Giffords Tragedy: What’s the Message to Young Women?

by Gloria Feldt on January 10th, 2011
in Gender, Women & Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I wrote this article as an exclusive to the Women’s Media Center, and reprint it here with permission. It can’t begin to describe the pain in my heart for those killed or injured, their families and extended networks of friends.

When an angry young man aimed his semiautomatic handgun at Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a Tucson Safeway store on Saturday, he didn’t just critically wound her and kill or wound 19 others. He fired a shot through the heart of American democracy.

It will fall to rising leaders like Giffords—and girls like nine-year-old Christina Green, killed by the assailant’s gunfire just days after she was elected to her school’s student council—to transform our political community to one where differences can be debated safely and policies decided without fear for anything but re-election prospects.

I feel a deeply personal connection to those horrendous events that occurred during the latest “Congress on Your Corner” public meeting the third-term Democratic congresswoman has held routinely in her district.  Though I was witnessing them from New York, I’m a resident of Scottsdale, 120 miles north of Tucson, and from 1978 to 1996 was CEO of Planned Parenthood in Arizona. I know the state’s wild-west politics quite well. And I’m so familiar with violent extremist attacks upon reproductive health providers that my first reaction was to swing reflexively into “how can I keep colleagues safe and courageous” mode.

Ironically, a moment before the carnage, I was urging Arizona Democratic party activists via Facebook to stop arguing about arcane party rules and get on with fixing the state: to stand firm against roiling bigotry toward immigrants, slashing public education funds while advancing legislation to allow guns in schools, and other  retrograde policies that threaten to make the state an object of derision throughout the country.

Almost immediately after the shootings, I received messages inviting me to a candlelight vigil at the state Capitol. It’s important for people to come together to share their grief while they are absorbing the reality of an unspeakable crime.

But as important as a candlelight vigil might be to heal the rips in our individual souls, healing the social fabric requires infinitely stronger threads.

Nor is it sufficient for public officials to issue statements of shock and condolence, or to lament the decline in civility. No, they should be joining hands together with other community leaders in massive outrage. They should be challenging and changing the systemic dysfunctions that allow the loudest, angriest, most disruptive voices to dominate the airwaves, define the public debate, and heat up the rhetoric to the point that unstable personalities like Jared Loughner inevitably boil over.

We can’t depend on the current leadership of the hypermasculinized political culture that  Jessica Valenti, Feministing executive editor, describes in The Guardian. Our idealization of violent masculinity she says spills over into the political discourse, and is emulated by right-wing women like Sarah Palin, whose electoral target map placed Giffords in her gunsight. It’s a problem Addie Stan described in Alternet as the “Tea Party culture of intimidation.” But the real problem is that the rest of us speak up too little.

Meaningful change will come only if the response to this rupture of democratic process is for those of us who have been underrepresented to multiply our engagement with it. “Hatred can’t be cured,” said a politically active Tucson friend in one of the many e-mails and calls I received over the weekend. Perhaps that’s true, but if we have a chance to remake a civic culture in which such vitriol is at least neutralized, the change will come from leaders like Gabby and what Christina might have become, and they must have the visible, vocal support of the rest of us.

The natural human tendency is to back away from public service after such a frightening episode. But the best way to honor the sacrifices of public servants like Gabrielle Giffords—as well as Judge John Roll who was killed in the attack and all the others—is to create a culture that lifts up and protects leaders who won’t be deterred by anti-government ranting.

Giffords was one of the youngest woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives when she took office January, 2007. I attended her swearing in that day—both of them. The first one was by the first woman speaker of the House, newly elected to that role; the second a symbolic oath administered by former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt in the Capitol rotunda.

“I am very cognizant of those women who made it possible for me to be here,” she told me later in a phone interview. “There is much work still to do. We have not yet achieved full equality… Because I know the work of other women pulled me up, I want to mentor other women and get more women into the pipeline to run for office at all levels.”

I don’t know if Gabby had a chance to meet Christina Green who came to that meeting at Safeway to learn more about politics.  In an MSNBC interview, Christina’s mother Roxanna Green described her daughter–born on 9/11/01 and featured in a book called Faces of Hope, picturing babies born that day. “She’s the face of hope, face of change, the face of coming together as a country to stop the this violence…. She wanted us all to be strong and courageous and brave like she was.”

