Hey Girl w/Pen readers! Don’t miss Girl w/Pen’s Natalie Wilson great post, now up right over here.
Hey Girl w/Pen readers! Don’t miss Girl w/Pen’s Natalie Wilson great post, now up right over here.
It is weird. The evidence from psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience and history point in the same direction: there’s just not much to the claims of a war between love and lust or that equality in relationships—or even housework—damages sexual desire. Such clarity begs the question, why all the hype and misinformation about sexual disappointments in marriage or committed relationships?
There’s a quick, cynical answer, and I heard it from most people I spoke to when writing my recent article in Psychology Today on Love and Lust. The sex hype is instrumental in fueling anxiety with “How I’m doing?” “What’s wrong with me?” “Am I keeping up with the Jones’s?”
Why do we keep seeing these claims that long-term relationships mean you aren’t having the “best possible sex”? I discussed this with Vanderbilt University sex researcher Laura Carpenter: She speculated, “Is it some version of late modern capitalism gone crazy? Think about it: We are not good capitalists or good consumers anymore if we are committed to our car, house, brand of yogurt, clothes, shoes—and in a culture all about consumerism and desire—why would you not extend that idea—have that expectation about relationships and sex?” Carpenter continued, “We don’t know what normal is. We really don’t–even if merely in statistical sense, much less in the sense of what is good for you or what people desire.”
Who cares what normal is? People hate the imposition of “normal”—but it definitely absorbs attention. When it is in the air they notice it and respond to it. It is irritating to the mind, the heart, the ego.
One (non-sociologist) friend I talked to—a straight married guy with three kids–rolled his eyes about the recent series of sex-can’t-last-in-marriage articles. “Part of the premise is that ‘happiness’ is a never-ending quest for peak experiences–sexually and romantically. Our society conditions us to believe we can achieve and maintain a state of bliss, to have a peak marriage and a peak sexual relationship for decades. That isn’t the way it is, and if that’s how you set your expectations for a relationship then you’re guaranteed to be disappointed. There are valleys and plateaus, and they are based on other things in your life—career, children.”
A D.C. colleague I met during her busy work day—it started early because it was her day to drive her kids to school—was just pissed off by the claim that career couples don’t have sex. That’s not her normal. “You might be fighting or upset or low, for us it has nothing to do with what’s happening in our sex life. I find that is much safer, there’s no keeping score. Some people would say that’s so unemotional—but I think that is what makes it fun!”
The even more cynical answer—given that stories about disappointments with married sex focus on women’s sexual desire or on women’s careers—is that it fuels anxiety about “what’s wrong with women?” It works like a dog whistle: an argument using code that, in this case, signals that women just can’t get have it all—but they are on the hook for it.
One economist pondered, “Are articles like this a way of telling women ‘don’t expect too much from your husband; settle for what you can get; if you’re accommodating and don’t push on the chores you’ll get rewarded’?” She was making reference in particular to coverage of the ASR study on egalitarianism and housework–you know, the study where sexual frequency was associated with whether the housework you did was gender normative. My PT article takes a few steps to putting the ASR study into perspective–including useful comments from study co-author Julie Brines. But here’s how the dog whistle works: the study doesn’t say that couples have lower sexual satisfaction depending on housework, just a tiny bit of difference on sexual frequency. There is no disappointment. Well, that is sort of not true. I’ve been disappointed that we are still talking about this.
This month’s column features a guest-post by Mary K. Assad, Ph.D.: she critiques recent health debates on nutrition and encourages us to question the science behind medical claims being made about heart disease. Assad is a Lecturer in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University who studies medical rhetoric, with a focus on health communication aimed at the general public.
In The Big Fat Surprise (2014), investigative journalist Nina Teicholz “lays out the scientific case for why our bodies are healthiest on a diet with ample amounts of fat and why this regime necessarily includes meat, eggs, butter, and other animal foods high in saturated fat.” She argues that current medical guidelines are based on unproven hypotheses about dangers of saturated fat.
Teicholz’s book echoes arguments of writers including Gary Taubes, who in a 2002 New York Times essay and subsequent books urges that medical recommendations for a low-fat diet have caused America’s obesity epidemic. Multiple sources have condemned low-fat approaches and urged Americans to consume more fat and fewer carbohydrates: e.g., Dr. Peter Attia’s Eating Academy, Mercola Products and PCC Natural Markets.
