Sun 24 Feb 2008
I don’t know Ruth Christenson.
Until today, I’d never heard her name before. I suspect that you haven’t either.
What I do know:
In July of 1984, she walked into a Minneapolis bookstore that sold pornography. She carried a backpack filled with literature that condemned sexual exploitation.
Earlier that week, Christensen had written letters to local politicians. One recipient was Charles Hoyt, a city council member sponsoring an anti-pornography ordinance. Her letter told him that “sexism has shattered my life.”
When she entered that shop, she proved that her beliefs — so easily dismissed by even her peers in this world — were more than just words.
Ruth Christenson doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire. She burned for over a minute before bystanders were able to extinguish the flames that engulfed her. She was removed from the store in critical condition, with burns over 65 percent of her body.
It’s a tremendous story. It’s also one that I stumbled onto by accident. News clippings from 1984 don’t exactly throw themselves at you, not even on the internet. The short article, written just days after Christenson burned, told only the most basic facts about her existence.
The most heartbreaking aspect of the saga can be witnessed in the words of another local activist. Terese Stanton was the organizer of a Pornography Resource Center in Minnesota. Speaking through that article to an audience twenty years removed, her words about Ruth Christenson are haunting: “This will not be in vain — she did this for a lot of women. This will definitely be witnessed and remembered.”
Perhaps Ruth Christenson is still remembered in quiet vigils in Minneapolis. I hope so. She sure as hell isn’t remembered anywhere else.
Perhaps that’s for the best. If Ruth Christenson were remembered today, she’d be remembered not as a hero — or even as a martyr — but as a crazy woman. A tragic figure, no doubt, but the tragedy would be considered hers to bear alone.
Even people calling themselves feminists, no shortage of men in that number these days, would believe Christenson did what she did out of selfish, personal desperation: an inability to cope with private horrors that have little to do with what the “common woman” experiences. Hormones and brain chemistry. To them, that can be the only reason why she took such a terrible and final action.
Not because sexism shatters women’s lives.
Two decades after Ruth Christenson set herself on fire, very little has changed. Many would argue that things have gotten worse.
While sexism can be talked about as violence, only the most blatant, rude, and Republican forms of it can be addressed. A bourgeois woman is a battered wife, a bohemian woman is a “bottom,” living a lifestyle, or transcending cultural mores.
Sexism can only be seen as violence when that violence isn’t seen as sexy.
Eve Ensler’s “V-Day” festivities are, well, festive. All too often they resemble drag shows even when they aren’t specifically drag shows — as they sometimes are. The consumerist crowds they assemble would never condone a legitimate anti-pornography message. No Monologue will ever be said in honor of Ruth Christenson. That’s likely for the best. I doubt she’d want someone talking about her vagina. After all, it’s men and not female genitalia that needs to change.
Even the more somber Take Back the Night processions, now often equally about men’s “pain,” are enthralled with capitalism. The march that takes place in my home city of Buffalo was once sponsored by a college bar that uses underage girls as bait for its paying male clientele.
When it comes to the idea of consent, critiques of capitalism aren’t allowed in our culture: few are willing to think about how money — and the power it gives one person over another — influences our opportunities to say “no.”
Even liberals run from such critiques. Feminists, too. How could Ruth Christenson be remembered in a world where feminist bestsellers borrow the language of pornography to drum up sales?
What room is there for the utter simplicity of Ruth Christenson’s message in a world where bait-and-switch schemes shift the blame from pornography to easily trademarked phenomena such as “Raunch Culture?” Even authors who aren’t necessarily against porn can make a mint off of women’s fundamental uneasiness with their own exploitation, happily displacing feminist writers in the process.
Who would be willing to remember the bravery of Ruth Christenson in a world where even anti-pornography activists are ready to shed the word “feminist” from their organizations in exchange for better funding?
And what of this new virtual world that all too many of us seem to inhabit — is there room in it for Ruth Christenson, someone so clearly invested in the realities of life?
Online feminism tends towards a curious fusion of post-modernist academia and hipster sensibilities. There, the idea of “gender oppression” has become subordinate to “gender expression.” This shifts the political focus of feminism from the voiceless to media exhibitionists. Gender is something that makes you more interesting. Gender is something that makes you better in bed. Gender is something that scores you a book deal.
