10/23/16: Wonder Women

Sermon: I Am Not Your Punching Bag: Taking a Stand against Domestic Violence
You may be wondering why the minister is wearing a Wonder Woman shirt today. I have several reasons. First, Friday was Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday, and the same day, the United Nations made the controversial decision to appoint Wonder Woman as Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of Women and Girls. Many UN staff members and others protested this over concerns that her sexy outfit is not “culturally encompassing or sensitive.” I can see their point, this is an organization that serves many cultures who might find her outfit offensive. But the biggest complaint was that they should have found a real life heroic woman who would be able to champion the rights of all women on the issue of gender equality and the fight for empowerment. I understand and respect the case they are making.
But I’m also kind of tickled that Wonder Woman was given this honor. I know what an effect Wonder Woman had on this little girl. I was born in 1970, just as feminism was really beginning to change things culturally in America, in mostly small ways. If you look at the names on the underside of the footstools in your pews, which were made over the course of the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s, you’ll see one obvious change. Many of the early footstools were made by ladies who signed them, for instance, “Mrs. Kenneth Peirce,” and by the 70’s, the makers had claimed their individuality and named themselves; “Maggie Peirce made this stool.”
When I was young, I didn’t know a lot of empowered women. The most powerful women I knew, in fact, were the nuns who were my teachers. And even there I saw how the parish priest was held in a position of higher esteem and seemed to have ultimate control. The real warrior females of my early life were either biblical or fictional. I loved the story of Joan of Arc leading her men with little but her faith and fortitude. I was told that my middle name, Deborah, was that of a great leader of the Israelites in a time and place when it was very unusual for a woman to have that role. I heard stories from my grandmother of the great Irish warrior woman Boudicca. I thought Pipi Longstockings was exactly the kind of go-getter that I wanted to be. And I was lucky enough to be a young lady with access to a television to watch Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. She didn’t report to anyone, like Charlie’s Angels. She was an equal to the other male superheroes. She had an invisible plane, awesome fighting skills, a golden lasso that made people tell the truth, and wristbands that could deflect bullets. She represented truth, justice, and equality. (I would not recommend dressing up like her and yelling her catchphrase, “By the power if Isis!” in an airport.)
I loved my female heroes, but the real world was different. I had more than a few friends whose fathers beat their mothers and I once heard my friend’s mom say those very words, “I am not your punching bag,” to her husband. Most of the women I knew stayed at home to raise the kids, clean the house, make the meals, do the laundry. And if a woman worked outside the house, it was seen somehow as a failing on the man’s part to provide for his family. Since I was a kid, women have come a long way in establishing themselves as strong individuals, but we still have to explain to our daughters why men are mostly still paid more than women for equal work. And why it’s accepted that a candidate for president can joke about his sexual assaults on women, and generally get away with shaming and degrading us.
This is national domestic violence awareness month, and let me say now that domestic violence isn’t something that just happens to women. Here’s a few statistics:
• On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
•1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
•1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
•1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
•On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
And imagine how many more people are victims of psychological or emotional abuse that raise ugly bruises on the inside but people don’t see.
But here’s another statistic:
•1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States has been raped in their lifetime.
That statistic only represents the reported instances of rape and it’s believed that the numbers are closer to 1 in 3 for women. And how about sexual assault or harassment in its myriad forms? Let’s see, I’ll do this the easy way. Is there any woman in this room right now who hasn’t heard a man make lewd comments about you or other women…who hasn’t been touched or kissed against your will, had a guy flash their genitals to you, been groped by a stranger in a public place, or been intimidated, objectified, degraded, or harassed for being a woman? Anyone? No? I know I’ve had all of those experiences, many on more than one occasion. I know these things also happen to men, and I’m not here to denigrate men or their experiences today, or take away from the abuses that they suffer too. But I’d like to prop up the ladies today, because, let’s face it, we are the ones who have it a little tougher in the realm of domestic violence, sexual assault, and gender inequality.
“Rape culture” is a term that was coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970’s. It was designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence. Rape culture is certainly alive and kicking today and we just saw this blaming the victim play out for millions to see in our presidential debate, and in endless news reports. And just yesterday I saw an article in which the Republican candidate for president said that he was going to sue every woman who claims he sexually assaulted them, in the manner that he himself described and we all heard. Is it any wonder that women and girls rarely report this kind of behavior? I’d like to say it’s surreal, but unfortunately it’s all too real.