As a medical rhetorician and writing instructor, I care about how health messages aimed at the general public transform medical information into public knowledge. We learn about our bodies and health through such discourse. However, distinguishing fact from fiction within these conversations is often more challenging than deciphering the original research studies because writers with competing arguments all cite “science” as their evidence.
While researching women’s heart health for my dissertation, my professional and personal worlds collided: I learned I had high cholesterol at age 29 despite a low BMI and regular exercise. Based on my doctor’s advice (which resembled the American Heart Association’s guidelines), I drastically revised my diet and realized that “burning off” calories is not the same as preventing arterial blockages. Yet, what if my doctor’s advice was misguided? What if reducing cholesterol and saturated fat would hurt rather than help me? The Big Fat Surprise and similar texts call into question decades of medical guidelines. They aim to do more than stir controversy: they seek to persuade us to change our approaches to healthy eating and to distrust medical advice that, presumably, was based on faulty science.
However, close inspection of these texts reveals that they often misrepresent medical research when translating it for the general public. For instance, Attia asserts: “Eating cholesterol has very little impact on the cholesterol levels in your body. This is a fact, not my opinion. Anyone who tells you different is, at best, ignorant of this topic. At worst, they are a deliberate charlatan…To see an important reference on this topic, please look here .” The linked abstract states, “the relation between dietary cholesterol and the risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] is not clearly understood.” Nowhere does the source state that ingesting cholesterol has “very little impact.” Further, this article raises the possibility that 15-25% of the general population are “hyperresponders,” meaning that dietary cholesterol affects their measured LDL cholesterol more than usual. The researchers urge the importance of examining the relationship between dietary cholesterol and CHD among this group. Attia acknowledges none of this information.
By providing a link to a medical journal, Attia points to medical authority to support his argument without acknowledging how this source complicates or contradicts his claims. This tendency to draw on medical evidence by gesturing toward research, rather than actively conversing with it, is problematic: readers may be drawn in by liberating claims (eat as much red meat as you want!) because they believe them to be scientifically supported.
Indeed, the Amazon.com summary for Teicholz’s book proclaims, “science shows that we have needlessly been avoiding meat, cheese, whole milk, and eggs for decades and that we can now, guilt-free, welcome these delicious foods back into our lives.” In a culture where we are conditioned to feel guilty for eating indulgent foods, promises of dietary freedom may be persuasive because they tap into social — and particularly female — anxieties about weight, food, choices, and guilt.
As a woman, I am conscious both of the social pressures to “watch what I eat” and the medical guidelines that advise the same. However, navigating competing claims to scientific truth requires interrogation of not only the claims but also the ‘means of persuasion’. A rhetorical approach creates a critical distance between health messages and our decision-making processes. When reading an article, book, or website, we must ask several key questions: What is this text trying to persuade me to believe or do? How does it go about accomplishing this task? What evidence is offered, and how is it presented?
Over the past year, I’ve read about cholesterol from many sources but have been most persuaded by a friend who told me how a vegan diet reduced his cholesterol. In closing, then, I ask: who or what has persuaded you to make a health-related decision in your life, and what made the claim convincing? Conversations about health need to include attention to language and persuasion. Only then can we begin to make sense of what we’re being told and determine how to respond.
A few years ago, before I had even begun to contemplate having a child, I regularly read Ayelet Waldman’s blog, Bad Mother, now repurposed in book form. What most appealed was the sense that someone was pulling back the curtain on what was always made to seem (with a ring of beatific sacrifice) easy, naturalized, and rewarding. Waldman’s commitment to honesty about the work, boredom, and at times ugliness (in all senses) of mothering her four children felt transgressive and, with its escape-valve honesty, like a relief. Soon enough, it seemed like the label “bad mother” began to proliferate — as angsty confessionals began to turn up everywhere. What has remained fixed, however, is the polarized use of the terms “good” and “bad” although their definitions almost interchange as Elissa Strauss astutely writes: “In the beginning, bad mommy was gritty and sometimes off-putting, but overall she offered a more realistic parenting model than the good mommy, and so she took off on mommy blogs and in the hearts of conflicted mothers across the nation.”
