Second Look

What’s in a Word?

As Deborah Siegel points on in her latest post here at Girl w/Pen, there’s an abundance of not very helpful ‘noise’ in the media these days about feminists and feminism. My vote for the most unhelpful contribution to a serious discussion of feminist goals is last week’s inclusion of ‘feminist’ in Time magazine’s 2015 annual online poll “Which Word Should Be Banished”.

Reaction to the poll was swift. Time quickly apologized in the wake of protests from groups and individuals proud to identify with the rich history and ongoing work of feminists. (see a few examples here, here and here) Time also published a thoughtful, powerful essay by Robin Morgan, “Feminism is a 21st Century Word”. Morgan discussed the history and definition of feminism, noting the simplicity of the dictionary wording: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”

Time’s apology for the inclusion of ‘feminist’ in their poll included the following statement, “While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice.”

So, end of kerfuffle, on to the next news cycle, right?   Not so fast. Aside from the fact that Time apologized but didn’t actually remove ‘feminist’ from the list, anyone who thinks the episode was an isolated, unimportant case of poor judgment runs the risk of engaging in wishful thinking. The poll “…meant to invite debate about the ways the word was used this year” did nothing of the sort. Yes, it was an opportunity for feminists to speak clearly and publicly about the legacy and the work of feminists. But reasoned debate that included those outside the feminist community? Not so much. Rather, the poll provided a revealing glimpse of the depth of misogyny embedded in our culture.  Too many still think it’s fine to denigrate women and to dismiss objections to the trivialization of  ‘feminist’ as ‘humorless’, or angry man hating, or the knee jerk reactions of rigid ideologues.

I’m disheartened that the experienced journalists at Time were unable to foresee the impact of their word choice. But, then again, power can be a blindfold. The inclusion of ‘feminist’ among trivial phrases such as “ I can’t even’, and ‘sorry not sorry’ and words like ‘kale’ and ‘influencer’ fostered ridicule rather than thoughtful debate. The list was a perfect opportunity for those who troll the Internet with snarky remarks about anyone who is not a white heterosexual male. The ones who attempt to disguise hatred as humor and fool no one.

And yes, I know, I get it, this is the tone of many discussions these days: take no prisoners, relentlessly ridicule anyone you disagree with, and never allow data or conflicting evidence to creep into a viewpoint. In such an environment, the idea that feminism is not women against men, but a complex belief in the equality of women and men is lost. Those in the ‘be sure, hang tough, any disagreement is a personal attack’ crowd rarely see the worth of a discussion in which various perspectives are heard, viewpoints are expanded and mutual learning takes place. Forgetting the full range of responses generated by the poll  and what they reveal about our current cultural divides is dangerous.

My father liked to quote “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” in advising his children to ignore the teasing of friends. I’m not so sure. Words can hurt. Either/or dialogue kills discussion, shuts off communication, amplifies disagreement, and obscures commonalities. Without thoughtful dialogue, dialogue that includes respect for differing perspectives and experiences as well as a tolerance for ambiguity, I fear we will never achieve the just and equitable world so many of us envision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nice Work

Quick hit: mind that gender gap!

Here’s a graph, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.this picture

The story the WSJ tells is about the descending steps of income for post-BA degree recipients by “tier” of the institution from which they graduated. The tier captures how elite the institution is considered. This article by Joni Hersch at Vanderbilt is the basis of the article.

Follow the red bars (for men) across from left to right, as the WSJ suggests, and you see inequality. Follow the yellow bars (for women) across from left to right and you see the same pattern of inequality. What makes the higher tier graduates “worth more”? The discussion of it asks us to consider that the value added might not pertain to explicit “merit,” but rather other kinds of cultural “merit” that produce those distinctions. Stuff like where your parents vacationed or what your taste in wine is. This is an important topic of examination.

Meanwhile, the red and yellow bars within each tier demonstrate a whopping gender gap. And that gap is left unremarked. When we look at a graph like this without putting this larger gender inequality up front, we inure people to categorical inequalities, and it makes it easier for readers to persist in seeing such inequalities as natural. Which is, by the way, the root of inequality. Seeing it as natural.

gender attitudes by sex

from Cotter et al. 8/5/2014 at The Society Pages.

It reminds me of this graph from a recent briefing report about an end to the stall in progressive gender attitudes. What I see is that there’s no convergence. The gap persists. And that isn’t natural.

Mama w/ Pen

In Search of Belugas at Soldier Field (Or, Notes for a Panel on Monday!)

Screen shot 2014-11-16 at 10.55.11 PMHere I sit contemplating equality, the topic of a panel I’m on tomorrow, surrounded by jubilant Bears fans streaming out from Soldier Field. My partner and twins are busy visiting penguins, dolphins, and whales, while I’m illegally parked, waiting in my car. Who else but a non-jock family (and recent Midwest transplants) would head for the Shedd Aquarium on a day when the Bears were playing on home turf next door? For my New York friends, this is equivalent to shopping at Macy’s during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, hoping for a place to park.photo

Pondering the question, “Is what you do about equality, liberation, or both?” in such an atmosphere feels a bit like being teleported to the 50 yard line and declaring to the crowd, “Which way to the fish?”

