On bicycles and cars and second-wave feminism.

I listened to an interview the other day with Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, one of the first black students to integrate an all-white school in overtly racist, legally segregated Arkansas in 1957. The interviewer asked her if, when she was 15, she ever thought about what would be different in the future. What she thought would happen, and now that she is seventy-six years old, how that compares to what has transpired.

She thought for a moment, and then said that she thought it would all be over by now. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of her thought is that she assumed we would have solved racism and inequality by now, and that was a naive assumption for her fifteen year old self to make. That it’s not over, not by a long shot, but that it is better, immensely better, and of that, and her small role in that, she is proud.

**

It hasn’t escaped my notice that in this year of the Trump presidency, millions of women around this country have found their voices at the same time as I am vastly less interested in hearing my own. It is hard for me to separate how much of this is a response to my environment, this chaotic present tense when all of us are being bombarded with an eternity of stimuli, headlines, and cell-phone news alerts, and how much of this is simply a product of aging. My early thirties feel different than my mid-to-late twenties, in ways that shock me sometimes in their efficient simplicity, the ease with which I have transitioned into this new relationship with my inner life. And perhaps I am being naive in assuming that this, too, is not a product of my environment. I no longer write passionately about being catcalled, for example: not because the problem has ceased to exist, but because my body is no longer as patently cat-call-able, as obviously targeted by strangers as fuckable and harassable, because my extra pounds and rounder face and newfound desire for elasticized jeans have somehow armored me against the daily litany of abuse that my younger peers still experience. I don’t write about it anymore, not because the problem has ceased to exist, but because I do not experience it in the same way.

This blog is going on five years old at this point, and chronicles my exit from my twenties in ways that are both subtle and cringingly obvious. I look back on early entries in ways that I am sure every writer, or anyone who ever kept a diary in their adolescence, must feel: a mixture of shame and embarrassment and pride and self-righteousness, but mostly a wonder that this angry, insistent, so absolutely-fucking-certain-of-everything voice was ever my own. I am less certain of everything now, less insistent, and shockingly, less angry, though there is unquestionably so much more to be angry about. I look at my students and suddenly feel the weight of the decade between us; I am no longer the cool teacher, but simply the adult, the authority figure in the room. While technically qualifying as a millennial, I am kidding myself if I were to pretend that my voice is reflective of the world that my students inhabit. I haven’t had casual sex in years, it has been quite some time since I attempted an online date, and being in a stable, healthy relationship has changed the fabric of my daily life in ways that are profound in their beauty to me, but vastly uninteresting to the rest of world for obvious reasons.

Or perhaps, as I selfishly find myself thinking sometimes, I am less certain these days because there is hardly a thought to be expressed on the internet without immediately being told that you are wrong. That years of critique and criticism and downright anger, not merely from those whose politics and worldview I disagree with anyway, but those in my own party who think I do not go far enough, is enough to make me smaller, quieter, more introspective, less likely to ascend my soapbox and hold my megaphone. This is not just because I think I am right and they are wrong; it is in large part because I believe they could have points, and writing to preemptively silence critics on all sides is an exhausting, impossible, Sisyphean task, and it is sometimes easier to merely whisper “I don’t know,” and go about my day, and eat my plastic-wrapped sandwich which could be vegan but is not, and wear my clothes that are made by child laborers in foreign countries, and deposit my money into my corporate-owned bank account which crippled our economy, and drive my car which is poisoning us all. My glaring imperfections ring loudly in my skull most hours of the day, screaming wildly that I have no authority to speak on anything whatsoever. At my best, most generous estimation of my character, I am not writing these days because it is time that someone else does the talking. At my worst, I am not writing because I have never had any business calling myself a writer, that I am a comfortable, privileged white woman who is the worst form of phony and fake, that my desire to teach and understand and reach across the aisle is kindergarden-teacher Pollyanna bullshit, that I am unwilling to sacrifice or struggle because I prioritize comfort over justice, that my desire towards empathy and unpacking complexity and engaging in peaceful debate is actually upholding forms of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, that the catch-all term “neoliberal” is a synopsis for the kind of Hillary-voting, committee-to-do-anything-joining, fat happy unthinking uncritical elitist fucking asshole that I am, or have become, or have always been, you sad sad complacent complicit lazy piece of fucking shit.

Mostly these days, I just sit in a soup of “it’s complicated.” The world is full of such vast, deep, painful, impossible problems that I cannot begin to know how to identify, let alone solve. Also, we have women in Star Wars now.

**
I am thinking about all of this especially in the wake of Aziz-gate, one of the few recent current events which I have felt strong and deep impulses towards public response. Unless you are a sentient rock, you have already read this from Babe magazine, and then you have read ten thousand other articles that have emerged in its wake, thinkpieces and hot takes radiating like cockroaches from its flawed, ugly center. I am sorry to inform you that mine is among them.

