and other words of female empowerment
The book “No and other words of female empowerment” is a collection of poems by Sheryl Steinem. The poems are short, powerful pieces that cover a variety of topics, from opinion pieces to political jabs. The book is thin, with only a little over 100 pages, each with its own poem. The book is divided into five chapters, titled “I’m Not Finished,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Be Quiet,” “My Voice Matters,” and, of course, “No.”
Every chapter has a common theme linking the poems, each having their own importance and message. As difficult as it was, I chose one poem from each chapter that highlights key issues we face every day.
Before getting into the chapters themselves, I want to start with this poem that I feel encompasses the essence of the whole book:
We are so lucky
To live in a time
Where the contributions
Of those who came before us
Toward a better future
Have made our daily lives
Than if we were stood
In the same footprints
They occupied long ago.
It is our turn
That the fight is not over
And the fate
Of the next generations
Hangs on what we do in our lifetimes.
Chapter one is filled with a lot of awesome pieces, but one that really caught my eye from the get-go reads as follows:
It’s important not to normalize it
When little boys
Are disgusted by periods.
Teach them that it
Is a natural bodily process
And totally normal.
Every person with a uterus has had to deal with periods and the stigma that comes with it. Girls are conditioned from a young age to keep their personal pains to themselves, and boys are conditioned to think that periods make someone dirty and untouchable.
After reading this particular piece, I couldn’t help but think of Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate.” Though it isn’t a poem, it does have a lot of the same qualities as a poem. For example, the sentences read quickly, and the power behind each word warrants being read more than once.
Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (“You have to give blood to take blood”), occupy high political office (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priests, ministers, God Himself (“He gave this blood for our sins”), or rabbis (“Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean”).
This excerpt has stuck with me ever since I read it for the first time a few years ago. If men were to get periods like women, they surely would try to make it so that it was seen as something innately masculine, therefore something to honor and respect. Steinem captures the difference in how men would view menstruation if it happened to them versus how they view it now—something that should be kept to yourself, not talked about, taboo.
One problem that I feel not enough people truly recognize and actively fight against is how women are constantly pitted against each other. We are told that we need to be the skinniest, the prettiest, the nicest, and the smartest, but not smarter than our male partner. We are told all this by society; by men who gaze at us and wonder what we look like with our clothes off. Too often, women wish that gaze were on them, and not on the next woman. What we forget is that another woman’s beauty does not take away from our own. All women are strong women. All women are beautiful women.
With this in mind as I was reading through “No,” I had to make note of the following poem:
Against each other.
We can have
Multiple successful women
At a time, you know
Without making them compete
We would never
This poem so wonderfully mirrors Rupi Kaur’s following poem:
It’s easy to forget that when women do well they are paving the way for other women to succeed. Tearing each other down out of jealousy leads other people to believe they can do the same.
Feminism wouldn’t be where it is today without the accomplishments of women of color. There have been so many women of color who pioneered movements that have benefitted the masses, and then have largely been forgotten—swallowed up in time and overshadowed by the accomplishments of others. In “Be Quiet,” there is a poem that reads:
Such a beautiful depth
Born of experiences
Made of gold.
Audre Lorde is just one person that comes to mind when I think of successful women who have made history. Her many achievements as a writer have cemented her as one of the most accomplished writers in modern history. The following poem by Lorde is one of my favorites.
by Audre Lorde
Since Naturally Black is Naturally Beautiful
I must be proud
Who always was a trifle
And plain, though proud,
Now I’ve given up pomades
Having spent the summer sunning
And feeling naturally free
(if I die of skin cancer
oh well – one less
black and beautiful me)
Yet no agency spends millions
To prevent my summer tanning
And who trembles nightly
With the fear of their lily cities being swallowed
By a summer ocean of naturally wooly hair?
But I’ve bought my can of
Natural Hair Spray
Made and marketed in Watts
Still thinking more
Proud beautiful Black women
Could better make and use
It’s extremely important for me to learn new perspectives. As a straight, white, cis female that comes from a financially stable middle class family, I haven’t known hardship in ways that others have. Lorde does a great job of giving the reader an insight into what it means to be black, finding beauty in being who you are, and how many white people respond to it.
In addition to the poems in “No” about supporting the art of minorities, Steinem takes the stance that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights, and if you don’t agree, you simply cannot call yourself a feminist. She also calls out the fact that America needs to pay for the injustices that we, as a nation, have profited off of for years.
Why do men and women see sex differently? Men often times see sex as an accomplishment—an award for being a man, a masculine conquest. Women, though, are taught to see sex as a shameful act. This idea goes hand in hand with what virginity means in society. For one, why in society is virginity something that men want to lose and women try to hold onto? What does it mean for men to be virgins versus women, and why do institutions continue to push men to be proud of having sex while women are meant to feel badly about it? Men see their “body count” as something to celebrate, whereas women are conditioned to act as though sex is sacred and should only be done sometimes with someone special. Steinem makes a point to call out this unfair double standard in the following poem:
Fuck the idea
Is some kind
Of dirty act.
It should be free
It should be held up
As our most beautiful art form
And not held back
As some kind of wicked necessity.
Sex is a beautiful thing.
In Audre Lorde’s poem “Recreation,” she compares sex to writing. In both acts, something is being created—hence the double meaning of the name. The author is giving and taking, and so is her lover.
it is easier to work
after our bodies
paper and pen
neither care nor profit
whether we write or not
but as your body moves
under my hands
charged and waiting
we cut the leash
you create me against your thighs
hilly with images
moving through our word countries
writes into your flesh
you make of me.
Touching you I catch midnight
as moon fires set in my throat
I love you flesh into blossom
I made you
and take you made
Finally, there is one poem that reads like a statement that I feel is powerful and not stated enough by the media and those in power:
That we are led
By a president
Who is a sexual abuser.
It’s so refreshing to read those words on paper in a published book. Tweets and Facebook posts aren’t enough to make a change. They’re both great platforms for spreading news and sharing opinions, but they don’t write laws.
Currently, a man who has multiple investigations into his abusive sexual history runs the most powerful country in the free world. I found that my research into written poetry couldn’t do justice to the emotion that needs to be put behind a conversation about this topic. That’s why I chose to include Halsey’s slam poem that she read at New York’s Women’s March this year.
Sharing stories of abuse isn’t easy for anyone. Halsey’s intense recollection of the things that happened to her since was young is a painful reminder that sexual abuse is all too common.
It was difficult for me to highlight just one poem in each chapter because there we so many that fit exactly what I wanted to convey in this piece. The common theme in every chapter is that women aren’t here for anyone’s games. We want to be heard, appreciated, and recognized for our accomplishments no matter where we’re from or what we’ve experienced.
One thing that I appreciated from Steinem’s work is that she is unapologetically angry. She curses and gets mad and yells on paper throughout the book, and that is truly refreshing. Women can no longer stay silent and passive when it comes to feminist issues—because when women are quiet, we get walked on and taken advantage of. We should all take notes from her—let’s get angry!
Steinem said it best herself on the back cover of the book:
The time for peace is over. The time for toleration of the imposition of ancient male ideals is over. This will be the great turning point of all human history, when we come together as one to burn down all remaining vestiges of the patriarchy.
This is an incitement to war. An incitement to violent, full-force war; to a conflict with no holds barred and no prisoners taken. This is our manifesto—our battle cry, our song of war. The time for peace is over. It’s time for an all-out revolution. It’s time to say “No” to the status quo, and not stop until we burn down all traces of the patriarchy.