"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Women [Don't] Want

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 evolutionary odds are stacked 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

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Tuesday, October 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

by Patti Spires Hamilton


  1. Useful stats: http://www.guttmacher.org/in-the-know/characteristics.html

  2. Thinking also of the story about the rape crisis board that felt all members should be rape survivors . . . until one dissenting voice provided an excellent response to a presumptuous suggestion: "How would we know?"

  3. "People have this notion that because pregnancy is a part of our reproductive lives and continuing the species that it is perfectly safe . . . When we undermine the risks undertaken and sacrifices made by those who do give birth to our children, we are showing a severe lack of gratitude and it is inhumanly insulting."

    from ~ http://www.upworthy.com/how-the-threat-of-the-zika-virus-brings-abortion-rights-back-in-focus?c=ufb1

  4. So well-written! You made some great points! Thank you.

  5. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/here-is-some-legitimate-science-on-pregnancy-and-rape/

  6. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-confuses-birth-with-abortion-and-no-there-are-no-ninth-month-abortions_us_5808dfa2e4b0dd54ce389b61


  7. https://www.facebook.com/charlottevv/posts/10206647893987109

  8. " . . . religious organizations typically enjoy free reign to lie, cheat and steal; particularly if their motivation is punishing women."


  9. Trevor Noah:

    "To the extremists and true believers of any cause, there is an idea that moderation and compromise are simply a prelude to selling out and giving up, when in fact the opposite is true — moderation brings radical ideas to the center to make them possible. . . .

    "When you grow up in the middle, you see that life is more in the middle than it is on the sides. The majority of people are in the middle, the margin of victory is almost always in the middle, and very often the truth is there as well, waiting for us."


  10. Thanks to Ben McCartney:

    My first, and most important point, is that decisions ought to be made by people who bear the risks and live with the outcomes. If you see somebody drowning you should be able to choose whether or not you go try and save them -- society shouldn't mandate that you have to. If you see somebody trapped in a burning building you should be allowed to not run in. In the case of abortion, a woman bears the risks of carrying and delivering (and, as previous posters have said, often of raising) a baby. It must therefore be as much the woman's choice as possible. Nowhere else in our society do people so explicitly mandate that somebody, against their wishes, put their life on the line for another.

    My second point is in direct response to your original question. What you say -- can I pinpoint the moment something happens -- is true of all continuums. Can you tell when a borrower stops being subprime and becomes a good credit risk (fico score = 600)? Can you tell when a person is old enough to be the president (35 years old, but not 34). What about whether a teenager is good enough to drive (definitely 14, or maybe 15, or 15.5, or definitely 16, depending on the state). Ultimately, policy requires some sort of bright line. Otherwise there's too much unhelpful, unnecessary ambiguity.

    You point out a continuum -- fetus age -- along which it's tricky to say when life begins. There are other continuums to think about. What about miscarriages that occur in the first month or first week? Have the parents had a child die? If a woman has unusual bleeding around the time of her period should she go get tested to see if she had actually conceived and then be forced to have a funeral if she had (http://www.salon.com/.../texas-will-now-require-funeral.../)? What about after the miscarriage has started should we allow the medical profession to help make it as safe for the mother as they can by inducing dilation? What about if the baby can't survive outside the womb because it has anencephaly, should we force this woman to bring the baby to term? How do you reconcile your answers?

    Finally, requiring that society defaults to a certain view unless the opposition has a clear, intuitive bright line for policy making is ultimately lazy. Claiming that any universal rule (all abortion is wrong, woman should always be allowed to abort) as being intuitive and obvious when it's obviously not given the huge disagreements from so many people who've thought about it is also lazy. It's a difficult subject and requires thoughtful discussion and informed, value-weighted policy making.

  11. Thanks to The Rev. Nadine R. Aydt (aka my 1970s Francis Howell High School home ec teacher Ms Caldwell) for this excellent essay about the necessity for safe, accessible birth control:

    How many centuries does it take for men (and women) to realize that birth is a woman's health issue!!!!! I heard an opponent of birth control say, "what if Mary had used birth control.' My answer, " God finds a way!" And - it should be noted that many women (and men) in Jesus' time did use birth control-spilling the sperm onto the ground; lambskin tied to the penis; abortion through native drugs; chastity belts; abstinence; and, more.

    I taught junior and senior high school students in a relatively affluent area. The number of teen pregnancies alone is an important reason to make birth control available let alone the STD's. And, I must add the economic devastation for families and the communities of unwed mother's of any age and women already in poverty. If you don't see that fact, look at the numbers enrolled in government aid in the US, every western country, and, for heaven's sake, underdeveloped countries where our government makes certain they remain underdeveloped!!!!

    And, what about the child/ren in these situations!!! I now volunteer in an elementary school where one of the children I assist is the adopted son of his step grandmother because his mother and father were drug users and the state was going to remove him to foster care. His new mother/grandmother person is now seeking more work outside her home because her husband is in jail!! And, you sit on your thrones dictating that because one or two alleged Christian groups say there is a fundamental expectation that God wants all women to be "barefoot and pregnant" while they blatantly ignore the Word that God provided Adam and Eve (where this bear fruit understanding got started) with 3 sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth (the replacement for the slaughtered Abel by a dysfunctional brother whom God found a way to protect)!! Excuse me for thinking that when Jesus talks about making the vine healthy he appears to prefer a good 'trimming' before the fruit forms so the plant and any fruit produced can be as healthy as possible.

    So - if health is the issue - let's provide for birth control that provides for health! If it's economics - and it always comes down to economics - let's provide insurance coverage for birth control which is for cheaper than babies/children and their health care after an unwanted and/or dangerous pregnancy.

    Nadine R. Aydt
    March 1, 2012

  12. https://www.facebook.com/nadine.aydt/posts/10150637177889736

  13. http://www.rawstory.com/2017/06/fundamentalism-racism-fear-and-propaganda-an-insider-explains-why-rural-christian-white-america-will-never-change/amp/

    What this author says of racism is also true of the fundamentalist approach to sexism. Reproduction is complicated and painful for women because Eve "sinned" long ago, so anything that might level the playing field and alleviate the double standards of sex and gender is going against the word of god (male, of course). Leave things as god decreed and let women suffer; they deserve it; they brought it on themselves.

  14. Please remember: "Planned Parenthood does more to PREVENT abortions than any other organization. A vote against Planned Parenthood is a vote to increase the overall number of Abortions. When you attack Planned Parenthood, you embrace abortions, and become complicit in their growth."
    ~ Jon Thorpe