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Category Archives: A world of women

night streets. women walking.

i go out walking late at night. Twice within two weeks I crossed paths with a woman who was a student in a couple of classes I taught recently. The first time, we were near my house, she was walking toward me, and I thought I recognized her walk. I ticked through the cerebral rolodex (I know no one uses those anymore…never mind), came up with her name–reminded by the way she walks, striding, really, forceful steps, leads with her chin. I prepared to meet her eye, nod, smile, say hello–she didn’t even glance my way, looked right past me, and a little bit to my left. I know she recognized me. My hair is longer, we were not at school, so out of context, but I sensed, (more than saw) her see me, then decide to snub me. She was very cold. The next week, same thing, completely different neighbourhood. I recognized her from further away this time. and again, as she passed me, I could almost feel a cold breeze. I’m not important enough in her life for her to hate me, but I think she does anyway.
The first class that she was in was the first semester of her teacher training year. Everyone new to each other, for the most part. It was a tough class–apparently I can be a polarizing kind of teacher.
Now, i’m nowhere NEAR as radical as I think I should be. Not as a teacher, certainly, nor as a writer or academic — and i haven’t been an active activist now for a long time. But I was far too radical for some of my students in that class. When we talked about sexism, sexual harassment, male violence against women — well. there was some consternation. And some of the people in the class were energized and excited and troubled and sparked up. Others were troubled and defensive and anxious and angry. Some were just plain pissed off. it was a hard semester for all of us. Some of the students (all men, turns out), complained about me to the head of the department. There was a meeting, I was invited to tell my side of the story, the faculty members with whom I met were kind, and suggested that, while probably there were some things I could do differently, to stir up such feeling is not necessarily a bad thing, either. In the end, I think it turned out alright. I definately could have approached the topic differently — carved out more space for women to sort things out with each other, and for the men to help each other with their defenses and other feelings — I forget sometimes that my students are not necessarily allies, even potentially. My faculty mentor helped me address some of the tensions remaining, and we did what we could to mend the fissures.
But there remained intense feelings. Some of the students in that class were loyal and friendly since — others did not speak to me again, avoided eye contact if we by chance met.
This one, the one who leads with her chin, she’s one who stayed angry, looks like. When she was in the class for which I was a teaching assistant, the following summer, I’m pretty sure she did not speak to me directly at any time. It was a big class, so I didn’t notice at first, wasn’t even sure by the end of the class. I’m sure now. But I can’t really figure out why. Guess I hit a nerve.

Another night, another walk, i come upon a shopping-cart shrine. Kind of like a sand mandala, in a way. Someone parked a shopping cart full of stuff in the middle of a sidewalk. Scattered (or placed?) things around it like traffic pylons. A shoe, a bunch of plastic flowers, a crumpled white blouse. in the cart, shopping bags with clothes, chocolate bar wrappers, paper plates, a jacket, a wooden picture frame. a ratty Teddy bear, one eye glaring. Along the fence that runs the north side of the sidewalk, a stooped slender figure shifted along, peering through the chain link every few metres. I wanted to cross the road before we met.
In a couple of weeks, i’m going to teach a short course on “sociology of marginalized youth” at a small suburban college that specializes in training “small p professionals” — mental health workers, care aides, group home workers– And there she was, right there below the hill where I live. A bona fide marginalized youth. i walked past her, she shuffled along the fence, glanced at me–caught my eye. dammit. I said, “do you want some chicken?”
“sure” she said, “okay”. she was tiny. long black hair–a young Native woman.
“you sleeping out?” I asked, immediately wishing i’d shut up. OF COURSE she was sleeping out. What was I proposing? would I take her home with me? I didn’t want to. Oh dear god.
“what?” she asked, and I didn’t answer. I handed her the chicken I’d just got from the Asian supermarket downtown, smoked chicken– and an apple. “You don’t smoke cigarettes, do you?”
“No, sorry, I don’t” I said, and thought for a minute, if I did I would give her the pack, but that’s poison, and it’s deliberate murder, the tobacco companies they target young, impoverished, disengaged Aboriginal people-and i’d feel all temporarily pleased with myself if i gave her smokes, ’cause she would be WAY happier with a smoke than with some weird-smelling chicken (it did kinda smell weird. well, it was smoked after all–smelled like ashes. tasted good, but you had to get past that smell, first).
“That’s okay” she said, “thanks”.

“you’re welcome”, I said, “good night, dear”. She was already back to scouting the fence.

And I walked the rest of the way home.

