I offer you a sampling of things I heard, read, and saw in the month leading up to the U.S. presidential election on the topic of women and inequality:
1. An email from my former law firm announcing its new partners and counsels for 2017: 15 men, 1 woman. The self-congratulatory email came complete with pictures. As I scrolled past photo after photo of man after man, my eyes became blurry with tears. I recalled the female partner who sat me down before I left the firm over a decade ago to tell me that the partnership was drafting a document setting forth what it takes to make partner at the firm. One of the principles, she told me, was that the associate must have no greater commitment than the firm. The subtext that passed silently between us was that you can’t be a mother and make partner.
2. Harvard Crimson articles exposing the men’s soccer team at my alma mater for its annual tradition of creating a “scouting report” rating women’s soccer team recruits on sex appeal and appearance. The Crimson reported: “Each woman was assigned a hypothetical sexual ‘position’ in addition to her position on the soccer field. ‘She seems relatively simple and probably inexperienced sexually, so I decided missionary would be her preferred position,’ the author wrote about one woman. ‘Doggy style,’ ‘The Triple Lindy,’ and ‘cowgirl’ were listed as possible positions for other women.” That misogyny thrives in our youngest, newest generation of men, at one of our country’s most elite institutions, is heartbreaking.
3. At the Center for Fiction, a panel discussion entitled “Sexism in the Literary World,” in which an award-winning female novelist described how she was abused and locked in a closet by a male professor—a famous, respected author—when she was a young woman in an MFA program. Another panelist, author/professor Porochista Khakpour, echoed the troubling reality facing female writers in academia; she described MFA programs as “candy factories” for predatory male professors who seek out relationships with fresh crops of women arriving each fall.
4. An interview of Pope Francis, featured in the New York Times, in which he states: “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear.” Women will not be priests. I had hoped that his seemingly more open papacy might herald in some change on this doctrine. After all, Francis had called for a commission to study women deacons. I have gone to Rome to participate in the Pope’s weekly audience, to be blessed by him. But listening to his interview, I was reminded why I do not take my children inside the church I was raised in, cannot bear to take them inside. It is an institution that does not treat women as spiritual equals, and I refuse to expose my kids to inequality in their house of worship.
5. The list of Nobel Prizes for 2016, which did not include a single woman. In fact, the Nobel Committee preferred to give its prize for literature to a male musician over a woman who actually writes books.
6. Inside my son’s backpack, the latest novel assigned in his English class: My Brother Sam is Dead. Written by two white men. A single book might not draw one’s attention. But when my son’s school hasn’t required him to read a single piece of literature by a woman in over a year, this mom stands up and takes note. Even his sixth grade poetry anthology, 100 Best-Loved poems, could find only five women to love, beside its 57 best-loved men. The poems by these 5 women were too short to make the 100-word-minimum requirement for poems to be recited in class. So my son never read the Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Barrett Browning works. He never heard a friend recite aloud: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?”
7. My dear mother kindly visited the week of the election to care for my kids so that I could participate in a fiction workshop and complete other writing projects that had gone astray because of the obligations of motherhood. On Election Day, as Mom left the house to go to my son’s soccer game without me, she commented: “I can’t believe you don’t want to go to the game. Going to your games was my biggest joy.” She didn’t mean to be so cruel, and yet her questioning my choice to work instead of be with my child bruised me. It is the same kind of questioning that has banged around my head for twelve years whenever I carve out time from my family to write. My resume of publications is the poorer for these doubts.
8. And, of course, there’s the election of a president who belittles, gropes, assaults, and disparages women. My fellow Americans would rather elect an inexperienced, racist misogynist than a woman who has spent her whole life dedicated to public service and improving the lives of women and families. The day of the election my son had to memorize the names of all forty-four men who came before Trump. Forty-four. Men named William and James and George and John. Rutherford and Grover and Calvin and Barack. Names seared into my memory also.
The multiplicity of bullet points in a single month, drawn from church and state, school and home, corporation and playing field, are like bricks overhead—caving in over my body, stoning me, crushing me, obliterating me. I feel personally wounded, bereaved. I have always been a person of hope and faith that things would get better for women, that together we would make a more equal, less violent world. But today it finally dawns on me, at age 45, that things don’t always get better. In fact, they get worse. And those stones that are crashing in over my head are inside me now. Festering, growing moss. They are the stone my body has internalized, that my heart has become.
If this hopelessness has come to dwell inside me, a privileged white woman with multiple degrees and a loving, supportive partner, I can only imagine what’s inside the hearts of women today who are also confronting racism and classism and ableism and ageism. What about the women of color, the single moms, lesbians, disabled women, immigrant women, women in hijab, women who didn’t have the opportunity to finish high school, who don’t have family to help, whose partners are sexist or abusive?
I used to be the woman raised on Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Anzaldúa, who got a hop in her step when she passed Gloria Steinem in the neighborhood, who got teary-eyed, heart-in-throat, when listening to Roxane Gay at a PEN lecture. I was the woman who started and ran a leadership conference for high school girls when I was in college. The woman who went to Chile to fight for victims of domestic violence, to research cases of women imprisoned there for having had abortions. Who worked at places like the Women’s Law Project and Human Rights Watch and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Who wrote endlessly on women’s issues, who shared the works of fellow female authors over Twitter, who patted my female colleagues on their backs wherever I could. Who read her children biographies of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and poems by Phillis Wheatley. I was the woman who taught her son and daughters to dream of the day when Hillary Clinton—a woman! a woman at last!—would be president.
But I’m not that person anymore. I’m the one who looks at her daughter’s face and knows that she stands a one in five chance of being raped; that she’s more likely than not to be passed over for partner, for that prize, for the priesthood, for professorship, for the presidency; that she’ll be reduced to a sexual position by her college classmates; that she won’t make as much money as the men next to her doing the same work; that her reproductive rights are in jeopardy; that motherhood will disable her career; that she’ll be flooded with guilt for not going to that soccer game, for choosing her ambitions over those of others; that she’ll opt out of so many opportunities for the sake of her family.
Sure, I’ll feed my daughters the lie. I’ll give them a mom who works until she dies to change the world for them. I’ll tell them you can be president. You can be anything you want. I’ll play Hillary Clinton’s inspiring concession speech for them, pausing to make sure they hear: “Please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.” But in my heart of stone, I won’t believe it anymore.