And in truth, that’s also what it feels like to be concerned about women’s “equal” or even “equitable” representation on the page, in the media, or online at a moment when the media conversation about women is focused on whether Lena Dunham is a child molester, whether Kim Kardashian is a feminist icon, and whether the word “feminist” itself should be banned. The noise from the crowd threatens to drown out everything else.

And yet. I’ve been caught up with the question of women’s representation for a few decades, and with the question of women’s “equal” representation on the page now for a while, through my work with two initiatives—one focused, for starters, on changing the gender ratio of bylines at the world’s opinion forums (The OpEd Project) and the other on disrupting publishing by creating supportive community and, later, “a third way” (She Writes / She Writes Press). Tomorrow’s panel is asking me to interrogate, with precision, what all that effort means.

So allow me, while Bears fans leap over my car and my family enjoys the fish, to think about these and some related ventures together, and out loud.

The OpEd Project (founded in 2008), She Writes (2009), and VIDA, also known as Women in Literary Arts (2009), emerged in the wake of the creation of the Women’s Media Center (2005), an organization that “makes women visible and powerful in the media” and works with the media “to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard,” and in the wake of the earlier Women in Media and News (2001). All these initiatives assume that, in VIDA’s phrasing, “voices change worldviews, and those voices should be multiple and varied.” My OpEd Project sisters and I, in the words of our mission statement and our founder Katie Orenstein, “envision a world in which the best ideas—regardless of where or whom they come from—will have a chance to be heard and shape society and the world.” Kamy Wicoff and I, in our She Writes credo, believe in “empower[ing] and amplify[ing] the voices of women and girls who have not otherwise have been heard” and “in building a platform upon which all of us can stand.”

How do these ventures seek to accomplish these goals? They “increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing” and “further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture” (VIDA). They protest the omission of women’s writing from the pages of career-making journals (VIDA) and from the front-door forums that feed other expressions of thought leadership, punditry, and public influence (OEP). They forge relationships with editors and media institutions that share the mission of changing who narrates the world (OEP). They disrupt the very system they believe excludes women (and others more traditionally without ‘connections’) by creating an alternative press (SWP, led by Kamy and the indomitable Brooke Warner).

And in this multi-faceted fight for women’s share and shaping of public voice, what constitutes a quest for equality and what constitutes a quest for liberation? Feel free to share thoughts here, if you have them.  Join us* at Roosevelt University tomorrow, if in Chicago, and tune in later to an NPR station (I’ll post the link here in this space) for more.

*Fellow panelists are:

Jill S. Tietjen, President, Board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame; Author “HerStory: A Timeline of Women who Changed America,” electrical engineer and CEO of Technically Speaking; Inductee of Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame

Carol Adams, PhD, President and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History; Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100,” Crain’s “2012 List,” the Illinois Arts Council Governor’s Award in the Arts, and the Outstanding Humanitarian Award from the NAACP

Cecilia A. Conrad, PhD, Vice-President, MacArthur Fellows Program; chairs the Congressionally mandated Committee on Equal Opportunities in Sciences and Engineering, an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation; Author “African Americans in the U.S. Economy”

Marjorie Jolles, PhD, Associate Professor and Acting Director, Women’s and Gender Studies, Roosevelt University, Author “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style”

Moderator: Betty M. Bayer, PhD, Senior Fellow, The Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago; Professor, Women’s Studies, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Co-sponsored by Roosevelt University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Illinois Institute of Technology, Shimer College

PS. Go Bears!

 

I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, subscribe to my occasional newsletter to keep posted, and come visit me at www.deborahsiegelphd.com

 

Manly Musings

Gay Men, Straight Women, and Queer Sexism

I remember thinking to myself when I first came out, “Thank God I don’t have to deal with women like straight men do.” Identifying as a gay man meant I could hold on to the aspects of relationships with women that I enjoy and not have to “deal with the rest.” I admit this is quite shameful for me to say so publicly. However, the more I pay attention, the more I realize how easy it is to be sexist as a gay man. I learned from Madonna that I knew what it felt like for a girl (here). Or so I thought. Because I had experienced homophobia at a young age and realized that being gay was a threat to manhood, I thought I understood sexism. It turns out, I understood more about homophobia and masculinity than sexism.

My simultaneous dismissing of and identification with women exemplifies what Jane Ward calls “queer sexism”. Because some gay men have been denied aspects of male privilege does not mean they don’t still have male privilege, or that they are free of masculine expectations and hang-ups. This type of thinking “obscures the ways that gay men, like heterosexual men, have the privilege of making agentic choices about whether to support or reject feminism, whether to listen to or ignore women, whether or not to leave the party when women arrive, and what to say to the men who do.” (here: 158-9).

