“I would say that each of us has only one thing to gain from the feminist movement: Our whole humanity, because gender has wrongly told us that some things are masculine, and some things are feminine . . . which is bullshit.”
—Gloria Steinem, author and activist
When I was five, I wanted to die. I was lying on the plastic- covered living room couch. It was a sixties thing— wrapping couches and chairs entirely in plastic to prevent the furniture below from showing signs of wear. It also blocked any feelings of warmth or comfort emanating from the soft fabric inside.
It was a hot, sweaty summer day. No air conditioners were allowed in the Brooklyn, New York, public housing complex where my parents, my older brother, and I shared a small two-bedroom apartment. One large gray fan stood in the middle of the living room, circulating warm air in one direction. Still, I wrapped my entire body in a blanket. It felt somewhat safer inside a cocoon-like covering; encased, protected. While watching a cartoon on the black-and-white television set a few feet away, I stopped breathing. I did not move or call out for help, however. Finally, peace, I thought. I gently closed my eyes.
The terrorist I lived with was standing no more than ten feet away, in the kitchen. As a father, his temper flared almost daily and spontaneously. My only warning sign was a behavior that was very confusing to others, but for my mother, brother, and me, it was all too familiar. He would stick out his tongue just far enough to protrude outside his mouth, immediately roll it underneath into a ball, and then harshly bite down on it with his upper teeth. Instantaneously, I responded by turning my back to him in hopes of lessening the pain from the physical blows that followed. He always used his right hand, his fist landing mostly on the left side of my head.
My father must have found me lying alone on the couch that day, not breathing. I don’t know how, exactly, since I had fallen unconscious, and reopened my eyes to find him with me in the back seat of a taxi taking us to the closest hospital. I was ultimately diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, remaining in the hospital for eight days. Once the x-rays showed that the pneumonia cleared my lungs, I returned home . . . to his home. The hospital, which had served as a safe respite, now faded from view.
The blows I suffered from my father were never warranted. Truly, how could any parent hitting a child ever be warranted, since it always has more to do with the abuser than the young and innocent victim? But he always found a reason that made sense only to him, whether it was because I spoke too loudly, cried too deeply, or breathed incorrectly. “Stop breathing with your stomach going in and out instead of up and down, or else you’ll get a fat stomach!” he’d yell. A strong man, a “macho” man, who was compared by many who knew him to Jack LaLanne, the American fitness, exercise, and motivational speaker often referred to as the First Fitness Superhero of the 1960s and ’70s, my father was also named Jack, and often referred to as a “hero” and “legend” by friends and neighbors. He was admired for his ability to run and complete marathons until the age of sixty-five, yet our family superhero was also paralyzed by the most mundane things—unwilling or unable to drive a car, correctly dial a rotary telephone, or properly use a paper clip. These lapses, which reflected basic abilities for most, kept him guarded and scared. His fear of being exposed and humiliated compelled him to control those closest to him by abusing and belittling us, all to help reduce his inner feelings of insecurity and shame.
Patriarchy not only befitted him, it engulfed him, providing the ultimate mask to conceal his failings, while justifying his violent outbursts to keep those closest to him diminished. Females, he believed, were secondary citizens, alive only to serve as his punching bag, his doormat. It was a belief my older brother, Kevin, learned from him all too well. It is not uncommon for physical aggression and antisocial behavior to occur among childhood victims of physical abuse, since they learn to view such behavior as an appropriate means of resolving conflict. So, my brother projected his failures—mounting ones at school and in sports—onto me as well. But he used his left hand as well as his right, pushing me into tables, doors, and chairs; anything with a sharp edge.
My mother sometimes came to my rescue, but only slightly and temporarily. Handing me a handkerchief filled with ice cubes to place over the ensuing swelling appearing just above my eyes, she made me remove it before my father returned home from work. “Don’t let your father see,” she warned me. Her first priority was to protect my brother. This is common for wives of domestic abusers who have internalized their misogyny, protecting the (often male) abuser over the (often female) victim.