Holy smokes, it’s 2014 now! I began this post in the spring of 2013, I think. Just noodling away while my right foot healed from bunion surgery. Now I’m still a lesbian, but my right big toe is straight! I’ll just let this post stand as I’ve written it, but by bit over the past number of months, a sentence here, a paragraph there, write, delete, write, save draft, move on…here ya go:
In part, I’m not posting on account of I have this dissertation to finish. Most of my cohort has graduated now. Two others, like me, are not yet done, but both of them lost their mothers early in our program, and took a leave to help with their care and after. They have also added children to their families, as have most of the rest of my cohort. I don’t know how they do it — babies and jobs and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and teaching classes and presenting at conferences and ‘networking’ and then they all got academic jobs before or when they finished.
Then there’s me. Not getting a hair cut ’till i’m finished at least a full draft. hair’s pretty long. tangled and wild, just like the inside of my head. I am now working on my THIRD draft, but I didn’t get my hair cut because Mom wanted to brush it when I went home for Christmas. Plus, to tell the truth, now I kinda like it…and as I said, it is a fairly true representation of the knots and split ends and tangles my thinking often is — Harm reduction, women’s liberation, prostitution, front-line work, activism, law enforcement, legislation, compassion, education, learning and thinking and practice and theory — whose voice counts and for what? I have it, i have it all right here, but it’s still in piles or shards, and the finish line is shimmering in the distance like a mirage on the broad desert of libertarian individualism– choice, agency, consent, voice, sexwork, oppression, justice — what the hell do the proponents of legitimating prostitution mean by “justice” or “choice” when they argue for legal brothels? What do the women on the front-lines of feminist anti-violence work, or street-based health care, or social service advocacy mean when they talk about the application or meaning or uses or harms of harm reduction? How do we meet each other where we are, how do we see through the fog and cacophony of “best practices” and “evidence-based” and “respect for their choices–constrained though they may be” and hang on to each other as we look together for a way out?
It’s so easy to go off in several directions, and then i get kinda stuck and end up–well, here, fiddling with yet another draft of yet another blog post that I may not even post at all.  fits and starts, fits and starts. story of my life…
There are always reasons that i’m not done yet. Death, birthdays, grieving, celebration, work, love, fighting, worrying, fretting over this and that–but not delving, you know? not flinging myself wholly into one thing or another– just falling into the messiness of everything and thrashing about. There’s a difference. Falling in, you just get all covered in mess, and it takes a long time of kicking and flailing and sinking to make sense of it. Sometimes you only get covered in ick.
Purposefully leaping in, on the other hand, means you have to look where you’re leaping–even if you don’t see IT exactly, you know the spot to aim for. It’s good, too, to know to dive–close your eyes, tuck your head, raise your arms above your head, palms together, your body a spring–you’ve been training for this, you know what to do–once you’re in the air you have to have faith– and never lose your focus or your nerve.
One of my mentors (I have a few, most have come to me from surprising places) said to me, “Well, you have been dealing with a deadly disease, after all, don’t underestimate how hard that is”. I had, of course. Underestimated, that is, — how hard it is to figure out how to live as fully human after twenty years of hiding inside a case of beer (I preferred good single-malt scotch, of course, but it’s more expensive. And in truth it’s wasted on me. I would just chug it anyway).  There is NO WAY I would be where I am now were I still drinking. No way. Even though I think I’ve had a pretty smooth road, I have indeed worked pretty hard over the last nearly six years just on living sober. I go to these meetings, and I write about my resentments and anxiety and my part in it all, and talk to other women who “go to my church” so to speak, and I ask for help and I help others and I do things that I don’t want to do like pray and meditate (I’m an atheist, but I know I’m not alone. I don’t understand a whole bunch of stuff, so if I talk about it to my grandma, or to my dad or to ancestors who’ve gone before me, and then just shut up and sit still for a bit, an answer will come). So, you know, that’s a lot of talking and listening and writing and doing that just gets me to zero, right? It just gets me to where most people who aren’t addicted begin.
Of course I am still critical. I always chicken out at the last minute. I start, I train, i write, I read, i take my pen and my paper, my books right there, the notes from discussions there, the timer set and — “oh, one game of solitaire won’t hurt” — then before you know it, it’s gone from solitaire to email to that video about ['well, it's kind of related to my research...]  to Angry Birds (dear god, what have I become?) — and by the time i pick up my pen again, or open the file on my computer, I’ve lost my nerve. I have to prepare again, breathe deep, review my notes, set the timer — On bad days, I’m covered with ick, have cleared two levels or won three out of umpteen games of solitaire, read two or three articles about whatever, answered the phone, written three emails, checked my email 235.3 times, and –
on good days, all that, plus written one five-sentence paragraph. it’s exhausting. The self-trashing alone–i tell you…
It’s time i learned, though. There are three things in my life that I have to dive into with my whole self–One is living sober. I can’t do jack about anything else if i’m hammered or obsessing about altering my consciousness. I can do anything if i’m staying sober and helping others achieve sobriety. Anything.
One is my dissertation, and what the hell to do with it after — i must not let it gather dust on a shelf–or whatever the digital equivalent of that is—i’m sure it has something to offer, and sixteen women told me the truth about their lives and work–The PhD, jesus. it’s so intimidating.
And one is my, um, primary intimate relationship. I’m not sure what exactly to call it–’partner ship’ sounds kinda too much like business, ‘love affair’ doesn’t sound committed or serious enough, and ‘relationship’ isn’t specific enough. We’re friends, lovers, political allies, family, home — and in all that sometimes comfort, sometimes discomfort — it’s a journey and a place–a project and a lifework–it’s play and solace and sometimes it’s not — and she has children, too, two happy, healthy, confident and beautiful boys. I think they will grow up to be good men, even with all the pressure to become gendered (and they are that too, of course), but because of their mother and her friends, and their father’s devotion to them, they will always know who they are—and what they can achieve.
We had a deal for the first two years that we would not, during disagreements or fights, go to the “let’s just break up” option. We could revisit the agreement to be together around our anniversary date, make a new deal or keep the same one. Of course some painful stuff has come up, we have had hard moments so far. So it was comforting to have that agreement– it meant that we wouldn’t go to that in haste, we’d evaluate other options first. We don’t have that deal anymore, it was important when we made it, but we have to come up with something different now, more nuanced—something that accounts for what we’ve learned about how we are together and what we understand now about each other. It’s hard work this. I don’t mind (mostly). It’s sometimes a bit, well, anxiety-provoking and difficult — but so are most worthwhile commitments and adventures. She is brilliant and funny, impatient and demanding, she has really good politics (that’s hot), she’s uncompromising and generous, disciplined and impulsive, fiercely loyal and tenacious – she won’t give up on me IF I never give up. I love being with her. She is absolutely worth the work I have to do to be open, compassionate, thoughtful, generous and gracious.
Sometimes, even knowing that, I fail. I’m impetuous and petulant, sometimes lazy, defensive, liberal, self-seeking, thoughtless. I am learning, though, however slowly. All three of those big important things are all about learning and putting what i’ve learned to practice. Trying and failing and learning and trying again and succeeding and asking for help and…

