In all my conversations this week, with clients and with friends in person, on the phone and online, the conversation was the same. Women are deeply triggered by the swirl of controversy around the statements made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford regarding the confirmation of Supreme Court Nominee, Judge Kavanaugh in the news media. Online, everyone is sharing stories about what may have happened, what could have happened and what is not going to happen. Theories abound. Triggers abound. In the midst of all the drama, women are saying #MeToo. And this triggering has been started during the campaigning leading up to the elections for the highest office in the land, creating “collective trauma” for women.
Dare I say, all women have had the experience of objectification, where our bodies, or fantasies about our bodies, have made men feel entitled to look at us, leer at us, cat call at us, and for some of us, physically violate us.
Even if a particular woman has never been sexually violated, we know, through shared experiences and empathy, what that experience is like. Therefore, we relive it with every #MeToo tweet, every story, every media flash, and every post on social media. Whether we can personally say #MeToo or not, we are all impacted by it all.
Personally, amidst the triggers, I also find myself fascinated with the fact that a 15-year-old was sexually assaulted, and members of the Judiciary Committee of all men were already discounting her story and trying to move past it.
One morning this week as I washed dishes in my kitchen sink, I found myself mulling over the absurdity of the questioned veracity of this woman. I was transported to 27 years ago as I began to examine my own understanding of these complex issues.
Who Were You for Anita?
It was 1991 and I was 26 years old. I proudly graduated from Georgetown University Law School and became a freshly minted attorney just a couple of years earlier. I moved to Atlanta, eager to “get my career right.” My career was the single most important thing in the world to me.
I remember watching Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas’s inappropriate language to her. I remember her careful and deliberate words. I remember using the word “unflappable” in my mind to describe her. I remember her competence. I remember the exact shade of that blue suit with the gold buttons. I do not have to look it up. I remember her hairstyle, thick, conservative and healthy. I remember her red lipstick and glossy lips. I do not remember her ever smiling. Not once.
I also remember how I felt in my insides about all of it. I don’t remember discussing it with anyone, but I said to myself words to this effect: “If that were me, I would never have testified. Why would I want to go through this? Why would I want to say the words ‘pubic hair’ on TV and before the most powerful governing body on the planet? I would never do this to a Black man because it reflects badly on Black people.”
How do you react when you see a woman speaking “truth to power?”
On my two-dimensional TV screen, 35-year-old Anita Hill’s body, words, and resolve “to speak truth to power” felt so small, already defeated and shameful. If I am brutally honest, I somehow felt it was her fault. She let it happen and it tainted her. It made her less than pristine. It all took away something from her with her impeccable credentials. Yet, every time I saw news clips about the story, I admired her. I admired her calmness in all of this as I knew I would have been hysterical!
I believed her. My stomach reacted to every single word that came out of her mouth and in my bones, I knew she was telling the truth. I had just left a job where I had similar encounters with my boss. So, I knew it was true. But, I could not imagine a world where I would be courageous enough to be that small in a room facing that much power both in the architecture, the people (men) and their titles. The Capitol building is one of the most magnificent buildings I have ever seen in my life. It is designed to instill awe in the observer and I could not wrap my brain around the image of her sitting in that building testifying about her former boss as he described his genitals. Deep in my gut, I felt a loneliness for her. She was all alone in that committee room. All alone. Isolated. Yet surrounded by all these white men.
I also could not imagine a world where my courage would even matter or make a difference. For her to have paid such a huge price, and Clarence Thomas still got confirmed, told me that black women don’t matter in this country. I still can’t stomach the thought of Clarence Thomas. The image of him still repulses me. What he did to her to climb the ladder of accomplishment was unfathomable.
Who Were You for Monica?
Then in 1998, when I was further along in my career, Monica Lewinsky, a 24-year-old was now splattered all across the TV. She had been in a long-term extramarital relationship with the President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton. Now, I liked Bill. I thought of him as a rascal. And I knew this young woman, with this coveted internship and amazing hair was clearly telling the truth. I remember his tight lips when he testified. I remember him pausing and reaching for a drink and saying those famous words, his face red with anger and humiliation: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
I understood why he had to distance himself from her with those words. I knew why he had to deny enjoyable sexual interactions with Monica. He was a married man. Hilary would be upset, and his political life would come to an end. And he really did not sleep with her. He just tested the waters, right? After all, we could not go through a divorce in the White House! Even though he had these proclivities, he was a pretty good president.
I remember saying to myself words along the lines, “Look baby girl, if you want to sleep with the president, I get it. Powerful men can be intoxicating to naïve young girls. Bill is so charming but why the hell did you not just shut up. Look at what you are doing to him? And the country? And why would you put yourself in this position? Why did you keep the blue dress? Just deny that it ever happened. Deny. Deny. Deny. Don’t let them do this to you.”
Monica’s public shaming told me that although I already knew Black women did not matter in this country, the reality was that no woman mattered. The best I could hope for was just be competent in my work, play small, have a little family and enjoy the small pleasures of life. I felt for Monica. It felt like her soul was stuck in that attic with the blue dress. Isolated. So alone. All alone.
