Forty-Nine and Still American

I’ve often thought that if I wrote a autobiography I’d call it “American Bitch.” When I was married to my first husband, an Arab, who used the term frequently, I bristled when he said it. By the time my marriage ended, I wore that label proudly.

Not to place too fine a point on the word “bitch.” but when he used it he meant a strong, willful woman, that was maybe a bit loose with her body, that owned her sexuality.

And this essay is not about that really. Not about being a bitch. Not about my marriage. But I do refer to it in the pattern of my life—the one in which I claim who I am over and over again. I feel like a piece of clay, hacking away at pieces of myself sometimes and, other times, adding big chunks to it. And one of the biggest chunks is my identity as an American. And this is something I never really thought about until I was married to an Arab, and thought about even more clearly about when I left him.

Nobody tells me how to live my life. That one thought may be the most “American” thought for a woman to own.

I’m not necessarily talking about grand issues here—the way I choose to worship, what kind of job I may have, or if I have the right to vote. Many women in this world do not have the rights we claim as American women. So much so that we don’t even think about it, do we? We just assume. And we assume that we can live how we want to within our own homes. Imagine if you could not. Hard to fathom. Yet many women in this world have no rights, even within their homes, at all.

We have the right to say no with our bodies—even in our homes—and the right to say yes to whom we want.

We can also disagree with our husbands, fathers, and governments. Openly. Try that in Saudi Arabia. Or in any number of countries—in fact, most countries. That can even mean at the dinner table if your husband says something you disagree with, you keep your mouth shut. Always.

So when I see the political environment we live in today, I have to wonder if many American women have had the occasion to reflect on what it means to be an American. We are not just the products of our fathers, the extensions of our husbands—unless that is what you want to be. And if you do, I’d like to say, well, that’s up to you—but I’ll say it with a word of warning: it will come back to bite you in the end. Don’t ever give anybody your power. Especially the power over your body, which houses your heart, your mind, and, as far as we know, your spirit.

Make no mistake, among the many things the upcoming Presidential election is about is what it means for you to be an American woman. Sit with that.

As for me, I’m happy to be an American. I’m proud of my working class roots, proud of my education, proud of my family and community. When I leave this planet, I hope I leave it a better place, even in some small way, for my daughters and your daughters. Sons, too.  I’m proud of our history, as well, the good, the bad, and the mess that we are sometimes.

But in the mean time, let’s keep rolling forward, shall we? Let’s not give up any of the rights we have fought so hard to have. At this point in American culture, do we need to discuss what rape means, for example? Don’t we know that already? Also, don’t we know what Roe v. Wade has done for not just the women in this country, but also the people that care about them? I don’t get it. It pisses me off that my body, along with the bodies of my sisters, my mothers, and my daughters, are even a part of the political discussion in America. I just want to say, “This is a personal issue, so all you guys in suits debating about this should just back off.”

But then again. I am American and take the good with the bad. I expect discourse, but long for it to move forward.

When I was an intern working for an American newspaper owned by a British media company, my editor taught me the ways in which American writers and media view the world through their American viewpoints.  She had done her own internship years ago in England. Try this sometime, listen to the BBC news, compare it to our own, and you’ll see what she means. I know I’m guilty of viewing the world in my own very American terms. I acknowledge that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and learn from other cultures—or that I think I am better than anybody else from any other part of this increasingly smaller planet.

It is simply a part of who I am.

The last time I spoke with my ex-husband, just a few years ago, was about some phone calls I was receiving from the government about his family. “I want them to stop,” I said. Of course, there was nothing he could do about it. Sometimes the past reaches out to the present in the strangest way. But during the conversation, I’m certain I heard him mutter Am-ri-can jente. American bitch.

Which only brought a huge smile to my face.


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