The following is reprinted without permission from Letters to a Young Feminist. Copyright 1997 Phyllis Chesler.
Here I sit, head bent, writing you an intimate letter. I sense your presence, even though I don't know your name. I envision you as a young woman, possibly a young man, somewhere between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, but you may also be a decade older - or younger - than that. You may not yet be born.
Perhaps I am trying to speak to my own younger self. When I was coming of age - a process which is still far from over - no one ever spoke strong truths to me in a loving voice. When I was your age, I did not know what I needed to know in order to understand my life - anybody's life. Perhaps in writing to you, I wish to correct that, to make amends.
In the past, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a letter such as mine to a prince, Sun Tzu to a king, Virginia Woolf to a gentleman, Rainer Maria Rilke to a male admirer. This letter is for you. You are either poor or rich; you are any or all the colors of the human rainbow, all shades of luck and character. You are my heir. This letter is your legacy. Without your conscious intervention, this legacy may again lie dormant for one hundred years. Or longer.
I imagine you are a person who wants to know why evil exists. People commit evil deeds because we, the good people, do not stop them. To quote Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing." Ah, Burke, evil also triumphs when good women do nothing.
Men alone are not responsible for patriarchy; women are also their willing, even ardent, collaborators.
Perhaps you believe you can "have it all": a brilliant career, a loving, life-long marriage, healthy children/no children, enough money, and happiness too. If you're anything like I was, you probably believe that whatever awful things may have happened to women in the past, or still are happening to "other" women today, cannot happen to you.
Darling, I don't want to frighten you away, but I don't want to waster your time either, so I can't pretend that simply because you or I want it to be so that in fact women and men are equal.
Even when men and women do exactly the same thing, it means something different. The father who changes a diaper is often seen as a hero; not so the mother who is, after all, only doing what she's expected to do. This is not true in reverse. The woman who succeeds in a man's world - although she is not expected to do so - is rarely treated as a conquering hero. She is, more often, seen as an aggressive bitch. She may well be aggressive - but no more than her male colleagues are. Some women try to prove their worth by outdoing their male colleagues in a tough anti-female behavior. Some women feel compelled to behave in "feminine" or "maternal" ways to appease those who would otherwise punish them for stepping so far out of line.
Thus, unlike her male counterparts, the chief judge pours her own coffee, and the police officer may not use what she's learned on the job to stop her husband from beating her; whatever she's learned at work can't over-ride what she's learned all her life about being a woman. The female employee - not her male counterpart - is still expected to buy the gifts, take the coats, bake the cookies for an office party, babysit her employer's child. Hardly gang-rape, but sexism nevertheless.
Yes, the world is different now than it was when I was your age. In only thirty years, a visionary feminism has managed to seriously challenge, if not transform, world consciousness. Some astronauts, army officers, ministers, prime ministers, and senators are women - there are women's studies programs too, and you can't open a newspaper without reading about some man on trial for rape or sexual harassment. But the truth is women are still far from free. We're not even within striking range.
Fundamentalist passions are threatening to destroy what feminists have accomplished. Three examples immediately come to mind.
The right to an abortion remains under an increasingly bloody siege.
Although we now understand that rape is epidemic and has lasting consequences, we are, as yet, unable to stop it. Today, in Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Guatemala, Haiti, Rwanda, rape has become a systematic, full-fledged weapon - not merely a spoil - of war. In an era of ethnic cleansing, rape is a form of gender cleansing.
We remain separate and unequal - segregated both by race and gender. In the 1950s and 1960s, brave, young, African-American school children were confronted with adult faces contorted with rage, verbal abuse, turned backs, and hate-filled hearts when they integrated previously all-white schools. Today, brave young women are facing similar fury and danger for trying to integrate traditionally male-only military schools such as the Citadel in South Carolina.
In 1995, heroic Shannon Faulkner, the first woman ever to enroll in the previously all-male institution, faced the hate alone; she (any many young men) left after a few weeks. In September of 1996, four women were admitted. By December, two women, Kim Messer and Jeanie Metavlos, and seventy-five men had quit. While all first-year cadets endured sadistic ritual hazing and harassment, the female cadets were singled out and, in addition to all else, subjected to vulgar songs about masturbation, obscene pictures, sexualized physical intimidation, and death threats. One was also set on fire. Like Faulkner, they were "hated out."
The most extraordinary legal victories are only scraps of paper until human beings test them on the ground. As I write, twenty-four your women have been accepted as cadets at the Citadel. Like their African-American counterparts, the women will not be deterred - but they will pay a high price.
As feminists, we learned that one cannot do such things alone, only together.
I want you to know what our feminist gains are, and why you must not take them for granted. (Although it is your right to do so - we fought for that too.) I also want you to know what remains to be done. I want you to see your place in the historical scheme of things, so you may choose whether and how to stand your ground in history.
