I was hungry beyond good manners. I zoomed in front of a millennial woman at the salsa bar of Salsa Brava, a great Flagstaff Mexican restaurant.
“Oh,” she said and jumped back, “I’m sorry.”
There was no irony in her voice, no sarcasm. I stopped wildly foraging and looked at her. “No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I stepped in front of you. Why did you apologize for my rudeness?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I apologize all the time. So do my friends.”
I’ve carried the conversation with me since it happened. And I think about the self-imposed ways we women diminish ourselves. We’ve had help with that from the media, but it’s been forty-six years since I sat in my first women’s consciousness-raising group and began to wake up to my deep self-oppression. What has happened? Some days, it seems as though women’s empowerment has been reduced to academic political theory empire battles, and cheery self-help articles in pop media.
I’m scared about the next four years in America. I’m even more scared that I can’t seem to think of how to fight what is coming. I wrote in my journal today, “There has to be some way I can use my gifts to strengthen those of us who are going to need strengthening. I wish I could give my millennial sisters — all my sisters, access to their deep personal power.” I wrote a little more — one of the best ways to access what matters — and found myself writing, “2017 New Year’s Wish list…”
1. I wish for myself and other women that we stop putting ourselves down. We are not too small-breasted, bossy, fat, old, “blonde”, big-nosed, big-butted, big-mouthed, horny, sarcastic, hopelessly single, butch, femme, pushy, whiny, demanding… You’ve probably got your own “too.” I sure do.
2. I wish we would stop fucking apologizing. A young woman with pinkpurple hair bagged my groceries at our local store. As I paid, she said — out of nowhere — “I’m sorry.”
“Wait,” I said, “what are you sorry for? You didn’t do anything. Save “sorry” for what really matters.”
She ducked her head and grinned. “Sometimes, it seems like I’m apologizing just for living.”
“Hey,” I said, “we old school Feminists didn’t fight for women to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ And, don’t tell me you’re sorry for saying ‘I’m sorry.’ That could go on forever. Then I say, ‘I’m sorry I challenged you about saying ‘I’m sorry.’ And there is a line behind me. Try not saying ‘I’m sorry.’ the next time you want to say it — and pay attention to how you feel.'”
‘Okay. I promise.” I didn’t tell her that I have to do that experiment a lot. I am, after all, a well-trained American woman. And, I’ve learned that when I hold back the casual words “I’m sorry,” I most often feel scared.
3. I wish we would revive the old Feminist strategy of forming and taking part in consciousness-raising groups. I joined the seven women in our group for the first time in 1970 after decades of saying I liked men better than women because they were more interesting. I walked into a comfortable living-room. The women were anywhere from twenty to forty-six. They wore wild hippie gear, business suits, flannel shirts and jeans. There were brownies and wine. The only rules were No interrupting. No criticizing. No gossiping afterwards about what was said in our time together. We agreed to read Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful and bring our own experiences to our meetings. I left that first meeting understanding that I had been asleep for a long long time and that the awakening was going to be absolutely wonderful and absolutely hard.
4. I wish we would face how much time we spend on the Internet and our phones. A few days ago, I watched four women — old, young, and middle-aged — spend most of their lunch time together on their phones. They weren’t passing them around to share something. They’d be in the middle of a conversation, then one would startle and turn to her phone.
I thought about the night before, when one of my best friends and I had driven out to a mountain lake overlook and watched the Supermoon rise. It was a bone-cold night so we sat in her truck, her dog snuggled between us. There was a soft orange blur on the horizon, then the top sliver of an apricot moon. Clouds drifted in and striped it. “So what if it’s freakin cold,” my friend said.
We and the dog climbed out. The wind was icy but the moon-glow was almost warm on my face. When the moon had become only a shimmer behind a soft gray cloud-veil, we got back in the truck. Neither of us had taken a picture. Both of us were quiet for a long time. My friend opened the window and lit a cigarette. “That was perfect,” she said.
5. I wish academic gender studies programs would educate themselves about the origins of women’s studies — and move away from the current emphasis on theory. In 1975, I taught Behavioral Analysis of Women’s Roles at the University of Rochester. It was one of the first psychology courses looking at the development of gender roles. There were no formal texts — college books hadn’t yet become big business. We studied magazines, televisions, movies Sisterhood is Powerful — and more importantly, our own and other women’s lives. Students met in small groups and took on volunteer projects outside the university.
Twenty-three years later, I sat with two young women at a literary award dinner. “You’re so lucky,” I said, “to have an established women’s studies program.” “Not really,” one of them said. “My partner wanted to work in a battered women’s shelter for her master’s thesis, and her advisor told her it wasn’t theoretical enough. That sucks.”
6. I wish we would take the time to learn how and, more importantly, why we have been shaped to be the women we are. Consciousness-raising groups can help, but most of us need to dig deep into our childhoods, our mothers’ and fathers’ childhoods, our ancestors, our racial identities — and who profits from the negative stories we tell ourselves. It is hard to live that exploration alone. We need each other to go with us. All we have to lose is our pain.