“Ordinary” is not generally considered a compliment, but it’s what most of us are. It’s a pleasure to read about inspiring women, but I’ve begun to suspect that stories about “fearless badasses” are creeping toward an imperative of extraordinariness, and I’m not sure where that leaves the rest of us. If this year of revelations about men using their power to get whatever they want from women, whenever they want it has proven nothing else, it’s that abuse is utterly ordinary. Superhumanity should not be required of women who want basic dignity, and I am somewhat tired of seeing extraordinariness trotted out as the corrective to abuse.
And I see it all the time. Because I work at Jezebel, I have the great fortune of spending most of my working hours thinking and writing about exceptional women, many of whom take immense personal risks to tell patriarchal power exactly where to stick it. In part, this is because the “look at this badass woman” post feels like it flows in the opposite direction of the river of stories we all read this year about women being victimized by powerful men. The calculus being that we’ll all crumble without some good news, or some evidence that women won’t be confined to the jaws of our predators until the end of time. These posts are the news equivalent of that mug you sometimes see that says “well-behaved women seldom make history.” A powerful predator demands a powerful or defiant victim for it to count as an empowering story instead of a depressing one, and this year, thrillingly, we had them in droves.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. While one inspirational woman spoke out about sexual harassment in Hollywood, another told the truth about inequality in tech. This one was the first woman to graduate from her medical school, and this one is a member of the House of Representatives. She’s the first woman president of that college, and this woman over here won a robotics competition. She’s the only woman on the board or the masthead. She sold a million records this year, she saved a thousand lives. She did all this with men’s heels against the back of her neck, and when she was brave enough to point that out, the men said, wiping their boots, “I don’t know what on earth you mean.”
This bleeds into my off-hours too; for no reason that I can discern other than that I like to talk about being a feminist and take great pleasure and even political satisfaction from hearing about the bravery and achievements of women and nonbinary people, I find myself frequently regaled with the stories of seemingly miraculous women to whom my friends are related or know. A pal tells me her grandmother was the first woman in her district elected to Congress. Another’s overcame incredible odds to open her own business that’s still thriving. A third’s mother was told over and over that women don’t make good physicists, but now she’s the head of the department. I admire these women mightily and find them inspiring. But such highs and lows have created a discursive inflation that has no vocabulary for anyone without a ready fable about his badness or her goodness. And most of us are regular people. There is pleasure and pain in hearing their stories for me because the conversation never seems to come around to my own mother.
She’s a nanny. My mom is indispensable to the family for which she works, but not, it seems, to feminism as it sees itself at this moment. When she leaves her home in the morning, she does not do it to make history or to be part of the #resistance. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in the cause, but it’s true that she is well-behaved. She has to be, because otherwise, she’s unlikely to be able to pay her rent this month. She goes home at 9:30 every night after spending ten or twelve hours with the 2-year-old in her care. She works for people who make, at minimum, ten times what they pay her. Lately, she’s worried because her landlord installed cameras in her building, and she doesn’t know why. She was married once, and the man, as is so often the case, came away with the better end of the deal.
I don’t valorize her with “sacrifice,” that term men use to poo-poo women while faking admiration. After all, her work is a natural fit and she enjoys it; she’s particularly good at being a mom, and well-suited to spending time with kids. But the line between private life and professional life is very thin for nannies. It’s one of those “labors of love” that is still straight-up labor. She went from caring for me and my brother to caring for other people’s kids along a track that was laid out before her so naturally that if you didn’t study it closely, might appear to have been a choice. Someone laid down those tracks though, and bought her a ticket for the train that moves so many women from here to there across this country. For my mom, love morphed into work as the years went by with seemingly no change in her status or lived experience. This is how life often goes for ordinary women. That no one’s ever asked her about the men’s heels she feels against the back of her neck doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Work is important; it’s how, in a capitalist world, we know that what we’re talking about is serious business. If the issue is about your job, so the thinking goes, then yes, we can have a serious chat. But what if your job doesn’t really look like a job? This point has been rightly made about women actors; plenty of people knew about “the casting couch,” but no one seemed to care until entertainers began to count as employees. Rebecca Traister wrote smartly in New York last month about the world’s seemingly sudden desire to listen to women who have been raped, harassed, assaulted, discouraged and to dole out punishments against those abusers:
But in the midst of our great national calculus, in which we are determining what punishments fit which sexual crimes, it’s possible that we’re missing the bigger picture altogether: that this is not, at its heart, about sex at all — or at least not wholly. What it’s really about is work, and women’s equality in the workplace, and more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work because the whole thing is tipped toward men.
Her piece makes the excellent point that much of our current reckoning contends with what happens within the boundaries of our working lives. I think she’s exactly right, and it’s clear from her argument that she gets that “the whole thing,” as she calls it, doesn’t just mess with us once we get into professional settings, but affects who gets there to begin with. It would not be fair to say that she ignores women who work in domestic roles, but they’re also not exactly her subject. I’m talking now about nannies, but also sex workers, tutors, and domestic workers of all kinds. Their work gets so frequently blurred with the ordinary care we give our loved ones that it’s easy for some people to forget it’s work at all. Traister writes that “the thing that unites these varied revelations isn’t necessarily sexual harm, but professional harm and power abuse.” An argument like this one functions best when there’s work to interrupt that is recognizable as work. This isn’t a problem with Traister’s logic; it’s a problem with the logic of work itself. If the boundaries surrounding women’s achievements are professional, then so are the parameters of their pains.
