Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Message from a Quaker Gen X Woman to her Elders on Kicking Ass and Taking Names

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.


Morgaine said...

You GO Girl! My momma was a part of that generation, and was towed along for every protest and I watched as my momma pulled out wads of cash to pay for her "contemptuous" speeches in courtrooms across this country. I am proud of women who stand up and become a COUNTED number. Don't you worry one little bit about those who wouldn't say sh!t if they had a mouthful. ;-) And, don't close your mouth. The only reason you get told to shut it or to be less aggressive is because you've blown up a prissy skirt or two along the way.

Thurman said...

I don't know whether this deserves an Amen, or a Hell Yeah! How about both!

Radical? Uncompromising? The world needs a whole lot more of this from both genders.

I'm reminded of this quote from Gore Vidal a couple years ago, "I am most proud that, despite enormous temptation, I have never killed anybody and you don't know how tempted I have been."

Rock On, Sister!

Lone Star Ma said...

Sing it.

Karen said...

It bothers me that we still tangle up anger with our personal baggage around it, that we continue to mistake being bland for being nice. Being nice is not about being a doormat; anger is a real emotion we should be able to feel without dragging ourselves down with baggage. Love and anger are not necessarily incompatible.

Have these people read the New Testament? As a Pagan, I look at the few shreds of watered down information we've been left about Jesus, and I see someone motivated by love, compassion and righteous anger.

Mary Ellen said...

I'm glad you note exceptions to the generational comment - I have to say I've run into more younger women being timid in this way than women of my increasingly advanced Baby Boomer age - younger women who felt the term "feminist" might get them in trouble, might give the wrong impression. It's a battle to continue with each wave of us, as the society at large is so good at erasing our history and making the cry for justice seem - improper.

Hystery said...

Mary Ellen, your comment is very important. I wrote this post about women who call themselves "feminists" but who still have a problem with anger and who, perhaps, are out of touch with the Third Wave manifestations of feminist theory. I am lucky to have been reared and educated by Baby Boomers who did not succumb to docility as they aged and who not only were in touch with the Third Wave, they practically invented it. I do not wish at all to let any think that I believe that my generation is more feminist than yours. You are right to point out that women my age and younger are often so timid that they don't even dare call themselves feminists. They may be comfortable with anger and being "tough" but they do not see the need to ground that anger in the philosophical and political traditions of feminist theory. I do not wish to paint Baby Boomer women as wishy-washy cowards or Gen Xers as fearless radicals. My comments are only about feminists regardless of their age. I'll leave my comments about non-feminist Boomers and Xers for another time.

Heather from PNW said...

First time reader and I already love what I am seeing.

It is interesting (I am gen X too), that feminist is a dirty word to our generation, and the current Gen Y has no clue what the feminists did for us.

I find the new "christian" right is slowly usurping our freedoms. The right to have a voice in our household, the right to control our reproduction, and the right to birth our children in our feminine ways is being eroded so slowly that no one is watching.

If you are a woman and have a voice you are "an angry feminist". If you use birth control it is now labeled an "abortificant". If you want to have a natural birth, you will be drugged and most likely in the states, have your abdomen cut open.

I agree completely with your perspective on the board members too. I am a volunteer and I have to deal with a group of baby boomer (and older) women who control the funding of my program. I made the gross error of suggesting that since a program we were dropping no longer needed that funding, that perhaps we could ask the benefactor to give that money to another of our programs. Talk about being admonished. It was ridiculous. I was told that no woman should tell a man how to spend his money, amongst other things. It wasn't like I had actually asked him, I suggested it at the meeting.

Then I had one woman who came up to me after and got in my face about it. When she was done with her statements, she said "nothing personal". I laughed and said "oh no, I take that personally."

Thank you for posting something I truly relate to. I'm looking forward to reading more here.

Hystery said...

It strikes me that we are likely encountering some of the same difficulties once faced by women during the First Wave of feminism. There were generational tension there as well. Gen Xers call ourselves Third Wave feminists but a more accurate assessment of feminist history might make us fourth, fifth, or sixth wave feminists. This generational conflict is nothing new. In fact, it can be very productive. The Baby Boom revived the popular appeal of feminist discourse (the movement never really died even in the abysmal fifties) and they have a right to feel alarmed at subsequent generations' apparent failure to maintain the energy levels they achieved.

