Hey, Feminists: If You Went To A Catholic College, Make Yourself A Visible Alum

Recently I learned that a colleague working in reproductive rights had graduated from the University of Notre Dame. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. “Stay active in your campus community,” I said. “You’ve got to do it.”

I am a proud alum of Georgetown University, which provided me an excellent education and foundation for the social justice work I do. I’ve made a point to stay active in the campus community over the years — interviewing prospective undergraduate students, serving on panels and at speed mentoring events facilitated by the career center, mentoring students through the Women’s Center, speaking to the H*yas for Choice unofficial student group, and providing direct financial support. I was very honored one year to serve as a judge for the Merrick Debate for the Philodemic Society. I have weighed in on a debate through the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affiars as to whether you can oppose abortion and be a feminist (spoiler alert: not possible!). Basically, anything they ask me to do, I will do it.

I have also undertaken activism with regard to my campus community. Every time I interact with H*yas for Choice, the group on campus which advocates for abortion rights, I give them a financial donation. Most times when I donate directly to the university, I will add notes about how I would donate more if student activities funds could be allocated to H*yas for Choice as well. Simply put, there are brilliant women at Georgetown who deserve to have their basic humanity respected.

I enjoy following the lead of the brave students of H*yas for Choice who are not officially recognized by the campus community and have had their rights trampled on by the university, as happened a few years ago when campus police removed them from tabling on a public sidewalk that was not university property. When that happened, I organized more than 200 alums to sign an open letter to the university president requesting that the situation be rectified to support free speech on (and in this case off) campus, which was met by an apology to the students and a formal explication of free speech rights on campus (and after which I gave the university the largest donation of my life).

I’m sharing this because if you attended a Catholic university and are a feminist, I’m asking you to remain engaged as an alum within your campus community. Students do not need us to lead their battles on campus — young people are inspiring and so fully capable — but it is helpful when we back them up. Further, it’s critical. There is a well-organized right wing that organizes a small but vocal minority of alums to place pressure on their Catholic universities when, for example, speakers who support birth control are brought to campus. This has led to protests of speaking engagements by presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other major players such as the president of Planned Parenthood as if consideration of all sides of an issue is against the principle of higher learning. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I love my world-class university and all it has taught me over the years, including a non-profit management executive certificate I recently completed. What I have also seen is that the right-wing is well-organized in trying to pull Catholic colleges further to the right, at times making threats that they will petition the Vatican to revoke their Catholic status. Such efforts are widely out of step with the base of alums who need you, dear feminist alum, to take leadership. Please stay engaged in your alma mater. Even if you partake in other forms of activism, staying engaged with your former Catholic college could be some of the most important work you do in your lifetime for young women.

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Finding God

Twenty years ago, on Easter, I was losing my mind. I was basically dead. The worst picture that exists of me was taken that morning. You would cry if I shared it. I never will, because people with anorexia would use it to justify hurting themselves.

I rose each time we were supposed to in the Catholic Mass, blacking out a little bit each time. I had a real mental breakdown of sorts during the service; some of the ugliest thoughts of my life. And primarily because the calories in Communion freaked me out.

That Monday after Easter was a real come-to-Jesus moment; I had a several-hour medical assessment culminating in a doctor assembling my family together, and informing us that my pulse was 32 and I was probably going to have a heart attack that week.

When I set out to lose weight, I didn’t set out to do that.

My parents gave me the choice whether to go to the hospital or not. God bless them, that helped. They let me go home, they let me cry about it. They let me come to the awful realization on my own that I needed to go. The next morning I went into school early, and told my teachers what was happening. They wouldn’t see me again for awhile. I hoped I could get my work done and be able to graduate on time, but I didn’t know. It was a stressful moment for a straight-A student.

After telling my sad story one more time, I lingered in the door of the room where my math class would soon meet. “Mr. Talbot?” I said. “Yes?” He looked up at me. “I’m sorry I used to come late into class because I was outside smoking.” He smiled with such care. Men with beards can be harder to read, but those eyes communicated an encouragement by example to forgive myself. “I was never really that worried.”

