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Boxed In

When I try to define, describe, or in any way come to terms with what it means to inhabit the world as a woman, the first thing that comes into my mind is nearly always the sense of mandated silence; of being muzzled; of having, so to speak, no mouth to speak of. And the more I study women’s history, the more stark and weighty this long historic reality begins to feel.

Contrary to common myths we encounter in the course of growing up, there have been at all points in history women trying to speak up about the institutionalized wrongs women of every class and race were suffering behind closed doors with no recourse to justice and no meaningful legal protections. And at all points in history, women who tried to start conversations about women’s experiences and place in the world have paid dearly for that work, forfeiting family ties, their reputation and social standing, the good regard of lifelong friends, and sometimes even their own lives. Women’s silence on the subject of ourselves is essential for patriarchy to exist, because the myths that uphold patriarchy cannot survive the true stories of our lives. But not being allowed to tell our stories—or being disbelieved and scorned when we do so—is incompatible with good mental health. It can lead us to doubt our own reality and to feel like a caged and crazy animal.

In this painting, I wanted to convey that “boxed in” experience that continues to be an excruciating reality for so many women around the world—especially, but by no means exclusively, in religious communities where the Divine is presented as male and women are expected to fill only supportive roles. The box in the painting represents the socially, mentally, and spiritually cramped spaces women are so often squeezed into even though we are far too big, complex, and fully human to fit into them. But my character, although she cannot speak and does not, perhaps, know how to actively resist the soul-sucking oppression of her environment, still holds the Candle of Hopes within her place of confinement, and clings to her belief in her personhood.

Sadly, the posture this planet has taken towards women’s stories continues to have reverberating and catastrophic effects. This week, alarming new CDC data was released showing that U.S. teen girls are experiencing an extreme mental health and sexual abuse crisis in the wake of the pandemic. Out of 17,000 high school students surveyed, 30% of teen girls reported seriously considering suicide (this is double the rate among boys) and nearly one in five said they had experienced r*pe or sexual violence *in the past year.*

These numbers are up substantially from previous years, and they certainly give the lie to that notion that gender inequity is a thing of the past in the western world. Women’s subjugation is not an issue of a moment in time, of a policy that needs tweaking. It is at the core of the cultural norms humanity has developed around issues like education, entertainment, labor, family life, and sex. It is a value deeply-embedded into almost every facet of our lives, and once you begin to see it? Well, you just can’t stop. We can’t stop. We have to go on seeing it. We have to go on saying it. We have to say it so the other women seeing it won’t feel so wildly alone.

This artwork is now available as a museum-quality fine art print in my shop. (Don't forget that 50% of all shop proceeds through the end of this month will be going to support relief efforts in Turkey and Syria as those nations grapple with the devastation left by an earthquake that has killed over 40,000 people.)

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