Last month, as hundreds of thousands of people showed up for the Women’s March in Washington, DC, a few miles from my home, I was at a karate dojo testing for my first belt. My fellow practitioners, ranging in age from 5 into their 70s, looked on as I hammered my fist through a two-inch piece of wood. The words of one of the black belts there echoed in my head. “Imagine the board is Trump,” he’d whispered to me, grinning, aware that not everyone in our dojo shared his views. When I split that board, everyone clapped.
Despite pride in that small achievement, I bit my lip in shame, knowing that I should have been at that march with my two children. They, after all, are going to inherit this gender-unequal world of ours, presently ruled by our infamously pussy-grabbing president, a world that seems ever less hospitable, despite the heightened awareness that the #MeToo movement has brought to it.
Women still earn about 79 cents on the male dollar (62 cents if you’re a black woman). One in five of us will be raped in our lifetimes (compared with one in 72 men). According to the Centers for Disease Control, homicide ranks fifth among the most common causes of death for women aged 20 to 44, with a majority of us killed by intimate partners. A 2018 survey found that 81 percent of women in the United States had experienced sexual harassment in some form at the hands (often literally) of colleagues or supervisors. The recent damning report on the harassment and bullying of Victoria’s Secret employees is a case in point.
At the rate things are going, the prospects for personal security seem pretty dim not just for me in the years to come but for my 3-year-old daughter, who—my guess—will have a better chance of feeling safe if she comes to the dojo with me, rather than holding an anti-Trump placard under a gray January sky.
Mind you, I’m hardly indifferent to the present degradation of our anything-but-all-American world. As a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project and a military spouse, I’ve written often enough about the importance of bearing witness to the world’s horrors and made an effort to highlight spikes in gender violence and also the burdens shouldered by female caretakers in the sorts of US military communities I’ve been living in these last years.
Over the past two decades, I’ve also traveled to Russia, where I researched gender discrimination, violence, and other human rights violations against the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Now, as a therapist-in-training with veterans, military families, and immigrants and refugees from around the world, many of them survivors of violence, I struggle with my own sense of hopelessness amid a barrage of stories about bloodshed, sexual outrages, and racism, as well as the specter of a climbing suicide rate in this country.
Toward the end of President Donald Trump’s first year in office, I found myself in modest despair and was reminded of the famous French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire’s advice to “tend my own small patch of garden”—even as I tried to do my own small bit to at least record the inhumanity now taking place on a global scale on a distinctly endangered planet. I even started to repost on a social media apolitical mommy blog articles suggesting that being a stay-at-home mom was the most impactful way to change the world. At the time, I didn’t truly believe such sentiments, but I had my doubts as well about changing a world that seemed to be going from bad to worse.
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Just a Bunch of Women’s Stories—Insights from Russia
In Russia during the mid-2000s, when the chaos of the post-Soviet 1990s gave way to the authoritarian, pro-childbirth Putin era, I spent several years as an anthropology doctoral student studying gender discrimination and violence among that country’s white-collar female workforce.
One winter day, I sat at a St. Petersburg café sipping tea with a young female manager of a Russian gasoline company. After I’d heard her stories of being asked to wear short skirts to work, getting attacked by male colleagues during business trips to Europe, and being paid less than half of what her male colleagues made, she urged me to ask other women I interviewed about their hobbies.
I nodded for her to continue. “I do martial arts—karate, aikido,” she said. “You should try it. There are times when you need to feel strong.”
I barely took in those comments of hers. The notion of writing a dissertation about hobbies felt preposterous. There were so many more important things to focus on in a society where the repression of organizing efforts was intensifying through bureaucratic restrictions and thuggish intimidation.
I would call the offices of women’s rights groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg and find that the numbers were out of order. A woman who had started a profitable business and also used it as a home for a small advocacy group against sexual harassment arrived one day to find its windows smashed, her equipment stolen, and “whore” spray-painted across a wall.
