When you’re a woman, you try to live in hope, and you try to teach others (especially younger women) the same. Because, after all, the world doesn’t accommodate itself to you and never has. You are the one who must make way, yield the floor, decline to give way to professionally discrediting anger, sit incredulously while colleagues nod at the man who’s made the same point you just made, and which drew only silence when your voice broke over the floor. Don’t be ugly, you are told when you protest, being ugly so often held up before you as the worst fate anyone can imagine. Sometimes there is more. Often there is more. You know what happens in hotel rooms and frat houses and factory floors and locker rooms. You know what has happened to your friend or sister or cousin or mother or aunt or you.
But eventually you try to pull up your socks and make a virtue of necessity, as women have since they were building fires on the floors of caves. Mustn’t be pessimistic. Must live in hope. After all, look how things have improved for us and for the world in general. Married women used to not be able to own property. One Edith Wharton heroine after another sees her life wink out like a candle if she marries the wrong man, or can’t find a man to give her that coverture (the legal term, smelling also of shelter for small birds in fencerows and horse-breeding and safety for spies) that will give her money and stability. In prison, suffragettes were held down and fed gruel through tubes in their noses. Harriet Jacobs was exposed to the assaults and threats of “Dr. Flint” of Edenton, North Carolina because she, a fifteen-year-old girl when those assaults began, was legally the property of his five-year-old daughter. That doesn’t happen now. Believe in the Whiggish march of history toward improvement. Believe in the long arc that bends toward justice. Believe.
Believe, and work. Surely they won’t hate and thwart you if they get to know you. Surely if you work hard and tell your story honestly and achieve the markers of success and respectability held up as your proper goals – the degrees, the expertise, the “professional” appearance and behavior – you will be seen and respected as the person you have worked so hard to become. You will be welcomed into that invisible fraternity (fraternity? Mightn’t there be room for women, too? For you, if you try hard?) of those who have Made It. You can become what the great critic Margo Jefferson calls “a person of inner consequence.” “A person of inner consequence,” she says in an interview, “it’s the alignment of your own desires and needs with what you feel the world demands of you, and should demand of you, as opposed to what it shouldn’t—it’s being able to make that distinction: What’s the world asking of me, what is my job asking of me, what is the person I’m dating asking of me that is wrong, that shouldn’t be asked? How will I find the right ways to respond?” Yet Jefferson’s memoir Negroland also unpacks the fine independences and ironies in this statement. If you aren’t male, if you aren’t white, if what you notice and what you say are inconvenient, you are likely to find that you are the only one who cares about your inner consequence at all. You are the only one who seems to care about or keeps trying to do the right thing even when no one but you is watching. But keep trying. persist, persist. Vote. And when you see something, say something. Right?
“I felt it was my duty as a citizen to come forward,” said Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testifying about what she knows, about what happened to her, about what she went on from to get her degree and get her academic job and get married and have a family and become by all measures a success. Yet the kind of thing that happened to her, which woman after woman after woman everywhere are carrying in our tissues and our brains, in all the storage cells of memory, will resurface. It can’t ever quite be put to sleep by success. “Indelible in the hippocampus,” she said, using the precise language of her scientific training, “is their laughter, their laughter at my expense.” Indelible for me and redolent of the lasting impact of that drunken party-boy night is the way the memory surfaced in her marriage, during the process of renovating their house. She wanted a second front door. Second front door. I couldn’t help writing down those words as I stood in my kitchen on Thursday morning, September 27, listening. The girl who had been held down on a bed in a locked room by drunken boys who laughed while she struggled, who clamped a hand over her mouth, from whom she fled into a locked bathroom and listened as they “pinwheeled” (another precise verb) off the walls of the stairwell, eventually going down – she becomes a woman asking the husband who loves her for two doors in their shared home, not one, when the memory rises and explodes. Heartbreaking, in so many ways.
White women of the “professional class” are learning these days (the critique’s been offered, and it’s fair) what nonwhite folks have known for years: when you come up against the powerful white men intent on holding onto their power, who you feel and know yourself to be, a person of dignity and consequence, doesn’t seem to mean a damn thing. I’ll never forget hearing an African-American woman of my mother’s age (carrying memories of Birmingham, Selma, Kennedy, King) of sterling professional achievement and stately bearing, confess, in a tone wearier than I’d ever heard, “To succeed, I have had to be twice as good and half as black.” Like the wonderful poet Tess Taylor, I too remember Anita Hill. I was seventeen in 1991, naïve and good-girl-confused by what I was watching. Why would somebody put a pubic hair on a Coke can? Why were people sneering at this neatly dressed, calmly speaking woman? Wasn’t the Supreme Court supposed to be, you know, the place of trustable authority in our country? Of maturity? Of wisdom? And if I can’t trust the adults, who can I trust? But it’s true. What feels like learning, or relearning, uncomfortable things to me feels, to people in other positions, like wearying and too-familiar realities I have not always had to see.
Last night I finally had the chance to watch “The Post,” last year’s Steven Spielberg film about the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Its climactic moment? When the Supreme Court – yes, that Supreme Court – rules in favor of a free press over a megalomaniacal president who appears in the film in raspy, paranoid voiceover calling reporters bastards and threatening to ban any Post reporter from the White House for good. Frozen in my chair, I felt the stakes of the current moment sink in, afresh. The Supreme Court is supposed to protect us, the citizens. Our elected officials are supposed to protect us, the citizens. Because, you know, the Constitution. The Bill of Rights. But with an administration and its toadies so bent on cramming through anything they want – tax legislation and judges and environmentally destructive legislation, what we the citizens want just doesn’t seem to matter. All of us are left in the position of those protestors storming the elevator, pleading to be heard and being greeted with a dismissive wave of the hand. And then mocked for daring to ask for decency, for fairness, for what is our right, for all the values that feel as if they are being fed suddenly and contemptuously through a shredder, in front of everyone, a shredding that is, itself, being played for spectacle. Trying to be reasonable. Trying not to spit this is some bullshit, right here. Trying and trying and trying.
So: here we are. The New York Times Editorial Board sums it up: “The nation is now facing the possibility of three or four decades with a justice credibly accused of sexual assault, one who may well be the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, or at least make it so hard for a woman to exercise her constitutional right to make her own medical decisions that the ruling is effectively nullified. Thirty to 40 years with a justice whose honesty was tested and found wanting. A justice so injudicious in his manner that thousands of law professors, and a retired Supreme Court justice, opposed his confirmation. A judge is supposed to set personal feelings aside and approach even the most sensitive and emotional matters with a cool disposition and an open mind; Judge Kavanaugh revealed to the country that he was incapable of that.”
And so we wait, on the morning of Saturday, October 6, 2018, for the apparently-already-pretty-much-certain result of a vote so apparently and heartbreakingly controverted by the people’s wishes and testimonies of survivors and expert opinions and common sense. Confirmation, indeed. What a dismal confirmation of the way things apparently still are. And of what we still have to try, through so much rage and disillusionment and incredulity, to make better and more just, starting with our votes on November 6 and continuing with what we can do to stem the tide of top-down corruption washing over us every day. Even if it feels like we are the only ones who care.