Benched: The Politics of Cojones

(Photo from the Ancient Origins website)

In her 2013 novel/memoir, The Ridiculous Idea of Never Seeing You Again (La ridícula idea de no volver a verte), rock-star Spanish author Rosa Montero tells of a legend of a 9th-century woman, Juana (Joan), who had passed for years as a monk, made a name for her/himself, and then became pope.  Juana had spent years traveling with another monk, who presumably was the father of the baby to whom Juana would give birth while occupying the highest holy office in the land.  Montero writes (translation mine): “The legend says that she proved herself to be a well-qualified and prudent pope.  But, Juana ended up pregnant, with the aforementioned man of the cloth as father, and, one day, as she traversed the city in a solemn papal procession, Juana went into premature labor and gave birth right there in front of the people of the city.  Imagine the scene: the golden crown, the staff, the silk, the subdued brocade cloth soaked with blood and splattered with lowly bits of placenta.  It is said that the people, enraged and horrified, leapt on top of the woman pope, tied her to the feet of a horse, and dragged and stoned her for several miles before killing her.”

This one story, so powerful in its possibilities, speaks to contemporary gender issues.  There’s the unevolved Catholic Church, welcoming women to leadership neither in the 9th century nor now; there’s the Catholic Church, still relying on the piety of its women parishioners to advance its patriarchal agenda; there’s the brilliant woman having to dress as a man to enact her brilliance; there’s the transvestite/transgender element for the monk couple, who cannot openly express their love and attraction for one another; there’s placenta, exposed to the world in all its silky power; there’s a baby, left alone while its mother is murdered; there’s a mother, who must be shamed, harmed, and killed for her supposed transgression, and there’s the age-old story of a woman being taught her place.  There is a blending of religion and government.  There is reproductive choice and subsequent retribution.  There is justice, in all its patriarchal glory. There is a return to “normalcy,” with the men in charge.

Montero concludes the recounting of the Pope Juana legend with the papal protocol supposedly established after Juana’s murder (translation mine):  The youngest prelate “had to tap the presumptive pope’s genitals under the seat and then call out, ‘Habet!,’ or ‘He’s got them!’  At that point, the cardinals in attendance would answer, ‘Deo Gratias!’, I suppose full of relief and rejoicing that the new Peter was another Pater.”  I know it’s Fathers’ Day season and all here in the United States, but of course it bears mentioning that the Pater-Peter-Father-Pope inherits his rightly place as head of household, decision-maker, public figure, with all freedoms and rights properly accorded to him.  That’s patriarchy—we have confirmed you have balls, and now you shall have everything else.

I want to return to the characterization of the legendary Pope Juana as “well-qualified and prudent.”  When, in 1991, the well-qualified and prudent lawyer Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings regarding the sexual harassment she had experienced while she worked for him, she was maligned and scorned, and eventually ignored. (*See this 5-9-19 opinion piece by Anita Hill in which she again advocates in smart, specific, and determined ways for putting an end to sexual violence.)

In 2011, Thomas’ wife made an imprudent early-morning phone call to encourage Hill to stop her activism, and this year (2019), Hill received other ill-advised calls from Democratic presidential hopeful and current frontrunner Joe Biden, who step by little campaign-advised step, kept trying to take the nation’s temperature to assume as little guilt for his role in the 1991 hearings as possible. Joe is too busy preparing for his “Habet!”moment to understand and acknowledge the role he played in allowing Thomas to occupy the Bench for so long. Note, too, that David Leonhardt in this The New York Times opinion piece (1-13-19), encourages Biden to “Run, Joe, Run,” as he exhorts Biden to run for office because “your populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation” and because “you are not afraid of losing.”

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/us/politics/joe-biden-anita-hill.html)

The anti-reproductive rights Roman Catholic presence on the Bench—Thomas for almost 28 years and now Kavanaugh for too many months—sets the tone for the entire nation, from Alabama to Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and to Ohio.  The religiously motivated and conservatively empowered pater familias confirms the might of the testicles and the decreased body autonomy for those with other parts in play.