One day, almost on a whim, I decided to visit an aikido class in St. Petersburg with a woman in my study who’d also been singing that martial art’s praises. It turned out to be full of women. As the students there rolled, threw one another, and ran for conditioning, their instructors reminded them that, in everything they did, they had to project “strength and a will to live.”
Increasingly, I found myself asking women about their “hobbies” and, increasingly, I came to see martial arts, yoga, traveling, and in several cases walking on hot coals—activities that Russian women loosely grouped under the term “self-development” or samorazvitie—as essential to the task of toughening oneself against a government determined to crush women’s bodily integrity. It was a government that propagandized for heterosexual families, but showed not the slightest interest in protecting women from husbands and in-laws who beat them or colleagues and employers who attacked them sexually at work.
Back in the United States, at my dissertation defense, one of my committee members dismissed much of my work as “just a bunch of women’s stories.” How true! And yet, even then, I didn’t grasp the full significance of what I’d seen.
What We Got from the Russians
On November 8, 2016, about six years after earning my doctorate and eight-months pregnant with my daughter, I half-dozed on the couch as a US map on my TV screen turned an ever-more Trumpian red. My mind spontaneously returned to memories of Facebook ads with pictures whose lighting emphasized every wrinkle on Hillary Clinton’s face, highlighting her grimaces, portraying her with black Xs across that face. Those ads sparked a sense of familiarity in me. They reminded me of Russian smear-campaign images, but I hadn’t made the link with Election 2016 until that jolting moment of Donald Trump’s victory.
A few months later, my husband reminded me that I sat up then and in my pregnancy-induced drowsiness said, “I feel like we’ve been attacked.”
The next morning, depression settling in, I received an email from an old Russian friend and fellow feminist scholar who offered me her sympathy: “I know what it’s like to live with such a leader,” she wrote, referring, of course, to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “You have the same problems that we do now.”
Nothing in my own experience, of course, bears much relationship to the magnitude of fear, financial insecurity, and lack of social protection against violence that many of my Russian colleagues face in their daily lives. Yet so long after reading my friend’s email, I’m beginning to see just what she meant.
When you bear witness to the horrors of this world, when you know that your mind and body and those of the small children in your care are vulnerable to such horrors, and when the leader your country has elected is not only unlikely to guard against them but may sanction them, it can take a toll on both mind and body. I was about to give birth to a daughter then and we had elected a president who, months earlier, had been outed for boasting about grabbing women’s private parts without their consent. What would the men in my daughter’s generation grow up thinking was okay?
How the Military Protects Its Women
In my own community—my husband is a submarine officer in the Navy—it was only about a decade ago that women were first allowed to serve on such ships. In the wake of that decision, I would find myself looking on in disgust during informal ceremonies meant to bid farewell to certain officers and initiate others, as officers joked about women’s hormonal changes and our capacity to get pregnant. For servicemen, gag gifts like fake-pregnancy tests and Aleve (for imaginary PMS) began to proliferate along with the suggestion that their femininity made them implicitly less reliable.
Young women who were junior submariners sat silently through such moments and no one (including me) said anything for fear of sanction. Among service members I spoke with, the phrase “I ripped him another asshole” was a common way to denote verbal discipline for mistakes made on a Navy ship. I cringed every time I heard of it being used, having spoken to women (and men, too) to whom this had literally happened during horrific acts of violence.
From my own work with female survivors of rape, I knew that comments insulting women’s personalities and intelligence existed on the same continuum with physical attacks. Both served to intimidate us and devalue our humanity. A May 2019 New York Times article, citing Department of Defense data, reported that there had been a 50 percent increase in sexual assault on women in uniform in the previous two years.
How the Impossible Becomes Possible
It’s a hallmark of trauma that you think of one form of violence and it calls to mind others of a like nature. In my research for the Costs of War Project on America’s never-ending conflicts and in cowriting the book War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, my senses grew ever more attuned to some of the worst of the world’s horrors.
