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Once in a while you come across a book that is so original, so persuasive, so meticulously researched and documented that it overrides some of your most taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Devices and Desires is such a work. The author, Andrea Tone, associate professor of history at Georgia Tech, belongs to a small band of new historians who are reassessing the lives of nineteenth-century women through attention to their personal (and I do mean very personal) health aids. An earlier example would be Rachel Maines's The Technology of Orgasm, published by Johns Hopkins in 1999, which describes and illustrates the 1880s-style vibrators that doctors freely used in their offices--and women in their homes--for relief of pelvic congestion and the female "hysteria" associated with it.
Devices and Desires opens in 1873 when, through the machinations of Anthony Comstock--star agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV)--Congress unexpectedly voted to make contraceptives illegal. Many Americans disapproved, and when the news reached Ireland, George Bernard Shaw coined the word "Comstockery," which, he predicted, would become "the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States."
It may be that talk of the new law made contraception known to some folks who had never heard of it before. It may be that, as with Eve's forbidden fruit, the ban made pregnancy prevention seem more alluring or naughty--or more fun. Then too, the "bootleg" business environment that ensued was relatively welcoming to entrepreneurial immigrants, smart single mothers with families to support and other ambitious "outsiders." "As with condoms," Tone observes, "creating diaphragms was easy and inexpensive, an ideal venture for those with little money and a penchant for risk." In any case the business of contraception flourished in the Comstock era, embracing scores of diverse devices and spermicides for women and men. Hundreds if not thousands of small entrepreneurs and distributors profited, as did as an impressive handful of industrial giants, including the arch-hypocrite Samuel Colgate, millionaire heir to the New Jersey-based soap firm, who served as president of Comstock's NYSSV while openly promoting Vaseline to "destroy spermatozoa, without injury to the uterus or vagina."
Other well-established companies that made, distributed and freely advertised contraceptives--ranging from intrauterine devices (IUDs) to vaginal pessaries (appliances intended to support the uterus that could also prevent the passage of sperm), and from douching syringes, suppositories and foaming tablets to sponges and male caps--included some still familiar names: B.F. Goodrich, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Goodyear. "The B.F. Goodrich Company," notes Tone, "manufactured three soft-rubber IUDs--one pear- and two donut-shaped, each available in five sizes--and twelve hard-rubber models. Two of the latter models were one-size-fits-all rings." Physicians were leading players in the commercialization of mass-produced IUDs--constructed from rubber, metal, ivory and even wood--although some models were promoted for do-it-yourself insertion.
Tone's exhaustive research led her--like an ace detective or shoe-leather crime reporter--through an eight-year coast-to-coast investigation of Post Office Department records, Federal Trade Commission transcripts (some with decaying diaphragms and condoms glued to the pages), American Medical Association (AMA) Health Fraud Archives, records of the NYSSV, credit reports from nineteenth-century Dun and Co. collections, patents, love letters, arrest records, trial records, advertisements and trade catalogues--as well as "entrapment" letters, some drafted by Comstock himself. (He or another agent would pose as being in desperate need of birth control, get the goods and make the arrest.) Established companies, Tone discovered, run by "honest, brave men" who supported Comstock and NYSSV, were never targets for such treatment, which was reserved for smaller entrepreneurs--especially immigrants ("sly" Jews) and women ("old she villains").
Even so, many of those arrested were let off or punished lightly, while the entrapping agents and prosecutors ran the risk of being scolded and humiliated by judges and juries who doubted the advisability, and constitutionality, of such far-reaching Congressional interference into personal matters. Over time, what Tone calls a "zone of tolerance" was created to buffer the flourishing contraceptives trade and its practitioners. In fact, Shaw's prediction that Comstockery would become a "standing joke" was soon realized here in the United States, even, it would seem, in Congress itself.
The hugely ambitious Comstock Act, however, was hardly about contraceptives alone. It stated:
No obscene, lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character, or any article or thing designed to be intended for the prevention of conception or the inducing of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the things mentioned may be obtained or made...shall be carried in the mail.
You do the math. A small army of Post Office inspectors (known as special agents) were required to enforce such an effort. But Congress refused to drum up a serious budget for the measure when Comstock went into effect and made light of the ambitious national program by raising the number of inspectors--nationwide--from fifty-nine to only sixty-three. Looking at the postal arrest figures from May 1875 through April 1876, Tone counted a total of 410 apprehensions, of which only twenty-seven were for violations of the Comstock law.
Nonetheless, in later generations we took it for granted that from passage of the Comstock Act until the post-World War I rise of Margaret Sanger, the average American had little or no access to what we now call "family planning" (a term, Tone informs us, suggested in the 1960s by Malcolm X--"because Negroes [are] more willing to plan than to be controlled"). And while it's true that some of the contraceptives available at the time were ineffective, dangerous or both, others, including condoms, cervical caps (apt to be euphemistically advertised as pessaries in the Comstock era), diaphragms, sponges and some spermicides were often pretty good and relatively inexpensive. Tone notes that in this sea of alternatives many determined wives and husbands doubled, tripled or quadrupled on protection. Given this environment, it's not surprising that after 1880 the national fertility rates for both white and black women declined rapidly, reaching an all-time low in 1940--twenty years before Enovid, the first birth-control pill, came to market and only three years after the AMA's 1937 resolution to "endorse" contraception and recommend it for inclusion in the standard medical school curriculum.
Between 1880 and 1940 the average fertility rate of whites dropped from 4.4 children per woman to 2.1. For blacks it dropped from 7.5 children to 3. Given these incontrovertible facts--a flourishing contraceptives industry paired with a steady decline in births--how could we have come to believe otherwise, that our great and great-great grandmothers were, so to speak, up the fertility creek without a paddle?
Some of the historical distortion must be attributed to the work of Margaret Sanger, who originally dreamed of female empowerment through woman-oriented contraceptive technologies. She viewed birth control as a woman's right and responsibility, and wrote in 1922 that "the question of bearing and rearing children is the concern of the mother and potential mother.... No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body." Condoms "compromised this objective by placing women's procreative destiny in men's hands." Until her death in 1966 Sanger promoted the manufacture first of diaphragms and later the pill, never quite answering objections from other feminists--in the 1920s and again in the 1960s--that this transferred power over women's bodies to doctors who were overwhelmingly (in the case of gynecologists, 97 percent) male. Sanger came to believe so strongly in medically controlled contraception that in a 1952 letter she stated that her greatest achievement had been "to keep the movement strictly and sanely under medical auspices."
