Read an Excerpt
What Is This Book?
That Takes Ovaries! is a collection of women’s and girls’ real-life stories written in their own words. From courageous and smart to outrageous and foolhardy, these accounts capture the breadth of gutsy acts. It is a collection that embraces diversity with the voices of everyday females of many ages and cultural backgrounds, and also includes stories from a few better-known individuals and activists.
This book contains more than sixty first-person narratives representing a wide variety of audacious deeds. It includes accounts of women and girls standing up to a gun-toting gangbanger in a fast-food joint, skysurfing out of airplanes, organizing a hundred high-school girls to take on the boys who harass them, jumping off a moving train to see the Alps, defying abuse in prison, diving into the middle of an ice hockey fight, staging a Lesbian Avengers action inside a conservative think tank, earning a living as a sex writer, making a would-be burglar cry, and telling President Clinton what to do--and having him do it! The stories tell how a fourteen-year-old led a revolt in her synagogue, a poor woman rose out of destitution and prostitution, a passerby confronted a crowd of catcalling men, a public health educator founded the country’s first women-oriented sex-toy store, a peacemaker met with guerilla leaders in a war zone, a girl was the first to wear pants to elementary school in the 1960s, a reporter started a mass movement against brutality toward women in the Middle East, a Catholic schoolteacher snuck in to see the Pope . . . and dozens of other sassy, spirited acts.
That Takes Ovaries! places all its stories, from the seemingly frivolous to the obviously political, under the single umbrella of a larger philosophy: freedom and empowerment. What’s the link between the woman who boldly fights for social justice and the one who boldly has fun? Both are acting powerfully, because each is rejecting preconceived notions of how females “should” behave. Each storyteller is irreverently saying, “No way I’m accepting limits placed on me!”
How Did This Book Come About?
I had a party one night. The guests were more acquaintances than good friends. During the evening a man told a story about a woman who had done a totally brazen thing (though now I can’t remember what). When he finished, I casually remarked, “Well, that took ovaries.” The roomful of people fell silent, and then they burst out laughing, exclaiming “Great phrase!” I was surprised. I’d used the saying often enough in the past, around my buddies, and gotten back only nods, grins, or “Amen to that.” This time, using the expression with the general public, I saw its power.
This phrase is great, I thought after my guests left. Not just fun and funny, it challenged the myth of the passive female--and that made it political. Even more, the phrase reflected a key sentiment behind the latest rising wave of young feminists (the Guerilla Girls, Riot Grrrl, Third Wave, and girls’ movements), that is, the attitude of playful brazenness in the push for gender equality.
Besides all that, I concluded as I flossed before bed, “that takes ovaries” would make a great book title!
By the time I climbed under the covers, I had decided to assemble a collection of ovarian acts where women and girls take charge, and maybe even have fun. I hoped my book-to-be could add to those already coming out that are a platform for girls’ vibrant voices and a celebration of womanly resilience. I envisioned a book that would excite women and men of all ages who want to see their sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and friends leading empowered lives; mothers and fathers who care about their daughters growing up self-assured and confident; and girls eager to be a part of the growing “girl power” movement. That Takes Ovaries! would be for everyone interested in challenging a culture still wrought with inequality and double standards--everyone hungry for unabashedly powerful females.
Collecting the Stories
The day after my party I whipped up a “call for stories.” I e-mailed the notice to friends and a few listservs (e-mail discussion groups).
That Takes Ovaries!
Seeking submissions of anything YOU have *ever* done--little or big--that was gutsy or audacious. It can be playful, serious, spontaneous, calculated, smart, sexy, and/or an example of leadership. Something that when you think about it today, makes you nod your head with *pride,* or even semi-disbelief, and think, “Wow! I did that!”
Soon my e-mail in-box was full. Not only with cool, gutsy-gal submissions, but also with notes from women and men around the country saying they loved the idea of the book and asking when they could buy it. Apparently the phrase had struck a chord. When women got the e-notice, they were so tickled they promptly sent it to their girlfriends; my call for stories became a popular forwarding item. Before long I was seeing it sent back to me via a number of women’s listservs and e-newsletters to which I subscribed but had not sent the notice. In the end, three hundred stories came in and thousands of women on the Web considered, at least for a moment, their own bravery and brazenness.
What does it mean to have ovaries? If I was going to edit this book, I’d need a definition.
