A Word in Edgewise

This election cycle has hit hard and close to home for a lot of us. As someone who comes from privilege, I try to move through my sadness and fear as quickly as possible, and stay instead in the galvanized-to-action emotional space. But as a woman, it is impossible to ignore the overt violence against my gender that has been sanctioned by the soon-to-be most powerful man in our country and is now being carried out with renewed vigor and entitlement right alongside the violence against LGBTQ folks and people of color and immigrants and Non-Christians and so on.

Here’s a story:

Two years ago I was in an abusive relationship, living in rural Idaho about 30 miles outside Boise. My partner at that time – let’s call him David – got a job cooking at an upscale pizza & beer place on the State Highway about halfway to town from our cabin.

The place was run by two brothers, well-respected and well-liked good ole’ boys who grew up around there. They were good people, respectful, honest, hardworking. They took my partner under their wing, hiring him on to cook for them despite his being covered head to toe in tattoos and being unable to provide a solid reference. They were the sort of people who saw the good in people and didn’t make assumptions.

It was custom for all the restaurant folks to sit around on the patio for a beer (or two or three) after closing every night. I was always there to pick up David, and sat up with them each night despite the fact that I would have to wake at 5 the next morning to drive an hour into town to my job caring for babies in a childcare center. The brothers’ wives both waited tables at the restaurant, so most nights saw the six of us sitting around in metal patio chairs, trying to keep warm inside our winter coats, holding our beers with frozen fingers.

It could have been a good time. At that point in the abuse, I had lost all my friendships but one, which had to be maintained in total secrecy. I often arrived early to pick David up, bringing a book to read at the bar, just so I could have the passive social contact of at least being in a room with other people.

But here’s the thing about those long evening sits: The women did not speak.

Every night I was bored stupid, but it took me a long, long time to figure out why. I kept waiting, thinking eventually they’re going to ask me something about myself, like ‘So Lauren, what do you do for work?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ I would have been satisfied with only the minimum level of politely feigned interest,but even when the conversation turned to topics that I have a lot to say about – like Art (I had just completed a Bachelors of Fine Arts that spring) – the most recognition I would get is David bragging briefly ‘She’s a really good artist.’ Then maybe they’d look at me, smiling and nodding – Oh, that’s nice – and plow right back into the conversation.

Let me remind you that these guys were not assholes all the time. I often saw them being very loving and respectful to their wives in other ways. This was just how it was, this conversation was for men only, and it had probably never occurred to them that this was problematic.

One night when I sat inside myself watching the scene unfold with little interest I looked over at the wife of one of the brothers. She was hanging on the arm of her husband, smiling up at him, nodding in agreement as he spoke. This woman was not dumb or somehow soft – she was great: fiercely loyal, generous, engaging. This was just how it was for her, too. Every night she hung on her husband’s arm smiling while I sat in my chair bottling up my rage.

Susan Griffin writes in her 1974 essay “Feminism and Motherhood” (Mother Reader, ed. Moyra Davey, 2001), “…what one sees clearly is usually a way of life that is passing.”

Friends, let us see this clearly. This story is one of the least violent of my experiences that I can recount, but I tell it because it so illustrates the attitudes of our culture that make violence against women acceptable and even expected, even by the President-elect.

Despite all the so-called progress we’ve made, age-old narratives remain unchanged. Women have a place, our work is to support the endeavors of our men (like waiting tables in their restaurant), our selfhood is established only through our men, men can do whatever they want with us, and we are expected to sit still and be happy about it. Most importantly, we do not have a voice.

I don’t know what the partnerships of those two brothers and their wives were like. I know what my partnership was like, and I know that when you deny a person’s voice, you take away a part of their humanity. And there are very few steps between seeing someone as less human than you, and committing crimes of violence and hate against them.

I have been lucky in my life. The privilege that I mentioned earlier meant that I could leave my abusive partner, meant that I had a web of support to return to, means that I now have a college degree and have always been expected to take my intelligence and selfhood seriously by pursuing a professional career, and a professional career has always been a real possibility (even when I have actively not wanted one).

My privilege has meant that I was raised to know that I have a voice, and that I should fight back if anyone ever tried to take it away.

Not everyone is lucky. Not everyone can leave. Not everyone knows about their voice, and I was raised to know that we have to help them fight, too.

Once your eyes are open, you don’t get to close them again, and we have hard times ahead and much terrible work to do. We will want to turn away from the pain, but I urge us to keep our eyes and see clearly. Even 42 years later, Susan Griffin’s words ring true that “what one sees clearly is usually a way of life that is passing.”

 

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