Women We Read This Week

Sara Bernard’s “Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness” in The Atlantic

Sara Bernard‘s piece in The Atlantic this week is a feat of reporting about the high prevalence of rape in Alaska, “the rape capital of the U.S.” On top of her haunting details about the rural landscape, a place where victims of sexual assault are often forced to conduct their own forensic-gathering, she portrays the complicated emotions victims feel when the sexual predator is also a close family friend or relative. Her portrait of Jane shows a survivor who still has a deep attachment to her attacker:

Jane, too, has no intention of sending someone who she grew up with to jail—someone she’d trusted, and who she says she now hates, but still, on some level, loves. …Jane told investigators what the man had done and they urged her to press charges. “But my first thought was, ‘I can’t do that,’” she says. Jane felt she’d already done enough damage by making a public presentation and mentioning the molestation, even in vague terms; her family began shunning the accused and she felt she’d already, to some degree, destroyed his life. She looked up at the state trooper and said, “You do realize that I grew up with him?” He handed her his card; as soon as they left the room, she tore it up and threw it in the trash.

While Bernard gives us someone to admire in Cynthia Erickson, a woman who dares to grant the space for survivors to speak out about their abuse, it is people like Jane who become the real heroes of the piece, torn between the people they love and the overwhelming need to speak freely. The cultural divide Jane faces is the pain many rape survivors share when intimacy intermingles with violence. Hopefully bringing these stories to the light encourages others to come forward.

Jessica Pishko

Sangamithra Iyer’s “Foodies, feds and factory farms” in Waging Nonviolence

What turns a person into an activist? When, and how, does the state turn activists into terrorists—and why? These two questions are at the heart of Sangamithra Iyer’s deeply reported and artfully structured piece in Waging Nonviolence. She walks back through the life stories of three frontline vegan activists, locating radicalizing and defining moments in a high school reading, a drive to the mall, and a visit to an uncle’s farm. The activists portrayed have gone on to do remarkable things—and to face stunning repercussions in a country—the US—which, in 2004, labeled animal and environmental activists the number one domestic terrorist threat. A former “open rescue” advocate who helped shed light on the cruelties of foie gras farms has shifted from giving talks about civil disobedience to educating others about how to make the government comply with its own regulations. Cognizant of today’s steep penalties for civil disobedience, he’s taken to flying camera-equipped drones above feedlots to document industrial waste. The facts in the piece are stirring and, in some cases, shocking. What stayed with me long after I finished reading, though, was the way that Iyer, with her subjects, had located inconsequential moments in which each had chosen to see, to hear and then, later, to act. When activism is equated with terrorism, it can be easy—or more comfortable—to imagine that the people on the frontlines are all heroes with greater courage and more expansive vision. But in fact, as Iyer reveals so gracefully, it is about paying attention.

Emily Bass

Rachael Maddux’s “Welcome Back to School (Shootings)” in Matter

I remember coming home from high school, on April 20, 1999, to my mother glued to the television as videos out of Columbine played on loop. I determined that I would never again watch a school shooting. I turned away from it then, and, though there have been dozens of school shootings since, I’ve kept my eyes averted. I’ve never contemplated my resistance. I’ve never even noted it.

It took a piece like Maddux’s to change that for me. Not only does she carefully collect and represent data about school shootings, Maddux goes a step further: she recalls what it was like to be a high schooler back then, at the beginning of the terror. And she remembers it so vividly—not only through scenes, but through the horrible ironies, the barrage of rules, codes, drills that only exposed everyone’s helplessness:

Guns had been illegal on campus for years, and it was hard to imagine someone being discouraged by the dress code but not state law, so as far as I was concerned all these new rules did was increase the likelihood of my classmates and I being killed while wearing the same outfit.

It’s the type of piece that changed the way I remembered not only that moment in time, but my own self, like Maddux, just trying to figure out how to walk back into high school day after day.

Katie Booth

Michel Martin’s “What I’ve Left Unsaid: On Balancing Career and Family as a Woman of Color” in National Journal

I came to Michel Martin’s article late, after it had been making rounds all summer. Martin tells her own story, one in which as a mother and a working woman (she was the host of NPR’s Tell Me More), she faced constant difficulties finding childcare, often because of racism. As Martin writes, the preoccupations of women of color have been overshadowed by discussions led by white feminists and, “What has made a trying situation even more painful is the sense that our story is not worth telling.” The fight that white feminists have waged has often marginalized and failed to recognize the challenges of women of color. Martin explains:

What’s different for so many black and brown women is that they are far less likely to have the resources to find solutions—if for no other reason than the fact that their pay, on average, is so low. While it’s widely known that American women who work full time make 77 cents for every dollar paid to a male counterpart, the gap is even more dramatic when you factor in race. According to a new report by the National Women’s Law Center, African-American women who work full time, year round, make just 64 cents for every dollar paid to a white non-Hispanic man. You might be tempted to think that this is comparing apples to oranges—a home-care aide with a surgeon—but you would be wrong. The study says African-American women working as physicians and surgeons make 52 cents for every dollar paid to their white non-Hispanic male counterparts (as compared with 71 cents for women physicians and surgeons overall, according to a different study). Meanwhile, African-American women working as personal aides make 85 cents for every dollar paid to their white male peers (as opposed to the 95 cents made by women overall, according to another study).

Martin asks white women colleagues to use “their networks, their assets, their relationships—to form a united front with women of color, and to help improve things for all of us.” I am in.


Emily Bernard’s “The Refuge Of The Classroom” in Oxford American

Though the classroom is forever evolving and changing forms throughout the course of our lives, it is perhaps one of the few places where we are both safe and vulnerable.

Emily Bernard structures her piece around the classroom, beginning with a love story about an eight-year-old friendship in the segregated South:

“The jig is up. Mason is white and I am black, it turns out, and we will never get along. Our sacred bond is a lie.
But slowly Mason’s face relaxes as he continues to hold my eyes. Then he does the most remarkable thing: He shrugs. The shrug says, Who knows? The shrug says, Does it matter? The shrug says, This race thing is over my head. The shrug says, I have more important things to do, like finish this drawing.
It is a very important drawing: a picture of us holding hands. In the picture, we are not parent and child but equals, not black and white, but only outlines, to be filled in later. He gives me the drawing, and then pulls out a new piece of construction paper to begin another one.”

Bernard’s essay narrates her experiences in classrooms as a young girl, graduate student, and teacher, creating a chronology of a lifetime spent breaking down existing knowledge and building upon the new, unlearning and learning again.

In each scene, Bernard uproots past realizations – the strength of a bond, the difference between reading as a passionate lover of books and a student in academia, what silence does and doesn’t do, what racism is and isn’t- and challenges them with new knowledge.

Bernard reminds us that we must learn to love this process of forever rewriting the way we look at the world: “This unlearning to read savagely is a process that challenges me anew every semester. I have to practice marveling, or else, I know, I will forget again.” — Julia


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