Originally published: 20.03.15
…when women speak truly they speak subversively–they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you–I want to hear you.Ursula K. Le Guin
I have not been able to write. There is a weight on my chest that has been there for months. It heats up and swirls around and settles heavy when I endeavor to speak to the confusion, outrage and injustice as I take in another narrative of child sex trafficking, the dismantling of reproductive rights and a woman who was recently convicted of Feticide after having a miscarriage. My pulse quickens as I read the latest update of a rape case in which a boy chummily gave a thumbs up in a photo while he penetrated a 15-year-old girl from behind as she vomited out of a window. That split second in her life was memorialized, fed to and devoured by the millions of people in a culture that is fueled by images of female degradation. Rehteah Parsons hung herself in her home on April 4, 2013; her mother pushed open her bathroom door and held the body of her lifeless teenage daughter. In January, the boys involved with her rape and the photo of it were handed a 4-week course on sexual harassment because after all, consent is “complicated.” Mount Holyoke (a Women’s College) cancelled their production of the Vagina Monologues because some members of the student body have adopted the ideology that to stage a production that acknowledges and focuses on the experiences of women who have vaginas is “inherently narrow, reductionist and is exclusionary” to women who do not have vaginas. I can’t help but wonder what could happen if the same internet outrage that that was turned toward Eve Enlser for her work that “reduces gender to biological distinctions” was turned toward the hordes of men who perpetrate psychic gang rapes on Twitter by talking about how they are going to dismember, defile and denigrate the vaginas of women who speak out of turn. Feminist writers are putting down their pens and stepping out of public conversation because the hate speech, death threats, and the vitriol are all so much. Yes, we live in an era of “call out culture” but I have never seen a woman say she was going to sexually violate someone’s face and then murder them because she disagreed with something they said, nor have I seen men doing this to other men.
The place in my chest that holds my silence is old. It is muscle memory from a time when a neighborhood boy used to sit on my 11-year-old chest with the full weight of his teenage body. I learned to hold my breath in resolute silence until I nearly lost consciousness – the resistance to domination, humiliation at my own powerlessness, fear, and rage became a molten material in my veins that is still making its way to the surface for full expression. This story is mine and it isn’t incredibly unique. Most girls don’t enter adulthood without having been literally or figuratively pinned to a floor by a boy or a man. This story is his, but it also isn’t unique. He was 13 and already a serial assaulter, a boy who understood himself to have dominion over the body and the will of the girls that he pinned to the floor beneath him. Most boys don’t enter adulthood without having had this message reinforced for them. The details in my cells are mine alone but the weight on my chest, the holding of breath and the resulting weather patterns in my blood and nervous system were shared telepathically by many of the girls in my neighborhood. It was a feeling that was known by her and her and her and her and quite possibly by you in one form or another. So many Women and Girls live our lives holding our breath. We are contents under pressure.
No. We are forces of nature. We are fire ecology. We are volcanoes.
During Women’s History Month I have been thinking about an assignment I received two decades ago in a community college history class. My instructor asked us to write a family biography in the context of social and cultural history. The papers were to be collected and displayed for one month in the college commons as part of an exhibit of what was happening in the college’s honors history class. As I embarked on this project, I felt fortunate to have come from a long line of family archivists. We have letters and photos and records pre-dating the Civil War. I grew up hearing stories about the Mennonites who came to the Colonies in the mid 1600’s and established the first paper mill, the farmers in Minnesota and the part of my family that changed their last name so it would sound more Italian and less Polish. But as I sat down to write, it was the story of the women in my family that jumped onto the page. A context emerged that had never been visible to me before. I wrote about my great grandmother who was committed to a mental institution for “social transgressions” and died there of tuberculosis, my paternal grandmother who birthed eight children before the age of 35 and spent years being dismissed by her doctor as “tired” even though she had blood coming from her right nipple and died of breast and ovarian cancer at the age of 41, my biological maternal grandmother who got pregnant at 18 and surrendered my mother to the local children’s services bureau after six weeks of trying to care for a newborn completely on her own. My adopted grandmother voted religiously (mostly against her own interests) because she could. She was a woman who entered the workforce during WWII and had her ass grabbed at work so often that she talked about it as “you know, disgusting, but just part of how it was.” I contemplated the illegal black-market abortions in the late 1960’s that nearly ended the lives of women in my family. And then there was me, the (then) young lesbian AIDS activist coming out of the closet in the early 1990’s. To be honest, I am almost shocked that this was the paper that I wrote because I didn’t have much of a feminist consciousness then. But when I was tasked to consider my family in a social historical context, I couldn’t help but see these stories as related to one another along a continuum. My point was not to unpack and display the full contents of our lives – the love affairs, the Saturday mornings, the holiday joy, the traditions we inherited, the tender camaraderie between sisters, the significant friendships. My intention was to point out how significant events in the lives of the women in my family were shaped by the cultural attitudes, access to resources and legislation that effected women during each of our lifetimes. I got an A on the paper but was told privately by my instructor that while she really appreciated where I was coming from, that the social sciences committee felt it was too radical to display due to all that talk of blood, sexual harassment, abortion and lesbianism. That in and of itself is relevant to the topic of the paper.
Thinking about this paper nearly 20 years later, I find myself wondering about the weight on the chest of my foremothers. How did they contain their own turbulence and where did they hold their silence? Where did it accumulate and when did it erupt? I acknowledge and offer gratitude for the small and large liberations that have accumulated in our bloodline over time. The lives and endeavors of my Foremothers brought me forth. Their endeavors meet and mix with my own. And we become the force of energy that will flow through, carry and envelop my daughter in her own time – a daughter of divorced lesbian mothers. She is a girl who will navigate the terrain that impacts the lives of females in her own lifetime but she will also come of age surrounded by women who forged paths for her by dedicating their life’s work to female dignity and liberation. I try not to lose sight of the fact that my daughter inhabits a world of female freedom that Her Great Grandmothers would not at all recognize.
Still, let’s not be strangers to the power that is in us. Let me not forget who I am. We are forces of nature. Women are volcanoes. And we are erupting all the time. We will continue to change the maps as we go and know that we have, and we will also change the maps we will not live to see. We are the staggering vistas, the formidable inclines, and gentler slopes for those who climb with us after us.