non-sequiter coming right up–
I had a meeting with my committee recently, and when we started up, the first thing i did was cry. It wasn’t because i was afraid of what they would say about the six chapters i’d sent them. I worried they would say that I am not worthy, it’s not good, it doesn’t make sense, the arguments don’t hold together–but they didn’t say that. They said it needs a lot of work yet, but also that it’s substantial, remarkable, inspiring (!). Which is also frightening, but in a way different way.
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On December 20, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously agreed to strike down most of Canada’s prostitution laws.

The decision is suspended, however, and the VERY Conservative government has one year to draft new legislation that will not infringe on the human rights of “sex workers”, as did the previous laws. Those laws were meant to criminalize such activities as, establishing and profiting from escort agencies or brothels, procuring women for the satisfaction of men’s sexual appetites and communicating for the purposes of prostitution–all laws which could have been (but were not) used to interfere with and constrain men’s demand for sexual access to women.

We went to an open house January 1st, my lover and I–a small New Year celebration of friends who live around the corner from me. We enjoy our friends–they are smart, interesting and generous. It was good to spend the first day of the Gregorian calendar with fine women and good food. There were lucky black-eyed peas and lentils, boiled cabbage and corned beef, cornbread and pecan tarts, and few other women at first. A couple who play bridge with one of our hosts, another neighbor who is a doctor of Chinese medicine, and a co-worker of one of the hosts — then more came.  Including a woman I used to know when we were on a steering committee together, and some other shared projects of the feminist variety.  Now she’s a local politician, or she was. We were never friends, really, though we were at one time allies. Not now, though, and not for a long time.

She’s a little older than I am, and as a young woman was part of the Abortion Caravan in 1970 — women from all over Canada, beginning in Vancouver, traveled together to Ottawa to demand legal, free abortion on demand. Wonderful, brave action, and part of a world-wide movement of women that was rising strong in those days. She was an organizer, and she was interested in women’s liberation from male domination. She would say she is still.

Anyway, she came to the party and sat next to me. She asked what i was doing now, and I told her that i am finishing my PhD. She asked what I was working on, and I told her, “front-line anti-violence workers, their engagement with harm reduction in relation to their work with women in prostitution”. She said that sounded interesting, and I said, “yea, timely too, now.” Then she said, referring to the Bedford decision, “What a great day that was”.

Sigh. People do not pay attention. I don’t know how she could NOT know my position on this.  Anyway, she does now. I said, “oh, Ellen, you and I are not on the same side on this issue at all. Of course women in prostitution, those selling sex must be decriminalized –”

“yes, of course” she said.

“But the pimps, the procurers, the men who buy sex–they’re the problem–the demand must be stopped. It is a big mistake to decriminalize them.” I looked at her, “Big mistake.”

She looked uncomfortable (I think), and then my girlfriend tapped me on the shoulder, “We should make room now for the new people coming,” and I was happy to do so.  Ellen nodded hello to her and we all smiled stiffly at each other. Then we kissed our hosts good bye, wished everyone a happy new year and walked into the grey rainforest afternoon.

We should be allies with ALL of the women who were there that afternoon, and more, besides. Especially women who organized in the 70s, who took such brave risks to ensure my freedom. But the best I can hope for from her now is that she will get out of the way. I don’t think she will–we are equally committed to our positions, it would appear. Perhaps she thinks I am in her way, as well.

Never mind. I just have to finish this damn thing, and then find out how to put it to use. It’s almost there, so close now, the culmination of many years of work. Yet still only a small part to add to the work of so many women before me, beside me and the women who will lead in the future. It is a hopeful beginning.

It’s 2014. Time to grow up.

about that last post…

I made some mistakes. if you got it, please don’t circulate it. I’m going back to the drawing board.

An unruly mob

Posted on

That’s what cancer is. it just gets in, and starts marauding all over the place.  Giving cellular reproduction and fission a bad bad name. It’s like when the cops send moles into peaceful demonstrations, or when undisciplined politicos go to organizing meetings. They start yelling and fomenting revolution and calling for direct action and mass organizing and “subvert the dominant paradigm!” and all this with Molotov cocktails and chairs smashing windows and it looks like a revolution, but it’s more of the same corruption of power and plays into the hands of the neo liberals. Cancer has no vision. It just lands somewhere and starts tearing shit down and putting up crappy slum housing. Cancer doesn’t care. it reproduces and becomes a mass here and a mass there, and starts taking yacht cruises through the blood stream and just ends up colonizing everything in the body. Cancer is the European of the disease world.  Walking right over all the cells that were already there, just going about their business.