Hear me: It may be 1998 but, in my view, we are still living in the 1950s. The poet Sylvia Plath (God/dess rest her soul) is about to put her head in the oven again. I am saying that we have not come far enough. We are still living in the 1930s, and that great writer, Virginia Woolf, is slowly making her way down to the sea, about to drown herself. No, we are still living in 1913. The sculptor, Camille Claudel, who assisted her lover, Auguste Rodin, on some of his works, is - even as we speak - trussed up and on her way to a lunatic asylum. Claudel was imprisoned in one by her own mother and brother, Paul (the poet). The family condemned her to languish for thirty years. She died in captivity, in 1943.
I often want to discreetly remove Rodin's august name and replace it with Camille Claudel's in various museums around the world - but then, I'm also the one who wants to behead the statue of Perseus who stands, triumphantly, at the top of the steps at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, holding aloft Medusa's severed head. Her honor demands it, her snaky locks tempt me to it.
There's a worthy precedent for such an action. Did you know that in 1914, while British suffragists were jailed, beaten, and force-fed (they went on hunger strikes) for demanding the vote, suffragist Polly Richardson marched into a London museum and swung an ax at Diego Velazquez's Rokeby Venus. Society howled. Velazquez's perfect woman is a reclining nude, and vain too; we observe Venus observing herself (and us) in a mirror. Perhaps this was Richardson's way of saying: My Lords, this portrait mocks real women who are, in fact, powerless. How does it feel to have something you value destroyed?
Some say that Plath, Woolf, and Claudel were "mad" geniuses who'd have ended up the same sad way even if they'd each been nourished in a woman-loving family and culture.
How can such cynics be so sure?
Although many a sane woman has, in the past, been locked away in a loony bin, I am not saying that madness itself is a myth. Madness is real. Neither ideology nor good friends can save a woman from it. Still, the accumulation of daily slights and humiliations that most women must learn to absorb, to "not see," does have a way of calling down more that the usual number of demons.
I am thinking about the demands for perfection to which most girls and women are routinely subjected, combined with the lack of rewards - in fact, the grave punishments that most women must endure in order to survive. I am no longer talking only about educated white women of genius with whom you may be most familiar, but about all women, of all colors, in all lines of work. So many women are deprived, punished, forced to walk a far narrower line than most men ever are. Our genius does not save us, nor does our obedience.
Dutiful women, rebellious women, "mad" geniuses too, so many of us are systematically ground down and "disappeared," rendered invisible, forced to sink out of sight for centuries at a time. We lose touch with one another in our own lifetimes.
If we cannot see each other, we cannot see ourselves.
You must stand on our feminist shoulders in order to go further than we did.
Confinement distorts character. Centuries of women have been swallowed whole and doomed to such darkness that, like prisoners, we instinctively come to fear the light; it is blinding, unnatural. We fear standing up, we take small and careful steps when we do, we stumble, and we look to our jailors for protection.
Stand up as early as you can in life. Take up as much space in the (male) universe as you need to. Sit with your legs apart, not together. Climb trees. Climb mountains too. Engage in group sports. Dress comfortably. Dress as you wish.
How do we stop injustice?
We begin by speaking truth to power. That child who told the emperor he was naked is one of ours.
We being by daring to remain connected to those whom prejudice silences, renders less than human.
We begin, of course, by fighting back.
Towards that end, you must move beyond words. You must act. Do not hesitate because your actions may not be perfect enough, or beyond criticism. "Action" is how you put your principles into practice. Not just publicly, or towards those more powerful than you, but also privately, towards those less fortunate than you. Not just towards those who are are (safely) far away, but towards those with whom you live and work.
If you're on the right track, you can expect some pretty savage criticism. Trust it. Revel in it. It is the truest measure of your success.
Those who endure small humiliations - daily - say that the most lasting and haunting harm resides in growing accustomed to such treatment, in large part because others insist that you do. After all, they have. What's so special about you? "So, your boss asked you and not your male colleagues to make coffee at the meeting - big deal. At least you have a job." "So, your husband keeps forgetting his promise to help out with the housework - At least you have a husband."
Always implied, but unspoken: "It could be worse." But things could also be better. That will not happen if you do not act heroically.
Telling a rape survivor that she's "exaggerated the trauma in order to get attention" is not useful. Nor is asking her: "Why did you go out with the guy in the first place?"
Comments like these shame a woman into silence and inaction. They imply that there is nothing she can do or say that will change anything so she might as well give up and accept things as they are. Such comments forbid her to storm the gates of power. In a sense, this kind of gatekeeping constitutes bystander behavior. Survivors of serious atrocities say they are haunted by those who heard their screams but turned their backs, closed their doors, remained neutral, refused to take any stand other than an opportunistic one.
One cannot remain a bystander without becoming complicit. Morally, one must "take sides." But, one a person takes the side of anyone who's suffered a grave injustice, listens to her, believes what she says, tries to help her - that quiet act of humanity and courage will be viewed as a traitorous act.
Commit such treason as often as you can.
Women's hearts, men's hearts, are irretrievable broken when people default on the dream of a common, moral humanity (we are all connected, what happens to one happens to all) and do nothing.
I think such interventions are possible when we are inspired by a larger vision, guided by a great dream. Not otherwise.
Women do not need a room of their own. Feminists, both men and women, need a very large continent of our own. Nothing less will do.