Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While reading the chapter “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich,” I realized that while I was earning my English major, I read plenty of Adrienne Rich, but I don’t recall hearing about Audre Lorde until I saw a quote by her on a poster in the basement of my UU church.

I looked back in my copy of “The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women” and Lorde was there, about five poems’ worth of her work and a brief bio, but I have no memory of reading her poetry for any class assignments. Why was this, I wondered?

I suspect it’s for the very reasons that Lorde suggests in these essays. She’s a Black lesbian radical feminist. People can engage with her if she identifies as one thing at a time, but Lorde insists on being a whole human being, offering the entire nuanced package in everything she does making her tough to categorize neatly. Read More

Breaking All the Rules

As I drove away from the open field where I left my progeny for day camp, I wondered what I should do with my two and half hours sans enfants. I found myself near a small lake I knew that had a wooded walking path around it, and I decided to chuck my usual need for over-planning and just take a walk in the woods. I had my sun hat and sunglasses with me, and I was wearing my good walking shoes. What other preparations did I need?

In the parking area, I opened my door and a voice in my head piped up with one of the Safety Rules for Being a Woman: “Always tell someone where you’re going!”

I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.

I looked at my phone and decided it was too much like checking in with a parent to call my spouse and tell him I was going for a two-mile walk. I’m a grown woman. I can take a walk without notifying my spouse. (But before I put my purse in the trunk, I tucked my phone in my pocket, just in case.)

With my sun hat shading my face, I started for the trail head. I glanced back at my car and eyed the white van parked next to my driver’s side door.

Another rule popped into my head: “Never park next to a full-size van!”

I envisioned the abduction scene from The Silence of the Lambs.

I shook off the image and headed for the trail head again. I was trying to think of a reason not to worry about the van when I walked by a Jeep Wrangler in which a middle-aged man sat alone, listening to “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”

“Morning,” he said in his Massachusetts accent and raised his hand from the wheel in greeting. I smiled and nodded a greeting, and the voice in my head recited: “Buddy up for safety! Never walk alone!”

I’d been on this walk many times with only my kids and had felt only mild annoyance at their pokey walking pace, but now without my diminutive guards I suddenly felt afraid.

I noted the man’s appearance and took a quick look at his license plate and walked on, with what I hoped looked like purpose and confidence. On the trail, I met woman after woman walking alone. After about the sixth solo woman, I began to feel more comfortable. If they were alone and okay, chances are I would be, too.

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Sure enough, the biggest dangers I encountered on the path that morning were the piles of horse poo I had to dodge and the gnats that swarmed my mucous membranes. I was safe despite breaking the rules.

When I was a kid, I imagined that when I reached adulthood, I would eat peanut butter directly from the jar, and I would be confident and courageous. The first dream has come true, but I’m far from confident and courageous.

Here I was feeling nervous about walking around a suburban lake by myself in the middle of the morning. And why was I nervous? Was it because of some real danger at this particular lake?

No.

It was because I was remembering lots of rules that had been drilled into my head and the heads of other women of my generation over the years. Don’t develop habits, don’t go running while listening to music on headphones, don’t go walking alone after dark.

The women I talk to say that they choose to follow the rules (or not) on a case-by-case basis.

“When I run, I guess I should technically have someone with me, but I almost always run alone,” says my marathoner sister. “But the place I usually run is made for bikers and runners, and I know bikers and runners, and I don’t know…I just feel comfortable there.” It’s a group she knows and trusts, if not personally then at least in the abstract, and that leaves her feeling safe enough not to follow all of the rules.

“Of course,” she adds, “if I’m in a rough part of town or I have to walk to my car in the dark, I park out in the open, under a street light and either get a ride to my car or have someone walk me to my car.”

These rules are supposed to keep us safe, but do they really? By following all the rules, do we really reduce our risk of becoming victims of violence? I can’t find any numbers to support that notion. The stats I have found are those that say that violence—both sexual violence and violence in general—is more likely to come from within our homes and trusted relationships than from strangers. Is it possible that keeping all of these rules in mind and being on the lookout for danger everywhere just keeps us feeling anxious without actually keeping us safer?