Or rather, that I have some thoughts about the ways in which Grace’s story has exposed a rift in the divide between young and old, between our current perceptions of radical and not. How at thirty-two I suddenly feel like a dinosaur, in ways that startle me, because of my inability to view this with the utter certainty and clarity that I might have possessed a decade ago.

In the spirit of Melba Patillo Beals, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the fight against sexism, and acknowledge how greatly I am indebted to the work, struggle, and fights of my elders. Because of the brave women who came before me, our landscape is wildly different, and more equitable, for myself and those younger than myself. It is because of them that I can open my own credit card, that it is illegal for my spouse to rape me, that I cannot be legally discriminated against for my sexuality or marital status or gender. It is because of them that divorce laws became more equitable, because of them that abortion became accessible, because of them that birth control became available, because of them that I am able to argue that their incredible efforts are not over, that it is our responsibility to take their legacy and continue to fight, that our childcare and maternity policies did not go far enough, that our reproductive freedoms are still under attack, that having named the patriarchy is not the same as vanquishing it. It is their struggle, their fear, their anger, their work, their rage, their vulnerability, their writing and action and organizing, that allows the vast majority of my life to exist in its current form, and we are all in their debt.

Then again, to paraphrase the brilliant Anna Drezen, “I was hit by a bus five times a day in my youth, so I don’t know why these young women are complaining about being hit by cars once a day.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 4.56.04 PM

I understand why young women are furious with older feminists for not seeing the importance of the Aziz allegations, for not finding his conduct something that should be considered illegal, for not wanting to foist the label “sexual assault” on what is technically not a crime that can be prosecuted in a court of law.

I also know women who chained themselves to nukes or participated in the underground railroad of abortions, who read as far as “he ordered white wine when I prefer red!” and thought, “I don’t have time for this shit.”

My take, for anyone who cares to hear it, and I understand if none of you do, is that it’s complicated, and that takes longer to unpack and understand than most of us have time and energy for. Hot take: it’s complicated requires us to do so much more work, exhausting, painstaking work that many of us have been doing for a very long time, and it’s complicated isn’t easily chantable or tweet-able or digestible, and while I mean it to be an opening for a productive and necessary dialogue, it can easily be misread as an excuse. It’s complicated doesn’t do or solve anything if it is the only sentence, not the opening statement. Those of us who write have been writing it’s complicated for years, while we had bad degrading sex anyway, and then wrote about it, and men didn’t read it, and we said it’s complicated, and just because no one listened then doesn’t mean that it still isn’t complicated. It’s complicated is the thesis of Cat Person, a viral short story that was so instantly knowable in its depiction of consensual-but-awful sex, a masterpiece on it’s complicated that will likely never be read by those who need to read it most. But just because it’s complicated is an inefficient way of sparking necessary social change doesn’t mean that it isn’t, at all, complicated.

I know there are young feminists who do not feel as though this is complicated in the slightest. Aziz is cancelled, coercion is assault, Grace is brave, long live Babe Magazine. I  don’t buy that. I also don’t buy the idea that Grace could have left at any time, that Grace was selfish for speaking to a reporter, that this was just bad sex that should never have been brought to light. I disagree with that take, too. I have some very specific thoughts about Babe Magazine’s role in all of this, how I think they bungled what could have been a deeply important moment for a real, long overdue national conversation about consent and its intersection with the ways in which men are socialized to demand women’s attention and women are socialized to provide it. But the minute I voiced this particular thing on the internet, another guy came out of the woodwork and told me I was taking up space with criticizing the magazine’s journalistic practice instead of actually having the conversation about coercive heterosexual sex and how men can do better, and while my instinct was to throw my hands in the air and tell him to fuck off, there exists the possibility that he’s right and we can’t have teachable moments about both journalistic practice and enthusiastic consent simultaneously, so who knows anymore. What Aziz did was wrong, shitty, a violation of Grace’s boundaries, not-okay by any standard. I also don’t think it should be considered assault. Which is a semantic distinction, not an absolution of guilt. It’s complicated. 

I was hit by a bus five times in my day, I’m not sure why you’re complaining about being hit once by a car. 

This work is not over, not by a long shot. And perhaps it was naive of Melba, or anyone who came before me, to think that it ever would be. But for myself, and for those younger than I am, I think we need to believe that it could be. That we could work and struggle and fear and resist and make it better for those who will come after us.

And when that happens, if there are young women who are no longer being hit by buses, or cars, but rather bicycles: I hope that I will have the grace and wisdom and insight to say, “Yes, you should no longer be hit by bicycles, let me help you stop those bikes” rather than saying “Count your blessings to be only dealing with bikes instead of cars.”

I suspect that I might not be that generous, when that time comes, and I suspect it is because I am a flawed, messy, imperfect human, and I am of the generation that is hit by cars, and those bruises take a very long time to heal. I hope that when I am seventy and asked to reflect upon my life, I will be able to talk about bicycles with generosity and clarity and wisdom, that the flame of anger that infused my twenties is lit in me anew in ways that change the world, that I will not cling with fucked-up nostalgia to the cars that hit me but look for ways in which the roads can be safe for everyone.

