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Me Too is insufficient

There is a current trend on social media of women indicating that men have sexually harassed or assaulted them. Occasionally there’s a story, but most often it’s two tiny words: Me Too. It’s not enough.

It doesn’t capture the reality of what your feed full of “Me Too”s really means. The horror stories that most women have should infuriate you. But perhaps you don’t realize what the constant pervasive sexual harassment does to those of us living with it. It often takes more energy to confront the hand grope on public transportation or the demeaning replacement of one’s earned title with a comment on our appearance than it does to call it out. So I push it aside, I move on, I let it slide because there are other things vying for my attention and energy. These encounters become background noise. But it adds up. Let me show you.

If you know me well, you’ll know that my dreams are vivid and my way of processing and coping with the stress of living. Sometimes they make me wake up laughing, sometimes I run with dinosaurs and run from lava, and sometimes I get on a soapbox and pontificate on ideas that I have. They’re often pretty excellent entertainment.

The past three months I’ve had repeated dreams of men entering my apartment, watching me while I sleep, and only when I wake up (in the dream) and catch them do they leave. For three weeks in August/September I was so convinced that there was someone in my apartment, watching me or standing over my bed and touching my hair, that I was waking up at 2am every night full of adrenalin. I had to turn on every light and look in every cranny to make sure I was the only person in my apartment. And then to try and go back to sleep. It takes a toll.

Last night, I dreamt the following:

I woke up (in the dream) from a noise in my apartment and caught some white dude in my apartment, watching as I slept, browsing my journals and my things. In trying to get him out, I get tangled in my quilts leaving my bed. He laughs as I try to yell but have no voice to tell him to get the fuck out. I follow as he pelts down the stairs, outside, and into a police officer who stands outside my door. The police officer laughs and lets him outside to join his frat brothers. Finally finding my voice, I ask the (white male) officer why the guy isn’t being arrested: he broke into my apartment and was watching me sleep! The officer shrugs, and says no harm was done to my stuff or to me, so there’s no evidence that I didn’t let him in. I start screaming as the frat bros circle, taunting me and mocking my hysterical anger. It’s only when one of the dudes pulls a gun on me, and waves it at the officer that they decide to arrest him and take my own anger seriously. But the frat bros try to sneak into my apartment behind the officers who are now going to investigate. I have to stand in the doorway, hands on my hips confronting them, because the police won’t do that for me. Upstairs the cops find a nest of blankets right next to my bed where they were camped out. They find months worth of notes on my sleeping behaviors and patterns from dozens of men who have been watching me sleep. The comments about my sleeping behavior are almost entirely sexually explicit. And yet still this is not enough to get all of them arrested. I am beyond angry. I am violated and furious and raging because to do otherwise is to give into the visceral feelings that my house, my body, my identity are unsafe. I spend more time trying to lock my doors, my windows, the doggy door they initially used to get in, and yet still it requires me hitting them, shouting at them to keep them from again invading my house after the cops leave. One guy makes it in through an upstairs window and I find him eating months of their notes to destroy what meager evidence there is of their violation. I scream for help, to try and get him to stop, and yet no one else is there. I have to handle their laughter, taunts, and physical intimidation on my own.

When I finally managed to wake myself up around 4am, my heart was racing and adrenaline was coursing me. It’s a half-hour before I can go back to sleep, which is better than the past few variations on this dream. I’m getting better at repeating my mantra to get myself back to sleep: my apartment is secure, I am safe, I have friends I trust. I’m getting faster at shrugging off this nighttime processing of the stress in the world around me. But I’ve lost a night of restful sleep. I have to force myself to remember what is real and what is not. I have to go bed tonight and remind myself that these dreams happen only about once a week, so tonight will probably be a full night’s sleep. Probably.

But let’s break apart this dream.

