Some Lessons from #MeToo and The Personal is Political

In 2013, at age 64, Diana Nyad swam 103 miles from Cuba to Florida, in a challenge not only to age but to the still fully in force US blockade of Cuba. Then vice-president, now president of Cuba Miguel Diaz-Canel, awarded her Cuba’s Order of Sporting Merit for her historic accomplishment, noting “it is never too late to pursue your dreams.” She responded, “I have received many honors, innumerable displays of respect, but today I feel deep emotion because this award I consider the most prestigious of all.”

In fall 2017 in an OpEd in the New York Times Nyad joined the movement of women coming forth with their history of sexual abuse by men. She wrote of the rapes by her swim coach which began when she was 14.

That first savage episode signaled the beginning of years of covert molestation….

This is not by any means the first time I’ve told my harrowing story. This is how we attack an epidemic. First we identify just how egregious and far reaching the crime extends. Speak up. Speak out. Speak your truth.” When she first spoke about the sexual assaults 45 years ago to her best friend in high school, “The relief was palpable. I wept. My friend cried with me, hugged me, took a long pause and said, ‘Well, Diana, hold on to your hat because the same thing happened to me.’ The same coach. The precise same words. The mattress in the office shower stall. The same covert manipulation. The same special secret. And we soon learned that it wasn’t just the two of us. It never is.

Like the others in the #MeToo movement, Diana’s experience exemplifies the widespread sexual harassment and sexual violence inflicted on women. Put in plain English, sexual harassment, sexual molestation, sexual violence all mean either threat of rape or actual rape. Women understand that sexual harassment carries within it the danger of assault, of rape, and even murder.

Carole Sheffield captures this pervasive fear in her article Sexual Terrorism[1]

The concept of terrorism captured my attention in an “ordinary” event. One afternoon I collected my laundry and went to a nearby laundromat. The place was located in a small shopping center on a very busy highway. After I had loaded and started the machines, I became acutely aware of my environment. It was just after 6 pm and dark; the other stores were closed; the laundromat was brightly lit; and my car was the only one in the lot. Anyone passing by could readily see I was alone and isolated. Knowing that rape is a crime of opportunity, I became terrified. I wanted to leave and find a laundromat that was busier, but my clothes were well in the wash cycle, and, besides, I felt I was being ‘silly,’ ‘paranoid.’… Although I was not victimized in a direct, physical way or by objective or measurable standards, I felt victimized….I felt controlled by an invisible force. Mostly I was angry at being unfree: a hostage of a culture that, for the most part, encourages violence against females, instructs men in the methodology of sexual violence, and provides them with ready justification for their violence.

She adds that any woman has the same fear when jogging alone, dining alone, going to movies alone, walking alone to their car in a parking lot, being anywhere in the dark or where others are not around -the list is endless.

“I have never been free of the fear of rape” Susan Griffin began her famous 1971 article Rape:The All-American Crime. Women know the “mini-rapes,” she added, the rub or pinch on a crowded bus or subway, the whistle from a passing car, the stare of a man looking at her bust during a conversation.

Rape and the fear of rape are a daily part of every woman’s consciousness….Rape is a kind of terrorism which severely limits the freedom of women… It is an act of violence which, if not actually followed by beatings or murder, nevertheless always carries with it the threat of death. And finally, rape is a form of mass terrorism, for the victims of rape are chosen indiscriminately, but the propagandists for male supremacy broadcast that it is women who cause rape by being unchaste or in the wrong place at the wrong time—in essence, by behaving as though they were free. [2]

The situations where women need be wary of sexual assault are so numerous it’s hard to deny what should be obvious: that sexual violence – stalking, fear of being raped, attempted and actual rape and possibly being murdered – is a systematic manner of intimidating and dominating women.

As victims of rape, women learn they are often blamed for rape, not just by the police and the courts, but by men – and other women – who question the rape victim’s conduct. The threat of sexual violence and the fear of being blamed for it serves to makes women cautious around men, keeps them “in line.”

Threats of sexual attack that women face are similar to the threats Blacks face, who also must learn to avoid or be cautious in situations where they could be set up to be insulted, attacked, framed, or killed. Violence and its corollary, fear, serve to terrorize women in a manner not dissimilar to that practiced against Afro-descendants.

Akin to the targeting of Blacks, women are able compile a list of places and situations where they may be assaulted, as endless as the list Blacks can compile. Blacks, like women – and children – live with this consciousness that they are always under threat of abuse and violence, always liable to be blamed for provoking it.

Sexual harassment, rape, being beaten, being seen as sex objects is so pervasive that women have learned to live with it as a natural order of things. It has long been a systematic manner of social control over women.

