I’m reading my way through Gloria Steinem’s books these days, and I can feel them work on me, move small stones and big rocks in me from one place to another, assembling what I know in a more concentrated form, surrounded by the realisation that this is what all women know.
I remember moments I haven’t thought about in years.
I remember my uncle telling me I should not wear red trousers in church because it’s too “tempting” for the men. He actually said that.
I remember my father.
I remember several teachers who felt that a low neckline deserved higher grades or who were ‘testing the waters’ with a hand on a pupil’s thigh here and there.
I remember a primary school teacher, the headteacher, actually, who in swimming lessons stood in the pool and made us all dive through his spread legs.
I remember being shouted down by the pastor of my parish for daring to disagree.
I remember telling my mother about a friend whose father was beating her and her sisters and their mother with a belt – I had seen the stripes across my friend’s back. And I remember my mother doing nothing about it.
I hear all the voices of all the people who asked me for at least half my life, “So, do you have a boyfriend by now?”
I remember the tone of this question becoming rather more urgent as the years went by, getting random suggestions of random young men who happened to be single – since failure to find a man must have untold consequences, even at the beginning of the 21st century. So who cares who the man is as long as he’s willing to take you on?
I remember my mother warning me of a teacher who had been asked to leave another school for reasons that were not publicly talked about.
I also remember my mother telling me year after year that I should lose weight – what man would find me attractive looking like this? I remember her standing me in front of a mirror and me saying that I didn’t think I looked that bad, and her response being, “Well, if you can’t see it, I can’t help you.”
None of this is unfamiliar to other women. Thank God, not every woman has been abused – but every woman knows stories like these, conversations like these, men like these. And we have all heard similar stories from friends, daughters, sisters, aunts or colleagues.
And while I read about Gloria Steinem’s work, about how she ‘happened upon’ it, how she learned her way into it and just how deep the work went into the fabric of women’s lives, I also learn how different her experience was from public perception (as in: perception created by the media and anti-feminist groups). And how working together in a community of women makes change possible despite all obstacles.
A few days ago, Gloria Steinem was speaking in London – and I missed the event because I was leading a retreat with a group of women. At first, I was disappointed to not be able to actually meet her in some audience in some hall – but as it turned out, I was where I needed to be, with a group of wonderful women from all over the world, whose company was a gift to me – and to all of us. The work we did together will have an impact on their lives, and on mine. The fact that we connected with each other on this retreat opens all our eyes to each other’s and our own depth and beauty and strength – there was incredible depth of faith in that room and immense dreams some of which are plans already, and which will impact so many other people’s lives in the future.
I heard a young woman from Syria speak about the fact that she will go home after the war and rebuild her country.
I heard a young woman from the Philippines talk about not yet having decided whether she will study Medicine or Psychology (additionally to the Nursing degree she already has), either one to travel the world to work in countries where these skills are urgently needed.
I heard another young woman from the UK talk about her process of becoming a Doula, or about her involvement with communities that support Permaculture.
I heard these women talk about their love for writing, for open water swimming or world travel, many of them looking forward to having their own families and careers that enrich their own lives and make a profound difference to the world around them.
And yet, I heard many of these women talk also about feeling they lack assertiveness, about their wish to be able to say more clearly what they want and need. Who we are, what we want for our lives and our levels of self-confidence bears no relation to one another. And much of this is to do with what we are taught by our families, peers and surroundings as we grow up.
But at the end of the retreat, I heard a young woman from Indonesia say, “Everyone who is born has a purpose, and so do I”.
So do I.
I pray from the bottom of my heart for all women, that our strength will carry us into all the places we dream of going in our lives, and that we will know our own worth and our own beauty and giftedness. And I pray that we will know the power that comes from getting there together.