My daughter started Kindergarten this year, and in the fourth week of school, a little boy kicked her in the face while she was playing on the monkey bars. It was the same little boy who kicked her best friend in the face while she was playing on the monkey bars the day before.
I couldn’t help but think of that little boy this morning when I read the news and saw that our dear president had retweeted a photo-shopped video of him appearing to hit a golf ball that struck the back of Hillary Clinton and knocked her down. The video itself was disgusting enough, but in all honesty, it did not surprise me one bit. He has posted many things that fan the flames of racial violence and misogyny. Not that I am excusing him, not for a moment, but every woman knows that there are many Donald Trumps out there.
Many of us have experienced rotten people who prey on women and use their imagined superiority and entitlement to enforce patriarchal and white supremacist divisions of power. Individuals are imperfect. What has continued to surprise me, since Trump’s candidacy, is our society’s reaction to him. Perhaps “enraged” is a better word than “surprised.”
When the news covered his retweet, it was explained as an attempt at humor, even a reference to golf. The most damning criticism I saw called it a suggestion of violence against a female political opponent. No one called it what it is: misogyny.
Our culture harbors a disturbing acceptance and propagation of violence against women; a reality made clearly evident by the election of our forty-fifth president. Before, I was under no pretext that we lived in some kind of post-gender utopia. But the misogyny was, much of the time at least, subtle. Under the surface. Implied more than stated. A look, a curt question, a condescending laugh. Most people would have been embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed, to directly express an overtly sexist or racist opinion. Those days are gone.
I recognize that history does not follow a direct path towards progress. There are dips and valleys, detours and dead ends. But I guess I’m realizing how painful, shocking even, it is when the pendulum of history swings back in the opposite direction.
It has often been cited that upwards of sixty-five percent of sexual harassment and abuse cases go unreported. One might ask: How can that be? Didn’t we have women’s lib over fifty years ago? Haven’t women made huge social gains since then? I often speak with young women (I’m a college professor) who tell me that gender doesn’t matter. That they have the same opportunities as any man. It’s a nice thought, and I applaud their hopefulness.
My first experience with the social inequities women face happened when I was working at my first job after college in 2001. I was a wide-eyed, twenty-year-old college graduate excited to make a difference in the world. I considered myself a feminist. I secured an editorial assistant position at the now-defunct Surfing Girl magazine, the perfect job for me as it merged my two loves—surfing and writing. After I had been there about a year or so, Layne Beachley accomplished an amazing feat no woman ever had, towing into a forty-foot wave at Outside Log Cabins in Hawaii. Photos arrived in our offices, and the images were striking. They showed a woman, dwarfed in comparison to the size of the wave, doing something most men would not have the courage or physical ability to do. I bring up this example because the publisher of the magazine would not let us run the photo on the cover of a women’s surfing magazine.
We knew the rules for cover shots (and I’m not making this up)—the athlete had to be in a bikini, and you had to see her face in the image. Of course, these rules did not exist for the men’s magazine, Surfing, in the offices upstairs. Beachley’s shot did neither of those things. She was wearing a wetsuit, and you couldn’t see her face. So they said no. Our editor, Kai Stearns, had to fight to get that ground-breaking photo on the cover. It took days of negotiations and argument. Finally, the publisher relented and allowed the cover shot to run. But it was a serious battle.
Before that experience, I had only seen sexism at a personal level, between individuals. The worst example of sexual abuse I had witnessed concerned a teacher at my high school. He had a habit of targeting one or two young women in each junior class and developing sexual relationships with them. When I was that age, he went after one of my best friends, writing her erotic letters and inviting her over to his house to party. His behavior had been going on for years, and no one had ever said anything even though it seemed to me like common knowledge. Until my friend. He was finally arrested for rape.
At the time, I didn’t understand how his behavior was part of a larger social pattern designed to deny women power. But that cover shot (even though it is so much less egregious than the teacher example), and the double standard it made crystal clear, was the first time I realized the entrenched nature of institutionalized sexism.
The worst part about all of this is that it doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress in fifteen, fifty, even five hundred years. When figures like Donald Trump come along, they are not condemned. They can even become president of the United States. They get away with their misogynistic actions, which are dismissed as “locker room talk” or “bad jokes.” Few people have the courage to stand up and call it what it is: a deeply-rooted pattern of behavior designed to intimidate women.
Consciously or unconsciously, men, and even other women, use violence—the suggestion of it, the threat of it, even violent acts themselves—to express their power and maintain the status quo that limits the amount of power women can have.
Of course, this problem is much bigger than individuals. I do not mean to imply, in any way, that all men are misogynistic. Most men are loving, compassionate people who are allies in feminist causes, whether they know it or not. Most men will stand up to abuse and inappropriate expressions of power.
The time has come for us—men and women—to stop being intimidated. When we are shamed into silence, we need to speak up even if our voices tremble. When we see a woman harassed or threatened, we must come to her defense, even if our knees are weak. We must call misogyny what it is, even knowing that we will be the ones put on trial.
In addition to speaking our truths, we also need to raise our children differently, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently argues in We Should All Be Feminists, writing:
“Gender matters everywhere in the world. And I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are true to themselves. And this is how we start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.”
Returning to the monkey bars, yes, my daughter and her friend need to learn how to stand up for themselves and tell the little boy that he cannot kick them and get away with it. But that is not enough. That would not mean real change because as a culture we already place the burden on women to make feminist progress and we are still stuck in this vicious cycle. Lasting change will only happen if that little boy learns that he should not kick anyone, but he must especially not kick girls.
I know he’s only five-years-old. I understand that he knows nothing about institutional structures that perpetuate systems of hierarchy and power imbalance. But, in a way, he does. He does not have the vocabulary to discuss those ideas, but he understands how they work. He must see—at home or somewhere else—that people treat others with violence. When I told my mom about the playground incident, the first thing she said was, “his father probably hits his mother.” I pray that is not the case, but I found myself nodding in agreement.
If that little boy sees that people approach each other with aggression, not love, then the man he becomes will continue to kick girls. And nothing will ever change.
We must teach our children, boys and girls, to approach each other with love and compassion. Not with physical force. And we can only teach them those things by modeling them with our own actions. We must show them loving relationships. We must approach them with empathy so they can learn how to empathize with others. We must show them the invaluable skill of developing trusting and respectful relationships with others.
We cannot continue showing them how to hit women with golf balls.
Our world will only change when we have the courage to look in the mirror, recognize our faults, and make efforts to correct them. Our society cannot change until we change ourselves.