If these rules aren’t evidence-based, why do people keep telling us to follow them? Is it really to keep women safe, or is it just another way to preemptively blame the victim—or to make women feel like victims before we ever have a reason to?

In my high school gym class, we were doing a section on baseball. The teacher took all of the boys up to the real practice fields with the real, wooden bats and the real baseballs, while he sent all of us girls to the muddy lower field with aluminum bats and rubbery balls that bounced unpredictably when hit. When I met with the principal and told him that the girls were being denied access to decent-quality sports equipment and well-drained playing surfaces, he said, “Did it ever occur to you that the teacher was just trying to keep you safe?”

I was fifteen years old and had taxed my introverted, non-confrontational self pretty heavily by meeting with the principal in the first place, so although I couldn’t quite figure out why wooden bats were dangerous for girls but not for boys, I just said, “No. I hadn’t thought of that.”

When I told my father about the conversation that night, he said, “What about the boys? Don’t they need to be kept safe?” The fact that the reason wasn’t applied to both groups, he explained, was what made it sexist.

My spouse has never been told not to jog by himself. My father was never told to get a ride to his car after dark. If these rules really do keep women safe, wouldn’t they also keep men safe? And if they do, why are we only telling them to women?

Teaching these rules only to girls and women and not to boys and men makes the rules suspect in my mind. Why are girls and women encouraged to feel like we need to be protected both by and from men?

If these rules only apply to women, this implies that women are targeted for violence simply because they are women. If we’re being targeted for who we are rather than for what we do, then it seems there’s a deeper issue that isn’t being addressed, deeper than the need for women to be constantly aware of their surroundings in a way that men need not be.

What does our culture gain by keeping us scared?


Find more Weekly Writing Challenge entries here.

Smashing Assumptions

Flute PracticeMy children’s flute teacher retired from teaching last month, and the process of finding a new flute teacher has been fraught. Their relationship with their teacher was so close, the thought of replacing her feels wrong, like we’re reducing our relationship to the mere pragmatics of finding someone to teach the mechanics of playing the flute when it was so much more.

“It’s like trying to find a new brother, or another parent,” my daughter says.

My son is reluctantly willing to play for prospective teachers, but insists he doesn’t want anyone but the teacher he’s known since he was eighteen months old to teach him.

The depth of my children’s connection doesn’t particularly surprise me, but the lessons I’m learning from this process are not the ones I expected. My daughter is quite advanced in her flute playing, so we’ve been focusing primarily on the obvious hard-hitters of the eastern Massachusetts flute scene, which are numerous but often a significant distance from where we live.

During this process, I learned that a fellow homeschooling mom is a piano and flute teacher, and she teaches right here in town. After I spoke with her, I decided we’d consider her for flute for my son or piano for both kids, but I thought she wasn’t high enough caliber to be my daughter’s flute teacher. This might be true, but when I went over my reasons for this assumption, I was really surprised with myself.

Here was a teacher with similar credentials, experience, and mentors as the other teachers we’re interviewing, but I put her at the bottom of the stack because she’s a homeschooling mom.

Like me.

That was a shock. It’s quite possible that this teacher will not be a match for my daughter, but I shouldn’t dismiss her because she’s a mother and a homeschooler. Here I am spending conscious effort every day to change the negative perceptions people have of stay-at-home parents, and I’m applying the same stereotypes I’m trying to fight.

I’m trying to see how positive it is that I even recognized this latent assumption and how it colors how I perceive other women, but at the moment, I’m just ashamed and very, very sad.

What does this say about how I think of myself? Why am I engaging in such self-defeating thinking? I’ve internalized the messages of our culture, that by choosing to focus on motherhood and put career well down on my list of priorities, I’ve relinquished my claim on any expertise I might have. What would the nineteen-year-old me sitting and steaming in Women’s Studies classes think?

How many times have I dismissed fellow mothers and not even realized it? How many other assumptions and biases influence my perceptions every day?

I’m trying—trying—to feel hopeful that this awareness will help me get better at seeing people for who they are in the future, instead of blindly following my biases. I’m starting by scheduling trial flute lessons for my daughter with the homeschooling mom flute teacher. If she’s not a match, she’s not a match, but I won’t be writing her off simply because she’s chosen a path similar to mine.

