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
A Time to Speak Out
March 22, 2015
I wish I had been able to articulate what I had witnessed in a convincing manner. All I could do was read the article I had written for a local newspaper that I tightly gripped as the state legislative representative kept saying, “Can’t you just tell me in your own words what happened?” The truth was I could not speak my own words without reading them. I could not take a stand against injustice when I needed to do so.
I was about twenty at the time. I had written an article for local newspaper about what I had witnessed in a nursing home where I worked nearly full-time as a nursing aid just three years earlier while still in high school. I wrote about being left alone and in charge of approximately fifty elderly patients one afternoon. I told about how I got instructions over the phone to give one of the patients some morphine because he was in extreme pain. I’d never given anyone an injection before. I told about having to catheterize patients without any supervision and distribute drugs on a regular basis. I also recalled coming to work day after day and hearing Hattie Turner crying, “Take me away, heavenly father, take me away.” I prayed he did one day when I found Mrs. Turner’s lower body encrusted with fecal material because no one had taken time to clean her.
After I my article was published, a newspaper reporter called me and asked if I would be willing to testify at our state capitol at a hearing about nursing home abuses. I agreed to do it because I felt like the lack of oversight in nursing homes was deplorable. Yet when I sat in front of the legislator’s desk, I felt like a small little girl in grade school. I wore an inexpensive dress and a sweater. Nursing home operators and owners were also in the room. They looked like professionals who were ready to defend their practices. My dramatic recollections were discounted. I sounded like a silly child trying to make an unfounded claim against a sibling.
Fortunately, others came forward and shared other horror stories about nursing home abuses. The facility where I once worked was eventually closed down. I believe many nursing homes came under much greater scrutiny because there were people who could confidently and effectively demonstrate a need for a change.
My heart was willing, but I still hadn’t learned how to speak up when I needed to. No doubt there will be times when many of us will have opportunities to speak up for causes where we can make a difference. I believe it is important for us to be equipped for those opportunities.
I realized that I needed to learn how to speak up and speak out if I wanted to really make a difference when something mattered to me. I joined Toastmasters, an international speaking organization, so I could start practicing speaking up. I later went back to school and took speech classes. I eventually went to graduate school and studied speech communication. At this point, I have been teaching speech communication for well over twenty years. I have done so because I believe that everyone needs the confidence and skill to speak up and speak out when they can make a difference. What about you?
Reclaiming My Life
March 14, 2015
Anyone who knows me very well understands I am dangerously clumsy, and just about anything I touch is at risk. Fortunately, most of what I break can be replaced. However, people cannot be replaced. Each of us has a story that is ours alone and cannot be replaced.
March is women’s history month. The theme for women’s history month this year is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” This month I am choosing to share one of my stories with you.
The last time I broke a glass, I had an “ah-ha” moment. I saw a much younger version of myself in the shards of glass that I scooped up with a broom before disposing.
When I was still in high school, my teachers were not aware that behind my bomb-shelled exterior, the shards of my life were being held together with duct tape. I lived each day on survival mode. Unfortunately, my troubled stares and inability to speak were interpreted as rebellion and indifference. I was labeled a truant, a trouble-causer, and a deviant. One of my teachers announced in class that she was tired of my “dagger-like” stares. I was suspended from school on more than one occasion. I felt as though my life and my future had been written off.
I didn’t trust teachers, administrators or anyone else. When I finished high school, I had somehow managed to get through school with a bit above a 3.0 without attending a lot of classes or ever reading an entire book. I didn’t remember the Latin I studied or the chemistry I completed. I suspected teachers gave me passing grades to move me through the system. I hoped to never deal with a teacher again. I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams that someday I would become an educator.
Desperate to put pieces of my life back together, I eventually made a decision to go back to school. At that time I was a young mother with two young children. The day I registered for classes at Mount Hood Community College, I sat in my car and cried. I cried because of fear and I cried because I was about to begin a new chapter in my life.
Eventually I found my voice. I learned to speak up and to speak out when I believed it was important to do so. Today I teach speech communication courses at a community college in Southern Oregon.
I imagine some of my students have also tried to hold their lives together with duct tape. When you are in survival mode, it is very difficult to concentrate. I just want all of my students past and present to know that I do understand, and I trust you will find the support and strength you need to move forward. Don’t give up on yourself. You can and will make it when the time is right.
Bullied not Beaten
March 7, 2015
Bullied but not beaten! I’ll admit it–I was like a seventh-grade version of Amy Farrah Fowler from television’s Big Bang Theory. I was nerdy, socially awkward, and had a wardrobe of ill-fitting clothes from the second-hand store. I actually did wear some straight wool skirts and cardigan sweaters to school which certainly didn’t do anything to enhance my chances of acceptance. At the time, one of my favorite personal possessions was my microscope. When other young teens were listening to popular music, I was listening to Bach and Chopin. I loved knowing the answers to math and was overly eager to raise my hand so that the teacher knew I usually had the answer before anyone else–not very smart. What I didn’t now was the rules for being a thirteen-year-old girl. I was supposed to fit in and look like the other girls. I was supposed to like the kind of music the other girls liked and talk in class, but not about assignments. I later realized girls who acted like they were smart weren’t considered smart at all because they were asking for trouble.
At first I just got pushed in the hallways by other girls and some of the boys in seventh grade. Then the bullying escalated to name-calling and tripping. Girls started telling me “Big Mary” was going to beat me up. I knew who she was, but my parents had told me girls didn’t fight. I didn’t want to fight Big Mary.
Big Mary started taunting me and spitting on me. She shoved, pushed, and did everything she could to get me to fight her. One day Big Mary and about a dozen other kids followed me home. Big Mary did her best to provoke a fight as she continued to call me names and spit on my hair. I managed to get home before anything happened. Much to my horror, the kids stood in front of my house and yelled crude comments about me.
My mother, who had her own challenges, was home but didn’t know what to do. She invited the kids inside our house and gave the kids some cookies. I hid in my room. Unfortunately, my mother’s efforts didn’t make much difference.
One day when I visited the girl’s restroom, Big Mary was waiting for me. She shoved me hard. I was afraid she was going to hurt me. I instinctively shoved her back. She shoved me harder, so I slugged her in the face. Then she clawed me across the face. Girls outside the restroom started shouting, “Fight, fight!”
Big Mary and I were hauled down to the principal’s office. The principal told both of us how disgraceful we were and how ashamed we should both be. He asked us what we had to say in our defense. Big Mary didn’t say anything. I couldn’t find words to say a thing either.
Big Mary stopped bothering me. I had changed. I quit playing with my microscope. I think I gave it away. I lost interest in school. Instead of attending classes, I started skipping school and hanging out with people who were much older than I was. I survived.
Today I’m an associate professor of communication at a community college. I can have my nerdy moments, but I’m quite comfortable with myself. Yet I see young women who haven’t yet learned they have a right to be smart and to be valued for who they are rather than who others think they should be. I have an opportunity and so does everyone else to help these young women learn to speak up for each other and to speak up for themselves.
Shame on All the Unwed Mothers
February 27, 2015
“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.