I can’t say for sure, yet, now. I’m thirty-two. It’s complicated.

 

**
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13 thoughts on “On bicycles and cars and second-wave feminism.

  1. Brilliant, beautiful, relatable, authentic Katherine. I still love you. I couldn’t read this post fast enough and I will not be able to read it slowly enough, either. A thousand yesses to this post, over an over again. I read a piece in The Atlantic today: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/this-is-not-a-sex-panic/550547/?utm_source=atltw which made the point that the discussion of the gray areas IS progress and I agree, though it feels awful.

  2. yes yes yes. You have articulated very well what I, as a woman looking at 40 looming in her face, am feeling about all of this. I am sharing it with my Facebook group for female empowerment as we have been discussing this for a couple days now. Wonderful. And I was so happy to see your post pop up in my inbox! Please don’t stop writing. Even though it’s complicated.

  3. YES. THIS. Not just about Aziz, because I’ve been trying to find the words about how I feel about the whole thing…but the generational gap and the different way in which people see things according to their experiences. I feel like I hear so many people describe situations which were’t really all that serious in a very serious manner (the “Me Too” movement has made me anxious in ways that I can’t explain about my own past) when really, it was something shitty that happened, but you need to deal with it and move forward because that’s just how you get through life. I’ve had so many feelings in the past 6 months that I can’t put into words. Thanks for the help 🙂

  4. Oh Katherine. I love you and your glaring imperfections and your uncertainties. And your soapbox and your megaphone.

    I am 63 years old and here are my notes, from the other side of the generational divide.
    What resonated for me the most in the NYTimes story was the reminder that, in our day, we were taught to slap a man’s face if he got fresh. and part of my wants less blogging and more slapping–not that I don’t think that discussion is important. Where is the line between coercion and seduction? On my side of generational divide, the framework was that sex was about women “giving it up” and men “getting some.” (So when I discovered that I liked it too, it was kind of an unexpected bonus.) And aggressive pursuit felt and still feels sexy to me. When I want it, of course, not some rando on the street. but I don’t want the man I am seeing to ask my permission to kiss me. I just want him to approach me with “oh baby” level lust.

    Yes, my generation did break important barriers and open up career opportunities and abortion rights and all that stuff. Yes, you are welcome. but we also had consciousness raising circles. and part of that was that we would sit in a circle with other feminists and look at our vaginas with a hand mirror. I wasn’t that impressed with mine, but I was glad I could trade access to it for dinners and houses and stuff.

    But about the Aziz thing–my thoughts and why I kind of hate Grace. First of all, she was starfucking, and everyone knows that if you are starfucking the point is not good sex, it’s that you get a story to tell. When I was twenty I had sex with a singer I very much admire (and no I am not telling you who) and it was not awful but definitely boring, but the songs are still on my playlist–those songs are timeless I tell you!
    Second, if you are going to fuck a celebrity, don’t fuck a comic. Oh for god’s sake do I really need to tell you this? Comics are the WORST in bed. Go for a bass player or a drummer.

  5. Hells bells, I’m gonna be 62 in 10 days and I agree with you 100%: it IS complicated. Being able to see complexity comes with the wisdom some people acquire with age and experience. Black and white is easy, but not particularly useful in resolving nuance and real-life issues. Great post.

  6. Please, please, please… never let go of your voice. I’m in my early 50s and I relate to your 30-year-old voice. I still relate to your 20-year-old voice. And I hear you. And I want to hear more. Everyone looks back on things they said and did and wrote 10 years ago or 20 years ago or yesterday, and cringes… just a little. If you don’t cringe you’re not growing. Growing pains hurt. And if you’re lucky, they don’t stop. Ever. You are wise and witty and insightful and introspective and your voice needs to be heard.

  7. Dearest Fritzy, we all need you to keep writing and expressing and ranting! How I wish I had had your blog to read when I was your age. We Second Wave Feminists escorted young women into clinics; we participated in EVERY Pro-Choice, Anti-Racist and ERA March; we joined NOW and lobbied in D.C., and worked on political campaigns. I feel burned out. But your writing encourages me to keep the faith. Please Fritz, don’t stop. xoxoxoxoxoxo

  8. Might be the best post you’ve ever written. Don’t knock you knew sense of wisdom at 32. You are supposed to evolve. My 34-year old blog posts are embarrassing. And I’m sure gen years from now, my 44-year old posts will make me cringe. It’s OK. Loved this whole thing.

  9. Thank u for explaining to an old feminist why she didn’t leave. I get it now. I realize each generation has to grow strong against the pressures they experience. I can see shades of racism more easily, because it’s not my issue. We’re all just doing the best we can.

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