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Sex, Lies and Advertising (1990)
Martin, What Should I Do Now? (1990)
Delusions of Safety (1990)
The Nature of the Beast (1992)
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Dispatch from Beijing (1993)
From Seneca Falls to Houston (1978)
So Who Gets the Kids? (1999)
Who Benefits from Family-friendly Policies? (2000)


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"One unmissable trend in all available polls is that black women are even more interested in changing their status as women than white women are."

Delusions of Saftey (1990)
by Marcia Ann Gillespie

A memory: I am eight, maybe nine years old, it's a hot summer Sunday afternoon, family and friends have gathered at my maternal grandmother's. The adults are sitting around the table talking as adults always seemed to do. My best friend Adrienne and I are sitting on the high front porch, shaded by climbing roses and trumpet vines. Legs dangling off the side, oblivious to the admonitions not to mess up our good clothes, half listening to the music welling up and out of the Baptist church, the sounds of people shouting and clapping to the pounding piano. We are eating strawberry ice cream and sharing secrets when the screams begin. I can hear the woman pleading, begging him not to hit her again, saying, "I'm sorry, baby, I'm sorry." The man cursing, threatening to "beat the shit out of you bitch." Then the sound of her wailing pierces the afternoon. People gather on porches and at windows. And suddenly the two of them are in the street, just a few yards away, she running from him, he in hot, drunken pursuit. Someone yells that they've called the cops; still, he grabs her, one hand in her hair dragging her back, the other punching her. Then someone shouts "She has a knife!" And suddenly he bellows as blood shoots from his chest. The blood immobilizes him and galvanizes her-cursing, she wrests loose and weaves around him, slashing his face, his arms, his sides. Blood spurts, pooling at their feet. She stands panting, her swollen eyes fixed on the knife when the police finally arrive. He stands weaving, touching himself, looking at his bloody hands, repeating in disbelief, "Bitch, you stabbed me, you cut me, bitch." What happened that long ago Sunday ended as quickly as some summer storms. I ate my ice cream the entire time, and when my friend, sickened by the bloodshed, pushed hers aside, I finished that as well. Where I grew up violence was often played out in public view. People got shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and beaten, a few of them died. I witnessed the rage, heard the cursing, screams, deadly silences, saw the way blood spurts and runs while I was still a braided, beribboned little girl. But that particular incident is the one that remains vivid. What happened that day was not typical. Despite the stories that my folks tell-about the women who could and did beat any man walking-most times women were left broken and bleeding. Growing up, though, I felt safe in that small neighborhood. The violence was predictable. It went with full moons, heat waves, grinding oppression, and the stuff of the blues-poverty, hopelessness, drunkenness, rage, foolin' around with other folks' stuff, meanness, feuds, and revenge. It happened to unchurched wild livers, Saturday night bingers who spent their week's wages in bars and their guilt and frustrations on each other. It didn't happen to nice girls from God-fearing homes, wasn't done by our brothers, boyfriends, and fathers. Or so you're told by adults you trust. I was in college when I learned that it didn't just happen in certain places, to certain people. My boyfriend knocked me down a short flight of stairs. I'd embarrassed him by slipping away from a party to check out some other guys. We argued and then he punched me and I went sprawling on the stairs. I'd never been hit by a male person before-nor since. He'd never hit a female person before, don't know if he has since. I was lucky; other than a slight bruise on my face, I was not hurt. We were both shocked by his violence. He cried and apologized. Shaken, spitting mad, and frightened, though I pretended not to be, I made a big scene, then quit him. My father once said, "If a man hits you once, he'll hit you again. The first time he'll say he's sorry. He may even cry. But he'll do it again, with less provocation." The words made little impression, since I couldn't imagine ever being with a man who'd lay a hand on me. But having crossed through the looking glass once, I never wanted to fall through again. I quickly ended relationships with men who had short tempers, or who in any way crowded me physically. I tried to stick close to the rules: avoid arguments. If you argue, make sure it doesn't get out of control. Don't publicly disagree with your man. Don't draw undue attention. Don't juggle men, but if you do, exercise utmost stealth and guile, or else let each one know that he isn't the only one on your dance card. But the rules never seem to hold. You have opinions. You are independent. You live in the world. You're educated, successful, and so are your friends. You go to parties and bars. You meet guys, exchange numbers, make dates. You travel. You talk to strangers. You're streetwise. You can take care of yourself. And in your own kitchen during a party when a guy who's had too much to drink starts to make threatening moves, you grab a hot frying pan filled with grease, scare him sober. You scare the hell out of yourself as well. But still you want to believe you're safe, that those two incidents were aberrations, nothing more. And then one night you find yourself half hanging out a window, 22 stories up, held there by the man you've been involved with for months. How can this be happening to you? You who perfected your cool-down procedures, who knows how to avoid the ones who might lay hands on you. How can he be doing this? He's a television news reporter! One minute you were out laughing and drinking, the next you're in his apartment and he's screaming that you were hitting on his friends. You protest. One minute you're halfway out the door, the next you're half out the window, pleading and praying. I was 24 when that happened. We'd met at a journalists' meeting. Our relationship had been easy and delicious. He was smart, funny, and very gentle. We'd rarely argued, and then it was never personal. He'd seemed in the best of humor that night, up until the moment we walked into his apartment. And then Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. To this day I'm not sure what triggered it-or why he pulled me back inside. I know that as soon as my feet hit the floor, I grabbed my bag and started running out the door. All I wanted was to put as much distance as possible between me and that moment of sheer terror. I never told my family, never reported it to the police. And when I spoke about it to my best friends, I tended to make light of the incident. I