Monday, November 12, 2012

So a Woman Who Walks Down the Street is a...?

Reading Kate Zambreno's new book Heroines opened so many avenues in me. It is a book about suppressed women in literature, including wives of the greats (Zelda and Viv,, lovers, characters in books, and women writers themselves.

Zambreno's scholarship is deep. I wrote down 20 names I'd never heard of, and plan to research. She writes a little about literary theory (which I know nothing about and am not interested in learning) and a little about herself (which I enjoy). If you're a woman and a writer, or someone interested in same, I highly recommend this book. It inspired me in a number of ways.

First and foremost, it led me to refigure this blog, and decide I wanted it to be more like the newspaper column I wrote for years -- a place to philosophize, consider events, laugh about them and explore; to discuss what is happening in my life and how I feel about it; to attempt to make the personal into the universal, and transform experience into art.

But that column appeared in print. This will be different. In her book, Zambreno describes starting her blog Frances Farmer is My Sister and discovering a community of people online to talk with about issues that are important to her. My synapses started firing like a bag of popcorn in the microwave. Wow! I want some of that!

But where to begin?

I started by googling "feminist blogs" to see what was out there. One happy hit led to this year-old article by Emily Nussbaum about SlutWalk NYC in New York Magazine; it's a great read that brings up interesting issues about the ways women dress and male aggression, and best of all, it has a list of feminist blogs Nussbaum likes at the end.

I spent the rest of the day following her links. I liked what I found so much that I didn't come up for air until hours later when a dinner date forced me to stop. Yet it was such a glut of information that I couldn't recognize at the time which posts were really going to stick with me.

Now I do.

One that stuck was this post about getting fat to avoid men's attention at puberty. on Jezebel The post originally appeared on The anonymous interviewee describes the disturbing experience of moving into puberty that I recall:

"It started off subtle at first. Lingering stares and comments under the breath that you couldn't quite make out. I couldn't understand why these men were speaking to me that way. I may have had breasts and hips, but I still looked like a child...After I turned 16, it got unbearable/ I literally had men grab me, pull at me, hiss and whistle at me."

I didn't get fat myself, but after being a strong, happy, independent child with full agency and full membership in the human race. it was unsettling, to say the least, to be pushed out to the sketchy perimeter--to become a quasi-human, one it was okay to yell rude things to, to push, to violate with impunity--when I grew breasts.

Another one that stuck described a study about what women do to avoid harassment on the street (a dozen things or more), and what men do (nothing).

Unfortunately, with the ephemeral quality of the Internet and the wide range of my surfing that day, I can't find that exact article this morning. But I did find two organizations devoted to changing the climate for women in public, and two riveting stories about being harassed that went viral: This one about being groped on Muni in San Francisco and this one about enduring a threatening rant after refusing to talk to a man on an LA train.

Both of those stories were linked in a CNN article on various studies, statistics, and plans of action to address the harassment of women in the street.

It was a revelation to me that there even were a non-profit agencies like Stop Street Harassment, and Hollaback! attempting to prevent harassment of women on the street, because the experience seemed so pervasive to me, like a fact of life, like a force of nature.

When I moved out of San Francisco in my late '20s, one big motivator was the harassment I got almost every time I left my flat on 19th and Guerrero in the Mission District. Men would drive by and call rude things out the window at me, or mutter unpleasantries as I passed them on the sidewalk.

People who claim this is complimentary or irrelevant are not living in my universe. There is threat implicit in inappropriate sexual comments made in public.

To men who've never experienced it, I say imagine how you would feel if someone bigger and stronger (or maybe just exponentially meaner) passed you on the street and said he really wanted to fuck you, or liked your butt or penis. (Insulted? Afraid? Disturbed?)

To women who don't seem to be bothered by these comments, like my daughter, I just marvel. It takes a very self confident woman to brush that stuff off. I don't consider myself meek, and I wasn't able to do it. In my case, it literally drove me out of town.

When my husband suggested moving back to San Francisco almost 30 years after we left, I resisted. I had the vague impression that the City was dangerous. But he was so eager that I agreed to give it a try. And now that I'm here, I love living in San Francisco. But I'm older, and my flat is in a richer neighborhood. And even so, I walk fast and keep my eyes down when I pass men at night. And women shouldn't have to grow older and richer just to gain the right to walk unmolested down the street.

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