Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Power of XX

Today was my mom's birthday, and it happened to coincide with the nationwide screening of the documentary film A Powerful Noise, in anticipation of International Women's Day. My mother and two sisters-in-law and I went out for a glass of wine and the movie, which was followed by a live panel discussion featuring Madeline Albright, Natalie Portman, Christy Turlington Burns and others involved in women's health and advocacy.

The film, about three women (from Vietnam, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Mali) who have initiated programs to empower women in their communities, was enlightening, sobering, humbling, and inspiring. On the way home in the car my sisters-in-law and I discussed the strength of women, which, in contrast with men's strength, cannot be so easily characterized as physical. Our strength is often more subtle and manifests in a variety of ways, particularly when in the service of family, as perseverance, fortitude, resilience, defiance, loyalty.

It felt fitting to suggest to my mother that we honor her birthday by attending an event in honor of strong women. My mother has taught me many, many things (beyond how to cook without recipes and to properly clean a toilet), but one moment's lesson in particular has stayed with me and resonates in the words of Madeline Albright on tonight's panel: "There is a special place in hell for women who do not support other women."

It was a December evening; I think I must have been of middle school age. Our town was holding its Holiday Open House, and my mother and I were walking to meet the rest of my family uptown where the stores were open for the evening and a parade would commence. I remember it still being light; it must have been no later than 5 PM. We were walking briskly down the block and approaching the recessed entrance of our local Vons store when a couple burst out of the automatic doors. In a flash, and before I could register what was happening, the man in the pair pushed the woman up against the wall adjacent to the entrance and, hands on her shoulders, hollered something threatening in her face. It was the most frightening and violent exchange I had personally witnessed since a fight in the bathroom at the roller rink three years prior.

My mother didn't hesitate. She strode over, shouted at the man to "Leave her alone!" and pulled the woman aside, advising her that she "shouldn't allow anyone to treat her that way," and to "Get help," all the while suffering the profane abuse of a cowardly man called out by a woman in public. He directed his own woman to follow him, and she ruefully complied, after thanking my mother.

I remember experiencing myriad emotions as a witness to this event: among them fear, followed by the embarrassment of my mother inserting herself in this intimate drama played out on a busy sidewalk. But my personal mortification quickly gave way to fierce pride, awe, and admiration of my mother.

I was old enough to understand domestic abuse existed but sheltered enough to not have seen it firsthand. I was horrified by the trap this woman inhabited. I began to understand it that night: her fear, her lack of control, her sense that she had no options.

So many bystanders had turned away in discomfort; not my mother. In that moment she bestowed upon me the responsibility of acting in the face of injustice. I would not be able to use as an excuse for inaction fear or timorousness and I certainly couldn't claim that my response would make no ultimate difference. It's more than possible that my mother did not save that woman's life that night, but I know she affected mine. Part of my middle-school mortification was my awareness that other witnesses focused later on my mother's bold actions in contrast with their own; surely she affected their lives as well.

I have never forgotten that evening and how my outspoken, opinionated mother acted courageously on behalf of another woman.

How strong, then, must be our community of women. Not just in the face of physically strong and abusive men. But in the face of all that daunts us and holds us back--all that convinces us we are not worthy nor able.

My mother has shown me that silent lips, in fact, can sink silent ships. Speak up and speak out, she has taught me. Always a champion of women with fewer resources and rights, more recently, my mother has embraced her local community of women as they support one another and their own children in death and divorce, grandmotherhood and career transitions.

What can you say about a mom who truly taught you to be a woman? Happy birthday, my capable and courageous mother: I thank you for my strength.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That one gave me goosebumps, Jop!