My Year Playing Pen Pals with the President

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When you find out that a hundred million women are missing from the planet, your heart breaks, and the knowledge it imparts becomes something you can’t ignore. At least that’s what happened to me. Turns out, though, when something is enormous it can seem invisible.

In the fall of 2009, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn released their book Half the Sky, convincingly declaring global female oppression the moral crisis of the 21st century. Citing Nobel Prize-laureate Dr. Amartya Sen’s estimation that 107 million women are missing from the planet as a consequence of murder, kidnapping, abortion, and infanticide, the authors note that that number is more than all the men killed in all the wars of the 20th century—combined.

I felt certain that Half the Sky would change the world in an instant, proving conclusively that we are at war with our own feminine selves and paying an obscenely high price for the delusion. Of course, the world moves more slowly than that, especially at the policy level. I was stunned that no one at the highest levels of government used the book to begin a popular dialogue about the direction and degree of violence aimed at women everywhere. After all, the White House had time to host a beer summit that summer. Why not a ladies tea?

In response to that silence, I felt compelled to do something that involved more than just signing an electronic petition or writing a check to an aid agency. Thus the onus for what would become “Hit Send! My year playing pen pals with the President, my one-year, one-woman email campaign to pester the president about the state of women’s well being in the world. I believe one person can make a difference, and I figured who better to bug than the most powerful person on the planet?

In the process of emailing the White House for 365 consecutive days, I found my own voice and the courage to claim it. Moreover, I had to discover, for myself, whether women (and all things feminine) were suffering as much as it seemed. The process of writing those daily emails exposed these important truths that are worth sharing:

  1. Women may be delightfully unique and independent on an individual basis, but as a group we experience a disproportionate share of violence and victimization simply because we are women. Further, the degree and direction of violence aimed at us is extraordinary and almost always perpetrated by men.
  2. Children (and those “others” labeled as feminine) also suffer disproportionately. Therefore, across multiple variables, misogyny is an identifiable phenomenon that can be recognized, quantified and prevented, if we choose to see and to act.
  3. Although men are the main practitioners of misogynistic violence, they are not immune from its effects. To wit, the states with the highest suicide rates (Montana, Nevada, Alaska, New Mexico, Wyoming) also have the highest male-female ratios, meaning men there make up more of the population than in any other parts of the country. Clearly, hating women and what is feminine is hurting all of us. Oh, yeah, all those women in America being murdered, raped and maimed are also some man’s wife, daughter, sister, mother and friend.
  4. We’re a nation of “Mad Men,” indeed. We are in thrall to a consumerist perspective that commodifies women from cradle to grave. For proof, just turn on the television, pick up a magazine or research the correlation between residential robberies and rape.


So why choose to share these truths with the president, of all people? Several reasons, actually. First, the power of the president to unite ordinary people in common cause is limited only by a lack of faith and imagination. Without the support of men in powerful positions, women the world over will continue to suffer disproportionate misery.  Other successful human-rights struggles reflect this reality, most notably the 20th-century’s civil rights movement, which owed its success to a broad coalition of support. Likewise, women can’t overcome unless men come on board.  What we need is a presidential partner in crime—someone to play Thelma to our Louise.

Moreover, if the world is waiting for women to fix the mess of misogyny alone, we’re just too weary. According to the most recent General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ mood since 1972, and five other major studies around the world, women are getting gloomier. Different experts speculate as to why, and it seems to boil down to burn-out. Women play too many roles and feel like they’re failing on all fronts.

Another compelling reason to harangue the president about the wrongs aimed at women: The World Economic Forum recently reported that closing the employment gender gap (increasing women in leadership positions) could increase U.S. GDP by up to 9 percent. That’s nothing to scoff at in the middle of the Great Recession.
 
If nothing else, writing to the president every day helped me claim my voice, while reminding the most powerful man in the world about the millions of silenced women who haunt the globe.  As Harvard professor Kimberly Theidon notes, “ . . . when survivors . . . speak about their experiences, they place a responsibility on their listeners to respond to what they have heard.”

When I talk to people about “Hit Send!,” they always want to know if the President answered back. Except for two or three automated email responses, I never heard from the White House, although I haven’t given up hope! At the very least, I had hoped to discover the Obama Administration’s deep and meaningful commitment to women’s rights. There were certainly some shining examples like the Justice Department’s $100 million allocation to prosecute and prevent violence against women, and the public rhetoric by the State Department positioning women’s well being as a central plank of U.S. foreign policy. The appointments of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were nice touches, too.
 
