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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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