Way, WAY more bad-ass than a virus or bacteria. It’s like rabbits in New Zealand.  Except not nearly as cute.

Jackie died May 30th. she was a big woman,  a humble genius– kinda misanthropic–with an eye for beauty, a soft spot for troublemakers and a devilish sense of humour.  She left a box of play scripts and stories, some paintings and collages, art cards, puppets, watercolour series’ of boiled eggs and strawberries; collages with lilies and sparkles; photographs from her life–

and she left a lot of love too. Nora and Polly, the love of her life and her oldest dearest friend — the beautiful people who were lifted by her talent and her eye for beauty. There’s no need to settle for less than bread and roses. She met death the way she lived her life — with curiosity, grace and humour. Surrounded by the people who loved her.

Her memorial is Sunday. She’s gone from us. But she’s still here in her art and her words.

damn, though.

choice is a noun. ‘victim’ is not an insult.

Well, Monday March 26, the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled on the appeal of the Bedford case, which challenges the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws. you can find it here.

Apparently, Canada’s prostitution laws violate the charter rights of prostituted women sex workers. Specifically, the right to freedom of association (sec. 2d), and the right to Life, Liberty and Security of Person (sec. 7) .   The appeal judges decided that the Communicating law did not violate the Charter rights of prostituted people sex workers, and represented a reasonable limit on rights to expression.  Because as we know, it is difficult to tell–no matter how much time you have to “screen” some guy– when he’s going to go off on you. Women in prostitution have told us many stories about going with men they knew, regular ‘clients’, men the met and talked with for an hour or so in the bar, men referred to them by trusted friends– who, when alone with them, became violent. And, you know, women often MARRY men who turn out to be abusive– five minutes on a street corner isn’t going to make a difference–he always decides how to behave, she will never have  that control. In theory, then, the communicating law can be used against the men who buy sex.

You know, of course, that even though it is always men who initiate communication for the purposes of prostitution (“hey, baby, how much?”) –it is almost always women who are charged under this law*.

On the other hand, running or being found in a common bawdy house and living on the avails of prostitution will no longer be illegal. the Government of Canada has one year to rewrite the law to decriminalize pimping, except in cases of trafficking, child prostitution or other exploitative circumstances. Because, you know, women who are sucking cock indoors are not exploited. That’s “consensual commercial sex” or something. those women are CHOOSING this ‘work’.Also they are much less of a nuisance than women who are sold on the street corners. Who, by the way, may ALSO be there by choice.

But now they can CHOOSE to work inside–now they can CHOOSE to set up shop together, now, they have CHOICES of how to do their work–

“An underlying premise of this project is that difficult choices made under constrained conditions are still choices and, indeed, many of the sex workers that worked on this project felt insulted by the repeated accusation that they are not capable of making “real” choices” (2004, Pivot Legal Society: Voices for Dignity, p. 6)

That there quote is from a report by Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver. they are also launching a Charter Challenge against Canada’s solicitation laws. As evidence, they gathered 90 affidavits from women in prostitution in the Downtown Eastside from the women who ‘felt insulted’.

Let me take a moment to pick that quote apart a bit. First of all, “choice” is a noun, right? it is a thing. Something one can have or make.  When women’ make difficult choices’, they are making them out of some material, let’s call this material “options”, or “conditions”.  these are, in concrete terms, the option to sleep; to eat; to rest; to clean herself; to read; to care for her children; to nurture friendships; to feel comfort.  She can pick any or all of these options, she can do any of these things with her pocket full o’ choice. But she needs something else in order to do any of these things, because we live in a free market capitalist society. She needs money. She has to buy all of these options. For all of them, she needs money. Money to afford the rent to pay for a place to sleep, and food to eat. Money to pay for clean clothes, soap and a towel; money to pay for all the things her children need to thrive under her care. And if she can’t get enough money for any of that, she’s gonna be in pain. So she needs money to pay for the drugs she will take in order to numb the pain — of exhaustion, hunger, humiliation, and the deep sorrow of being without her children. and drugs are cheaper than rent. What does that even mean in the context of prostitution? The women who make these choices are resourceful and brave and annoying and funny and tough and obnoxious. The women who are in the most danger, those women who populate the dark corners of the inner city; the women who find themselves alone and impoverished in mid-life; the women who can’t both pay the rent and feed the kids; the women who can’t bear the pain of living without drugs that numb the pain of memories– these women ‘choose’ prostitution because there are no other choices.

Pivot never revealed who made the “repeated accusations” about these womens’ capability. I suspect, however, that they mean abolitionists. They mean me. And they mean many of the women who work with women in the Downtown Eastside, and in the rest of the city, and all over the world. They mean those of us who are not content with merely ‘meeting women where they are’. We want to meet her, and get her out.  I can’t be free until no woman has to fuck a man in order to have a meal or pay the rent or get her kid a birthday present. The INSULT, dear Pivot Lawyer people, is that they have to live in this beautiful city, surrounded by all this abundance, and ‘choose’ to suck cock for money in order to afford anything remotely resembling a choice. This post by Janine Benedet says it better than I can.