As Strauss recapitulates, then “bad mothers” started getting “a little judgey themselves” as terms such as “mom-policing” and “sanctimommy” proliferated in a culture of “reverse bullying,” as she puts it, that still bifurcates how mothering is classified, often enough with political implications. The recent brouhaha that emerged when New York City first lady Chirlane McCray dared to admit her ambivalence about about giving up work was quickly translated into a meant-to-be-shocking “I Was a Bad Mom” headline. Jennifer Senior’s astute retort blames the media-generated need to distort ambivalence into mom-shaming. A video produced for American Greetings’ online greeting-card shop went viral this spring, playing upon the impossible-hardship-of-motherhood theme, with its problematic categorization, once more, of motherhood as a job which is endlessly demanding but eternally worthy. Between the tropes of “good mother” and “bad mother” rests the realities of most women.
Thankfully, a body of literature has sprung up by writers committed to investigating the nuances of an experience that is perpetually shifting, even moment to moment. Speaking out honestly about mothering can still be fraught, but as feminist blogger Andie Fox writes: “By sharing private and difficult moments as mothers we create a more complete picture of the reality of motherhood — it ultimately frees us all…. But the fear in us in disclosing is palpable — that we might be frauds and that our secret moments exclude us from being good mothers.”
The wealth of essays found within The Good Mother Myth, edited by Avital Norman Nathman is a treasure. With chapters by Girl w/Pen’s own Deborah Siegel and Heather Hewett the thread that weaves throughout is exploration of what “good” and “bad” even means when it comes to parenting. If being “bad” means eschewing cultural constrictions, these writers are glad to take on that mantle, often while still feeling the need to explain how this deviation is for the best. The tropes often found within literature about parenting are all here: “I’m too young,” “I’m not ready,” “But my partner’s left the picture,” “I’m not sure about the sacrifice,” and “I haven’t overcome my own childhood enough,” alongside heavier issues such as mental illness, postpartum depression, and anxiety.
More unusual are contributions from parents positioned outside the mainstream of what is often represented. Erika Lust, an independent filmmaker who currently lives in Spain, writes straightforwardly about prioritizing time without children for the sake of her career and for her partnership as she hopes that motherhood, rather than challenging sexuality, can be a source of its inspiration. In the essay, “Confessions of a Born-Bad Mother,” author Joy Ladin writes astutely about transitioning from male to female: “I might be recognized by mothers (the ultimate judges) as a ‘great dad,’ but the top of the fatherhood scale fell well short of the lowest rung of true motherhood.” Ladin’s perspective, after inhabiting both gender roles, is intriguing as the “namelessness” she experiences as a transgender parent opens up a new space for negotiation, albeit, as she writes, one often filled with tears and confusion.
Food is a common theme. In “The Macaroni and Cheese Dilemma” Liz Henry comments on her guilt in reaching for the ubiquitous boxed product in the context of writing about parenting and poverty alongside decisions around abortion. “It may not be a roasted chicken with asparagus and couscous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not Good Mothering,” says Carla Naumburg in “Mama Don’t Cook.” Naumburg takes on the onus of “nourishing souls” at the family kitchen table, with “good family meals,” an obligation she refuses. In Heather Hewett’s touching essay, “Parenting Without a Rope,” she navigates caution and overprotection in regards to her daughter’s life-threatening allergies, and the delicate positioning the child-with-allergies and the parent-of-a-child-with-allergies must take within the classroom and social situations. Competition, self-perception, and the spiraling thoughts that ensue, are hilariously captured by Amber Dusick as she writes about a trip to Target in which she spots another Mom who looks perfectly put together and whose kids look “calm and clean and happy.” After which, she writes, “my heart sank — pretty much all the way down to my vagina, and then easily fell out on to the seat of the car.” The new pressures of selective exhibitionism, mediated through social media, is Sarah Emily Tuttle-Singer‘s theme in “No More Fakebook.”
