In her book, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,, Lindy West describes feminism as “the long slow realization that the things you love hate you.” It hurts, especially when those ‘things’ turn out to be people, and those people turn out to be family.
Like millions across the country, I went to bed on Election Night in 2016 paralyzed by sorrow. But in a few days my grief and disbelief began to curdle into rage. Yes, rage – the thing good girls are not supposed to feel, much less acknowledge.
I’d always been a good girl. I got straight A’s, worked hard, stayed out of trouble, for the most part. I raised my hand, asked questions, won spelling bees (like I wasn’t supposed to); I sat up straight with my hands folded, avoided eye contact and allowed myself to lose arguments (like I was supposed to). As the “Second Sex” I experienced first-hand what it’s like to be abused, ignored, and dismissed. I know what it’s like to be constantly criticized for being either too much or not enough. These judgments pinch when they come from strangers; they sear when they come from family.
All these years, not being and doing all I could, it gets exhausting. When Hillary Clinton lost the election, women’s weariness hit a crescendo. Arguably the most qualified candidate to ever run for the Presidency had lost to a self-aggrandizing reality show celebrity utterly devoid of character and a shred of public service. Nearly half my fellow citizens had preferred this infantile bully in spite of — or because of — words and actions that made clear his ignorance, dishonesty, bigotry, misogyny and utter lack of character. I thought to myself, so THIS is how much people hate women. But for months I’d realized how much my family doesn’t care about women, and by extension, me.
Most of my family is either dead or estranged, so when I met and married my husband, I was so excited to find a drama-free family that baked pies, went to local church yard sales, and welcomed me with open arms. No one could ask for a better mother-in-law. She’s kind, smart, brimming with energy and curiosity. My father-in-law seemed to think my ethnicity made me sort of exotic, enjoyed my acerbic sense of humor, and laughed at my comebacks when he inevitably teased me.
Like his father, my brother-in-law was a Obama-hating conservative, who eventually leveled up to evangelical Christianity. He blithely told me how he enjoys picturing Margaret Sanger burning in hell, and made insensitive jokes about Michael Jackson’s pedophilia and a gay waitress. His brand of holier-than-thou-ery included neglecting to tell his girlfriend he was moving to the Midwest, even after he packed up his car and drove away. His girlfriend was devastated; his dad thought it was funny. My husband and mother-in-law seemed to take it in stride.That’s what I learned marring a WASP; they seem to take a lot in stride.
Me — not so much.
Growing up I watched the fight for Civil Rights on TV and on the streets of our southern town. I was about 6 when I learned how my mother’s extended family had perished during the Holocaust. I found it unfathomable that people could think of blacks or Jews as less than, and the fact that this ridiculous, irrational bigotry could lead to segregation and genocide.
I was about 10 when I first saw The Sound of Music on TV. I know it’s supposed to be about family, romance, WASPs singing, swirling on hilltops, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. And believe me, I like all those things, especially romance — and kittens. (And the swirling, who doesn’t like swirling?) But the scene that had the biggest impact on me is the one where the Von Trapps are hiding from the Nazis when Liesl’s beau, Rolfe, dolled up in full Swastika-swag, finds them. (Earlier we’d been treated to his rendition of that feel-good misogynist melody, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”. Big red flag, Liesl, if the whole Nazi thing wasn’t enough of a buzzkill.) Christopher Plummer tries to reach out to him, reason with him, appeal to his goodness. “You’ll never be one of them,” Captain Von Trapp says, meaning it as a compliment, not a dis. But Rolfe gets riled: “”How dare you think I’m not the kind of evil douche who relishes terrorizing my neighbors and murdering good people!” Instead of joining the good Von Trapp family and taking the high road to morality and probably getting to third with Liesl, “A-Rolphe” alerts his fellow soldiers with a blaring whistle, bellowing “They’re here!”*
That whistle haunted me for years. Life is largely a series of choices. Who we are ultimately comes down to a series of choices, the actions we take (or don’t take), the words we say (or don’t say). When Rolphe blows that whistle he makes a choice, a choice that tells us who he is and who he chooses to be. Our lives are stories about the choices we make and the people we choose to be. (And hopefully there’s swirling. Lots of swirling.)
Growing up, it was crystal clear to me that it wasn’t a man named Hitler who killed over 6 million people. It was all the people who let it happen, either with their outright support, or by standing by or not speaking up when they could. The danger lies in complicity; the Holocaust rests on the shoulders of the marginally bigoted, the fearful, the misguided “polite”.