What does that even mean, “real choices”? of course they are capable of making  real choices. But they don’t have the raw material necessary in order to *make* choices.  they are capable. they don’t have the resources. They are “public women” hidden from the public. They do not have influence, tools, language, money,  power, or the means to use them. They are in deep trouble. They are victimized daily–by the men who buy them, by the state that keeps them impoverished, by the weight of patriarchy and capitalism and racism all together hobbling them together as an abject mass.

And who wants to be known as a victim? nobody.  But if we don’t know the victims, we let the perpetrator get away, too.

Here’s what one woman had to say about her life as a “sex worker”, and how empowering it is:

I feel more empowered in a lot of ways than many women. Women who are accustomed to living a normal 9-5 existence and are married and perhaps have kids would find it extremely difficult were they to find themselves in circumstances like those I have to live with.  If an ordinary middle-class woman were to find herself in a hotel room in the DTES with no money, no food, the rent due, their belongings stolen and the landlord banging on the door, they would likely slash their wrists, or at the very least need psychiatric help, since that’s the only kind of help they could get.  If I were to find myself in their position on the other hand, I could easily adapt to their circumstances. However, I’ve only lived in the Downtown Eastside for seven years. If I’d lived here much longer, I don’t know that I’d be alive  (From an affidavit used as evidence in the Charter Challenge by Pivot Legal Society).

Empowered indeed. the Pivot Legal Society used as evidence for their Charter Challenge case (similar to the Bedford case) anonymous affidavits from 90 prostituted people (almost all women) in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Bedford relied upon arguments based on three women in prostitution, two of whom now pimp other women, rather than do it themselves, and the other who primarily is prostituted indoors.  Judge Himel’s decision makes for interesting (if depressing) reading, you can find it here.

Himel acknowledged in her ruling that women in prostitution faced many dangers. But agreed with the applicants that repealing the laws would reduce these dangers.

Well. it will certainly reduce inconveniences to men who are seeking to buy sex. Every one of the affidavits from the Bedford case, and from the Pivot case too, describe coercion, violence and harassment by MEN. Women said they were afraid of being criminalized, and annoyed that the laws were unevenly applied, and that they suffered from shame and stigma, to be sure. But they also related harrowing stories of beatings, rape, theft and other degradations meted upon them by the men who cruised the streets and the internet looking to buy a hand or a hole into which to thrust their penis. Clearly, every one of the women who testified about their experiences in prostitution, on both sides of the argument, have been victims. They were victimized by the men who bought and used them; victimized by police, courts, social services…

and they are victimized by the folks  who call for harm reduction and for decriminalization and regulation and for more respect for sex workers’  choices (how can ya have respect for something that isn’t there?), and more dignity for their work without questioning the men who victimize these women in the first place. If you don’t acknowledge there are victims, you will never see the perpetrators. And so it goes.

Here’s the F-word blog post by Laura Johnston, which describes the implications of the appeal decision.

so much heat and no light.  all this talk about ‘respect’ ‘dignity’ ‘choice’ ‘agency’

fuck that. Hah! that’s a pun, considering the topic of this post. That’s it, eh? that’s what decriminalizing prostitution amounts to, really. ‘fuck yer agency, baby. here’s twenty bucks to get on yer knees.’

I’ve said it before, i’ll say it again,  repealing these laws will not make these women safer. And even if  it would,  “safer” is still not safe. Safe is not  the same as free. Women might be absolutely safe from further assault inside brothels. But they’re a long long way from  freedom. Therefore, we are ALL a long long way from freedom.

Carry on, then. we’ve more work to do here.

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* mind you, for at least the last 5 years, the local police have not arrested anyone under the prostitution laws. Not the women, which is fine; but not the men, either, which is not fine. And anyway, there is nothing else for the women–not housing not training or education not decent jobs even if you get some education, and not childcare if you get a job or place in school–it’s a rat maze, eh. And so far the only path to the tube that dispenses the yummy pellets is prostitution or drug dealing…or participating in research projects…

What’s YOUR favourite decade?

I think the 70s is my favourite decade. Feminism was HOT then–the 70s was when women started rape crisis centres and transition houses–and they were meant to be hubs of feminist political activity. Some became that, too. Take Back the Night, for example, was invented by anti-male-violence feminists. Radical feminists. That didn’t last long, unfortunately, by the 80s, battered and raped women were labeled  “sick”, and rape crisis workers were (big “P”) Professionals. the gap between them and us widened, even though there is no gap. The Man imposed it. Saw that we were serious, and gaining strength–and took measures, both subtle and drastic, to slow the movement of women.

“oh, those plucky girls, look how hard they’re working! How serious and earnest they are!”  The Man didn’t realize what a threat we were at first, and for a while there was a little room for women to move. Move into a bit of power. And those that did, made room for other women. And found money for each other. Soon the centres, the resource centres,  transition houses and rape crisis lines were funded. Under funded, mind you, but still. A wedge. But that wedge, that little bit of money that kept the lines and doors open, it came at a cost. The State began to ask for statistics, credentials, proof that this was necessary, and proof that ordinary women were the women to do this work.

“Aren’t you girls over-reacting just a bit?”

No. We are not. 40 years ago we were not overreacting, either.