What’s clear is that mothers are caught between more than just the polarizations of “good” and “bad.” There’s joy and hardship, fury and sweetness, days of spiraling despair and moments of unbridled amazement. Judgment lurks behind every corner, and some days it’s the self in the mirror who seems to be casting the sharpest glance. As the phrase “good mother” is turned over and over, its meaning becomes more porous and latticed by nuance. Kristin Oganowski writes, “I challenged the idea that the ‘good’ pregnant woman keeps quiet when she loses a pregnancy, and that the Good Mother hides the loss from her other children and carries on with work and family obligations as if nothing happened.” In “The Impossibility of the Good Black Mother” T.F. Charlton takes on issues of race when she writes, “Still, the images projected on me as I walk my neighborhood streets are not of the Good Mother. No, they are of the Black welfare queen, the baby mama, of women maligned and demonized as everything a mother should not be, foil and shadow to the Good (White) Mother.”
Blogger Andie Fox, while on an annual holiday with female friends and their kids, sans husbands, is frank about the joy they feel when unleashed from the imposition of societal expectation. Hearkening back to a line by foremother Adrienne Rich, Fox writes, “Her discovery back in the seventies that being a ‘bad mother’ could actually make you a ‘happy mother,’ and that happy mothers are good for their children, should not have been news to me when I started my own journey into motherhood in 2005.” Commenting that Rich’s thoughts are “as revolutionary today as they were then, more than forty years ago,” so the cycle spins.
As a poet, I have to give a shoutout to two other books that have joined The Good Mother Myth on my night table’s stack. Rachel Zucker, whose work I have reviewed previously, teaches literature and creative writing and also works as a doula. Motherhood has always been central within her work, but never as explicitly. In Mothers, Zucker writes primarily about her relationship with her own, Diane Wolkstein, a professional storyteller. Zucker’s prose rotates around an axis of trying to understand their relationship, foremost as a daughter, but also as a mother of three sons, as a writer in search of literary foremothers, and as an adult woman who still craves mothering from other maternal figures.
I appreciate Zucker’s celebration of the literary mothers she has had, particularly Alice Notley, whom she quotes and corresponds with throughout the writing of this book. Yet, much reads like a series of journal entries about coming to terms — literally — about what motherhood means as Zucker gathers fragments from her past and holds them up against her present moment. I can’t help but wish she offered more synthesis of what she’s connecting, or, at the least, more nuance and less worry. Instead, the lines feel collaged onto the page with the reader left to associatively connect the gaps. While her diary-like entries intrigue, there seems a deliberate turn from the satisfaction of a narrative arc. I suspect this is, conscious or not, part of Zucker’s refusal to participate in her mother’s art, storytelling, and to break her writing in parallel to her subject(s) — how mothering shatters continuous time and divides the mind.
The book’s epilogue is its most surprising part — and the most powerful. The inclusion of a letter Zucker’s mother writes to her, eschewing this very book’s publication and urging Zucker not to tell these stories — takes on a poignant resonance by the time the reader gets to it. Clearly, her own urge to write is both heritage and embattlement. She ends with the central tone of ambiguity mothering represents for Zucker: “There are mothers. I found and lost them and was born to one and she is hardly mine. What I make of her. Neither real nor wrong nor ever really mine.”
After meeting Carmen Gimenez Smith at the 2014 AWP conference, and then hearing her speak at this truly innovative colloquium on feminist poetics, I was eager to read her contribution, published at the vanguard of these other two. Like Zucker, Gimenez Smith has to untangle her mother’s story in order to understand her own. In Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else she catalogues parts of her life as a mother of a toddler, as a professor, as a poet, as a spouse, as a daughter, as someone who is preparing to have a second child. Written in single lines or short bursts of prose, her writing is lyrical, thoughtful, and shot through with honest anger and frustration as well as the amazement that comes in sudden, saving bursts. The narrative of more fully inhabiting motherhood, as she goes from having one child to two, is freighted with the simultaneous worry about the demise of her mother’s memory and the complicated recognition of Gimenez Smith’s need, as a mother, to be mothered, while recognizing she may well soon be in the role of parent to her own mom.
Bring Down the Little Birds bristles with honest emotion as Gimenez Smith explores the conundrums mothering presents. She writes about the presence of her belly “like a bullet” in the room when she discusses intellectual matters at a student’s defense and the hiring of a housecleaner “to serve as a mediator between the house and me.” Her writing manages to be sharp even as she hones in on the liminal: how hard enduring a moment can be, how much anger is buried inside a dose of joy, the amazement glittering inside still dangerously sharp fragments.
