Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Strong Woman

As I wrote previously, there is both good and bad news in the right's obsession with critical race theory. The good news is that white patriarchy is being challenged in powerful ways these days. As has always happened in our history, that created a severe backlash from those whose identity is embedded in the status quo.

This week, Simone Biles challenged some of our deep patriarchal views. For pulling out of Olympic competition, she has been called a "coward" and a "quitter" (among other things). But take a look at what one mother posted on Facebook. 

We knew [Simone Biles] was strong. We knew she was brave. But, by god, the courage and resolve that she has shown in the last two days are just BEYOND. 

To stand firmly in one’s own humanity and to say, from that incredibly vulnerable place, “My safety comes first,” should not have to be a radical act, but it is. Oh, how it is. In the world in which we live (and far more so in the rarified air of elite competition), it is not just radical, it’s revolutionary.

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are the role models I want for my girls. Women who know their worth. Who declare and own and defend their *inherent* value - not based on what they can do but on who they are. Women who achieve incredible things not despite their perfectly human limitations but precisely *because* they are willing to acknowledge and respect them.

The chasm between those two views stems from very different ideas of what it means to be strong and brave, which is all based on our view of power. 


Our culture has been steeped in power over/against for centuries. In that scenario, competition is a way to assert dominance. Strength and courage are demonstrated by excelling in the game of domination. There is nothing inherently wrong with that —until it is viewed as the only option and lives are sacrificed in the process. 

Personally, I never bought the idea that athletes should "play through the pain." It always seemed to me that our bodies use pain to send the message that something is wrong and requires attention. We should listen to our bodies. 

In the face of all of the pressure to "dominate" women's gymnastics, Simone Biles's body was telling her that something was wrong (mentally and/or physically). The fact that she listened to that message went against the entire culture that has developed in the world of sport and competition. THAT is what took tremendous courage. 

This is the kind of thing we can expect to happen as those who have been marginalized begin to assert their power. Our entire culture is going to be challenged in countless ways. We will begin to understand that words like "courage" and "strength" have broader meaning, which will continue to trigger some people because it is a radical change. Here is how a blogger named keres put the big picture years ago.
Our societies are not "OK", except for the sexism, racism, heterosexism, ablism, etc. Our societies are intrinsically those things - they cannot be removed without a complete revisioning of the social compact. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, in an apartriachal society would look, sound, or feel even remotely the same as to what we have now.

Riane Eisler wrote about the nature of that social compact in her book Chalice and the Blade.  

The underlying problem is not men as a sex. The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the blade is idealized - in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and dominance and to see men who do not conform to this ideal as too soft or effeminate.

Years ago Marge Piercy wrote a whole poem challenging what it means for a woman to be strong. Here is how she ended it (emphasis mine):

A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.

What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other.
Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.

What has amazed me about all of this is that Simone is only 24 years old. During that short lifetime, she has already experienced multiple traumas (bounced around the foster care system and sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar). And yet, she seems to have learned the wisdom of listening to her body and standing up for her own inherent value against all of the pressure she was under. Given what she was experiencing, that wisdom might have saved have life. And according to other gymnasts, it might have given the rest of the women on her team a chance to win the silver medal. 

The picture of Simone up above was taken after she had pulled out of the team competition as she cheered on her teammates. Here's NBC's coverage:

Simone's teammates said that they dedicated their silver medal to her. I am tremendously inspired by this group of young women who understand that "strong is what we make each other." They are going to change the world.

1 comment:

  1. There is a little truth to how athletic training and competition will involve some pain, but yeah, it's real easy to turn that into fetishizing pain and refusing to recognize genuine injuries for what they are.

    ReplyDelete

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