There are a lot of Gender-Superstars now. And not one of them has ever made a sacrifice for his or her convictions the way that Ruth Christenson did.
Instead, they’ll tell you that porn isn’t going away. They’ll tell you that it’s vital for our education as sexual beings. They’ll tell you that even though they agree that 99 percent of porn is sexist and racist (not that they’ll personally do anything about the pornography that is sexist and racist, indeed, they view both on the same level as “tackiness,” the only pornographic crime they ever publicly object to), they hold out hope for a new feminist porno-paradigm. And they’ll require you to do the same or they’ll throw you to the dogs: the male pimps and johns that cluster about them, celebrating their every word.
In turn, they’ll glorify the ingenuity of the men who conspired to shatter Ruth Christenson and her world. In my research I found a magazine article bearing testament to her deed: it was a journalist’s 1997 love-letter letter to the store franchise’s founder, congratulating him as Russian immigrant who made good on the American dream.
It was an ode to freedom and male cleverness at any cost, including women’s lives.
Ruth Christenson was reduced by the writer to a “moral snit” and a punch line. One former employee recounts how, on his very first day there, Christenson set herself alight: to him, it was just a zany event that bookended his rollercoaster of wild experiences at the store. In order for him to become the man he is today — and not just any man but a “rocker” whose persona is created out of the telling of such stories — she had to die.
Only Ruth Christenson didn’t die that day. She lived.
She endured seven operations and somehow found the strength to carry on, despite her wounds and disfigurement. She didn’t just disappear. She brought a message of hope to the women in her community. Larry Cloud-Morgan, manager of a shelter for American Indian women, told the Star Tribune how Christenson would stop by to talk with the occupants. “She knew them on the street, and she loved them. We talked about justice and a woman’s world and compassion.”
Her compassion was without limits. Cloud-Morgan said that the last time they spoke, Christenson said that she feared a war in the Persian Gulf, that she was “afraid that the women and children there may someday have to look like me.”
Such compassion wears hard on a human soul. Ruth Christenson died on December 6, 1990. She set another fire. Only this time she was alone, cloistered in her apartment.
She never lived to see “Desert Storm” on her TV. She never saw the images of bombs falling down chimneys in antiseptic black and white. She never watched her country march to war a second time, our corporations lining up to trademark “Shock and Awe” for use in videogames. But Christenson fully anticipated it. The pornography of war — and of everyday life — was all too clear to her.
If Ruth Christenson were alive today, she would be approaching 50 years old. I can’t know what she’d think about me dredging up the past and telling her story — I’d hope that she’d prefer someone more worthy to tell it. I certainly can’t speak for her. I’ll never know the full extent of her motivations when she set herself on fire. All I know is that I wish she hadn’t done it. But even more than that, I wish she hadn’t needed to do it in the first place. Her psychology was never the real problem.
Sexual exploitation is always a backburner issue. It comes up from time to time, but only when it’s “over there” in other countries, countries our government declares are full of bad men. Men who aren’t at all like the men who live here.
Women who complain about the men here are silenced quickly. After all, they certainly don’t have it as bad as the women over there. I defy anyone to say that Ruth Christenson didn’t have it “bad.”
Liberal men, especially, demand that their female peers abandon any interest in “feminist issues,” those things that “only affect women,” until the more important crises are all brought to conclusion. When men set themselves on fire to protest one war or another (each always a problem of male creation), they are at least honored for their sacrifice by those who share their politics. Those men are proved strong by their actions, rather than weak, foolish, and broken. And yet that’s just how our world regards a woman who would make the same sacrifice for herself and others like her.
If female bravery of that kind could be celebrated, it would mean that women suffer under patriarchy in the here and now, even surrounded by good men.
Relatively few today would celebrate bravery of that kind — even those of us who believe in equality for all human beings. The vocation of silencing women comes with great rewards in our society. And with those rewards, it’s quite easy to believe that one is smarter, stronger, and better than the Ruth Christensons of the world. We think that we can find the middle ground. We absolutely know that we can have it both ways.
Imagine the hubris of someone saying, “Ruth Christenson just needed to see some feminist porn. Then everything would have been different.”
Someone will say it soon enough.