes the ability to make choices around your life, that you want, as opposed to choices out of necessity. For most of history women have been required to be in marriage as a means of survival. And of course, without birth control there’s very little you can do about how many children you’re having.

I think that is important to emphasize too, that we are both giving women the means to determine what their lives look like, and not giving them the means to lead a full life with children financially. It’s like we’re punishing women for having children essentially. We’re both financially punishing women for having children and giving them the ability to choose not to have children at the same time. So I don’t think it’s so shocking that the numbers are dropping.

Danielle Bauter has worked as the marketing and events coordinator at an independent bookstore in California for over a decade, and she is also a freelance writer. Her book reviews have been published in Elle Magazine and she currently writes a books column for Coast Magazine. Her short stories have been published in anthologies from Seal Press and Cleis Press. She also documents her travels at Wanderlust Explored.

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Bold Moves to End Sexual Violence: Challenging the Dialogue on Sex and Relationships Facing Gen Z

This year’s National Sexual Assault Conference theme is audacious and inspiring: ending sexual violence in one generation.

It calls out the damaging misperception that sexual assault and gender-based violence is inevitable. It summons us to think and act more creatively and courageously than ever before.

Challenge accepted. Here at EVERFI, our bold move is to dismantle the myth that Gen Z’ers are interested in hook-up culture—and support young adults in their desire to form meaningful, respectful intimate relationships with each other.

Young women at the 2010 SlutWalk in London demand respect—and a departure from rape culture. (Chris Beckett / Creative Commons)

Thankfully, we’re not alone in asserting this challenge. A significant body of research has emerged over the past decade that indicates the majority of young adults do not engage in—or, perhaps more importantly, even desire—no-strings, no expectations sexual encounters. Too often, when parents, educators, and caring adults talk with young people about intimacy and sex, the conversation focuses on what Harvard education researcher Richard Weissbourd calls “disaster mitigation”—a hand-wringing monologue about their likely sexual explorations threaded with vague references to avoiding unplanned pregnancy, asking for and receiving consent and respecting themselves and their partners.

I’ll confess: I’ve done this, even recently. It’s all important stuff, for sure. But these talks don’t do enough to offer what young adults hunger to understand better about relationships. We’re pretty lousy at teaching young people the skills they need to engage in meaningful, emotionally responsible and respectful relationships with each other.

As Weissbourd notes in a recent study on the subject: “We do remarkably little to prepare [young people] specifically for the focused, tender, subtle, generous work of learning how to love and be loved.”

But this is what college students tell us they want.

As the nation’s largest provider of online sexual violence prevention education for college students, we have significant insight on young adults’ beliefs, perceptions and experiences when it comes to relationships and sexual violence. In 2018, we included questions about this issue in our course surveys.

What we learned from nearly 4,000 college students may be surprising: 70 percent identified that they want love and respect in their relationships—and, contrary to the messages we often hear about college students and their fickle hearts (and libidos), 65 percent identified commitment and noted faithfulness as qualities they desire in relationships. Only 14 percent wanted to have casual sex, described in the survey as having “friends with benefits,” and even fewer—only 11 percent—were interested in hook-ups, which were described as “sexual encounters with no expectations attached.”

Yet, while 48 percent of college students desire love and respect for themselves, they don’t think that their peers want the same. When asked what they believed their peers wanted from relationships, 53 percent said “friends with benefits” and nearly half thought that other college students desired “sexual encounters with no expectations attached.”

The distortion these data surface between what young people personally believe about relationships and sexual intimacy and what they perceive their peers to believe is quite troubling. As sexual violence prevention scholars have noted, young adults are more likely to shape their actions based on what they believe their peers think than what they personally feel.

To end sexual violence in one generation, we all must act. Challenging the narrative that pigeonholes young people into unfulfilling sexual dynamics is the first step—and everyone can play a part in making it possible.

Colleges and universities can gather institution-specific data about student relationship choices and values to close the misperception gap when it comes to what students want out of relationships and sexual intimacy, provide parents and other supportive adults with guidance on talking to young people about love and romantic relationships and partner healthy sexuality education and sexual violence prevention efforts on campus by developing shared goals, language and programming efforts that include content related to developing, sustaining and ending emotionally significant relationships.

Parents and caring adults can engage in meaningful conversations about love, intimacy beyond sex and what is important in their own relationships, model healthy and respectful words and actions for young adults and request that schools provide developmentally appropriate and ongoing skills-focused education about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality to their students.

And here at EVERFI, we will invest our organizational creativity and courage in developing and delivering effective, positive education that helps our five million annual learners build healthy relationship skills and take action when someone is at risk of harm. We will continue to gather data about student beliefs and experiences, and deliver data- and research-driven insights to our 1,600 partner schools and to the broader community of prevention practitioners and higher education leaders.

