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The World Shifts Again

If you are a woman my age, the SCOTUS decision regarding Roe v. Wade feels like one more example of how often we have not felt that our lives were our own. I was 21 the summer Title IX was codified. In all honesty, I was only vaguely aware of its existence at first, because it had never occurred to me during my four years of high school, that I should have been enjoying sports as much as the boys in my classes did. Girls still had to wear dresses to our school at the time. I don't remember what mine looked like, but I can recall with painful accuracy those long years of having no idea how I was ever going to fit into the world. I realize now that being able to focus on softball or basketball or soccer would have done me a world of good, despite how awkward I felt doing anything when I was a teenager.

By the time I graduated,, and those same boy athletes were being drafted to go to Vietnam, I began to see the world a little differently. The injustices, the decisions to put young people in harm's way, the abuse and harassment of those with no power all shone lights on the disturbing difference between what we grew up thinking America was about and the direction it seemed to be headed. I started working in the women’s studies office at my college around that time, the same year as the Watergate break-in, and only a few months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a pregnant woman could choose to have an abortion without the government standing in her way. I had been out of the closet less than a year then, buoyed in part by the Stonewall Riots, when other gay people stood up against continued abuse by law enforcement. Still, the world as I saw it was tumultuous. There was hope now and then, but it mostly felt like moving the earth to try and empower people who had none. Even in the midst of the second wave of the women’s movement, educated, heterosexual white women held the reins, asking any woman not like them to wait her turn.

There is power in each of us—to stand next to one another, to hear the pain, to move together to some better solution.

I marched in anti-war protests, I went to women’s caucus meetings, I wrote articles for my college newspaper, and I tried as much as I could to help turn the tide in the areas that seemed like it might be possible. But I never felt like I did enough. It was easy to feel helpless, to feel the futility of one person’s gestures and actions. I have had that same sense in the last couple of weeks—that the political machine and the thousands of people who support it are more powerful than I am. I can march and donate money and urge people to register and vote, but it’s easy to feel defeated.

Here's what I do know, though: We do what we can do. We tell the truth, we listen to other people, we help them get what they need, and we remain connected. When Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were all killed in the first half of 2020—amid the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic—I felt like the only thing I could do was listen. Whether it was in conversations with my black and brown colleagues on Zoom calls, or with friends and family, who were grappling with feelings of helplessness, I listened and I tried to connect when and where I could. It isn’t everything, and sometimes it isn’t anything. When these large forces try to disable those with much less power, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, to turn away, or to isolate ourselves.

It’s baffling to think about how to change the country we grew up believing in. It’s painful and maddening to watch it when it moves so quickly in a direction that ignores the needs of so many of us. But I know that we are not alone. We have each other, and we have a few people in power who are doing what they can on a larger scale. I used to watch my students in the face of a terrible political or social event as they would try to take it in, often in tears, frequently in abject fear. To say that I was there for them, to listen and to understand, seemed like a small thing. But there is boldness in each of us—to stand next to one another, to hear the pain, to move together to some better solution. The impotence of a solitary voice is lonely and fragile, I know. But, I also know this: The courage and harmony of many voices, however scared or hopeless, can begin a turn in a better direction.

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