“What is the real origin of my own anger? Is it the ego defending its territory, or is it something that has its source in the desire for the well-being of all?” ― Jean-Yves Leloup, Compassion and Meditation: The Spiritual Dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” - Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1976
“I’m sorry but / I am just not sorry” – Ke$ha, the Warrior album
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Before I even get started, I’m making myself a promise. Whatever happens with this blog post, whomever it may upset or annoy, I WILL NOT BE SORRY.
I hate to think of myself as anything but fierce, but the truth is, not being sorry is a major challenge for me. I am a woman, and I apologize way too often—out loud, in my mind, via e-mail. I make a conscious effort to only apologize when I’m at fault, but sometimes I can’t help myself.
… I said what I said.
… we’re late.
… the house is a mess.
… my toddler is screeching in the library.
… I’m not “leaning in.”
… I post so much on Facebook.
… I’m not done talking about abortion,
… or rape culture,
… or racism.
The list goes on. And I am so sick of it. I am especially sick of apologizing when I have nothing to apologize for—and when the only one expecting me to apologize is me.
This is not some new revelation. I have been trying to quit apologizing for years. And I know I’m not alone. This femme-centric compulsion to be “sorry” functions as a kind of shame. And shame, as my friend Tricia says, is “the Ginsu knife of oppression.”
Oppression, of course, brings me to the Texas Capitol.
Like thousands of women and our male allies, I’ve spent a lot of my time at the Capitol lately, using my presence, my voice, and my social media accounts to decry anti-abortion legislation. (In the photo above, I am standing in line to get in during the second special session.) I have also stood vigil against Texas’s 500th execution and used social media to support my friends’ diverse human rights efforts. Yet as strongly as I feel about all this, I still hear a stupid voice inside that says I need to apologize for it.
And so I felt immense gratitude yesterday when the story of one Tuesday Cain fell into my lap. Tuesday and her father, Billy Cain, are at the center of a firestorm of online excitement this week. Tuesday made a sign that said, “Jesus isn’t a dick, so keep him out of my vagina.” She brought it to the protests, and a photo of the sign went viral. Sadly but not surprisingly, comments were vicious. As the headline of Tuesday’s response essay in XOJane.com said, “I’m 14. Please stop calling me a whore.” (For the reaction it got, you’d think her sign actually said, “Jesus is … a dick… .”)
Tuesday Cain is not just some Internet kid to me. I was her first grade teacher at our neighborhood public school. She and her family are also my neighbors. I know firsthand what a smart, creative, and good-hearted kid Tuesday is. I have watched her grow up and work with her parents to find her niche in the world. When we ran into each other at a protest, I didn’t even notice her sign. We hugged and grinned on the Capitol steps, each just thrilled to see someone we knew.
Because despite the thousands of protesters and the millions on the Internet, it’s easy to feel alone in all this.
So, I am a bit embarrassed and sad that my first reaction when a friend from across the country sent me the XOJane link—not knowing my relationship to Tuesday but aware of my involvement in the protests—was to focus on the words on the sign. I wrote on Facebook about my love for my student and how proud I was of her, but I also empathized with Christians who would be upset to even see the word “dick” anywhere near “Jesus.”
I will not waste time on that discussion here—because I realize now that the language is not the point. I will just say this: If you don’t like our language, stop attacking our rights. If our words are getting angry, it’s because we are angry. We have a right to be.
For a long time, media coverage of the anti-abortion bills in Texas and around the country was paltry at best. To paraphrase a comment made by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte on the Senate floor, at what point must the women of Texas raise their hands to be recognized? I completely understand why Tuesday felt she needed to write something that would get some attention.
I wrote a post here on Friday that got a little attention of its own—and in it I bent over backwards to be considerate of other views, to put myself in the shoes of people who so strongly disagree with me. I still believe the things I said in that post. I still pray we get past “us vs. them.” But I also know this and it is worth repeating: We have a right to be angry. Those of us who are protesting and demanding abortion rights, those of us who are fighting for civil rights and an end to racial bias and all of that, we have nothing to apologize for.
I am impressed by Tuesday and her family, that they’re in this together, that they’re not afraid to talk about uncomfortable issues, to be pissed off, to fight together, to make women’s rights and civic engagement priorities for their family. I’m also impressed by the way Tuesday’s father has calmly defended her.
