As women come together and share with each other, we have a great deal of power. Sharing gives us courage because we realize we are not alone. Sharing also helps us realize that our experiences do not have to define us. Beginning in February 2015, I’m blogging about my own experiences involving shaming, blaming, and silencing with the hope that these stories will encourage other women to speak up, speak out, and refuse to be silenced.
2015 Blog: No Longer Silenced
February 27, 2015
Shame on All the Unwed Mothers
“Fallen Angels,” deviant girls, unwed mothers–girls and young women who “got themselves” pregnant were historically considered lower than the rest of society. They were often shamed, blamed, and sent away. In reality, these were just the few who became scapegoats for a reality no one wanted to talk about.
In 1953 a zoologist named Dr. Alfred Kinsey wrote a book about women’s sexuality which shocked the country. According to his research, approximately 50% of females had sex before marriage. While his research methods were criticized, he opened up a discussion about women and sex that was long overdue.
Eventually women gained access to birth control and to decision-making rights when it came to their own bodies. Teen pregnancy rates started to drop.
Fast forward to 2012. Conservative radio personality, Rush Limbaugh, referred to Georgetown University Law student, Sandra Fluke, as a slut when she advocated for birth control insurance coverage before House Democrats.
In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a corporation with conservative owners who did not want to provide birth control to employees under the Affordable Care Act.
What do some social conservatives think will happen if progress is rolled back and women are treated like children who do not know what is best for them? Surely they do not assume they can impose an expectation of abstinence on females but not on males. Surely they will not try to shame and blame women as was done in the past.
As a woman who was a teenager before birth control was readily available and who “got herself” pregnant, I feel particularly outraged that anyone would suggest decent girls don’t need birth control because they don’t have sex.
It was decades ago. I was sixteen. My home life was chaotic. My parents didn’t realize I was pregnant until I was into my seventh month. I had just returned from picking and hauling crates of fresh strawberries to earn a little money for myself. My mother confronted me when I came home. She had heard from a neighbor that I was pregnant. I was told I was going to be sent away until my baby was born. Then my baby would be placed for adoption.
Six weeks after I was sent away, I gave birth to a baby boy. My parents did not come to the hospital when I went into labor. I saw my baby only once. About a week later, I took a bus to the adoption agency and signed the relinquishment papers as I was expected to do. I imagine my parents felt too much shame to be with me when I signed those papers.
When I returned home, I was told to tell no one. I was told from that point on, it was “water under the bridge.” I should forget and move on. My parents were probably trying to protect me from additional public shaming.
Regardless of the circumstances, losing a child is something you never forget. The day I signed those relinquishment papers, I lost part of myself as well. I learned to separate myself from my feelings so I could survive. I lost my child and I lost a core sense of myself.
Decades later, I searched for my son in spite of the shame some people associated with having had an “illegitimate child”. Even though my son was relinquished with the understanding that he was to be placed through a sealed adoption, Oregon eventually allowed adoptees and birthparents to search for their children for a significant fee. This search option only came with the promise that there was a possibility of a mediated contact.
At the time of my search, I was a graduate teaching assistant at Portland State University. I shared my search process with some other women teaching assistants. As it turned out, three of us out of ten teaching assistants in our department were birthmothers.
One of the other graduate teaching assistant birth mothers and I put together a workshop for other women who had gone through the shaming we had experienced. We talked to women of all ages who started sharing their stories.
I wrote an article about my experience for a local newspaper and was contacted by several women who finally felt like they had someone to talk to about what they had experienced. We finally found our voices.
My birth son was contacted through the state and told I was searching for him. He was given the option to have contact. While he chose to decline contact, I did gain the peace of mind knowing he was living and had the knowledge that I did care.
After my son had been contacted, I felt the need to start using my middle name, Marie, when signing anything. Somehow it has made me feel whole again – like I have reclaimed myself. I hope the son I never knew has enjoyed a full life and has peace as well.
I understand how shaming can silence us and take away our dignity as human beings. When it comes to birth control access, we need to stand up, speak out, and refuse to let anyone strip our dignity away. We are the only ones who can determine what is best for us and our reproductive choices.
February 25, 2015
Misuse of Religion to Oppress Women
Former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, argues in his 2014 book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power that religion has been used by some male religious leaders as an instrument of oppression. By emphasizing some passages of religious text and ignoring other passages, those males who hold power based on religious authority have used sacred texts to their own advantage.
When I was married to my first husband, I experienced a lot of oppression based on a limited interpretation of biblical scriptures. I was told I was “less than” man because of selected biblical text. I was supposed to accept this interpretation without question. When I did question this interpretation, a religious leader told my husband I must be possessed by a demon of contention.
