Dear Representative Hansen,
As one of the women who make up more than half of the voting constituency of the United States of America, as an educator, and as a daughter, wife, and mother, I am writing to express my outrage over the thoughtless, insensitive, crass, and frankly, blatantly misogynist remarks you made to your fellow state representatives in an email that I am sure you never believed the rest of us would see — a fact that makes your terminology even more deplorable.
I am sure that mine is not the first and will not be the last letter addressing this matter; nor should it be. If we sit quietly by and say nothing, then we are tacitly suggesting that what you have said in this comment — about women, about our nation and its government, and about yourself — is either not so very bad, or somehow acceptable, understandable, or justifiable. It is none of these things.
Over the past year, America has stood by as male members of the Republican party have made one derogatory remark after another towards women, from Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders of women” during the presidential campaign to the abhorrent comments made by Todd Akin concerning the imaginary phenomenon of “legitimate rape” and Richard Mourdock’s assurance that pregnancy from rape “was something that God intended.”
We have ALSO watched one young woman after another violated and publicly shamed and humiliated, sometimes on the national stage, by young men who, thanks to the blatantly misogynist subtext of our society which your remarks and those of your Republican colleagues certainly uphold, have internalized the idea that it is perfectly fine to sexually molest a girl who is incapacitated, either from alcohol or by other means. Some of these girls, with their whole lives ahead of them, reduced to the sum total of their sexuality by the media and by the young men in question, have seen no recourse beyond taking their own lives. This tragedy plays out far too often not to be attributable to something beyond “youthful hijinks” or “the influence of the media.” What about the influence of our role models — the leaders of this nation? As of late, it has been shown time and time again that this belief that women are “less than” isn’t limited to the media; it is also present to a dismaying degree in the governing bodies of our nation.
I hold you, Mr. Hansen, and those of your colleagues in public office who through both explicit and implicit means uphold those misogynist and demeaning beliefs and attitudes, personally accountable for these tragedies as well as for the general state of our nationalized demeaning attitude towards women.
You are a public official and a representative of your state and of this nation. Your actions and words in the service of that office are therefore to be representative of our beliefs, our values, our ideologies. When you metonymously refer to women as “vagina’s” [sic] in correspondence related directly to your official capacity as a government representative, you not only rob them of their status as human beings and therefore as beings who are capable of holding and should have rights, you also convey the idea that thinking of women as “less than” in this way is somehow acceptable, at least in private moments.
I wonder where our young men are getting the idea that women can be treated as inferior beings who do not possess the right to physical safety? As a human being, a young woman passed out at a party deserves at least, a safe ride home and at best, potentially life-saving treatment at a hospital. As a “vagina,” she is an object of ridicule and a target for violation and humiliation. You may not see a connection, Mr. Hansen, between the demeaning and off-the-cuff comments about women that you and your colleagues have made and the cases of rape perpetrated on young women by young men that are appearing with increasing frequency on the national stage, but I assure you the two are intimately related.
In genocide, one of the earliest stages is “dehumanization” — the referring to of the victim group in terms that preclude them from being seen as human beings. This permits members of the perpetrating group to view the members of the victim group as less human than themselves, which then allows the perpetrators to strip their victims of their basic human rights and to perform violence upon them without conscience. Dehumanization often occurs through seemingly small and meaningless actions — such as casual references to the Jews as “rats” during the Holocaust, or the Tutsis in 1996 Rwanda as “cockroaches” — in the media and by government officials and people of influence and authority, that work on the thinking patterns of the perpetrator group in subconscious ways over a long period of time. Without this stage, genocide cannot occur, because human conscience precludes us from deliberately harming other humans without true cause for doing so. By dehumanizing the “other” those participating in the genocide are able to commmit atrocities they otherwise would never perform upon another human being unless provoked by threat of bodily harm.
Because this is so, a comment like, “binders of women” figuratively reduces women to the concept of something that can be contained within the covers of a portfolio, to paper that can be ripped, crumpled up, thrown away, or put away at will. And replacing the word “woman” with “vagina” — as we see nearly every day — somehow makes it okay to treat all women as nothing more or less than sexual objects that are not equal to men — that cannot think, that cannot act, that cannot perform, in any meaningful way beyond their sexuality.
And this is absolutely the message that we see being played out in rape cases such as that in Steubenville, Ohio, in San Francisco, and in San Jose, among countless others. These girls were targets because somehow, the boys involved had the notion that what they were doing when they sexually assaulted them was “fine.”
That is why I am writing this letter today. Because it is not “fine.” When public officials — the leaders and role models of this nation — can toss off comments such as those you made in your email of April 1, 2013 without feeling even a twinge of conscience over it, it is clear that the message that women are not equal beings has been internalized to the point where this idea has become a subconscious truth.This becomes further apparent in the fact that you only felt remorse over your remark after the media got hold of it and enough women across the nation spoke out in justified outrage to cause you to believe that your political acumen was in jeopardy; in fact, I’d be willing to bet the only reason you issued an apology is because some higher-up in the Republican party demanded you do so in order to save the party from further recrimination over it. You are not “sorry you said that” you are “sorry it got out.” There is a serious and important difference between the two, and it is the same difference that makes the apologies of the young men in all of these rape trials so hollow and heartless. They, too, are not “sorry they did it” they are “sorry they are in trouble for it.” Were they not caught, were they not forced to take accountability, they would continue on in their belief that their actions are okay. How many more women’s lives might be ruined by such beings? This is the result of codified misogyny in a society. That codified misogyny leads to violence against women. And it has to stop. The only way it is going to stop, is if we call out those who participate in it, openly, and demand that they take accountability for their part in it.
So, Mr. Hansen, no matter how well you treat women in your everyday life, no matter how many times you have voted in support of initiatives to benefit or improve the condition of women’s lives, no matter whether you are married or have daughters of your own, you have with this comment outed yourself as, at heart, a misogynist. And you are not alone. This is now a problem that extends well beyond the bounds of media, politics, religion, or any single institution. It is a codified belief system so deeply ingrained in so many men in this country that such remarks are made everywhere, every day. And women sit by and say nothing — “because nothing you say will make any difference.”
Maybe not — but we have to speak out against it anyway. Because it is not okay.
I do not want an apology from you, because I do not believe that any apology you make would be a sincere one. It would be more productive of you to enroll in a women’s studies course or two at your local university and to educate yourself on what, exactly, you have participated in. But of course, you won’t, because as a man, what does women’s studies have to do with you?
As an American citizen and particularly as a government official, it is your moral responsibility to know the answer to that question. If you had, then you would not have written what you did in that email. But it is clear that our education system did not give you the tools you needed in order to know that, any more than it gave you the understanding of English grammar that would allow you to know that to pluralize the word “vagina” you need simply add an “s”, and that an apostrophe indicates a possessive nature that sadly, vaginas, unlike human beings, cannot hold.
Perhaps instead of being part of the problem, you could strive to be part of the solution by calling for more funding for initiatives related to education on such matters as misogyny… and the English language.
In the meanwhile, I call on all my fellow citizens, and especially women, to add their voices to my own in protest against misogyny in all its forms, and to demand that our public officials take a leadership role in the ongoing struggle to realign our nation’s thinking about women along more equitable and less derogatory lines.