two women

Two women have been on my mind today. I’ve not met either of them, but they have both been instrumental in teaching me about feminism and about compassion. I toast them both, in honour of International Women’s Day.

Woman #1 was an online critic of mine. Her tone was scathing, I would say withering. The putdown was simple: I was whinging pathetically about imaginary non-issues in the small community we both – well, I wouldn’t say ‘belonged to.’ She proclaimed her belonging fiercely, to this tribe of would-be culture-busters, while my unbelonging clung to me like smoke in my clothes. She hadn’t experienced what I had, and therefore neither could have I – I must be creating a storm in a teacup. It was my own problem, this dissatisfaction and frustration with The Menz and what I perceived as their stranglehold on our group’s dynamics and narrative. I had already weathered a shitstorm of backlash from The Menz themselves, but her online slap stung me deeply, coming as it did from another woman.

Even then I understood the threat I posed to her. She was riding along in the approval and acceptance of these men in a way that I had too, earlier in the story. Casting off the backbreaking cloak of little-sisterhood in order to stand up for myself and my gut feelings had been a profound step for me. It was the work of a lifetime and one of the bravest things I’d ever done. Some of my sisters responded with love and support, but others balked at the messiness of rebellion.

Writing today in the Guardian about the growing wave of feminist activism, highlighted in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Rebecca Solnit points out that social change doesn’t happen out of the blue; it is the accumulation of a million unseen nudges. She observes that

the shift comes from the cumulative effect of tiny gestures and shifts…

What this wave brought is recognition that each act of gender violence is part of an epidemic. It’s brought a (partial) end to treating these acts as isolated incidents, as the victim’s fault, as the result of mental illness or other aberrations. It’s meant a more widespread willingness to recognise that such violence is extraordinarily common and has an enormous impact, and arises from values, privileges and attitudes built into the culture.

…. something long tolerated is finally recognised as intolerable, which means that the people for whom it was not a problem finally recognise the suffering of those for whom it was. This shift from tolerated to intolerable is often the result of a power shift in who decides, or a shift in what stories dominate, or in whose story gets told, or believed. It’s a subtle shift in who matters that precedes dramatic change.

This online critic of mine, she wasn’t prepared to acknowledge my story as one that mattered. And I understand exactly where she was coming from: I’ve been there myself, in countless ways, and surely still am as I stumble on through the painful and complex process of growing as a person.

Woman #2 became a household name as the butt of a million jokes by male talk show hosts: Monica Lewinsky. At the time of her infamous affair with Bill Clinton I had already moved to the UK and that scandal seemed peripheral to the dramas of childbirth and divorce which were playing out in my own life. However I do remember thinking her foolishly naive, and I didn’t stand by her or voice anything in her defence.  I remember thinking with pity of all the women named Monica who were suddenly tainted by association to a name which now had so very much mud sticking to it. I certainly never gave a thought to how isolated and desperate she must have felt, nor to the imbalance of scorn heaped upon her while he got away with a collective roll of the eyes.

I have been following Monica Lewinsky’s growing public presence as an anti-bullying activist. She is an articulate and insightful woman, who has turned her painful experience into a source of personal strength and immense compassion. I admire her deeply, and feel shame for the part I played in discounting her. When I see her now, I see my own complicity in a system of oppression in which women’s accounts of their experience count for so much less than men’s.

So this International Women’s Day, I raise my glass to both Woman #1 and Woman #2 – the two women in me. In them, I see how much I have already learned and also how much I have yet to learn.

Rebecca Solnit writes, “Who determines what stories get told, who gets believed, whose words have weight, who’s in charge has changed.” Changed for the better, I say.

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