I do wonder, however, if our generation and those that come after us, have been underestimated. Granted, there are too many women who consider feminism to be an unspeakable "f-word", but let us not forget that not all Baby Boomer women are feminists either. A good many folks in that generation did not become radicalized. We cannot characterize that entire generation as "liberal", "leftist," or "progressive" any more than we can characterize the Xers as uniformly progressive.

I note that on more than one occasion, I've been told that women my age and younger do not engage in feminist dialog anymore. Such is not the case. Older women may not be aware of the consciousness raising that is going on in social networking sites and in blogs. Younger women are more immersed in an internet culture than their older feminist peers. Some of our enthusiasm is therefore invisible to them. When I was working with one women's interfaith peace group, I set up a MySpace account for them and explained that they could engage more young women if they operated in chat rooms dedicated to religious discussions and diversity. Not one of them ever did. This was a shame because I have found MySpace, Facebook, and blogging to be excellent means of discussing religious diversity, pacifism, women's health issues, and women's rights with women from vastly different socio-economic, religious, cultural and geographic backgrounds.

What I discovered was that while there is a great deal of ignorance and apathy out there among younger people, there is also a great amount of passion and savvy. The internet provides a means for us to do some CR work and to organize otherwise isolated young women who care deeply about women's rights.

Mary Ellen said...

Hystery, I certainly agree that the internet allows Gen X/Y women to have on-line versions of the mutual support and consciousness-raising I recall having face-to-face with women in my pre marriage/family/full-time work days. I enjoy some of the blogs I follow of young women struggling to maintain creative lives, home-school (or not) their children, and (some of them) explore forms of spiritual expression out of the mainstream. Yet there is still a degree of isolation that some of these bloggers express. Keep up with the volume, the honesty, the passion. It's hard (at least for some of us) to sustain over the long, long slog.

Hystery said...

Mary Ellen,

I hear you about it being hard to keep up the passion and even the feeling of connection over the internet. Include me among the women who feel isolated despite my online presence. In fact, my online presence is in large part because of my feeling of isolation in the "real world."

I'm hopeful about the possibilities for organizing, educating, and connecting women but I'm sad about the fact that so many of us are here because we feel we are alone and unheard in the rest of our lives.

Johnny Rapture said...

You... are amazing.

Shawna said...

Um, your female Catholic priest, um, does indeed kick ass.

And the Buddhist women are wrong... but that's not completely their fault... they were just expressing a foundational belief of Buddhism.

I was once told by a colleague of mine, "You're not nice.... but you're Good." It was one of the finest compliments I ever received. We aren't on this planet to be "nice." We're on this planet to be GOOD. Sometimes that means speaking truth to power. And that's just not nice.

I saw a button recently in one of my mom's radical political catalogs... "Well-behaved women rarely make history." A great button... but it leaves out the fact that they suffered a LOT before they made it into history... alienation and misunderstanding and dispresect and indignities large and small, and all too commonly physical suffering and abuse as well.

Doing the right thing and being Good and kicking ass, can really hurt. Later on, they remember you as a shero, but while it's all going down, you get a lot of grief for not being "nice." Hang in there, sister! You kick ass.

I rely on the internet for connections and support too... I have supportive RealLife folks around, but never nearly enough. We can all use all the connections we can get!

Karen said...

"And the Buddhist women are wrong... but that's not completely their fault... they were just expressing a foundational belief of Buddhism."

Could you point me to sources for that, please? I'm aware that Buddhism involves lots of sects with different ideas, and so far I've only been exposed to teachings which emphasise that the goal of dissociating baggage from emotions is so that we can be more authentic and aware of our patterns of emotion/behaviour, which leads to being psychologically healthier, more compassionate, calmer and more able to deal with conflicts in constructive ways. So far, I haven't come across Buddhist teachings which advocate not experiencing (or maybe repressing) emotions or not wishing to make positive changes in the world. I only speak English, I'm afraid, and my learning is pretty much self-directed, so I realise I may well have an inaccurate concept of the foundations of Buddhism.

Shawna said...

Hi Karen. I was probably too broad in my statement "foundational belief of Buddhism," which as you point out is a philosophy/religion with many different branches. I have not made a deep study of all the branches of Buddhism, so I shouldn't have used that phrase.

