I love acting, don’t get me wrong, and I’m excited about my new Netflix series, “Grace and Frankie,” with Lily Tomlin. But sometimes, when a long time goes by and I haven’t been speaking out (or acting out) in the presence of other women and men, girls and boys, on issues we are collectively fighting for, I feel like I’m emptying out, shrinking up, and the problems of the world feel like they will engulf me. I read 2 newspapers a day and I ache. I think about polar bears and elephants and gorillas and I cry. I think about the children growing up in the constant stress and horror of war and I fear for our future. I read that more Canadian soldiers and vets have committed suicide since 2004 than died in combat. Close to 50% of US vets have some symptoms of PTSD and I feel I could spend the rest of my life holding each one in my arms. There are those who think I don’t care about our soldiers and they are so wrong. But when I step back into my activism and hear what others are doing to make things better, safer, I feel empowered and emboldened. Try it some time. It helps if the issues you take on are things you feel in your gut, your deepest self.
I’ve been gone from home for 2 weeks. The first week I was in Miami with Richard. I guess you know by now that I love Miami—at least if you read my blog of January 8th.
I posted so many photos then that I didn’t take many this time (I tweeted a few, though). While I was there, I spent time with my son and daughter-in-law and with friends of Richards and mine and it was fun. The most vivid memory, however, was of a Tern seagull who flew into our large glass porch door while we were out. We found him lying on the deck with what appeared to be a wounded beak or perhaps worse. It was hard to tell. I told Richard to leave him be (I assumed it was a male and privately named him Homer) and I put out water and seeds from a cracker. Homer would occasionally move to a new place, sometimes standing, sometimes huddled up on the ground and we felt there was a chance he’d recover and fly away. But by the 3rd morning, we realized he needed more help and so we called Animal Protection Services who came, put him in a crate, and took him away. The female vet said she thought he “might get better with TLC.” It was all I could do to not call and check on him.
I wondered why I felt such empathy and grief over an anonymous seagull. I think Homer symbolized to me all sentient beings who are suffering right now and I recalled the comfort I felt when I saved a drowning bee from a swimming pool the day we learned about the Tsunami hitting Japan. Sometimes when circumstances feel overwhelming, all we can do is aid and comfort the smallest living things very close to us. I’m sure some of you know what I am talking about.
Anyway, after Miami, Richard went home and I spent a couple of days in Atlanta having meetings with the staff and board members of The Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential. This year GCAPP turns 20 and we are planning a big celebration next September 24th. It is none to soon to begin putting all the pieces in place for that important event. I am so proud of the work we are doing under the leadership of our CEO Kim Nolte who came to us from the CDC and is a nationally recognized expert on youth development and teen sexuality. Check out our website. Since we started in 1995, teen pregnancy rates in Georgia have dropped by more than 50% which translates into more young people being able to stay in school and grow to adulthood without the challenges of raising a child. It also saves the state 100s of millions of dollars. GCAPP can’t claim credit for all this, HIV/AIDS has motivated more sexually active young people to use contraception and abstinence has gained traction among some young people. But GCAPP has kept the issue on the front burner, has brought evidenced-based sex ed curricula into 100s of schools and after school programs and, with our Second Chance Homes, made it possible for young girls with babies to live in safe environments, finish high school, learn to be parents and gain job skills.
From Atlanta, I managed to get to New York, although a day late because the airport was closed when a plane from Atlanta nearly slid off the runway…could have been me! I then spent a day and evening at the Conference on Men and Masculinities at the old Roosevelt Hotel.
Left to right: Niobe Way, author and activist, me, Michael Kimmel who founded the Center on Men & Masculinities at Stony Brooke University and has written many books on the subject including “Guyland,” and Michael Kaufman, author and founder of the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC), a global movement of men and boys working to end male violence against women and girls.
There was a time when people might have thought it was inappropriate for men to be organizing alongside women to end violence and change the culture that causes men to do violence against women (the same culture that causes men to do violence against other men and to do violence against themselves.) But over the past 40 years, men as allies in the struggle for gender equality has grown from a few good men to a robust global movement involving tens of thousands of activists, institutions such as the U.N., health organizations, professionals, policymakers and NGOs.
I was excited to sit in on workshops and panels involving men from around the world discussing strategies for building networks, for how to be accountable feminist allies, for encouraging responsible fathering.
At the Saturday dinner, we were treated to an amazing performance by a hip hop poet, Kane Smego, that was truly jaw- dropping. Kane was followed by a stand-up comic, Hari Kondabolu, who did what few comics can–make serious issues hysterically funny without degrading them or being in any way cynical or negative. They were hard acts to follow, believe me, but that was my spot and I was interviewed on stage by three young people about why I was at the conference and why I felt men and boys should work for gender equality.
I said I was there because I had had a father and 3 husbands, all of whom, I felt, had been wounded by patriarchy, the dominant paradigm that has made masculinity toxic and robbed too many men of their humanity; that this had played out in different ways in the men in my life but that it had hurt them all and me as well. I mentioned that I was there because I have a granddaughter and I want her to be able to grow up and find a partner who will love and nurture her and not feel the need to put her down in any way. I said that the ways that the culture causes men to feel they have to prove they are ‘real men’ does damage to their hearts. “Patriarchy” isn’t just bad for women and bad for Planet Earth. It is bad for men’s health as well.
Just watch how boy babies behave when first born and very early in life. They seek responsive relationship. They thrive when they are in relationship. They are born finely tuned to their mother’s moods and they freely express their own feelings–happiness when in a loving relationship, unhappy when without it. Slowly over time, this freedom of feelings, these spontaneous expressions of relationship, begin to fade as pressures to ‘be a man’ come to the fore because emotions and needing relationship is deemed ‘feminine.’ As I wrote in Prime Time, “Recent research indicates that in this society most males have difficulty not just in expressing but even in identifying their feelings. The psychiatric term for this impairment is alexytheemia and psychologist Bon Levant estimates that close to eighty percent of men in our society have a mild to severe form of it.”
Loss of emotion, loss of empathy, is not a loss of masculinity but a loss of humanity, a wound that is bad for men’s health—and women’s.
Not all men have trouble expressing feelings and being in intimate relationships. As I said in my book, boys can resist the dominant culture when they have an adult who helps them understand their uniqueness, that they aren’t better than girls, but wonderfully different; who instill in them qualities like being present, brave, trustworthy, a good team player, focused and goal-oriented (positive masculine qualities that are good for women as well!) A boy who grows up feeling it is okay to be wrong, to ask for support, who isn’t taught that asking for help shows weakness and vulnerability, this boy will grow up to be resilient. This is a boy who would wonder, if pressured to prove his ‘manhood,’ why it needed to be proven as opposed to it being his innate, authentic self.
This issue of how the dominant culture has harmed men is something that is near and dear to my heart. As I said, I’ve lived with it most of my life, I’ve seen it countless times on the ground in the work my organization in Georgia does with boys and as I have traveled the world. I will spend the rest of my life working on ways to change this.
(Any resemblance to Ryan Gosling in the above poster is purely coincidental although I’m sure he would agree with its message!)
The night after the conference, a large group of donors and global women activists joined together at a party hosted by the Ford Foundation to launch a vital new non-profit, Donor Direct Action (DDA), which uses the web to link front-line international women’s rights activists with donors who can then share as well as support their work immediately and without any bureaucracy. It is led by the indomitable Jessica Neuwirth. As I met women from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Eqypt and heard them speak, I realized that when they return to their respective countries they risk coming face to face with dangers such as ISIS, Al Qeada etc. Yet there they were, speaking out, being photographed, all of which puts their lives in danger. Surely you’ve read how women and girls in their countries are killed just for going to school; just for trying to escape an unwanted marriage or domestic violence or female gentile mutilation. Yet they come to this country and risk their lives in the hope that people here will hear them and give support to their work. I urge you to visit the Donor Direct Action website and help these brave women. There you will find women-led non-profits in Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, organizations working against sexual trafficking and female genital mutilation, to end violence and to change discriminatory laws.
Here we are–as least a few of us. Left to right: Nozizwe from South Africa (she fought against Apartheid, became deputy Minister of Defense before starting a non-profit against sexual violence, Robin Morgan, me, Mouna from Syria who runs Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace, Najia from Afghanistan, Jessica Neuwirth and finally, Egyptian activist Hibaaq Osman who leads three NGOs working to end violence against women in the Arab region: Karama, the Global Dignity Fund and the Think Tank for Arab Women.
Here I am at dinner with my Egyptian activist friend Hibaaq Osman
My last day in New York, I spoke on behalf of Equality Now at the United Nations to discuss what women have achieved in the 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing which I attended.
I think I was invoking the spirit of Congresswoman Bella Abzug with who I spent time at the Beijing Conference and who was part of the U.S. delegation.
We’ve come a long way in twenty years –
- 139 countries now guarantee gender equality in their constitutions
- 125 outlaw domestic violence
- 117 have laws against sexual harassment in the workplace
- 117 have equal pay laws and 115 countries give women equal rights to own property
- and 22 out of 28 African countries where female genital mutilation is practiced now have laws against it.
Just in the past 5 years in Morocco and Argentina rapists can no longer escape punishment by marrying or settling with their victims; Kenyan, Senegalese, and Surinamese women can now pass their citizenship to their children and spouses on the same basis as men; Iraqi women can get a passport without needing a man’s permission; Australian women can now apply for all jobs in the military; Bolivian women have less restrictions on their employment and married Swazi women can register property in their own name.
We still have a very long way to go. The new laws against sex discrimination aren’t always enforced; there are countries that are actually enacting new laws against women’s equality. No country can have true peace or prosperity when women are treated as less than men.
After I spoke, Tony award-winning actor, Sarah Jones, performed Women Can’t Wait!, becoming in the space of 15 minutes, a dozen different women, from different counties, with different languages, discussing the ways that sexually discriminatory laws have negatively impacted them. Sounds like a bummer? Not at all! She manages to do this with enormous humor. We hear the women’s pain but we laugh at the clever, funny ways Sarah has found to portray them. She is genius. And she did it all using only a shawl as costume. It became a veil, burka, turban, smart accessory, etc.
While at the U.N. I met Rachel Moran, an Irish lass, who survived being a victim of sex trafficking and has written a book about her experiences and is building a movement of other trafficking survivors.
With all this, I managed to see my friend, Diane Lane in her new play, “The Mysteries of Love and Sex” at Lincoln Center, a jewel of a little play with extremely good acting—Diane is always a stand out. We had dinner afterwards at Shun Lee.
I also saw the hottest musical ticket in town: “Hamilton.” Who would have thought a musical about Alexander Hamilton could be right up there in a league with “West Side Story”. But then, it’s an all black cast and it’s told in hip hop. With me was my dear friend, Dr. Ann Beeder who treats veterans suffering from PTSD. Her stories always break my heart but at least someone of her empathy and smarts is working in this arena.
It has taken me 2 days to complete this blog. Whew! Enjoy.