The other day I was at the zoo with my family. While I was waiting in line for our lunch a goofily grinning police officer on a segway zoomed up, waving to the pointing children and calling out hello’s like he was in some sort of a parade. I was half waiting for him to start throwing candy. With nothing better to do, I watched him as though he were the lunch line exhibit. When he paused, a woman approached him sheepishly.
“May I ask you a question?”
“No,” he sternly answered from his wheeled platform, towering two feet over her.
She looked up at him, stunned.
“Of course you may.”
I leaned in, curious what she was about to ask him with such trepidation and intent. It was hard for me to hear because she lowered her voice (which of course made me more curious). But when I heard the officer’s response of a restroom or other quiet, grassy locations where “no one will bother you,” I realized she had asked if there were any permissible locations in the zoo for her to nurse her baby.
Witnessing this interaction frazzled me for the rest of the day. I felt angry that there was even a debate to be had about where she should sit; angry that the restroom is still the first option thrown to mamas who breastfeed their babies and have the audacity to leave their home and do so in public view. Most of all, I felt overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed that women feel the need to pursue permission for using and existing in their own bodies.
Not surprisingly, women are cultured to be the most passive in circumstances that innately signify our greatest power. Growing a baby in the dark crevices of one’s body, nourishing it with one’s own blood, bringing a being forth in anguish and from our deepest reserves, and then sustaining this new life with our breasts… women give and sustain life. Where could there possibly be a more powerful ability within all of humanity?
During pregnancy a woman will be lectured monthly, then bi-monthly, then weekly about the requirements and expectations she must meet. How much weight she may gain, which tests she’s obligated to take, how long she will be “allowed” to remain pregnant, and which items on her birth plan are frivolous fantasies, and “we’ll see dear; it’s important to have an open mind; I need you to trust me when I say it’s time for an epidural / c-section / episiotomy / pitocin.”
At the time of birth, women will have their express wishes ignored, endure forced penetration, verbal bitch slaps, and condescending, “you need to let me do my job” comments. They will be coerced into procedures and surgery, treated as a sideline participants in their own birthing process. When offered a routine intervention a woman may muster through contractions, “can … we …. just…. wait .. a little … longer?” and she’ll receive combative eye rolls or “No, your doctor said….” as though she is an incompetent child existing as a mere pupil under the dictative tutelage of the staff around her.
And when a woman brazenly chooses to use her breasts, openly, for non-male-gazing purposes, she is ridiculed, shamed, and censored. She will be told to sit on a dirty public toilet seat lest someone take offense at her and her baby’s perverse habit of suckling like an animal. She will reflexively look over her shoulder in a restaurant as she carefully lifts her shirt. She might ask her child to wait until they get home, or pump and pack a bottle in order to avoid the discomfort. Sometimes she’ll take along a shawl or a blanket to cover him. Still, people will know what she’s doing, and she’ll feel uneasy. Like she’s partaking in some sort of foul, masturbatory experience in plain sight.
Female subjugation has long been a tool of religion and of war. Women are literally and figuratively raped when they dress a certain way, talk a certain way, make certain choices, assert themselves, and otherwise step out of the Patriarchal line.
Is it a coincidence that women’s primal embodiment is the subject of the most scrutiny?
The most censorship?
The most regulation?
Challenging women on reproduction is the foundational space to keep women in their place. If a society can craft an image of woman-as-delinquent, it makes it far easier to manage her.
If women can be cast as infantile, it is then plausible to make her seek permission.
If women can be viewed as irrational, it then makes sense to regulate her.
If women can be taken down as immoral, it then follows to censor her, shame her, vilify her.
When we ask for permission we give our power away.
We play into a woman-hating, woman-controlling dynamic that reinforces the idea that we are pawns to be manipulated and controlled. Our asking for permission actually offers approval to those who wish to keep women confined under the thumb of an authority other than the woman, herself. It offers a sheepish, subservient bow to the role we feel obliged to play.
Do you want to play this role?
Do you want to continue to play nice like a good little girl who doesn’t rock the boat? Are you more invested in smoothing the sheets and keeping the peace or in self-ownership and self-respect? What would it look like to collectively dishevel the manicured space so carefully landscaped for women abide in?
Gender does not determine who is allowed to speak and exist with directness and confidence. Contrary to popular belief, women aren’t bitches when we assertively stand our ground. We are humans with integrity and enough self-love to speak and act as though we have value. Because we do. And we should act like it.