Gay men’s well-intentioned yet lopsided relationship with straight women has received a lot of attention in the last few years. Interestingly, they commonly argue for straight women to change their thinking and behavior in order to accommodate gay men. For example, this post (here) on the gay guy/straight girl contract reminds straight women that gay men “don’t want to go shopping” with you; that we are fine with “giving sex tips” but not hearing about your “lady business” (vagina); that “your boyfriend drama bores us”; that you shouldn’t come to our clubs; and that “you are not a gay man in a women’s body.”

Why is it easier to recognize when a straight man reinforces sexism than when a gay man does it? This becomes even further complicated considering that gay men have different experiences of race, gender expression, class status, culture, and regional identity where the enforcement and ideals of masculinity and femininity vary dramatically for people in different contexts. As a well-mannered Cuban-Mexican-American man, with a very proud Mom, I thought I stood for women and anti-sexism. But as my confession exposes, I wasn’t really fighting for women; I was fighting for acceptance of homosexuality and men’s diverse gender expressions. I now understand that sexism and homophobia are different things.

Consider a conversation I had with Thomas, from San Francisco. He told me he had few female friends and that they “are like gay men in a woman’s body.” (It’s a well-worn trope; think of Mila Kunis’ recent claim about “being a gay guy trapped in a women’s body.”) Thomas explained that these women are empowered because they have adopted a form of toughness that keep them from accepting the “bullshit” in the world by standing up for themselves. Thomas made it clear that he has no interest in being friends with women weren’t like “gay men trapped in women’s bodies.”

To illustrate his point, he told me about his co-worker, Jane. “Jane likes to touch men, be aggressive, and do whatever she wants at work.” This sort of aggressive, boundary-crossing behavior led to her termination. Though Thomas found her termination to be unjust, more importantly he was disappointed in her for not fighting her termination. “I cannot stand women like that. In fact, I want nothing to do with women who don’t stand up for themselves, especially when it’s because of discrimination [in his opinion]. I only keep women around who ‘get it’ and don’t take bullshit.” For Thomas, Jane fell short of the gay-man-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body standard. She wasn’t changing for “the better” because she didn’t fully adopt a “gay man’s” “I don’t give a shit” mentality.

For Thomas, “Women have to choose to be liberated in order to deal with the ‘bullshit’ of the world” (sexism). And while he was also dealing with “bullshit” (homophobia) it was clear that he didn’t understand the distinction. For Thomas, it is a women’s “successful detachment” from patriarchal confinements that make her worthy of his friendship. In other words, if a woman could adopt a gay man’s perspective, defined and approved by gay men, then she’s living the way a woman “should.” However, this mentality seems, to be little more than doing what one wants and not having to deal with complaints (a luxury of male privilege). So, while some women are highly empowered and praised for being a “gay man trapped in a women’s body,” those who do not are excluded labeled as women who just “don’t get it.”

Thomas’ struggles with women are part of queer sexism. His story highlights one way some gay men feel license to define and hold women accountable for what is and what is not “right for women.” While it has the superficial vestiges of a progressive and empowering stance on women, Thomas’ assertions are consistent with what Ward calls “queer sexism”—a veiled form of patriarchy that privileges gay men’s ideas of how women should behave and based off how gay men experience oppression.

In order to avoid queer versions of sexism, gay men must be more aware of the power imbalances in their relationships with women, and think critically about the expectations they do and do not have of women. Gay men must be more in touch with how our gay all male contexts often makes women seem invisible or irrelevant to our lives. Fighting for an anti-sexist culture requires more than just fighting for a non-homophobic one.

___________________

A_LopezAndres Lazaro Lopez is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Iowa State University in Ames, IA. His research exames the intersections of race and gender in work and culture from a pro-feminist perspective. @alazarolopez

Quick Hits

The Case of the Cursing Princesses

In the last 24 hours I’ve seen a range of responses break out in reaction to this video: “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouted Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.”

Some commenters fall immediately into the “cursing = bad” camp and are offended by the language, but for those not turned off, the other initial reaction seems to be glee.  There’s an “I can’t believe they’re saying that!” kind of catharsis that accompanies watching little girls drop f-bombs all over the place and show some righteous rage over the injustices they are bound to face due to gender inequity.  What seems less present in the general reaction, and concerns me the most, is how these girls — and these causes — are fundamentally being leveraged by a T-shirt company.

For years I’ve written about what I call “fauxpowerment” — the “rah-rah, you go girl,” feel-good phrases and gestures that are meant to pump girls up with confidence or a newly varnished sense of self-esteem (often enough through a makeover) but, in fact, undermine any real confidence building as these messages reinforce that girls’ looks are paramount or that a quick, pink band-aid slapped over a deep wound makes everything better.  For those in the Girls’ Studies community or who work at well-developed programs designed just for girls, these attempts are not only insultingly facile, they are understood to be downright harmful and counterproductive. Worst of all is seeing corporations leverage girls for commercial purposes, a tradition, maddeningly, that seems ongoing.  That’s the category in which I would put the “Potty-Mouthed Princesses” advertisement — what it fundamentally is.