Getting better was a bitch. I was able to graduate. I got better. I got worse. I went on a merry-go-round of recovery. Ultimately, I came out ahead by connecting the dots that my eating disorder was a personal, hellish manifestation of a society that oppresses women and girls. I found a way to fight what happened to me, which prevented me from going back into the darkness. In this way, feminism saved my life.

Over the years I have considered my relationship to God in light of what happened. As I described, I had a private breakdown in the Catholic Church when I was basically a walking corpse and, frankly, I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. As my consciousness grew, I connected the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of women to what happened to me, and the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s outsized role in the sexist systems that go unquestioned in both religious and secular settings.

It’s not acceptable that just a few years ago Pope Benedict said allowing women to be priests is a sin equivalent to pedophilia, particularly when the Catholic hierarchy was exposed to have suppressed the sexual abuse of children and adults by its own priests. As I grew older, I learned that the opposition to abortion and birth control that I heard through CCD classes is about controlling and shaming women’s sexuality. With more time I came to connect the dots that shame about sexuality and gender roles is about controlling people in order to ensure that white men retain the most power in society, period. At age 22, I saw the sex-abuse cover up stories and I snapped. I told my mother, “The Catholic Church is the embodiment of the patriarchy and I’m never going back.”

So I stopped going to church, which was something I barely did in the first place. I began to identify as an atheist. Of all the stigmatized identities I have occupied in my life, few get people as upset as saying “atheist.” How interesting that we are socially comfortable with people saying there is a God, or there are Gods, or there might be a God, but not saying, there is no God!

Recently, I have started attending an Episcopal Church on occasion. It gives me a certain level of ritual that I appreciate as someone raised in the Catholic Church, and I enjoy the community and find the frankness of explanation in the written materials refreshing. At this point, I am not going up for Communion, but I take the opportunity as it proceeds to get on my knees and pray. I pray for equality. I pray for girls who are struggling. I pray for Black women getting the recognition they deserve. I pray for people who have abortions to know that they are doing nothing wrong, and with gratitude for the safety of the compassionate people who serve them. I pray that the people who oppose women’s equality may gracefully find a way to join the community of people who respect women and our ability to make decisions about our own lives. I pray that I will find the grace to welcome people into my community working toward equality and justice — even people who have espoused views that harm women and girls — and lead by example to encourage welcoming in others.

Religion did not pull me out of the worst crises of my life; I pulled myself out, with love support from people who supported my agency and dignity as a human being. Here I am, twenty years later, improbably alive. Improbably, too, I am going to church. I brought my daughter this Easter Sunday, twenty years later. I am finding grace in song and stories, reclaiming prayer within my own life, and maybe even finding God. I am open to the journey.

Justice For Stormy Daniels Is A Feminist Issue

Stormy Daniels’ interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes was something electric. In this conversation, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, detailed her affair with Donald Trump and the intimidation, harassment, and outright threats she has endured at the hands of the president and his attorneys. Let’s get this clear:

Believing Stormy Daniels is a feminist issue.

Supporting Stormy Daniels is a feminist issue.

Justice for Stormy Daniels is a feminist issue.

Stormy Daniels told Anderson Cooper a convincing story, and she deserves to be believed. The most powerful man in the world has repeatedly tried to silence her. The most chilling part of the interview was the revelation that someone came up to Daniels in a parking lot while she was carrying her infant in 2011, shortly after she had nearly sold her story to a tabloid, and said, “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story. That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.” In addition, Daniels repeatedly referenced being intimidated by the legal machinations of Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen.

There is no question that Trump has done, at the very least, versions of this to other women he slept with. Non-disclosure agreements. Payouts. Intimidation through the legal process.

Further, while not every man is as rich or as disgusting as Trump, Stormy Daniels would not be the first person who has been pressured by a man with more power to stay silent about sex. Further, as a sex worker, Daniels is part of a class of women and people who are repeatedly disbelieved for having agency in their sexual lives. It is for all these reasons — much less that she could potentially be sued Trump and his thugs for millions of dollars for speaking out on television — that believing Stormy Daniels without hesitation is a feminist issue.

