It’s a feeling many women know all too well: your heartbeat slows to a nearly undetectable rate, you suddenly become aware of every expression that flashes across your face. You don’t cry. You don’t know what to say or do. We are sometimes rendered speechless because the valley between our sisters' experience and that of our own feels too wide to shout across. Other times, we are silent because there's no distance between us at all, no space for words. When the weight finally lifts, and the words do come, we will utter one of two phrases, “I’m so sorry” or “Me too.”
Women have historically been marginalized by societies for whom we constitute the moral and creative centers, and it seems that often the identifier “woman” is characterized by struggle. The tragedy of assault, the humiliation of body shaming, the trials of mental illness, and the challenges of embodiment in a clinical sense–these experiences are set against the backdrop of a culture that systematically enforces limitations on those who carry the designation “woman” and affords them no margin of error–ever. These are the experiences we talk about when we talk about what it means to be a woman. We are said to become women when the weight of the world asserts itself upon us. This is an understandable narrative–womanhood can be challenging, but I would argue that the most meaningful transformation is neither biological nor sentimental.
I became a woman not when I was sexualized for the first time or passed-over in the classroom, not when I bled for the first time or when I stood in the mirror and hated the reflection. I became a woman the moment I looked into the eyes of a sister, a friend, a loved one, and allowed myself to be transformed by her story in spite of the fact that it was unlike my own. One becomes a woman, not when she first feels the oppressive weight of a patriarchal world, but when she claims the weight that bears down on her sister as her own.
The whispered confessions we make to one another in dormitories, on back porches, and in the more mundane spaces of daily living, forge the bonds between us that make us women. When we are confronted with struggles past, present, and future–in our homes and our civic lives–this is what will matter. This is the key to liberation, and it will be intersectional.
Unless my heart can be broken for my hijabi sister when she feels the sting of intimidation and hatred, unless her heart can be broken for me when homophobia rears its ugly head, we will find ourselves carrying the discrete cornerstones of patriarchy on our own, and those contingent burdens have always proven too great to bear alone. How often have we asked ourselves the questions, “How can she be a woman and not a feminist? How can a woman hold such anti-woman views?” The answer, I suspect, lies in a different question altogether–can one be a woman at all if she is complicit in the destruction of her sister?
Now, we know none of us created this system of global patriarchy, but we damn sure live in it. With this in mind, womanhood takes on an existential meaning, and it comes with a moral imperative. This concept finds its full expression in Audre Lorde’s 1979 speech The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The woman who turns a blind eye to the struggle of her sister seeks to negate a struggle within herself, and it never works. Community, intersection, and reconciliation are the tools we must wield in the destruction of this most vicious house today.
It is in this spirit of community that, precisely one year ago, myself, along with three of my closest friends–Jaclyn Coleman, Savannah Johnson, and Christi Sidwell–set out to publish the stories of women, men, and non-binary persons whose experiences are all too often overlooked. We decided to publish these words in the form of a physical broadside–an 11x17 inch sheet of paper much like a newspaper or old union pamphlet. In a rare moment of cognitive simplicity, we decided to call the project “Broadside” and organized our efforts around four guiding principles: sincerity, affirmation, harmlessness, and voice. Our vision was to proliferate the stories of our friends and neighbors in such a way that was accessible and undeniable. We wanted to translate the experience of the wine-induced confession or dormitory revelation to the page, and we decided to call this process “narrative feminism.”
Broadside is a free publication, and patrons can choose to pick up a copy or not, but by all accounts, once one lands in the hands of a reader, it is sure to be consumed in its entirety. We print Broadside in Nashville, TN and distribute it in coffee shops and bookstores throughout the city and in New York State. Each issue is released in a limited run and every copy is hand-numbered. To date, we have published 12 issues, and the first issue of our second volume will be released later this week. Within our first year, we have heard from survivors across the spectrum of sexual abuse and trauma, we have published visual art challenging unrealistic and harmful standards of beauty, we have heard from Muslim women about the intersections of imperialism, mental health, and feminism, and we have printed many a giggle-inducing work of satire. I often walk away from an issue with warring opinions about what I just read crackling in my mind, and it’s always a sign that something has gone right.
The work of forging community around questions of womanhood and feminism is not easy. The painful truths of racism, sexism, violence, transphobia, xenophobia, and ableism (to name a few) are difficult to internalize and interrogate. It can be excruciating when we see our siblings suffer and when we read their testimony, but concealment is not an option. It never was.