Seated Woman in a Red Dress, 1920s
By Irish Painter ~ Roderic O'Conor, 1860 - 1940
“What Do Women Want?”
I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.
by American poet ~ Kim Addonizio, b. 1954
Awhile back I heard a very good sermon about the "middle way being the hard way." The old proverb (certainly what I was taught in Sunday School) is that the middle way is for lazy opportunists who can't commit and want it both ways and haven't given their hearts to God. But this speaker was saying the opposite -- that the extremes are easier because they require less introspection, less observation, less compassion. The middle way is hard because it demands all of these things, and that's why the church should walk the middle path.
Around the same time, I also heard a very troubling sermon about abortion. What would Jesus do? Maybe he'd choose a different topic. All I could think was "Here we go again." It's bad enough on the television and in the House and in the Senate and every where else you turn your head, but even from the pulpit? When will it ever be considered unacceptable to violate the sanctuary of women? When will male ministers and lawmakers ever stop singling women out and talking about their bodies -- the very essence of objectification. Did Jesus do that? I don't think so. Being pitied and talked about like case studies -- this turns women into objects. The assumption that someone else can know which women need abortions and for what reasons -- this turns women into objects. What about self - determination? What about getting to be the subject of your own sentence?
I wince at the harsh pronouncements against all abortion, but I'm also suspicious of the so - called more generous stance that we have to consider the special cases of rape and incest. The unctuous reliance on this cliche fills me with dismay. What it says to me is that the church doesn't really want to help women but it will if it has to in the extreme case. The incest / rape exception makes me feel uneasy, not because it isn't valid or necessary, but because it's someone else's arbitrary decision, and a very harsh one at that, despite being presented in the name of compassion. Instead, how about acknowledging that the issue is too complicated for the existing exceptions and rules (the very thing that Jesus says NOT to rely on).
For those who claim the right to decide not only for themselves but for others, I want to hear their plans for helping expectant mothers who are carrying their children in fear, worried about money, health, nutrition, insurance, education, emotional support, rent, mortgage, heat, abuse, neglect -- and myriad other issues that we cannot possibly know in full, different in every case. How do these right - to - lifers plan to help care for each and every child who is born to a distraught mother? I want to see their directives and budget allotments for welcoming every newborn and nurturing every mother and every child. And I don't mean a cute hat and some diapers -- I mean non-stop tending until that child is safely through college.
There was one spark of hope in the sermon: the observation that, yes, you might meet a woman thirty years on who regretted her decision to terminate a pregnancy but on the other hand --
Okay, at this point I thought I was going to hear that you might also meet a woman who was relieved that she had the option to choose. But NO!
-- on the other hand -- there has to be help for college girls who get drunk and end up pregnant.
Some abortions end in regret; some begin in drunkenness. Thus did the sermon, which I did not find to be particularly helpful to women, come to a close. No acknowledgement that not all abortions begin in drunkenness or end in regret, no other examples, no mention of a considered choice, no middle path. Did it help anyone to make women sound so pathetic, to second guess their decisions, to sensationalize their distress with descriptions of crying and bleeding, to omit the possibility that women might know their own bodies and their own minds? No, it did not. It was offensive. Women don't need pity; they need a level playing field. Women resent the weary sexist conclusion that abortion is fair game for sermonizing -- because it's such an attention grabber. In fact, it's just one more way of putting women on that old familiar pedestal and looking up their dresses. How long, O Lord?
If human anatomy and physiology is sermon material, then lets move away from the insulting cliches about female reproduction and pick some topics that affect both sexes equally. Take colonoscopy, for instance. There's something that both men and women have to go through. Everyone has to have a first one sometime and no one wants to. You don't see much of a spiritual context to the colonoscopy? Well, then, give it one! I have lots of ideas: How about the low success rate of trying to make other people do the right thing? How about leading a horse to water but not being able to make it drink? How about not even being able to lead it to water? How about responsibility? How about worry? How about fear? How about violation and taboo? How about people dying unnecessarily of colon cancer? As you can see, it wouldn't take me long to write a sermon on the topic! In fact, I think there's a veritable mission field out there of people who need to hear the message and be brought into the fold.