The young adults in all our lives want and deserve respectful, loving, meaningful relationships. It is our work, together, to show them how they’re built.

Editor’s Note: We talked to Holly LIVE at NSAC 2018! Watch the video below to hear more from her on campus sexual assault prevention and find us on Facebook to watch more conversations from the conference.

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The Ms. LIVE Q&A: Holly Rider-Milkovich on Preventing Rape on Campus

EVERFI's senior director of prevention, Holly Rider-Milkovich, talked to Ms. digital editor Carmen Rios about what it will take to end sexual violence on college campuses—and how administrators and students can work together to make it happen.

Posted by Ms. Magazine on Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Holly Rider-Milkovich is the Senior Director of Prevention at EVERFI. She brings over two decades of experience in sexual violence prevention and response and in higher education to her role. 

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Bold Moves to End Sexual Violence: Separating Hook-Up Culture from Rape Culture

Ms. is a proud media sponsor of the 2018 National Sexual Assault Conference, co-hosted by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. This year’s NSAC theme is “Bold Moves: Ending Sexual Violence in One Generation.” Leading up to the event, we’ll be posting pieces by presenters and major speakers highlighting their plans to make those moves right here on the Ms. blog. Click the banner image above or this link for more Bold Moves posts.

What does it mean to be part of a hookup culture—to be sexually active in any way, shape or form, to participate in a system that puts intimacy on the ladder to rape culture? Does hooking up somehow invite the risk for violation?

During their time on campus, chances are that college students will hear casual dating involving any kind of sexual behavior referred to as “hooking up.” We think of hookup culture as one in which we can have the freedom of engaging sexually without the pressure of commitment. But even in a time as supposedly sex-positive as this one, hookup culture can still come off as something to be avoided or ashamed of—especially if you are a woman or belong to the LGBTQ community.

The prevalence of hookup culture as an everyday norm among young people has supposedly skyrocketed, yet there are still a number of stigmas that permeate the ways we think of and refer to casual sex. There are plenty of other terms used widely to describe intimacy, and not all of them are positive: “screwing,” “nailing,” “hammering,” “banging” or “hitting that,” to name just a few. These phrases are used just as readily to insinuate sexual behavior as describing an onslaught or act of aggression; it’s understandable, then, how hooking up can come to be seen as more than a little negative in our minds.

This kind of stigma doesn’t just reap shame for sexual beings—it makes it more difficult to call out rape culture when we see it.

Feminists around the world push back on rape culture at SlutWalks meant to spread sex-positivity. A protestor at the 2012 SlutWalk in Singapore held a sign reading “my dress is not a yes.” (Tamara Craiu / Creative Commons)

All too often, we’re told that rape itself is “hard to define,” because it’s associated with these muddy waters of sexual behavior and hooking up in general. This is especially true when we shame people for enjoying sex. We live in an environment where the act of hooking up—of being sexual with someone else, whether for the first time for the hundredth—is still viewed as a questionable choice, and too frequently leveraged as a defense for perpetrators of sexual assault.

If sex and hooking up are inherently bad, how can we respond when perpetrators “defend” a violent act of sexual assault as “just” a regretted hookup, miscommunication or those muddy waters between sex and violence? The intersection between rape culture and hookup culture—the moment we begin stigmatizing others for the ways in which they’re sexual, the moments where we use shameful, degrading language to describe sexual activity—contribute to a landscape in which perpetrators of sexual assault get away with harming others.

For those of us committed to encouraging healthy, consensual interactions, having hookup culture act as a scapegoat for violent, criminal behavior can be overwhelming and may even lead us to feel powerless. But hooking up doesn’t have to be negative—and it certainly shouldn’t ever be violent.

It’s time to delineate the difference between hookup culture and rape culture (and that harmful, stigmatizing area where the two bleed into each other) once and for all.

At Catharsis Productions, we’re not here to promote or discourage any kind of choice in sexual behavior; that choice is yours, and yours alone. What we are promoting is a hookup culture that respects everyone—one free from negative stereotypes, where choices to participate in any form are respected.

The next time you feel unsure of where your experiences, habits or beliefs fall on this spectrum, consider what hookup culture is supposed to be like—and what rape culture is. It’s the responsibility of everyone—not just sexually active folks—to keep hookup culture positive and ensure that consent and respect are the norm.

We all have the opportunity every day to normalize healthy behavior. We can empower each other, rather than invoking shame and slinging stigma at each other, for the choices we make about sex.

We can use positive language to refer to sexuality. We can involve respectful communication in our dating lives. We can declare and demand consent in our own sex lives. And we can stand up for those who have had their choice taken away.

We can stop something as healthy and empowering as consensual hookups from becoming clouded with something as harmful as rape culture.

Catharsis Productions‘ mission is to change the world by producing innovative, accessible and 
research-supported programming that challenges oppressive attitudes and shifts behavior.

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