“I want so much” she says frankly, and then later, “A long day at home, no work. Full of resentment.” All of which is tempered with lovely recognitions of other ways in which time can now pass, as she says of her firstborn child, “I’m telling him the world and he is telling it back.” Married to another writer, both know they must guard their time, yet, “My personal time comes at a larger price” Gimenez Smith writes, “I want to find a number value for it, but I don’t have the time. It seems like two and a half to my husband’s one.”
Hovering between poetry and prose, a strength is Giminez Smith’s ability to telescope forwards and backwards, as she remembers her life, pre-child, and looks into the future. Her meditations into her maternal legacy are rich, and allow Gimenez Smith to frame her own entry into motherhood: “I grow into my mother, I grow old with her.” She is skilled at writing about the underweave, the backing that holds a garment together, and there we find this book’s lyrical gift, keen observations weighted down by reality, flying into unseen spaces.
“The good enough mother. The real mother. Other mothers,” Zucker meditates in the middle of her book. These shifting variations are pertinent to all these writers. Zucker simply continues: “I too seem to have gotten older. Am the mother.”
By now you’ve likely seen the Always #LikeAGirl video that went viral, evoking tears of recognition as well as feminist critique about the uneasy equation of empowerment and tampon ads. And if you haven’t yet, click here or watch below.
Empowerment cheese, says Jezebel. An emotional ploy for tampon sales, writes Daily Beast and also Shape, who asked professional female athletes to respond. Outdated, responded ultra-runner Ellie Greenwood. “I agree that we should be way beyond this kind of thing. I can think of so many strong female sports models…I think that we should be at the stage in sports—and also in people’s perceptions of sports—that there is no reason why women can’t do 99 percent of what men do, and having some conversation about it is a little out of date.” Yes, yes, and great.
And still, here’s the thing: I’ve watched this video myself four times. It is manipulative, I agree, given that there’s no clear action on Always’ website steering us to how we might protect pubescent girls from the confidence plunge (other than using a winged panty liner, surprise, or sending out a tweet to prove how awesome doing things #LikeAGirl really is). It is consumer capitalism masquerading as feminism. Yep.
But what I’m interested in, as both a scholar of narrative and a communications professional, is why I, along with so many others, am so darn moved by the message in the video. Let’s forget that it’s Procter & Gamble, just for a tiny sec.
The video’s message is powerful because award-winning filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, the video’s director, is good. Her documentary creds include The Queen of Versailles, Thin, Kids + money, Beauty CULTure. Her photojournalistic book, Girl Culture, is by all accounts an intelligent exploration of American girlhood, endorsed in an introduction by no less than historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg.
So Greenfield is good, and the thinking behind the project is smart. The ad provokes us grown women to think back to a time before we were aware of gender difference, before “like a girl” meant something derogatory. For many of us, that’s hard to do. But if you think back, I bet you can find it. Give it a try. It’s a highly worthy pursuit.
Ok, I’ll go. My own recollection of that moment when I first realized “like a girl” could mean something negative was the day I asked my high school history teacher, who happened to be the boys’ baseball coach and clearly favored the jocks, why no one in the class was bringing up issues of morality when discussing the reasons the U.S. nuked Hiroshima. “Morality? That’s such a girl response,” said someone in the room. Cue snickering from all the boys in the room. Next, cue confidence plunge.
Well, almost. Lucky for me, my English teacher that year, Ms. Medwin, was a big ole feminist, and the world she opened for me saved me from despair. Under her guidance, I wrote my first real term paper–on Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich, women who refused to go under. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” wrote Rich.
Rich also wrote this: “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” To that end, I’d love to see the kind of messaging in the Always video applied to a massive campaign, say, to restore the rights of the women of Hobby Lobby to access contraception through health care. Or to find all the remaining kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Or to any number of wrongs that need righting, right away.
Because at the end of the day and after all the virality, it’s still a tampon ad, and there’s nowhere much for our roused sentiment—the connecting between and among women we experience here as viewers—to go.
And so, a video with a powerful message becomes a lost opportunity. Amanda Hess at Slate sums it up when she notes, “it’s a little sad that all of this enthusiasm for women’s stories are leading us directly to a box of maximum protection wings, while female filmmakers and characters are still so underrepresented at the box office.” We’re wasting our best filmmakers on tampon ads, the headline screams.
