I have done my best to avoid talking about politics online, although admittedly I’ve allowed one (or more) memes slip onto my timeline, mostly because the play on words was funny. For most of us, this election season has been an extended version of some reality TV show, and we laughed at the absurdity. But something happened to my resolve last week when the infamous tape about one candidate’s treatment of women surfaced; I found I could no longer stay quiet.
I don’t want to argue politics or analyze policy, however. In some ways I want to thank the candidate for bringing to light what women have been struggling against for more years than I’ve been alive. His words that bragged about his actions showed that the glass ceiling is really more the back wall of a cage against which the female population has been smashed in the attempt to avoid unwanted sexual advances of the men holding the key that unlocks the door to equality. One out of five females (RAINN.org) has known the groping hand of unwanted attention while the other hand smooths her hair and shushes her, saying, “Everything is as it should be.” Without this reprehensible tape, we could not have this conversation out loud.
My mom was a feminist in every sense of the word. She knew the difficulty of finding a place that would rent to a single mother. She served multiple tours in the Great War of Feminine Equality of the late 20th century, mostly hunkered down in the typewriting trenches. She wore shoulder pads and nylons, the required uniform for the office woman, feminine yet business-like. She endured the daily inspections of her superiors and was rewarded with a wink and a nipple pinch if she passed. Her training taught her to smile and accept the compliment, because she knew she could be fired and even blacklisted among other employers if she didn’t comply. She cheered Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5, secretly executing her mental revenge against her own sexist bosses.
Mutiny happened the day her boss stopped in front of her desk and placed his genitals on her typewriter. He asked her if she’d rather work on that. She responded by picking up said typewriter and throwing it at him. He ducked just in time to see it shatter the glass wall behind him.
If only it were that easy to shatter the metaphorical one.
All this time she’d been studying for her license to sell casualty insurance. I remember her studying late into the night after her regular mom duties were done and thinking there was no way anyone could memorize all the material in those thick books. But she did. And she found a firm that would not only allow her to sell insurance, but become a partner in the business.
In 1985, she and I moved from the Bay Area to Lodi, then a tiny town in the Sacramento valley. Not one agency would hire her as an agent. This wasn’t pre-suffrage or even post World War II. This was the Madonna Era, after all. She was blatantly told women were to fetch the coffee and files, not create them. She said she’d clean piss off the floor before she served another man coffee as a job requirement.
So she did. She took a job as janitorial staff at a convalescent hospital. Eventually, she found a man who would hire her as an agent in a town 15 miles away, but it turned out she was only hired as a potential patsy for his embezzling schemes. Guess who figured out what he was doing and turned him in?
There is a Greek myth about a lovely young goddess named Persephone. In one interpretation, she and her mother, Demeter, were picnicking with a few of their goddess and nymph friends when Persephone wandered off alone to admire the flowers or something else equally nature-y and beautiful. Lo and behold, Hades sneaks up behind her and forces her back to the Underworld with him as his unwilling bride. Demeter is beside herself and makes the earth barren as a result. She turns to Zeus, Persephone’s father, and asks him to intercede with Hades to rescue the poor maiden. He says he’d be happy to as long as she kept her fast while she was down there. Unfortunately, Persephone missed the doctrine on not eating in front of your boyfriend and partook of a pomegranate Hades had given her. Eventually a compromise was reached, and Zeus decreed that Persephone would spend part of the year with Hades in the underworld and the rest with her mother in Heaven.
Many academics look beyond the planting and harvest rituals of the story to a “patriarchal conquest of a woman-centered world”(Downing), and this idea demonstrates how long the subjugation of women has been an issue. One of the beautiful things about myths is their universality and timeless appeal. Therefore, it’s entirely appropriate to re-imagine Persephone as less of a victim and more of a self-advocate in the face of calamity. Because that’s what today’s female needs in a goddess.
Persephone was worshiped as both bringer of life alongside her mother in the Spring and the causer of death in the Underworld in the fall and winter months. In both roles, she executes power over life and death. Because of her mother, she was given her initial life-giving power over the earth, but Persephone chose to take the power Hades offered her by communing with him and eating the wedding fruit. A girl has to eat, right?
There is a message here that must have resonated with my war-weary mother when she took her predicaments and made them the platform on which she built her life. This message is one of taking back what is yours and summoning power from it.
Many women have been assaulted in their life, including me. It is difficult to share these stories in the face of appearing morally emaciated and “different” to those who know us without those scars, but it is up to us to wear them in a way that changes their perception into something brave and beautiful. My story stems from the Miss USA Teen competitions. I talk about my experience with pageants in a previous post here.
After winning at the county level, I was given a beauty package which included massage therapy. Without being too graphic, let’s just say the masseuse was liberal with his efforts and expected a favor in return. I managed to escape the room as he was climbing onto the table and was able to avoid at least that atrocity. I was so horrified and ashamed, I didn’t tell anyone for years, long after my pageant days were over. One day, my mom and I happened to be driving past the building where the salon used to be when she told me the masseuse had been arrested. I worked up the courage to tell her about my experience, and she asked why I’d never said anything. I shrugged, and that was the last we spoke of it. I left that conversation feeling even more ashamed. It wasn’t for many years that I realized I was not to blame.
Over the years as I’ve told this story, I’ve been told:
- You need to get over it
- You asked for it
- You objectified yourself as a beauty contestant, what’d you expect?
- Have you seen yourself? Of course he did that.
The list goes on, and I eventually stopped talking about it because I didn’t want to hear how much to blame I was. In light of the presidential hopeful bragging about these very actions, I thought it time to post this part of my story.
So why is it so many women seem to come out of the proverbial woodwork at the same time when someone famous or powerful is accused of assault?
It is easier to talk about your own experiences when others talk about theirs. It helps to know we aren’t alone, the whole safety in numbers thing. It is the hope of receiving a collective support instead of ridicule. After all, that many people saying the same thing has to have a point, right?
Persephone ate from the life-giving, wedding fruit of her own volition. She took a bad situation and owned it, making herself a queen that had significant power. Every seed she bit into needs to be seen as a crack in the glass cage that holds women hostage to this victim shaming mentality. If we all take part in the collective feminine communion, however, maybe we can shatter that ceiling after all.