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Oh, Self-Appointed Mouthpiece
We don't need no voice control
On the third day of middle school a boy hollered down the schoolyard at my daughter. Picture her clueless, walking alone to phys ed in her regulation yellow tee and navy shorts that exposed her newly teenage legs, long and brown with a summer of swimming.
“I LIKE YOUR LEGS,” the boy called.
I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it happen but I know she didn’t turn around. I know she faked oblivion even as he yelled again, “HEY! NICE LEGS!” I know the exact arc her shoulders made as they caved, I know the way her fingers clenched in the shape of impotent violence.
When she tells me the story school isn’t even over yet. They have called from the nurse’s office. “Headache,” they said. I drive to the school two hours early.
She is crushing herself into a corner on the bench outside the school office, overstuffed backpack defending her lap. She’s still in her gym clothes. If she meets my eyes she’ll start crying.
“I’m so disgusted!” she wails as we walk to the car. “Can you believe that he said that?!”
“Oh, honey,” I sigh.
It’s a new school, and we’ve prepared for so many probabilities of teachers and classes and homework and lunches. We had a plan for where to meet when the bell rang and what to do if her period starts. But this, this I forgot to brace her for. At home, she still plays with dragons.
On a shelf in her bedroom sits the book every first-time mother is given by an overeager auntie or grandma-to-be. A blank book of Baby’s Firsts. Here you record the date she first smiles, laughs, roll over. Today she cut her first tooth. A few years later, you dust it off to record the time she loses the same tooth. Baby’s First Word. Baby’s First Bath. But there’s no place to record the date of Baby’s First Catcall: Wednesday, September 20, 2023, 12:42pm.
We spend the afternoon pulling the leer apart, inspecting it from all angles. She tells me the story multiple times, once with tears, twice with rage, three times completely incredulous.
“He also asked me if I like kissing boys,” she says with derision. “He kept trying to corner me by the gymnasium. Mom, are boys really this stupid?”
I laugh. Sigh. Rub her back in endless circles. “Yes, baby. In middle school, boys are definitely this stupid. And in high school, many of them are, too. And in college. Some of them just never get smart, not even when they’re grown.”
She groans, thuds her head onto her hands. “I never want to go back to school.”
That boy made her feel small, is what he did. Made her feel like a thing he could use. A thing he could put his hands on. A thing he wanted to grab. Made her feel like her legs were not her own. She’d never imagined such a thing to be possible.
And I’m the one who has to tell her he won’t be the last boy, this won’t be the last time.
I call reinforcements. Her aunt in Illinois. A family friend in California. We call, we send videos. Filha retells her story. The women make all the appropriate sounds at all the appropriate pauses. “Oh, honey,” they sigh. Because they know.
Sooner or later, all women know.
We swap our stories like friendship bracelets over cocktails. The first time I got my period. The first time I heard about sex. The first time a guy harassed me.
There’s never not a story.
My first time story also involved legs.
I was 12 years old, eating cotton candy at the Lee County 4-H Fair. Late July in Illinois is consistently blistering, so of course I wore shorts.
As I ambled up the path from the midway, my mother came striding out of the goat barn, lips compressed in an angry line. She grabbed my bare shoulder, steered me toward the shaded barn, hissing in my ear, “Did you see that man?!”
“What man?” I asked. Of course I didn’t see him. I didn’t even know what it was, to leer. My cheeks were sticky with sugar.
“You’ve grown two or three inches this summer,” my mother moaned, “I should have known those shorts would be too short.”
My shorts had never been too short before. I’d never imagined such a thing was possible. But my mother’s fear, her shame, were contagious.
I never again pulled on a pair of shorts and went out into the world without knowing my legs would not belong entirely to me. Without knowing that men could stare as if their eyes had teeth.
Recently I was made aware of a small-time author — White, Male — who has taken it upon himself to share the “unknown” and “untold” stories of women. In a self-published book he has compiled the results of a survey he sent to 53 women. Seventeen responded to questions like:
Tell us about your ultimate bad boy or girl.
What is the most attractive physical feature in a potential partner?
Who was your first real-life crush?
Have you ever been a stalker?
Have you ever been unfaithful?