Thinking like a girl over here, I say it’s high time empowerment causes, and not just empowerment products, had a PSA as powerful as this tampon ad. Causes for the betterment of women and girls’ lives deserve our most creative thinking, our savviest makers of all sorts.
When the cause for gender equity truly goes viral, when it becomes actionable and not just aspirational, then maybe, just maybe, “run like a girl” will mean, as one of the women in the video implores, “win the race.”
I’m not hugely optimistic, but I have to stay hopeful. Because my greatest hope is that by the time my little girl, now four years old, hits puberty, this conversation will actually be out of date.
Today is the 4th of July, Independence Day. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.“
These stirring words, drafted in June 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, the principal writer of a committee of five— John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman were the others—have inspired Americans for more than 200 years. Most people today assume the term ’men’ means all citizens. “Most” apparently doesn’t include five of the male members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Their June 30th majority opinion gave many U. S. companies the right to dictate, based on the religious beliefs of their owners, the types of contraceptive coverage female employees can access under their health insurance. The dissenting minority included the three female members of the court as well as Justice Stephen Bryer. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a forceful, thirty five-page dissent calling the decision one “of startling breadth”. As Virginia Rutter wrote here at Girl W/Pen, June 30th was “a terrible, horrible, lousy day.”
Things haven’t gotten any better. Yesterday Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a blistering dissent to the Court’s temporary order allowing Wheaton College a religious exemption to filing a required form under the Affordable Care Act. Women, who understand the role of reproductive rights, including the right to use the method of contraception they and their physicians consider best for them as individuals, see through the careless reasoning of the five conservative male members of the Court. Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Justice Sotomayor who wrote that the order was at odds with the June 30th Hobby Lobby decision. “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today. After expressly relying on the availability of the religious-nonprofit accommodation, ….the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position.”
Clearly if women thought we had gained full equality, the Supreme Court decisions of the last few days have put that fantasy to rest.
Political historians have long pointed out that the terms ‘man’ and ‘citizen’ were often considered synonymous, meaning, in fact, only men and only certain men. In the newly formed United States, women were citizens, but citizens who could not vote and whose first loyalties were not to the nation or the community, but to their husbands and fathers. Abigail Adams’ plea to her husband John in March 1776 as he worked to shape the new government, “…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could” fell on deaf ears . Historian Linda Kerber has pointed out that the “revolutionary generation of men who so radically transgressed inherited understandings of the relationship between kings and men, fathers and sons, nevertheless refused to revise inherited understandings of the relationship between men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and children. They continued to assert patriarchal privilege as heads of households and as civic actors” (Kerber, 1998, No Constitutional right to be Ladies).
Women eventually organized, just as Abigail Adams had warned her husband. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have not voice, or Representation.” It took another 140 years before the 19th Amendment guaranteed women’s right to vote in 1920; but the women and men who fought for women’s suffrage eventually won the battle. In 1923 Alice Paul, a leader of the suffrage movement, drafted the Equal Rights Amendment. She saw the ERA as another step necessary to assure equal justice under the law for all citizens. The wording is brief, clear: “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
In 1876, referring to the U. S. Constitution, signed only a few months after the July 4th Declaration, Susan B. Anthony noted “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet, we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”
It’s an old feminist adage that ‘feminism is the radical notion that women are people.’ (see here and here) Fighting for the passage of the ERA, ratified by only 35 of the 38 states needed before the 1982 deadline imposed by Congress, may seem far too quixotic an undertaking in the current political climate. But let’s remember the long battles for the right to vote, the continuing struggle for racial equality, the ongoing battle for equal rights for members of the LGBT community. The struggle for human rights and dignity takes lifetimes, set backs hit hard. But human rights are truly lost only when we give up, give in, surrender.
Sometimes I’m tempted. But not today, not on the 4th of July, not with Abigail Adams and those who followed in her footsteps to inspire us.
By: Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe
This post was originally written for and posted at Slate.com continuing a discussion that emerged in response to our first post for our “Manly Musings,” our column at Girl W/ Pen!—“Bro-Porn: Heterosexualizing Straight Men’s Anti-Homophobia.” We thought we’d repost it here for The Society Pages readers as well. Reactions to both pieces were either incredibly supportive or extremely critical (some of which had the—likely unintended—effect of proving the point of the post). It seems we touched a cultural nerve.
