I Am Woman, Hear My Woe

A Story of Empathy and Imagined Equality

No, I’m not particularly full of woe, but for the past few days I’ve been metaphorically girding my loins, knowing that a tale of woe is coming. Wow, I’ve listened a lot the past few days. The thing is, every single person venting, lamenting, kvetching, or sniffling is totally justified. Every so often it gets this way, when there seems to be a dark cloud over my social circle.

Rain lily in rocks. Beauty in a tough space.

I’m privileged to listen to people and not try to solve problems. We all need someone to listen to us from time to time. I know my turn will come! The problem today is that I’ve heard so much woe that I’m not able to come up with ideas for making the things better that it’s my JOB to make better. I’m all jumbled up. I guess I better go breathe and let some of it out by tomorrow!

Evening primrose and concrete.

As I went for a walk around the Austin house neighborhood to clear my mind (and take pictures), I started wondering if all this empathetic listening is one of those stereotypical woman things, you know, women are nurturing and all that. Do people assume I’ll listen because I’m a woman or because I just come across as gender-neutral empathetic? (Rhetorical question)

Drummond’s onion. Beautiful. Look at all those little antses!

Stick with me here. That musing led to a surprising thought. I just don’t spend a lot of thought on my status as a woman. In my mind I’m Suna, and being female is not one of my more important parts of my identity. I’m not on the alert for sexist comments or put-downs for being a woman. I don’t feel discriminated against at work or at home. What???

Nightshade.

Oh of course I know there’s sexism out there and stubborn areas of inequality that need to be addressed. You know, just like we’re not in a post-racist society, either. But I’m not feeling constricted by being labeled female anymore. I am quite confused by my lack of concern about this inequality, especially given that I get all righteously indignant about discrimination against other kinds of people.

Cedar sage by the Bobcat Lair.

I wonder if my privilege from my whiteness and being perceived as cisgender compensate for being female, to where most people treat me as equals. Or…I just assume people think I’m their equal and act accordingly? That may well be it. I feel equal so I don’t let myself be treated any other way.

Anita’s hibiscus.

Hmmm. I don’t know what to think about this. Life is complicated. I feel way too lucky to feel so free and equal when so many people I know feel oppressed, put down, or truly challenged just because of who their parents were, where they came from, or who they love.

Ruth’s succulent in bloom.

What can I do? I know that! I’ll keep advocating for the creation of a world where our diversity is celebrated and our differences used to our advantage. I’ll keep learning about ways to realize my prejudices and biases and be an ally for those not as privileged as me.

I’m also privileged to live in a beautiful place.

My question to you women out there is whether you feel like this or am I having atypical experiences? Where are you feeling discriminated against or thwarted in your life because of your sex? What’s your source of woe, or do you experience freedom and joy?

Book Report: Women Talking

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wow. There are so many things to say about this book that I’ll never get them all said! After I read All My Puny Sorrows, I wanted to read more from Miriam Toews, and selected this one, Women Talking, after reading the intriguing reviews. I said All My Puny Sorrows was a jewel of a book. Well, this one is like the Hope Diamond or something. There are so many aspects of it that are just…perfect…that it’s hard to find a place to start.

If this is soon to be a major motion picture, I think I’d have a hard time watching. It’s intense.

Well, I do know where to start, which is with the content warning. If you can’t handle books where there is discussion of rape, you’ll need to pass this one by, because the premise of Women Talking hinges around the effects of women of an entire community dealing with the consequences of it. It’s based on a true story, but the dialog and such are imagined.

The protagonists are a group of women in a Mennonite community isolated somewhere in South America, who at first thought they were being attacked by ghosts or demons in the night. The entire plot takes place over two days, as they decide how to deal with the men in their community who actually perpetuated the crimes.

None of these women have been allowed to learn to read or write, and very few of them have ever left their small compound. They have been trained to obey the men, never offer an opinion, and to simply do their jobs (cook, clean, farm, and reproduce).

They hold a series of secret meetings, when the men have gone to try to bail out the rapists, and they ask the one educated person in the community, the teacher, who’s an outcast, to take minutes of their meetings. August is not sure WHY they asked, but he is willing to do it.

Through his notes (and his unexpectedly complex asides and insights into his own history), we learn what a fascinating group of people these women are, gain many insights into the beliefs of their Mennonite community (by the way, NOT like all Mennonite communities…it’s a bit cultish), and see how brilliant, brave, compassionate, and feisty they can be.

When they start planning, reasoning, discussing theology, and supporting each other, you can’t help but be in awe. Toews shows how resilient the human spirit is, and truly draws you into their culture and concerns. There are so many details I’ll never forget, such as conditions they have to deal with all alone, with no real medical care (edema, fainting spells, pregnancy and childbirth, loss of eyesight, loss of limbs, etc.). And there are little things like how one of them manages to be a smoker, or how the two youngest women braid their hair together, or jauntily remove their head coverings and roll their socks down in rebellion.

You eventually see that everyone in the book has suffered, has tenuous connections to sanity, but have strengths, the depths of which they don’t always realize. And to get to that realization you get to enjoy the privilege of Towes’s spare dialogue, her knack for expressing things in ways that people from another “world” would say them, and her true love for marginalized people.

I admired the women in this book deeply. They stuck to their principles as I could only hope to do if I was challenged to fundamentally. And I admired August the note-taker, too, poor tortured soul.

This book affected me as deeply as The Handmaid’s Tale did way back in the 1980s. That means it will stay with me forever. Please read it.