I am seeking an attitude.
And yet my gender identity is as basic, as incontrovertible, as my racial identity. I have written the sentence "I am black" innumerable times. I have thought that sentence, and I have felt its meaning all the way to the bone of my self
What is the difference between gender and race? Why do I feel perfectly comfortable saying, "I am a black woman," or "I am a woman of color," but then something inside me pretty serious balks/blanks out when it comes to the more elementary declaration: "I am a woman"?
Or why do I write without hesitation about the injustice that freed the cops who beat up Rodney King, and then I keep to myself my qualms about the fact that he has been charged with beating up his wife?
Maybe it has to do with the human necessity of pride.
We women are the majority of every people on the planet. But, everywhere, we are most lacking in political representation, least compensated for the work we do, most illiterate, most impoverished, most lacking in legal protection and recourse, and most concentrated in the lowest paying, least secure, and least valued sectors of the labor force.
In addition, we are, everywhere, subject to physical and social violence. On our own: On the streets of the world and in the dwelling places we call home, we are not safe. And, even in the realm of medicine and medical research, we, women, in general, do not exist: Most tests are conducted on men for diseases affecting primarily men. Men are regarded as the universal body, the universal voice. From cholesterol to literature, you just have to hope that your female organs and/or your female perspectives do not differ importantly from those organs and viewpoints of the universal male.
While this state of affairs can have readily comical results, it can also kill you-if you happen to be somebody who needs to say, "I am a woman."
For example, given the popular perception and sentiment on the horrifying crisis of AIDS, you would probably run into real trouble trying to educate people to the fact that breast cancer kills far, far more Americans every year. Over the past ten years, roughly 140,000 Americans have died of AIDS while close to 600,000 Americans have died of breast cancer. And yet, when President Bill Clinton got around to something specific about health care, in his budget speech to the nation, he rightly declared himself determined to greatly increase funding for AIDS research, but he did not so much as mention breast cancer.
Of course, breast cancer kills only women.
I am a woman. I am looking for reasons for pride in my gender identity. Given the international and the whole human historical context of female inequality, where can I find them?
Why did it take my mother so long to defend herself against my father? Why was suicide her final defense?
Why have we taken so long to defend ourselves against the brutality, derision, and economic subjugation that have been our regular female experience?
Where are the reasons for pride?
Where are the woman-songs comparable to ". . . and before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave"?
And what about those of us asked to become -- or bullied into becoming -- the slave of the slave? What about we, women of color, who have been pained into a false choice between unconditional loyalty to our men (themselves despised by white men) and our own need to escape from despicable "bitch" status and treatment?
And why do men hate us, anyway? And why do we, nevertheless, and always, continue to love them as lovers and husbands, and fathers, and why do we women, as mothers, raise boys into a manhood that then endangers our own lives?
I am seeking an attitude. Twenty years ago, I thought I was proving something terrific and really big deal when I decided I would, without exception, move through the corridors of Yale University in high heels and in as fashionable an array of dresses as I could almost afford on my unequal, woman's salary as an assistant professor. That was a weird episode of considerable discomfort. And it is curious to me, today, to realize that I thought I needed high heels and dresses to confirm my gender identity inside that ossified space of male values -- and that I thought that such gender confirmation of myself, as a woman, would naturally mean something positive and good.
Boy, was I young!
Twenty years later, and I look through my file folders: Africa, Clinton, the Budget, African-American Issues, South Central L.A., Gay and Lesbian Issues, Foreign Policy Issues, and, yes, here is one labeled, Women.
As I riffle through newspaper clippings kept under that heading, I can feel a kind of pitiless nausea overtaking me. Here is the African woman of Somalia who weighs forty-five pounds. Here are Muslim women clutching at such protection as they can find inside traditional Islam. Here are young black teenagers (female), 62 per cent of them likely to live below the poverty line once they drop out of high school -- compared to 37 per cent of young black teenagers (male).
And, in any event, according to The New York Times, "Students sit in classrooms that, day in, day out, deliver the message that women's lives count for less than men's." Here are American women 50 per cent more likely to be raped inside the military than in civilian life.
And here are more than 20,000 mostly Muslim women systematically suffering gang rape around the clock in the former Yugoslavia. And here is nobody powerful in this country, from President Clinton up or down, opening his -- or her -- mouth to decry these atrocities and to make them stop happening.
I mean, I am a woman.
And I am living and I am paying serious taxes inside this country that took us into an unholy, barbarous, unpardonable war against the people of Iraq for the sake of an inarguably plain old rotten dictatorship called Kuwait. And this country where I live and pay serious taxes murdered way more than hundreds of thousands of Iraqi human beings and spent way more than the total allocation for education on the delivery of such a savage rescue of such a stupid and intractable dictatorship as the one that still holds power in Kuwait. And yet -- and yet! -- the elected leadership of this same country where I live and where I pay serious taxes cannot even open its mouth to condemn genocidal rape!
This country cannot suddenly shoot its Patriot missiles and fly its Stealth bombers the hell into Serbian turf because why? There is no oil in former Yugoslavia. And another thing: The only people being raped are women.
I am a woman. And I am seeking an attitude. I am trying to find reasons for pride.
I was proud when we elected four new women to the United States Senate.
I was proud when we elected the first black woman to the United States Senate.
I was proud when a woman became Secretary of Health and Human Services.
I was proud when a woman became Attorney General of the United States.
But where are they now? Is it possible that not one of these illustrious women could find two minutes in which she could lay down humanitarian and, yes, military demands in behalf of the 20,000-plus mostly Muslim girls and women in former Yugoslavia?
Maybe they don't remember rape. Maybe when you get to be powerful you lose your gender identity above the neck and you just can't remember the very common horror of rape.