First, I tried to define the male equivalent: having balls. That takes balls, I surmised, is what you say about a man who has done something rather fearless, a guy we might envy for having the confidence to push the boundaries or break the rules. Actually, I thought, these were great characteristics for any person to have . . . but they’d be especially helpful to a woman. She’d need just these traits to live fully in a world that often tries to limit her. So even as I kept an open mind regarding defining ovaries, I also kept this balls description in the back of my head. Then I set about reading the stories. With each one, I gained a clearer picture of what other women thought the expression that takes ovaries meant. I merged the contributors’ ideas with my own until I reached a working definition.
Something takes ovaries, I concluded, when it is bold, gutsy, brazen, outrageous, audacious, courageous, or in-your-face. Combined, this string of words encompasses the spectrum of what having ovaries is about. (For more ovarian synonyms, see the beginning of this book. Just reading it, your inner bite-me grrl grows stronger.) Having ovaries is a catchall phrase. It includes smart, brave, altruistic acts and silly, shocking, impulsive ones. So, it seems, having ovaries isn’t that far from the definition of having balls--except that we are female.
By adapting the phrase that takes balls to that takes ovaries, we end the myth that equates only the male sex organ with innate power and fearlessness. By adapting the phrase, we claim our inherent strength and courage, too. Hell, we’ve been acting on our strength all along; the only new thing is that now we have a cool expression we can use to brag about it.
The predominant culture may try to socialize girls into believing femaleness and femininity equals not-as-powerful, not-as-bold. (Even common put-downs targeted at guys who act less than macho instill this idea: You have no balls; Don’t be such a girl; and plain old pussy--simultaneously the slang for female genitalia and an insult.) It’s so pervasive, no wonder some girls have to fight to keep from internalizing the notion that being female means being less than.
But the stories I collected show women and girls are actively fighting this view of themselves. In fact, the stories illustrate that for many contributors to this book, having ovaries specifically means having the courage to confront externally defined notions of what a woman is. Many of the stories are about defying the dominant culture’s preconceived idea of “femininity”--passive, pleasing, docile, cautious, dependent, either quiet or hysterical, irrational, dumb, always-nice-never-angry, and incapable of self-defense. Yes, women can be those things, too. After all, we are human and reserve our right to be hysterical when we want (so there!). But the stories in this book show that females--the beings who personify real femininity--are more than what others tell them they are. They are loudly and proudly whoever and whatever they want to be.
In that same vein, coining the phrase having ovaries doesn’t mean women aim to mimic men who have balls. In fact, this would be difficult to achieve even if they wanted to. Everything happens within a context, and ours is a culture that imposes different roles and conditioning on boys than on girls. When trained-to-be-confident men, who already hold much of the power in society, act “overconfident” or “reckless” (connotations of ballsy), some onlookers may feel a tinge of trepidation and think, “This could be a scary thing.” When trained-to-be-cautious women act “overconfident,” yes, it could be a scary thing, too, but more likely it would be a breath of fresh air, as in: “Ah, finally, a woman who feels she has an equal right to be in charge.” And if a woman acts “reckless,” it would probably be along the lines of breaking the rules that have kept her down for millennia--like the conditioning that stops her from fighting back when assaulted.
Even in a quest to be an assertive Woman of Ovaries, it is unlikely a woman would permanently give up her loving, gentle side, even if she abandons it temporarily. Certainly, losing this side would be undesirable. But be warned--and get ready to cheer!--because some of the women in this book do indeed temporarily abandon their niceness.
An additional note regarding defining ovaries: In the context of this book, having ovaries isn’t about possessing certain sex organs or chromosomes. It’s about being female-identified and possessing a certain Attitude (with a capital A). All types of women and girls are welcome here, including females born without ovaries, those who’ve had ovaries removed, those who acquired new plumbing via medical intervention, and intersexed and transgendered folk who identify, or who have ever identified, as women.
A final comment on terms: When I use “women and girls” and “we” in this book, I do so fully aware and appreciative of both the differences and similarities present in the vast group of people who identify as female. Women’s cultural diversity is to be treasured, and uniformity is not the goal. However, building coalitions amid female diversity and acknowledging commonality makes women more effective in organizing for mutual interests: chief among them, that every woman and girl be free to live her life to her fullest potential.
Meanwhile each female is a unique individual, and not all females receive the same socialization. Only by listening to one another’s experiences and stories do we learn about the multiple messages each girl gets about how a female “should” act in her particular family and racial, cultural, or economic community. Only then do we understand the complexity of how each community teaches its females to be strong in certain ways but to acquiesce in others. A girl may be encouraged to be opinionated . . . until a guy walks into the room. Or perhaps she’s raised to be powerful . . . yet tolerant of her boyfriend’s hitting her. Maybe she is taught by her community to be defiant . . . but to put up with things that an empowered woman surely wouldn’t--from smiling (instead of talking back) when harassed to stifling dreams and desires to not being proud of who she is.