Some women’s groups capitulated. slowly, slowly, though. It became important to hire women with University degrees. It became important to talk to women about “the cycle of violence” and the variety of syndromes and disorders that they might have: Post-traumatic stress disorder; battered wife syndrome; false memory syndrome; borderline personality disorder; pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder; Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy; obsessive compulsive disorder; etcetera etcetera, ad nauseum, syndrome disorder ad infinitum. At first women just told The Man what he wanted to hear, so he would keep tossing us crumbs of cash.

But some of us started to believe it. And some women started making money. Capitalism is Patriarchy’s best friend. Money does talk. And it drowns out women’s voices, even when women are the only ones speaking. We started placating the man, trying to get around him, but still keep the money flowing to the women who needed it, but gradually we had to work harder and harder to get the money, and it started to eat into the time we had to connect with other ordinary women–the women in trouble;  the women The Man had an even greater stranglehold on.

Take Back the Night prevailed, though, in some places. It was an exciting, vibrant, strident gathering of angry loving hopeful enraged impatient women. No men. Not at the back of the march, not in it–women only. Do you remember? Maybe we were mad at each other, maybe we had disagreements about how things should be done, and maybe we were making mistakes all over the place, but those nights, those raucous gatherings mended us together. We raised our voices together into the night, and we took it together. Protecting each other, standing shoulder to shoulder marching through the city streets, we said with one voice, “Enough!”

Though there were often many, there were never enough of us, not really. But wow, they were grand events. We would sing and chant and shout and clap our hands and raise a right ruckus–the sounds of women’s rage was amplified by the tall buildings. We’d spray paint on porn shops and sidewalks,  while other women in the march covered us. Women at work would stand at the doors of their shops and restaurants and wave their fists in solidarity, jump for joy. Some would join us.

but now it’s become a frail and fussy distant relative, whimpering about ‘violence’ as if it’s a mysterious virus that can be inoculated against. there are men in the marches now, a lot of them. They are no longer part of the women’s liberation movement.

sigh.

But they were the tactic of another time.  And maybe they will be of a future time. Maybe we will revive Take Back the Night. We will be Women Occupying. Not Women Occupied.  been there, done that.

ah. Today I worked at the transition house in the morning. Women talked about the violence men have done to them. the controlling, the manipulations, the withholding of money and kindness. Women said, “I am glad there’s a place like this. I’m glad to be here.”

In the 1970s, my mom applied for a credit card. There was a section where her husband was to sign.  She said, “He’s not applying for a credit card, I am.” the person taking her application told her that she had to get him to sign it. She said, “why?”

There was, of course, no answer that satisfied her. She walked away. She decided she didn’t need a credit card after all.

Capitalism is Patriarchy’s best friend.  Credit cards are evil anyway. But women need access to our own money, for sure we do, ’cause we live in capitalism. and patriarchy.

is having a credit card like telling ‘the man’ what he wants to hear? “sure honey, i’ll pay you back…”

so many contradictions….

anyhow. i’m running outta steam here. The 70s, though. Favourite decade. the rising of the second wave. Thrilling.

I was a child then, though, I didn’t pay the enormous price those early feminists did.  They opened a path.

You know who you are.

Thank you.

A girl that whistles and a hen that crows, makes her way wherever she goes….

My grandma used to say that sometimes, when i would whistle. Sometimes, instead, when my whistling annoyed her, she’d say, “A whistling girl and a crowing hen, will always come to a bad end.” But we both liked the other version better.

*****

When I was a child, I was DETERMINED to become a boy. I knew with absolute certainty that I had been a boy in some past life, and that I would grow up to become a boy in this one.

I kind of did, in a way. I make fart jokes; lift weights, (heavy fuckin’ weights, too, none of this 2lb pink vinyl crap for me);  drive stick shift– and  i’m letting my moustache grow for ‘mo-vember’ (even if i think it’s kinda stupid–mo-vember, not my moustache).

I also go out for walks, alone,  late at night; get into elevators even when the only other occupant is an adult male; list my full name in the phone book; and make eye contact with strangers.

When I was 11, I read in the paper about this guy who got an operation so he could become a woman and play tennis in the women’s league. I thought then that if he could do that, I could get an operation to become a male when i grew up. I told my mom. She didn’t like the idea so much, “oh, don’t do that, you won’t want that when you’re an adult”. I was determined, though, as i said before. I kept at it, insisting that I was going to save up my allowance and become a man.

Well, I’m not sure i said “man” or even thought it, I think i might have said ‘boy’.  Because I also did not really want to grow up.

Anyway, i was so insistent that she started to cry. She was washing my hair at the time. My mom washed my hair for me until i was quite old. It was a trial, my hair. that was another reason to be a boy. Boys took showers and had short hair that didn’t require hot oil treatments and curling irons and barrettes and braids.  My hair was curly and plentiful, but dry and fine.  From the time i was about 10, we tried all kinds of things to get it to lie flat (ish). I don’t know why I couldn’t have it short like my brother’s hair.

But anyway. My grandma always said to me, “Erin, you should have been a boy.” and I believed her.  For a long time, i believed that I should have been a boy.

When my period came, I was mortified. My mom was all excited. Tears in her eyes again as she gave me the belt and the pad (this was a loooooong time ago). she smiled and cupped my cheek in her hand. When i got the contraption on and called her into my room again, she checked to see if the placement was okay, and said, “Honey, you can tell your dad that you’re a woman now.” and she asked if she could tell her best friend, who lived in the United States now, and was (is) one of my very very favourite grown-ups.