If there is a lesson to learn from the horrible episode, it is less about decrying our declining civility and more about teaching everyone from their earliest years how a democratic government works. How to debate and discuss issues vigorously, how to embrace controversy in a positive way to elevate public awareness of the issues. To let the passion for public service that drives Gabby Giffords inspire us to emulate her leadership until there are so many of us we cannot be silenced. And to hold close the American values of tolerance and pluralism, of optimism that we can solve problems, and believe that though we are many, we can come together as one to do so. That we are the government.

Actually Gabrielle Giffords herself said it best last year at a Holocaust memorial event, the month after her office was vandalized in apparent retaliation for her vote to support the health reform bill:

‎”We know that silence equals consent when atrocities are committed against innocent men, women and children. We know that indifference equals complicity when bigotry, hatred and intolerance are allowed to take root. And we know that education and hope are the most effective ways to combat ignorance and despair.”

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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9 Responses to Giffords Tragedy: What’s the Message to Young Women?

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  2. Rotkapchen says:

    Thank you for this post. Between the incident and your post the foil that reflects the two is quite clear. Your lessons (teaching everyone from their earliest years how a democratic government works. How to debate and discuss issues vigorously, how to embrace controversy in a positive way to elevate public awareness of the issues) while noble clearly look pretty weak in the face of the reality. We can intellectually aspire to all things good and civil, but in the end no one has to agree to any of it.

    What appears to be irrational behavior is clearly rational to the individual engaging in it. We cannot change their choices. We can and we must embrace the fact that these things are going to happen and simply decide how we will respond. And yes, discussing it will increase our understanding of it all. It cannot and it will not change it.

    We can only change ourselves and influence the lives of others through our service, which is exactly what Gabrielle and Christina did. Their efforts are their legacy. What happened is not a consequence of their behaviors. Let their efforts stand separate from the incident and recognize that this is not something that can be fixed.

    • Gloria Feldt says:

      You say,”What appears to be irrational behavior is clearly rational to the individual engaging in it.”

      I agree, and actually had that same conversation with myself but ended up not saying it explicitly in the piece.

      That said, as I hope you took note of this paragraph which is knowledge I have from having to face too many of these supposedly random events:

      Nor is it sufficient for public officials to issue statements of shock and condolence, or to lament the decline in civility. No, they should be joining hands together with other community leaders in massive outrage. They should be challenging and changing the systemic dysfunctions that allow the loudest, angriest, most disruptive voices to dominate the airwaves, define the public debate, and heat up the rhetoric to the point that unstable personalities like Jared Loughner inevitably boil over.

      I’m sorry, but there is a connection and quite a direct one between yelling fire in a crowded theater and human behavior that follows it. That Loughner is apparently mentally unstable just makes it more likely that fiery hate-fill rhetoric about government would ignite him to action choosing a government official as a target. It is the complicit silence of the well-meaning people that we can change and that’s what I’m urging here.

    • Roxanna says:

      There’s a terrific aoumnt of knowledge in this article!

  3. Sandie Reed says:

    Your comments in this blog are so right on. I read your book at CSULB for a Women Studies class, “No Excuses – 9 Ways Women can Change how we think about Power.” It was information that I can use in my personal, political, and professional lives. One of the concepts from your book was “not power-over, power to,” it spoke to me about how to deal with people from every walk of life. It seems to me that how Congresswoman Giffords thought about her roll in government, and that she wanted to work with the people from her district to make real change for them. She didn’t want to be powerful over them, just to give them the power to make changes that would enhance their lives. Thank you for your powerful statement here. I believe that we can all take away something from this horrible tragedy, and follow what Ms. Gabriella Giffords has been doing all along.

    • Gloria Feldt says:

      Thank you, Sandie. I appreciate your comments and love how you’ve connected the idea of “power to, not power over to this situation and politics in general. I am actually thinking about writing my next op ed about that. Suggestions?

  4. Aletha says:

    As horrible as the killing spree unleashed by Jared Loughner was, the attempts to assign blame for his actions, in my eyes, only compound the tragedy. This talk about the decline in civility and the climate of hate puzzles me. Where have people been? This culture glorifies violence in so many ways, it could be said it worships death. Robin Morgan delved into that in great depth in The Demon Lover. The election of 2008 was as vitriolic as anything I have witnessed before or since, and much of that vitriol was coming from Democrats, directed against Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. It is too easy to blame this on reactionary nutjobs fanning the flames. Yes, they exacerbate the problem, but in a culture based on violence, where that is seen as manly, righteous, a viable means of settling differences, or carrying out God’s will, we are lucky such incidents do not happen every day. Actually, they do, but most violent acts do not involve public figures, so people can be shocked when something like this happens.

