Wednesday, October 1, 2014

You Are Not My Sister, by Corbett Joan OToole

CONTEXT: This piece needs some context to help you understand why I am so upset. The women I write about in this piece are all part of a national community of feminists, an organization that I label “NCF”.  The women who participate in NCF commit themselves to be honest with each other, to be respectful of their differences, to speak from their own experiences, to speak out when they see injustices. Many women participate in NCF activities year after year. It is common for them to have decades of connections with NCF. My friend, whom I call “Mary” here, is one of these committed women. This story happened to her but it’s also happened to me and lots of other disabled folks in lots of different communities.

CONTENT: Discussion of ableism, my strong and judgmental reaction to it.

[Photograph of a city sidewalk with a large telephone pole in the middle of a very narrow sidewalk. On one side of the pole is a narrow strip of sidewalk and then a curb down to the street. On the other side of the pole is a slightly wider strip of sidewalk that ends with a small wall with grass. There is no way for a person using a wheelchair to go on this sidewalk.]

Today Mary (made up name) called me to tell me about her weekend. As she talked she slipped in the painful part quietly. She said she didn’t want me to worry. She said she is ok. She is taking care of it. She moved on to the next topic.  I did not.

Mary is a fierce feminist warrior. When she became disabled she used her considerable skills to making her world better for other disabled women. She’s part of a national community of feminists, NCF (made up name), who write politically correct blogs and organize women’s gatherings. Mary believed, because it was incomprehensible to her not to, that she is an important and respected part of that community. Yesterday she found out she was wrong.

She attended a women’s outdoor concert with her nondisabled friend Annie. They found a group of women from NCF and sat next to them. Everyone was sitting on the ground except Mary who rose above them in her wheelchair. She decided to move to the ground to feel more included. While she did the slow transfer from her wheelchair to the ground, all the NCF women stared at her and she became the center of the their  nervous attention.

Some of the concert organizers were also part of NCF and were glad to see so many NCF women at this out-of-state event. About an hour after Mary made the trek from her wheelchair to the ground, one of the concert organizers invited all the NCF women to join her onstage to honor their years of community service with NCF.

At this point in her story I expected Mary to tell me how they all worked together to get her quickly into her wheelchair so they could show their NCF commitments to solidarity and social justice. But that is not what she said next.

To a woman, the NCF women surrounding Mary stood up, stepped over her, and walked rapidly up onto the stage. Only Annie, her best friend, came over and sat next to her.

Mary tells me that she was shocked by their behavior.

I am not.

I say to them:  You are not my sisters.   You never were.

Yes, I know, you read all the social justice articles and even skimmed a few of the books. You took the NCF pledge, said all the words. You lectured others on the correct terms, the rightness of your concepts. You shunned the ones who would not learn the right phrases deeming them too backwards for your enlightenment.

You never knew what I knew right from the beginning: that no matter what words you used to pledge to be our allies, that you would betray us. You would always put your own comfort, your own status ahead of others. Your commitment to the cause would always be words deep. Betrayal was written into your bones. You never did the deep cleansing needed to examine your privilege, never saw the scars we carry from how the world treats us, never even knew that everyone with privilege can be a betrayer.

But I knew.

I knew because all you showed were words not actions. Did you speak up about that event that did not have a sign language interpreter? No. Did you refuse to participate when that conference on feminism and immigration decided that having Spanish language interpreting was ‘too expensive’? No.

My sisters are women who show me their commitment through actions not words. Often they are women who are not welcome in your world. You see less educated, less adroit poor women who are, to you, less ‘committed to the cause of equality’. You never see that they are the vanguard fighting every single day for justice. You judge them to be locked into heteronormative narratives, women in need of your saving. Not that you ever talk to them, listen to what they want. You went to college. They did too – they were cleaning the floors. You read the books that they put onto the shelves. You know what’s best for women.

These women do not understand your treatises that require a college vocabulary. They will never read Judith Butler or the Feminist Manifesto. Never debate trans* inclusion or male children. They will never know the Feminism 101 definition of lesbian or intersex or genderqueer.

But they will love each and every one of us who want those labels. Their love is fierce, protective, inclusive. They will never, ever leave me or Mary alone on the ground so they can go to the stage for applause. Never. They would not know how to be that cruel. These women are my sisters. You are not.


  1. 'Diversity' is just acceptable difference.

  2. Deeply affecting. I am another Mary


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