Supporting Stormy Daniels is a feminist issue. As a feminist, it was difficult for me to watch her say repeatedly that she did not see herself as a victim. I respect her right to self-definition. But it was also sad and hard to hear her describe her revulsion at the prospect of sleeping with Donald Trump, and the fact that she blamed herself for getting into a hotel room with him, and felt she had to follow through.

To be 100 percent clear: You are never obligated to give a man sex. Ever. Even if you went to his hotel room. Even if you are his girlfriend or his wife. Even if you just went on a date. The choice is always yours, and that is what consent is all about. Still, Daniels’ self-definition is to be respected. Supporting Stormy Daniels means that we can be concerned enough to pipe up that you don’t owe anybody sex just because you are in a hotel room, and also respecting her agency to choose to engage in sex with Donald Trump on one occasion, even though she didn’t really want to. The time to pick Stormy Daniels apart is not now. Stormy Daniels needs and deserves support, and that is a feminist issue.

Finally, justice for Stormy Daniels is a feminist issue. By bravely speaking her truth, Stormy Daniels belongs solidly in a line of women who have resisted the horror and thuggery of Donald Trump and the people who support his work.

In the truest sense, Stormy Daniels is a patriot — and an inability to acknowledge that is, for most people, most likely rooted in the sexism of thinking a woman in the pornography industry is too dirty and/or unserious to have something meaningful to contribute to our country. That’s hogwash. There is nothing wrong with sex, and sex workers are people.

Stormy Daniels deserves justice. The ‘hush money’ legal agreement that Donald Trump failed to sign under his pseudonym shortly before the election should be ruled invalid.  Her safety should be guaranteed. And we in the feminist community should all be standing with her and making these demands.

The woman is brave, she is a patriot, and she deserves respect from every woman who says they care about women. Justice for Stormy Daniels is a feminist issue.

Raising A Daughter While Feminist

She is starting to catch on. Her mom is a feminist. I work so girls and boys can be equal. And, she is serving it back in my face.

Eyes flashing, indignant. “Why do we only go to sports with boys?”

Well played, kid. We start to go to the neighbor girl’s basketball games.

Parenting while feminist is a thinker. It starts with an awareness of gender roles and how they are modeled by the parents, including resignation that some things in life are separated traditionally along gender lines, others are shared equally, and other points of pride that some gender norms are turned on their head in the way we divide up the labor within the household.

It is, on some level, letting go:

My daughter loves to dress up like a princess. More. Than. Anything. If I fight it, it’s going to turn into a bigger thing. If I teach her that traditional femininity is wrong, I’m giving her another narrow set of roles. She doesn’t need that.

It is, on another level, planting seeds:

If she says no, she doesn’t want to be tickled, it’s stopped right away. How many times has she heard, “It’s your body, and you are in charge”? Never enough. This is a child who gets several choices every day. She thrives on choices. She deserves choices. She does not get a sugar-coated version of reality. We talk about people in political life who make decisions that hurt people. We don’t pretend like there are two sides to hurting people with less power. The word for that is not conservative, because it is not a worldview. The focus is on the impact, and the word for discriminatory or harmful impact is wrong.

To be clear, feminism is not just about how we raise our daughters. It is not all girl power and self-esteem, though it’s great to give our girls that backing. Feminism at its best is at least as much about how we raise our sons. Parenting is political — very political. Our work as parents is part of our activism.

My girl is coming into her own. She starts kindergarten in the fall. To have been a feminist my entire adult life, and now to have this — it is mind-blowing. Someday she will realize at a deeper level what her mom and her mom’s friends are doing all the time. Someday she will remember going to marches and realize that a lot of kids didn’t do that growing up.

I am looking at the guilt I sometimes feel for working my ass off, for being wrapped up in the movement, my work, for not always being there for her. She may or may not be proud of my work someday. But either way, what she will have seen is strong modeling that if she has kids someday, it’s natural to have her own interests and priorities as well. Not even though she is a girl — because she is a girl.

 

For Young Women Who Feel Awful And Alone

It’s excruciatingly hard for some young women to breathe. Anxiety, self-doubt, sadness. Comparisons to others. Fear. Depression. Pictures of other people’s superiority. Hurtful words echoing in your head. Cringing at yourself and what you did wrong, if only I had. Thoughts, threats, or actions that you can’t believe are really yours. Fear that you’ll never feel joy again; that it will always be this way.