The oppression of women has such a long history that people do not readily perceive this as organized violence against women; what has for so long been imposed on women is regarded as arising from women’s natural character.

Emily Collins wrote back in 1848 To Keep a Wife in Submission:[3]

…a husband’s supremacy was often enforced in the rural districts by corporeal chastisement, and it was considered by most people as quite right and proper—as much so as the correction of refractory children in like manner. I remember in my own neighborhood a man who was a Methodist class-leader and exhorter, and one who was esteemed a worthy citizen, who, every few weeks, gave his wife a beating with his horsewhip. He said it was necessary, in order to keep her in subjection, and because she scolded so much. Now this wife, surrounded by six or seven little children, whom she must wash, dress, feed, and attend to day and night, was obliged to spin and weave cloth for all the garments of the family. She had to milk the cows, make butter and cheese, do all the cooking, washing, making, and mending for the family, and, with the pains of maternity forced upon her every eighteen months, was whipped by her pious husband, “because she scolded.” And pray, why should he not have chastised her? The laws made it his privilege—and the Bible, as interpreted, made it his duty. It is true, women repined at their hard lot; but it was thought to be fixed by a divine decree, for “The man shall rule over thee,” and “Wives be subject to your husbands,” and “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands as unto the Lord,” caused them to consider their fate inevitable, and to feel that it would be contravening God’s law to resist it. It is ever thus; where Theology enchains the soul, the Tyrant enslaves the body….

All through the Anti-Slavery struggle, every word of denunciation of the wrongs of the Southern slave, was, I felt, equally applicable to the wrongs of my own sex. Every argument for the emancipation of the colored man, was equally one for that of woman.

This organized sexual and physical abuse of women began several thousand years ago and has become much more internalized by both women and men than the similar and more recent degradation and violence against Afro-descendants, indigenous and other Peoples of Color. Indeed, as Emily Collins makes clear, thousands of years before the brutal white enslavement of Africans began, this enslaved position of women had already been institutionalized, even codified as the very Word of God.

Being so deeply internalized, it is less obvious, less noticeable, less offensive to our morals, more accepted as simply part of woman’s natural condition. A woman who is a victim of sexual violence, as with a child victim of violence, feels shame, self-hate, and is often stigmatized. Like the young Diana Nyad, she usually keeps what happened secret to “protect herself” – and thereby protects the abuser and the society that allows such abuse to continue and go undetected.

How many of us are aware of the extent of rape? How many of us are aware of women friends who have been victims of rape or attempted rape? How many men actually recognize sexual harassment for what it is, the implied threat of sexual assault? We recognize racist baiting of peoples of color as implicit violence against them. Not so with sexist abuse of women.

This abuse is commonplace, as the #MeToo movement gives us an inkling. It is so commonplace as to be integral to our society, a feature of society designed to keep women down and deny them equal rights.

Today in the US, 200 years after the period Emily Collins referred to, one in five women will be  raped in their lifetime, nearly one in two have suffered sexual violence other than rape, and merely one in five to one in three rapes are reported to the police. For every 1000 rapes only 6 rapists go to jail.

Such numbers cannot be reduced to acts of certain types of men against certain types of women.  This is a society-wide violence directed against women as a whole, a threat held over their heads, which our judicial and socio-economic system maintains.

Diana Nyad continues her story:

These molestations were the cornerstone of my teenage life…On the outside, I was a bold, overly confident, swaggering success. But the veneer was thin. On the inside, I lived in the perpetual trauma of being held down, called misogynist names and ordered to be quiet. I wanted to be anywhere but here, anybody but me….

For me, being silenced was a punishment equal to the molestation. Legal prosecution proved time and time again to be futile, but I could at least regain my own dignity each time I uttered my truth. I’ve been speaking out, loud and strong, for nearly five decades now. It has been crucial to my own health. It has energized others to speak out, too. And I will continue to tell my story until all girls and women find their own voice.

Whenever I mention my case in front of a live audience, invariably women come up to me afterward and let me know that they too are survivors. They immediately command my full attention with a particularly steady gaze and they say, “The same thing happened to me — my stepfather.” Or “I’m a survivor, too.” Then we hug, long and hard. And we often find tears for each other. We connect. It’s our version of #MeToo. Tell your story. Let us never again be silenced.

These #MeToo accounts relive the impact of the consciousness raising groups during the 1960s-1970s “second wave” of the women’s movement. One group member in the documentary She’s Beautiful when She’s Angry explained,

Aha, it is not just me feeling insecure, it’s a shared thing. I realized I was not alone. What I had considered personal embarrassment I realized was part of a whole larger experience we all shared. Problems that you felt were happening to you alone, probably that were your fault, if they were happening to other people, you could stop blaming yourself, once you realized it was happening to a larger group of people, you realized they were not just personal issues but social issues, political issues, and you were ready to go out there and do something about it….our feelings are telling us something from which we can learn…our feelings mean something worth analyzing…that our feelings are saying something political.[4]

The early women’s consciousness raising groups came to see personal issues as reflections of political injustice, discrimination and sexual oppression. Women echo that with the #MeToo movement today.