  • First there’s my lack of voice when I find a white guy who has broken into my safe place at the point when I am most vulnerable. I discover a threat of intimidation and I cannot say anything about it. I struggle to verbally respond and physically react. If you know me, that’s absurd because I always have something to say. Sexual harassment often feels ill-defined because it’s a threat of something more and it leaves little evidence of the implied threat.
  • The police officer doesn’t believe me and is actually complicit in allowing the “boys to be boys”. My word, once I find my voice, means nothing. My voice is in fact mocked as being hysterical, like I’m overreacting. They are caught in the act of violating my safe space and the symbolic extension of the state laughs me off. The state sides with those who further hone their threat of violence. The boys learn that the state will ignore their behavior. The lack of repercussions encourages them to continue mocking me and further attempts to break into my apartment.
  • It is only when a gun is pulled and only when it is turned on the police officer that a handful of the frat bros are arrested. The state only cares about threats to itself. (We could go into the racism embedded in the state’s response, but that’s not explicitly part of this particular dream). I am no threat to the state’s authority, and they have no reason to respond.
  • Even after the cops begin to take my fury seriously, they do not protect me while they search for evidence. They do not become alarmed when the evidence shows that this invasion has been going on for months. They leave evidence in a place where it can be destroyed. The state has zero vested interest in pursing a case against this threat of violence. And I am alone fending off the same behavior.
  • There’s no reason in the dream they chose my house, why they chose to intimidate and harass me except that I was female.

This dream represents the pattern for those of us who choose to fight one instance – or the problem at large.

This dream, and its many variations I’ve been having the past few months, is just one effect of living in a culture of pervasive sexual harassment. When the cheeto-in-chief is tacitly (and explicitly) exonerated from accusations of sexual assault, it increases this background noise. It’s more fuel that I have to process and cope with. I have to balance a poor night’s sleep and spiked anxiety with whatever else goes on in my day.

When women speak up “Me Too” it brings to the fore the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in which I have to live my life. I just spent an hour writing this rather than get ready for work and enjoy the beautiful rosy-colored dawn. I did because I think one of the tools at addressing sexual harassment and assault is telling personal stories. I at least have the capacity to do this. It takes effort. Me Too is insufficient a response.

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A march for intersectional history

I went to the Women’s March on Ithaca. There are ~30,000 people in my town (not counting the influx of students arriving over the next 3 days that will double that number). The Ithaca police estimated attendance at 10,000. A full 1/3 of my town showed up to march.

As I suspected, folks were marching for a range of reasons that may or may not have matched the official (if contentious) platform. There were signs explicitly protesting the orange toad and signs protesting the tools of his campaign including misogyny, sexism, Putin, and the various *-phobias that populate current demagoguery. A kindergarten aged child carried a sign that said “Be kind to everyone.” There was my new favorite image of Leia saying “A woman’s place is in the resistance.” There were signs about reproductive rights and rape culture. Slogans and imagery reminding us that Black Lives Matter were clearly visible. The demand for human rights, LGBTQ* rights, religious rights, immigrant rights existed in words and images. One sign proclaimed rights for all women with images of various animals that are common food items. Some signs listed all the reasons why the participant was marching. One women had a genealogy tree pinned to her back that identified only her matrilineal ancestors. Science, climate change, freedom of the press, truth, and education were represented throughout the crowd. And there were folks without signs, whose reasons for being there were not on display on a poster. 10,000 people present, and each of them there because of issues that are most important to them.

In the year I’ve lived here, I’ve begun to grasp why Ithaca is a special place. It’s a bubble of progressives in a town whose identity was partially forged from the 70s hippy spirit and anti-capitalist-patriarchy. It is also a town with its own demons that mirror America’s demons elsewhere in the country. Gentrification is increasingly limiting town center residents to white folks with money. That whiteness was on display in our march. Which is to say we were a majority of white people marching for rights and issues that disproportionately affect non-white lives. Signs existed to try and explicitly call out this whiteness by emphasizing Black Lives Matter and immigrants rights. Perhaps this means we were 10,000 people trying to be good allies. But we were also 10,000 humans with blind spots, not saints or infallible heroes.

From the march, I eventually ended up at the rally on the commons. My place in the crowd had zero sightline to the stage, but I could hear the speakers without problems. So as I listened to the women on stage – for they were all women! – I watched the crowd and thought about the place of this event, and the other simultaneous events, in history. A history which archivists like myself across the country are actively documenting.

