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Helen Aarli: 2nd Wave Feminist and Pioneer of Chicago Anti-Rape Movement

3 Aug

Saturday night I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with 85-year-old Helen Aarli, a pioneer in the anti-rape movement circa 1970 and a true inspiration!

Helen Aarli (Photo from

Helen invited my girlfriend Amy and me to her apartment to talk about feminism. When we arrived, she hugged us warmly and welcomed us in to her home. Our refreshing summer meal consisted of tuna salad, quinoa, tossed salad and spicy corn bread. “I subscribe to Cooking Light,” Helen told us, “And I try to make a new recipe each week. I play games with myself like that.” Helen has more energy than many adults half her age, which I’m guessing has something to do with her extreme positivity and zest for life. Although long retired, she keeps busy with projects like hosting and producing a show on public television called “Senior Beat”, engaging in political activism, and learning all she can about topics that interest her. (Her current curiosity is memory and Alzheimer’s.)

Helen co-hosting Senior Beat with guest Tammy Baldwin!

Helen, who has two masters degrees and was an inter-generational communication program director, kicked off discussion with questions about the . (The Third Wave refers to the current generation of feminists. The refers to the feminists behind the “Women’s Liberation” movement which we think of as happening mainly from the late 60′s through the early 70′s. Activists from the Second Wave helped pass (1973), protecting a woman’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive health, as well as which protects women’s rights in education. They also pioneered the , making important institutional changes, teaching the first women’s self-defense courses and coining the phrase “No means no.”) I told Helen that my generation was born out of the 80′s in which there was a severe backlash against feminism that is still felt today, so many young women hesitate to even identify themselves as feminists. Recently, what many are calling the “War on Women” has energized young activists.

Rally supporting Planned Parenthood

I was surprised that Helen had not yet heard of Slutwalks, and I was excited to tell her the story. When I reached the punch line– that thousands of women have taken to the streets in protest of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, some scantily clad and almost all holding clever signs, in Slutwalks all over the world– she laughed and laughed! Her eyes sparkled and she exclaimed, “Oh! To throw it in their faces!” Her demeanor suggested that she thought the whole thing to be cute, fun, and perfectly appropriate for the issue at hand. She immediately connected the concept to when she first heard her gay friends starting to reclaim the word “queer”, which one could easily argue was as strongly associated with violence as the word “slut”. She remembered being shocked also by the use of the upside-down pink triangle to show safe spaces for LGBT people,

Do we remember today where this triangle came from?

because as a Jewish woman, she of course knew that it was to identify homosexuals for persecution. As someone who has been educated to conclude that we can’t reclaim hateful words, I was secretly embarrassed to be reminded that “queer”, a term I use freely to describe myself as a bisexual woman and to generalize about the LGBT community when my tongue tires of acronyms, was and still is used as a homophobic slur. As someone who always thinks she is right, I started to think I should hang out with much older people much more often.

Helen asked what my issue was, and I told her it was sexual assault prevention. She asked about how things were going in that field and I told her I didn’t think all that much had changed. Her face darkened and she said, “I’m very disappointed to hear that.” I asked her what her issue was. “It was the Anti-Rape Movement.” I was immediately struck both with a deep sense of humility and a feeling that I had just put my foot in my mouth. Oops.

My girlfriend brought this magnet as a gift for Helen but of course she already had one from her daughter on her fridge!

Helen told the story of her participation in the movement in Chicago, from when she lead consciousness-raising groups for self-defined “older women” (she was in her early 40′s at the time) to when she saw a passionate anti-rape speaker smash a misogynist record over her knee on stage and felt she had found her issue. Together with a group of other activist housewives, they hit the ground running. She and her sisters used space in a church to staff a rape crisis line. Two women always worked together, and in the snowy winters they would wait to make sure that both of their cars would start before leaving, in order not to leave the other woman stranded alone at night.

Helen's favorite 2nd Wave poster by her friend Estelle Carol of the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective which distributed thousands of feminist posters world-wide.

