Voice

The Enduring Darkness of International Women’s Day

Women have gotten screwed for millennia, and that’s not a legacy that can be shaken off in a few short decades.

People hold signs during a demonstration for International Women's Day in Paris on March 8, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS        (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold signs during a demonstration for International Women's Day in Paris on March 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

About a week before the election that swept Donald Trump into the White House, I was sitting at home with my two girls, listening with half an ear to their after-school chatter. “Michael is so mean,” declared my seventh-grader, showing her phone to her sister. “He sent my friend Hannah” — not her real name — “a text with bad words in it.”

“Is that a screenshot? May I see?” I asked. I was curious to know what counted as a “bad word” to a 12-year-old girl. Butthead? Poop brain?

I was way off. Michael (not his real name, either) had called my daughter’s friend — also 12 — a “cunt” and a “whore.” He asserted that she “wanted dick” and accused her of giving blow jobs to another boy in the class.

Whatever I’d been expecting, it wasn’t this sexualized vitriol — not from a nice middle-class boy at a nice middle-class school.

Then again, Donald Trump had recently been in the news for his lewd comments about women, caught on tape saying: “I did try and fuck her…. She’s now got the big phony tits and everything…. When you’re a star … you can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” In a world where a major party’s presidential candidate felt no need to apologize for such remarks, why wouldn’t a seventh-grade boy think it was OK to call his female classmate a cunt?

But it wasn’t OK. I tried to explain this to my daughters, who seemed stunned to see their mother — normally a laissez-faire parent prone to saying things like “I’m sure you kids will sort things out on your own” — suddenly transformed into a raging virago. “This is not OK,” I insisted. “It is never okay for any boy to use this kind of language to any girl. Not to Hannah. Not to anyone. Not ever.” The girls stared at me, saucer-eyed; I’m pretty sure they didn’t even know what some of Michael’s words meant.

Finally, over some wails of protest (“Mom, please don’t tell! It’s just Michael being Michael!”) I called Hannah’s mother, whom I knew well, and then Michael’s mother, whom I didn’t. Both were shocked. Michael’s mother was mortified. “I am so sorry,” she kept repeating. “I am so disgusted. I’m so, so sorry.” I didn’t call the school, which could be counted upon to overreact; appalled as I was, I didn’t want to see Michael expelled, which was a serious possibility for this type of cyberbullying. After all, he was only 12, and he was growing up in a world saturated by violent video games and porn. What chance did he have?

And then there was Donald Trump.

“I keep thinking of Donald Trump,” I told Michael’s mother. We were both embarrassed by the conversation we were having. “I’m so sorry to have to call you and tell you about this. But I keep thinking: Maybe if Donald Trump’s mother had told him, when he was 12, that this kind of thing was not OK — well, maybe then he wouldn’t have grown up to be Donald Trump.”

Or maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Let’s not kid ourselves: The world remains a savage place for women and girls. It has never yet been otherwise.

I don’t mean to brush aside the advances and victories. Two centuries ago, women were legally viewed as chattel in most U.S. states. Women couldn’t own property or sign contracts in their own names. Less than a century ago, there were virtually no female doctors or lawyers. There were no women in the Senate or the House. Until the 1970s, marital rape was lawful.

Today, there are women on the Supreme Court and in Congress. Women now make up the majority of students at American universities. There are female Marines and female physicists, female cops and female bankers, female wrestlers and female CIA agents. Why, we even had a female major-party nominee for president!

Granted, she didn’t end up in the White House. She lost to the man who likes to grab women by the pussy and refer to them as pigs, slobs, and dogs. And let’s not forget: Hillary Clinton, America’s first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party, is married to former President Bill Clinton, a man known for his multiple extramarital affairs with younger, less powerful women and a man who faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Let’s not forget that our first female major-party nominee never spoke openly about any of that. Let’s not forget that she did her best to undermine and discredit the women who said her husband had harassed or assaulted them.

