I'm a woman and I'm a Quaker. Knowing only these facts, one might think that I must be a pretty "nice" person. But I'm also a member of Gen X which means that I was reared in a generational context that benefited from the work of Baby Boomer feminists who challenged the expectations of female behavior. Unfortunately, those very same Baby Boomer women who raised and educated my generation have not completely escaped the strictures placed on their own behavior when they were little girls.
I'm going to make a blanket statement about liberal female people of a certain age. I know it is not completely true because my good friends and my mother also belong to this generation and this statement does not apply to them. If it doesn't apply to you, don't worry about it. I'm not talking about you. But it does apply to some of you. Here it is.
You have a problem with anger. You still buy into the idea that women should refrain from showing aggression. You are too nice. Worse, you insist that younger women be "nice." You take perfectly good kick-ass social justice crusades and make them unpalatable with your washed-out, saccharine, Hallmark card approach. You alienate younger women when you look down on our tattoos or our colored hair or our combat boots and piercings. You squelch our enthusiasm (Don't you remember your own 1960s enthusiasm?) with polite committee work and the insistence that we watch our mouths. God forbid any of us express rage and hurt at the injustice in the world. God forbid any of us use off-color language.
Here's an example:
As the youngest member of an interfaith group, I was excited about a woman who publicly challenged the Roman Catholic Church by becoming a local Catholic congregation's priest. She and her entire congregation were excommunicated but they kept right on serving their community. They refused to surrender their claim to Catholicism. They refused to back away from their faith in human equality in the body of Christ. I was mightily impressed and inspired. That woman has guts. This is a woman who was not afraid of offending. Offend the pope himself? Why not? The pope is wrong! Get kicked out of the church for the sake of her faith in Jesus? Bring it on! So I said, enthusiastically and with deep admiration, that she "kicks ass" and I was excited that we were going to meet her.
During the next meeting of the board members, of whom I was the youngest by decades and the poorest by a long-shot, I was admonished for supporting violent language patterns that undermine peace in the world. Was I acknowledged for the presentations and programs I had recently organized and worked despite the financial burden it was on me? Nope. Was my oft-expressed commitment to pacifism and women's rights acknowledged? Nope. Was I labeled "angry" and intentionally embarrassed in front of the other women on the board for using the expression "kick-ass"? You betcha. 'Cause apparently, that's a problem. Their spending habits that actually support injustice in the world? Not a problem. Their big old gas guzzlers and inhumane diets? Not a problem. Their failure to support any "interfaith" program that "might offend local Christians"? Not a problem. But me using the word "kick-ass"? That kind of language, apparently, is really the foundation of violence in the world.
At a doctoral seminar, European American Buddhist women scolded me for expressing anger about social injustice. I was not enlightened enough. And we're not talking about me stomping around and shouting. We're talking about me making the point that it is inherently unjust to make statements indicating that those who suffer in the world do so because they have failed to "draw positive energy to themselves". When I insisted that poverty, sexual violence, warfare, hunger, and abuse are inflicted upon the weak by the powerful, I was out of line and that many of our privileges and powers in the West are undeserved, unjust, and even indecent, I was being negative. I was being angry. And that's not "nice."
Well, f--- "nice".
Now don't get me wrong. I don't think we should go around swearing and cussing for the sake of it. Vulgarity gets old fast when it is overused. But I'm all for vulgarity if it accurately expresses a feeling or propels a person out of apathy and into action. It also acts as a release valve in an increasingly tense social context. As my father always said to his daughters, "They are just words. They have only the power we give them and I'd rather you girls swore than hit someone." And believe me, swearing has prevented me from hitting someone on more occasions than I can count.
I want to make it clear that I don't believe that we can be careless with words. They do hurt. I know that. In fact, it is a big part of my work as a feminist academic, but I believe that we are called to use language that honestly reflects our experiences and feelings even when those words are rough to hear. While I also believe that we are called to refrain from terms that are cruel or which undermine our brothers' and sisters' humanity, I do not believe we are called to ensure that other people feel comfortable.
So for all you female Baby Boomers out there who have told me to play nice, tone it down, and watch my mouth let me remind you to live up to your own legacy. You are the generation that produced the Bitch Manifesto. You shouted against war and shook your fists at patriarchy. You marched and protested. You broke the rules and beat down doors. You were radical, uncompromising, glorious and proud. You kicked ass and took names.
So shove over and give me a turn or join me here with your fist in the air. But don't tell me to be "nice." It ain't gonna happen. Not in this generation anyhow.