FCKH8, the company behind the ad, initially responded positively to my queries about their intentions, what charities they are donating proceeds of each sale to, and if the girls in the video were tightly scripted or had any input into the video, but I have not heard back again.  I hope to update this post if I do.  On their home page they cite their mission as being a “for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as ‘mini-billboards’ for change.”

Shirt - TIWAFLL Unisex Raspberry Thumb

Their T-shirt slogans are meant to be provocative, and in some cases, it seems, also plagiarized, as the Feminist Majority Foundation has had an ongoing “This is What A Feminist Looks Like” campaign since 2003, with President Obama in the shirt on their 2009 cover.  More recently, FCKH8 came under fire for allegedly exploiting the events in Ferguson to sell their antiracism gear.

fem6004_White_2_large2009Winter

A quick look on the FCKH8 website reveals they barely sell T-shirts in children’s sizes.  So, why use child-models in what is essentially an ad? The answer seems painfully obvious.  Anxiety about girls is pervasive in American society, if manifested through various channels.  The value of seeing girls, in princess costumes no less, letting loose about the gendered inequities they face, never mind parade across the screen asking which one of them will inevitably be raped in her lifetime, is designed to shock.  FCKH8 is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist by putting girls in princess costumes and then breaking with stereotype by having them swear up a storm and shout out their fury, complete with very adult-like, fed-up gestures and the waved middle finger.

The reaction FCKH8 has carefully cultivated is the drama that results from presenting such high contrasts — furious princesses calling out the system in which they are entrapped, flipping off the patriarchy, and angrily speaking out.  The power of seeing this dramatized speaks to how coded and closed these systems are — “little girls” under most circumstances would hardly be allowed to swear with such abandon, if they even wanted to.

Is there something cathartic about hearing these injustices called out and denounced with anger? There is.  For those furious about gender inequality it can be gratifying hearing these issues called out — when the adult women in the ad step forward. This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props.  While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.

I‘ve always loved Peggy Orenstein’s coined phrase “empowertainment” — a moment when companies use a generic sense of “sisterhood” or a cheery pro-girl message to essentially sell products. The criticism of this practice is (necessarily) ongoing and FCKH8, a company that I’m certain will defend its practices as radical and empowering, is doing exactly this.  In Andi Zeisler’s excellent round-up of the history of “femapowerment” or, as she coins it, “empowertising,” she calls out the companies that, beyond girls, are co-opting feminism — or their brand of it — to essentially sell products.  

Criticism of the company has been swift, and wide, but the click-bait appeal of this video will probably outnumber its detractors.  A few years back the video “Riley on Marketing” went viral as the outraged Riley decried the limitations imposed upon her by gendered marketing.  There was nary an f-bomb in the mix.  This was a real girl, speaking out unscripted about the injustices she knows.  The authenticity in her voice and in her message garnered almost 5 million YouTube views and carries far more power than FCKH8′s gimmicky, egregious act.

 

Mama w/ Pen

Quick Hit: Why Caregiver Discrimination Is Bad for Business

Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 9.13.33 PMWorkplace consultant, coach and work-life advocate Rachael Ellison penned an excellent post chock full of qualitative data at HuffPo Parents last week, “Why Caregiver Discrimination Is Bad for Business.”

Too good not to share.

Remember Catalyst’s Bottom Line series? That groundbreaking research series that first explored the link between gender diversity and corporate financial performance? Well, this is of that flavor, but focused on the bottom-line benefits of retaining working parents, and based on stories from accomplished, successful professionals in their thirties and forties in dozens of industries. As Ellison notes, “In order to create or sustain family friendly workplaces, you need buy-in from organizational leadership, effective manager training, and employee accountability. Most companies don’t have all three, and as a result they lose their top talent. And, it’s costing them a fortune.”

Ellison is working on a book, REworking Parenthood, for which she is currently collecting stories from parents in the trenches, that will help us understand how companies are succeeding and failing in supporting employees’ lives.

Read on, share away, and follow her at her blog and Twitter (@REworkingparent) as she goes.

 

Second Look

Sexual Harassment: The Continuing Need to Speak Truth to Power

Last week Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice sponsored a screening of the film Anita: Speaking Truth to Power.For me the afternoon was an emotional roller coaster, a visceral reminder of the power and the risks of speaking out.

The film tells the story of Anita Hill’s testimony during the October 1991 US Senate hearings for President George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Hill’s testimony, carried on live television, reverberated throughout the country. Never before had the sexism and racism of the overwhelmingly white male majority of the US Congress been so publically exposed. The all white, all male Senate Committee quizzed the young University of Oklahoma Law School professor relentlessly. They repeatedly asked her to re-state the precise details of the sexual harassment Clarence Thomas had engaged in when Hill worked for him at the EEOC and the US Department of Education. To a man, the Committee simply ‘didn’t get it’. Across the nation tempers flared, women were energized and far too many men joined the Senators as members of ‘ Club Clueless’.