This is for young women having a hard time, and I will keep this short:

You are unique. You are worthy. You are important.

Your brain is playing tricks on you, and it’s not your fault. You can get better.

There’s nothing shameful about therapy or mental health support. Accessing professional help does not make you a failure or a weirdo; it is a step forward to the triumph you deserve. Please, do the things with your head held high.

You are worth it. Your life is worth it. It can get better. It is a hard road. It is worth it.

I am grateful for people with depression who choose to keep going. I am especially empathetic to young women who feel awful and alone, and I want you to know that your dignity, self-worth, and liberation is at the core of what I am fighting for as a feminist.

I see you. I believe in you. You sticking up for yourself is my favorite thing.

When Democratic Party Institutions Try To Fundraise Off Of You, You Tell Them To Stand Up For Abortion

Every fundraising letter, every telephone request for money is an action opportunity. For years I have been taking action with the fundraising letters sent by the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, state Democratic parties, and Democratic-aligned PACs that don’t take abortion rights seriously. The call to action is simple:

Don’t give them money. Tell them to stand up for abortion rights consistently and without hesitation, and then you’ll give them your money.

Many times the letters include a prepaid envelope for your convenience. And with a telemarketer, hey, you can chat. In other words, these actions are free and take just moments of your time.

Now, do it. Do it every time they ask you for money. And give the money that you might have donated to them to Democratic candidates who do unflinchingly stand up for the right to abortion, even as some out-of-touch national leaders suggest a “big tent” for candidates.

I mean, come on! Under the wrongful big tent theory of change I’ve written about extensively for Rewire, Democrats lose more seats because the base does not unite behind candidates (in fact, check out this recent poll that proves recruiting anti-abortion candidates is more of a liability for Democrats than a gain in terms of voters), Republicans have more supporters for anti-abortion policy in legislative bodies, and the poor, sadistic, complicit Vice President Mike Pence gets the additional anti-abortion Democrats he needs so that he doesn’t have to make the trek from the White House to the Capitol to cast tie-breaking votes to kick human rights for women and transgender people who become pregnant in the teeth.

Your instructions to Democratic Party organs to stand firmly for reproductive health, rights, and justice when they come to you looking for money are not symbolic. They matter. They are tallied.

Fundraising Letter with I will support you when you stand up for choice written over it!

Over the years, I have been pleased to hear that I have inspired many  friends and fellow activists who know me to send their letters back with instructions to national party leaders to stop crapping on abortion, which is what is inspiring me to write this down here. Please, start taking this action, pass this message on, and urge your friends to do the same.

Also, please do give generously of your time and money to those Democratic candidates who hold strong for abortion rights. In the past year I’ve been as loud as I’ve ever been about holding Democrats accountable, and I’ve also given as much as I ever have directly to candidates and PACs that share my values — 10 percent of my  income in the last year, to be exact. It’s not just money and volunteer time that talks. It’s the absence of giving money and support, too.

Together we do have power.

One of these days national Democrats may get it, and stop repeating the right wing talking points implanted within our midst to undermine our effectiveness. But with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) having the gall to suggest a big tent on abortion inside an event hosted by Planned Parenthood — for cripes sake, the insult! — just a few days ago, I’m not holding my breath. I’m just taking action with every opportunity that presents itself, including in my mailbox and on my telephone. You can do the same, quickly and easily.

An Open Letter To Friends I’ve Unfollowed On Social Media Over Dieting Posts

Dear Friends Who Diet And Share It On Social Media,

I love you. I do not judge you and your decisions. But I do not want to know about your diet on social media. I react to posts about dieting on social media by having negative feelings about myself. With love and compassion for myself, I refuse to judge myself for the ways my brain devises to hurt me.

I may have quietly unfollowed some of your accounts or muted some of your posts even though I genuinely like you as a person. What is part of your life — perhaps your healthy life — is unhealthy for me.

I understand you may not even see yourself as dieting. There are hashtags, words, and numbers out there suggesting “clean eating” or cleanses or being healthy or whatever. This, too, is dangerous stuff for me. With love and compassion for everyone, I refuse to judge myself for having a reaction to trendy ways of eating that are usually about restricting food groups and losing weight.