Twenty-First Century Girl

I first became a Girl Scout more than 30 years ago. Each week, I walked through our northern California neighborhood to my Brownie meetings in my brown jumper, my beanie bobbie-pinned to my hair, a quarter in the dues pouch on my belt. Every year we would camp out and every year it would rain and we would complain about cleaning latrines, but we also sang silly songs, played silly games, and learned about native plants and how to build a fire even if the firewood’s wet. There was the year that it snowed while we were tent camping and when we got home, we found out that the Boy Scouts had gone home early and the Girl Scouts had stuck it out.

When we weren’t camping, my fellow Girl Scouts and I enjoyed doing service projects, hiking with naturalists, designing activities for younger girls, learning how to build an oven out of cardboard and tin foil, and taking trips to other states. Girl Scouts gave me my first chances to speak in public, and helped me see that being silly isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Girl Scouts helped me experience what it means when women and girls stand by each other. In Girl Scouts I developed confidence in myself and leadership skills that have served me well in both my personal and professional life.

I have been a Girl Scout in four different states. I went through every level of Girl Scouts as a girl, and I always knew that, if I had a daughter, she would be a Girl Scout, too.

Now I’m in my second year as a leader with my daughter’s troop. In the years between my membership as a girl and my membership as a leader, Girl Scouts has made efforts to update the program to appeal to today’s girls.

Here’s what they came up with:

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This is one of the incentives my daughter received for selling a certain number of candies, nuts, and magazine subscriptions during the Fall Product Sale. When I was a girl in the program, we didn’t have a Fall Product Sale, and the incentives we got for cookie sales were generally patches, animal-themed tchotchkes, logo t-shirts, and—for the really big sellers—credits to go on Girl Scout adventure trips.

Clearly, since I was a girl in the program the organization has realized that those kinds of things don’t motivate girls to sell stuff. So, they asked themselves, what do girls these days care about? What do the women leaders of tomorrow need more of?

Faced with such questions, the national organization came to a realization: nature is all around us.  I can look out my window right now and see ten or twelve birds at the feeder in my yard. Girls don’t need to have nature pointed out to them.

You know what’s not all around us? Shopping malls. There are squirrels hiding nuts all over my flower beds, but I have to drive almost two miles to get to the nearest shopping mall.

And shopping is awesome! Looking at ads, seeing the latest trends, choosing the outfit that will make us be noticed and popular and pretty. It’s what it means to be a woman in America!

This is a message our girls aren’t getting enough of from mainstream media. How are our girls going to know how great shopping is unless Girl Scouts points it out to them? Study after study shows that girls are severely deficient in positive messages about consumerism, and Girl Scouts is filling that void and helping our daughters develop a love of shopping from the age of five (the age that girls can join Girl Scouts nowadays). After all, who needs nature when you can shop?

And you know what else we can do? We can give the girls a pinewood derby, just like the Cub Scouts has. Only because everyone knows that girls don’t like building things we have to make it more appealing. I know! Let’s call it a “Powder Puff Derby”! Girls these days need to be reminded that they can do anything the boys can do as long as they do it cutely! (Double-bonus that it teaches them about cosmetics application. Goodness knows my daughter won’t be learning about that from me!)

Kudos to you, Girl Scouts, for leading my daughter and the rest of her generation boldly into the 21st century!

Covering Up: It’s a Feminist Issue

Update:

This used to be a video about how women should be the ones to choose how they dress and how much they cover while nursing in public. If you would like to see the video, please visit PhD in Parenting.

It has come to my attention that some of the images used in this video were used without the permission of the women in the images or of the photographers who took the images. PhD in Parenting obtained permission from a person claiming to be the source of the photos, but this person turned out not to have permission to distribute these photos. I’ve removed the video as a show of respect to the women whose likeness was used without their permission.

As a person whose likeness (or whose children’s likenesses) could show up online without my permission and as a blogger who wants to be sure not to impinge upon anyone’s right to privacy, I would really like to know more about the legal rights one has to one’s likeness. If anyone can offer resources for learning about this issue, I would be grateful.