In the stories of women I met and in the research I did, there were always maimed and suffering women’s bodies. Feeding my infant daughter, I would skim the news of armed conflict around the world as part of my work compiling a report on war and the way it was destroying the lives and bodies of civilians in the Greater Middle East and beyond. I remember, for example, reading a story about a woman in the Democratic Republic of the Congo whose 9-year-old daughter had been raped by a militia group and was later held by the police. I had nightmares in which I was that mother.
That summer of 2017 as I cared for two toddlers on my own, a haze of wildfire smoke began to curl through the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and into the kitchen of my Pacific Northwest home. Under the circumstances, how could I not have thought about the ways in which crises that had once seemed impossibly far away could suddenly seem both possible and close at hand?
Weeks after that year’s July Fourth, my husband and I were jolted awake when an explosion broke the silence of the midnight sky. Someone had set off fireworks, startling both of us—but him far more than me. I wondered then what he had seen and heard in his life apart from me that he couldn’t talk about. We took each other’s hands. “I know it was just fireworks,” I said, “but somehow I feel less safe. Like, if something happened, no one would care.” He nodded: “I know,” he said, half-soothingly.
To claim that living a privileged life in the United States while learning about violence in far away places constitutes “trauma” will seem understandably laughable to many. Yet, as a social-work professor told me that summer, if you’re empathizing with others to the extent that you should be, there is a remarkably small psychological difference (at least in the moment) between bearing witness and experiencing an event yourself.
Soon after the unexpected July fireworks, needing to regain a sense of efficacy, I located the nearest aikido dojo and signed up to start practicing again. Within a few weeks, I found myself paying better attention to patients than I had ever thought possible. I soon accepted a proposal to return to Russia and produce a documentary on the experiences of people with disabilities living in institutions there.
At one point, I told a woman at the dojo who had worked as a nurse with female veterans experiencing complex trauma that I was growing increasingly nervous about the new Trump administration’s policies. In response, she pointed to the knot in her belt at the center of her abdomen, which aikido instructors claim roots you to the ground when you are attacked, and said, “This helps, you know.”
Cultivating Your Garden in a Trumpian Era
The advantage of activities like aikido (even if they are very much on life’s sidelines) is that you can have an experience increasingly hard to find in this Trumpian world of ours. In such places, people who wouldn’t normally agree on much of anything can still support one another. In our dojo, there were Trump supporters, staunch Democrats, indigenous people, blacks, whites—all practicing together, offering each other hands-on help when someone was ill or desperately short on childcare. I thought: Wasn’t this just the kind of coexistence without agreement that the Russian authorities were trying to undo in 2016 and the Trump administration is trying to undo now?
For years after the momentous 2011 protests in Russia against election fraud, I asked friends who had been in Moscow and St. Petersburg about their motivations then. One replied: “What were we not marching for?” Another said: “We didn’t want the same things.” For example, a considerable number of my Russian colleagues wanted protection from sexual harassment, discrimination, or violence against LGBTQ people who had faced death threats for acts no less basic than just walking down the street as themselves. Among my friends, the only thing that didn’t seem to fly in the protest movement of that moment was adhering to simplistic party lines that excluded difference.
Recently, I visited a training session led by a team of psychologists and therapists who go into combat zones to offer group-crisis therapy to survivors of wartime violence and sexual assault. One of those psychologists asked us to begin moving to pop music that reflected different emotions from sadness to hope. She argued that it was a way to meld the physical, cognitive, and emotional. If you felt sad, then you should show it with your body, but also choose music that allows you to move to different emotions entirely. I’ve used similar techniques with my clients, some of whom have found them to be useful indeed, particularly in group settings.
It’s not that such acts of self-care or sideline hobbies will solve this world’s desperate and deepening problems. It’s that those problems are growing so overwhelming under this president that shoring up your own defenses is itself a noteworthy achievement.
Voltaire, after all, urged his readers to cultivate their gardens at a time of government-sponsored torture and intolerance across Europe. Arguably, his suggestions reflected less a mark of skepticism about the possibility of changing our world for the better than a recognition that basic human freedoms—like bodily integrity—are deeply threatened and must be protected. Any community built on respect and compassion for human rights, any community that allows its citizens to cultivate their own gardens, is well worth our time.