This was an about-face from her earlier position. In her extraordinary 1915 pamphlet, Family Limitation, a home guide to contraception, Sanger, as Tone explains, "envisioned a world of grassroots birth control where women from all walks of life could use contraceptives without reliance on doctors, a populist approach she would soon abandon." Family Limitation discussed douches, condoms and cervical caps. (The essential difference between a pessary or cap and a diaphragm is that the generally thimble-shaped caps fit over the cervix by suction and are less likely to be displaced. The diaphragm, however, more or less divides the vagina vertically into two compartments, protecting the cervix from the arena where sperm is deposited. Both methods can benefit from outside help with fitting and correct technique, but the cap has a better record of over-the-counter success, and was long distributed by this means in France, England and the United States.) Sanger ultimately recommended caps, which she felt could be most easily and discreetly used and controlled by women. She distributed 100,000 copies of her pamphlet, imploring women to learn how to insert caps into their own bodies and then to "teach each other" how to as well.
When Sanger and her sister Ethel opened their first clinic in 1916 they instructed women, eight at a time, on how to use over-the-counter (OTC) contraceptives, including condoms, suppositories and rubber pessaries. When police, inevitably, raided the clinic, they found boxes of Mizpah pessaries. An effective OTC contraceptive, this flexible rubber cap was sold by druggists and mail-order vendors for the alleged purpose of treating such medical conditions as a displaced (or prolapsed) uterus. But as Tone writes: "Family Limitation got Sanger into more trouble. In 1915, she found herself back in Europe dodging American law while continuing her contraceptive education.... The trip across the Atlantic was risky. War had broken out." Back home, her husband, William Sanger, had his own problems. And as fate would have it, so did Anthony Comstock. William Sanger had been arrested by Comstock for distributing Family Limitation. And Comstock, who caught a cold in the courtroom during the trial, died soon after of pneumonia.
After her divorce from William, Margaret admitted she was looking for "a widower with money." James Noah Henry Slee, twenty years her senior, was "a well-heeled member of Manhattan's business elite...part of the same establishment Sanger had vilified in her younger, more radical years." They married in 1922 and with his backing, Tone explains,
Sanger embarked on a new chapter of her career, one that distanced the birth control movement from its radical origins and placed it on a more conservative path.... She recognized...that medical science enjoyed increasing prestige and political clout...she sought birth control allies through an ideology that trumpeted women's health over their civil liberties and cast doctors, not patients, as agents of contraceptive choice.
Sanger switched her preference to the diaphragm, particularly the Holland-Rantos brand, which sold exclusively to doctors. (This company, established in 1925, was funded by none other than Mr. Margaret Sanger, James Noah Henry Slee.) Sanger next prevailed on her besotted bridegroom to hire a distinguished, high-salaried doctor to promote their new company:
1925 is to be the big year for the break in birth control...the medical profession will take up the work...I shall feel that I have made my contribution to the cause and...I can withdraw from full-time activity.... If I am able to accomplish this victory...I shall bless my adorable husband, JNH Slee, and retire with him to the garden of love.
Sanger did not retire. In the following years she worked ceaselessly toward her goal of getting the AMA to endorse birth control. Her "signature" story, often bringing audiences to tears, concerned Sadie Sachs, a young immigrant mother of three, married to Jake, a truck driver. When Sadie begged a doctor to give her birth control he cruelly retorted, "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Sadie later died of septicemia following a self-induced abortion. Sanger was now in the business of helping the public forget that some of the widely available OTC methods worked very well for many people. As Tone points out, if Sadie could afford a physician visit, she could surely afford the far lower price of a contraceptive.
In addition to the move toward medicalization, our collective memory may have been dealt a brainwashing by panic-driven "eugenicists." As Sanger moved up socially she supported birth control for some elitist reasons, such as "the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives." But this was mild compared with the phobic reasoning of some of our greatest national leaders, who also feared the newcomers from Europe. Falling birthrates among our native born and the widespread immigration of foreigners from southern and eastern Europe (over 23 million people arrived on America's shores between 1880 and 1920) led Teddy Roosevelt to warn in 1912 that if middle-class American women used fertility control it "means racial death." In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, our great champion of civil liberties, stunned many of his admirers when, in Buck v. Bell, he agreed to uphold a Virginia eugenics statute legalizing the coerced sterilization of "socially inadequate persons." Carrie Buck, the plaintiff, was young, single and white, the "daughter of an imbecile," the mother of an "illegitimate feeble minded child." Holmes agreed to the cutting of Buck's fallopian tubes, proclaiming, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Tone adds that during the Nuremberg trials following World War II, accused Nazi war criminals cited Buck v. Bell to justify the forced sterilization of some 2 million Germans.
Here in the United States, the eugenics and population control movements promoted--and continue to promote--the need to develop contraceptives that take prescription (and often removal) out of the woman's hands. For example, in interviews with 686 low-income users of Norplant--a hormonal contraceptive, intended to last for five years, that consists of six matchstick-sized capsules implanted in a woman's arm--researchers at Columbia University's Center for Population and Family Health learned that 40 percent anticipated or experienced "cost barriers" that could impede the removal of Norplant. They urge that family-planning clinics "follow a policy of Norplant removal on demand, regardless of the patient's ability to pay." Some feminists charge that the effectiveness of OTC methods (carefully used) is still downplayed in quasi-official figures, a dangerous public health mistake in this age of galloping STDs.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of doctor-controlled methods has been exaggerated, as the FDA has acknowledged. Previously, it gave out "ideal" figures for oral-contraceptive effectiveness, in contrast to discouraging clinic "use" figures for barrier methods. In the new round of product labeling this has been partially corrected; actual-use figures for the Pill are placed in a truthful range of 92-95 percent, not at the falsely optimistic 99 percent-plus.
Devices and Desires is replete with riveting histories of women and men who labored--legally and illegally--in the ever-challenging arena of conception control, from the Comstock era through today, and includes portraits of the men who developed Enovid, the first pill, as well as those behind the notorious IUD, the Dalkon shield. Those who read this fascinating book will have a far keener and more credible sense of what has happened and where we are now. Most women are still unsatisfied with their contraceptive choices, and as Tone concludes,
It is ironic that in a post-Roe v. Wade world that celebrates reproductive choice, the most frequently used contraceptive in the country--by a wide-margin--is female sterilization. In a very real sense Americans are still waiting for the heralded "second contraceptive revolution" to arrive.... In the absence of universal health care or prescription drug coverage, one way out of the contraceptive conundrum may be the development of more affordable over-the-counter methods, which would increase men's and women's options without tethering contraceptives to the medical marketplace from which millions are excluded.... Today to meet the needs of women and men who lack sufficient resources, we must supplement reliable medical methods with inexpensive over-the-counter options.
In the 1960s, the introduction of the Pill, revival of the ever-treacherous IUD and "stealth sterilization" of welfare moms--whose tubes were tied, without permission, after giving birth--placed contraception still more firmly in doctors' hands. In the parlance of that decade the "greasy kid stuff," including condoms, was left in the dust. Because of overpopulation fears, the new technologies enjoyed a diplomatic immunity--at women's expense. At an annual meeting of medical school deans, Nobel laureate Dr. Frederick Robbins declared, "The dangers of overpopulation are so great that we may have to use certain techniques of conception control that may entail considerable risk to the individual woman." Original Pills contained 150 micrograms of estrogen; today we know that 20 suffices. Millions of women served as guinea pigs for high-dose pills and IUDs, and thousands died. In 1970, at Senate hearings, Dr. Louis Hellman, chairman of the FDA advisory committee that twice declared the Pill safe, admitted that in his equation of benefit versus risk he "put population first, before benefits to the individual woman's health."