One of the most moving lines in the film is Hill’s recollection of her mother’s proud words of support, “You know who you are.” The movie ends on a hopeful note– scenes of Hill working with young women, helping them find their own voices.

I was still lost in renewed anger as the film ended and a distinguished panel took the stage. Watching members of the Senate Committee asking whether anyone else had witnessed the exchanges, implying that Hill’s word could not be trusted, hearing Senators dismiss Thomas’s behavior as ‘only words’ was infuriating. I found myself seething as Senators harped on the fact that Hill had not immediately reported the harassment—as if doing so were the easiest thing in the world.

It all should have felt like old history. It didn’t.

Ignorance of the reality and impact of sexual harassment might not play out on televised Senate hearing in 2014, but the same lack of understanding surrounds us today. It’s in the entertainment media, in the comments from professional sports spokesmen and military commanders, in the judgments of school and university officials, in the denials of work place supervisors. After all, the response too often goes, ‘its just words, or horseplay or something the girl/woman provoked.’

Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times and author of the book Strange Justice: the Selling of Clarence Thomas, introduced the panelists: Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandies University, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, the only African American man to step up in 1991to join Hill’s advisory team, and Nan Stein, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has focused on in sexual harassment in K-12 education since 1979. Their discussion focused on public discourse around issues of gender violence—where we were in 1991 and where we are now.

We’ve made progress. Private conversations have turned into public ones, but as Hill pointed out, the past twenty-three years have been replete with brief moments of public engagement with the issue that then fade, only to be repeated when a new outrage occurs. We haven’t yet found a way to move beyond sporadic points of awareness to more sustained, effective action. Stein noted that with all forms of gendered violence increasing in severity and occurring at younger ages educators cannot hide behind the term ‘bullying’. Bullying is not illegal under federal law, but sexual harassment is. We owe it to our children to name the offense clearly in order to provide appropriate avenues of redress.

Some say, “Well, verbal harassment isn’t the same as rape or battering.” But while words may leave less physical damage, they leave lasting scars, can effect careers and stunt emotional and intellectual growth. Ignoring or belittling any form of sexual abuse provides fertile ground for the escalating gender violence all round us. More than 60 colleges and universities are under investigation for their handling of campus sexual assaults. This week the Huffington Post reported that less than 30% of students found guilty are expelled.

Hill addressed another aspect of the hearings: the extent to which progress in public discussion and understanding of acts of gender based harassment and violence has not been matched by similar progress in discussions of gender and race. No one watching the original hearings or viewing the film can forget the words with which Clarence Thomas stopped the Senate Committee in its tracks, effectively intimidating them from calling other women waiting to testify about Thomas’s behavior. Categorically denying all charges, Thomas called the hearings a ‘high tech lynching”. The Committee backed off.

In popular parlance, only black men are lynched. The Committee feared being labeled racist, but never seemed to consider their behavior toward Hill. And yet part of the reason they could bagger, doubt and ignore Anita Hill was exactly because she was black. If a young, white female lawyer had given the same testimony would the Committee have found it as easy to dismiss?  I doubt it.

By changing the discourse, Thomas succeeded. The Senate confirmed his appointment 52 to 48. Pundits labeled the hearings a case of ‘he said, she said’—-something no one could unravel.

But the outrage and the conversations continued and grew. In Hill’s words, “It was the wisdom of women rather the opinions of pundits that proved to be correct.” It was not that no one had addressed sexual harassment and gender violence before the Senate hearings. Stein noted that in Minnesota in 1991 high school student Katie Lyle had finally won some measure of redress for the savage sexual harassment she had endured at her school. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence had formed in 1978. But Anita Hill’s courageous, clear words in front of some of the most powerful men in the country had been witnessed across the nation. The hearings galvanized women.Female candidates ran for office at every level; several won.

October marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1991 Senate hearings. It is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. New White House initiatives and public service ads addressing gender violence are underway. We cannot let these initiatives be simply one more ‘point of engagement’ that flares, then fades.

Charles Ogletree concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that in 1991, ‘Women stood up.” There is more work to do. It is again time for women and men to stand up and speak out. To sit silently is to condone behaviors no one should endure.

Manly Musings

#HeForShe, Domestic Violence, and Privileging Male Allies

“Go Hermione!”

Emma Watson HeForSheA young woman in my Sociological Theory class yelled those words as soon as she saw me pull up a clip of Emma Watson’s speech at the UN for the class to see. We were covering Charlotte Perkins Gilman that day, and I showed the video because I thought she articulated the core tenets of contemporary feminist theory pretty well. For ten minutes, my students sat in rapt attention as Watson explained how (1) gender inequality still exists, (2) gender binaries are socially constructed, and (3) masculinity isn’t healthy for men, either.

While these ideas aren’t new—Perkins Gilman voiced many of them over a century ago—Watson’s speech caught fire both in my classroom and on social media. What attracted the most attention was her call for men to join the HeForShe campaign as advocates for change. Within minutes, #HeForShe started trending on twitter. Within hours, male celebrities began posting pictures of themselves holding handwritten #HeForShe placards. This made me feel good about the world.

