Violence, Success, and the Irrelevancy of Gender or, What My Vagina Didn’t Teach Me

Jennifer R. Steeve
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI Law

Frankly, I am tired of celebrating “vaginas and vagina culture” this week.  What UCI Law’s production of Vagina Monologues does for the Family Violence Clinic is commendable. The hearts of the student actors are in the right place, motivated to address gender discrimination and violence against women.

But the focus on “all things vagina” is short-sighted and destructive. We got into this mess by a culture of men who felt superior to women.  How is exalting the woman not going to lead to the exact same culture in the not-too-distant future, except it will be women repressing men?  I have heard consistent and disconcerting comments on campus to the effect that a man cannot speak on women’s issues. Enough with the gender wars. If the goal is to break stereotypes, creating new ones will not help.

Gender-focus, gender-exaltation, and most certainly gender-exclusion, work against most goals on this campus.  Rejoicing in gender identities is antithetical to gay rights, for one, and telling men to shove it does not advance equality at any level. Nor does excluding any voice further open-mindedness. Of course gender exists (however much is innate and culturally constructed), and of course gender is important. But it is of second-order importance and sometimes we mistakenly treat it as of first-order importance. Indulge me for 3 vignettes to see why my heroes have taught me that when it comes to our ability to love mercy and do justice, our humanness runs much deeper than our gender.

In 1953, my grandmother walked out on my grandfather. He hit her. She was pregnant with my mother, and despite being a newlywed and in love with my grandfather, she had a much deeper respect for her unborn baby and her own sense of self-worth. My grandmother walked out in an act of bravery, against the taboos of society, not because she was a woman or despite it—but because she was strong and determined to end an intergenerational cycle of violence.

Another of my heroes, the inimitable Christopher Hitchens, once ignored his doctor’s advice and subjected himself to waterboarding—so he could denounce torture with vigor and vim in his Vanity Fair piece de resistance. As an undergraduate student, I once had the pleasure of meeting him. In a small room of eight, he told a story of gorilla poachers in the jungle that made your blood curdle and your love of the world and all its occupants move you like you finally got the Brothers Karamazov.  “Hitch” was a force for justice not because he was a man or despite it—but because he was Hitch.

For those of us who had the pleasure of meeting Justice Sonia Sotomayor last week when she came to campus, we know there is no escaping her vibrancy and determination, which exudes from her no less on paper than in person. In her memoir, her grit is revealed the moment she grabs the insulin needle at the precocious age of 7 and stabs it into her own skin.  It was not a moment about her gender.  It was a moment of insight and self-reliance, the kind of will to not just live but flourish, that would catapult her to the Supreme Court.  Sonia Sotomayor serves her country on the U.S. Supreme Court not because she is a woman or despite being a woman, but because she is Sonia.

If you run into me on campus, skip the speech about us having some cosmos-endowed connection because we are women and we should fight for women. I will fight for a woman because she is human, thank you very much, same as I would a man. If we each have the capacity to love, to build community, to stop gorilla poachers or stand up to violence—then it does not matter if the perpetrator is a man or a woman, or the victim is a man or a woman. “Vagina culture” has no special insight to share. It only matters that there is a perpetrator and a victim, and in a place where we are being taught the practice of justice, we should be learning together how to empower the victim and stop the perpetrator, regardless of gender.