How Feminism Failed Me (and I, Apparently, Failed It)

The backstory here is my November Chronogram column, something that I have been wanting to write for a long time:


Flowers Fall: Non-Duality for President

by Bethany Saltman, October 31, 2012

The policy [that legislated verbal consent at every level of sexual activity] emerged when 30 feminists disrupted a campus government meeting in November, 1990, demanding institutional rules to deal with rape, says Bethany Saltman, Antioch ‘92 and member of the original group, the Womyn of Antioch. Even at this tiny (650 students last fall) alternative college, the administration seemed to prefer to keep rape reports under wraps. Faced with vehement, relentless protest and a flurry of local news attention, the administration reluctantly accepted the feminists’ demand to remove any accused perpetrator from campus within 24 hours of a reported rape. But the rule was adopted on the condition that a committee of concerned staff and students would work to retool the policy while the administration consulted lawyers about its constitutionality.  Womyn of Antioch demanded the policy out of strength, not weakness, notes Saltman. “We get to say who touches us, and where.” —Bonnie Pfister, On the Issues magazine, 1999

One of the things I love about kids—okay, especially my kid—is how when she asks a question such as, “What’s a de….bate?” And I answer, “An argument or conversation that happens in public,” she says, “Oh.” I love the “Oh.” Like, message received. How often do adults actually say, “Oh?” Instead, we often say, “Uh-huh,” when someone answers us, which is another way of saying, “Right,” as in, “I knew that.” By the time this hits the stands, we will be days away from the presidential election. So there have been lots of questions in our house about who is winning, who was president when A was born, and did George W. Bush have the same rules as Barack Obama? A couple weeks ago A asked me if there has ever been a woman president and when I said, “No,” she answered, “Oh.” In A’s nearly seven years we have not made a fuss about the fact that she’s a girl and “can do anything!” It has hardly seemed necessary, obvious as it is that she is bright, capable, curious, and kind. And come on, so we haven’t had a female president, and girls cut and starve and fold in upon themselves and have babies early looking for love, are left high and dry, and are abused and taken advantage of, and are programmed to think too much about princesses and not enough about math, but…. But it’s not like our girls are going to get shot for wanting to go to school like the brave little Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl, shot by the Taliban. Right? How to approach girlhood is confusing for this ex-self-identified-radical-feminist. And believe me when I say I used the term “radical feminist,” not in the sloppy way of the common parlance, but with precision (though with a Marxist-feminist slant), in order to cast my lot with the other “womyn” who saw patriarchy as a system of oppression that must be dismantled at its very base, idea by idea, root syllable by root syllable in order to be free, radically free. What freedom was, I had no idea. I just wanted the depth of my misery to be met by the depth of available relief. It was in this haze of possession that I, and a handful of other young ladies, went after the alleged perps of date rapes on our college campus. Clearly, date rape is bad. And it happens, a lot! and needs to be addressed! But when I think back to how pumped I was (and please note, I am talking for myself and certainly not for any of the others involved) to be on Team Right, and to have the administration be afraid of me, to be a leader of something powerful, I feel truly embarrassed, and when I think of the young men who were accused and the way they were treated, I am ashamed.

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The long and the short of it is that I played an instrumental role in getting this Sexual Offense Policy passed, the one wherein each new level of sexual contact needed to be verbally consented to. When the national press guffawed at it, and when “Saturday Night Live” lampooned it in a quiz-show skit starring Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Shannen Doherty, and the late Chris Farley, called “Is It Date Rape?” and then more recently, when a Los Angeles Times writer, in response to Antioch’s latest fiscal and managerial crisis, wrote an article called “Who Killed Antioch? Womyn” (ouch!). I wish someone had pulled me aside and said, “Girl, get ahold of yourself.”Finally, after years of struggle I did get a hold of myself, literally, by the seat of my `90s pants, sitting my ass on a cushion and seeing my insanity up close. After a few years of zazen, feeling literally saved by Zen practice, I took to talking about how “feminism failed me.” Another swing of the fist—I mean pendulum. What I meant was that I was looking for something true (freedom from my suffering, much of it, indeed, related to being a girl in the world), and what I got was something illusory (a vital set of politics that I morphed into a self-aggrandizing shtick).Now I am charged with raising a daughter. I know the world is unfair to girls, even privileged ones like mine, and even more to the less fortunate, and that we are deluded to ignore it. I also know that the most revolutionary act I have ever taken was to take all the crazy energy I had been putting out there and use it to see what was inside.So how do we practice within the world that needs us?The lay adept Vimalakirti, who lived during the Buddha’s time, said,

What is the elimination of sickness?  It is the elimination of egoism and possessiveness.  What is the elimination of egoism and possessiveness?  It is the freedom from dualism.  What is freedom from dualism?  It is the absence of involvement with either the external or the internal.
I look at A, asking her questions, and wonder what kind of passions she has. An “absence of involvement” certainly doesn’t mean avoiding the heat. Instead, it means learning how to stand thoroughly in the midst of it.

I can’t wait to watch my girl learn how to play with her own fire, and when she moves, as she naturally will, from one extreme to another, I will do what I can to gently nudge here back where she belongs, which is right smack dab in the middle.

And then I got an email from the editor of C gram, which included this letter to the ed:
Dear Chronogram,I love Bethany Saltman’s column “Flowers Fall” and I read it every issue, even though I am no longer a teacher and have never been a parent. It is moving and fascinating to read of Bethany’s attempts to help her daughter grow up as her own true self.But the November 2012 “Flowers Fall” made me so sad, when I read Bethany saying that she has rejected feminism because she equates past feminist actions toward self-determination, self-respect, and campus-wide feminist group assertions toward self-defense against rape as things to be ashamed of. They are not! Ever!What is shameful is that a woman felt so unsafe on her college campus, and so ignored by campus administrators, that she and others felt they had to try to ban men from campus to reduce the number of potential rapists. Since these women were being raped by these men, that simply makes sense as the safest available option for a group of women who still needed to go about their daily lives and continue their education free from rape and fear of rape.