They decided that the institutions that needed to change were 1) the hospitals, 2) the police and 3) the courts. One Chicago hospital refused even to admit rape victims. Helen let the hospital’s name slip to the press and they changed their policy the next day. The activists (who were viewed by professionals as “just housewives”) took it upon themselves to go into the hospitals and train staff on compassionate care, insisting that a woman be present in the room rather than having only a male doctor who launched into an internal exam on a traumatized patient. They also trained hospital staff in collecting physical evidence to be used in trials.

I told Helen about the program used in Wisconsin hospitals as well as many other states and she was pleased to hear what a long way care for rape victims has come.

The Chicago Police were the toughest and scariest crowd she had to address. She told us of the first time that they went to the sexual assault department and she saw that over the department sign they had hung a gigantic pair of pink ladies’ bloomers. Tears came to her eyes as she recounted the memory. “It was a big joke to them,” she said. When they returned with an undercover investigative reporter, they had taken the panties down. She described the police as extremely insensitive to the issue. Once she came in with a victim as an advocate (although the police assumed she was “just the mother”) and the officer said, “If you’ve been raped, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” She asked the police, “Isn’t it true that you have a manual that instructs police, when dealing with a rape victim, to first question whether the rape actually occurred?” The officer replied, “There is no such manual.” As she was leaving, someone who worked behind the scenes pulled Helen aside and said, “That manual he just said doesn’t exist? Here is a copy.” The next time she brought it up in front of the press and the police denied the manual’s existence, she pulled it out. “Oh, they did not like me very much,” she said seriously. “I was afraid of them.” A friend of hers had warned her that the police would probably see it as a big joke to rape the women who came in to the station as advocates.

Although I think the police still have some ways to go, I was happy to tell her about who works closely with the and trains law enforcement on how to sensitively interview victims and follow up with investigation of the perpetrators (rather than the victims).

When dealing with the legal system, Helen and her fellow feminists attempted to train lawyers in how to address rape cases with sensitivity. When speaking with one lawyer, she said, “He asked, ‘Are you a lawyer?’ and I said ‘No.’ I thought he was going to hit me! Who was I, a woman, who was not even a lawyer, to tell him how to do his job?” She remembered in one case, an African-American woman named Paulette who “had dared to go into a bar alone to dance and have fun” was gang-raped by several men in the bar. When the case was brought to court, the judge said, “Boys will be boys.” Helen stood up, shocked, from her seat and was immediately surrounded by security who instructed her to sit down or be removed from the courtroom. Helen told this story to TV host Lee Philips who was inspired to make the film The Rape of Paulette.

Helen and the film Paulette's story inspired are featured in this book

Another time, a group of 7 African-American women told Helen they wanted to speak with her. She went to meet with them and, one by one, they each recounted their experiences of rape. (Trigger warning) They told her that one of the women wasn’t there to tell her story herself. She was at a bus stop holding her baby, and the attacker raped her at knife point in front of her baby and then slit her throat, leaving her for dead. Fearing for her life, she fled with her baby. One of the women could not bear to tell her husband what had happened to her, but she walked her daughter to school every day afterwards. They were all brought together by something they had in common: they were all raped by the same man. They knew his identity, but he kept getting off on mistaken identity when he was brought to court. There was a law that did not allow multiple charges to be brought against the same person and Helen asked the courts, “Can’t you get creative and find a way around that?” She shook her head, “They did not like me for saying that!”

Helen and her group called themselves Chicago Legal Action for Women, or CLAW. One woman suggested they should make their logo a big claw, but they decided to downplay it instead. “Like we didn’t know,” Helen laughed, “Like we were just innocent little housewives.” Together they wrote and printed a comprehensive handbook for lay advocates. “I don’t know,” Helen shrugged, “We just figured we were experts based on our experience on the ground. We just thought we could do it.” So they did.

Helen with CLAW Handbook! How cool is she??!