But it also made me sad.

The reason for this is because the statistics Watson outlined in her speech have been articulated at conferences, panels, and rallies across the country for decades. In terms of pay, power, and prestige, women almost always lag behind men. Nearly a quarter of women in the US will experience severe physical violence from their intimate partners in their lifetime. However, people aren’t retweeting and sharing Watson’s speech solely because of the facts she cited. Instead, her speech went viral because of the audience who finally listened: men. And this is what made me sad.

We all know that the fight against domestic violence will never be won by women alone. Men need to be an equal part of the movement. Yet, the question of how to get them involved is still a subject of debate. One way to recruit them is to praise their presence and applaud them for voicing their solidarity. This is an effective strategy to get more men involved. It works.

However, there is a downside to this approach. Namely, celebrating the presence of allies can sometimes exacerbate the same inequalities that organizations like HeForShe are trying to combat in the first place.

Moral wages - cover artI’ve seen this process firsthand. As a sociologist who spent roughly a year and a half doing ethnographic field work inside an agency that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, one of the most common questions I get about my research is, “so, what is like to be a guy in a place like that?” Not many men work inside rape crisis centers or battered women’s shelters. Most of the time, when I was answering the crisis-hotline or helping clients fill out legal forms, I was the only man in the building. And while many people presume that this would make my research harder, it had the opposite effect. It made it easier.

You see, like Emma Watson said, domestic violence victim-advocates and counselors aren’t man-haters. This caricature is completely inaccurate. You know why? Because stereotypes like “feminazis” make it harder for them to help their clients.

The more judges and cops see staff at these agencies as spiteful and biased, they less likely they are to sign their clients’ Orders of Protection or dispatch officers to enforce them. Advocates and counselors don’t worry about what people call them—they have thick skin. What they care about is their clients’ safety. Debunking these “anti-male” myths is a way to help their clients.

So, how do they prove they don’t hate men? They applaud men who help out the least bit.

In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Staff at agencies like the one I studied are typically underpaid and overworked. Pats on the back are sometimes the only thing they can afford to offer in exchange for men’s help. In my book, I call these symbolic rewards “progressive merit badges,” and they were given to men who understood how domestic violence was really just a means for abusers to exercise power and control over their intimate partners.

While it might be easy to dismiss the progressive merit badges men can earn for helping out as inconsequential, that would be a mistake. In some careers, these stamps of approval have real value. I watched the men who earned them climb their career ladders quicker than their peers.

During my research, I watched male sheriff’s deputies promoted into better paying liaison positions because of their affiliation with the agency. I watched an assistant district attorney leverage his years of work with victims of domestic violence as a feature item in his successful campaign for judge. I watched a “batterer intervention facilitator” parley his experience counseling abusers into his own private practice.

In these cases, being an ally paid off—not just symbolically, but economically, too. This isn’t an isolated case. Privileging allies to combat social problems is, well… problematic.

To understand my concerns, first consider what it means to be an ally. An ally is someone who helps others solve their problems. Whites who fight racism, straight folks who battle homophobia, the wealthy who seek to end poverty; these actions are considered virtuous because of their presumed selflessness. We expect people of color, those who identify as queer, and the poor to fight to improve their condition. For whites, straight folks, and the wealthy, their privileged positions make their acts voluntary—they do it because they want to, not because they have to.

Second, under what conditions do allies become valuable commodities to social movements? Short answer: when others members of their privileged group behave badly. Without racism, there is no virtuosity in whites taking a stand against discrimination. Without homophobia, being a straight ally would be a meaningless term. For allies, their value is inversely proportional to the harm done by their social group.

To see this at work today, think about the recognition earned by men who declare their support for Emma Watson. The more credible we perceive the threats by some men to post nude pictures of her on the internet as revenge for her speech, the more valuable her male allies become. In other words, the more we fear gender terrorism by some men, the more we applaud other men for denouncing it.

The answer to this dilemma is not for women to do all the work themselves. Obviously, men’s presence is needed. Instead, the solution is to reflect on why male allies become such precious commodities in the fight against domestic violence.

Remember, not everyone has spare time, money, and energy to give; and not everyone can protest without fear for their personal safety. Conferring progressive merit badges to those who already have these privileges—especially considering their value in some career tracks—can unintentionally exacerbate the same state of gender inequality that is the root cause of domestic violence from the outset.

There is a lot of work to do, we need all hands on deck. Men’s help should be applauded just as any woman’s. But being a member of the group who created a mess should not be the criteria for celebration when a select few of them offer to clean it up.

______________________

Kolb PhotoKenneth Kolb is an associate professor of sociology at Furman University in Greenville, SC. He is the author of, Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim-Advocacy and Counseling, University of California Press, 2014.