Or what about whole body screenings for cancer of the skin -- our body's largest organ! That affects everybody. God made the sun. Right?
How about the need for free STD testing at all college and university health centers? I don't know the cost, but some students find any fee at all prohibitive and / or embarrassing if they have to file an insurance claim. Maybe free STD testing is not an ENTITLEMENT in this country; however, if we take a look at the big picture instead of the small, we might see that free testing helps EVERYONE on campus, not just those who come in for a lab test or an exam. Who knows, a more generous policy might result in safer sex and fewer abortions.
I'm not necessarily suggesting these as ideal topics for Sunday morning, but then I wouldn't pick abortion either. Or if I did, I'd ask why the discussion of unplanned pregnancy is so one - sided. Little is ever said about the man who participated in the conception. I rarely hear any presumptuous suggestions or patronizing restrictions concerning what he should do next, now that he has fertilized a human egg. Where is the analysis of male anatomy and the massively hurtful potential of testosterone? I'd point out that a great many of the "birth control failures" that girls and women take responsibility for (sometimes by terminating a pregnancy) actually boil down to having been relentlessly pressured into having unprotected sex. Could women insist on birth control every time unless they want a child? Yes, of course they could and should. But that still doesn't explain why the men who love (?) them are pressuring them in the first place. Men and boys -- Stop. Doing. This. Make yourself part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Of course we have compassion for victims of rape, incest, and drunken mistakes -- those are the extremes; those are crimes! The difficult thing -- apparently! -- is compassion for normal women leading normal lives that become complicated because the biological odds are stacked against them in such a way that women bear the biological risk for both recreational and procreational sex. What saddens me -- besides having to hear a discussion better left to me and my doctor or me and my girlfriends or me and my husband -- is to hear a public speaker take the predictable political path, in the name of "socio - cultural relevance" or "ethics" instead of a soul - searching, sermon - worthy middle path.
Even some of my favorite writers seem at times to get it weirdly wrong. In Margaret Atwood's novel Surfacing (1972), for instance, the narrator becomes obsessed with the feral conception of a child in reparation for a previous pregnancy that her art professor pressured her into terminating. The new child, conceived in the wild, will be a living apology to the unrealized child. In Ruth Ozeki's novel All Over Creation (2003), a similar irrational, formulaic approach is expressed by the high school history teacher, twenty - five years after his affair with a fourteen - year - old student: "We took a life, Yumi. From the universe. And the way I figure it, we owe one back. Life is sacred. I want to make amends. . . . I want us to have a child (386). Yumi, who has returned to town for a visit, along with her three children, says oddly and crassly of them: "Three wonderful grandchildren ought to more than make up for one lousy abortion" (240).
What's going on here? Must these women be forever making amends? Are they never allowed to leave mistakes in the past, to grow and learn, to pay the price of experience and move on, sadder perhaps but wiser? How about the creation of heroines who gain dignity and emotional maturity, confident in their choices and the points to which they've come? Instead, first Atwood and then Ozeki (writing three decades later!) use their characters to express the view that abortion goes hand in hand with shame, guilt, bitterness and perpetual indebtedness to the universe. In each case I remain mystified by the author's placement of her heroine on such a regressive life path.
A more supportive and realistic view appears in Curtis Sittenfeld's novel American Wife (2008). Unlike Atwood's extreme reversion to nature or Ozeki's tone of self - deprecation, Sittenfeld allows her narrator, Alice to think rationally and walk the middle path: " . . . my entire political outlook could have been summarized by the statement that I felt bad for poor people and was glad abortion had become legal. . . . I live a life that contains contradictions. Don't you?" (204, 473).
Yes, I do.
Additional Reading: Reality Check & Thriftshop Barbie
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, October 28th
Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading
by Patti Spires Hamilton