But still . . . something seemed to be lacking. Maybe what I was looking for—and never found—was the President’s own public, passionate voice calling for the end of feminine suffering.
Now, it looks like Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ron Suskind has uncovered the ruinous effects of minimizing female voices within the White House in his new book “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President.”  In the wake of Suskind’s reporting, perhaps we will see the President embrace a broader perspective. After all, if we can’t find hope and change in the Obama Administration, where can we?

It would be simple to say that efforts like mine don’t truly matter or that millions of missing women are easy to dismiss. I used to think that, until I listened to my own voice and took action.  What I discovered in the process was a steady chorus of voices yearning for connection and catharsis. Two such people are Chicago Tribune reporters Gary Marx and David Jackson. In 2008, 15-year-old Yasmin Acree vanished from her basement apartment in Chicago. Three years later, Marx and Jackson uncovered evidence missed by the police that may help solve the case and convict a murderer. Without their efforts, Yasmin wouldn’t have a voice or any chance at justice.

On Oct. 19, 2009, I wrote the President to ask, “Why are we looking for Osama bin Laden, when we can’t find Yasmin Acree?” Since then, President Obama has demonstrated his toughness in hunting down the world’s top terrorist, but he never answered my question. Happily, David Jackson from the Tribune did respond to an email I sent recently, saying,

“I wholeheartedly agree with your question. I believe a society’s treatment of the smallest and most destitute orphan is perhaps the single best index of its values.”

Whether you’re a cop or a reporter or just one woman with a laptop, reaching out matters. It can change your life, and it’s the only thing likely to save the planet.

Jackson says it best, “…it’s what gives meaning and purpose to life.”

Sidebar: Letters to the President
Sept. 21
Dear Mr. President,
“It costs $400 a night to book a room at NYC’s Essex House Hotel, and that’s the discounted rate.  I’m sure Andree Bejjani wasn’t planning on being stabbed in the neck and strangled to death with a pair of sweatpants when she checked in…”

Nov. 1
Dear Mr. President,
“Perverse logic is logic, nonetheless. That might explain why scores of Afghani girls dump gasoline on themselves and light a match. Self-immolation seems better than a life of forced marriage and servitude. What’s harder to understand is why it has been left to a single French nurse, Marie-Jose Brunel, to scrape together enough money to start the country’s only burn unit?”

Dec. 16
Dear Mr. President,
“I wonder what perceived insult or slight preceded Susan Powell’s death in Utah last Monday? What was it that made her husband so angry he murdered her with their two young children in the house? Josh Powell’s concocted alibi about a midnight camping trip in sub-zero temperatures, toddlers packed in the truck for good measure, isn’t the only ludicrous part of the story. There’s this: hardly any national outcry. Contrast that to further news today about understandably outraged animal-rights activists boycotting the Philadelphia Eagles over quarterback Michael Vick. It makes me wonder, are women in America afforded less accord than animals?”

Feb. 14
Dear Mr. President,
“… the equation for misogyny: misplaced masculinity + fear of the feminine = malice.
It’s an equation that no government, no bureaucracy can crack. Leadership and love can do the trick, though. On Valentine’s Day, Mr. President, please consider how your leadership can create the conditions for a more loving planet. Thank you.” 
 
March 7
Dear Mr. President,
“…this problem of murder and mayhem directed at women is so vast that only the attention of the world’s most powerful and attention-grabbing can really address it. As the president for our time, it’s time to address this misery of the ages.”

July 31
Dear Mr. President,
“If every man in Congress had to take care of a toddler by himself for a whole weekend, we’d have some very different laws.”

Aug. 7
Dear Mr. President,
“Who cares if a federal court judge says cheerleading isn’t a real sport? A 16-year-old cheerleader in Oklahoma recently tackled a shoplifter a foot taller than her and subdued him until mall security arrived. Perhaps you could consider adding Kealey Oliver to your economics team? With Christina Romer’s departure, it may be helpful to have a girl onboard who can tackle Laurence Summer’s ego.”

Aug. 21
Dear Mr. President,
“… I don’t know which is worse – not being surprised that 5-year-olds are raped or not being surprised that newspaper editors think bedbugs deserve better coverage.”

Aug. 23
Dear Mr. President.
“Misogyny, fact or fiction?
Today’s headline: “Some 200 women gang-raped near Congo UN base.”
Case closed.” 
 
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