I am a woman. I have been raped twice in my life. And I remember. And I go through the hours of a Monday or a Tuesday and I do not forget what is happening to all the victims of so-called ethnic cleansing and, particularly, I do not forget the women victims of so-called ethnic cleansing And I do not and I will not forgive the elected leadership of my country for its inertia and its silence and, therefore, its complicity with the evil of so-called ethnic cleansing.
Where my reasons for pride? One of my colleagues, in a manner of speaking, Anna Quindlen, recently published a column arguing for intervention in behalf of these female victims of rape. Ordinarily, I respect and admire Anna Quindlen's writing. But for her, rape was not the point. Rather the tragedy is this: Having been raped and raped and raped and raped, again and again, these thousands upon thousands of young mostly Muslim girls and women may never become receptive to any future proposition of heterosexual intercourse and, hence, these rape victims may be unable and/or unwilling to serve a procreative function for their people.
And, hence, these people, 100 per cent, may perish.
I guess I should say, "Thank God Quindlen managed some justification for the rescue of these female casualties of so-called ethnic cleansing."
But is it not remarkable, is it not appalling, that she, evidently, does not believe that rape, by itself, is quite sufficiently something to interdict because rape, by itself, is horribly destructive, violent, and wrong?
Where are her reasons for pride?
Or mine -- when, in the past, I have argued for our equality and empowerment mainly by emphasizing our indispensable procreative and then our nurturing functions?
How low can we go?
Pretty damned lowdown when I must present the issues of my freedom and my rights primarily in the context of my ongoing usefulness to somebody else!
I am a woman. And that's not easy.
Crazies out here want to tell me all about my body. My body! Tell me no abortion. Try to kill any doctor who could help me. Went and killed one. Finally. Blew him away. Three bullets shredding the flesh of his back. Crazies out here blowing up/closing down abortion clinics. Call me Welfare Queen if I go ahead and have the babies when I don't have no job and no way to get a job and nowhere to leave the babies if I do find something anyhow.
Crazies out here tell me I can't love no woman. Want to kill me if I do. Went and killed one. Hattie Cohn in Salem, Oregon. Burned her to death.
Crazies out here tell me I can't love no man unless he have himself a big-time income and reliably conjugal inclinations. Crazies out here tell me I can't love no man unless we married anyway. The Pope say just abstain. The Pope himself abstain.
Crazies out here like to drive me crazy.
But I'm not crazy. I am seeking an attitude.
Out of these histories of horror and impositions of shame and degradations of a rising freedom spirit, is there a pathway to my pride? Behind that question is another one. Is there a will to power?
For me, the problem of gender identity stems from its usual estrangement from ambitions of power. Usually we push for things to change in our favor, yes, but usually we push in the most courteous and reasonable and listening fashion imaginable. We want or we need whatever it is because that would be the right thing, the moral case, and because, otherwise, we are left in danger and in pain.
Hardly ever do we enter the realms of righteous rage! Hardly ever do we formulate the matter so that whoever opposes or impedes or ridicules our demands will understand that if he does not get out of our way and/or get rid of that smirk he will be the one in danger: He will be the one in pain!
Hardly ever do we make it clear that by "rights" we mean power: The power of deterrence and the power of retaliation and the power to transform our societies so that no longer and never again shall more than half of every people on the planet beg for dignity and safe passage and political and economic equality!
Usually we try to persuade or seduce or defuse the anxieties or deflect the violence of our opposition. Usually we try to fool ourselves, as well: The War Against Women surely does not require War Against the Enemies of Women -- be they male or female. And so we neither win nor lose; we persist -- and too often we perish. At the very least, we perish in the spirit.
For me, the problem of gender identity is our evasion of the implications of power and our may-l-say-"feminine" inclinations to make nice. War is not nice. And it's hard to embrace something alive and yet powerless. It's even a bit creepy as an idea: something alive without power. But female gender identity, per se, has been presented like that, to me. It has been given to me as a certificate of suffering: I am one of those who could have been thrown away or suffocated or drowned at birth because I was born a girl.
But pride does not arise from suffering. Pride develops as we resist our misery, as we revolt against, and as we exorcise all misery from our days and nights.
And so I know pride as a black woman and as a woman of color because black people and people of color resist oppression and because we loathe, actively, every source of our unequal liberty, our unequal entitlement under law.
We behold our racial identity as a call to arms, a summoning of ourselves into battle for power and territory and wealth and happiness and well-being. We declare war against our enemies. We wage war for the sake of our self-determination.
"We," in this case of colored peoples, includes me.
But have we, women of these United States, for example, have we declared war against our enemies? Are we ready to live and die for the sake of our self-determination?
Show me the nationwide day of absence by women so that, for starters, the Equal Rights Amendment shall become law.
Show me female vigilante patrols keeping city streets and country roads safe for our passage at any time and in any attire of our choosing.
Show me national flying furies who confront and who overpower crazy Operation Rescue gangsters wherever they dare to raise their ugly killer heads.
Show me proportional political representation of women by women on every level of government.
Show me women loving women absolutely without persecution and absolutely without death.
Show me overdue changes so that everyone who does such "women's work" as day care of children and night care of children and teaching and nursing and peacemaking and converting the wilderness of our humanly mixed attributes into a benign environment for human beings -- everyone who does this so-called women's work shall receive more money and more perks than General Colin Powell or your nearest college football coach.
Show me emergency Federal commitment to cure breast cancer.
Show me our feminist faxorama to jam White House machinery with our demands for crisis intervention against rape in former Yugoslavia and against violence against women in our own country.
Show me the power and I will feel the pride!
I am a woman. And I think I have found my attitude. And I think, really, it's about: "Let's get it on!"
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|Title Annotation:||women's rights history|
|Date:||May 1, 1993|
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