There was NO WAY i was ever going to tell my dad that I was a woman now. It was okay with me if she told Mrs. Lenz. I just wanted the whole thing to go away. It was a disaster every month. all those bulky pads, the cramps, the mess the embarrassment. Everyone would know what those toilet paper-wrapped lumps in the garbage were. I flushed them.

Our septic system backed up.

Mom asked me, in a private moment, to please not flush my pads anymore because they had to call in a  plumber to clear out the pipes. I’m sure it was no picnic for him to fish used pads out of the basement.  I said i wouldn’t. but then I did. I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to use a tampon, but I finally did when i was about 14 or 15, and then the perpetual plumbing problems (alliteration!) cleared up.

And there was the bra thing. Godhelpme, i did NOT want to wear a bra. I didn’t want to wear a shirt, let alone anything under a shirt. You remember how it felt, when your breasts were starting to grow? How tender they were? Oh dear me. And those “training bras”? what the hell were our breasts supposed to learn wrapped in them?  the boys would always go around snapping our bra straps. It hurt, front and back. I was one of the first girls in my class to wear a bra, much as I hated the idea, and I didn’t have any idea of how to resist. I was always trying to keep my back to a wall.

One Friday afternoon, when i was in grade five, i think, our teacher  held a dance for the grade five and six kids. I remember those things as fun. We turned the lights off and put records on and danced together, girls and boys and girls and girls and maybe the boys didn’t really dance much. I don’t know that I danced much, either, I was kind of clumsy and goofy. I was walking over to the front of the room, and my friend Karen noticed my bra strap hanging down, and took hold of it. I didn’t notice and kept walking, and then she let go of it when i was half-way across the room. snap! some of the other kids laughed, mocking me. I was embarrassed.  I left in tears.  why did i have to be a girl? Boys did not suffer such humiliations.

But by that time, I knew that i would be a girl, and not for much longer, either. I was becoming a woman, just as Mom said.

******

High school was pretty fun. But also a torment. It was a big school, and in the centre hallway, near the gymnasium, where everyone had to pass by at some time during the day, there were rows of benches. On the benches, at any time. but especially over lunch, there were sprawled an array of boys, the jocks. The benches in fact, were called “the jock benches”. the boys stomped their feet in the rhythm of the Queen song, “We are the Champions” and threw coins at the pretty girls. Sometimes they threw pennies at the ugly ones, and threw them to hurt. In my first year of high school , they would yell after me, “is that a boy or a girl?”

I used to wear Wrangler boot-cut jeans, a wide belt with what i thought was a beautiful buckle, kind of like stained glass, in all colours, and polyester shirts with pictures of English hunting scenes on them.  Also, often, wide suspenders, mismatched socks and a blue and white striped train engineers cap. Quite the sight.  Grade ten, the first year of high school, was also my first year of having contact lenses. I wore them all day, for far too long. So, you know, I looked like I was high, my eyes all red and teary.

Mom was still doing my hair in the mornings. i don’t know why. Neither of us enjoyed the process. Goddamn curling iron. One day in grade eleven, I think, I decided i wasn’t gonna do anything with it. Just wash it, shake it, and hope for the best. That was a kind of liberation. We didn’t have hair gel or mousse in those days. just hair spray. no way i was gonna use that stuff, either. My hair looked just fine, if a bit wild–fine, soft curls whirling around my head. Nobody cared…

I had a boyfriend in Grade 10, he had been my best friends boyfriend and he only went with me ’cause she broke up with him. i didn’t like him very much, but we were both in love with her, so that kinda bonded us. didn’t last.

I learned how to shave my legs and armpits, and i sometimes plucked my eyebrows.  then i would look surprised.

by the time i was in grade 11, I was wearing women’s clothing sometimes, and my jeans were tight (remember? in the late 70s you had to lie down to be able to zip up your jeans? remember that?). I often wore my dad’s shirts tucked into my too-tight jeans. I didn’t wear underwear, ’cause i didn’t want panty-lines, but my waist was all bunchy anyway, because my dad’s shirt was tucked into my jeans. And then there were the suspenders.  and makeup–oh deargod. I rarely wore makeup, but one day, I tried to hide a zit with a bit of foundation. But then that spot on my face was kinda orange, so I figured i’d better spread it out a bit.  consequently, the orange spot broadened. So I added a bit more foundation., thinking that if I could just blend the edges, it wouldn’t show.

I went to school that day with a distinctly orange face, chin and neck. “hey, Erin, are you wearing makeup?”

“no”.

It was a terrible day.

I could never get the hang of that femininity thing. And i was (am) asthmatic. I always wanted to run and run and leap over tall buildings and do parkour before there was such a thing, and swing from the light posts–but i couldn’t. I tried out for every team, from basketball to volleyball to badminton, and didn’t make a one. When we’d go cross-country running in school, I’d struggle along and come in dead last, hair full of sticks, wheezing and huffing–i got a reputation for being plucky, anyway.