As women demanded to "take our bodies back" from deceitful doctors, the spirit of Comstock rose up again. In 1973 Our Bodies, Ourselves, Ellen Frankfort's Vaginal Politics and my book Free and Female were banned in Cleveland and Washington, DC. In 1979 shipments of cervical caps that independent women's self-help clinics imported from England were seized by FDA agents. Senator Ted Kennedy helped to get the caps released, but the FDA restricted their use to "investigational device" (ludicrous--the same caps had been in continuous use in England for a century), thus subverting the grassroots revival of the cap. Who can say who put the FDA up to this, but perhaps some future Andrea Tone-type women's history sleuth will get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, one of my hopes for Tone's extraordinary book is that it might encourage many people--men as well as women--to reconsider the barrier methods, respect them more and possibly learn to enjoy them, as some say they do. In contrast to the steady decline of teenage pregnancy, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in young adults is increasing at a truly alarming rate. For example, estimates are that 46 percent of female college students are now infected with human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause both genital warts and cervical cancer. Are student health services reliably advising their clients of this? My informants say no.
Here we go, starting on what promises to be a pleasantly engrossing tour of the landmarks of three centuries of Anglo-American intellectual feminism, guided by a seriously impressive scholar, Elaine Showalter of Princeton University.
Enslave your girls and women, harbor anti-US terrorists, destroy
every vestige of civilization in your homeland, and the Bush
Administration will embrace you. All that matters is that you line up as
an ally in the drug war, the only international cause that this nation
still takes seriously.
That's the message sent with the recent gift of $43 million to the
Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, the most virulent anti-American violators
of human rights in the world today. The gift, announced last Thursday by
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in addition to other recent aid, makes
the United States the main sponsor of the Taliban and rewards that "rogue regime"
for declaring that opium growing is against the will of God. So, too, by
the Taliban's estimation, are most human activities, but it's the ban on
drugs that catches this administration's attention.
Never mind that Osama bin Laden still operates the leading
anti-American terror operation from his base in Afghanistan, from which,
among other crimes, he launched two bloody attacks on American embassies
in Africa in 1998.
Sadly, the Bush Administration is cozying up to the Taliban regime at
a time when the United Nations, at US insistence, imposes sanctions on
Afghanistan because the Kabul government will not turn over Bin Laden.
The war on drugs has become our own fanatics' obsession and easily
trumps all other concerns. How else could we come to reward the Taliban,
who has subjected the female half of the Afghan population to a continual
reign of terror in a country once considered enlightened in its treatment
At no point in modern history have women and girls been more
systematically abused than in Afghanistan where, in the name of madness
masquerading as Islam, the government in Kabul obliterates their
fundamental human rights. Women may not appear in public without being
covered from head to toe with the oppressive shroud called the
burkha , and they may not leave the house without being accompanied by
a male family member. They've not been permitted to attend school or be
treated by male doctors, yet women have been banned from practicing
medicine or any profession for that matter.
The lot of males is better if they blindly accept the laws of an
extreme religious theocracy that prescribes strict rules governing all
behavior, from a ban on shaving to what crops may be grown. It is this
last power that has captured the enthusiasm of the Bush White House.
The Taliban fanatics, economically and diplomatically isolated, are at
the breaking point, and so, in return for a pittance of legitimacy and
cash from the Bush Administration, they have been willing to appear to
reverse themselves on the growing of opium. That a totalitarian country
can effectively crack down on its farmers is not surprising. But it is
grotesque for a US official, James P. Callahan, director of the State
Department's Asian anti-drug program, to describe the Taliban's special
methods in the language of representative democracy: "The Taliban used a
system of consensus-building," Callahan said after a visit with the
Taliban, adding that the Taliban justified the ban on drugs "in very
Of course, Callahan also reported, those who didn't obey the
theocratic edict would be sent to prison.
In a country where those who break minor rules are simply beaten on
the spot by religious police and others are stoned to death, it's
understandable that the government's "religious" argument might be
compelling. Even if it means, as Callahan concedes, that most of the
farmers who grew the poppies will now confront starvation. That's because
the Afghan economy has been ruined by the religious extremism of the
Taliban, making the attraction of opium as a previously tolerated quick
cash crop overwhelming.
For that reason, the opium ban will not last unless the United States is
willing to pour far larger amounts of money into underwriting the Afghan
As the Drug Enforcement Administration's Steven Casteel admitted, "The
bad side of the ban is that it's bringing their country--or certain
regions of their country--to economic ruin." Nor did he hold out much
hope for Afghan farmers growing other crops such as wheat, which require
a vast infrastructure to supply water and fertilizer that no longer
exists in that devastated country. There's little doubt that the Taliban
will turn once again to the easily taxed cash crop of opium in order to
stay in power.
The Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own war drug war
zealots, but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure. Our
long sad history of signing up dictators in the war on drugs demonstrates
the futility of building a foreign policy on a domestic obsession.
When we left that old journalistic evergreen, the evils of daycare, two weeks ago, the media hysteria over the NICHD study had just about peaked. The researchers had begun to turn on each other in public, never a good sign--Jay Belsky, a champion soundbiter who had seized the media initiative by strongly suggesting that the study showed that more than thirty hours a week with anyone but Mom would risk turning little Dick and Jane into obnoxious brats, was sharply challenged by numerous co-researchers, who claimed the study's results were tentative, ambiguous and negligible, hardly results at all, really. After a few rounds of this, the media suddenly remembered that no one had actually seen the study, which won't be published for another year and which does seem on the face of it rather counterintuitive: Daddy care is bad? Granny care is bad? Quality of care makes no difference? What really did the trick, though, I suspect, was that every fed-up woman journalist in America sat down and bashed out a piece telling the doomsayers to lay off, already. With 13 million kids in daycare, and two-thirds of women with children under 6 in the work force, working moms are a critical mass, and they are really, really tired of being made to feel guilty when they are, in fact, still the ones doing double duty at work and home.
Compare the kerfuffle over the quantity of hours spent in daycare with the ho-hum response to studies of its quality. On May 1, Worthy Wage Day for childcare workers, came a study from Berkeley and Washington, DC, that looked at staffing in seventy-five better-than-average California daycare centers serving kids aged 2 1/2 through 5. According to Then and Now: Changes in Child Care Staffing 1994-2000, staffers and directors are leaving the field in droves. At the centers in the study, 75 percent of teachers and 40 percent of directors on the job in 1996 had quit four years later. Some centers had turnover rates of 100 percent or more (!) from one year to the next. Half the leavers abandoned the field entirely--raising their incomes by a whopping $8,000 a year compared with the other half, who remained in childcare. Nor were those who left easily replaced: Most of the centers that lost staffers could not fill all their job slots by the next year.