What is more shameful is that we are still, decades later, living in a society where rape is commonplace, where men are still rarely held accountable for their own actions when they attack women and children, and where rape is still considered something that women “cause” by how we dress or where we go. A political philosophy that states all women have a right to physical, social, and economic equality [and autonomy] is nothing to be ashamed of, and is not the cause of violence against women.

When our society begins to accept that women and children are full human beings–not the property of their husbands, families, or parents–and that violent, sexualized images of women and children [and men as perpetrators of such violence] are images that hurt all of us, perhaps our society will become a place where compassion, equality, and respect are more commonplace.


Trina Porte
Ugh. I knew this was going to happen. So I wrote:
Dear Trina:The editor of Chronogram sent me your letter earlier today, and I wanted to take a moment to respond. First of all, thank you so much for the kind words about my column and I am thrilled to hear that you read it every month. As a writer, I just never know! So thank you for that.The other thing I never know as a writer is how my words will be interpreted. When I published this month’s column, especially, I was really nervous that I would be misunderstood by good people such as yourself. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I have rejected feminism as much as my own ill-fated manipulation of feminist principles as a way of promoting my very personal agenda.I write:

“Clearly, date rape is bad. And it happens, a lot! and needs to be addressed! But when I think back to how pumped I was (and please note, I am talking for myself and certainly not for any of the others involved) to be on Team Right, and to have the administration be afraid of me, to be a leader of something powerful, I feel truly embarrassed, and when I think of the young men who were accused and the way they were treated, I am ashamed.”

Indeed, I agree with what you have said that women’s equality needs to be our goal. The thing I am ashamed of is not being a feminist, or such goals, but hiding a rage-fueled need to be right (and seen and admired) beneath feminist rhetoric and engaging in what was essentially an unconstitutional witch hunt for these and all accused date-rapers.

I knew that in trying to describe this subtle process to my readers I would risk implicating feminism, which is why I tried to stress that this was just my own twisted take. But alas, it happened, and so I wanted to apologize to you and whoever else might have gathered the wrong impression from my attempt to reveal something very particular to my own experience. I am deeply grateful to the work feminism has afforded all of us, and continue to work on behalf of girls and women, albeit from a different point of view.

I hope this note doesn’t come across as sounding defensive as much as sorry that I was so clumsy about something so important.

Thanks for reading.

Take care,

And then Trina wrote:
dear bethany,thank you for your email. as a writer myself, i understand how difficult it can be to try to make one’s point clearly and accurately. and yet how readers interpret even the most carefully worded ideas is still beyond our control. so misunderstandings happen.and thank you for letting me know that you weren’t trying to slam feminism. i think if you had included in your column that you weren’t dissing feminism, but only your own use of it as a cover for your [understandable] rage and feeling of powerlessness against rapists on campus, perhaps it would have made what you wrote more clear to the readers.brian said he’s going to print my letter in the december issue [which i agree with, since i think it still has valid points to make], so perhaps he’ll let you include an editor’s note below it to explain what you meant.

the  only thing you wrote to me that i still feel a little cringe when i read is, the part where you said; “essentially i was engaged in an unconstitutional witch hunt…” but i must beg to differ!!! when we demand that action be taken to stop violence against us we are demanding equality, we are demanding that we want to be treated with understanding and dignity, and we are demanding that we will not tolerate being ignored because it may inconvenience some innocent men as well as some actual rapists. making those demands is not a witch hunt, it is treating ourselves as full citizens and equal to men.

this happens whenever anyone or group of people brings the [un]balance of social power back into balance. that’s why backlash happens–it’s a function of the status quo changing. sort of like what your column is about–for your daughter to be her own person, your desires may have to go unmet. that’s what granting another person autonomy feels like. the fact that some people in positions of power do not like how that feels does not make the struggle for autonomy “a witch hunt.”

thanks much, Trina

To which (!) I responded,
Hi Trina. Thanks again for this. I hear you. To me, a witch hunt just means that it was misplaced rage which made it feel like a witch hunt. I was angry about things in my life that happened way before I ever got to Antioch, and these accused men were scapegoats. It was a witch hunt on the inside, however justified the external actions may be. Does that make sense?You are right that I should have stated clearly that I wasn’t dissing feminism. I thought I was doing that, but obviously was not clear.Would you mind if I put our exchange on my blog? Maybe you would even like to have a back and forth if the conversation continues?Best,
Last but not least…..
Trina replied:
hi bethany–i just read your blogification of our emails. i’m not a blogger myself [no time!!!] but i appreciate your wanting to share this dialogue with your readers there; you may certainly do so and include my name.i understand that you felt like you were partaking of “a witch hunt inside.” at times, i have felt that my demands for being heard, being safe, and being respected are “asking for too much.” but being made to feel unimportant or unworthy is just another part of oppression.making our voices heard and our presence accepted is very hard to do–that’s why it’s so important to honor those who do so, including your younger self for standing up against rape and against whatever previous injustices triggered your rage when the rapes happened at antioch.i believe that when i am thoughtless, mean, or unjust i need to apologize and make whatever amends i can. but when i am merely pissing off the powers that be for refusing to back down, that’s their problem, not mine. speaking truth to power is still a concept that i try to live by. it ain’t easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.peace to you and power to the people, trina porte