also went into hiding for a while. Didn't date. Avoided places we knew in common. He was crazy, I had no doubt about that. What worried me was that my early warning system had failed to detect it. I vowed to exercise greater care, by checking a guy out. You know the drill, I'm sure. You subtly grill him about who he knows, where he's been. You ask your friends about him. You ask them to ask around. You never come out and say I want to find out if this man is a bully, if he beats women. And you probably don't even admit what you're doing yourself. Time passes, memories fade. At the very worst the reports you get, when you remember to ask, say things like he's difficult, a dog when it comes to women, self-centered, a con artist, a lousy lover, or still hung up on someone else. Sometimes you drop him. Other times you proceed with caution. Caution, now there's a word. Being cautious becomes almost second nature to women. Keep your legs closed, skirts down, eyes demure, don't talk to strange men. All those rules that tell us to keep to our place, don't rock the boat, don't be a wild child. Or else you'll be vulnerable, unprotected, and ultimately some man's prey. It comes with the morning paper and the evening news. A woman murdered, raped, beaten, tortured. She's single, she's married. She's prepubescent, she's pregnant. She's a senior citizen. She lives in the city, in the suburbs, in the country. She's rich, poor, middle class, working class, unemployed. She's a student, a nun, an investment broker, a schoolteacher, a full-time homemaker, a factory worker, retired. She was home, in her car, on the job, in an elevator, on a subway, bus, walking, jogging. She was alone, with her husband, lover, friends. She was with her children. He was someone she knew. He was a stranger. He stalked her. He stumbled upon her. He didn't even know her name. He was not alone. You try not to think too much about it. You decide not to read the papers. Or maybe you check each report closely hoping to be reassured in some way-that the crime didn't happen in your neighborhood, where you work, shop, or travel. Perhaps like one of my coworkers you study them to see if there's something you can learn, some precaution you need to take, some habit you need to break in order to keep yourself safe. When photos of the men's faces appear, you study them searching for some clue. Serial murderers, rapists, batterers, sadists, and killers should look different from the men we know, love, laugh,work and live with. When do you finally realize that he doesn't have a face any different from your brother's, lover's, son's, or friend's? How long does it take for that knowledge to sink in and then what do you do, how do you live with it? I came to that realization shortly after my 27th birthday. The man I was involved with had given me a huge party to celebrate. Friends, acquaintances, and even folks I didn't know turned up. It was terrific. Three weeks later two detectives arrived at my office. They showed me the photograph of a woman, young and pretty. They asked if I recognized her. I didn't. They told me her name, said she lived in my neighborhood, that she'd been at my birthday party. As I looked at her smiling face in that photograph, they told me that she'd been sexually assaulted and murdered in her apartment, slashed and stabbed, her head nearly severed from her body. Then they informed me that they believed she'd met the murderer at my party, and they asked me for a list of all the men who were there. I remember shaking my head saying, "Oh, no, there has to be some kind of mistake." And the hard, flat voice of the detective cutting me off. "Her last known conversation was on the phone to a girlfriend. She told her friend she was getting ready to go out with a guy she met at your party. She'd started to go into more detail when she said, 'Listen, that's my bell, it must be him; I'll call you tomorrow.' She was dead within a few hours." That night my guy and I sat up late talking. Distrustful of the police, shocked, not wanting to believe it was possible, we slowly wrote down the names of the men we'd invited, the men we remembered being there, the friends who'd brought men we didn't know. Separately, together, with the police and on our own, we went over that list as it steadily grew from 30 to 60. The police asked us not to talk about the investigation. Weeks went by, friends would say they'd been questioned. Every day I'd scour the papers looking to see if an arrest had been made. Unable to bear the not knowing, I called one of the detectives. He said that two of the men from our list were still under suspicion. He wouldn't say who they were. When I called again two months later he told me he believed one of them was the murderer, but that there wasn't enough evidence to charge him. That happened 19 years ago. Men I would normally have dated were at that party. We all moved in the same circles. Yet when they called to ask me out I backed away. There were a few exceptions: one man who I knew had been on another continent when the murder occurred. And a couple of others I felt drawn to-so I prevailed upon that detective to check the files and say yes or no. But how many times can you call the police to ask if a guy you'd like to date was one of the two prime suspects in a murder? Besides, the case got filed, the detective transferred, and I exercised a form of selective amnesia. Do you remember the games from childhood where you drew a circle in the dirt or on the sidewalk, called it home, then stepped inside, where you were safe? I believe we women are in a constant process of drawing and redrawing that circle, having made one more adjustment in our lifestyles in the hope of coming home safe. Whether we admit it or not we know that little more than fate keeps us from becoming one of the statistics. We adopt ever more complex maneuvers, all the while clinging to the belief that what we're doing is perfectly normal behavior and not the well-honed survival tactics of a group under siege. Nor do we stop to consider freedoms we lose as part of the escalating price of safety, no matter how marginal. It's horrible thinking of yourself as vulnerable, that each time you walk out your door some violent HE may be waiting. That the man you meet for dinner tonight may assume he has unlimited rights to the use of your body. That the man you know as warm, funny, and kind may one day turn around and slam his fist into your skull, throw you against a wall or down a flight of stairs. That your husband, lover, son, or brother may be a terrorist in waiting. Most of us will say that can't be true, or that it's impossible to live with that kind of suspicion hovering. We master our fear, call on reservoirs of faith, and refuse to let the doubts control us. And we pretend that nothing is amiss. We keep redrawing those circles. What we do-what I do-is keep on keeping on. I don't eat strawberry ice cream anymore.

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009