The demoralization and turmoil caused by constant turnover stress both the workers who stay and the children. Making matters worse, the new workers are "significantly less well-educated" than those they replace--only a third have bachelor's degrees, as opposed to almost half of the leavers. Pay, say the researchers, is the main issue: Not only have salaries not risen with the rising tide supposedly lifting all boats; when adjusted for inflation, they have actually fallen. A daycare teacher works twelve months a year to earn $24,606--just over half the average salary of public-school teachers, who work for ten months (not that schoolteachers are well-paid, either). Center directors, at the top of the field, earn on average a mere $37,571; the recommended starting salary for elementary-school teachers in California is $38,000. (In France, which has a first-rate public daycare system, daycare teachers and elementary-school teachers are paid the same.) Daycare teachers love their work--two-thirds say they would recommend it as a career--but simply do not earn enough to make a life in the field.
It's a paradox: Even as more and more families, of every social class, rely on daycare, and even as we learn more and more about the importance of early childhood education for intellectual and social development, and even as we talk endlessly about the importance of "quality" and "stability" and "qualified" staff, the amount of money we are willing--or able--to pay the people we ask to do this demanding and important job goes down. Instead of addressing this reality, we endlessly distract ourselves with Mommy Wars. (You let your child have milk from the store? My child drinks nothing but organic goat milk from flocks tended by Apollo himself!) And because as Americans we don't really believe the rest of the world exists, when a study comes along suggesting that other-than-mother-care produces some nasty and difficult kids, we don't think to ask if this is a problem in Denmark or France, and if not, why not.
Two new books of great interest, Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood and Nancy Folbre's The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values, point out that there is a crisis of care in America. Women are incredibly disadvantaged when they perform traditionally female work--childcare, housework, eldercare--unpaid within families. (According to Crittenden, motherhood is the single biggest cause of poverty for women.) The free market cannot replace this unpaid labor at decent rates, Folbre argues, because it would be too expensive: Even now, most families cannot afford tuition at a "quality" daycare center, any more than they can afford private school. And men are hardly falling over themselves to do their share--nobody's talking about the Daddy Track, you'll notice. Both writers call for recognizing the work of care as essential to the economy: Top-quality daycare should be funded by the government, like school, because it is a "public good."
Unfortunately, funding public goods is not exactly a high priority of government, which is busily cutting programs for children in favor of a huge tax cut for the rich. These days our main public goods seem to be prisons ($4.5 billion), the drug war ($19 billion, including $1 billion in military aid to Colombia), abstinence education ($250 million) and executing Timothy McVeigh ($50 million, not counting plane tix for celebrity death witness Gore Vidal). You can always find money for the things you really want.
Once again the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights group, is asking Nation readers to help fund summer camp for Bosnian refugee children. Many readers have become an integral part of this wonderful effort, sometimes going beyond donations to correspond with particular children. $150 makes you a "godparent" and pays for two weeks of camp for a child, but gifts of any size are welcome. Send checks made out to the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt to me at The Nation, and I will forward them.
Feminist anthropology fights for public voice in a new era.
Studies on the effects of childcare on the young are colored by researchers' views about educated women who go to work.
About a year and a half ago I received a book from Bosnia. Its title was I Begged Them to Kill Me. It was a collection of some forty accounts by Muslim women who were raped, mostly by Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries in 1992. During the past ten years several collections of the same kind have been published, but this one was different because the raped women themselves, organized into the Association of Camp Inmates-Canton Sarajevo, collected and published it. They had decided to spread the information about what had happened to them without the help of journalists or experts, or even a professional editor.
This book, bearing all the signs of amateurism, is nonetheless an important and moving document of suffering we thought we had heard and known all about. The anonymous women speak of the unspeakable--of rape, torture, enslavement, forced pregnancy, the selling of women as slaves. This is a very special book to me. The women from the association sent it to me with a dedication because of my book S: A Novel About the Balkans, which also deals with mass rape. I admire their decision to publish their accounts in the belief that their truth deserved to be heard.
Women who were raped before them, in Germany, China and Korea during the two world wars, rarely spoke about it in public. It was not to be mentioned but to be forgotten. Indeed, it was forgotten. However, the raped women in Bosnia believed in the possibility of justice through the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague, established by the UN Security Council in 1993. And they understood that justice could not be done without their help. In the book, all of the violated women say they would volunteer as witnesses in that court, and many did. Not in a local court but the international one--because they know very well that the culprits will not be brought to court in their own country. Who would arrest them? Who would put them on trial? What kind of sentences would they get? They had only "had fun."
Agreeing to testify as witnesses in The Hague was a brave, even heroic step for the raped Bosnian women. To the world they had to say, "Yes, I was raped!" They had to live with that confession afterward--with their children and husbands, their brothers and fathers, their community. And this is not liberal Berlin or Stockholm, marked by decades of women's emancipation.
Without these brave women, what would have happened? What would have happened in the trial of Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic, three men from Foca who, on February 22, received sentences in The Hague of from twelve to twenty-eight years in prison? Most likely they would be living free in Foca, every day passing by the Partizan Sports Hall where they kept their Muslim prisoners, then by the houses where they kept enslaved women. They would sit in a cafe smoking cigarettes and drinking brandy, telling anecdotes from the war. If any of their victims happened to pass by, they would point at her with their finger and laugh. Indeed, if these women had kept their "shame" to themselves, the three men would not have entered history. Now they are the first men ever to be sentenced exclusively for sexual crimes defined as crimes against humanity--systematic mass rape, sexual enslavement and torture of women and girls during war. This was only possible thanks to the Bosnian women who did not shut up. Perhaps this time it was impossible not to speak--there were too many women violated (a UN report put the number at 20,000, but that is only an estimate). There were also too many journalists around, too many experts and humanitarian workers, people willing to listen and to help.
No matter what made them speak, the women from the book and the other violated Bosnian women are the real heroes of this historical trial, the women who were not supposed to speak. That was exactly what the three men from Foca were counting on--their silence. I wish I had been in the courtroom when the three men received their sentences. What was in their eyes? Disbelief? Despair? Never could they have imagined that any of those women would have the courage to stand up and face them in court. The men must have thought it was a joke when they heard that they were going to be on trial for rape. OK, perhaps they were rude sometimes if the imprisoned women were not obedient. So what? Never could they have imagined that they would get such heavy sentences. After all, they did not even kill anybody. And among those who did kill, there were some who got much lighter sentences. How is that possible? they must have wondered. I wish I had seen that discrepancy on their faces, a discrepancy between what they believed they did (and what perhaps they might have thought was wrong but certainly not a crime)--and what was deemed a crime against humanity by the international court.
