I am bombarded with the appearance of #YesAllWomen tweets. Often, I am in awe of the power of Social Media. This is one of those times.
As I scroll through ten tweets, twenty more are posted. And it’s 5 a.m. And these #YesAllWomen tweets are being tweeted by women and men. I am enthralled and captivated. Encouraged and enraged. Dismayed yet hopeful. Definitely hopeful – despite my feelings of horror as I read countless women’s stories of fear and suffering and pain and death, clicking obsessively between Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and WordPress. Why hopeful? Because finally we (meaning women) are talking about and sharing our stories, #nofilter.
And I believe that every woman has had at least one still lingering encounter with a man or men that was frightening, humiliating or harmful. But usually, we keep these stories to ourselves. Why are we generally silent? Why do sexual assaults and rapes go unreported? Home training. Media messages. SHAME. So many reasons.
GOOD girls do not place themselves into situations that lead to these horrifying encounters; girls who do probably are”at fault” somehow because they dressed too provocatively, drank too much, were too friendly or flirtatious, or in the “wrong” place. Sometimes, we experience these encounters with male figures in positions of power: fathers, employers, clergy. Silence is safety. So we chalk it up to a “life lesson learned,” rather than reveal how we allowed or, better yet, lured a man to “lose control.” We quietly bandage our wounds which never quite heal and which make us wary of the world. Almost always, we feel such shame about these experiences, we work hard to forget they ever happened. But it is impossible to truly forget. These episodes remain etched in our souls, our psyche, our skin. #YesAllWomen
I was 19. I was a passenger on the Illinois Central Railroad in 1978 – I had taken the 9:20 p.m. train out of the Randolph Street station in Chicago and was traveling home (I still lived with my parents) to the far south suburbs. At the time, I was attending night classes at Northwestern University. I would scurry down Michigan Avenue as class let out at 9 p.m. and I was always relieved to make the train and slide into my seat, always out of breath. My nightly routine, Monday – Thursday, after commuting to the city on the 7:08 a.m. train to work a full day before I raced to class. I was a seasoned commuter. I was savvy and smart.
Except this one night.
For some reason, I grabbed an inside seat. I was tired and wanted to just lean against the window for the 55-minute ride home. I started drafting a paper due the following week and got lost in my work. At some point, a man took the seat next to me and opened his newspaper. I wasn’t paying close attention. My fault. At some point I became aware that the man’s hand had drifted onto my leg, and was moving up and down from my knee to mid-thigh. Startled and unsure, I quickly pushed it away, thinking the man was asleep, as his eyes were closed. Just minutes later, it happened again, and I realized that the man’s other hand was inside his trousers.
I stopped breathing.
I hastily stuffed my papers and books into my backpack and pushed past the man who took the opportunity to grab my ass. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to die. But I never made a sound.
I stood in the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights in the train vestibule next to the conductor for the rest of the trip home, fearful the man would approach me as I got off the train. I kept reassuring myself that I was overreacting. It was no big deal. I hadn’t been raped – just touched. It could have been so much worse, right? My own fault, sitting on the inside seat. Stupid girl. You know better. You are fine. I leapt off the train when we arrived at the platform, and fled down the stairs two at a time. I remember the cars on the busy avenue that ran beneath the station, honking as I dashed across the street to the lot where I parked my car. I still hear the sound of the lock (manual) as I hurriedly slammed the door closed, shaking and sweating and crying and swearing. When I got home, everyone was already asleep. I threw away the clothes I was wearing and scrubbed myself clean in the shower, trying not to wake up the rest of the family. I never told anyone. I remained silent. But for weeks I felt that disgusting touch over and over again.
Commuting was never quite the same after that. I was distrustful of men who took the train and opened their newspapers, even though #NotAllMen behaved in this manner. In retrospect, minor incident. Especially when compared to the killings in Santa Barbara this past Saturday and many of the stories I’ve been reading this morning. But for my 19-year old self – it was a big deal. And I didn’t know how to talk about it. What gets me infuriated now, is that an adult male on a crowded train knew that he had the power to do what he did – that I would give him that power and not call him on it. What gets me even more infuriated now, is that the man felt he could masturbate and touch a young woman in public – without her consent – with impunity. And at 19, all I felt was overwhelming shame for putting myself in such a position.
Like most of us, I now have read quite a bit about the young man at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who felt he had the right to seek retribution against all women because he had been sexually rejected or overlooked by women – that the women should be punished. I watched a portion of a video he posted on YouTube. It was too disturbing to watch through to the end, especially knowing the outcome, even though I have seen and heard a version of these sentiments before. So I read the transcript (click here to read it, if you’ve missed it: gruesome, but informative). Now, seven people are dead, including this mentally disturbed young man, his roommates, two sorority sisters, and a man at a convenience store.
And I am deeply saddened and terribly uneasy.
After reading the news accounts of the UCSB tragedy on Sunday, I read an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune entitled, “Disregarding feminism a sad trend for young celebs.” A few days prior, The New York Times published “Who is a feminist now?” Both pieces center on an odd(well for me, anyway) definition of feminism held by many (Rush Limbaugh comes to mind), a “zero sum” game if you will, where the rights of men are somehow diminished if women are granted equal rights. And apparently, the idea that feminists have “chips on their shoulders,” are “militant” and “don’t like men” still exists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. These views are held not only by a number of popular celebrities, but by the current chief exec at Yahoo, all of whom are women. I wonder if these “non-feminists” realize they have greater access to power and independence because of the “feminist” movement. Are we teaching the history of the 20th century to our children?
These “post-modern” views of feminism also make me uneasy. Because I really want to believe we are farther along in the women’s movement, despite the gender pay gap, despite the increasing and incessant emphasis on the female body, despite the hyper-sexualization of young women, despite the hateful lyrics of some pieces of popular music, and despite the continuing use of the word “bitches.” In my view, feminism means equal rights for women and men: equal pay, equal opportunity, equal voice. It means women who serve in the military don’t subject themselves to sexual harassment or rape – and when they are so violated, they have recourse. It means respect between men and women.
This morning, I felt great relief at this Twitter explosion, despite the trolls and the #NotAllMen response (#nokidding), for as this tweet aptly states:
Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One. #YesAllWomen
— Emily (@emilyhughes) May 24, 2014
And these stories are being told, some in 140 characters on twitter, some on tumblr, some on FaceBook, and some on blogs on #WordPress. The secrets of women are being disclosed and both men and women are empowered. Because there is great power in this telling of truths, of revealing the roles of oppressor and oppressed. Only by acknowledging these roles can we alter them.
I hope and pray that #YesAllWomen is more than a #trend and that it leads us beyond the important conversation and debate to real action and change. Honestly? I am used to feeling vulnerable when I am alone – simply because I am a woman. Statistically, the odds are rarely in my favor. So I plan and live accordingly. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if younger generations of women no longer had that fear? In the meantime, you might want take a look at the Twitter feed.