The Not-So-Secret Ingredient

So I was thinking about silence, and the breaking of it.

I was mulling how, barely ten seconds after Me Too got started, there were already people claiming it had gone too far, would turn people off, was too loud, too strident. I was noticing the shock with which West Virginian politicians reacted to the teachers’ strike. I was pondering how commentators discussed the Florida high-school student activists with such surprise, exclaiming over their being “So articulate!” And I recalled Joe Biden’s appalling 2007 remark about an up-and-coming young Senator from Illinois named Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man!” It isn’t only Trump who needed reminding that he should act sympathetic when meeting with the high-school kids, who needed to carry a notecard prodding him to say now and then, “I hear you.”

When teachers first unionized in Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century, 97 percent were women, and they were paid about the same as house maids. Two years ago, The Washington Post ran a long piece about West Virginia, titled “How the birthplace of the American Labor Movement just turned on its unions.” It was about the process following the Republican takeover of the state legislature in 2014, after which West Virginia passed a so-called right to work law prohibiting mandatory union dues. The state also repealed the law mandating that workers on public construction projects be paid prevailing industry rates. Strikes by teachers are actually unlawful in West Virginia. Moreover, their unions lack collective bargaining rights so, having no agency, now shrug and don’t even try to defend their members. This is why it was all the more wondrous that the teachers and some other school employees in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties struck, and continued striking when offered vague promises that this issue would be addressed, and still continued striking until lawmakers passed a 5 percent raise and a commitment to addressing rapidly rising health-insurance premiums. Since state-wide teacher strikes are extremely rare anywhere, people were astonished, despite the fact that West Virginia teachers’ pay ranked 48th in the nation. How could the teachers be rebelling! And now teachers in Oklahoma mobilizing to perhaps do the same thing! What’s going on?

Is the secret ingredient really such a secret?

I didn’t see any coverage noting that over 80 percent of teachers in this country are female.

It just happens that 80 percent is also the number of members who are women. You know, those plain folks, ordinary citizens, first-time-ever activists who have been flooding into town-hall meetings, picketing outside their local Congressional reps’ offices, and sitting in outside Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s lavish Senate suite and that of House Speaker Paul Ryan—the ones chanting “This is what democracy looks like.”

No one has done a gendered head count of the high-school students in Florida and now across the country who are tired of getting killed and are mobilizing and marching for sane gun policies. But just from the visuals, those protesters seem at least half female and half male, and that’s certainly true of their spokespeople.

There’s a fresh wind blowing across the purple mountains and fruited plains: the spirit of rebellion. Some say it began with the stolen non-election of Trump. But that actually was followed by weeks of stunned national depression.

I’m not just peering through a “feminist lens” when I notice some facts: that this volcanic energy began to rumble with the first Women’s March and intensified with It’s not coincidental that women are leading, that women are leading the teacher strikes, that women are exploding bombshell after bombshell in the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. For that matter, it’s not just happenstance that well before the Women’s March, women created Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name and Voto Latino. Nor is it a coincidence that young women are an equal presence in the leaderless national activism of high-school activists.

Just as repression is contagious (populist, nativist authoritarianism rippling around the world) so is the insistence on freedom and democracy. We catch fire from each other. It’s the human hand: five breakable fingers and a breakable opposable thumb that aren’t so breakable after all, when brought together in a fist. It’s what I call the “You too?” moment in feminist consciousness, realizing that you’re not alone and you’re not crazy.

You can break all the ceilings imaginable—brick, glass, celluloid, whatever—but none of that can happen until you break the silence.

Even then, you have to keep saying it, saying it, saying it; writing it and screaming it and whispering it and drawing it; miming it and dancing it and singing it and posting it and signing it and shouting it over and over and over until you almost despair—and some do.

You get a lot of practice. But they finally have to hear.

And that’s when they’re surprised that you’re “so articulate!” Which means they simply hadn’t been listening.