There is a System
August 26, 2011 5 Comments
In 2007 I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter as a crisis line operator.
The building we were housed in was yellow with white trim, with a wrap-around white porch. From the outside, it had a very homey feel.
This volunteer work helped me on my path of discovering baby feminism. Before this period, I often thought of myself as an Exceptional Woman™ who was smarter, more powerful, and more awesome than the rest of “those women”. I was one of a very small number of female graduate students in an analytic philosophy program, and I had just completed my Master’s degree. “Why aren’t there more women in Philosophy?” the ladies in the program asked. But we knew that our answer was, “Because philosophy is hard”.
If I was an Exceptional Woman™, then I got to identify with men. I can remember talking with K, the only other female grad student in my cohort (year), and she offered me a “high five for rape jokes”. I think I left her hanging, but I don’t remember telling her how massively misogynistic she was being, and we were being, by thinking we were exceptional compared to other women, and how utterly stupid we were for thinking that hating women ourselves is an escape hatch from being the target of misogyny.
Looking back, I can see that this behavior was clearly a coping mechanism. We Exceptional Women™ don’t want to be hated, so we try and remove ourselves from the group of women who we characterize as “girly” (whatever the f that is), and loathsome, and stupid, and concerned with frivolity. We remove ourselves by enacting the same hatred for “those women” that men do. This makes it easier to be taken seriously at the seminar table and around the pitcher of PBR with our colleagues.
I hadn’t even read my first feminist book at this point (Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy). My personal favorite “progressive” issue at the time was raising awareness about contraception. Women shouldn’t be stupid with sex, I thought. They should have a lot of it, as much as they want, as much as the men do, and they should use condoms condoms condoms (!) while they do it. That way they won’t have babies, and overpopulate the planet, and they can be free to have more sex, which liberates them. Orgasm politics horray. These women need me to tell them about the best way to be free! I wanted to volunteer at some place that raised awareness about contraception (I called it “Condom Flinging”), but the opportunity that popped up first was the domestic violence shelter, so I went there.
I had several duties at the DV shelter. As a crisis line operator, I would take messages for shelter residents (I cannot confirm or deny that Sandy is here, but if she is, I will pass the message along), hand out medication, and unlock the door to known female staff members, volunteers, and residents.
We also answered the phone to women in crisis, and checked women in.
I remember we admitted one woman whose face was entirely purple from a partner who had beaten her. Another woman called talking about how her partner kicked her in the head with her children in the room, and another had been smacked with a tire iron. These are just a few instances. All phone calls for the day were recorded in a book, and the shift relief was advised to read over what had been happening in case there were follow-up calls.
In looking back on this time, I see how unprepared I was, and that I had not anticipated noticing how privileged I had been to (mostly) have escaped intimate partner violence.
I burnt out of this work in less than a year, because I was not emotionally prepared to see how much abuse really goes on in our towns. I also attended a party where an abuser showed up, and I left in hysterical tears. I was so upset that no one shunned this scumbag, and that he was still invited out everywhere and treated as if nothing had happened, even though he punched a woman in the friend group and broke her nose and everyone knew it that I ended up calling the crisis line to talk about my experience.
Now I can see what I failed to observe then, which is that there is a system of oppression in place that allows men to beat women, and compels women to return to these men. DV is not just about bad people hurting other people. It’s about men maintaining a system of power over women. I can see that that system is the same system that had convinced me that the more “responsible” PIV one had, the more adventurous and liberated one became. It’s the same system I was trying to survive by playing the Exceptional Woman™ in my class, and by actively hating women in my words and actions.
I am ashamed of my previous ignorance, and I am grateful for the truths I’ve learned. I wish I had been exposed to/sought out feminism (and *radical feminist thought*) earlier.