It’s silly, but I believe.

Dear Santa,

I read this comment from a fourteen-year-old boy last week, a comment that was left on my blog.

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I gotta level with you, Santa, I’ve been thinking about this all week, because I want to find the words to reply to this person, and I don’t know that I have the right ones.

I’ve been trying to remember what it felt like to be fourteen. To feel like the world was operating by a series of rules that no one had informed me about. That that the space between child and adult is confusing and scary in ways that are difficult to explain.

I remember desperately wanting to be taken seriously. I remember failing at that. I remember shame: that I wasn’t smart enough to converse with the adults yet, that I was too old to play at the kids’ table, that this state of in-between was also somehow my fault.

I’m a grown woman now, Santa, which means that when I do interact with teenagers, I’m now in the role of teacher. And even still: I often don’t have the right words. I hope and wish desperately that I will say things to my students that will let them know that they are loved, they have gifts to share, they have immense potential and extraordinary worth, and they should treat others as well as themselves with respect. But I only teach for a few short weeks in the summer. It’s not enough time.

Here’s why I can’t stop thinking about this fourteen-year-old boy:

He is expressing his opinion, and asserting his right to have it. He is experimenting with adult reasoning, and exploring what it feels like to make bold declarations in a public space. He is making it clear that the world needs to acknowledge his humanity. Take me seriously! I am a person with thoughts and opinions! Listen to me! I am no longer a child! 

That’s important. That’s part of growth. It shows that he is interested in becoming a thinking, intelligent adult. That’s to be applauded, and celebrated.

But I can’t stop thinking about it, because those opinions are not just that of a fourteen-year-old boy trying to assert his voice into the adults’ conversation. Those are the opinions of the leaders of our country. Those are the voices of CEOs and employers, congresspeople and teachers and fathers. Those are the opinions that permeate our culture.

They are the voices who don’t understand that just because women have equal rights, that does not mean the same thing as equal treatment.

Santa, I want to hug that fourteen-year-old boy, and say: you may have the same rights as your fourteen-year-old female classmates. But you will be treated differently.

By fourteen, most of your female classmates will be menstruating. They will not be able to talk about this openly without shame or stigma. They will whisper to one another desperately, wondering who has carried an extra pad or tampon with them to school that day, planning elaborate maneuvers to sneak it to the ladies’ room. When I was fourteen, I bled through the back of my skirt and onto my chair because I was taking a test and couldn’t leave the classroom. It was humiliating.

This is not an unusual story. Most women have a version of it. 

By fourteen, your female classmates have likely had sexual things said to them by strange men. Men driving by, men in stores, men in malls and out in public. I volunteered at a soup kitchen when I was fourteen. A homeless man took my hand when I brought him a plate of food and I thought, for a moment, that he was holding my hand in a gesture of gratitude. He then placed my hand on the outside of his trousers, so I could feel his penis through the fabric of the pants. I pulled away, but didn’t tell my supervisor. The man smiled, and stared at me as he ate his soup, the liquid running down his chin.

This is not an unusual story. Most women have a version of it. 

 

By fourteen, you will perhaps have felt some pressure to assert your strength, independence, and masculinity. It’s normal: it’s what happens to teenaged boys, although it’s often toxic, and it’s often harmful. That pressure to bottle your emotions, never to cry, never to be visibly upset: that pressure is one of the things that feminism is all about. Trying to tell you that there’s no one right way to “be a man” — it’s all about just being YOU.

Your female classmates will have felt a different version of this. They will have felt pressure to raise their hands in class less, to talk back less, to play dumb more. To be concerned with popularity instead of their previous interests. When I was fourteen, I was teased and tormented for being smart. I went home and cried, on many days.

This is not an unusual story. Most women have a version of it. 

And you are correct: it is not the same as in the Middle East, where women are treated differently, and often very badly. I am not living in Saudia Arabia, where women cannot drive. I am not living in India, where access to basic menstrual supplies can prevent me from attending school.

There are countries out there where women are paid less than men, where women are not represented equally in the governments that represent the populations, where the percentages of women dying in poverty or during childbirth is rising, even though medical advances have been made that should spare their lives. Where female inmates are shackled while giving birth, where female prisoners are routinely raped and sexually assaulted, where women are not guaranteed any kind of maternity care after their pregnancies.

Fourteen-year-old boy, the country I’m talking about in that last paragraph is the United States.

And I know that seems surprising, because we’re one of the richest countries in the world, and we’re very good at thinking we’re #1. We’re big, and we’re strong, and we’re often in charge.

But last week, delegates from the United Nations — from Poland, the UK, and Costa Rica — visited the United States, and were appalled by what they saw.  Those problems I’m talking about, all those women without healthcare and maternity leave and equal representation? Many places in the rest of the world have attempted to solve those problems. Here in America, we’re too busy fighting over whether or not those problems exist.

And what was the most surprising to them is that the women in the United States often had no idea that women in other developed countries had more rights, and were treated better.

Santa, I want to say all of this, but I worry that I can’t make this fourteen-year-old boy hear me. I can hope that he does, but I can’t open his heart to understand, to learn, and to imagine what it might be like if he were born a different gender. To learn that in a world where he can grow up to be anything, I so desperately hope that he grows up to be someone who treats women as people, and not as second-class citizens. I can hope that for him, and for myself, but I’m not made of miracles, and my words can only do so much, if they can do anything at all.

Santa, I’m so tired of having to explain that these problems exist. I’m exhausted. It should be self-evident by now, and it is not.

I want to move on to solving these problems. I am so very, very tired of having to rationalize and prove their existence.

But I have to stay stuck in the mode of explaining them, because of this fourteen-year-old boy, and everyone who thinks like him. Who may or may not listen to me. Who may or may not choose to believe me.

Who, like many others out there, could instead choose to believe that feminists — a word for people who believe that women and men should be treated equally in society — are lazy, greedy, angry, and selfish. Because that’s easier than saying, “These problems exist.”

Santa, for Christmas this year, I’d like some of these problems to be solved. I’m not asking for a miracle. But I’d like some hope.

I’d like for more teenagers to talk about these issues. I’d like for more teachers to help facilitate these conversations. I’d like for those conversations to start small: what can we do to make our own community a little better for all of us?  It’s useful to start there, before we jump to problems on the other side of the world.

I’d like for more adults to talk about these issues. I’d like for those conversations to happen with maximum patience and respect, even when that is sometimes difficult. I’d like for these conversations to happen face-to-face, and not over the keyboard: it is so easy to resort to shouting and name-calling when you cannot see the impact that your words can make.

I’d like for more leaders to talk about these issues. I’d like for my elected officials to work together and solve them. To put away differences, re-election campaigns, and fundraisers and actually work together to make my country a better place.

I’d like some more patience. I’d like a renewed sense of purpose when I am feeling discouraged or sad. I’d like to know the right words to say when it is my turn to say them, and I’d like the wisdom to know when it is my turn to listen, and let others do the talking.

I’d like for the world to actually BE a little bit better. It’s a big ask, but I believe it is possible.

To quote Miracle on 34th Street: I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.

Merry Christmas, Santa. My best to the reindeer, the elves, and Mrs. Claus; I’ve had some longstanding curiosities about their equal treatment in all of this, but that’s a conversation for another day.

With love and with thanks,
Katherine

 

PS: Oh, and one more thing. Can we all agree that the use of the word “retarded” is never okay? Awesome. I really appreciate it.

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I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe. 

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