Commonwealth of Virginia: Time to Ratify the ERA

(Here is a letter to the editor I have just submitted to support ratification of the ERA.)

White women got the right to vote in 1920, 133 years after the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia and 129 years after the approval of the Bill of Rights.  African-American women waited even longer, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  These plain historical facts reveal to us the multiple gaps left by the Constitution’s framers and the ways in which we must encourage the document to catch up with and to reflect contemporary realities of citizens and citizenship.

The Equal Rights Amendment, a Republican endeavor of the 1970s, is still alive, well, and ready for even more support in the state of Virginia.  Virginia could become the 38th state—the last one necessary—to ratify the ERA, following Illinois (2018) and Nevada (2017).

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”  This simple text reminds us that women’s rights are civil rights and that strict scrutiny is needed for gender discrimination cases, as is already the case for race and religion.

84% of the 197 constitutions in the world guarantee gender equality, and all international constitutions since 1950 have included gender equality clauses.  The ERA provides a national standard for the elimination of gender discrimination. In the United States, widespread, bipartisan support for the amendment speaks to the common-sense nature of it.

This is a great time for the United States to step up its game and ensure all citizens equality under the law.  Virginians, let’s do our part!  You can sign local and state petitions in support of the ERA, contact your delegate and the House Leadership every day, visit the General Assembly now or in the future to advocate for the amendment, write to Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, Speaker of the Virginia House, and spread the word to friends and neighbors of the Commonwealth.

Check out the VA Ratify ERA website.

Viejo Verde = Sexual Harasser = Criminal Action

(From Yale Alumni Magazine‘s classified ads, current issue)

In Spanish an old lech or pervert is called a “viejo verde,” or a green old man.  I used to think this was funny because I was so accustomed to normalizing the harassing behaviors of men imposing themselves on women in public and private spaces.  I basically thought, of course there will be old perverts, of course we have to protect ourselves and others from them, of course, of course, of course.  It took me until I was 27 or 28 to take these issues seriously—to understand the ways in which the men who engage in sexual harassment and assault cloak themselves in the “no big deal” protections they have always been afforded—and to stop accepting harassment as a given.

The spate of reporting about Weinstein and so many others over this past month (and, of course, about the assaulter-in-chief ) suggests that we in the United States are at least starting to come to terms with the myriad ways in which we have indulged grown men’s felonies and misdemeanors through our undervaluing of girls’ and women’s humanity (and, in not a few cases, boys’ and transgender individuals’ humanity).  Somehow, we see men as the smart adults who get to run the world, while also constantly surrendering to a boys-will-be-boys narrative that implies that men are just victims of their own animal drives.  I recognize this as both binary and Manichean, but, somehow, men get to have it both ways (treated with seriousness and respect and indulged when they commit actual crimes), and women get to have it in no ways (undercut in professional and personal settings and disbelieved when they state difficult truths).  Go back and read 17th-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz for an artful catalog of these unjust social mores, and then come on back to the 21st century to see how little has changed.  Even the Weinstein avalanche doesn’t make up for centuries of not caring, not reporting, not attending to profound, gender-based mistreatment.

This month’s reporting has been over the top, maybe precisely because sexual harassment and assault have been so woefully under-reported for centuries.  I doubt many of us have been able to keep up.  Here are a few references whose content has informed this blog post: Rebecca Traister in The Cut (11-13-17); Roy Moore accused by the fifth woman (The New York Times, 11-13-17); Jessica Valenti in The Guardian writing about Louis CK, Roy Moore, and #MeToo (11-10-17); Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, “Louis C.K. and Hollywood’s Canon of Creeps” (11-12-17); Karen Tumulty et.al. on Trump and his accusers (The Washington Post, 10-21-17) and Jia Tolentino on the same (The New Yorker, 11-9-17); Jessica Bennett on the “tsunami” of the Weinstein scandal (The New York Times, 11-5-17); James Hohmann on Roy Moore and the GOP (The Washington Post, 11-10-17); Yamiche Alcindor on sexual harassment in the House and Senate (The New York Times, 11-13-17), also reported on here in The Washington Post (10-27-17); sexual harassment and assault in higher education since Weinstein (The Chronicle of Higher Education; 11-13;17); Laurie Penny’s “The Unforgiving Minute” (Longreads, November, 2017); gender discrimination in the tech industry (The New Yorker, 11-20-17); The New York Timeslisting of men accused of sexual misconduct (11-13-17); today’s reporting about the #WeKnowWhatYouDid campaign at Spelman; in this older article from Forbes, recently making the social media rounds, John Grisham soft-pedals pedophilia (10-16-14).  I could go on, but this sampling certainly demonstrates the pervasiveness of the problem and the variety of reporting angles available to us.