When I asked the women from the Association of Camp Inmates-Canton Sarajevo how I could help them, they asked if I could give them a fax machine. They have nothing, not even their own office. A fax machine would mean a lot to them. Not only to spread information but to enable them to fight to be recognized as war victims in their own society, and to get at least some social aid. There is symbolism in their request: They are still not willing to shut up. Recently I received a thank-you letter from them, via fax. They are grateful for the machine, they wrote. But I and millions of other women are grateful to them because they spoke up and changed something for us, too.
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.
Ever since I was assigned to read A Room of One's Own in college eight years ago, I have kept it close for support. Besides the fact that, like Virginia Woolf, I had also read Leo Tolstoy's journals and was similarly enraged by the clarity he exhibited at such a young age, I felt she was on to something. "A room of one's own," however, wasn't quite it.
I grew up in the 1980s inside a charming, if small, Spanish-style California home with a mom, a sister, a piano, many dogs and two brothers who were relentless in their efforts to jimmy my locks with butter knives. Although I liked to think I had my own room, the space's original and (now that I'm an adult I can say it) idiotic plans called for its doubling as a shortcut to one of the house's more popular bathrooms. I went to great and occasionally violent lengths to discourage use of this particular feature. The results? Ha, as DrRogue would say.
Time and time again, my brothers broke triumphantly in, capturing me on my bed writing in my journal. I smile now, but back then, those intrusions enraged me. You see, unlike those jerks I was becoming a woman, and it was making me miserable. I liked being a girl. And it wasn't necessarily that I was surprised to discover that girls became women--in a rational way, I knew it happened all the time. It was just that I found the obvious sexuality of it offensive. It was clear to me that once breasts made their appearance against a shirt, a person could not be taken seriously.
I looked around at school and saw happy, pretty girls who went to the beach. They seemed content being female, and I liked boys too, so I did what they did. Then I went home depressed, slammed my doors, locked them and wrote to my journal about how much I loathed myself, until my brothers broke in after school. Here is a genuine entry from November 4, 1988: "I've gained five lbs. in a week if that's possible. I loathe myself. I'm sick of being regarded as 'muscular'--I want to be petite like Kate. Sports have ruined me."
Yes, you could say I was self-involved, melodramatic, petty. Worse, I was repetitive: November 4, 1988, was no date with an epiphany. Nonetheless, I was in pain. All I knew was that I'd gone from being an outspoken girl interested in everything to someone withdrawn and incapable of participating in class. I was depressed, but more than that I was hating myself for being a woman. I'd slipped onto a path that is as vicious and uncreative as it is a cliché of young womanhood. In a rare moment of teen lightness, I named it the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice. The Trail shouldn't be underestimated. Every day, another girl gets stuck in its mud.
Virginia Woolf would have liked DrRogue, a bright, confident writer with a lashing wit. As to whether DrRogue is a genius as defined by Woolf, only time will tell. In the meantime, she manages beyond the confines of a tiny school (there are just five girls in her class), her parents' limited financial means and, oh yes, childhood, to find experience and "a room of her own" for the cultivation of her talents. You see, DrRogue is known to those in her small New England town as 13-year-old Susan.
We met on July 14, 2000. I'm a part-time producer of commercial websites for teen girls and was spending some time perusing the vast number of homepages linked to one another on the Internet. There are thousands out there, colorful and animated, with names like Glitter Girl, Fairy Dawn, Overcooked, Pixie Kitten, Foily Tin, Quasi Grrrl, Peppermint and Intelligent Life. They can be constructed at established homepage-building areas of sites such as gURL, ChickClick, Lycos and Bolt. Or they can be created independently, then hooked into freer-floating webrings like "Shut Up You're Only 16!" and "Music Girl." Some are smart; some are sappy. Most are filled with poetry. If you visit, you may find writings, drawings, photos, interactive games and the creator's deepest, darkest secret. But you won't ever find her. Instead, your experience will be that of discovering an anonymous diary on a crowded city street. You can read it and learn everything about its owner, but look up and she's long gone.
DrRogue, however, is right here. I have no idea who she is.
She flashes onto my screen, an insistent clump of text in a small, square dialog box aboard America Online's ubiquitous Instant Messenger (IM).
DrRogue: Hey, Bronwyn!
Aha, exclamation points. Dead giveaway. DrRogue, I now know, is one of the dozen or so teen girls whom I have e-mailed about their homepages. By now, I've visited enough to identify the prints.
I flip through my list of teen e-mails. DrRogue is Susan, the one with the website called Intelligent Life. Evidently, she has made a note of my AOL e-mail address and posted it to her "buddy list" to see when I'm online. She's flashing again.
DrRogue: Hello, it's Susan.
(Slowness, you see, is terminal here.)
BGAR2: Yes, Susan, of Intelligent Life. Hello.
DrRogue: Yeah, yeah, just thought I'd reiterate.
In my web travels, I've discovered that most Internet-savvy, homepage-creating girls provide only first names on their sites and to people they meet online. Discussing this find via e-mail with many different young women, I learn that the "first name only" policy is pretty strictly followed in these parts. Not every teen, of course, approaches her online development in the same way. Websites like Goosehead, for example, the work of a 15-year-old student, her parents and a growing staff, serves up a huge number of provocative photos of the pretty tenth-grade founder. For self-run sites, however, those who forgo anonymity are just throwing bait to bad people. "Avoid the psychopaths," as DrRogue says.
Anonymity is one of the hallmarks of safety online. And both anonymity and online safety, I learn, are crucial to privacy. If you'd asked me in high school what privacy meant in my life, I might have said, locked physical space that cannot be invaded with a butter knife. I mention this to DrRogue. It becomes clear that things have changed.
DrRogue: Privacy is [about] having your personal space in a more intellectually abstract, metaphysical sense. It is making sure that no one can find out too much about your real life through your online follies, keeping relationships strictly anon and not putting yourself at risk of psychopaths.
Evidently, DrRogue's issues go beyond keeping her brother out of her room (although this is cited as an ancillary goal). No matter the "horror stories blown up by newscasters," Susan asserts that she doesn't "feel threatened that [her] anonymity is slipping away." On the contrary, she blames the media for exacerbating the situation with their stupidity:
DrRogue: Newscasters report the invasion of my privacy very sternly, as though they're the ones decoding the human genome. From the way they speak, as though every technical word is new and unknown, it's clear that they're still asking their kids how to log on to the Internet.
Notwithstanding adult ignorance, DrRogue's understanding of privacy, "metaphysical" as it may be, is still predominantly about hiding the cord that could lead "psychopaths" to the "real" her. But isn't this paranoia for good reason? I ask. Haven't we all heard stories of "psychopaths" locating teenagers from clues carelessly dropped in chatrooms? DrRogue blisters at this one.
DrRogue: And then we have, "Cyber stalkers! Are your kids safe on the net?" If they have an IQ higher than a rock. Never give your full, real name, specific location, or phone number to a stranger. EVERY kid should know that!
