The following three articles are about the Contemporary Women’s Issues Workshop led by Diane Balser, the International Liberation Reference Person for Women, in London, England, November 28 to December 1, 2013.

I Did Not Escape the Oppression

At the Contemporary Women’s Issues Workshop, Diane1 talked about putting being female first, making being female visible. She said that many of us women in the West have a battle to acknowledge that we are female. Fighting to keep our connection to being female is to face where we were crushed by sexism and male domination.

I am a white owning-class Protestant English formerly-identified-Lesbian female in my fifties. I made an early decision: “I am not the kind of girl who is pretty, wears dresses, and likes to be a princess.” It was my attempt to escape the oppression, to say that it happens to “girls like that” and that “I am not like that.”

I had three relationships with men in my teenage years in which I was sexually exploited. In one relationship, the man was attracted to another woman and I agreed to her living with us. He had sex with each of us at different times. I believed I was behaving as a “liberated” woman. It is hard to look back and face what I put up with2 in my desperation to keep the man I “loved.”

After we split up, I became involved in the women’s movement (in 1982) and decided to become a “political Lesbian.” I believed it did not make sense to be in relationships with men in which I would have to endure sexism and male domination. It was a decision not to be “the kind of woman who is dependent on and dominated by a man.”

I tried to get to where the oppression would no longer affect me, but I did not escape it. It hit me just as hard as it hit other women. I also became increasingly disconnected from my female core. As I work on this, hurts come up that I don’t want to look at, including my sexual exploitation as a teenager. I keep noticing, and discharge as I go.

“Lily Pink”
Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of women 

1 Diane Balser, the International Liberation Reference Person for Women and the leader of  the workshop
2 “Put up with” means tolerated.

“Female First”

I am a thirty-one-year-old heterosexual white Gentile (slim, conventionally attractive) woman. Diane reminded us on the first night of the workshop to “put female first.” I had always assumed that I knew I was female, loved being female, and loved other females, but I realized I was not connected to being female in the way I had thought I was. After that realization, I used Diane’s direction throughout the workshop.

As a younger young woman, I tried different ways of being female, including being a “tomboy.” I had a boy’s haircut and wore my older brother’s old trousers and shirts to school. I rejected anything pink or “girly.” I tried to do everything my brother did. I must have internalized the message that girls aren’t good. I wanted to be “better than” girls. Sometimes I still disassociate myself from women and try to identify with men.

As a young teenager I had mainly male friends, including my older brother. When they started talking about girls in a sexual way, I felt excluded, angry, and jealous. They were interested in my female friends who had visible breasts, and I didn’t grow breasts until much later. At some point it got too hard to be friends with the boys, so I made better friends with girls and gradually became more feminine.

For many years, I hated my body and felt unattractive and unwanted. When I was about eighteen, I grew my hair long and started to get some curves, and men began to find me attractive. It was both scary and a relief. 

It is new for me to discharge on these earlier times while remembering that I have always been fully female. At the workshop I was able to work on sexual exploitation and pornography differently when I stayed aware of my femaleness. (When I haven’t been connected to my femaleness, it’s been hard to notice that my body, or the exploitation of women, matters.) 

Diane also asked us, “What do you do to intentionally restimulate men?” I sometimes act out in ways that I know will attract men—to get their attention and to be validated by them. I had never seen this as intentionally restimulating them. I had known that I needed to give up being “pretty,” but I hadn’t realized that doing so would feel like giving up being female, or actually mattering at all.

I loved what Diane said about older women needing to face where they want to give up, and us younger women needing them to keep going for bigger lives. It’s scary when older women give up, especially if they look to us younger women to “take over.” I love being in a Region1 led by older women who are going for2 “no limits.”

Reprinted from the RC e-mail 
discussion list for leaders of women

1 A Region is a subdivision of the International RC Community, usually consisting of several  Areas.
2 “Going for” means pursuing. 

A Re-evaluation at the Workshop

I’m a married woman with a shaky gender identity. I was told from age nine that I was not pretty. To find a way to live as a woman, I focused on being clever and caring.

Like many RC women leaders, I was active in the women’s movement in the 1970s. I participated in campaigns related to peace, socialist feminism, the economics of unpaid work, discrimination at work, and childcare. I avoided the work on violence, sexual exploitation, men’s power in the home, and anything to do with bodies.

After that I continued to be a feminist and a women’s leader, in and out of RC. I did useful things: feminist writing; setting up a women’s network at my job; struggling on behalf of women in my trade union; teaching courses on gender, sex, and sexuality; and much more.

All this pushed my boundaries, but it’s amazing what you can do without really challenging your chronic material.1 I discharged in painful areas, especially the humiliations of my teenage and young adult years, only when I had to. I decided early on to pretend I wasn’t a victim. The recording was, “None of this (sexism) is going to spoil my life.” I felt as if sexual harassment and objectification didn’t apply to me. Because I was never considered pretty and felt ugly during my teen and young adult years, I felt that I wasn’t really a woman at all. It was hard to use Diane’s leadership from that position. It felt as if following her properly would mean losing the bits of womanhood I had managed to keep.

At the workshop I finally realized that of course I had been sexually objectified. It is sexual objectification—what else could it be?—to be summed up immediately as sexually unattractive. As I discharged, I also realized I had been sexually abused on seven occasions before I was ten. I had “normalized” them (“they could have been so much worse”) and denied the damage they’d done. Looking around the workshop, I felt sure that my experience was common, that most women there had been sexually abused and had minimized its importance. And I wondered if the men at the back of the workshop, and other male Co-Counsellors, realized that.

We celebrated Diane’s seventieth birthday on Saturday night, and the next morning she spoke about the generation of RC women leaders who were active in the “second wave” of the women’s liberation movement. It was a great contradiction2 for me to hear us be regarded as a precious resource and to hear a younger woman discharge about how much she wanted us to continue our active, undefeated, hopeful lives.

Caroline New
Bristol, England
Reprinted from the RC 
e-mail discussion list 
for leaders of women

1 “Material” means distress.
2 Contradiction to distress

Last modified: 2015-07-29 20:57:07+00