Here’s the bitter truth: We live in a world that still routinely silences, sidelines, and brutalizes women and girls. Think of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by Taliban gunmen for speaking out about the importance of educating girls. Think of the Afghan schoolgirls who’ve had acid thrown at their faces. In Saudi Arabia — one of our closest Middle Eastern allies — women still can’t drive, swim at public pools, vote in national elections, or get passports without the consent of a male relative. In northern Nigeria, it’s lawful for a man to use force “for the purpose of correcting his wife.” The Russian parliament recently watered down laws against domestic violence, eliminating criminal penalties for first-time domestic violence offenders and replacing them with civil fines. In France, Germany, and Greece, Syrian and Iraqi women report that they fear using the toilets in refugee camps at night because the risk of rape is so high. Worldwide, women and girls account for 70 percent of all human trafficking victims — and globally, nearly half of all female homicide victims die at the hands of a domestic partner or family member, compared with less than 6 percent of male homicide victims.

In much of the world, women and girls are still denied basic rights. Women and girls are more likely to go hungry than men or boys and less likely to finish school. They earn less than men and are far less likely to own land. Globally, women still make up less than a quarter of national parliamentarians and 10 percent of heads of state.

Here in the United States, thank God, our daughters can go to school without having acid thrown in their faces. But a third of American women have been sexually harassed at work, and 65 percent of American women report having been harassed on the street, with 41 percent reporting physically aggressive forms of harassment (being followed, unwanted touching, etc.). Sexual violence remains rampant in the United States; according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five American women reports being raped at some point in her life.

Think about that, parents: If you have a daughter, her odds of being raped are one in five. And it gets worse; of those rapes, only 13.8 percent were committed by strangers. The rest were committed by domestic partners, family members, or acquaintances.

I understand what’s wrong with racial and ethnic profiling, but for better or for worse, I’ve never hesitated to engage in my own version of gender profiling. “What do you do if you get lost?” I ask the girls every time we travel. They repeat the answer, like a mantra. “Find a police officer. If you can’t find a police officer, find a woman with children and ask for help. If you can’t find a woman with children, just find a woman. If there are no women and you absolutely have to find a man, find a man with children.” If you’re a girl in America and you’re lost or in trouble, you want to stay away from men if you possibly can.

Women have largely achieved de jure equality in America, but they still don’t compete with men on a level playing field. The World Economic Forum ranks the United States only 28 out of 145 countries when it comes to gender equality. Women make up only 19 percent of the current U.S. Congress and only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. White American women still earn only 80 percent of what white men earn, with nonwhite women earning even less.

Things aren’t so great in American homes, either. Women still do significantly more housework and more child care than men, and in most heterosexual couples, Mom is the “default” parent: the parent who knows the names of the kids’ pediatrician and teachers, the parent who sets up the play dates, plans the summer camps, and stays home when a child is ill.

Most of us want things to be different. But how do we change things, in a world where 12-year-old boys in progressive schools call girls “cunts” and their mothers don’t know what to say except “I’m so, so sorry”?

Do I sound bitter? Mostly, I’m just sad.

I was born in 1970, the child of a prominent American feminist. My mother brought me with her when she gave speeches on equal rights. She was fierce on the subject, and so was I. Of course women could do anything men could do! Who could doubt that?

A lot of people, it turned out.

My mother told me I could do anything, and I wanted to do everything — or at least everything boys could do. I didn’t want to be trapped in a world of dolls and frilly dresses. Most of the kids in our suburban neighborhood were boys, and I longed to be part of the pack, climbing trees and playing baseball. I wanted to be a Cub Scout, not a Girl Scout, and play Little League, not go to ballet classes. The Cub Scouts went on camping trips, while the Girl Scouts worked on sewing projects. There was no contest.

When I was 9 or 10, I cut my hair short, and for a year or so, I was thrilled when strangers mistook me for a boy. But the Cub Scouts still wouldn’t let me in, and the Little League teams remained all-male.

Only when puberty loomed did I see that I was trapped; there was, apparently, no getting out of being a girl. I let my hair grow and learned what girls still have to learn in 2017: how to wear makeup, how to flirt, how to toss your hair and laugh. How to turn away male jibes with a smile. How not to mind.

Sometimes it’s hard not to mind, harder than most women will let themselves admit. The boy who called my daughter’s friend a cunt and a whore has plenty of company, and any woman who makes waves in modern America can expect similar treatment. It happens to me, every few years; I’ll write something that strikes a nerve, and the hate mail will pour in. If you’re a woman in America and you make people angry, you can expect the hate to take a highly sexualized form.