Helen showed me the materials she had saved from that time, including  business cards from the rape crisis line they staffed, the CLAW handbook and brochures, a 1971 “Stop Rape” handbook that included (of particular interest to me) an article called “Fighting Back” by Cate Stadelman, which included some of the earliest self-defense tips for women, and– I almost died when I saw this– the second printing of Our Bodies Our Selves by The Boston Women’s Health Collective. 35 cents. It was a thick pamphlet. I asked her, “Did they have any idea then how big these things would become?” Helen shook her head, smiling, “Oh I don’t think so.”

Second Wave Literature, probably printed with mimeograph (never seen one myself!)

Thinking back on my idiotic statement from earlier in the night that things had not changed, I told Helen, “You know, I think what happened is that the institutions changed, but the culture has not changed very much.” I cited statistics that show the majority of college-aged men (84%) who commit rape do not identify their actions as rape and the majority of college-aged women (88%) who are raped do not recognize themselves as victims. “Somehow,” I told her, “People still don’t get the most basic message of ‘No means no’.” She was very interested and surprised to hear that. I guess I’m surprised too.

*NOTE: Although I’ve written this based on Helen’s stories and experiences as an individual, she would not want to be viewed as a “one-woman wonder.” “We prided ourselves on being made up of collectives,” she said. “Part of second wave feminism was ‘shared leadership’ as opposed to the male model of the one person in charge and the rest somehow subordinate.” I hope my readers will recognize that sisterhood fueled feminist collective actions during the 2nd wave, and Helen was one of many who worked to create changes we benefit from today.

Men Who Want To Protect Women

15 Jun

Most fathers, brothers, boyfriends and more are good men who respect and care about the women and girls in their lives. Many of these men feel protective of these women and girls, and I can understand why. The world is not a very good place for women in a lot of ways. 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

I’m concerned, however, that some men may have some poorly informed ideas about how to best support the safety, comfort and happiness of the women and girls they love.

Threatening, intimidating or fighting bad people doesn’t help women.

Often it’s just a joke, but sometimes it’s more serious. The sentiment of “If anyone messes with you I’ll mess him up!” is not only misguided, but could cause more harm than good.

1) Telling a woman that she essentially needs a bodyguard sends her the message that she is a victim who can’t take care of herself and is deeply disempowering, not to mention insulting.

2) Violence and posturing are the problems here, not the solutions.

3) Often the best way to stand up for someone is to help them stand up for themselves. My mother recently moved to Texas and several women there told her, “Oh I don’t need to learn self defense– my husband has a gun!” Her response: “Where is your husband right now?”

Instead of saying, “I’ll protect you,” try things like, “I”ll stand by you if you need to tell that guy off” and “No, you’re not overreacting. He has no right to treat you like that.”

Warning women or girls to distrust men or to live in fear detracts from their quality of life.

Women don’t need to change how we dress or where we go in order to protect ourselves. Over 90% of violent crime is committed by men. Those men are the ones who need to change their behavior.

Rather than warning women or girls “what guys are like” or “how some guys think”, men who care about women should spend that time and effort talking to other men about how to respect women and how not to commit sexual violence.

Women: Expecting the men in your life to protect you is dangerous for everyone involved.

While women and children are most often the victims of sexual assault, men are much more often victims of violence in general. Women are taught to avoid conflict in our society, while men are taught that “a real man doesn’t back down from a fight.” That’s how a lot of men get hurt.

I would not want or expect any man in my life to take a punch for me, any more than I would want to take a punch myself. I write mainly about keeping women safe, but honestly one of the biggest social lessons a man can learn to keep himself safe is to avoid conflict. Repeat after me: “Hey man, I don’t want to fight.”

Tips for everyone to protect your loved ones:

-Don’t laugh at sexist, hateful or. If you can, confront the joker about why it’s not funny.

-If someone you know feels unsafe, don’t brush off their feelings. Encourage them to get out of that situation in their own way.

-Understand the warning signs of and .

-Recognize that nobody “asks for it” when they are raped or sexually assaulted. , including children.

-Empower your loved ones. Don’t let them underestimate themselves or put themselves down. Build their confidence by believing in them even when they don’t believe in themselves.

