The actor-activist-fitness guru, recently in Guatemala to protest the murder of women, has a new “right on, sister” message that arrived in my inbox today; it is a slight variation of the speech Fonda delivered last month at the National Women’s Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. Please pass it around.
Before I turned sixty I thought I was a feminist. I was in a way – I worked to register women to vote, I supported women getting elected. I brought gender issues into my movie roles, I encouraged women to get strong and healthy, I read the books we’ve all read. I had it in my head and partly in my heart, yet I didn’t fully get it.
See, although I’ve always been financially independent, and professionally and socially successful, behind the closed doors of my personal life I was still turning myself in a pretzel so I’d be loved by an alpha male. I thought if I didn’t become whatever he wanted me to be, I’d be alone, and then, I wouldn’t exist.
There is not the time nor is this the place to explain why this was true, or why it is such a common theme for so many otherwise strong, independent women. Nor is it the time to tell you how I got over it (I’m writing my memoirs, and all will be revealed). What’s important is that I did get over it. Early on in my third act I found my voice and, in the process, I have ended up alone but not really. You see, I’m with myself and this has enabled me to see feminism more clearly. It’s hard to see clearly when you’re a pretzel.
So I want to tell you briefly some of what I have learned in this first part of my third act and how it relates to what, I think, needs to happen in terms of a revolution.
Because we can’t just talk about women being at the table – it’s too late for that – we have to think in terms of the shape of the table. Is it hierarchical or circular (metaphorically speaking)? We have to think about the quality of the men who are with us at the table, the culture that is hovering over the table that governs how things are decided and in whose interests. This is not just about glass ceilings or politics as usual. This is about revolution, and I have finally gotten to where I can say that word and know what I mean by it and feel good about it because I see, now, how the future of the earth and everything on it including men and boys depends on this happening.
Let me say something about men: obviously, I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about men, especially the ones who’ve been important in my life, and what I’ve come to realize is how damaging patriarchy has been for them. And all of them are smart, good men who want to be considered the “good guys.” But the Male Belief System, that compartmentalized, hierarchical, ejaculatory, and centric power structure that is Patriarchy, is fatal to the hearts of men, to empathy and relationship.
Yes, men and boys receive privilege and status >from patriarchy, but it is a poisoned privilege for which they pay a heavy price. If traditional, patriarchal socialization takes aim at girls’ voices, it takes aim at boys’ hearts – makes them lose the deepest, most sensitive and empathic parts of themselves. Men aren’t even allowed to be depressed, which is why they engage so often in various forms of self-numbing, from sex to alcohol and drugs to gambling and workaholism. Patriarchy strikes a Faustian bargain with men.
Patriarchy sustains itself by breaking relationship. I’m referring here to real relationship, the showing-up kind, not the “I’ll stay with him cause he pays the bills, or because of the kids, or because if I don’t I will cease to exist,” but relationship where you, the woman, can acknowledge your partner’s needs while simultaneously acknowledging and tending to your own. I work with young girls and I can tell you there’s a whole generation who has not learned what a relationship is supposed to feel like – that it’s not about leaving themselves behind.
Now, every group that’s been oppressed has its share of Uncle Toms, and we have our Aunt Toms. I call them ventriloquists for the patriarchy. I won’t name names but we all know them. They are women in whom the toxic aspects of masculinity hold sway. It should neither surprise nor discourage us. We need to understand it and be able to explain it to others, but it means, I think, that we should be just about getting a woman into this position or that. We need to look at “is that woman intact emotionally,” has she had to forfeit her empathy gene somewhere along the way for whatever reason?
And then, of course, there are what Eve Ensler calls Vagina-Friendly men, who choose to remain emotionally literate. It’s not easy for them – look at the names they get called: wimp, pansy, pussy, soft, limp, momma’s boy. Men don’t like to be considered “soft” on anything, which is why more don’t choose to join us in the circle. Actually, most don’t have the choice to make. You know why? Because when they are real little (I learned this >from Carol Gilligan), like five years or younger, boys internalize the message of what it takes to be a “real man.” Sometimes it comes through their fathers who beat it into them. Sometimes it comes because no one around them knows how to connect with their emotions (This is a generational thing). Sometimes it comes because our culture rips boys from their mothers before they are developmentally ready. Sometimes it comes because boys are teased at school for crying. Sometimes it’s the subliminal messages from teachers and the media. It can be a specific trauma that shuts them down. But, I can assure you, it is true to some extent of many if not most men, and when the extreme version of it manifests itself in our nation’s leaders, beware!
