Thursday, besides being a turkey day, was also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women which was adopted by the UN in 1999.
What are practical actions we can take as a community to eliminate violence against women?
We can watch our assumptions. Years ago I read Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson (see essay). Teresa, a Jesuit volunteer from Ohio, had thrust the book in my hands with her usual vivacity and bubbled about its sensuousness. It was a test of our relationship, in a way, since she had just come out to me with ambivalence, both declaring her attraction to me and at the same time, her bisexuality. She wanted me to read the book and tell her whether I thought the narrator was a man or woman.
We can safeguard our tongues. A housemate of Teresa’s, I’ll call her Victoria, spoke up one night about the violence of words—it was the title of her college thesis. That night we talked of medical labels and cuss words and of the abuser’s heinous “You deserve this.” Having a wake up is troublesome; it surfaces to the conscious mind those buried burns; I recalled the fresh wound I received in an exit interview: “You don’t have professional dispositions.” Those words annihilated a piece of my truth.
Looking back, I wonder, did it cause me to know, by experience, a fraction of the age old suppression of women in a patriarchic workplace?
Fortunately, Victoria’s exposure of the radical subjectivity of the spoken word indirectly revealed the truth of nonviolent communication. Since words reflect values, prejudice, and they harbor the collective unconscious, deliberate exercise of words that reflect my values can create the world I long for. As Jesus says in Today’s Gospel (Lk 21:29-33): “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” We can preserve the Holiest of Holies while revealing eternal meaning in today’s vernacular…And inclusive language dawns little by little, little comfort that it is.
What are other practical actions to eliminate violence against women?
We can vigil outside planned parenthood. A woman I once dated lost her faith in the Church because of this kind of action becoming so militant on her campus. At St. Louis University the vigils against abortion were ubiquitous and until her best friend became pregnant, they seemed benign. Her friend wanted to keep the baby, but had grown fearful of her boyfriend. Muslim, he and his family were adamant that the baby was theirs by inalienable right. I don’t know whether vigils seemed to lack compassion, but as the nightmare unfolded my friend lost her faith.
We can adopt. Isaac is my mother’s Godson. Growing up it amazed me to see mom in the role of godmother. Since Isaac is black, her affection for him helped open my boyish eyes to our brotherhood. His mother Theresa practices medicine in Seattle; a doctor who assists with births, she found a vocation in child rearing as well. The nine siblings Isaac has are African-American, Caucasian and Asian, constituting a family that expands the imagination. But the best symbols of Teresa’s acting to eliminate the violence against women were the birthday parties! Often that big house on the lake crowded up with community; it lifted off the foundations and ran wild in the yard and of course it went swimming.
We can urge better legislation. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) opened the threshold to allow women who sought citizenship to leave abusive husbands, whose citizenship was a vise of codependency, enabling these women to independently further their application. Now we can go further with the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA). In both the 110th and 111th Congresses it has been introduced but not brought to a vote. See amnestyusa.org
When it comes to role models we can cultivate a spirituality led by Juana Ines de la Cruz, Joan of Arc, St. Hildegaard, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Gertrude the Great and Sojourner Truth. Robert Ellsberg recounts Truth’s response to an angry heckler who said “Old woman, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea,” to which Truth replied, “The Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”
Lydia Wylie-Kellerman stood throughout the Eucharistic prayer at every Sunday Mass. While the congregation kneeled, she raised the question. I had permission from my Jesuit superior to attend a discussion on the witness...with the caveat that I could not talk.
In keeping that silence I felt the struggle of so many religious who have been silenced. No, this is not so passive a silence as it seems friends. More difficult is the dialogue from one human heart to another than from the heart of a mortal to the Sacred heart of Jesus. Indeed, the activity of silence cloaked in piety also perpetrates institutional violence.
Afterwards, Lydia spoke gentle as ever with me. “There’s no excuse” was all she said. And then, in the cross hairs of her emerald and sky eyes she made me see myself.