My former husband demanded that my children and I participate in a religious community that not only demeaned women but focused on the presence of “demons” in the lives of those who did not go along with church doctrine. I was one of the individuals who questioned the integrity of the religious leader in this community. My former husband was advised that I must have “the demon of contention” because I was challenging the teaching of the Bible. Basically, this religious leader was misusing divine authority to justify his attempt to oppress opposition.
As it turned out, this married religious leader ended up deceiving his followers when he took money his supporters provided and then ran off with his secretary.
When we know that something is not right, we should speak up, speak out, and stand our ground even when other people challenge us and try to silence our voices.
February 22, 2015
Taking a Stand: The Year My Father Wouldn’t Speak to Me
My father had wanted sons. He didn’t know what to do with three daughters other than to teach us how to shoot a gun, how to do yard work, and how to “man up” and not cry when he felt the need to whip us with his belt.
Dad used to say, “Never hit a woman, kick her.” After making this comment, my dad would laugh like it was a joke. Yet when he really wanted to shame me for expressing myself with a degree of emotion, he’d say, “You’re acting like your mother.” Because my mother suffered from a debilitating mental illness, I suppose this admonishment was intended to keep me within safe distance of becoming irrational. Still I listened to my dad’s criticisms of women in general. Being female meant being “less than” male.
When I left home and started living on my own, I didn’t realize I deserved to be happy and deserved to be with someone who valued me as a person. As a result, I made some relationship choices that were not very wise.
As I learned how unhealthy my relationship with my dad really was, I was interested in having a better relationship. The next time my dad made an inappropriate comment about my body, I tried to gently tell him how it affected me. He pushed back and said he was just kidding. I explained that while I realize he didn’t mean anything by it, I wasn’t comfortable with remarks that demeaned me as a woman. At that point, my dad said I didn’t need to talk with him anymore.
My dad and I didn’t have any kind of relationship for a year. We didn’t talk with each other. It hurt me a great deal. I’m sure it hurt my father too. A couple family members thought I had pushed things too far and wouldn’t speak to me either. I was even disinvited to Thanksgiving that year.
About a year after my initial conversation with my father, he started speaking to me again as though nothing had ever happened. Yet something had happened. He no longer made inappropriate remarks about my body or derogatory remarks about women. He even started hugging me on occasion.
I was able to enjoy a new relationship with my father for ten more years before he died of complications from diabetes. Those were the best ten years in our relationship.
Sometimes taking a stand and speaking up is very hard to do. When taking a stand, it is important to weigh the costs carefully. I paid a cost for taking a stand. Yet it was the right thing to do at the time. I have no regrets, just some good memories of my dad’s final years.
When Men Impose Dress Codes for Women
February 19, 2015
During the 19th Century a group of women tried to free themselves of restrictive garments, heavy petty coats, and long skirts that trailed through muddy streets. These brave women started wearing what was known as the bloomer costume – loose trousers covered by a long tunic. This costume was comfortable and allowed women to become more physically active. Some of the men and even some other women shamed these deviant females into submission. Shame, shame, shame on these women who wanted to dress like men!
I grew up in the 20th Century –a time much different than the 19th and 21st centuries. However, some things have remained very much the same for women in other parts of the world as it was for me years ago and as it was for women in the 19th Century.
When I was finishing my last year of high school, I attended classes half the day and worked in a laundry the other half of the day. My work involved a lot of bending and lifting. I had to go straight from school to work with no time to change my clothes.
Up until my last year of high school, girls weren’t allowed to wear even loose fitting slacks to school. Then the dress policy changed and girls were allowed to wear slacks. Because I worked at the laundry, I was one of the first females in my school to wear slacks to school.
After one of my classes started, a male teacher called me to the front of the class. He said, “Look everyone, this girl wants to be a boy. See how she’s dressed?”
I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Yet I wanted the freedom to dress as I needed to for work. I wish I had to courage at that time to speak up. Instead I felt silenced. However the next day I did wear a skirt down to my ankles in protest. A few other girls also started wearing long skirts in protest to the reaction the male teacher had when the dress policy changed.
At the time it was acceptable for girls to wear very short skirts because such attire was considered acceptable for females. It still wasn’t acceptable for girls to wear what some still perceived as male attire even though it was actually more modest clothing.
In some parts of the world, women are still not allowed to wear even the most modest trousers. I have learned about women in other countries who have been threatened and even beaten for defying some very restrictive dress codes.
Some things change and much more remains the same. Only when we respect ourselves and see ourselves as worthy of equality will we find it.