In the 1970 Handbook of Women’s Liberation

…consciousness-raising shows the individual that what she once thought were her own personal inadequacies are really common problems…..We are led from the private-personal outlook on our lives to public-political understanding. Solutions will be found in social changes….

It is difficult to understand how our oppression is political (organized) unless we first remove it from the area of personal problems. Unless we talk to each other about our so-called personal problems and we see how many of our problems are shared by other people, we won’t be able to see how these problems are rooted in politics [the socio-economic political system, including the family system….

Before we can remove the structures of oppression, we must remove our accommodations to them.[5]

 

Carol Hanisch wrote in her 1969 article The Personal is Political:

….One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

…. I prefer to call even this aspect “political therapy” as opposed to personal therapy. The most important is getting rid of self-blame. Can you imagine what would happen if women, blacks, and workers would-stop blaming ourselves for our sad situations? It seems to me the whole country needs that kind of political therapy.

The women in the #MeToo movement have stood up and exposed the widespread sexual assaults and rapes by men who have power over them. The late 1960s “the personal is political” women’s consciousness raising groups did probe deeper, recognizing the particular problems women confronted in their personal relations were individual instances of the sexist class relations that dominate patriarchal society. They realized that there are no individual problems they face as women, only the social oppression of women which demanded political action and political solutions.

That the personal is political was articulated by the women’s movement, and before it by the early Civil Rights movement, applies not only to women, but to all of us. These movements led the way in showing that once we join together and discuss our personal torments, we are able to recognize our anxieties and inadequacies as reflections of socio-political problems. We realize our self-doubts and shames are not failings to be kept private, but are universal and indict the class society that engenders them.

We normally do not feel our problems are actually individual versions of problems that exist “out there” in society. Rather, my personal issues seem to exist independently, unconnected to the larger world, and do not reflect the unequal and unfair nature of society.

There are at least five reasons why this form of “false consciousness” persists. First, we personalize and internalize the pain these problems create for us, typically blaming ourselves for our “failings,” for what we feel we did wrong, when they actually result from the social problems created by the underlying economic and power relations of society.

Second, we keep our “failings” a secret, since we consider the cause of our personal conflicts to be our own inner defects, not the product of the social world we live in, and so we hide this from others to save face.

Third, we participate in an unspoken collective agreement not to mention issues we find unpleasant, humiliating, painful.

Fourth, we do not connect our personal conflicts to the manner society is organized because we typically do not look deeper than the surface, the appearance of things. We are even less inclined to look deeper inside when what we see there brings us great discomfort. Better to keep it secret, deny it, even from ourselves.

Fifth, even when we overcome self-blame and  blame the perpetrators, as does Diana Nyad, we are still directing our feelings at a group of people, not at the nature of the society that fosters the conditions for the torments women must deal with.

To the extent that we try to conceal, not disclose, our self-doubts, anxieties and inadequacies, they scar our personality. In this way the social damage caused by class society is materialized in our own characters. In fact, no purely private, personal torments actually exist – others have their versions of the same social issues.  Marx stated this in a more abstract manner:  “human essence …In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

Carol Hanisch wrote in her 1969 article The Personal is Political:

….One of the first things we discover in these [consciousness raising] groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.…. I prefer to call even this aspect “political therapy” as opposed to personal therapy. The most important is getting rid of self-blame. Can you imagine what would happen if women, blacks, and workers would-stop blaming ourselves for our sad situations? It seems to me the whole country needs that kind of political therapy.

At root, our private torments are nothing but our internalized versions of social, political and economic problems. Our unequal and unfair class society maintains itself in part because it has been able to obscure this underlying connection. Women have been the ones who most clearly uncovered how the personal is political, and have pointed out that we need united political action around this to achieve lasting political solutions.  One of the many lasting accomplishments of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement lies in articulating this understanding, one echoed in the contemporary #MeToo movement.

 

 

[1] Women: A Feminist Perspective (1975) edited by Jo Freeman

[2] p. 27, p. 35

[3]  Voices from Women’s Liberation, ed. By Leslie B. Tanner,  p. 48-49

[4] Kathie Sarachild, Consciousness-Raising and Intuition. in The Radical Therapist,  p. 158

[5] Joan Robins, Handbook of Women’s Liberation, p. 138, 140

 

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