The independent news organization of Duke University

The v-word

Like many other young women, I am trying to define my own feminism. I wear lip-gloss. I think welfare reform declared a war on poor mothers. I like to cook for my boyfriend. My feet refuse to wear high heels. I question the crazy dichotomy that seems to exist only for women in which we are either domesticated ’50s throwbacks in heels or male wannabes in power suits.

I’ve always had a difficult time with womanhood. My mother raised me to take pride in my femininity and taught me that women are the true foundation of societies because we create life. While other children innocently colored pictures of butterflies and flowers, my mother pointed out the similarities between these and vaginas and she told me that vaginas were just as beautiful.

This pride in the beauty of the female body was sometimes hard for me to understand, because as a precocious 10-year-old girl I tended to regard my body as my enemy. My breasts caused my fellow classmates to tease me and snap my bra, but brought me a lot of attention from men between the ages of 16 and 65.

I also had a hard time celebrating something that forced me to remember silly things like changing my pad when I just wanted to play tag on the playground.

My difficulties with womanhood extend beyond breasts and periods to deeper questions of human nature and the relationship between men and women. When I was four years old, a teenage family member tried to molest me. I didn’t tell my parents about it for more than a year.

When I did, my mother made my father promise that I would never be left alone like that again. This and other experiences taught me that my womanhood wasn’t just annoying, it was also dangerous.

I know that after reading my story, some might like to think that my family was just dysfunctional (and it was), but I think we live in a nation of dysfunctional families. From my conversations with other women I have discovered that the woman who has not been raped or molested or abused is in the lucky minority.

Sexual abuse is called an epidemic by many researchers with good reason, even though many of its survivors don’t talk about our experiences because we have suffered at the hands of family members, partners and trusted friends.

We don’t want to admit that our families are so dysfunctional or that we loved our rapists and abusers. We bear all of our shame alone and pretend like these horrible things haven’t happened to us.

I speak as a working-class “heartland” American when I say that this population needs to check its values.

Many working class whites uphold an image of ourselves as moral, pious people but this hides an all too common reality of abuse, incest and rape. Instead of addressing the real issues in our communities, we transfer our own filth and pain onto people of color.

Addressing abuse is even more difficult for women of color though, because they are airing not only theirs and their family’s “dirty laundry” but also that of their race. Women of color must balance their need and right to be honest with the awareness that such admissions will be seen by many whites as proof of their group’s backwardness.

For my part, I have searched for a way to be a better woman—a woman who feels beautiful and strong, independent of how society says I should feel. Even though I sometimes think about giving up on men, I have tried to be friends and lovers with guys who are committed to equality and respect.

Still, I wish more men could understand that seemingly idiotic behavior on behalf of women is about more than female stupidity. I wish more men could understand that too many girls date jerks because girls are socialized to want confident, strong guys more than they are taught to want sweet, caring partners. I wish more men could understand that female sexuality is so beyond their comprehension because our sexuality is a mystery to us as well.

We are supposed to be good girls, we are supposed to be effortlessly sexy, we are supposed to want sex but not too much, we are supposed to know about our bodies but if we know too much it’s weird. I wish more men could understand that women’s liberation is a tragic misnomer; this is about the liberation of people.

And yes, I want to be a mother someday, but this doesn’t mean I want a house in suburbia with a white picket fence and an SUV to take the kids to soccer practice. I want to be a revolutionary mother. I want to found neighborhood cooperative childcare, share household tasks equally with my husband and raise independent, questioning daughters and sons.

The Vagina Monologues will be showing this weekend at Duke and I encourage everyone, both women and men, to go see it. In years past, women have written in The Chronicle expressing their disdain for a show that puts so much emphasis on “the v-word.”

I, too, want to live in a world in which our fates are not so defined by our genitals, but unfortunately we’re not there yet. I’m so much more than my vagina, but it has and will always shape my life. Until we talk more about vaginas, we can’t progress to a world where all of us are safe, happy and respected.

Bridget Newman is a Trinity senior. Her column appears ever other Thursday.



Share and discuss “The v-word” on social media.