But whatever, i rode my bike or walked the two miles to school every day, most days, and i became all excited about drama. I didn’t have to be a girl in drama class, i could be a mythical creature, a buffoon, an animal or an idea–and i was good at it, the acting stuff. I wasn’t all that comfortable in my body, womanly and wheezy as it was, but i learned how to use it to create art, and I  found a gang to hang with. we were into plays and singing in the hallways, and improvising skits behind the auto shop at lunch time. we did plays together with the drama teacher, Steve, and we sometimes partied with him too. That was kind of a no-no. Cool for us, not so cool of him. But he wasn’t much older than we were. He taught us about dada and noh and commedia d’el arte. we did mask work and improv and entered provincial one-act play contests. We traveled to Lacombe and Innisfail and Calgary, even.

By and by, I started to fit in at school. I wasn’t one of the Beautiful People, I wasn’t a jock or a stoner or a party girl or a nerd–i was one of those drama kids.  my nickname was “maniac” or “spin”, but it was fine with me, i got attention, and i was left alone at the same time.  People liked me, I liked them, and it didn’t matter as much that i was a girl. I didn’t hang with the boys much, except for the two guys who were in my tight little gang. I have a picture of us from that time, we are in a park, the sun lit up our hair, we posed for the camera, Brent dark and brooding, Mark open and friendly, Cathy relaxed and shining, Bonny looks like she’s about to leap into a cartwheel, and i’m in front, on the ground, head thrown back, wearing goofy sunglasses and laughing. I don’t know where any of them are anymore. our paths used to cross from time to time, but not for years now.

They were my friends. we saved each other in a way. I fell in love with Bonny, but i didn’t know it and couldn’t understand it. Intense. Heartbreaking. I only wanted to be with her, even when we both had boyfriends. Then when i broke up with my boyfriend, she started going out with him. I wasn’t upset about that so much, except it meant that I wouldn’t be able to hang out with Bonny so much, and that was one of the reasons I broke up with him in the first place, i think. But I didn’t know what was going on. I only ached, and I didn’t know why until many years later.

*******

My body, the womanly, asthmatic body that i grew into, was not my friend. I was often hospitalized, and more often after i finished high school, and started smoking cigarettes. It’s common, apparently, for asthmatics to become smokers. Kind of like a pre-emptive thing. I want to be able to have SOME control, if i’m not gonna be able to breathe, it might as well because of something i’m doing deliberately.

I know it doesn’t make sense.

When i was 18, I started lifting weights. I loved it. It was perfect for me, I could sit and wheeze until I recovered and pick up the weight again. I didn’t have to chase across a muddy field or a gymnasium floor after a ball a puck or whatever, tripping and sliding and running the wrong way and letting the team down over and over again.

A few months after that, i got pneumonia. I was smoking and drinking too much at the time, which likely contributed to my respiratory distress. My fiance at the time (a man! Shocking, i know. He played bagpipes, how could i resist?) didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t breathe, I was in big big trouble. My mom came. she took me home. Then to the hospital. I was gravely ill.

I wanted to be a boy. Boys were strong, boys became garbagemen and firemen and acrobats and cowboys they got to be outside, riding horses, driving trucks, pulling, pushing and lifting things. girls became mothers and nurses and teachers. They had to stay inside.

When i got out of the hospital, i was all detoxed and very weak. Beginning again. I went to the gym. I went to the gym A LOT.  My grandparents were worried i would hurt myself, or that i would not be a real woman, maybe i’d become a lesbian or something awful like that. they never said that, but my grandpa especially implied that such pursuits were not alright for girls. that was mans work, that was.

I competed in powerlifting in the 1980s and 90s. I joined the women’s liberation movement in the 1980s, and lifting weights became a way to train for the revolution. There were years in there that i privileged late shifts on the crisis line and demos and dancing after demos over pumping iron, and other years when drinking took precedence, as well. but those are big stories, best left for posts of their own.

I did, in fact, become a lesbian, I’m sure my grandma knew, though i never told her. If I had, I would have said, “you know, Grandma, when you would say I should have been a boy?”–And she would nod or say, “it’s your deal,” (we played a lot of cribbage together), ” yes?” Then i would say, “I did better than that, I became a lesbian, how do ya like them apples?” (cause she always used to say that kind of stuff–including that little saying that makes the title of this post).  She would chuckle, I can hear her now; my grandma laughed with her whole body.

She used to say to me, too, “Erin, don’t ever marry an old country man”. She had married my Welsh  grandfather when she was a young widow in the first years of the Great Depression. My beloved grandpa  was a difficult man. Jealous and stubborn. A much better grandfather than he had been a husband, I’m sure. He was not violent, but neither was he loving.  Anyway, she always warned me not to marry a man from the old country (which old country, she never said), so I think the news that I would surely be spared that would have made her happy.

*******

I think this is the end of this post, but i’ll fill in the blanks by and by. There’s stories of a liberation movement here in this story of a girl who whistles in the darkness. Stories of many women who made space and made noise. I’ll get to them by and by, i promise.

It was powerlifting that reconciled me and my wheezy, clumsy body, and it was the women’s movement, it was radical feminism, in fact, that taught me how to be a woman. These two pursuits weave together a way into a movement of women building a world of women, for women.  this movement gave me many examples of womanhood that are not feminine or masculine–and women who were outside,  strong,  loud and taking up space.  Girls that whistle, hens that crow, making our way, wherever we go.

I cannot tell you how relieved I am that there was a still vibrant women’s liberation movement for me to join when i was a young woman.  And I’m really grateful there are women who are carrying on the work of this movements’ continued revival because we are nowhere near free, and we can’t let up until we are.

I didn’t become a boy, after all. I learned to whistle.

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