When this conversation fires up, as it so often has in the past year, I worry for women like my mom. I scroll through my Instagram feed at night as a river of “badasses” post scenes from their #werkplaces with little emoji arms flexing in the captions and tell me that well-behaved women seldom make history. I fear, in these moments, in the quietest corner of my heart, that women aren’t worthy of concern or attention until we enter public life, until our professional achievements provide a counterweight to our pains. Lurking under this current of powerful women is a message to those less powerful: your struggles only matter once you’ve overcome them.
I’m concerned with the conflation of achievement and bravery because it takes bravery just to exist as a woman. When you’re a woman of color, when you’re poor, when you’re trans, when you can’t read or use a computer, when you use a wheelchair, when you don’t have a credit card, when you’re sick, when you don’t have a home, even more so. Ordinariness, it must be said, is a product of class. The clothes we’ll be wearing for the revolution are apparently very expensive and are designed for thin frames. The alternately admired and maligned “co-working and community space for women,” The Wing, which in its early days marketed itself as “a place for women on their way” and “a sacred space between work and werk” has become—perhaps unfairly perhaps not—a stand-in for the best and the worst of a feminism that promises to bring about revolution through achievement by extraordinary women. It’s also pretty expensive to belong. This isn’t a knock against the Wing, a membership to which I’m sure I would enjoy immensely—it’s just that if the revolution happens there, it will be without women like my mom. It will happen without many home health aides, Blackjack dealers, waiters, and I’d be willing to bet few if any nannies. The space between “work and werk” is marketable to a nearing-absurd degree, but the liminal place between care and work where so many women spend their lives seems to be a place where no one well, cares.
People who report the news for a living, “the media,” if we must, are partly to blame for this. In spite of this site’s 10-year history—of which I’m very proud, even though I’ve only worked here for one of them—of resisting the paradigm that has dictated whose story gets told and how, I include Jezebel in this criticism. Jezebel, in spite of our sympathies, is still bound by typical journalistic custom, much though we might not approve of all of it. We sometimes receive pitches here wherein the writer shares with us the story of her rape, abuse, or commonplace mistreatment and we have to pass for reasons beyond our control or the writer’s. It’s not because we’re inadequately wrenched; we are each and every time.
The usual criterion is power. More specifically, does someone in the situation have some? We ask ourselves if the man in question is a public figure, and ask the same of the woman. Is the accuser famous or remarkable in some way? Is the accused? How many people have been affected by his behavior? The term of art for this calculus is “newsworthiness” and it’s a particularly cruel concept to abide by when dealing with this subject matter because it basically boils down to a single question: who cares? We make the best choices we can under the circumstances. But the confines of newsworthiness can sometimes feel like a torture chamber. More than once this year we at Jezebel have questioned the fairness and even wisdom of choosing power as the entry fee for attention when the subject of our scrutiny is power itself.
I don’t need to tell you that although most women will never be famous or professionally accomplished to the degree required for our portraits to appear on the cover of Time magazine, most women will feel the crush of a world against us before we die. The press against the small of your back on the subway after work, the photo you didn’t ask for blinking at you in the dark, the paycheck too small to pay for what you need, is what I’m talking about now. The man to whom you didn’t exactly say no, but you certainly didn’t say yes—but who says he can’t remember any of it now, 15 years later. The dad who left, the teacher who winked, the sound of your footsteps when you’re the only one in the parking lot and the streetlight’s gone out above you. Your inbox full of “cunts,” your mailbox full of bills. The boy you knew once who told you you’d be funny if you weren’t such a bitch. The clutch at your throat in the night that tells you few will listen and none will care.
The woman I describe is not just unremarkable; her harasser is, too. She fights in an ordinary way against ordinary oppressors. Women who aren’t famous, rich, or otherwise remarkable tend not to have abusers who are famous, rich, or otherwise remarkable. And the ordinariness of abuse makes remarkableness a terrible weapon against it if we want this movement to scale. Our world requires a monumental change, but a lot of women cannot rise from their beds every day and do anything more monumental than survive. Just being alive deserves admiration when the gun is loaded and pointed at you—as it was for 1,694 women this year, most of them Black—a predator has darkened your door, and the breath has left your lungs.
There’s a passage in Zadie Smith’s novel, Swing Time, which I’ve thought about a lot this year. The main character has accompanied her boss, Aimee, a pop star-cum-philanthropist cut from the Madonna cloth—whom one could easily see on a Top 100 Badass Women of Whatever Year kind of list—on a trip to a rural village. There’s a discussion about sex ed and how to teach it; the thrust is toward empowering women and girls. The main character looks around her in fearful wonder at the scale of the project before her:
I remembered my own classrooms, dance classes, playgrounds, youth groups, birthday parties, hen nights, I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.
In spite of their secrets and of their pains, perhaps historic in their proportions, these women are well-behaved and will never make history. They’re me and my mom and maybe you and yours.
I am grateful to and in awe of extraordinary women whose ambitions tower over those of the rest of us. But I hope it’s no betrayal to the cause to say that it is the woman carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip with no expectation or ability to tell her story whom I admire most. I’ve wondered before if capitalist feminism permits me to admire the women in my family who don’t have long resumes. After this year, I no longer care. Having the will to carry on when it seems no one has the will to listen is outrageous in its bravery.
My colleague Kelly Faircloth recently told me that that slogan from the mug has taken on meaning that the woman who wrote it, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich didn’t quite intend. Ulrich didn’t mean, exactly, to cheerlead women into exceptional acts of bravery, activism, or creativity. Instead, its purpose is somewhat simpler: to recognize the fact of ordinary women’s existence, the idea being that it has oft been the case that to earn historical notice, one must be extraordinary. Enough of that; this is too commonplace to demand miracles of persistence just to survive it. We’re in a moment of exposure, not just of the scope, but of the banality of the abuses against us. This time will require some appreciation for the extraordinariness of ordinariness.