Last weekend, I went to a Radical Queer Convergence in Chicago. The first day, I went to the women's caucus meeting. There were probably 100 women there, pretty much all of them no more than half my age. Things started out slowly but pretty soon they were sharing stories from their growing up, interactions with their moms, with their friends, with guys. The discussion turned to harassment, and one woman said that whenever she tells her radical friends she's been hassled or grabbed inappropriately on the street or in her building, they ask, "What did you do?" and then proceed to tell her what she should have done. Another young woman said, "I have never told anyone this, but I was visiting in another city, and I was supposed to stay with some friends, but I was locked out. So I ended up going home with a guy and he raped me." She said that if she had had her car, she wouldn't have been hanging out on the street and wouldn't have needed to go somewhere with a guy. Now, she said, she drives her car and her radical biking guy friends rag her about not being green enough.
The next topic was body image. One woman after another talked about how her mom put her in Weight Watchers at 10. Another reported that when she came home from college, where she eats one meal a day for lack of money, her mom criticized her for eating too much at home. A Persian woman said that when she was in high school, her grandmother demanded she get a nose job. My mind immediately went to my sister, who saved up from the day she got her first job to get her nose "fixed" – the Semitic woman's answer, apparently, to cultural dis-ease. (Someone later told me that Iran has the highest proportion of nose jobs in the world.)
A rather square-jawed white woman sitting next to the Persian woman was the next to speak. Her voice trembled a little as she said that when she was fifteen, her parents made her get an operation where they broke her jaw and pushed her teeth back to correct the overbite that years of braces had failed to resolve. Now, she said, she has no feeling in her lower lip. She had taken it for granted, she said, until recently, when she started to wish she could feel her mouth. She didn't want the operation, but her parents insisted until she finally agreed.
I was sitting there thinking, "That's one of the most horrible stories I ever heard," at the same time wondering how it was any different from the other woman's grandmother insisting she get an operation where they broke her nose. And then another woman said quietly, "Oh, my parents made me get that operation when I was fifteen too, after nine years of braces." Doing the math, I thought, "So this girl got braces when she was six? But you don't even have your adult teeth then. Could that possibly be WHY her jaw never developed correctly (if in fact, there is one "correct" way for a jaw to develop)?" She too, she said, couldn't feel her lip; she too didn't want to get the operation. She had never talked to anyone about it, feeling it was her private shame. As I was contemplating the unlikely possibility that two women in the same relatively small gathering had the same rare operation, when the woman next to me mumbled, "I had that too." "Can you feel your lip?" I asked her. She shook her head.
Okay, so this hideous form of child abuse is obviously rampant among a certain class of white people, or maybe more widely than that. Why hadn't I ever heard about it before? Where's the women's movement on this? We scream about clitoridectomy in Africa, and we should, but this barbarism is happening in our own front yards. Did I miss the issue of Ms. and the many Katha Pollitt columns in The Nation where they exposed this epidemic of mutilation? (No, is the answer. I just searched Ms. Magazine online, feminist.com, and kathapollitt.org for "maxiofacial surgery," which this particular travesty is called, and came up completely blank.) And while I was sitting thinking about this, another woman said, "Well my parents made me get an operation when I was fourteen, because I sweated too much." "Oh, yes, I had that too!" came a chorus – two or three other women had had sweat glands removed, presumably so they would only glow as women are supposed to. (When I was young, they used to say, "Horses sweat, men perspire and women glow." But I, who have always been a profuse sweater (not to be confused with a cashmere sweater), thought it was just a saying.)
I felt like an anthropologist, learning about an alien culture. In the past, I've tended to be angry at young women either for not being feminists, or for misrepresenting Second Wave feminism and claiming everything good about it for the Third Wave, or for not knowing or not respecting their history. But hearing these young women talking to each other for the first time about these violations of their personal rights, I felt angry at myself and other Second Wave feminists. I feel we have failed these young women, nearly all of whom seem to identify as feminists; it's their moms who don't.
They are reinventing the consciousness raising group, but they don't know that's what they are doing, because they never heard of consciousness raising groups. They don't know that's how Second Wave feminism got started. We didn't pass it on – we didn't have it to pass on, because we stopped doing it. I, in fact, never got to be in a CR group, because they were already passé by the time I was in college (circa 1977), and these young women's moms are probably just about my age. Nevertheless, I thought that every girl was being taught in school that sexual assault is not her fault, that being pro-sex is not an invitation to rape, that she has the right to control her body. My fifteen years in Women Against Rape, which ended ten years ago, were dedicated to ensuring that in San Francisco, but these young women did not grow up in San Francisco. They grew up in places like Ohio, where I went to college, and Maryland, where my sister raised her two kids. They reported having abstinence only sex education, consisting of a teacher drawing a cartoon condom on the board and explaining how the microbes go through it to give you AIDS.
Of course, this is not all the fault of feminists. Feminism didn't lose ground because of its own failings, any more than the Black, Chicano or Puerto Rican Liberation movements did. Every progressive movement has been pushed back over the last twenty years, and feminism has been subject to an unrelenting backlash nearly since it began. And of course, it is because of feminism and other liberation movements that that women's caucus was happening at all. Perhaps, history is cyclical and these young women, having accidentally unearthed the CR group, will share their discovery with other young women and they will create the Fourth Wave to challenge the particular system of repression bequeathed to them by their mothers, the kind that says you can be president, almost, as long as you don't talk too loud or eat like a normal person.