"Keeping relationships strictly anon," in fact, is just the beginning of what a user, child or adult, must learn about the web, according to DrRogue. Sensing my ignorance, she outlines society's paranoia, the real issues as she sees them and the solutions--albeit in a somewhat mocking tone:
DrRogue: "Companies are putting something called 'COOKIES' onto your hard drive to TRACK WHAT SITES YOU VISIT!" screams the television. Anyone with a brain and a mouse should know that you can clear all the cookies off your hard drive anytime, or even set your computer to not accept them at all. "CREDIT CARD FRAUD!" is another big one. If you have a grain of sense, you won't give your credit card number to sites with names like Bob's Discount Warehouse. If you're not sure it's credible, DON'T SHOP THERE. "A new virus is spreading like wildfire around the world and through major corporations!" Major corporations where the employees are so out of touch, apparently, that they'll download anything.
Although DrRogue and most of the teens I encounter online are very careful about their privacy, the Annenberg Public Policy Center's The Internet and the Family 2000 reports that 75 percent of teens consider it acceptable to reveal what the study has defined as "private family information" in exchange for gifts, online. These "older kids," aged 13 to 17, are even more likely than younger ones, according to the study, to divulge personal details, including the names of their own and their parents' favorite stores, the type of car their family drives, whether their parents talk about politics and what their parents do on the weekends.
In the adult world, a person's concern for her own physical safety goes without saying, while the current discourse surrounds public image more than it does personal safety. In a New York Times Magazine article on privacy and technology, Jeffrey Rosen states that through the interception of e-mails, the tracking of browsing habits and purchases online and statements made in chatrooms, one's "public identity may be distorted by fragments of information that have little to do with how you define yourself."
Indeed, we've all heard stories about e-mail fragments being taken out of context by employers and others. The Washington Post described the case of James Rutt, the CEO of Network Solutions Inc., who feared his years of candid postings about sex, politics and his weight problem might be taken out of context, thus damaging his reputation and his ability to run his company effectively. Consequently, the new CEO employed a program called Scribble to help erase his online past.
Rutt's story is not unusual. This fear of being taken for a "fragment" of information is enough for most of us to employ private e-mail accounts we switch to at work when we have something personal to communicate. Even though we take these precautions, everyone I know goes to great lengths to erase all of her business e-mails when leaving a company. Why? Because the medium is seductive: Web travel is about exploration, and e-mails begun as impersonal memos often become more intimate exchanges. Intimacy does not translate well to third parties.
Take the 1997 example Rosen cites of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig's e-mailed comment to a friend that he had "sold [his] soul" in downloading Microsoft Internet Explorer. Lessig, who had downloaded Explorer simply to enter a contest for a PowerBook, was not stating a biased opinion about the company, he was flippantly quoting a song. However, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who had chosen Lessig as an adviser in the Microsoft antitrust suit, was forced to take such a bias seriously, removing Lessig as his adviser.
Rosen makes the point that we all wear different social "masks" in different settings and with different people. This may be true, even as it is socially taboo. From our estimations of Joan of Arc down to President Clinton, we celebrate and trust those with consistent (and consistently good) characters and criticize those who "waffle," or behave as if they are "spineless." Because we do not know how to define someone who changes with each new setting, we call her things like "mercurial," a "chameleon" or "two-faced." Consequently, the web induces fear in an adult not just for the things online crooks might do with Social Security numbers and other personal information but what a user herself may do to complicate her own "character."
However, while the adult world may suffer from a preoccupation with consistency, teens have the peculiar advantage of being dismissed as inconsistent before they begin. Adolescence is the societally condoned window in which we may shuffle through identities with abandon. My older sister, for example, horrified my grade-school self by morphing from punk to hippie to Hare Krishna to surfer girl all in the next room. Yet by the time I graduated from high school, I'd been through a few of those identities myself.
Besides their assumed role as explorers, teens may actually face fewer risks of this kind than their adult counterparts. Statistics relate that around 45 percent of large companies monitor their employees e-mail accounts, while few junior highs and high schools in America offer all their students computers or e-mail accounts. Even if they did, chances are that monitoring kids' private mail in public schools would raise countless legal issues. DrRogue's school is just now hooking up six new computers for the whole school of fifty-six students and has no intention of providing them with e-mail accounts. Ironically, it is this deprivation that has made monitoring less of an issue for students than it is for employees at big companies.
For girls like DrRogue who create and maintain personal homepages and explore the web's massive serving of chatrooms and boards, safety is not the only motivation for anonymity. "Bodilessness," it seems, can be the means to a more intellectual objective: credibility. Says Peppermint, a 17-year-old writer,
I definitely feel "bodiless" when writing for my page. The Internet has provided me with an audience that will forever be my biggest fan and my worst enemy. Just as I can say what I want on my site without fear of rejection, others can e-mail me their honest thoughts without the face-to-face consequences of criticism. My audience, as well as my privacy, is crucial to my development as a writer.
In a world with, as DrRogue sees it, "a seemingly endless supply of people to talk to and sites to visit, from all around the world," immediate, physical privacy gives some young women confidence they don't have when they're attached to developing physiques, school cliques or societal and familial expectations.
Only bodiless, confess some girls, can they relate certain ideas and thoughts at all. Indeed, screen names have become so popular that AOL is currently offering the option of seven aliases to the users of Instant Messenger. DrRogue herself has five that she can remember. In addition, girls can, if only for the experience, switch genders online. (Studies suggest 40 percent have done it.) "The ONLY reason I go into a chatroom is to pretend to be someone else!" insists DrRogue. Other young women are altogether wary of chatrooms. "I don't believe in chatrooms," explains Peppermint. "They've become a forum for online popularity contests and cyber sex." Does the monitoring of chatrooms add to their problems?
DrRogue: I've never felt like I was being monitored, because a monitor would do a better job of kicking out the scum.
Bodiless, many girls use their homepages as a sounding board before taking ideas out into "the real world." Others put the space and the "audience" to work on facets of themselves or ideas they plan to confine permanently there.
Peppermint, whose "real life" friends know her as Caitlin, addresses the consequences that she believes her physicality can have upon the reception of her ideas. "I do not post pictures of myself," she states in an e-mail, "simply because I want to be perceived as 'more than just a pretty face.'" Peppermint is so adamant that her physical self be distinct from her online self that she does not give her website address to "real life" friends.
Peppermint: I don't allow friends that I have known in person to have my Website address. The Web is a sacred place for me to speak to a receptive and critical audience, while at the same time, I do not need to worry about making a first impression, [about] coming off how I'd like to, or [about] what will happen the next time I see them. Because I don't need to make impressions, I am who I am, and I am being honest.
Peppermint believes her femininity and "real life" identity can negatively affect the reception of her ideas. She observes: "As a woman, I think we will always be viewed as sexual objects. [I want a person] to be able to look past the outside and realize that there is an opinionated, intelligent, creative young woman behind the pretty face." DrRogue, who at 13 is really just entering adolescence, simply may not have experienced her femininity as a handicap yet. If all goes well, she never will.
