Bear with me here while I grapple with what I want to say. It has to do with women and power and voting and sexism (both subconscious, as well as blatant). It probably has to do with some other stuff, too, that will also be political in nature. If this is the kind of thing you're tired of hearing, or don't want to hear, or want to hear solely because you enjoy fighting about it, then LOOK AWAY.
OK. I think I'll start with a story from a long time ago. In fact, I awkwardly blogged the story back in 2004. Here's what I said:
When I was pregnant with my first child the place I worked was, up until The Fateful Day, a pretty cool place. Very family friendly… I could even bring my dog to work. I was fairly concerned with keeping up a professional appearance while my pregnant body expanded at an unnatural pace, so I spent a quadzillion dollars on trendy maternity clothes. These were the nicest clothes I've ever had. The most expensive, the most comfortable… I felt like a movie star.
Then one day, out of the blue, I was called into the HR lady's office. She told me that the Big Big Boss (the owner of the company) [And here I would like to add, it was actually the Big Big Boss's husband, who was also a Big Boss, but not my specific Big Boss] was disturbed with my clothes and thought they were inappropriate for the workplace. I was flabbergasted. My expensive clothes inappropriate? How could that be? They were no more or less fashionable than the clothes the non-pregnant ladies wore to the office. They were kind of form-fitting, but it's hard for clothes to NOT be form-fitting when you're 8 months pregnant.
Once the discussion with the HR lady progressed, though, I found out the real reason behind the inappropriateness of my clothing. They did not hide my newly formed, enormous nipples. While the HR lady was trying to explain to me how my maternity clothes were inappropriate she lowered her voice, leaned across the table and said, "For instance… I can see your nipples right now." I looked down, and sure enough, there they were, outlined through my shirt in all my glory. But how was that MY fault? If I had been wearing a burlap sack you would have been able to see those monstrosities.
I told her I couldn't help that my body was getting fat. That's kind of what being pregnant is all about. Did she think I wanted to be poking people's eyes out with these things? She told me I had to get some new clothes and a letter was being put into my employee file. I was stunned. Were these people INSANE? I just couldn't understand – still can't, really – what the problem was. But there was nothing I could do. I had to forsake my gazillion dollars worth of trendy clothes and suck it up, go to Sears and buy a couple of gingham and flowery tent-like horrors.
Anyway, the nipple story ends with me being put on bedrest and having to start my maternity leave 5 weeks early. I had high-blood pressure and early signs of labor. Apparently stress can cause the high-blood pressure and nipple stimulation can cause early labor. I guess I was screwed from the beginning.
[ed. to add: this was – and, I imagine, still is – a family-friendly company. I brought my firstborn to work with me everyday until he was seven months old. So these "inappropriate nipple" shenanigans were not just weird and distasteful, they were shocking and out of character for a place celebrated throughout the country for being a wonderful family-oriented (ie: "mama-supportive") workplace]
So that happened. It was humiliating and gross, but pushed away in my mind because ultimately I was supported in my work environment, not just as a worker, but as a mother. And, yet, as workplace – and, hell, life – disparities between men and women become more clear in this country; as factions of the government seek to support and nurture these disparities, this kind of story becomes even more important. Not because of any lasting harm it caused me, but because it is just one example of an ugly, accepted, underbelly of sexism rampant in not just the working world, but in the country as a whole.
The problem is less that overt sexism exists, but more that a kind of unconscious dichotomy of whore/mother sexism is firmly entrenched everywhere. Was it OK for the outline of my pregnant nipples to show through layers upon layers of clothes? No. Was it OK for me to bring a baby to work? Yes. Was there an unconscious morph that happened in the impression I gave my Big Big Boss's husband when I switched from nipply fat lady to healthy-chubby new mom? Maybe.
Now the question is, how do you fix a problem people don't realize they have? How do you show a populace that worships the sexualization of women that sexualization and sexuality and just plain being female are all different? There is a sexytime nipple, there is a gestating nipple, there is a nursing nipple, there is a just plain nipple nipple. Can some of these classifications be combined? OK. Do they have to be? No. If you combine sexytime nipples and nursing nipples in your head, does that make me the problem? No.
So what do we do about this? What is the answer? I don't know. I wish I did. But I can tell you about a recent experience I had where I was able to listen to Gloria Steinem talk about her perceptions of a variety of current shitstorms in this country. Her ideas and opinions and suggestions boiled down to this:
We [women, men who support equality, etc.] have to quit sitting around and waiting for other people to make things happen. Ms. Steinem suggested that we would do better as a people (and as the Democratic party) to stop wringing our hands and looking to the top for answers and, instead, start making some damn answers ourselves.
This next thing she said is something I might have dismissed at certain points in my past. I might have thought it was the inflamed talk of a radical – because how, in this century, could she be right? But now I know better. Now that I've been subjected to it myself, and seen others be subjected to it, and probably even subjected people to it my own self, without even realizing, I know she's right. She said there is a great fear of powerful women – fear of their reproductive abilities, fear of their potential political prowess, fear of their numbers, fear of everything about them, down to skin color and personal choices. This fear is what's currently driving a movement that isn't even supported by the majority of the country – a movement to roll back women's rights, to keep paternalist "there there, let us take care of everything" attitudes not just prevalent, but accepted.
Ms. Steinem pointed out that the Republicans, and specifically, the Tea Party, have money – lots of it. But women have numbers. Democrats have numbers. This is no time for complacency. This is no time to think that "wow, this stuff could never actually happen". ("this stuff" being the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, the acceptance of female body parts as pre-existing conditions, the requirement of a woman to ask her boss for permission to buy birth control, and on and on and on and on.) "This stuff"? Could actually happen given the coffers and the fiery fear of a considerable number of people in this country.
But Gloria Steinem is right. Women have numbers. We have power. We can vote. The people who love us can vote. And not only can we vote – we can run for office. We can challenge these paternalist "legitimate rape" talking politicians. We have the power to move beyond our computers and our angry facebook feeds and our blogs. No one has taken away that power from us. Yet.
If one woman's 8-months-pregnant nipple-outlines strike such fear in a family-friendly corporate boss that this woman has to be reprimanded, think of how much other fear is out there.
And why are we feared?
Because we are powerful.
We are powerful.
And how do powerful people exert their power? Some raise a fuckton of money and lie their faces off and others support this and believe everything they say. But you know what other people can do? You know what we can do? What women can do? What people who support equality can do? We can can vote. We can throw our support behind taking over the status quo. We can run for office. We can do anything.
Because we gain power from being told we're powerless. We gain power from being shamed. We gain power from fear both caused and experienced.
We have so much power, y'all. It's right here. Right in front of us.
Now let's fucking use it.