Like Billy Cain and most of us, I prefer to keep the conversation civil. I really do. But civility is nowhere near as important to me as civil rights. And Tuesday’s sign speaks to a serious problem beyond the abortion fight: the erosion, if not outright erasure, of the line that separates church and state in our nation. I go to church almost every Sunday and it is probably my favorite time of the week—and even I can see we are losing the separation of church and state to the detriment of human rights and pretty much everything else.
Thankfully, I feel inspired and reinvigorated by the actions of our activist youth.
Many of my adult friends don’t share their views publicly because they’re worried about their family or jobs, how their students, clients, or coworkers will react. I imagine people thinking, “What about Tuesday’s college application? Or when she applies for jobs? The Internet is forever.” These are valid, grownup concerns. But if someone wouldn’t hire Tuesday Cain because, at age 14, she stood up for her constitutional rights, then she surely doesn’t want that job anyway. (And knowing Tuesday, I expect she is going to be her own awesome boss someday. An artist or author, perhaps.)
A 14-year-old activist can’t express herself by voting. She can’t drive herself to work to earn money that she might donate to a cause or candidate. She can’t serve her country in the military. But she is old enough to need an abortion. She is old enough to be raped or be the victim of incest or an abusive relationship. She is old enough to be given incomplete sex education in school.
A 14-year-old girl is old enough to exercise free speech and demand her constitutional, human rights. Without apology.
Which brings me back to all those “I’m sorry”s at the top.
Oftentimes when I say “I’m sorry,” I really mean “I wish things were different.” I wish magic fairies cleaned my house while I slept. I wish our society were geared toward women pursuing careers and being parents. I wish these anti-abortion bills didn’t exist so I didn’t have to rally against them. I wish a lot of things for this great nation.
Wishing won’t help, though. Getting to work will.
I serve on the board of Girls Rock Camp Austin, a nonprofit that promotes confidence and empowerment in girls ages 7-17. At every rock camp, we tell the girls that it’s OK to make mistakes. They don’t have to apologize when they play a wrong note on guitar or drop a beat on drums. We want them to feel free to try things and make mistakes and learn—and we also want to break this femme-centric cycle of constant, shameful apologizing.
Instead of saying “I’m sorry” about an error, band coaches instruct campers to exclaim, “I rock!”
In February, I participated in Ladies Rock Camp, the adult version of what our girls do. We grownups weren’t allowed to apologize either. It was damn near impossible. Band practices sounded like this:
“I’m sorry! I mean, I rock!”
“I’m sorry! Gah! No! I rock!”
“I’m sorry! Oops! I forgot! Sorry! Oops! Argh! I rock!”
We’d laugh it off, but it was eye-opening and we women sounded like a broken record: “I’m sorry I rock. I’m sorry I rock. I’m sorry I rock.”
You may think you don’t apologize much, but just try not to say “I’m sorry” for a full day. You might be surprised.
Yesterday, I walked over to Tuesday’s house to give her a hug and tell her that her first grade teacher is proud of her, and I truly am. I hope that she forgives those of us—opposition and allies—who jumped to judgment over her choice of language. I want her to know many of us are drawing strength and determination from her bravery and conviction.
Before Tuesday’s mom let me inside yesterday, she said apologetically, head down, “I’m sorry the house is such a mess. We’ve been at the Capitol and researching for weeks.” I have heard some variation of this apology from every woman I know, regardless of the cleanliness of her house.
I told Mrs. Cain yesterday and I’ll say it again: You have nothing to apologize for. I hope I am raising my 4-year-old daughter with such passion for human rights. And for crying out loud, I hope we are not fighting these same fights when she is Tuesday’s age.
So. Thank you for reading this, for helping me feel less alone in the fight. I want to close by saying publicly, to Tuesday, to myself, and to all the human rights activists out there: I am not sorry you rock. I am not sorry we rock. And please: ROCK ON!
— Erin J. Walter is a mother of two, Northwestern journalism grad, and former newspaper reporter living in Austin, Texas, where she serves on the board of the Texas After Violence Project and Girls Rock Camp Austin. The former literacy director of Chicago’s Open Books, Erin co-runs a local preschool co-op and directs the Young Writers Workshop—bringing renowned authors, songwriters and more to work with kids at the public, neighborhood elementary school where she and Tuesday Cain both attended as children.
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