Still, my mother did provide me with some hope to have a better life—once I became an adult, that is. In fact, she named me Lori to help ensure I would. My name was meant to bring me luck, but not just any kind of luck, like being born with intelligence, or with a musical, artistic, or athletic talent, or with any other quality that could help me achieve independently in life. No, the only luck my mother could possibly envision for me would come from someone else: a man. Lori was the name of the lead actress in the popular 1950s television series, How to Marry a Millionaire. By naming me Lori, she hoped that I, too, would grow up to marry a wealthy man, since she had not. What she refused to acknowledge, however, was that it wasn’t being married to money that mattered most, but being married to a man who didn’t abide by the patriarchal rules of power and dominance over his wife and children.
The first time I became acutely aware of the extreme gender inequality in our home was when I was seven years old, during the first month of second grade. My teacher recommended to the school principal that I skip second grade and move immediately into third. This would place me in the same grade as my brother. “How would that look?” my father nervously responded, while my mother adamantly refused, warning me, “You’re not going to think you are better than anyone else!” The older I got, the worse it became. Since I didn’t fit neatly into the stereotypical feminine box of playing with dolls, wearing ribbons in my hair, or being “seen and not heard,” I was punished when I brought home good grades at the end of each school year and my brother did not. When I won trophies for my athletic prowess, I was told to hide them. Rather than acting out in protest, however, I hunkered down until I was old enough to move out. And when I finally did, after graduating from college at the early age of twenty, I devoted my career to help- ing others, particularly women and girls who are also experiencing similar feelings of loneliness and isolation living within the strict confines of an abusive patriarchal society. As a passionate writer, I chose to do so as a journalist, where I could reach many more women and girls, through both my observations and my words.
Writing, after all, had always served as my lifeline through- out those traumatic childhood years. My personal journal, which I wrote in daily, was my one trusted friend, a place where I could express my feelings, hopes, and goals secretively and without judgment. Embarking on a career in journalism, I hoped to serve as a live personal journal whom other women could trust to express themselves freely, and without fear.
And that’s what led me to write this book. In interviewing countless highly accomplished women for over three decades, there have been some common threads, recurring qualities and values that each exhibited, regardless of their chosen fields. Whether it was Gloria Steinem, the iconic feminist, author, and human rights activist; Billie Jean King, the women’s tennis cham- pion once ranked best in the world; Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who turned oppressive insults about her weight into helping others embrace their bodies at whatever size; or Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate and Liberian peace activist—each exhibited warmth, compassion, and humility. Yet, these virtues were not exhibited only behind closed doors. They utilized their tools for success to enable countless others to reach their full potential and even, in some cases, save their lives. That brought me to wonder whether other highly accomplished women possessed the same or similar qualities, and how these qualities had proven helpful to empower and save others as well. Further, could these qualities, if put to work on a grander scale, resolve our world’s most crucial challenges, like preventing or ending war, and eradicating climate change, thereby ensuring a safer, healthier, and more peaceful world for future generations? We are currently living in a pivotal time in history, where the fear of losing long-held patriarchal control is causing members of marginalized groups (including women, the LGBTQ community, people of color, and people with disabilities) to be scapegoated and physically attacked. Further, patriarchy’s refusal to accept glaring facts about climate change is threatening our planet’s long-term survival.
In the pages that follow, you will not only be taken inside the private homes, offices, and classrooms of each of these five women who gave rise to this book, but also twenty-five others who have since been interviewed, including authors, actors, filmmakers, philanthropists, and political leaders, to learn how they are successfully dedicating their work, and their lives, for the greater good of all. They will further demonstrate how being able to freely display values that exist in all of us—empathy, modesty, compassion, warmth, and introspection—will not only free us universally, but will also provide us with what may be our very last chance to save the world.
This post was originally published on the Women’s eNews website.