SlutWalk Chicago Highlights

7 Jun

The Women’s Movement is BACK, baby! What an exciting day.

For those of you who have not yet heard about SlutWalk events popping up all over the world, these are marches protesting sexual violence and particularly the use of slut-shaming and victim blaming to justify sexual violence, rather than holding perpetrators accountable. Yes, there has been some controversy. See my previous post or Jessica Valenti’s wonderful Washington Post for more information on the debate around SlutWalk. See this for more on the ideology behind the Chicago event.

Ok, so while the weather reports warned of thunderstorms, thousands of protesters of all ages, races, body-types, backgrounds and genders gathered in Thompson Plaza in Chicago on Saturday, June 4 to march against sexual violence, against victim blaming, against slut-shaming and FOR women’s rights. The weather stayed sunny– and HOT– and it made me wish I was as scantily clad as some of the other activists around me. Yes, some were in lingerie, bikinis, and short skirts– people were dressed in all different ways, including at least one woman who marched in a hijab. I wore jeans (a very sweaty mistake) and a t-shirt reading “ASKING is the first thing I do with my mouth”. Others used bare skin as their message board to the world, writing things like, “This is not an invitation to rape me” or, more simply:

This woman was very nice. We chatted about sunscreen after the march.

Here are some things that I found really exciting about SlutWalk Chicago:

1) Holy MEN, Batman! There were tons of them, and they led cheers in booming voices that went a little something like this: “Gay, Straight, Black, White! All unite for women’s rights!” Heart-warming.

2) We ran into the Avon Walk For The Cure and sisterly love abounded!

We loved each other! Sisterhood!!

3) There were kids at the march.

Her sister's sign read, "I DARE U TO CALL ME ONE."

4) I wish I had caught this on video: A bus driver saw us, read our signs, beeped a funky rhythm and fist-pump danced at us until her light turned green. We fist-pumped right  back. It was awesome.

5) Most polite protestors ever. Sample conversations:

“Oh, excuse me! I didn’t mean to invade your space!” “You’re fine!” *warm smiles*

“May I take your photo? I love your signs!” “Sure!” “Thank you!” “You’re welcome!”

Speaking of signs, there were some great ones! I give you the beautiful, strong messengers of SlutWalk:

Blurry but I love it: "Just because I have BIG TITS doesn't mean I want to FUCK YOU!" Say it, sister!

Chanting: "Hey hey! Ho ho! Sexual violence has got to go!"

Powerful. "Nobody asked me what my rapist wore." This sign struck me the most deeply.

Haha I LOVE this one! Summing up the sex-positive messaging in SlutWalk.

Yeah, we've had ENOUGH!

No more victim blaming!

After the march we heard speakers, slam poets, and even a (hilarious) ! (My frequent readers know how I love female comedians…)

Other highlights of the speeches, for me, were from the Chicago Metro YWCA with her “chat-sy about consent” which we could start practicing now “or, you know, forevs” as well as an organizer (whose name I didn’t catch- did you? Let me know!) from the . Emily’s talk was empowering, silly and sexy as she discussed my favorite topic: consent! From SWOP, I learned a lot about how sex workers face additional challenges from law enforcement in reporting rape, and also that many cities have or are considering creating laws that would allow law enforcement to assume a person was soliciting based solely on what she is wearing and where she is standing. Alarming!

I was too tired to attend the after party and after-after-party, so I got a Slurpie (7-11s everywhere in Chicago!) and took a nap. It was a sexy fun day, and I ran into some organizers planning to bring SlutWalk to my hometown of Madison! Stay tuned for more info on that as it becomes available.

I’d love to hear your comments/questions! And remember:

“Women’s rights under attack? What do we do?


The For Colored Girls Project Takes On “Corrective Rape”

18 May

I met when I directed The Vagina Monologues last year. Like many of the amazing women involved in that show, she has continued to involve herself in activism and the arts.

When I heard about The For Colored Girls Project and their photo campaign against in South Africa and Jamaica, I had to know more!

