Most of us have a visceral reaction to news about violence against women, such as the brutal gang rape on the public bus in New Delhi, the kidnapping and gang rape of a young girl by members of her high school’s football team in Ohio, or the young Pakistani girl being shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking up on behalf of education for girls.
These acts provoke intense emotions—rage, pain, grief, paralyzing helplessness and despair, or all of the above and more.
Most of us ask some version of How could this happen? How could anyone so completely disregard the value of life?
The devaluing of women, of objectifying them, that is so extreme and obvious in these tragedies only reminds me how far we have yet to go in society as a whole. These events don’t occur in a vacuum. Just like the people on that New Delhi bus, none of us is an innocent bystander in a world that continues to treat women as less-than.
This is changing. Women are stepping into their power, and many men are allies in the ongoing fight for women’s equality. The change is excruciatingly slow, but it’s there. Take, for example, the fact that 65% of the electorate would vote for Hillary Clinton.
But then, as soon as I remind myself of a silver lining, something happens to darken the whole cloud. Weeks before Hillary had her home accident, a brilliant and progressive 40-something client of mine offhandedly shared that although he was a fan of Hillary, she will be too old to elect by 2016. I chafed when I heard him, realizing that in his mind, when Hillary turns my age she will be over the hill, out of the running.
Then over the new year holiday, CNN’s Don Lemon reported the breaking news that Hillary had been hospitalized for a blood clot as a result of her concussion. I thought, Not her! Not now! We need her at the top, or at least making waves. But then another CNN reporter, Elise Labott, unthinkingly said, “For a woman of her age this is serious.”
My mouth dropped when I heard this outright ageism spouted by another woman, a journalist with a responsibility to check her language carefully. Hillary’s age has nothing to do with her current hospitalization. A concussion and subsequent blood clot isn’t good news for anyone, at any age, of any gender! Comments like these only feed into a creeping ageism in some of our younger electorate, an ageism that combined with sexism is a potent barrier to women being able to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others, and not just in politics.
The words we choose so often reveal our assumptions and biases. No human is immune to this. I’m certainly not. But we all have the power, and the responsibility, to consciously examine these words and these assumptions and to question them in ourselves and in others, especially in the mouths of politicians and media.
Ageism, body shaming, sexual shaming, sexism, etc., are all used disproportionately against women, sometimes unthinkingly but all too often deliberately. Fighting just one while ignoring the others is a losing battle, and we all lose when women are devalued. We lose what they could offer the world if not held back from their full potential. We lose whenever a woman is abused, raped, or killed by men whose violence targets women because, as a society, we make them easy targets.
Violent events make us feel powerless, but we all have more power than we realize to change the culture that feeds into them. Words have the power to harm, but they also have the power to transform the world.
Image credit: Terry Johnston