How many of you that were sexually assaulted or harassed reported it to anyone aside from a friend or maybe your mom? Our stories of domestic violence or sexual assault can be tough to tell, and tough to hear. But we have to tell them. It’s important to let other women know that they aren’t alone, to let young girls understand the danger, and to let the world know that this stuff happens all the time. We rarely report these things when they happen because we’re afraid, or we think won’t be believed, because we’re ashamed or somehow to blame, because we’re embarrassed or humiliated, because we don’t think anything will be done about it anyhow and it’s easier not to talk about it. Well I’m going to talk about it today.
When I was young, my dad used to volunteer on the weekends at the Sacred Heart monastery in Wareham and often the whole family would go and stay for the weekend in the guest cottage or at the beach house. We ran and played all over the grounds and through the main building where the brothers and priests lived. I loved to go exploring in the main building, it seemed like it went on forever and there were so many cool spaces, like the little sanctuary where they held services on Sunday. When I was about 9 or 10, one of the priests found me walking alone in the long, sunny foyer at the front of the building. I had been walking slowly, enjoying the warmth coming through the big windows and he made a comment about what a glorious day it was. Then he reached down to give me a hug. I thought nothing of it at first. And then he kissed me. On the mouth, with his tongue, and put his hand on my backside. At first I had no idea what to do or what the heck was happening, but I quickly disengaged myself. I remember mumbling, “sorry Father,” before I ran out the door and into the woods, where I walked the Stations of the Cross that were placed at intervals along the trail.
I was confused and embarrassed and I felt like I had done something wrong. This was an adult I knew and liked and he was a friend of my dad’s, and he was a priest. I was a good enough young Catholic at the time to believe that priests were god’s representatives on earth, so…it had to be me who did something wrong. I never told anyone. I made an effort to avoid him and to avoid being alone anywhere after that, but similar unwanted affections happened on a few other occasions over the course of about two more years.
It wasn’t more than ten years ago that I was at my sister’s house and we were talking about the weekends we used to spend there. And she told me that he had been doing the same thing to her at the same time. So if I was between 9 and 11 when this happened, my sister was between 5 and 7 years old. I never even considered that what happened to me might be happening to her too. And I can’t help but wonder if I might have prevented her violations by saying something to someone at the time. That’s why I wanted to share that particular story with you today; because speaking up, and taking a stand when you experience something like that, even if it’s years later, could help some other girl or boy, or woman or man, avoid being assaulted or molested. It takes a lot more courage that I had at 10, and I don’t blame myself for what happened to my sister, and it was a time when these kinds of stories generally went untold. But that’s changed. The time has come.
The great feminist Gloria Steinem said, “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.” What we have to unlearn is that just because your bigger or stronger, physically or emotionally, doesn’t mean you get to abuse others unchecked. We’re taking a stand. What we have to unlearn is that women don’t deserve to be treated as lesser beings, or held to different standards, than men. We’re taking a stand. What we have to unlearn is thinking that it’s somehow our fault, and not the fault of the aggressor. We’re taking a stand. We’ve got thousands of years of gender inequality to unlearn, so it’s slow going, but be on notice: we’re taking a stand.
Let us no longer be women who wonder; wonder if he’s going to come home drunk and beat us or our kids, or wonder if we’re worthy to be loved and respected, or wonder if anyone will believe us or sue us, or wonder if the guy sitting next to you on the plane is going to grab you and get away with it. We’re taking a stand. Here, now, today, immediately. We will no longer be women who wonder, no! Let us unleash our inner Wonder Woman, and use our awesome skills to fight for justice for the abused, the shamed, the violated, the intimidated.
Our church has long been a supportive environment for women who have been victimized by violence or sexual assault and harassment, and we’ve had a lot of powerful, free-thinking wonder women in this congregation over the years. And I’ll wrap up this sermon by telling those of you who don’t know about one Wonder Woman in particular we are still glad to have as part of this church. Tryne Costa has long been a tireless advocate for social justice in our community. Fred Gifun’s book about our church says that Tryne, “engaged in family violence mediation, and offered workshops in conflict management and active parenting. Other women of the church joined in early discussions with community activists intent on helping victims of violence and domestic abuse in the region. After meeting regularly in a basement office of the church for over two years, the group of church and community leaders founded the New Bedford Women’s Center in 1973.”
So, the Women’s Center, who will be having their annual Domestic Violence vigil here on Tuesday night, started right here, in our church. It’s always a moving experience, and many women and men will get up and tell their stories of overcoming abuse by someone who was supposed to love them. Come if you can, because hearing their stories and telling our own, difficult as it can be, brings these issues into the light, and the darkness is dispelled. Join us Tuesday at 7 if you can, and take a stand.