(Corrective rape is a criminal practice, whereby homosexual individuals, both lesbian women and gay men, are raped by persons of the opposite sex, sometimes under supervision by members of their families or local communities, purportedly as a means of “curing” them of their sexual orientation. –Wikipedia)

Interview with Erika Dickerson–

ATM: What is The For Colored Girls Project and how did you get started with your campaign to end corrective rape?

ED: The For Colored Girls Project is a rotating women of color theatre ensemble. Its purpose is to showcase the medley of theatrical, musical, and dance talent of racially and/or ethnically marginalized, women-identified persons. The For Colored Girls Project’s primary objective is to provide women of color the space to respond to the world in their own way, using their own manners, gestures, and approach to language while cultivating and encouraging pro-woman/feminist/womanist attitudes, dialogues, and lifestyles via performance art. Our mission is to explore, analyze, and uncover the often-overlooked intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and disability through the mixed-medium performance art of women of color.

We work from a very specific methodology that is comprised of the following ideals: Life and the belief that women of color are inherently valuable and necessary, sisterhood, interdependency, and sustainability, unconventional art ensemble cultivation, and lastly, progressive and collective activism and pro woman standpoints.

Photo Credit: Erika Dickerson

While we are a theatre ensemble, all of the work we do deals with the intersection of oppression of women of color. While researching gender relations in South Africa (where I’ll be spending a year beginning July 2011) I chanced upon a new report about corrective rape. I was horrified and alarmed. I immediately brought this news to The For Colored Girls Project’s executive board. We scheduled a photo campaign that day and took the photos the very next day. Additionally, we wrote and recorded audio P.S.A.s in English and Spanish to inform not only our campus and Madison community, but our global community. Activism is a crucial component to the Project, both on an off stage.

Photo Credit: Erika Dickerson

ATM: What actions have you taken so far, and what do you plan for the future?

ED: Thus far we have begun the photo campaign (which is ongoing and open to the public to join) and written and recorded audio PSAs. We would like to record a video P.S.A., widen participation in the photo campaign, and join forces with organizations in Jamaica and South Africa who are combating this gendered criminal practice.

ATM: Why is this issue important to you?

ED:Combating corrective rape is important to The For Colored Girls Project for a number of reasons. Firstly, danger to women anywhere is danger to women everywhere. Furthermore, corrective rape is not only a hate crime, but a gendered hate crime that the government has not yet intervened on behalf of the victims.  Furthermore, the intersection of race, sex, and in most cases class is one that we encounter daily. Corrective rape is just another context we just fight against. Additionally, there are members of the Project who are LGBTQI identified. Also, I’ll be spending a year in South Africa, the leader in corrective rape cases. We make it our mission to combat issues that directly affect the identities and safety of our members.

Photo credit: Erika Dickerson

ATM: What is your take on activism/making a difference on international issues?

ED: It is important to never undermine the ability of other countries to solve their own problems. The For Colored Girls Project, while deeply invested in our campaign against corrective rape, make it our business to be of assistancein international dilemmas and not take over the issues. Teamwork is important. It is important to get involved globally, but do so with caution, respectability, and sensitivity.

Photo credit: Erika Dickerson

ATM: What can we do to help?

ED: Corrective rape is becoming a gendered criminal offense in South Africa and Jamaica. Help us save our sisters. Join The For Colored Girls Photo Campaign against corrective rape and sign the petition! To Sign the Petition, Click Here:

To Listen to The For Colored Girls Project’s audio PSA, visit:

To become a part of The For Colored Girls Project’s Photo Campaign and/or to find out more about the FCG Project’s initiatives, email us at

Clothing and Victim-Blaming

28 Mar

In response to recent news about the Texas gang rape of an 11-year-old girl and , Florida state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo thinks a .

Is this 2011? These are the moments that remind us that if don’t have a movement to carry us forward, we will slide backward.