I’ve heard Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters alike tell me how voting for Trump doesn’t mean you’re a racist, or a sexist, or any other nasty nouns that suggest a person believes some nationalities and genders are superior to others. They tell me that voting for Trump doesn’t make you a bad person, and I should stop being an over-reacting, stubborn jerk. The stubborn part, the jerk part, I own that. My only excuse is that the whole “over-reacting” thing is bullshit. This whole hysterical bitch trope is lazy at best. No one talks about the Founding Fathers’ and American Revolutionaries’ rowdy disdain for tyranny as ‘over-reacting’ – and those ballers climbed on a boat, dumped tons of tea in the harbor and framed ‘Indians’. Tell me, please, what exactly is the rational, appropriate reaction when faced with a world where:
- Science and facts are ignored and devalued
- Tyrants and their minions attack journalism and law enforcement that doesn’t suit their interests
- The planet’s survival (THE EFFING PLANET WE ALL LIVE ON!!) is endangered and damaged in ways from which it can never recover
- Millions of people’s lives are affected, even ended, by bigoted ideologies supporting unpopular, unreasonable (and unkind) policies
- Ugly racist, misogynist, and authoritarian rhetoric is tolerated or celebrated
- A barely literate despot ruins America’s reputation and relationships with countries across the globe
- Myopic and/or greedy elected officials promote unpopular policies that destroy our environment and economy to satisfy a cabal of corporate donors and plutocrats
I live on this planet, and so do a lot of my friends. I believe in equality of opportunity, fairness and justice. I embrace feminism, that super crazy radical idea that women are also part of the human race. So when Trump voters and their apologists tell me they aren’t racists or misogynists, I am not comforted. Look, if you vote for someone who spouts racist rhetoric, boasts about sexually assaulting women, you are saying you’re OK with it. You VOTED FOR IT. You CHOSE IT. Look in the mirror: YOU picked someone who invented and spread a story that our black President wasn’t born here; that said women he groped were too ugly for him to have groped them; who bragged about barging into teen girls’ dressing rooms; who said women shouldn’t be in charge of their bodies – all while he wallows in appraising them. You voted for a grown man who pretended to be someone else and called newspapers saying women said he was the “best sex they ever had”.
You think all that shouldn’t bother me. For now, let’s just put aside the planet’s destruction, racism, homophobia, corruption, treason, obstruction of justice, and decades of boorish stupidity. Let’s look at the fact that I am a woman. Lots of people I know and like are women. Tell me, how should I feel when you embrace a man who treats women like dirt, demeans women’s appearance, opines about taking away women’s rights? Just how should I feel when you cheerfully tell me it doesn’t matter if he sexually assaults women?
Does it ever occur to you that voting for Trump tells me it doesn’t matter that he grabs p**sies? That it means someone grabbing my p**sy doesn’t matter? Saying sexually assaulting women isn’t a big deal is like looking me in the eye and telling me it isn’t a big deal that I was sexually assaulted.
My husband is uncomfortable that I’m airing “personal dirty laundry” and I understand that. But I have to write this because I want him, and other wonderful people like him, to understand what it might feel like to know your father-in-law says, “But that wasn’t supposed to come out,” when the Access Hollywood tape broke. I want people to think about what it might feel like to be a woman and hear someone you love demean women’s intelligence and appearance. If I were a black man sitting at the table in the restaurant, would my father-in-law so merrily say, “Don’t give him the check, black people are terrible at math”? But no one in my husband’s family blinks an eye when he says that about women. But me…I am blinking. And I’m hurting.
There are two things I want to tell my family.
- I love you. Very much. I’m so grateful and blessed to have you in my life.
- And I want you to love me too. And that’s why I’m hurting. Because when you say and do the things you do, it feels like the proverbial slap in the face. And I don’t like being slapped in the face.
And the thing is, I don’t want to be slapped in the face, and I’m not going to let it happen. I’m not going to take it in stride.
The day after the election my father-in-law sent the family an email celebrating Trump’s victory over horrible Hillary. My sister-in-law was thrilled; “GOD BLESS AMERICA” she succinctly replied in all caps. From my walking coma of despair I managed to squeeze out a reply, saying he knew this wouldn’t be good news for me and to please desist. His various follow-up emails made it clear that my sorrow was incomprehensible to him. He couldn’t see it.
To my family — All I want is some attempt at comprehension. I want women’s pain and experience to be seen. If over the years I’ve been complicit in its invisibility, well, that ends now. So I can’t be a “good girl” any more. Sorry, not sorry. And to the Rolphes out there who broke my heart when you blew your whistles, there’s still time to make another choice. You can re-consider what it is you’ve chosen.
Or at the very least, you can tell Liesl you’re sorry you blew it.
* To be fair, I hear that in the stage version of The Sound of Music, A-Rolphe actually joins the Von Trapp family, making good on his dickish promise in melody to take care of poor clueless Liesl.
This piece was originally written for the wonderful website, Like a Boss Girls.