“Chick.” “Baby.” Women have long been infantilized in language, even in these erstwhile terms of endearment. And we’ve hated it. But there’s one way that we should strive to become more like infants. Even girl babies know how to ask for what they want. Their cries and demands may not always be answered, but there’s no doubt that they feel entitled to voice them. Without saying—sometimes loudly—what we as women need, how are we going to change the world for the better?
There’s ample evidence that at least some women have trouble with the idea that it’s OK to speak out. I spent time this summer with Jewish teen girls at summer camp (not the one appearing in this issue) and was knocked back to hear how commonly that old canard “JAP” got flung about as a label for peers who were too aggressive (also “too materialistic,” but that’s another story). And then, in another community, there was the lovely young woman in her late twenties who told me that enough of the world doesn’t like the Jews anyway, so why does LILITH go public about bad things like domestic violence in the Jewish community?
To participate in repairing the world, we first have to be able to name—and then ask for—what we need. As simple as saying what’s right for us and what’s not. As simple as asking for help when a burden (physical or metaphorical) is too heavy to carry alone. And as complicated as figuring out the resources we need, step by step, while we improve our own lives and change other women’s lives for the better. I’ve been aware, as we edited the amazingly frank articles in this issue, of how much more women now say than we used to. But this past season’s conversations reminded me of how often women still silence our own needs.
In this context I’ve been thinking about women’s sex shops and women’s philanthropic foundations (how’s that for a segue?) and about the growing popularity of two phenomena that, on their surface, seem ridiculously disparate. Sex shops run by and for women and philanthropic foundations by and for women—a pretty unlikely yoking? Not at all. They are two powerful (and empowering) examples of women acting to meet their needs; in one case the goal is to increase understanding about female sexuality, and in the other to increase the financial resources available to women and girls. Both endeavors bring a message: that we have to ask for what we need. And for enough of it.
Talking about sex and money is personal, political and often taboo. But another out-of-bounds topic gets even less air time, and that’s leisure. Maybe I wouldn’t have set this one before you if we were still living in the halcyon pre-laptop, pre-cell phone, pre-PDA era. It’s hardly original to note that work, in the lives of many women, has become intractable for reasons other than mere survival. We create, labor, engage. So many of us are on absolutely all the time, just like our computers. And often we’re also the generators keeping colleagues and family fully charged.
I write these words at the Jewish New Year, the time when we make an accounting of the soul. It’s a time for looking ahead to how we’re going to do things better in the time stretching out ahead of us. I propose that in the year to come we try giving ourselves permission to announce our needs, including the need for a tiny bit of leisure in each day. Just an appetizer-sized portion, carrying a trace of Shabbat into the work week, so that we bring into the fray not just the memory of Sabbath light, but also (especially) the idea of down time, time where we can just “be” and be off
Shabbat is supposed to give us, as they say in Yiddish, a forshpeis, a foretaste of what it’ll be like when the Messiah will grace us with her presence. Let’s extend the image. How about weekday moments when we withdraw briefly from the preoccupations of work as an appetizer for the Shabbat to come—a little bit of legitimate weekday leisure?
What would this mean? We would have to ask (ask ourselves, really) for the time we need. A radical rethinking of the rhythms of life for women and for men, restraining the impulse to be on all the time. Just as we now reflexively turn off our cell phones and pagers when a movie begins, maybe we can admit the need to turn our work selves off for a few Shabbat-like moments every day. I’m trying hard to learn how.