Periodically, we see a woman in the news asking, with incredulity, what year it is. Do we really, in this year (2012 or 2015 or…), have to be asking this question or fighting this battle? Wasn’t this resolved long ago? Haven’t certain rights been won—like the right to vote and the right to sexual autonomy—so that we can use them as bedrock upon which to build a future, secure in our knowledge that equality and America go hand-in-hand? Well, yes. And no. Progress comes in waves, and after each wave there is a counter-wave. Because progress works this way, we hear and see the same ideas—and fight the same battles—many times in a century.
In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act as the result of the crusading of one man—Anthony Comstock—who believed that birth control led to far too much sexiness and sexual enjoyment in America, and ought to be outlawed. The Comstock Act defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, and made it illegal to send birth control through the mail or to cross state lines with it. The act spawned similar laws—known collectively as the Comstock Laws—in twenty-four states. Fortunately for American women, Margaret Sanger believed passionately that a woman had a right to her own sexuality, which included both sexual enjoyment (an important component of sexual health) and reproductive choice. Margaret Sanger was the answer to Anthony Comstock—in 1916 she was arrested for opening the first birth control clinic in America. A few years later, in 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, and in 1923 she founded the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, which was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942.
War is one of the biggest costs of patriarchy. It encourages a version of masculinity that relies on dominance and violence and justifies patriarchal systems of power on a global scale. Indeed, war is one of the lynchpins of patriarchy—and as such, it is sold to boys and men as their ideal, just as beauty is sold to girls and women. Although we have many stories that reflect on the glory men earn in war—the hero come home, the grand sacrifice made meaningful in the light of patriotism—only a few count the costs of war outside this narrative. And rarest of all are those war stories that, rather than reinforcing our ideas of masculinity proven via military service and sacrifice, ask us to question all of it: war itself, a masculinity based on violence, and a society that encourages both. Michael Lund’s Eating with Veterans is such a collection of stories.
The love and nurture of your authentic self is a radical thing in a patriarchy, especially for a woman. Patriarchy teaches women to reduce our sense of self, to become small physically and emotionally. We are encouraged to hide ambition in the cubbyhole of marriage, to seek validation of our internal sexuality from an external world that wishes to chew it up and spit it out rather than validate it, and to never listen to our internal voice, the one that says, this is my truth. A girl growing up in our current patriarchy, awash in these messages yet also fed their anecdote if she is fortunate—has a lot to figure out. And she must do so within the context of social media, which I have nicknamed Patriarchy’s Playground—a place where a girl becoming a woman must navigate the line between self and other while still learning, and becoming, who she is. The more she knows about the pitfalls that await her, the better. And the more she learns the radical art of self-love, the less vulnerable she will be to a world that wants to chew her up and spit her out.
The term mansplaining, unlike gaslighting, has entered mainstream conversation: according to Lily Rothman at The Atlantic, it first appeared online shortly after Rebecca Solnit’s piece in the LA Times, “Men Explain Things to Me.” Ms. Solnit didn’t use the term in her article, but she described a prime example of mansplaining, in which a man described her own book to her without acknowledging that she’d written it. The term is used so widely that it is misused: sometimes it’s used so broadly that it could apply to any situation in which one person is condescending to another, and sometimes it is completely misdefined, as it is in many of the definitions in the urban dictionary, one of which asserts that man-hating women use the term to spread their man-hating. Despite these misunderstandings, mansplaining is easy to spot, as any woman who has experienced it can tell you.