To many, appearance is the essential problem of female development. With the world standing by to notice her changing body, a young woman begins to perceive her somewhat limited access to what psychologist Lyn Mikel Brown (and many others, of course) points to as the patriarchal framework of our culture. From here, a struggle to retain her childhood identity and value system ensues, followed typically by a loss of voice, the narrowing of desires and expectations and the capitulation to conventional notions of womanhood. Yes, the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice is so trodden it is cliché. We've all seen countless articles on the phenomenon, but that doesn't make it any less painful for the young women going through it.
Less publicized, though more interesting than the pervasiveness of the Sucking Trail, is what Lyn Brown and Carol Gilligan (author of groundbreaking studies of female adolescence) have identified as a period before adolescence when girls' "voices" are at their most powerful. Young women, most of whom I imagine to be variations on DrRogue, actively resist dominant cultural notions of femininity at the edge of puberty. Finding a means to connect, harness and preserve the loud, defiant voices may empower girls to defy cultural norms and, in the process, eclipse the resentment that Virginia Woolf so protested.
On the one hand, Peppermint's sensitivity to a societal bias we'd like to think has passed is tragic. On the other hand, unlike those of us who were teenagers even ten years ago, Peppermint and DrRogue can literally construct their own worlds, with their own standards, where the only thing that matters is their ideas. They can't live in it forever, but maybe a few hours a day is long enough to change their lives.
BGAR2: how many hours do you spend online each day?
DrRogue: 1, usually.
BGAR2: really? That's nothing.
DrRogue: 2, really.
DrRogue: 3, if I'm bored.
BGAR2: still, I imagined more.
DrRogue: well, I'm prolly scaling down a lot.
BGAR2: why's that?
DrRogue: let's just say I've had to LIMIT my online time in the past.
BGAR2: ahh. los padres?
BGAR2: how much time did you spend yesterday?
DrRogue: lemme check my log.
DrRogue: ok, I lied. I spent 4 hours online.
Intelligent Life, DrRogue's latest homepage, which makes vague note of a Susan somewhere in the meat of its smart, sometimes acerbic, steadfastly spelling-error-free content, is exactly what it sounds like: an SOS for brain activity in a spectrum overwrought with misspelled emotion. Intelligent Life, when just a month old, had already received nearly 400 visitors--and that was during the summer. Whether they're up to DrRogue's standards is another matter.
Intelligent Life: I'm not being snobbish or narrow-minded, the time has simply come to draw the line. I want to meet people (of any age) who are bright and exciting, funny, kind, and intelligent. I want to meet people who are clearly individuals, not stereotypical, bumbling, senseless teenagers with limited vocabularies who take extreme liberties with spelling.
In short, do not visit Intelligent Life if you are, and there's no easy way to say this, a "ditz." Ding.
DrRogue: Have you been to Narly Carly yet?
Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page, to be specific, is DrRogue's spoof site--she recommended I look at it for research. Pulling the purple page with the rotating star up onto the screen, I see another reactionary move by DrRogue: a parody of the many sunny, earnest, "overwrought" teen sites splattered across the web. In the usual autobiographical style of these things, the fictional Narly Carly describes herself and her life, albeit without any of the eloquence DrRogue saves for, well, DrRogue. "I am a junior at Willingford High!" screams Narly at her visitors, "Go Wolfs!!!"
Although to the naked eye Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page looks quite a lot like any other teen site, its status as a farce lies in its suspicious abuse of exclamation points, the word "like" and an overload of personal information, among other things. Narly gives away reels of intimate details--for the visitors who "get it," this is a reproach of lax security. There is, after all, no one currently policing the Internet to keep people from divulging too much about themselves. In this era, something like Narly Carly serves as a gentle warning--as gossip does in a small town--to keep people in line. The irony is, of course, that a real Narly Carly may not understand irony.
Narly Carly bears the treadmarks of an adolescent critical of hypocrisy in older girls, making Susan appear to be someone Gilligan might identify as a "resister." Before they give up any measure of voice and shift into idealized femininity, girls are louder than ever, embodying what Gilligan believes may be political potential of an active adolescent underground. Whatever Susan's reasons for building an older "teenybopper's" site, they are her own. However, the underground political potential, along with Susan's strength and clarity of character, are palpable on Narly Carly. Indeed, a handful of the guestbook's visitors, whether male or female, passed the first test--they "got it." Said one visitor: "This page is so evil! I know whoever made it did this intentionally. No 'real' person acts this pathetic. And 'like' was WAY back in the 1980s. I know this is a joke and the person who made it is laughing their head off reading the guestbook."
When I argue that web diarists like her must be a bit self-conscious, DrRogue seethes: "People really put themselves out on these things!" Unlike my diaries though, they also get visitors who comment and provide discourse and insight, making the creator feel less alienated, making the pages actually useful methods of growth. Not to knock the diary--I certainly got somewhere venting in my own. Anaïs Nin kept a journal to "free" herself of "personae." The web is, in some ways, a more evolved journal, even as it is so many other things. Studies have shown that students write better papers and learn foreign languages more fluently when they actually have something to communicate to another person.
BGAR2: so these sites are like journals.
BGAR2: couldn't you print them out and store them in a closet or something and then delete them?
DrRogue: AH no!
DrRogue: that would defeat the purpose of the web!
BGAR2: what's the purpose?
DrRogue: interactivity, for one.
DrRogue: longevity of information, two. i can visit the Susan of a year ago. she's there in the same place, just as alive.
BGAR2: but how do you know when you're done?
DrRogue: I stop visiting it. I'm sick of it.
D.W. Winnicott defined a process of imaginative "saturation" in children's play in which the child plays with a certain toy or enacts an imaginative experience until all of the emotional ambivalence, fear, anxiety, etc., are diffused from that action or thing. DrRogues may be "playing" out their emotions to make offline "reality" less emotional. Selfishly, while she contributes to the textual wasteland of so many sites created and then abandoned, DrRogue hates to stumble upon such a "haunted" site herself.
DrRogue: It makes me feel really bad, manipulated almost, when I'm browsing a site, and then there's a date, and that date is like, March 13, 1996.
BGAR2: why, because it's old?
DrRogue: "does this person still exist?"
DrRogue: because I spent time getting to know the person
BGAR2: is it a waste if it's old?
DrRogue: it depends.
DrRogue: I like retail sites because they're constantly busy.
BGAR2: yeah, the idea of an updated site is good.
DrRogue: like someone's alive.
A good character's job is to "manipulate" her audience. Perhaps then, a date is some sort of narrative flaw that pulls DrRogue out of the story. What should a date matter to her anyway, I wonder: She'll never meet the site's creators. Why does she care whether she or he is still "alive"? The presence of a date on a site is like an actor's mustache falling off--it brings reality back into focus.
DrRogue's sense that a retail site, for example, might have human qualities, or something resembling a heartbeat, implies her ability to suspend disbelief so that the mechanism--words on the web--dissolves away. Further, it suggests a narrative view of the Internet, a desire to read and live through other people's stories. Susan seeks to learn about the world, about people and about herself, insight she can glean from any good story, regardless of its medium. I express some weariness of the homepages, but DrRogue says reading about their creators' everyday doings is fascinating, "sort of like having someone's life for a minute."
