I read Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room as a sophomore in high school, as I watched my mother shatter during my parents’ divorce. I read it before Dworkin’s Intercourse and after The S.C.U.M. Manifesto and I read it more than once. I had a basic understanding of the historical context (Vietnam; Kent State; civil rights) and my grandmother helped fill in second-wave feminism. Funfem wouldn’t happen for another few years, and by then I’d read most of the serious books so third-wave stuff — which is more of a reaction to second-wave backlash than a real movement – went right by me.
But so did the following passage. It’s a dialogue between Mira (whose life mirrors American political upheaval between 1935 and 1970) and Val, a lesbian who becomes a separatist after her daughter, Chris, is raped and re-victimized by the legal system. Val is telling Mira about a conversation she had with a “Nice Guy” who let a woman he “loved” marry someone else without telling her how he felt:
“I asked him how he felt about her now. He thought of her as ultimately desirable, but his memory of her was singed with anger. He had loved her, he had wanted her, and he had done nothing. He was angry with her but angrier with himself. ‘What could you have done?’ ‘I could have raped her.’
“I wasn’t even surprised. This guy was unbearably stiff and boring, impossibly correct, Christian, mild, meek all that. But at heart, a rapist.”
“I know all this, I’ve known it always,” Mira said faintly.
“That story – and God knows how many others, how many pieces of history, laws, traditions, customs – everything congealed for me while I walked the streets of Chicago with Chris, watching the men looking at her. And it became an absolute truth for me. Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relationships with men, in their relations with women, all men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes.”
Mira’s head lay in her hand. “I have two sons,” she said softly.
“Yes. That’s one way they keep their power. We love our sons. Thank God I don’t have one. It would hold me back.” [Val's] face was fierce.
Mira sat up. “Hold you back?”
“Everything came together. That guy – the minister – and the way Tad treated Chris, the kid who raped her, the lawyers who raped her soul, the courts and the way they treated her, the cops with their guns hanging down and the way they looked at her, and the men on the streets, one after another, looking at her, making remarks. There was no way I could protect her from it, and the way she’s feeling now, no way I can help her to bear it.
“And my mind was wandering, I wasn’t able to control it. I thought about marriage and its laws, about fear of going out at night, fear of traveling, about the conspiracy among men to treat women as inconsequential – there are more ways to rape than one. Women are invisible, trivial, or demons, castrators; they are servants or cunt, and sometimes both at once. … All these years, these centuries, these millennia, and all that hate – look at the books – and under it all, the same threat, the same act: rape.”
At 15, you don’t know. You really don’t. But this passage has been sitting in my psychic cold-storage for nearly 25 years, and now the question is urgent: What if I have a baby (its sperm-donor father chosen specifically because he trains guide dogs for the blind and volunteers to play the “bad guy” for women’s self-defense classes) and it’s a boy? I’ve been afraid that I wouldn’t love him as much as I’d love a girl, but what if I do? We love our sons. We think of the good men we know, and we hope our sons will be like them, but what do we know about those men’s inner lives and secret habits? Not a thing.
No matter how carefully I choose the baby’s toys and clothes and media exposure; no matter how cruelty-free his organic cheese sticks, he’ll still be a boy who grows up to be a man. God help me, sometimes I get an image of a baby snake: Sure, he’s cute now…
The other way to look at it — the less torturous way — is that there ARE good men; there ARE, and if Planet Earth is going to get any more of them, they’ll need good mothers. Good lesbian feminist mothers. Cathy Brennan has a son, who is beautiful (whereas Alice Walker’s daughter seems kind of like an asshole). And look! Scroll down a bit, and you’ll see two guys saving a sheep from the ocean. There’s another guy saving a dog! Lundy Bancroft and Gavin DeBecker help make the world a better place for women, right? Male violence is not inevitable. Is it?
Do any of you, out there, have sons?