Category Archives: Nonfiction

Refusing “Feminist” – The Lexicon of Inequality.

from Flickr user MBrewerDC

Feminism got a spike in publicity this week, with March 25 marking the 80th birthday of icon Gloria Steinem. Add to this the ongoing celebration of Women’s History Month, and the internet would have us all believing that women’s causes are at the forefront of our national consciousness these days. It’s strange, then, that I’ve recently found myself questioning my own “feminist” status.

Rest assured, I still hold strong opinions regarding the treatment of women in our society. I still support women’s healthcare, equal wages for equal work, and positive portrayals of females in media and advertising. I am still wholeheartedly opposed to chauvinism and slut-shaming. I still give a thumbs up to any Facebook meme featuring a Tina Fey quote. But if Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg can ban the word “bossy,” I have another proposal: Let’s reconsider the term “feminist,” as well.

For the record, I’m not talking about censoring the dictionary here (and I doubt Sandberg, Bey, et al. are, either). What I am suggesting is that language evolves to reflect values, and it is perhaps time to think about what modern word usage is saying about the current state of our culture. Let’s consider for a moment what “feminist” actually means. In short, it is a label used to describe someone who opposes sexist behavior toward women. Let’s also consider this:
Why do we need a word for that?

What does it say about us, that we seem to have blindly accepted into our lexicon a label meant to specifically define those who oppose something so inherently wrong? At what point did we accept, onto our already heavy burdens, responsibility for bearing the vocabulary of this injustice? To be frank, it’s not my job to be a feminist. Let the weight of terminology rest on those in the wrong. The oppressors. The sexists. The chauvinists. Let them carry the labels. Let them have the Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and Pinterest boards. Let them alert the rest of us to their presence by blatantly calling themselves out for supporting inflammatory ideas about gender equality. I, behaving as a decent human being, acknowledging that indecent behavior is in fact indecent, should not require categorization. Categorization is a method for lessening individual value, whether it’s done intentionally or not. And I am valuable in my own right.

We know that the action of labeling someone is dehumanizing, serving to impose a sense of the “other.” We see it all the time, from playground bullies shouting “NERD!” as they kick dirt in another child’s face, to any number of racial/sexual/religious slurs muttered on the sidewalk. Hateful labels exist to put individuals from imposed-upon demographics in their place. You know these labels. They start with N’s and C’s and F’s, just to name a few of the more popular letters. I’ll let you fill in the blanks for yourself. Now, decades after the achievement of women’s suffrage and Title IX and Roe v. Wade, “feminist” is all too often one of those F-words.

It’s more subtle than many of the others, of course, but the tone of degradation that bubbles up in offhanded mentions of “those feminists” can be undeniable. In many circles, even among women, the word “feminist” evokes images of an aggressive, rabid, man-hating radical. Women who speak out against acts of chauvinism, or even just gently draw attention to sexist mindsets in hopes of changing them, are usually made to feel either like the raging femi-Nazi bitch or the oversensitive crybaby—both propagated through a twisted understanding of the word “feminist,” a term that could essentially be boiled down to one meaning: “anti-sexist.”

I can think of no other anti-discriminatory label that exists in common contemporary usage. We do not regularly and willingly categorize people as anti-racists, or anti-religious-persecutors. We don’t have a word that means person-who-thinks-homophobia-is-bad, or kid-who-doesn’t-steal-lunch-money. Is it, then, a subconscious act of victim-blaming to blanket everyone who opposes sexism under the oft-stereotyped term, “feminist?”

Cheris Kramerae famously described feminism as “the radical notion that women are human beings.” Now, as human beings, we need to consider whether our thoughts are affecting our words, or vice versa. So, am I a feminist? Absolutely. But I’d rather consider myself a person with values, first and foremost. I don’t need a hashtag for that.

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Dani Writes Reviews: ASTONISHED, by Beverly Donofrio

When I was a student in Wilkes University’s Creative Writing MFA program, I had the great pleasure of working with Beverly Donofrio (Riding in Cars with Boys, Looking for Mary). As a mentor and a person, Bev is smart, insightful, unwaveringly honest, and spiritually generous. As a writer, she tends to exhibit these same qualities–and they have never been more apparent than in her latest work, the memoir Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace (Viking Penguin, 2013).Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace

Astonished begins with Beverly’s own rape, at the age of fifty-five, as a serial rapist holds a knife to her face. She is living in Mexico at the time, a successful writer, a first-time homeowner, and grandmother to a beautiful baby boy. In the months leading up to the rape, however, she has been feeling a troubling lack of spirituality in her life. A practicing Catholic and a woman who cherishes her faith, Bev had already decided to take steps to reignite her relationship with God. In fact, she had been researching monasteries to visit just hours before the rapist crawled through her window and into her bed:

“…I, along with the entire town, felt like evil had come for a visit and it was not personal; and even though this little round–faced pervert with a big–billed baseball cap woke me in the middle of the night in the middle of a deep sleep in my own bed with a knife inches from my face, I was absolutely shocked that he chose me. This was not supposed to happen; I was supposed to have escaped: I had hot flashes and liver spots and was finally in the final stretch. I’d survived all these decades without experiencing this thing I dreaded as much as death—and had just been looking for a monastery to join, for Christ’s sake.”
– Beverly Donofrio, Astonished

What follows is not the story of a victim. Rather, it is a remarkably open, forthcoming exploration of a woman’s developing faith in both God and humanity. It is a story of living.  “I want to be different,” Beverly writes at the beginning of her journey, “to peel off masks, my make-believes, lipstick, to stop making things bigger, more and better, telling white lies improving on, giving an impression.” It is with this attitude that she lays out her experience, leaving it bare for the reader to examine and dissect as we follow her to monasteries, chapels, cabins in the woods, and the sometimes-hard-to-navigate intersection where spirituality meets the secular world.

It is difficult to read this memoir without finding yourself, along with the author, pondering the complexities of faith, considering good and evil and what they each entail. Bev’s candid descriptions of her growing connection with God offer a rare, raw glimpse into the process of personal growth. And she offers it graciously, without judging others, in the matter-of-fact style that is characteristic of her writing. With its blunt discussion of evil, rape, religion, God, and self-discovery, this is a thought-provoking book–and, in light of current events, a timely opportunity for dialogue about topics often considered taboo. 

Astonished is a memoir that resonates, and Beverly Donofrio’s story is an inspiration. It will stay with you long after the final page.

Real Character #1: The Woman with the Carrots

New York, NY

I saw a woman on the subway a couple months ago during my morning commute, pulling baby carrots out of her purse and eating them.  She popped them into her mouth whole, chewed, and then reached into her bag for another as she swallowed.  Purse, pop, chew.  Purse, pop, chew.  Over and over again as I steadied myself against the grimy, fingerprinted pole.  I hoped that woman had gotten a seat immediately upon entering the train car, that she’d never had to touch this pole.  That she at least had a mini bottle of good, strong hand sanitizer tucked into her purse beside the carrots.

What kind of life must a person lead to compel her to keep carrots in her bag, hidden from view the way high school girls hide tampons, buried deep in the fabric like something shameful? She was not elderly, so senility had nothing to do with it. Nor was she odd or remarkable in any other way. I can’t remember what she was wearing, but I imagine it to be the dress trousers and sweater ensemble that’s typical of women during the weekday rush hour; I can’t remember the color of her hair, but I imagine it to be a dusty sort of blonde.  Her shoes were undoubtedly nothing special–black, round-toed, patent leather flats.  She stared ahead, looking at nothing in particular, popping the carrots into her mouth.  Chewing.  Reaching into her purse for another.  Purse, pop, chew.

She may have had kids at home, perhaps a boy around eleven years old and a girl about eight.  Maybe two boys.  They could have been twins.  She made their lunch every day, spreading peanut butter on one slice of bread and jelly on another before slapping the two together and cutting off the crusts.  She did this twice every morning, one for each child, and placed it in a sandwich bag, which was later placed in a brown paper bag, and complemented with a pudding cup and a juice box and a handful of baby carrots.  Never mind that the twins think they’re too old for juice boxes.  They’re perfectly content to let their mother make their lunch, so they’ll take what she packs them whether they like it or not.

And she saw them out the door, watched from the window until they turned the corner in the direction of the school that sits three blocks away.  She had to rush to get to work on time; sometimes she feels like she’s always rushing.  On her way out, she grabbed the torn plastic bag with what was left of the baby carrots.  There was a cartoon rabbit printed on it, chomping on a carrot like a knock-off version of Bugs Bunny.  It’s terrible marketing, she thought.  Unless they’re trying to sell carrots to rabbits, and really, what’s the challenge in that?

By the time she got to the subway platform, she felt a little winded.  A bead of sweat slid down her back.  She could feel it under her jacket, like a phantom fingertip tracing the line of her tailbone.  Everything looked duller than usual that morning:  the concrete floor, the garbage on the tracks stained with rat urine, the fading graffiti on the cracked tile wall.  Her own coat was gray, ordinary enough that she could feel it swallow her with its ordinariness, its grayness.  A man with a purple mohawk walked by, cast her a quick look as if he pitied her, and took a seat on the wooden bench a few steps away.  A train screeched at the far end of the platform, just as it all started closing in–the concrete, the trash, the cracks in the tile big enough for her to fall into and disappear.  The gray, the overwhelming gray, consuming her like it would never consume the man with the purple mohawk, like he never would have let it consume him.  And when the train doors opened in front of her, she bolted through them, collapsed into the nearest open seat, and pulled out a piece of brilliant, perfect, orange.  Pop.  Chew.  Purse.