I wondered about the teens and pre-teens who were wandering about as hordes of friends, usually comprised of all girls except for the one boy who was tagging along. What were they seeing? What were they learning? Would this event inspire them in some way? Did they understand the true uniqueness of this event in the face of such abnormal behavior? How many of them will be shaped by the next several years (and the past 15) to become community activists and leaders in their future? Maybe they are already, and that’s why they were there in the first place.

I marveled at how unusual it was to stand in a public space where women were speaking to women about issues that disproportionately affect us without worrying about apologizing or acknowledging the experiences of the men** in the audience who may or may not have understood. (**A word. The trans experience complicates this apparent stark division between male and female experience. And I realize intersectionality means that men have a place in this march and this experience. But for this post I choose to explicitly ignore the latter. This was the Women’s March and I privilege women today of all days.) I may even call it an experience unprecedented in my life. I felt no need to apologize for taking up space when I stood in front of some dude. The speakers felt no need to apologize for talking about cramps and labor and birth control and poverty and motherhood in a public space. And even more incredible was the range of female identities that were on stage. Women with complex racial backgrounds, young and old women, women with political experience and women without, and a muslim woman who spoke so eloquently she moved many of us to tears. (I am the worst with names, so sadly I cannot share them.)

I thought about the place of this march and this rally in history.

When writing my masters thesis on the so-called Soapbox Suffragists I delved a fair amount into the reports and reflections and theories of how seeing women in the streets marching contributed to gaining the right for white women to vote. In particular, I spent a few days sucked into reading about the 1913 suffragist parade in advance of Wilson’s inauguration. Their effort to acquire the necessary march permit was monumental. They were passed from federal to district officials trying to gain appropriate security all while being mocked for their effort. During the march they were spit on, had objects hurled at them, were threatened, and by most accounts the official security refused to protect them and so local boy scouts stepped up to the task. If you want to read the official report of the Senate Committee Hearing of this event, it’s available on Google Books.

Yesterday’s march and our physical presence in the street follows in these suffragists’ footsteps. We weren’t spit on, and except for the sole sad soul who yelled at us for being baby killers no one threatened us. We marched in peace and a determined spirit with friends while occasionally picking up chants about human rights and the nature of democracy. When we stopped traffic it was with officers of the law – often female – negotiating our march with the cars who needed to get through. Unlike the suffragists of 104 years ago, I marched in pants, an independent highly educated woman with the right to vote, own property, have my own bank account and credit card, to divorce or marry who I choose. And although I still get harassed on the street by sad men with small lives, yesterday I was surrounded by a community of generally like-minded individuals. It was powerful.

But.

Here’s where the history of the fight for women’s rights and its legacy of whiteness casts doubt and mistrust on the legacy of yesterday’s march. This march also has historical roots in the Million Woman March in 1997 – a march for African American women’s self determination – and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 – the historic march and place of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But neither of these marches were my first association when contemplating the historical place of yesterday’s march. That disconnect is a product of my particular academic historical interest for which I do not apologize. It is also a product of the historical whiteness of the fight for women’s rights, an education system that never gave me a chance to learn about these other marches, and my own whiteness that connects more firmly to the suffragists of the early 20th century than the battles of the mid-late 20th century by people that look less like me. The disconnect created by these structural problems is mine to challenge and my personal failure to rectify. When black activists, who have been protesting the violence that directly affects their lives the past five years, cry out at the sight of 3-4 million women marching yesterday and ask “Where were you when WE needed you?” I have to acknowledge my lack of prior visible in-the-streets engagement. And I have to do better.

This brings me to the last half of my day. I went home and through the magic of the internet (Hello Living in the Future!) I watched the rally in Washington DC. I was blown away watching the extension of Ithaca’s rally. Women on stage speaking. Women back stage running the show. A fantastically successful march organized by women for women. A man here and there, but almost always in the supportive role, listening and watching. In a world where women are often portrayed as the sole representative for a gender among a sea of men, it was incredible to see women running the show and not apologizing that men weren’t front, center, or even left stage. Such moments are important even if they are not the entirety of the story.