It blows my mind that anyone could look at the gang rape of a child and say, “Well look at how she was dressed– she was asking for it.” What shocks me even more is to hear this kind of oppressive rhetoric from a woman.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In our society women are allowed to be the virgin, the wife/mother or the whore. Unfortunately, we women have taken on the responsibility in many cases of enforcing these narrow roles. So often it is fellow women making remarks about how a woman chooses to dress, and we learn how to do this to one another at a young age. At a recent training I attended, a sexual assault prevention educator described her experience teaching middle and high schoolers. She said more often than not it was the girls who argued that some girls are “asking for it” when they dress like a “hoochie.” Her response?

“Do you really think anyone gets dressed to go out, looks in the mirror and says to herself, ‘Ooh yeah! I’m going go be a rape victim tonight!’?”

The other reason women seem to look down upon one another for dressing or presenting themselves in a “sexy” way is jealousy. From my point of view, there is plenty of sexiness for all of us. Another woman being sexy doesn’t make me or you or any other woman any less sexy. Sex as power for women is for another conversation, but for now let’s just think about sisterhood. Let’s support one another, no matter what we are wearing.

Signing off, I couldn’t help but to think of this piece from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues:

Body Language And Consent

23 Mar

Thomas from wrote an excellent explaining new research that demonstrates that a non-verbal no is as clear as a verbal no.

This is particularly important when we consider the trauma response to sexual assault. An assault triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. I know I talk a lot about fighting, as a martial arts instructor, but the reality is that in that moment of intense stress, many victims freeze. Just because someone does not fight back does not mean that they gave consent. It also does not mean they deserved to be assaulted or were responsible for the attack in any way. Yet, in the few rape cases that go to trial, the most common defense is to assert that the encounter was consensual. This defense often focuses on what the victim did not do (ex. fight back, say no clearly or loudly or believably enough, etc.). Unfortunately, what they did do (in terms of non-verbal communication) would be hard to recreate in court. This new research is just one more piece of evidence supporting the fact that victims should be believed and that creepers know exactly what they are doing.

Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy School

10 Mar

I never thought I’d be going back to school so soon…

Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault () hosted the Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy School (SAVAS) this week. I was the only person in attendance who did not work directly with a sexual assault service provider or domestic violence shelter, and I learned a LOT.

This is just a short post with a simple message:

If you or someone you know has been the victim of a sexual assault, please contact your local . No matter how long ago the assault happened, no matter who you are (1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted by the age of 18), these agencies are here to help you. The people who do this work are so compassionate and knowledgeable, and they can connect you to any resources you may need. Even if you think your experience is “not a big deal,” you deserve to be heard.

I’ve really been blown away by the depth of expertise and caring of the women and I met this week. Check back frequently in the following weeks for some posts inspired by this training!

Rape? Or Rape-ish?

4 Feb

Last week women’s rights activists rose up in firm opposition of a as part of the No Taxpayer Money for Abortion bill. The overwhelming response was effective in that the from the bill.

The issue in short:

The bill limited federal funding for abortion to victims of “forcible rape” or incest, or cases in which the mother’s health was in immediate danger.

Why this is a big deal:

The term is unclear, but suggests that certain kinds of rape– statutory rape, rape of a person with a cognitive disability, drug or alcohol facilitated rape, or many instances of date rape– don’t really count.


One revealed that only 12% of undergraduate students whose experiences fit the legal definitions of rape identified themselves as rape victims. The same study showed that 84% of college aged men whose actions would be legally classified as rape said what they did was “definitely not rape”.

While rape may have a variety of legal definitions, I use ‘s definition in my classes because I find it to be the most clear:

Rape: Vaginal, oral or anal penetration without consent. This can be with a penis, finger or other objects.

Consent*: A clear and freely given yes, not the absence of a no.

*If a person is under 18, mentally handicapped, or intoxicated (with alcohol and/or other drugs) beyond a certain point, they are not legally able to give consent to sex.

There is no gray area with rape. No matter the circumstances, it is defined primarily by a lack of consent.

I’ve been so upset about this issue, and I know others find it upsetting as well. To leave you on a lighter note, I’ll share this link to the commentary by one of my favorite feminists, .


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