Let’s talk about allies for a moment. What is an ally? The term is used to describe those who support and stand by marginalized groups as they work to combat various social and legal inequalities. For instance, white people can work as anti-racist allies alongside communities of people of color, pro-feminist men can act as allies to women, and straight people can stand as allies alongside sexual-minority communities.
How one can best be an ally has recently come up for debate in the blogosphere (see here, here, and here). Indeed, being an ally is a tricky business. It requires careful thinking through and distinguishing between intentions and the effects of one’s actions.
Given recent changes in public opinion on civil rights for sexual minorities in the United States, it is perhaps little surprise that straight white men are publicly “coming out” for gay rights in an unprecedented way. Survey studies have shown that Americans’ opinions about sexual prejudice and inequality have taken a sharp turn for the liberal. Gallup reports that, for the first time since it has been asking, more than 50 percent of the American public identifies gay and lesbian relations as “morally acceptable.” Similar trends are happening across all manner of beliefs about sexual inequality (support for same-sex marriage, opinions regarding the legality of same-sex sexual behavior, and so on). Demographically speaking, this is a huge shift. The hearts and minds of Americans appear to have altered dramatically in a short period of time. This is wonderful, and it certainly deserves to be celebrated and recognized.
Part of this shift has included increasing numbers of public figures acting as straight allies on issues like marriage equality, school bullying, and workplace discrimination against GLBTQ people. The intentions of straight allies are significant and merit recognition. And yet … as sociologists, we are also interested in the consequences of people’s actions regardless of their intentions. Sociologists often find, for instance, that the consequences of individual or collective actions may be at odds with the intentions driving those actions. For example, when Macklemore (a young, straight, white hip-hop artist) came out with his 2012 song “Same Love” in support of gay marriage, he had great intentions. Macklemore, the nephew of gay uncles, claims he was frustrated with the homophobia in hip-hop music and wrote a song to simultaneously challenge it and to “come out” in support of gay marriage. That’s great, and it deserves recognition. But, here’s our question: How much recognition?
How much recognition does Macklemore deserve for coming out as a straight ally? (And he lets us know that he’s straight, mentioning early in the song that he’s “loved girls since before pre-k,” and his other hit songs feature a fantastic array of misogynistic lyrics.) How much recognition does James Franco deserve for responding to rumors about his sexuality by claiming he is straight, but “wishes [he] was gay.” (Attitude magazine depicts Franco on the cover of a recent issue with the caption, “Hollywood’s Gayest Straight Man.”) How much recognition do a couple of straight guys deserve for staging a kiss-in at Chic-fil-A to oppose the chain’s stance on same-sex marriage? How much recognition is Alec Baldwin entitled to for his donations to GLSEN and his public support of gay rights? How much attention does a group of (mostly) straight college boys deserve for taking off their clothes in opposition to homophobic bullying?
Let’s think seriously about the Chic-fil-A protest staged by comedian Skyler Stone with his friend and fellow comedian Mike Smith. The two men made out in front of a Chic-fil-A as a form of protest. However, they didn’t just make out—they asked gay men how men should kiss one another in the video they distributed on YouTube to document the event. They brushed their teeth, ate mints, and swirled mouthwash to sweeten their breath. In other words, they actively geared up to kiss. And then when they did kiss, it was arguably one of the least erotic make-out sessions ever caught on film. Sure, it was funny. Perhaps their intentions were laudable. But what did they actually accomplish? Did their protest question the naturalness and inevitableness of heterosexuality? Or did they, in effect, re-heterosexualize themselves in a sort of unorthodox way? Their heterosexuality is presented as so powerful, stable, and inevitable that they have to ask others how to kiss another man; and when they do kiss, it is a distinctly unattractive kiss. Allowing for any eroticism would be to call into question the naturalness and strength of their heterosexual drive. (Note to those who might protest that it is indeed their heterosexuality that makes their kissing un-sexy, two words: Brokeback Mountain.)
This is why studying effects, not just intentions, is important. The effect of Stone and Smith’s protest is, in part, to underscore the stability of their heterosexuality, while it seems their intentions were to act as straight male allies.