    This unspeakable tragedy could be a wake up call, but not if politicians and pundits use it to score points. Yes, the ugly rhetoric is a problem, but it is not THE problem. I think most people have no idea how democracy ought to work. Passions about controversial issues can run high without degenerating into viewing the opposition as something evil to be squashed. Unfortunately this culture operates that way, black and white, one side must be right and the other wrong, winner takes all. That all sounds so ordinary, as if it were common sense, but the thin veneer of civility that keeps that paradigm from collapsing into utter chaos and mayhem is always on the verge of breaking down. When it breaks down in an individual, the results are always tragic, but most of the time there is only one victim at a time, so society can pretend violence is isolated and manageable. It is neither. It defines this culture. I hope this tragedy can become a wake up call, but that will not happen if people play politics with it.

    I cross posted the above on my own blog.

  5. #
    Donna Haghighat
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    What we as women need to do is take on the NRA. Say what you want about angry rhetoric, but this is just one mass killing like so many others. The common denominator for these and situations like Virginia Tech and Columbine is the easy access to semiautomatic weapons by mentally unstable individuals. We must ask how many more others have to die, including our loved ones, before we take on the real issue here-the access to these weapons of mass destruction, semi-automatic weapons.
    #
    peggy luhrs
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Thanks for this cogent article Gloria. I interviewed you on video in Vermont about reproductive rights some years back and thought you were doing a great job then as head of PP and you’re only getting better.
    “If there is a lesson to learn from the horrible episode, it is less about decrying our declining civility and more about teaching everyone from their earliest years how a democratic government works. How to debate and discuss issues vigorously, how to embrace controversy in a positive way to elevate public awareness of the issues”
    This is exactly right and what authoritarians have such a hard time with.

  6. #
    Ben Atherton-Zeman
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Outstanding! Very well said – thank you.
    #
    Annette Chinn
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    All of the victims are most certainly in my prayers. It is especially heart wrenching when a child is subjected to such tragedy. I hope the proper steps are taken to protect the countries leaders and innocent bystanders in the future. God bless America.
    #
    Pamela Royce
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Even though there is legitimate concern about “extremists” who might commit acts of violence because of the hyperbole spewed by self-aggrandizing “celebrities,” this particular incident might be more emblematic of an entirely different problem: the failure to recognize brain disorders (a.k.a. mental illness) as a category of physical illness that can be treated successfully in most cases, especially if the disorders are addressed in the early stages (just like with cancer, for example). We need to develop twenty-first century science-based attitudes and intervention strategies so that the so-called “troubled loner” is helped medically before he or she “shares” the pain — and victimizes other people. If the reports of neighbors about the alleged gunman’s behaviors and statements are true, then the “proximate cause” of this violent incident was much less political than it was medical.

    For more information, visit the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
    #
    Karin Lippert
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    One of best articles on WMC…EVER! And, just when we need it! Congratulations to Gloria Feldt and WMC.
    #
    Melissa
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Thank you.
    #
    Donna Haghighat
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    What we as women need to do is take on the NRA. Say what you want about angry rhetoric, but this is just one mass killing like so many others. The common denominator for these and situations like Virginia Tech and Columbine is the easy access to semiautomatic weapons by mentally unstable individuals. We must ask how many more others have to die, including our loved ones, before we take on the real issue here-the access to these weapons of mass destruction, semi-automatic weapons.
    #
    Ruth Massaro
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate Ms. Feldt’s well-written essay. And I, for one, am ready to make a contribution to any scholarship or program in Christina Green’s name, that would inspire and encourage young girls/women to get involved in the political community—if, of course, her family welcomes such a thing. It seems like a natural idea to me–(probably already proposed)

    I think I will commit to working for gun control—again.
    #
    Beth Corbin
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Gloria, thank you for so eloquently expressing the thoughts I’ve had since this tragic incident happened. It is incumbent upon ALL of us to work to create a culture where violence, and violent rhetoric, are absolutely unacceptable.

    I loved this part: “If there is a lesson to learn from the horrible episode, it is less about decrying our declining civility and more about teaching everyone from their earliest years how a democratic government works. How to debate and discuss issues vigorously, how to embrace controversy in a positive way to elevate public awareness of the issues. To let the passion for public service that drives Gabby Giffords inspire us to emulate her leadership until there are so many of us we cannot be silenced.”

    Thank you

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