The women (and others) using the #MeToo, #MeAt14, and #WeKnowWhatYouDid hashtags are making the still-important point that most societies across the globe have indulged harassing behaviors, including the felony of sexual assault and rape, for most of their existence.  #MeToo allows us to see the abundance of cases and the pervasiveness of these power plays, while also revealing the detail and texture of each of the individual stories told.  #MeAt14 stories make clear that, just like 14-year-olds of all genders, 14-year-old girls are not yet adults and should not be hunted, fished, baited, or otherwise treated like animals, especially not by adults, whom they might still believe are to be trusted.  #WeKnowWhatYouDid acknowledges that most reporting and adjudication mechanisms still harm victims of sexual harassment and assault and are therefore still far from effective or efficient.

When I was four or five years old and playing in my backyard, a 12-year-old pulled down his pants and asked me, “if I wanted to piss with him.”  This was somewhat frightening, and I told only my oldest brother, who then told my parents.  When they reported the incident to the police, a police officer came to our house and asked me to “show him” what had happened.  This was far more frightening to me than the initial event, which reminds me again that we still have much more work to do to make reporting and adjudication as non-threatening and non-punishing as possible.  When I was 12, my parents took some of us kids to the holiday concert at the school where my dad taught.  As we navigated the crowded bleachers, someone shoved his hand up my skirt and grabbed me between the legs.  I was in absolute shock, I didn’t know which of the coat-and-tie high-school boys had done it, and so I shoved the one on the end into the one next to him, attempting some sort of lame game of dominoes in my surprise, anger, and hurt.  I told no one because I didn’t even know how to articulate what that was.  When I was 13, my basketball coach felt us all up as he showed us techniques for foul shots.  A foul shot, indeed, especially when we actually joked about it in front of our parents, and no one did anything.  I should mention that the person was also a guidance counselor at our middle school.  When I was in college, a friend of a friend wouldn’t leave our apartment, pulled a Louis C.K., and then left.  When I saw him at the friend’s wedding a few years later, I re-experienced the shock I had felt back in college.  In a mega-city in another country, I embarked with friends on the metro, the most crowded metro car I had ever been on.  As I held my purse tight to me with one hand and held the upper bar of the metro car with my other hand, hands were all over my body.  I had nowhere to go.  There was not an inch of open space to move into.  I exited the metro at the very next stop, which was not my intended destination.  My exit from the car was as violating as the ride had been.  Two weeks ago, my daughter and I were at a hotel.  As we took the elevator back up to our room, two drunk men hopped on and leered at my daughter, while I half-backed her into the corner behind me.  She is 12 years old.

The photograph you see above is from Yale Alumni Magazine’s classified advertisements.  This ad invites older men to “find” women 10-30 (+) years their juniors.  For many men, that makes the “women” they are “finding” underage—not women, but girls who should be allowed to develop fully before making their own decisions about their bodies and sexual selves.  What other media corners are selling, trafficking, raping, and assaulting women and thereby reducing our collective humanity?  Why aren’t we calling them out more?  When is enough enough?

There should be no turning back.  We all know these stories. We know these people.  They are committing crimes, and we do not have to let them.  No more making light of the viejo verde, the old perv, the neighborhood lech, the harassing movie producer or comedian, the groping politician, or the raping swim or gymnastics coach.  No more (and no Moore).