Here’s a sampling of some of the vitriol that flowed my way during the latest episode: “Fuck you vile cunt.” “Traitorous leftist bitch.” “Fuck you u stupid cunt.” “You are a whore from hell.” “We’re coming for you Bitch.” “Piece of shit whore.” “Fuck off you stupid shit face bitch.” And so on.

You didn’t like reading that, did you? Trust me when I say that I didn’t like finding this verbal vomit in my inbox, either.

I’m not alone. Every woman who speaks out gets at least some of this. Most of them never say anything, because they’re embarrassed and ashamed. That’s the terrible thing: When men hurl this kind of sexualized bile in your direction, some tiny hidden part of you thinks, “Maybe I deserve it.” Even though you don’t. No one does.

So whose fault is this?

It’s not the fault of the men who share our lives. No question, our fathers and brothers and husbands and sons are part of the cruel architecture that pushes women down and aside. But they didn’t create that architecture. Women have gotten screwed for millennia, and that’s not a legacy that can be shaken off in a few short decades. It’s much like race and the legacy of slavery; slavery wasn’t the “fault” of any modern American, but all of us, black and white, remain caught in its tattered but still poisonous web. White Americans are the undeserving beneficiaries of generations of racial discrimination. Similarly, men are the undeserving beneficiaries of generations of sex discrimination, whether they like it or not.

Men, it’s not your fault that your daughters face a 1 in 5 chance of being raped and your wives earn less than their male colleagues. It’s not even your fault that you do less housework and child care; we’re all prisoners of our upbringings and the unspoken assumptions that continue to mold us, every day of our lives. It’s not your fault.

But it is your responsibility.

Women bear responsibility, too. Too often, we become silently complicit. Look at Hillary Clinton, tough enough to run for president, and endure a million misogynist insults, but still unable to speak openly and honestly about her husband’s sexual misbehavior or speak generously about the powerless young women whose lives were damaged by his predatory behavior.

These are dark thoughts, but these are dark days. Already, President Trump is moving to roll back some of the hard-won gains made by advocates for gender equality. In one of his first executive orders, he reinstated the “global gag rule,” cutting off U.S. funding for any organization worldwide that provides women with information about abortion. Make no mistake: This will kill women, both by damaging the organizations that also provide information and access to contraception and by pushing more women toward illegal and dangerous abortions. (Globally, more than 300,000 women die each year from pregnancy-related complications, and 47,000 die as a result of unsafe abortions.) In the United States, too, women can expect to see reproductive rights rolled back.

So what can be done?

First, let’s stop kidding ourselves. Things are bad. Things are not as bad as they might be, but sexism remains virulent and deadly — and the moment we convince ourselves that sex-based violence and discrimination are things of the past is the moment things start getting worse again.

You don’t like the term “feminist”? Fine, come up with your own word. But don’t lie to yourself — or your daughters and sons — about the world we live in. And don’t make excuses for men and boys who behave abusively to women or for women who trivialize or look away from that abuse.

Second, look for the connections. It’s not an accident that the president who calls women “pigs” and “dogs” also trades in disparaging stereotypes about Muslims, Mexicans, and black Americans. It’s not an accident that the same president who thinks it’s OK to “grab them by the pussy” also is doing his best to ban Muslims, deport immigrants, and dismiss the concerns of black Americans. And it’s not an accident that hate crimes are up across the board since Trump’s election. “I have tremendous respect for women,” Trump tweeted on International Women’s Day. But it’s hard to make up for all his other tweets denigrating women — or for his mockery of the disabled or his suggestion that recent anti-Semitic vandalism was staged just to make him look bad or for his embrace of Steve Bannon and the so-called “alt-right.” The ideologies, structures, and habits that still shove women down and aside are intimately bound up with the ideologies, structures, and habits that shove gays, lesbians, minorities, and immigrants down and aside. Solidarity is an old-fashioned word, but we need to reclaim it.

Third, fight back. Women and men alike need to fight for women’s rights: the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to be mothers and workers at the same time, the right to wear makeup or not, to play baseball or take ballet classes, to walk down the street without fear, to be treated with respect.

How should we fight? The same ways as ever — by voting, by arguing, by organizing, by writing articles, by singing songs and making movies, by taking to the streets, by defying stereotypes, by calling out bad behavior. By being open to the new forms of struggle and protest our children will invent.

By not being afraid.

Photo credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

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