Even if a girl is raised by her family to be assertive, as soon as she steps out the door, or turns on the TV, she is bombarded with the mainstream’s definition of femininity. Besides the fact that it’s hard to resist the predominant culture, a girl could be punished for trying. Her assertiveness, though encouraged at home, might be labeled “loud, aggressive, bitchy” once outside.
And there is one thing many subcultures and the dominant culture have in common: a tolerance of high levels of physical and sexual abuse against women. Most cultures view as normal a variety of offenses, from women being afraid to walk alone at night to a media industry that makes a fortune turning sexual harassment and sexual violence into entertainment.
So although different cultural groups’ messages may dominate at different times, in the end most girls are repeatedly told to tolerate a devaluing of themselves.
Good thing so many girls don’t do as they’re told!
Who Are the Contributors?
There are so many ways to be female--and this book embraces them. The contributors identify (sometimes in their stories, sometimes not) as African-American, Asian-American, Caucasian, Jewish, Latina, Middle Eastern, Native American, bilingual, bicultural, mixed race, heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, working-class, middle-class, and upper-class, mother, childless, single, coupled, polyamorous, able-bodied, living with a disability, child, teen, adult, and elder. Most are from the United States, but this book also includes contributors from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. A third of them are professional writers, folks who carefully crafted their submissions. But the majority are not. Many got the “call for stories” electronically forwarded from a pal and then hastily e-mailed their true tales to me on what I’d call a well-thought-out whim. Their narratives included much of the informality that comes with the medium of e-mail, and the wholesome rawness found in unpolished, authentic experience. It was both a plea-sure and a challenge to edit them.
The stories in this book are dramatically written but true. All dialogue and description are recounted to the best of the writer’s recollection. To protect the innocent, and guilty, a few changed their own or others’ names.
Many of the contributors’ stories are about women and girls taking command of a situation. A number are model-citizen or social justice acts that others might like to emulate. But I would not encourage the reader to undertake all the deeds detailed here. In fact, not every contributor to this book would necessarily condone all the acts in it. Likely, some contributors, and some readers, will disapprove of the audacious, sexual, or acting-on-anger stories. And why shouldn’t they? Women are not a monolithic group. They are diverse, with diverse opinions, values, and aspirations.
Yet, at the same time, I’ll bet the acts not seen initially as role-model material will still be considered models of a sort by some. Though the contributor might not encourage others to replicate her particular deed, readers might find themselves cheering her on nonetheless. After all, she has the nerve to walk through her fear, the gumption to go outside her own self-imposed limits, and the confidence to reject our culture’s restrictive notions of what a female can do. She is taking action.
On the other hand, some readers may feel she has crossed the line. But the book is supposed to be about that, too: women and girls being a little impulsive and crazy--a little Thelma and Louise-ish. So some of the contributors are wild and impetuous. They abandon common sense, civility, or caution as they stand up for themselves, defend loved ones (or strangers), express anger, or risk their lives for a dream, a political statement, or plain ole fun. Well, who says you don’t need ovaries for those things, too?
Men: A Pro-Partnership Philosophy
There were two possible ways to introduce the three hundred stories I received for this book: One, ignore the fact that two-thirds were tales of women standing up to men trying to hurt them. Two, acknowledge it.
In short, when asked, “Hey, what have you ever done that was bold, gutsy, or brazen?,” many women answered loud and clear: “I fought back.”
There were fathers who battered, boyfriends who raped, and strangers who catcalled, groped, used guns, fists, or date-rape drugs. The list goes on. Reading the submissions, I was floored. So much assault.
Obviously these stories are not just isolated instances. This pattern is a larger social problem, happening within a wider political context. Some call it patriarchy. Your grandma might have called it “a man’s world.” Whatever we’ve labeled it over the years, the reality is that it hurts women. The evidence: Women are still struggling for the right to live without violence, have equal representation in their political institutions, and receive equal pay for their work.
Does this mean men are the enemy?
Most women love, adore, hug, hold, birth, help raise, build homes and snowmen, eat pancakes and sushi, create babies and sidewalk murals, debate prison reform and the international space station, and/or happily sex it up with males every day. The world is full of good men.