When I developed anorexia and nearly killed myself in the process, it was an accident. I truly thought I was being healthy and getting in shape when I started. For some of us, these behaviors become obsessions, and even years after they have passed, to see even a wisp of them in other people — in whatever degree — is not healthy.

In the event you ever noticed my absence, I hope you will understand I am not rejecting you. I am giving myself permission to be me — the me who takes up space in my own body and brain. I’ve been healthy for a long time, and when I see your dieting posts I have reactions that are a threat to my commitment to my health.

Take care,
Me

Is Something Lost When We Say Coercion Is Rape?

Coerce (v): 1. To compel to an act or choice. 2. To achieve by force or threat. 3. To restrain or dominate by force.

Rape (v): 1. a) archaic To seize and take away by force. b) Despoil. 2. To commit rape on.

An anonymous account of a horrific date with actor and self-avowed feminist Aziz Ansari has been posted everywhere on the Internet; responses appear to range from the self-proclaimed sensible guy saying ‘look, we can’t read women’s minds’ when women are not exactly saying, “no, I don’t want to have sex with you and please go away,” to a number of prominent feminists arguing that what is described is nothing short of rape. I am reading the arguments from my fellow feminists closely. I am receptive to considering these arguments. Still, I am left uneasy that we are missing an opportunity to talk about coercion on its own terms. After all, Ansari says he believed the activity was consensual and while I believe there is a serious argument to be made that what is described is sexual assault, I also believe there is a serious argument to be made that what is described is instead coercion.

Coercion and rape are cousins. They are part of a horrific continuum of what heterosexual sex has meant for too many women for too damn long. Coercion, or the act of making a person in some way or another go along with having sex with you even if and as they have serious misgivings, is terrible. Rape, or sexual assault, is terrible. They do not necessarily need to be the same thing in order to be terrible. I worry that by talking about coercion and rape as interchangeable we are losing an opportunity to address coercion head-on within mainstream culture, where, let’s be honest, coercion is a common part of women’s lives and a practice that remains largely unquestioned.

In the middle of all these linguistics, what men need to know is that a woman should be consenting to have sex with you. If you are not sure, you should check. Checking does not mean assuming based upon body language. Ask — Do you want to do this? If you don’t hear yes, then stop.

In real life, lots of sex does not work this way, with an explicit “may I?” and a corresponding “yes” proceeding with every step. Perhaps where we are headed is that everything that does not conform to that standard is now labelled rape. I am open to these arguments, and urge careful consideration of them. We live in a massively unequal society and with sexual relations between women and men in particular, it’s impossible to pretend like it does not matter that women have been socialized to not articulate their desires and men have been socialized to pursue sex until they get it.

Viscerally, the Aziz Ansari story and the responses I am reading leave me troubled and frankly very sad, personally. Like women the world over, I have experienced coercion and I have experienced rape. Notably, I have experienced repeated instances of coercion and other times rape at the hands of the same person. And when I think back, I am horrified, just horrified by my experiences with coercion; as a general rule, I am more ashamed of my experiences with coercion than I am of my experiences with sexual assault. I feel more culpability for them, as if the disgustingness imposed upon me and the memories searing my brain with a spiked hot iron are, in part, a measure of who I am and the depravity I am capable of, even though I know logically that the deck was stacked against me. I can’t even list the catalogue of horrors that happened; I am so deeply ashamed.

With the rape, at least, I tried harder.

I read these insistences that what Aziz Ansari did was rape, and I hurt. I want someone to go back and hug the emaciated young woman I once was, her back raking the carpet as she finally hit her breaking point after so many bouts of humiliating coercion, crying and openly weeping, whispering, “no, no, please stop, please please stop,” over and over. The physical pain and the white ceiling. The tears rolling slowly and sideways down, nobody catching them.

I had been coerced into so many horrible things, and so many times, but that rape was worse and I knew it then and I still know it now. I want someone to validate that. More than anything, I want someone to go hug that girl and acknowledge her strength and her gall for finally fucking saying no, getting raped anyway, and knowing for certain, for textbook certain, that she was getting raped and he was still going. It was different. And it’s easier to tell you about this because I’m not ashamed because I tried harder than ever before to make it stop, and it still didn’t work.