Were you ever involved in a willing, incestuous relationship?
On and on his bumbling queries go. Probing, plundering.
“Imagine!” this author writes in his book description, “Imagine allowing women to answer questions and expose their souls, their secrets, and their often turbulent lives with absolute anonymity. It has finally happened.”
Oh, FINALLY. Yes, the world has waited so long for a man to come along and allow women to share how they feel so other men can salivate over the gory details for the low low cost of $19.99.
He just wants people to know what women go through, man! Because “most men have no idea,” he writes. (On that point he’s not incorrect, but asking women if they ever stalked a dude or if they are, like, cool with doing incest is not the most helpful approach.)
NEVER FEAR LADIES! Mr. White Middle-Aged Man to the rescue! Just give up your stories and he’ll take it from there and pocket the change. Here, little lady, let me get that for you. The gallantry! The chivalry!
On the cover of this book a woman cries, prettily. She is young (of course) and beautiful (of course) because depression can be such a turn-on.*
*That’s not hyperbole. The University of Texas at Austin ran a study on the connection between sexual exploitability and sexual attraction. A few years ago, Vice explored the White Knight phenomenon, too.
Truly, this endeavor is no surprise. As Ijeoma Oluo writes in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, “Highly forgettable white men regularly enter feminist spaces and expect to be centered and rewarded, and they have been.”
And because so many mediocre white men have been rewarded for their uninvited shining knight shenanigans, of course the moment one of them comes to the realization that women have their own inner universe of thoughts and feelings and traumas and triumphs (who knew?!) he has no hesitation.
“Aha!” he thinks, “What an admirable project for me to take on. I am such a woke, feminist ally so of course I am the perfect person to share these women’s stories. After all, more people will listen if this kind of thing comes from a man!”
As this mediocre man markets his book of women’s voices across social media, no one, not one person lays a hand on his arm or a comment in the thread to say, “My dude, methinks this isn’t such a good idea!” Instead, he gets a free pass and bonus back pats because he is such a “nice guy” (a thing he’d probably be the first to tell you, so convinced is he of his own good intentions).
As if being nice ever stopped a guy from doing harm.
He’s just “trying to help” the way the school boy is just “trying to compliment” my daughter, for how can a girl know her worth if a boy doesn’t tell her? How can a woman speak her story if a man doesn’t keep the gate?
And so Mr. Mediocre accepts all pats on the back as duly earned as he merrily inserts himself into the timeline with this poorly conceived, badly executed “journey of emotions,” sanctimoniously dedicating it to “the mothers and the daughters, the aunts and nieces, to the sisters, to the friends, to the acquaintances, and to that stranger whose story was never told.”
Of course, women’s stories are not unknown and untold. Not at all.
We’ve been telling them forever.
In fact, here are a dozen or so (incredibly more poignant and meaningful and well-written) books by and about women that are actually worth your $19.99:
I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, edited by Ellen Bass & Louise Thornton
What My Mother & I Don’t Talk About: 15 Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Carolyn Criado Pérez
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay
Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head by Warsan Shire
Red Women Rising by Carol Muree Martin & Harsha Walia
Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman
When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Blood Sugar by Nicole Blackman
Girlhood by Melissa Febos
Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
So: No Thanks, Mr. Self-Appointed Mouthpiece!
Women don’t need a big strong man to curate our stories for us, to hold our voices within his own patronizing mouth. To make us feel, yet again, like a thing he can take, a thing he can use.
On Thursday, September 21, at 8:13 am, Filha returned to school.
She walked through the gates alone. No paternal figure, no vigilante threats required to guard her back.
She strode across the schoolyard on those long legs, watchful but unafraid. Newly armed with the stories I told her, the stories of her aunties, her grandmother, her girlfriends. Armed with the strength of the women before her and the power of her very own voice.
Copyright © 2023 LaDonna Witmer
A Coda: please press Play on this stunning spoken word performance…
Lost Voices by Darius Simpson & Scout Bostley
…To tell me you know my pain
is to stab yourself in the leg
because you saw me get shot.
We have two different wounds
and looking at yours does nothing to heal mine.
…The problem with speaking up for each other
is that everyone is left without a voice.