As I write this, I almost don’t recognize myself in those words. I feel shame as I can see where I did not honor Anita and Monica as human beings, not even as women. I feel the huge burden of coming up against centuries of patriarchy and oppression and it exhausts me. I see where I was afraid to deal with the fact that Bill was a predator and he was charming. I see where I felt more loyal to the African American collective than I did to the Female Collective. I see where I had zero comprehension of a man in power abusing and leveraging his position because he felt entitled to a woman’s body.
I console myself with the fact that I was a young immigrant woman and I did not have a robust appreciation for these issues, and these events were unprecedented. Women having to defend the most personal aspect of themselves, not even in court, but in the Capitol building, on TV, and before the most powerful men in the world, had simply never happened. At that age and time in my life, I was not equipped with the permission and grit to allow my dignity, my sexuality or any violations to me to be strewn before the public. I am grateful that I never encountered what those women experienced. I know for a fact that I would have folded and walked away, never having the courage to stand up for myself.
Who Are You for Christine?
Today, we are dealing with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Fortunately, although the treatment of women for these types of hearings has not changed, I have changed. And most women have as well.
I am so proud of this woman! I am so proud of how she is taking control of her narrative. I am with Christine!!! I believe her. And I publicly support her. She is not isolated. Women are being vocal and supporting her. We must not continue to endorse a system that blames women as victims when there is rape, sexual assault or sexual inappropriateness. We cannot turn a blind eye. We cannot normalize this type of bodily oppression.
My words today are to say, “Dr. Ford, you are not alone. I believe and support you.”
What changed for me?
I have grown up. I have wrestled with myself. I have recognized bias within me. I have unpacked the fact that male inequitable power has usurped space in my world and that is no longer acceptable. I have been “educated” about these and other issues. I have had so many experiences that Personally, my gender played a factor in denying me justice, equality, and equity. I know that my old ideologies were part of the problem. I am not proud of them, but I can be honest and share them and state where I am today. Many, if not all, of us were conditioned and socialized one way and we stayed with that and did not question our “stories.” But no more.
The most important work you can do this week, Beloveds, is to question every single thing you have absorbed about the female identity. Whether you are male or female, my invitation to you is to examine how your thoughts about “women” have developed.
- What stories about women were you born into? What did your culture, family and larger society teach you?
- What national and global events about women have shaped your understanding of women? How did you react to Anita and Monica? What about Hillary?
- What personal experiences have you had that has made you change or grow your understanding of women? How deep are your relationships with women? Are they transaction? Is it all about what they can do for you? Do you trust women? Do you like women?
- What acts are you taking today to expand and grow yourself into a person who embraces “women” as equal to men? Do you believe women? Do you see the female body as primarily for sex and childbearing?
What I love about crisis times like the one we are living in right now is the opportunity for growth. It is an invitation to expand and let go of paradigms that are not life-giving, that no longer serve us and that do not support justice. Honestly, I love when things like this happen in our world. It bursts our comfortable bubbles. It makes us think. It challenges us. And we grow as a group. We enter into Communal Expansion. This is what life is really all about: Growing past our limitations, our shadows and the constrictions of restrictions.
Reflecting over who I was for Anita and Monica made me realize that my ideas about women were still being shaped by men. I was interested in male approval back then. It meant something to me. I had tons of female approval. I had a loving amazing father. Most of my professors were men. As much as I believed in equal rights and opportunities for women, I also knew that men were the ones that held power. Maybe if I was nice, they would share it with me. I just did not have the energy to fight them for it.
Who knows why I had that perspective then. Maybe it was because I loved my father dearly and his approval always felt good. Maybe it was just because I was socialized that way and I had never examined what I was thinking and the impact on the world. I honestly don’t know. Today, I have given myself permission to recognize how impotent and ridiculous such paradigms were.
My approval today comes from within. Not without.
If you do not make the choice to examine the history of your belief system about women, then you are liable to be stuck and are probably missing out on some of the most amazing people and opportunities on the planet. It is low hanging fruit right now to enter into that space of collective healing and fully embrace the fullness of women. This applies whether you identify as a woman or a man.
Monica Lewinsky said, “While the events of 1998 in the United States do not fit neatly into such a definition, they may have led to some of the features we often associate with collective traumas: social rupturing and a profound sense of distress, the challenging of long-held assumptions about the world and national identity, a constricted public narrative, and a process of scapegoating and dehumanization.”
Is that not what is going on right now?
Yes, it is.
We heal this collective trauma by confronting it, understanding it, releasing the pain of it, and transcending it, as a group. And not just a group of women, but as a society. The first step is to confront it.
Like Salman Rushdie, the Islamic writer observed after the fatwa was issued against him, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”
Regardless of the gender you inhabit, the times we live in demands that you confront your story about “women,” our bodies, our identities, our sexuality, our value, our stereotyping and our debasement. We do this by taking power over the story. Examine it. Interrogate it. Name it. As a leader, you have an obligation to make sure that you explore your story around women.
Most especially, see the curve where the story has grown, and where you have changed. If your story has not changed, you are stuck. Get unstuck. Get uncomfortable with the stuckness. Wiggle free from it.
Your life demands it.