As I understand it from my Buddhist sister-in-law, we all create our own "reality" through right thoughts/right activity/positive energy or wrong thoughts/wrong activity/negative energy. If we get sick, for example, it's a result of our own wrong thoughts/actions in one fashion or another, possibly in a previous life, possibly in this life. As she describes it, it sounds like karma.

According to wiki (which I realize is only wiki, but I find them to usually have useful introductory material), many branches of Buddhism believe in karma, which would explain the statement made by the Buddhist women about poverty being a failure to draw "positive energy."

The karma idea seems to be pretty basic to Buddhism in general, but it isn't always emphasized; less so I think in the West in particular, where we don't like to hear that the Holocaust victims, for example, were victims because of the negative energy they accrued during past lives.

This is my highly inexpert thought on Buddhist belief. It is probably inaccurate, but I don't think it is wildly inaccurate. It all depends, I think, on the kind of spin you want to put on the karma-thing.

Karen said...

Shawna - Thanks :) I've been relying primarily on Tibetan-style Buddhist works aimed at western audiences, and getting a different spin on what the creation of our own realities and the concept of karma mean. The way I understand it, "creating our own realities" means on an individual basis shifting our attitudes to let go of baggage and so deal more authentically with the world, thereby coming to peace with who we are, regardless of our circumstances; and that we create reality on a group level by, for example, believing en masse in cultural norms - such as the magic bullet of market forces - no matter what the evidence is about how good/bad they are for us.

I do believe that we draw and repel certain experiences to and from us by being stuck in patterns of thought and behaviour (ie. hanging onto a distorted concept of ourselves as unloveable disrupts our abilities to have healthy relationships and keeps us trapped in unhealthy ways of thinking/doing/feeling; undervaluing ourselves keeps us from seeing our own potential, from applying for jobs we think we can't do, from expecting respect from others, etc.), which is not the same as saying that people living in poverty are to blame for a system that thrives on inequality. Though I suppose an argument could be made that we are all responsible for not rising up and creating an egalitarian society in which all people are valued, it would have to be made in such a way that acknowledges that this is far easier said than done because of the very real effects of oppression and injustice that people experience as a result of living in an unequal culture, avoids patronising others, and completely avoids the awful trap of blaming people for being oppressed, and would involve a great deal of calm and compassion and clarity on the part of the people discussing it. I find it hard to find language to articulate the idea that on the one hand we are collectively trapped by our beliefs about the world, and on the other hand that these illusions have real and often terrible consequences. It's hard for me to articulate. It does seem to me that "if you were a blander person who didn't make waves, you'd be rich and happy" is a pernicious lie - an even greater illusion than the illusion that the way things are is the way they ought to be.

I'm not currently wrapping my head around karma too well. My understanding is that in Buddhism the soul is considered to be an entity with various parts, so that the soul part embodied in this incarnation is part of the greater soul which has chosen to incarnate in a variety of bodies and social situations in order to both teach individual lessons and collective lessons about how clinging to illusions rather than cleaving to truth brings misery, and that by holding onto baggage we create patterns of suffering that prevent us from connecting with peace/spirit/truth/the light. I think the phrase is "pain is inevitable, suffering is not".

So I'm wading through all this, and every time someone says something about Buddhism, I think, "Crap! I was just getting the hang of that!"

Shawna said...

Karen -- You describe some very positive aspects of Buddhist thought. Pay less attention to my descriptions than to the descriptions Buddhists use for themselves... I rejected Buddhism after briefly researching it, so I am not what one would call an expert.

Rudy said...


Women aren't the only people (or Quakers) with a problem with expressing anger and vulgarity.

This showed up rather vividly in my life when I showed up at a blog, acted (I now realize) somewhat smartass, a gigantic thread ensued, with much good natured and some not so good natured vulgarity and/or hostility aimed at me... and I got angry, repeated some back, logged off... and have felt guilty for 26 hours now and counting... while the anger at me wasn't about my possible trollishness as it was impatience at what I was saying, my reactive it really bothered me (and no one else, I'm sure). If I hadn't held it in for the whole time, it would just have been part of the whole give and take and much more honest.

Hystery said...


You wouldn't be the first person to find yourself in that kind of situation. I think that online conversations sometimes get out of hand because we can't see each others' faces, bodies, and postures. We can't hear the tone of their voice. We miss the wink, the shrug, the pause, and the stutter. We lose the subtleties of humor, of hurt, of uncertainty, and of irony. So much of communication is body language and we are divorced from that online.

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