Nice Work

Our Hearts Our Selves Our Research Agenda

Tina Pittman Wagers is a clinical psychologist and teaches psychology at University of Colorado Boulder. She just survived a heart attack.

Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon six weeks ago.

Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon seven weeks ago.

I am new to this role as a heart patient. My heart attack was five weeks ago, and I am getting the feeling that I have just begun down the confusing maze of angiograms, CT scans, EKGs, medications (and lots of ’em), heart rate monitors, cardiac rehab classes and blood tests. Indeed, even the phrase “my cardiologist” is one I never thought would pass my lips. Here’s why: I am 53 (we’ll discuss the significance of this age in a moment). I am fit, active, slim, haven’t eaten red meat for about 20 years and am a big fan of kale, salmon and quinoa, much to the chagrin of my two teenage sons. I live near the foothills in Boulder, Colorado, where I hike with my dog and often a friend or two, almost every day. I had completed a sprint triathlon two weeks before my heart attack. Ironically, this event was a fundraiser for women with breast cancer – it turns out that heart disease kills women with more frequency than breast cancer. But, hey, who knew?

My heart attack happened while I was swimming across a lake in Cascade, Idaho. I was about a quarter mile into the swim when I found that I couldn’t breathe, and was grabbed by an oddly cold and simultaneously searing band of pain about three inches wide across my sternum. My husband, Ken, was on a paddleboard nearby and helped pull me out of the water, and started paddling me back, stopping to allow me to vomit on the way back to shore. If you’ve never been on a paddleboard, it may be hard to imagine the balance it takes to paddle relatively quickly and keep the board from getting tipped over by the unpredictable movements of a heaving passenger in the midst of a heart attack. Suffice to say that I am grateful for Ken’s strength and balance in innumerable ways. An hour later, I was at a clinic in McCall, Idaho, where an astute ER doc was measuring my heart rate (very low) and heart attack-indicative enzyme called Triponin (rising) so I won an ambulance ride to St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho. I received excellent care there, queued up for an angiogram the next morning and was diagnosed with SCAD: a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, and, fortunately, a relatively mild one. Twenty percent of SCADs are fatal. Furthermore, I have none of the typical risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

I do have one of the main risk factors for this kind of heart attack, though: I am a woman. Eighty percent of these heart attacks occur in women. The average SCAD patient is 42, female and is without other typical risk factors for heart attacks. The current thinking about SCADs is that they are not as rare as originally thought, but are under- diagnosed because they happen in women who don’t look like typical heart patients.

Another related factor: I am menopausal. The majority of SCAD patients are post-partum, close to their menstrual cycle or menopausal – all times in women’s lives during which we experience significant fluctuations of sex hormones. Up until five days before my heart attack, I had been on low doses of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), in an effort to vanquish the hot flashes, sleep disruption and cognitive fogginess I was experiencing. I suppose HRT might have also represented an attempt to hang on to youth, in a youth-and sexuality-obsessed culture in which the transition to menopause often means a dysregulated and sweaty march into irrelevance.

Since I had my heart attack, I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, but that’s another column) interacting with professionals in the cardiology world, trying to figure out what happened to me, and how I can avoid having another SCAD – the rate of recurrence in my population is about 20-50 percent. I have encountered some lovely people, but almost all of them are baffled about what to do with me. I am atypical, as they inevitably explain, but the medications, the treatments, the rehab programs that they have to offer are designed for typical patients. So, that’s what my doctors try, but there is a lot of “voodoo vs. science” as one cardiologist explained, because science doesn’t have the answers to my questions. (I would add that there is a cardiologist, Dr. Sharonne Hayes at The Mayo Clinic, who is doing a lot of the research and seeing the patients who’ve had SCADs. I hope to meet her one day. I imagine a scene something like my 13-year-old self meeting David Cassidy, only in an exam room in Rochester, Minnesota– it’ll be just that cool.)

One of the factors that contributed heavily to my medical predicament was no doubt my menopausal and HRT status. The American Heart Association points out that lower estrogen levels in post-menopausal women contributes to less flexible arterial walls, clearly a factor in SCADs. The question then arises: how might HRT help prevent another heart attack? However, as anyone who’s even scratched the surface of the HRT world, there is a lot of conflicting data about who should use HRT, who shouldn’t, what the benefits and risks are, and what the differences may be between different formulations and methods of delivery of HRT. One study, the Women’s Health Initiative study, was a large study started in the early 1990s, and was a valiant attempt to gather data about the effects of HRT on women’s health, including cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, the average age of the women in this study was 63 – 12 years older than the typical age of the American woman hitting menopause and considering HRT, so the results have been criticized for their poor generalizability to newly menopausal women.  The research on HRT since the WHI study has been scattered, often contradictory, and hard for the average woman to access.