Stories, like "playing," can be powerful agents of personal transformation. "The right stories can open our hearts and change who we are," says Janet Murray, a professor of a digital fiction course at MIT. Indeed, ultimately the best stories render their technologies transparent so that we experience only the power of the characters and the story itself.
DrRogue created Intelligent Life to find other people, to hear their stories, to "have someone's life for a minute." In exchange, she shares her own experiences and, in doing so, develops a bit more as a human being. Logging on has enabled DrRogue to get beyond her small town, her age and her financial situation and has allowed her through narrative to experience the world.
Somehow, maybe because she pummels me with Instant Messages whenever I log on, I have come to associate the web with DrRogue. It is her "room," you might say.
BGAR2: shouldn't you be at camp or something
DrRogue: I said ALL my friends were at camp. I'm not so fortunate.
BGAR2: oh. sucks. well, you have the web.
DrRogue: I have the web.
Writing has always allowed people to step outside their skin, to try on different identities, to see through other perspectives. Lyn Lifshin, who edited a collection of women's journals by professional writers and others, recalled that contributors' friends were often shocked at the people represented in the diaries. For Foucault, writing was about growth and escaping the confines of identity. No one understands this better than the growth-hungry DrRogue, who, thanks to technology, can go even further in her explorations. She can gain experience of the world from a tiny room in Vermont.
The term "cyberspace" was coined by William Gibson, the prolific science fiction novelist, to define the virtual landscape of a human being's consciousness. It is voyeurism, entertainment, education, communication, interaction and self-expression all at once. Above all, it is a human environment, an extension of, rather than an escape from, the "real world." As such, it poses "real world" risks as well as opportunities. For young women like DrRogue and Peppermint, it is the real stories, the sense of community and communication, that keep them coming back.
Peppermint: Receiving responsive email to something I've written is the most rewarding part of the experience. I've received in excess of fifty letters, especially from girls a few years younger than myself, saying that I've taught them that there is nothing wrong with being yourself. This is a lesson that I wish I had learned at their age, and to know that I have taught it to someone younger than me is an incredible feeling.
DrRogue: IGG. [I gotta go.] Time to do something productive today.
BGAR2: Go write your novel.
I forgot to mention that, since she's not going to camp, DrRogue is writing a novel. It's tentatively titled: Teen Girls: Not as Stupid as You Think.
Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's bigamous mayor) and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out and where, sources assure me, the v-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.
And they keep saying feminism is dead.
The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the v-word to the f-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.
At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others, but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?
The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness. A prim, wryly clever woman in "The Vagina Workshop" learns how to give herself orgasms at one of Betty Dodson's famous masturbation classes. At the Garden, Ensler led the cast in a chorus of orgasmic moans, and Close got the braver members of the audience to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" at the climax of a poetic monologue meant to redeem and reclaim the dirtiest of all dirty words.
How anyone could find The Vagina Monologues antimale or pornographic is beyond me--it's a veritable ode to warm, quirky, affectionate, friendly, passionate sex. The only enemies are misogyny, sexual shame and sexual violence, and violence is construed fairly literally: A poor black child is raped by her father's drunken friend; a Bosnian girl is sexually tortured by Serbian paramilitaries. None of your ambiguous was-it-rape? scenarios here. Oprah performed a new monologue, "Under the Burqa," about the horrors of life for Afghan women under Taliban rule, followed by Zoya--a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--who gave a heartbreaking, defiant speech. Three African women spoke against female genital mutilation and described ongoing efforts to replace cutting with new coming-of-age rituals, "circumcision by words."
I hadn't particularly wanted to see The Vagina Monologues. I assumed that it would be earnest and didactic--or maybe silly, or exploitative, or crude, a sort of Oh! Calcutta! for women. But I was elated by it. Besides being a wonderful night at the theater, it reminded me that after all the feminist debates (and splits), and all the books and the Theory and the theories, in the real world there are still such people as women, who share a common biology and much else besides. And the power of feminism, whether or not it goes by that name, still resides in its capacity to transform women's consciousness at the deepest possible level: That's why Betty Friedan called her collection of letters from women not It Got Me a Raise (or a daycare center, or an abortion) but It Changed My Life. Sisterhood-is-powerful feminism may feel out of date to the professoriat, but there's a lot of new music still to be played on those old bones.
Besides, if feminists don't talk about sex in a fun, accessible, inspiring, nonpuritanical way, who will?
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Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, a collection of columns originally published in this space, is just out from Modern Library as a paperback original. It has a very pretty cover and a never-before-published introductory essay, and contains most of the columns I still agree with, and one or two about which I have my doubts.
That 18,000 people--mostly female--filled Madison Square Garden, a basilica of boy-sport theology, on February 10 to watch a celebrity-packed performance of The Vagina Monologues represents a slightly less staggering achievement than a women's takeover of the Vatican or the Chabad Lubavitcher world headquarters. The show was the capper to a daylong international event called V-Day: The Gathering to End Violence Against Women, during which sixty women from six continents presented stop-rape strategies. What was most remarkable about these projects was their insistence not simply on shielding women but on permanently and radically altering how communities talk about rape and deal with rapists. In the evening, the most arresting image was that of an Afghan woman, obliterated by her burqa, moving like a silent, anonymous hill of cloth toward the stage. When the cloth was lifted, a young woman emerged, dressed in the casual jacket-and-pants outfit that would blend in on any university campus in the world, but that her own country's Taliban movement would deem reason enough to beat her to death on the spot.
Those who endeavor to dismiss events like V-Day as pageants of single-issue identity politics are missing the point. The reports of sequestering of Vietnamese women in a Korean-owned sweatshop in American Samoa, where they were fed cabbage water, housed forty to a rat-infested room and kept under the thumb of sexual predators, is a reminder that at the very bottom of the "race to the bottom" economy, there's always a room where women are locked, overseen by a male with the power to starve them and to demand blowjobs in return for allowing them to keep working.
Labor organizations like UNITE and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees now understand that feminist issues like sweatshops, comparable worth for women, sexual harassment and education provide the vital pathway toward the expansion and revitalization of their movement. But events like V-Day make an even broader point: Vigorous global feminism is perhaps the single most effective form of resistance to the systematic degradation of human rights standards worldwide, which makes possible the worst ravages of the transnational economy.
The evidence of these depredations abounds. In London, girls as young as 5, purchased as slaves from Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe, are imprisoned in flats where they are rented to businessmen. Since NAFTA's inception, more than 200 young Mexican women have been raped and murdered on their way home from working in maquiladoras. V-Day's insistence on a worldwide confrontation of the systems that allow such atrocities kicks open a door for all manner of liberation activists. It's harder to imagine a single greater threat to the global sweatshop economy than the systematic pursuit of the rights of women.
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