Even better, most of those women were not white and not the benefactors of the legacy of the suffragists. They were women speaking their truths, their platform, their hurts and anger and fears with an urgency that until the outcome of this election did not usually affect my life on a daily basis. These were women drawing on a history stemming from their racial identity, their religious identity, their sexual and gender identities, their class backgrounds and their age. The march organizers wanted a march and a rally that demonstrated the strength of intersectionality and inclusivity that ought to be the bedrock of the progressive platform and political party I wish existed (which is NOT the one being touted by Bernie supporters). They fucking nailed it.

Not every speech spoke to me. Not every woman up there was supposed to represent my voice. There were statements I disagreed with or hadn’t thought about or weren’t my priority just as there were women whose words resonated with me and my passions.

That was the point.

No single speaker was supposed to represent everyone at the march. But I sure as hell hope that every single person in the crowd found at least one woman on that stage who spoke to them and who represented a piece of their history and their reason for marching. And that is why I’m glad I went. For me, the rally demonstrated the reason that representation matters. No single woman, no single person, no president, can represent the diversity of our country because that is impossible.

3.5-4 million Americans – 1% of the total population – largely women, were marching yesterday for a host of complicated reasons. At the heart, we were marching for local, state, and federal governments that represent us and our diverse histories. In order to make that happen, it means that our representatives have to represent us. They cannot look like the millionaire white dudes with no knowledge, no experience, and no wish to listen outside their privileged experience who were paraded through confirmation hearings last week.

As was emphasized over and over yesterday, the march is just a beginning. “Marching is a tool, not a goal.”

It is unclear, standing on this precipice, if a unified movement will spawn from the action of yesterday. If it does, I will do my best to document and preserve the history of the movements and organizations that may or may not be welcomed and incorporated into a more national or global movement. The history of the 19th and 20th century suffragists is a complicated history of separate national, state, and local organizations that often disagreed on purpose and tactics and priorities. I expect no less here. The suffragist organizations that most history books reference were led by white, wealthy women at the expense of the alternate organizations who were not. I expect my profession to do a better job of documenting the voices of the determined and demanding women who brought us to yesterday. The organizers and speakers of yesterday’s marches cut their teeth on organizing around issues that often go ignored by white women, by me. When the history of the early 21st century is written, they will have their place in it.

I will do what I can to ensure that my niece and nephew know that the history of this movement was founded on the theory of intersectionality, a term coined by African American civil rights advocate and critical race scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw.

I will do my part to fight for a culture that internalizes the importance of representation and a government that actually represents the people it is supposed to govern. Even when that is full of conflict and disagreement.

As one of the speakers said in Ithaca yesterday (curse my inability to remember names!) “Why do we keep fighting these battles? Because they are the most important battles to fight.”

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Why I am marching

I will not be at the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday primarily because I struggle in large crowds where I have no quick exit to a quiet space. I will, however, be at the sister march in Ithaca on Saturday. Since the election, when I woke up to learn the orange toad had won and I promptly threw up, I have been soul searching about my commitment to the principles I hold and how to better participate in democracy (I know we’re a republic, that’s a debate for another time.) It is once in a generation that you see an opportunity to step up and speak up for the future you envision in such a public way. This march is one of those key visible moments.

I march:

  • Because it is my constitutional right to do so and I will protect that right.
  • Because I will not live my life in fear of some faceless unknown or the “other”.
  • Because I am one voice among many and we do not have to compete for the limelight in order to validate ourselves.
  • Because my right to make decisions about my medical health should not be legislated.
  • Because I should not be denied health insurance in the future just because of my ongoing treatment for depression.
  • Because I should have recourse to hold trolls accountable to their words and actions when they tell me to return to the kitchen or otherwise threaten my physical and emotional self.
  • Because I went to a public school with teachers that helped shape me into a formidable woman. I believe a similar critical, inclusive education is fundamental for all children. It is fundamental for citizens to participate in a democracy.
  • Because I know that libraries are centers of community and hubs of information that must not be replaced by commercial interests.
  • Because education does not equal elitism.
  • Because climate change threatens humanity and it is past time for humans to take responsibility for our enormous impact on the planet.
  • Because I believe democracy should represent all people; not the wealthy minority.
  • Because I do not believe government is a business with a profit to maximize.
  • Because I believe an open government encourages accountability on the elected members of government that is necessary to a healthy, stable democracy.
  • Because I believe that the myth of the traditional nuclear family (as consisting of one (white) woman married to one (white) man to produce other (white, Christian) children) is something everyone should aspire to is harmful to this nation.
  • Because supporting art, creativity, and expression of difference means creating visions of the future for people who do not look like me.
  • Because I eagerly anticipate taking my niece and nephew camping in the national forests and hiking in national parks. I look forward to teaching them how to read animal tracks and showing them the wonder and brutality of the natural world.
  • Because my niece’s father was born in Turkey and is a naturalized citizen and my nephew’s father was born in Chile and is on his way to becoming a naturalized citizen. Neither child nor their parents should EVER feel they are not welcome in their country – this country.
  • Because my friends should not be persecuted because of who they are and who they aspire to be.
  • Because my friends contribute wonders to this country and should not be excluded because of their beliefs, their skin color, their sexuality, or because their genitals are interior instead of exterior.
  • Because I fear for the safety of my friends in the face of systemized racial violence – and I know their terror is greater.
  • Because my friend is a rockstar at her job and her disability should not be held against her by any employer.
  • Because my employer is unlikely to censure me for expressing a political opinion.

I march:

  • To honor the suffragists who marched in 1913 on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to protest “the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.” Their quest to acquire the necessary permits is inspiring and their movement was imperfect. But their actions are why I can live independently today.

I march:

  • For the children of Flint whose lives are altered because politicians decided to undermine necessary infrastructure.
  • For the courageous communities at Standing Rock who are fighting to protect their sovereignty.
  • For the mother who cannot because Saturday was the only day Planned Parenthood could schedule her breast exam after she found a lump.
  • For the woman who cannot because she has to save all her vacation so she can spend two weeks with her newborn before returning to work.
  • For the man who has to work two jobs because minimum wage is not a living wage.
  • For the father who is home with a sick child so his husband can march instead.
  • For the student who must work three part-time jobs while maintaining high grades so they can pay for public college in pursuit of their career aspirations.
  • For the next generation of children who should learn how menstruation works and how pregnancy doesn’t.
  • For the future where my niece and nephew can march to advocate for causes they believe in.

I march because the future I envision is inclusive of people who do not look like me, think like me, believe like me and that is okay so long as we treat each other with respect in our disagreements.

I march because the future I envision is fundamentally threatened by the orange toad, his cronies, and the government that used unconstitutional methods to limit voting, a platform based on fear, and a promise that fed a desire to return to the mythical past of the “great white man” so they could maintain control.

But here’s the thing.

Pundits and people threatened by this vision may call the march a war on “insert cool adjective/noun combination here”. But wars have an end with a winner and a loser – or more often only losers.

I see this march as a chorus of people who are marching for reasons that differ from mine. It will be a chorus with dissonance which holds its own kind of beauty. Let us come together to demonstrate that we are not going to back down from building a future that encourages our participation and includes a diversity of voices and experiences. The march is a single day to powerfully amplify voices in the most literal way imaginable.

Building a future is an act that is always in progress, not a war to win or lose. The future I envision is not for myself but for my nephews and nieces and their potential children in 100 years. We can march on Saturday to advocate a particular future and on Sunday we can go back to disagreeing on priorities and methods for building that future. Disagreements lead to compromises. That is democracy, and if done respectfully it will be messy and wonderful and imperfect. But it is far, far better than accepting the demands of a government, a body of powerful and flawed individuals, that actively call for the removal of our chorus because it threatens their view of the future which is a pale, nostalgic vision of a past that was always a myth.

And so I and many others will march. We will march for different reasons. We may disagree on those reasons and methods to reach certain outcomes. But we will march together anyway because our voices are stronger, louder, and harder to ignore when in chorus.

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