My Scarlet Letter

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“Giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

A list of reasons for admission into a women’s asylum in 1864 include “ill treatment by husband,” “excessive sexual abuse,” (a little is ok I guess) “desertion by husband,” and “desertion of husband.” When men misbehave, women pay the price. A woman with the misfortune of marrying (or being married off to) an abusive man might be committed regardless of her response to her situation: neither enduring the abuse, nor leaving, nor waiting for him to leave would spare her. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The list of reasons women are killed in “honor killings” include refusing an arranged marriage, refusing marriage in general, and getting raped. When men misbehave, women pay the price. A woman in a country that practices “honor killings” must sometimes choose between marrying an abusive man or being killed by one, if a rapist doesn’t seal her fate first.

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 orders a man who rapes a virgin to marry her. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 calls for the stoning of a woman who has been raped. A woman who had been raped could endure more of the same for the rest of her life, or die. When men misbehave, women pay the price.

A list of reasons that women were suspected of witchcraft in 17th century Salem and elsewhere included getting raped, having too many or too few children (as if women, rather than men, negotiated the boundaries of sex and reproduction), being poor (as if women, rather than men, held financial power), not being poor enough, and being married to someone too wealthy. When men misbehave, women pay the price.

The number of men who have murdered women who have rejected their advances, or who have murdered other people when women have rejected their advances, or who have planned assasinations because women rejected their advances, are too numerous to mention.

There have always been lots and lots of cases where the choices of women have been constrained by mens’ commitment to sabotaging us, especially to cover their own crimes.

The Scarlet Letter, the subtitle of which is “a romance,” is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s objection to the Puritans’ unbalanced treatment of women. It’s thought to have been based on an actual accused witch named Mary Bailey Beadle. In this novel, a big, fat, red “A” on the front of Hester Prynne’s frock is meant to immediately and clearly label her a sinner, and one of a uniquely female nature, no discussion, end of story.

Rather like the word “TERF.”

It’s meant to make a “general symbol” of its wearer, a safe outlet for the misogyny of today’s new brand of preachers and moralists. The rednecks I grew up with would have called it making an “object lesson” out of you (and said it in a threatening tone of voice).

Here are some more reasons people were accused of witchcraft: being female (yes, hi!), being middle-aged (yep), and not being heterosexual (that’s me, too).

Here are some reasons for being accused of being a TERF: being female (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9), being middle-aged (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9), and not being heterosexual (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9).

Here are the words for this: Sexism. Ageism. Homophobia.

This is an age-old game, folks, no matter what newfangled language it’s dressed up in.

In retrospect, I was never going to come out of my marriage unstigmatized, no matter what I chose to do. My husband had an epic personal crisis that left his life in chaos, and as a female, much less a middle-aged, non-heterosexual one, I was going to pay. And no one pays more dearly, it seems, than the female intimate partner.

I could have stayed, and lived forever in a sexless, non-communicative, unaffectionate marriage in which I was expected to trade all my prior interests, individually and as a couple, for the duty to stand and applaud for him cheerfully and frequently as he aggressively undermined our marriage.

Or could have left and been called a TERF.

I just mistakenly thought I had myself a Nigel, I guess.

Christine Benvenuto is a religious, Jewish woman with no known ties to feminism, radical or otherwise. When her husband abandoned her and her children in pursuit of a new life as a woman, and she wrote about it, she was censored, smeared on Facebook by her ex (sounds familiar; where do they get their script?) and called a transphobe. Her writing about her ex-husband wasn’t particularly critical, focusing instead on her difficulty moving on and raising her children after her divorce.

But TERF doesn’t mean trans-exclusionary radical feminist. TERF means “made a male-to-female transgender person unhappy” in any way, shape or form, including and perhaps especially by discontinuing a relationship with them.

It doesn’t matter that I was supportive, that I led the charge on pronoun use, that I stayed up countless hours soothing my ex through nightly sobbing fits, that I bought him clothes and manicures, that I showed up to transgender events with him, that I continued to try to be his friend after the divorce. The only thing that matters is that in his mind, I crossed him.

Here’s another woman who was called a TERF for expressing concerns when her husband of 33 years came out as transgender. Reddit and Tumblr and Facebook are full of more examples, both from the accusing and the accused.

But “the scarlet letter had not done its office,” writes Hawthorne, for Prynne simply rejected her duty to be ashamed and held her head high, and the town came to forget her crime and to respect her.

Maybe because it wasn’t really all that much of a crime.

And to my surprise, that’s kind of what has happened to me. It turns out that despite all the hype, educated, thoughtful people who aren’t distracted by a personal stake in gender dysphoria do not give a rat’s ass about this sexist smear campaign against women and feminists.

It turns out that much like other witch hunts, this one holds cachet mainly with white heterosexual males and a few of their “not-like-the-other-girls” male-worshiping female friends.

Interestingly, it seems Hester Prynne’s ordeal made her into a separatist. Hawthorne must not have had much hope for society:

“Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood…

As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position.”

I am not afraid. And it’s kind of great. And it’s caused some very positive changes in my life.

And I am not turning my back on women.

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