Another thing that I’ve learned is that there is a fundamental contradiction not just between patriarchy and relationship, but between patriarchy and Democracy. Patriarchy masquerades as Democracy, but it’s an anathema. How can it be democracy when someone has to always be above someone else, when women, who are a majority, live within a social construct that discriminates against them, keeps them from having their full human rights?
But just because Patriarchy has ruled for 10,000 years since the beginning of agriculture, doesn’t make it inevitable.
Maybe at some earlier stage in human evolution, Patriarchy was what was needed just for the species to survive. But today, there’s nothing threatening the human species but humans. We’ve conquered our predators, we’ve subdued nature almost to extinction, and there are no more frontiers to conquer or to escape into so as to avoid having to deal with the mess we’ve left behind. Frontiers have always given capitalism, Patriarchy’s economic face, a way to avoid dealing with its shortcomings. Well, we’re having to face them now in this post- frontier era and inevitably – especially when we have leaders who suffer from toxic masculinity – that leads to war, the conquering of new markets, and the destruction of the earth.
However, it is altogether possible, that we are on the verge of a tectonic shift in paradigms – that what we are seeing happening today are the paroxysms, the final terrible death throes of the old, no longer workable, no longer justifiable system. Look at it this way: it’s Patriarchy’s third act and we have to make sure it’s its last.
It’s possible that the extreme, neo-conservative version of Patriarchy which makes up our current Executive branch will over-play its hand and cause the house of cards to collapse. We know that this new “preventive war” doctrine will put us on a permanent war footing. We know there can’t be guns and butter, right? We learned with Vietnam. We know that a Pandora’s box has been opened in the Middle East and that the administration is not prepared for the complexities that are emerging. We know that friends are becoming foes and angry young Muslims with no connection to AlQaeda are becoming terrorists in greater numbers. We know that with the new tax plan the rich will be better off and the rest will be poorer. We know what happens when poor young men and women can only get jobs by joining the military and what happens when they come home and discover that the day after Congress passed the “Support Our Troops” Resolution, $25 billion was cut from the VA budget. We know that already, families of servicemen have to go on welfare and are angry about it.
So, as Eve Ensler says, we have to change the verbs >from obliterate, dominate, humiliate, to liberate, appreciate, celebrate. We have to make sure that head and heart can be reunited in the body politic, and relationship and democracy can be restored.
We need to really understand the depth and breadth of what a shift to a new, feminine paradigm would mean, how fundamentally central it is to every single other thing in the world. We win, everything wins, including boys, men, and the earth. We have to really understand this and be able to make it concrete for others so they will be able to see what Feminism really is and see themselves in it.
So our challenge is to commit ourselves to creating the tipping point and the turning point. The time is ripe to launch a unified national movement, a campaign, a tidal wave, built around issues and values, not candidates.
That’s why V-Day, The White House Project and their many allies are partnering to hold a national women’s convention somewhere in the heartland, next June of 2004. Its purpose will be to inspire and mobilize women and vagina-friendly men around the 2004 elections and to build a new movement that will coalesce our energies and forces around a politic of caring.
The convention will put forward a fresh, clear, and concise platform of issues, and build the spirit, energy and power base to hold the candidates accountable for them. There will be a diversity of women from across the country who will participate in the mobilization. There will be a special focus on involving young women. There will be a variety of performers and artists acknowledging that culture plays a powerful role in political action. There will be a concurrent internet mobilization. Women’s organizations will be asked to sign on and send representatives to the convention.
There will be a caravan, a rolling tour across the country, of diverse women leaders, celebrities and activists who will work with local organizers to build momentum, sign people up, register them to vote, get them organized and leave behind a tool kit for further mobilization through the election and beyond.
This movement will be a volcano that will erupt in a flow of soft, hot, empathic, breathing, authentic, vagina-friendly, relational lava that will encircle patriarchy and smother it. We will be the flood and we’ll be Noah’s ark.