But this does not mean we should keep quiet about how women and girls worldwide must defend themselves against violence or the threat of violence on a regular basis. Sharing personal experiences aloud can be the foundation for any political movement. For any society to evolve, for any people to be free, before reality on the ground can be changed, the truth needs to be told. Truth: The FBI estimates that on average a woman is raped every six minutes in the United States (and those are only the reported rapes). Truth: Every fourteen seconds a woman is physically assaulted in the United States. Truth: One of every three women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
But women are not alone. In fact, women and girls have natural partners in their truth-telling task: men and boys. The institution of patriarchy hurts them as well. They, too, are on the receiving end of male violence. They, too, need to break the taboo against telling the truth about their lives.
Boys are born loving, caring, cooperative. Those who become men-who-hurt don’t do so all on their own. A substantial number have witnessed or were themselves victims of beatings and sexual abuse. Even more widespread, however, is the systematic, often violent, squashing of boys by people who have already internalized hurtful social constructs of “masculinity.” Our society’s warped norms instruct boys to fit their beautiful, sprawling humanity into an itty-bitty box of what a man is “supposed” to be: strong to the point of being stoic; hard to the point of being emotionally numb; and, yes, sometimes powerful to the point of being oppressive. There is little room in that box for any human expressions deemed “girlish”--such as sadness, tenderness, vulnerability, and nurturing--even though those are just the sentiments that could help heal the negative effects of all the squashing.
Of course, internalizing rigid ideals of manhood or experiencing systematic violence does not negate personal responsibility for violent behavior toward others. It just makes it easier to understand its origin. Whatever the origin, everyone must try to stop the violence targeted at any of us. And women who publicly talk about the courage it took to stand up against assault are doing just that. By speaking out, they not only create momentum for political action to end the violence, they also begin to liberate themselves in the process.
Women’s and girls’ liberation will not be complete, however, until it is widely understood how our culture of institutionalized sexism hurts everyone. How it tries to turn inherently strong girls into women who hesitate to use their power (even in self-defense), and inherently compassionate boys into men with an inclination to dominate. Gender straitjackets. For any one group to be free, everyone needs to be free; no one should be stopped--not by stereotyping, not by violence--from expressing his or her full range of emotions and abilities. So, while this book includes women and girls telling the truth about their lives, I hope it also encourages men and boys, women’s allies in our mutual liberation struggles, to do the same.
What Is the Main Point of This Book?
My hope is that the narratives here affirm the reader’s already bold life--or expand her imagination of what is possible for herself and her society. I want girls and women to be empowered by seeing what others do.
From girlhood, many are trained to step lightly, carefully, even though being assertive, making noise, and creating waves are often the skills that help a girl most--whether advancing her career or ensuring her safety.
By celebrating bold, risk-taking women, I hope to encourage others to take risks. Struggle and risk are part of any attempt at personal or social change. Like courage, risk-taking is infectious. This is true both between people and within a person. Between, it is motivating to witness someone else’s courage. Within, an individual develops confidence and experience by taking risks and living through them; the more risks she takes in one area of her life, the more she feels able to take them in others. She may start with a gutsy act for pleasure--instigating an erotic interlude with messy paints, tracking huge gorillas alone in West Africa, shaving hairy legs in playful stripes, tricking a pimp out of his money--and before long she won’t put up with any timidity, any pussyfooting around in any area of her life.
Once a girl is initiated and passes the I’m-a-risk-taker threshold, and she knows she can act regardless of fear, her life becomes fuller. With newfound confidence, she is willing to address unfair treatment she experiences or witnesses. She is no longer able to tolerate the sight of injustice without trying to address it, because she no longer feels it is beyond her ability to succeed.
She’ll run her sister’s batterer out of town, bawl out a racist cop (even though she is only five years old!), spread her legs hundreds of times to teach doctors how to properly care for women’s gynecological health, mount a pee protest in demand of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms on campus, and save a girl she doesn’t know from being beaten on the side of the highway. If a woman lives her life in a more daring mode all the time, then there will be no question about whether she will stand up for herself and others when mistreated, and no question she’ll fight back if attacked.
I want to recognize girls and women who are not afraid to act contrary to how the predominant norms say they should, not afraid to break the rules, act improperly, get dirty. All that is part of leading a “no limits” life. The main message of the book? Enjoy being bold, and if that is scary at first, marvel at your ability to walk through fear. Not letting fear stop us in one area of our lives means we are less likely to let it stop us in others, from defending ourselves against a single incident of discrimination to changing the world for the better.
From the Trade Paperback edition.