Monday, August 07, 2006

What It's Like For a Girl

cunningham_unmade_w


When I was in fifth grade, the Equal Rights Amendment was making its rounds about the states, looking for confirmation from the legislatures. It was a hot topic in our classroom. On the television at night, we saw the images of war and destruction in Viet Nam, saw the colour images of soldiers being carried off the battlefields. Saw the sawgrass whipping in the wind of the helicoptor rotors. We saw the dead Vietnamese, too. The little kids, our age, covered with napalm, or the men in their black pyjamas. It was our nightly dinner companion, the war, and for many of us, it was the conversation at the dinner table, too.


My parents didn't believe in the Domino Theory. They believed the war was bullshit, a waste, and the images would enrage my father. Shortly before the November, 1972 election, Henry Kissinger stood in front of microphones and promised that "peace was at hand." I begged my father to vote for Richard Nixon over George McGovern because I honestly believed that Nixon was going to end the war. I wanted to take off the bracelet I wore, the one that bore the name of an American POW who had been captured in 1965, and who still sat in a Hanoi jail. I thought about his family, his children, and wondered how they coped with their father gone.


So, when the teacher in our class suggested that we should debate the ERA in our classroom, it was those images that filled our heads and coloured our debate. The boys found our Achilles' heel, and they shot at it. "If the ERA passes, girls will be drafted, too," they taunted. We caved. I didn't want to go to war. I didn't want to get shot. I didn't want to be one of those people laid out on a gurney dying a horrible death in the maelstrom of the chopper blades.


To a girl, we voted down the ERA in our classroom. And to a boy, they voted for it.
1972 was also the year SCOTUS rendered a decision in Roe v Wade. It should have been the final battle in a long war, a correction of a wrong done to women in the previous hundred years. Abortion had been legal in the 19th century, but as women entered the work force, organized themselves into labor unions, went into colleges--as what we often refer to as "modern life" emerged--new old-time religions sprang up. Fundamentalisms. A return to the literal word of the Bible. And, not suprisingly, throwing new light upon woman's true nature and true place in the world. Fundamentalism was a modern reaction to the unruliness of the world. And women were the stirrers of that unruliness.


We were all daughters of Eve. We could be disciplined through marriage and childbearing, domesticated like animals, but our sexuality, the free expression of our persons, either rendered us monstrous intellectual spinsters or wild whores. The governments of the USA and its states passed various laws restricting women's access to contraceptives, abortion, even sex education information. It was a crime to send that information through the U.S. mail.


I was too young to be affected by that stuff. But as I entered teenhood and young adulthood, I was shocked to discover that the home I had grown up in, the one where I was frequently told that I could be anything I wanted to be, was not the world at large.


I learned a new language: a language of fear. Fear of the things that could be done to me because I was a woman. I was told to "hush." I was told to not draw attention to myself. I was told not to walk alone at night. I was told that it would be very easy to hurt me.


It was my sexuality that seemed to get me into the most trouble. Since I was a young child, my way of experiencing the world has been through my flesh. Where others take in new knowledge through their eyes, or their ears, I most frequently experienced the world through what I could touch. It wasn't sexual at the beginning, although maybe it was in that pre-sexual sexual kind of way. But I need to feel the stroke of the blade of the grass when I touched it, scrub my hand against the tree bark, stick my finger in the milkshake before I drank it.


And when men came into my life, and I had a desire to know them, to truly know them, it was not enough to hear them speak, I wanted to touch and be touched. Sometimes, a small kiss was enough for me to know that I didn't want to know someone further; at other times, I felt as if it was only in the sensation of being penetrated, of being pinned beneath someone's weight, that allowed me into a knowledge for which there was no other means of attainment.


And it was good.


I used contraception. I did not want to get pregnant. I didn't want to get sexually transmitted diseases, either, but sometimes, I still did and would undergo whatever antibiotic treatment was necessary. But I lucked out in the pregnancy department. I didn't have to consider abortion, but it was always there.


But even in the past five years, since I've been divorced, things have changed radically. I wrote before about trying to secure a Plan B prescription the night after unplanned sex. And how when I spoke to the nurse at the clinic, I felt dirty for asking.


I'm tired at the moment. I'm tired of this being cast as a single issue, this right to an abortion. I'm tired of it being cast as solely a women's issue. I'm tired of being told that I should vote for candidates who are Democrats, even if they ignore the party platform that says we as a party support choice.


I think I will say this over and over and over again until I am incapable of speech. I want you, whoever you are, to think about what it means if you are told that you cannot do with your body as you wish. What would it be like for you if you were told that you could no longer fuck the person you wished to fuck? That you could no longer eat the food that you want to eat? That the medical treatment that you and your doctor had authorized for you was not allowable under the new laws? What would it be like to know that you could not be secure from observation in your own home? That it was now possible that every phone call you made was monitored? What would it be like to know that your most private, intimate acts could be regulated by strangers?


If your body is not your own, if the very essence of your flesh is regulated by others, what use then do you have for freedom of speech? Of what would you speak? How could you speak if you were not free to experience the world through your body? How could you worship the god of your understanding if you did not have sovereignty over your own flesh? What difference would it make to you what was published in the "free" press if ultimately, you yourself was shackled?


It tears at me, grates me that I am told, repeatedly, that a woman's civil rights are ultimately less important than "party unity." That we have to allow a few people who oppose women's civil rights into our party in order to gain power, and that once we have power, we will restore women's civil rights. This argument does not make sense to me. In fact, it's insulting. It asks me, as a woman, to make the sacrifice that I'm always asked to make: Put others first. Put other causes first. You are not important, but your support is important. Women are supposed to sacrifice, let others go first. It's in your nature: you're nurturers.


And if we say no, then we are selfish. We are single-issue voters who would rather see the party collapse than give up our selfish insistence on something so insignificant as choice.


But without choice, without determining the boundaries of my own flesh, who am I? And how can you possibly ask me to give that up in order that you gain power?


When I was a little girl, I thought the worst thing that could happen to me would be to have the government tell me that I had to go fight a war and risk being killed. I didn't know about the other war. 


I will choose what enters me, what becomes

of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,

no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,

not your uranium mine, not your calf

for fattening, not your cow for milking.

You may not use me as your factory.

Priests and legislators do not hold shares

in my womb or my mind.

This is my body. If I give it to you

I want it back. My life

is a non-negotiable demand.

Marge Piercy, Right to Life


Mary got pregnant from a kid named Tom that said he was in love

He said, "Don't worry about a thing, baby doll

I'm the man you've been dreaming of."

But 3 months later he say he won't date her or return her calls

And she swear, "God damn, if I find that man I'm cuttin' off his balls."

And then she heads for the clinic and

she gets some static walking through the door

They call her a killer, and they call her a sinner

and they call her a whore

God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes

'Cause then you really might know what it's like to have to choose

Everlast: What It's Like


IMAGE SOURCE: Imogen Cunningham, "The Unmade Bed"

1 comment:

The Muse said...

Lorraine, I have to commend you on such an amazing post. I was right there with you through all of it, and I completely agree. Thank you.