Brave little girls: I know you are, but what am I?

I was sitting in my sewing room, feeling pretty childish for crying over a sexist Facebook thread, when I decided it was time to re-evaluate some things.

I feel like I’ve reached that good, comfy part of feminism. I am confident, strong, intense, unafraid. I’ve read some stuff and changed some minds. I’ve learned to gracefully accept (most) others. I speak my mind and forge my own path. I have learned that being ‘unafraid’ and being ‘fearless’ are not quite the same thing.

Simply ‘unafraid’ takes time in and of itself. Women now talk openly about fear. Rather than convening in community center gyms after work to learn ‘self defense in a safe space’ like my mother did in the Eighties, women are speaking out to our male partners – fathers, brothers, husbands, friends – about the daily experience of fear. Most of us feminists have asked around when making a point, say, at a party: ‘how do you hold your keys when you walk to your car at night?’  Too many women confess we think of our keys as a makeshift weapon, something to be put into the eyes of an attacker if need be. Many men, in between defending that men are also victims of violent crime, express that they haven’t ever thought about that.

Scarier still, let’s go back to that party, to that woman and that man. Statistically, she is more likely to be assaulted by someone she knows rather than a violent criminal lurking in a parking lot – it’s hard to feel safe even if she has a great time talking to the guy at the party and he offers to walk her home. She may very well want him to walk her home, to get to know him better, but there is fear again: what if she doesn’t want to sleep together? Will he be okay with that? To add to her fear still : the fear of the people who are supposed to help and keep her safe. If this guy does indeed turn out to be a creep, she may not even tell anyone. 54% of sexual assaults go unreported, and it’s not because the victims aren’t bothered.

Too often, when women report assaults, we’re treated like children. Most of us can remember a slight undercurrent of distrust in our parents’ lines of questioning – it wasn’t meant always to doubt us, often it was to teach us responsibility. If I came inside crying because a friend’s cat nipped at me, my father would ask – “What were you doing with the cat?” He would still check me for wounds and comfort me, but as a parent he was taking a teachable moment with his child to question the situation rather than trust me implicitly. “Nothing!” I would sometimes insist, and it was mostly, usually true. Occasionally he would press me just a little, (my father has a killer Spock eyebrow,) and I would confess to chasing the cat, or trying to snatch a toy away.

My father had this right because I was his child. Now that I’m a grown woman, I don’t particularly respond well to anyone taking the opportunity to teach me a lesson when I’m hurting, and as a society we like to do this to women all the time. When a woman is hurt we ask her; “Did she upset her boyfriend?” “Was she walking alone?” Victim-blaming, as it’s come to be called, is less an act of blame and more an act of infantilization. Do we subconsciously see the judgement of women on the same level as the judgement of children?

Children, like women, are taught to not trust strangers. It’s an unfortunate lesson (could we perhaps, instead, teach our children to be trustworthy people?) but until times change somewhat, a necessary one.

In a lot of ways, I was not a brave kid. E.T. and the Cryptkeeper sent me to my room in tears because they were wrinkly, as did my uncle’s beard because it was large and dark and made him look like Charles Manson. But I’ve always enjoyed horror (once the Cryptkeeper was gone, I watched every episode of Tales from the Crypt) and was exposed to stories of war and death at a young age – I’ve hardly been sheltered. I’ve never had an ounce of stage fright, introversion was something that came with age. A story my parents love to tell is of me loving to chat with strangers by telling them about the most interesting facts I knew – my full name, address, and phone number.

And so, sitting in my sewing room, crying over a sexist Facebook thread, I reminded myself of the other part of childhood, the fearlessness that got me into trouble but taught me much.

I thought of Harriet the Spy, Kristy Thomas of the Babysitter’s Club, and Laura Ingalls. Smart girls who I looked up to because they, like me, were not quiet. They did their research, sussed out bullshit, and dug it up to stink.

Back to my parents, they were wonderful folk who raised me pretty openly. I was an only child, and never once pressured to take up ‘girls activities’ or ‘boys activities.’ Such things weren’t even brought up in my household. I did what I liked – mostly a great deal of reading, dancing, and talking, and was never led to believe that anything I did was ‘meant’ for women – be it dance or martial arts. This is relevant because they, rather than clucking their tongues at me, actively encouraged this behavior in me. When I figured something out that I thought was bullshit and pointed it out at the dinner table, I was usually rewarded with praise and attention at the neat things I’d discovered and researched.

I look back and realize that’s what makes me cry when it comes to sexist Facebook threads. It’s not that I’m a baby, a child, just a little girl. But like the child I once was, I have sussed out bullshit. I see sexism, it hurts and it’s bad, and I have all these neat things we can read to see how to make it better, at least, a little. Don’t we all want to be nice and help people? I say this mentally with the same voice I used when I wanted to sell lemonade and beaded bracelets to benefit the World Wildlife Fund when I was ten.

I’m unafraid in that I don’t live in fear. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel it, but that I’ve spent a lot of time in self-reflection and expensive therapy to not let it rule my life. I’m not fearless, maybe no woman (or human) can be, just yet. My hero girls were scared of things, too, but they were tenacious as all hell. They didn’t let things go, and they frustrated people by being smart, and patient, and knowing what was right. If there are those out there with the goal of treating me like a child, making me scared like a child, I know exactly what sort of child they can be scared of.

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