I also know that what led up to this rape was repeated, humiliating coercion. That it was coercion that brought me to that point, where doing degrading, despicable things to me while I openly cried and said stop could be ignored, because degrading, despicable things had happened to me without my explicit, verbalized entreaties to stop and so they could probably continue regardless. That it was coercion that brought me to that point where my feelings didn’t matter, even when openly you-can’t-miss-it expressed. That it was coercion that was part of the sexual histories of all of my young friends, in that age when Britney Spears dressed like a school girl who didn’t know. That we were socialized to be coerced and sometimes raped. That we more often went along with it, until, bravely, sometimes we didn’t.

I want to see the bravery of rape victims who tried to stop being raped acknowledged. I want women who couldn’t resist rape to be saluted for their survival and savviness to know that resistance might have meant death. I want to see the survival skills of women who experience coercion saluted, to the point where we don’t internalize shame about being coerced — to the point where it is no longer easier to talk about experiences with rape or sexual assault than it is to talk about experiences with coercion. I want men who do not identify themselves as rapists to learn how common coercion is and learn to better process and respect signals from women, and to make asking for consent part of their pursuit. I want women to know what coercion means; I want boys and girls to be taught about coercion, and not just rape, in school. I want heterosexuality to stop being so awful for women, especially young women. I want #MeToo to include a spectrum of behaviors — all of the behaviors that hurt us — without insistence that they must be the same to count.

But mostly, I want the young women who felt safe to resist to finally get their acknowledgement for sticking up for themselves even when it was futile, and going through a rape they knew to be worse than all the other unspeakable, entirely relatable, “bad date” times.

Let This Be The Year Your Internal Bully Dies

Your internal bully is an asshole. It is not an internal voice that is helping you. It is designed to destroy you. Let this be the year your internal bully dies.

Here are some things your internal bully might tell you:

– You are not good enough.
– You’re going to be alone.
– You didn’t get invited to a thing because there is something wrong with you.
– That thing you said that sounded dumb? People are still talking about it.
– Your body shape isn’t good for that outfit.
– You need to go on a diet.
– You’re no good at fitness anymore because you are lazy.
– If you admitted you needed help, they’d laugh.
– The terrible thing you have done means you should go away.
– No matter what you do or how hard you try, you can’t do that.
– It’s not your turn yet and you need more credentials.

There is no point to continue; chances are, your internal bully has told you things that are worse and more cruelly personal. Often, internal bullies masquerade as a ‘voice of reason’ that are helping you to ‘improve.’ That’s poppycock. An internal bully exists solely to shut you down. The internal bully is not here to help, unless if by help you mean feel crappy and miss out on opportunities you deserve.

Internal bullies manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are quiet bursts of self doubt in an otherwise clear head. Sometimes they are addictions or mental illnesses that ebb at times and take over at others. Other internal bullies are encouraged and planted by mainstream “self-improvement” programs or advertising, or abusive bosses, family members, frenemies, or romantic partners.

Internal bullies are absolutely a gendered phenomenon that impact some people more frequently and severely on the basis of many intersecting identity-based oppressions including racism, heterosexism, and ableism, although they can strike anyone.

If you are a woman who identifies as feminist it’s basically your patriotic duty to tell your internal bully to fuck off. Not to say that discarding internal bullies is easier for feminists; in my experience it can be harder to admit you have negative feelings about yourself. But, I suspect the reward for shucking internal bullies is explosively rewarding for feminists. The personal is political indeed.

Seeing your internal bully as an internal bully strips it of its power. Naming it out loud and continuing to live your life anyway does the same. We are not weak because we have thoughts of self-doubt. We are strong when we recognize the thoughts for the unhelpful bullies they are, and choose to ignore them.

You don’t need self-improvement. You deserve to live and enjoy your life. That doesn’t mean you need to stay the same. You can make changes you want and do the hard work to become the person you want to be without beating yourself up for being the person you are now. Self-love is revolutionary. Self-honesty is not self-badgering. If you wouldn’t say it to someone you love you definitely shouldn’t say it to yourself. Let this be the year your internal bully dies.