Why do we know so little about women and heart attacks, why they happen, what the symptoms are, and what we can do about hormonal factors that contribute? A big part of the problem is that, until the National Institute of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act in 1993, researchers largely excluded female humans from their studies. NIH has just this year (2014!) decided to use a balance of male and female cells and animals in their research. Up until now, 90 percent of the animal research has been conducted on males. Animal research, which is often a precursor to clinical trials in humans, has been missing out on vast pieces of investigation related to the female body. I am living (fortunately) proof of the fact that the delays in including females in research have translated into significant gaps in clinically relevant knowledge related to women’s health. Well-meaning physicians and practitioners only have the “typical” approaches to try with their “atypical” patients. Why this appalling delay to include female subjects? Because female rodents as well as humans experience menstruation and menopause, which are frequently considered dysregulating nuisances to many scientists. As a consequence, we have an enormous amount of catching up to do in order to understand what factors affect female bodies and health problems in different ways than our male peers.

Emma Watson gave a great talk last week to the UN about feminism meaning equal access to resources. One of the most important resources we have is scientific knowledge that can be applied to responsible, effective and efficient clinical care. Let’s hope that women can start to be understood as typical research subjects and patients, not as inconvenient, fluctuating, atypical anomalies.

GenderLab

“Life Goal: Make My Dad a Hard-Core Feminist”

In 2013, I became the director of an unusual gender center. This is its story.

September 18, 2014

My Girl w/ Pen column is called “GenderLab” or watch what happens when you run one of the most unusual gender centers in the country. That sounds hyperbolic. I know because I can’t believe I’m living it. As we are about to finish year one today, I’ve come up for enough air to document this experiment. And this year I’m going to be writing about it.

Kurt Voss & Daughter Cassandra

Kurt Voss & Daughter Cassandra

The heart of our center is a story of father/daughter love. You heard that right. Not an abstract story about rights and politics–though we know from Women’s Studies that those things are also personal. But ours starts with the personal. This is a story of love across difference. Of grief and transformation. Of a father who listened to his daughter and a daughter who stayed in dialogue with her father.

Cassandra Voss, for whom the center is named, was my student. She was effervescent. Let me give an example. When I first met her in 2004, I was two years into being an assistant professor. In class I was talking about the film Iron Jawed Angels, which is about Alice Paul and the suffragettes who secure the women’s vote in 1920. In the film, Alice Paul is played with pluck and determination by Hilary Swank; she wears her hair in long braids on occasion. After class, a young woman, Cassadra Voss, ran up to me and said, “Look, I wear my hair like Alice Paul. Ever since I saw the film, I love to wear my hair in braids like her.” I thought who is this luminous, geeky creature in front of me who does feminist cosplay? I loved her from the start.

Cassandra set out to be the first-ever major in Women’s and Gender Studies at our school. We started a minor in 2005 (notably late in higher ed), but she wouldn’t settle for that. She was also determined to put on the first production of the Vagina Monologues. And she insisted on hiring the first man in the Women’s Center. So she wasn’t so different from Alice Paul afterall. The thing that’s harder to capture about her is that she was one of the most hopeful, ebullient people I’ve met in my life. And that combination of bravery and delight was intoxicating. She was the kind of student who always bounded into my office and plopped on my couch. There was nothing small or half-hearted about her.

You see I’ve been in Women’s Studies a long time. Since I was 19–the same age Cassandra was when she first took Introduction to Women’s Studies. At her age, I was equally passionate about gender and social justice, but I was not nearly as loving. Early I had to manage so much anger about deep inequality and oppression; I didn’t know what to do with it. Cassandra managed to keep believing in people and “their better angels” which often made me feel a bit sheepish in her presence. She recentered my politics in love. And one of the ways she did that was how she talked about her dad.

Cassandra Voss, St. Norbert College

Cassandra Voss, St. Norbert College

I’ll never forget when Cassandra said to me, “My dad is coming to hear our panel on The Women’s Room and he’s conservative and I want you to meet him.” I had taken Cassandra and a handful of students to present their work on that interesting, rarely taught early classic, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. Now they were presenting it again at our undergraduate research day. I walked in the room and spotted him immediately. He had the starchiest shirt in the room. On a campus that is uber midwest-casual, Kurt Voss was pressed and tucked. And like his daughter, game for anything. Which is why the Fox-news watching, deeply religious CEO was in the front row taking notes about second-wave feminism. Some of Cassandra’s friends snickered at his questions which were uninformed, understandably, and real. Real questions, ones they needed to answer to not cocoon themselves in their private ideologies. That day in the spring of 2006, I had no idea that a little over a year later, Kurt and I would begin a friendship after Cassandra’s death that would last six years.

Cassandra died unexpectedly in 2007.  Sometimes I still dream about her. Only now when I wake up, I go to work and see her face every day in the building her father built for her. Some days I talk to her. Some days, I stare at the floor because I can’t look at her face. It’s just too much. I make my coffee and get to work. But there are moments, like her birthday coming up where I remember one of the three life-long goals she wrote on her then “Myspace” page in 2007: my goal is to make my dad a hard-core feminist.

She got her wish.

Stay tuned for how that dad built a multi-million dollar gender center.

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Cassandra Voss Center St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin

Cassandra Voss Center,  St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin