This past week, I had a discussion with my students about "Women and Work." Perfect timing on behalf of the second Presidential debate, in which a question was asked about the Lilly Ledbetter Act.
The students were somewhat engaged in the conversation. But, as I reminded myself while listening to them discuss, they don't yet have a lot of experience in the workforce. Most of them work entry level jobs, for low pay. Their living expenses are still fairly low. At this point in their lives, money is still an abstract.
What is real to my students is sexual harassment. When I asked them to raise their hands if they had experienced sexual harassment, all but 3 out of 30 did. (The other 3 may just not realize what sexual harassment is.) And the floodgates of anger and disbelief and disgust opened as they began to share the assaults on their bodies. On their self-worth. On their spirits. On how they view themselves as women.
What I heard was a group of young women who desperately wanted to know how to protect themselves. To be able to say - Oh, hell NO!, to any unwanted look and touch and disrespectful comment and/or suggestion. Comments often made, I might add, by men old enough to be their fathers. Definitely old enough to know better.
I wanted to go all Valkyrie.
Get out my sword and fight their battles for them. Slay all those dragons that dare to minimize the wonderful, powerful women they are all becoming. Cry for their pain and confusion at a world that enforces the silencing of girls and women, teaching passivity rather than power, and submission rather than the right to say NO!
I took a deep breath. I let the students vent for a few minutes. Then, I started to talk to them about power. About how when a man makes an inappropriate comment, he knows it's wrong. He's likely not after what he's asking for. (I hope not.) What he's after is their power - their youth, their innocence, their spirit for life, their openness, their love for life. Their joy. But, mostly, their power to control what they do and how they feel about their bodies, about who they are as a woman.
We don't talk about this enough in society. Especially as women. I wonder if it has to do with the lack of power that many women of my generation, and even of older generations, feel. We've been taught to stay silent. To stay submissive. And even if we don't follow that lesson, there are daily reminders of what some members of our society expect of us. (Watch a political commercial lately?)
Last night, I dreamed about a man that I had a long relationship with. It was a nice dream. We had lots of fun together, he and I. We also had plenty of not-so-much-fun history. And I realized something, twenty years too late. Those times we had fun? I held my own power. The not-so-fun drama? I gave away my power, to him. I allowed myself to be used, to be taken advantage of, to be minimized and dismissed. Why?
Because I didn't know that I had my own power. Or that I had a right to use it.
Now, I am reminded that what I teach is intended to give my students the tools they need to empower their lives. I think I need to be more explicit about this. We've talked a lot about how and why power is limited - through gender socialization and race and class and sexual discrimination. Through a system of patriarchy that we are all complicit in.
Now, it's time to have a conversation about power - what it is, how to use it, how to protect it as if your life depends upon it. (It does.)