I woke up, uncertain and lost, to a staccato burst of screams. I lay in bed for a few more seconds, staring into the darkness, and my heartbeat picked up as the screams rose in pitch.
I didn’t want to move. I wanted to go back to sleep and pretend I hadn’t heard anything. Shivering, I stumbled out of bed, pulled at the blinds, and opened my window. The screams had stopped.
Three burly men walked under my window on the third floor. The one standing in the middle was zipping up his pants. His friend chuckled and said, “I wish I had a turn,” before they disappeared into the dark shroud of an alleyway.
I’m afraid that one day I’m going to see one of these men again, having a good laugh with his friends, and a feeling of powerlessness will overwhelm me – the feeling that shook me that night. Doubly terrified: not only because I couldn’t help that helpless woman but because I could be that helpless woman, any night, any day now.
This thing that happened months ago resurrected the thoughts and feelings that had initially pushed me toward feminism. But it also reminded me of the frustrating dialogue that we continue to engage in regarding feminist ideology.
Last week, for example, an acquaintance argued that it was anachronistic to call anyone who had lived before 1970 a misogynist. He was objecting to the fact that I was applying that term to someone who had lived in an era that hadn’t been suffused with the type of thought we have today.
I don’t care what kind of theoretical hoops anyone jumps through: we can’t burden the term “misogyny” with this nuance. Doing so would risk dismissing the brutality of the psychological and physical violence committed against women. Just because the term didn’t exist then doesn’t change the fact that people practiced misogyny.
In retrospect, I think (though I can’t be sure) that my “friend” was prioritizing developing an argument that was accurate over reflecting on the relevance of that argument in his life: a theoretical, but not personal approach. We shouldn’t mistake theory, a tool humans use to make sense of the world, for the world itself. Attempts to be “accurate” or “precise” require us to transform experiences, such as the one I began this article with, into organized arguments that reach greedily after resolution and finality.
Why else argue that we live in a post-feminist society? To end the debate. To claim that misogyny doesn’t exist anymore. And if I listen to my friend from last week, it’s as if misogyny, in his terms, only existed between 1970 and 2000. This excludes and dismisses the personal, the visceral, the everyday, the ongoing experiences of so many around the world.
My approach to feminism doesn’t require anyone to identify as feminist. It just requires that people be honest. That they ask themselves if they feel the society we live in treats and has treated all of its members equally and fairly.
I want to close by sharing something from the past¬ – an account of the rape and torture that Michele de Cuneo, a shipmate who accompanied Christopher Columbus to the New World, inflicted on an enslaved female native. Please be warned that de Cuneo’s description is triggering and painful:
When I was in the boat, I took a beautiful Cannibal girl and the admiral gave her to me. Having her in my room and she being naked as is their custom, I began to want to amuse myself with her. Since I wanted to have my way with her and she was not willing, she worked me over so badly with her nails that I wished I had never begun. To get to the end of the story, seeing how things were going, I got a rope and tied her up so tightly that she made unheard of cries which you wouldn’t have believed. At the end, we got along so well that, let me tell you, it seemed she had studied at a school for whores.
Misogyny happened in the past, and misogyny happens today. We don’t need to argue about theory to know that to be true.