We are not done yet.
Of all the thoughts I have had this week in response to Senate hearings and the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford, this thought keeps returning. We are not done creating a society that guarantees justice and equality for women.
There are many lessons to learn in this moment about sexual assault, white male privilege, public expressions of anger, gender representation in government, the judicial nomination process in general, and the various ways it can be compromised. It is easy to feel disappointed with elected officials, disgusted with some of our social values, and despair at the disproportionate amount of violence still directed towards women as women.
We like to believe the United States has made great progress towards rights for women, and in many ways it has. Then a case like this one comes along and we remember: that progress on women’s rights has always required hard, seemingly impossible work; and that that work has always been rooted in women’s willingness to acknowledge their experiences of pain, to speak from them, and to demand change.
It is worth noting that as of today, the only right specifically granted to women by the US Constitution is the right to vote – Amendment 19. This one right took over seventy years and three generations to secure; women and men picketed, protested, marched, served prison time, went on hunger strikes, and were force fed before it finally, barely passed in 1920. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would ensure that all rights granted in the constitution apply to humans regardless of sex and gender, has not yet been ratified.
We have more work to do to create a country in which women are granted equal rights as humans throughout society. So what skills do we need to survive and participate in this growing process? How we can align with the trajectories of history that (in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr) bend towards justice?
1. Trusting the pain.
A moment like this one reminds us that trusting our pain is a skill, and one that requires practice.
The collective pain felt by those who identify as women this week has been intense. Many people are not only reliving their own experiences of sexism, misogyny, sexual assault and related trauma, but are living the pain of friends and colleagues whose stories we are hearing for the first time. What you do to my sisters you do to me.
The pain can be so acute that we want to shut down, curl up and not feel – not risk ever feeling anything like it again. The pain of having our very being denied can haunt, so that we keep circling back to it, obsessing over it, allowing ourselves to be driven by it, shamed by it, and afraid of others because of it.
But pain is knowledge. Pain is knowledge of how to move differently, how to interact with others, and how to be treated in ways that will not recreate the pain. Pain is a cry for change; pain is a desire to change. Pain is the energy that can fund change. Pain wants to be released. To transform.
We can dive deep into memories of assault and injustice on a mission and with a purpose: to find the specific points where they bite. There, at their most intense, we can allow that pain to give birth to clear, precise desires — visions for a better way, a better world. What do you want?
The pain of past trauma may never go away. But its meaning can change. There may always be times and places where memories trigger, but in such moments we can practice allowing our pain to give rise to specific images of the world we want to see – a world in which our pain will not recur.
2. Telling others.
When visions emerge from pain, whole and beautiful, we need to keep telling others. Such telling is not always easy. It does not just happen. As we have seen and heard this week, it requires brooking all kinds of internal and external resistance, including concern with social mores, fear of retaliation, and a sense of pointlessness. A primary way in which abusive power works is to keep its victims isolated, alone, and without allies.
We have to practice not giving power to those who want us to go along silently.
The fact that so many women are coming forth with their stories is heart-breaking. It is also an essential part of our society’s growing process. Keep sharing. Tell everyone about what you know – not just what happened, but what you want to see happen. Tell friends. Tell family. Tell community leaders. Tell representatives in federal, state, and local governments. Keep the visions that come from that pain alive and dynamic.
There is so much work to do. So many visions need to emerge from all the places and all the ways in which women have been pushed down, denied, and violated – visions for high-school and college cultures; for corporate and governmental rules and regulations; for family systems, social values, religious practices, and entertainment offerings. We even need visions for the constitution of the United States.
And as we dream and share and act, whenever feelings of pain and disappointment return, we need to feel them and flip them and funnel them into the ongoing project. What more do I want? What more must we do to create a world in which can and want to live?
3. Cultivating joy.
A deep secret of human relations is that no one can take what can only be given.
There is only so deep another person can go – and never all the way. There is always more. The more that feels the pain. The more that knows a better way. The more that is willing to share and ask. The more that can and will feel joy.
Amidst the anger, hurt, and sadness, joy is the most potent revenge: overflowing, delight-full, heart-pounding joy. It is this joy that provides us with the internal freedom to find new impulses to move that will not recreate the pain we also feel.
We need to fight. There is no question. Certain segments of the population may continue to believe they can buy, bully, blackmail, and otherwise barge their way into bodily selves that are not theirs. Historical trajectories of patriarchal power may continue to infiltrate the minds of men and women of all classes and colors, convincing them that they will find power, love, freedom, and happiness by denying those same qualities to others.
We can cultivate joyful relationships with loving people who are willing to work with us to create in the very core of our connection an orientation of trust, honesty, and respect. When we do, we bring a new world into being.
Ask for what you want, and treasure the gift of your own giving to those who receive it with wonder and love. It is what a body knows.
The meaning of this moment in history is yet to be decided. It could be the moment when women say enough to the pain of sexism and sexual assault (yet again); find knowledge at its core of better ways of being, and rally together with renewed urgency to create the conditions for equality and respect among all people.