Dear Readers: This piece contains strong language--a slur too many women have heard too many times. Words matter; we believe Beth Belgau Human uses them to powerful effect. -Laura and Sarah
Women's Work by Beth Belgau Human
Wednesday morning, mere hours after the presidential election was decided, in the calm, quiet of my baby’s room, as I nursed him back to sleep, I wept silently. I wept for the loss of a dream, I wept for the nation, and I wept for my daughters. I faced for perhaps the first time in my life, the fact that for some, women’s rights are not human rights. I started to think about “women’s work.”
It’s a phrase that I’ve always disliked. It’s redolent of disdain for the types of work that women have done, and it denigrates those who do the work, whether they are male or female. But it’s hard to despair while holding a baby, and as he ate, I felt a renewed joy in the idea of women’s work.
Two days later, I walked into a bakery for a bagel and held the door for a gentleman in crisp jeans and a flannel shirt. I got my order, walked back to my car, and waited behind it for the car next to it to pull out. As I did, the man I had held the door for spat at my feet, hitting my shoes, looked me in the eye, and growled, “Stupid bitch.”
There’s a numbness that surrounds you when something like that happens, a strange, other-worldly feeling, a hope that some cosmic authority figure is going to rise up and demand that the person apologize. But I’m a grown-up, so no luck there.
Then there’s fear. In my adult life, I don’t face physical intimidation (I know this makes me lucky). Words resolve difficulties, and disagreements are cloaked in polite discourse and avoidance.
As years of social conditioning have taught me, I looked inward for a cause of his behavior. Had I injured him? Offended him? Brought this somehow upon myself? And that’s when it hit me, standing rooted to the ground with spit sliding slowly down the toecap of my loafer: I was behind my car, with my two Hillary magnets still proudly stuck there.
I'd exercised my rights to freedom of expression.
I'd participated in the political process.
I'd disagreed with him.
And he felt comfortable attacking me, in a clear violation of all social norms, because America had just elected a president who glories in violating those taboos.
A large swath of the American public (not a majority or even a plurality, but that’s an argument for a different day) just told me that they’re not that bothered by this kind of behavior. They’ve told me that they’re not bothered by vile statements about women (and people of color, and Muslims, and the LGBTQ community). They’ve told me that they’re not that bothered by someone who was disgusted by a lawyer needing to take a break from a deposition to pump milk for her baby. They’ve told me that they’re not bothered by a man who judges women not by the content of their character, but by the content of their brassieres. They’ve told me that they’re not bothered by someone who thinks that looking after children has nothing to do with men.
With shaking hands, I scrubbed the spit from my shoes with baby wipes from the bottom of my purse, and I dedicated myself to women’s work.
The great thing about women’s work is that, as we’re often told, “anyone can do it." It’s not hard, like running a company or manipulating the tax system.
I will clean. I make a commitment to keep our air and water clean, both with my vote and with my pocketbook. Money talks, and I will talk by finding companies that believe in the threat that climate change poses to all life on this planet, and I will support them. I will refuse to support those willing to destroy the world for an easier profit. I will support the National Parks, those oases of untouched nature that feed the hearts and souls of so many visitors each year, and protect fragile ecosystems and animals.
I will cook. There will be many hungry people, hungry for food, hungry for respect, hungry for love, hungry for acceptance, hungry for safety. I will invite those people into my home and my heart and my life, and I will feed them.
I will mend. Not for me the easy patch of acceptance, though, ironed-on, covering the hole without fixing it. No, I commit myself to darning. I will take up my needle and my thread and I will reweave the broken fibers of our social discourse stitch by stitch, thread by thread. For those whose dreams are broken by this moment in our history, whose place in the tapestry of American life is threatened, I will knit myself to you and anchor you in our pattern.
I will tend the children. All the children. I will raise my daughters to be fierce, proud, independent women who believe they can do anything. I will raise my son to be a fierce, proud, independent man who believes he can do anything. I will teach my children respect for each other, to see other’s bodies as the vessels of their souls, and to see that success does not need to have a gender. I will teach them that the most important thing we can do is love one another. And I will look after the other children as well. As a teacher, I will comfort the frightened children. I will teach tolerance and love and respect. I will explain why our system of government is fundamentally important, and why our respect for our institutions makes us strong. And I will teach them how those institutions work, how we have a free press, and the right to make our voices heard to the highest levels of government.
I will tend to the small things, the minutiae, the day-to-day necessities. Yet with each small action, I too will be building a wall, a bulwark against hatred, and fear, and despair. I, and others who also choose to do this women’s work will be building an army of people dedicated to the proposition that love matters, that lives matter, that each person has intrinsic and inalienable dignity.
I will do women’s work. I will work for justice. I will work for peace. I will work for love.
Beth Belgau Human lives with her family in St. Louis, Missouri, where she teaches English, Latin, and Government to middle and high school students, and coaches soccer. Beth earned a Ph.D. in English from St. Louis University. She proudly does women's work. Connect with Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.