It’s important to study the effects of allies’ actions for another reason: The positive attention we direct toward these white, straight, male allies for their intentions may be less than desirable. The best way to think of this may be in terms of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the “economy of gratitude.” When she studied the division of household labor in the 1980s in her now famous book, The Second Shift, Hochschild was interested in how American couples divided up work in the home, both physically and emotionally. In the book, she discusses the ways that women’s movement into the workplace was accompanied by continued expectations of domestic upkeep, constituting what Hochschild calls the “second shift.” She found that the home was characterized by an “economy of gratitude”—the ways couples express appreciation to one another for performing the more onerous elements of household maintenance.
In her research, Hochschild found that husbands were often given more gratitude for their participation in work around the house than were women. That is, men were subtly—but systematically—“over-thanked” for their housework in ways that their wives were not. This simple fact, argued Hochschild, was much more consequential than it might at first appear. It was an indirect way of symbolically informing men that they were engaging in work not required of them. In fact, we have a whole language of discussing men’s participation in housework that supports Hochschild’s findings. When men participate, we say they’re “helping out,” “pitching in,” or “babysitting.” These terms acknowledge their work, but simultaneously frame their participation as “extra”—as more of a thoughtful gesture than an obligation.
We would suggest that something similar is happening with straight male allies. We all participate in defining the work of equality as not their work by over-thanking them, just like housework is defined as not men’s work. By lauding recognition on these “brave” men in positions of power (racial, sexual, gendered, and in some cases classed) we are saying to them and to each other: This is not your job, so thank you for “helping out” with equality.
Sometimes, these men are participating in over-thanking themselves for their own support—a phenomenon sociologist Michael Kimmel refers to as “premature self-congratulation.” And at other times, the rest of us are doing it, through Likes and shares on Facebook, public awards, and honors. Sociologist Tal Peretz has also studied the ways that pro-feminist men are sometimes over-thanked in similar ways, referring to the phenomenon as “the pedestal effect.” Peretz finds men are symbolically placed on a pedestal for their efforts. In doing so, we are actually producing a new form of privilege from which they benefit: the privilege of not having their actions (or the consequences associated with them) subject to critique. This form of privilege allows these noble men to escape a critical evaluation and appraisal of their participation.
By situating “ally” as a static state of being, we implicitly suggest that allies are capable of no harm. So, when Alec Baldwin—who puts big bucks behind LGB organizations—calls a man trying to take a picture of his family a “fag,” he relies on this understanding of ally when he claims that he can’t possibly be promoting sexual inequality. He donates money to gay organizations and causes, he’s got gay friends, he’s an actor for crying out loud.
Let’s not make anti-homophobia the equivalent of “babysitting” for dads and activism a de facto “second shift” for marginalized folks. The movement toward equality should be everyone’s responsibility and mandate.
This was a terrible, horrible, lousy day, brought to you by our 5-4 Supreme Court decisions in the Hobby Lobby case and Harris v Quinn. My response: Keep your hands off my body…and my union!
The cases in short:
Off my body: Amanda Marcotte writes about the Hobby Lobby decision at RH Reality Check: “Hobby Lobby is Part of a Greater War on Contraception.” Though there are all those qualifiers to the decision even in my short description above, Marcotte says, “Make no mistake: they are coming for your birth control.” At Salon Elias Isquith offers highlights from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “fiery dissent” including, “The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”
The focus on birth control–nothing else–is just creepy, and it still shocks me when I read people saying “why should we pay for your sex?” Comments on FB and twitter have been flying. Sociologist Jennifer Reich–who just published Reproduction and Society: An Interdisciplinary Reader--said
Never in my life did I think the Supreme Court would rule in such a blatantly politicized way. Religion only applies to birth control, not other health issues other people might need and that others might resent. Having said that and now reading the decision–and spending all my waking hours thinking about vaccination mandates and personal beliefs–it is also clear the government was mistaken in ever allowing any organizations to exercise a religion-based opt-out. If health is a right, who you work for should never have been the criteria for getting what you need. Such a disheartening morning.
Off my union: Jennifer’s outrage over whose rights are asserted (businesses) and are not asserted (workers) brings me to the Harris decision. The Harris v Quinn case (as Nick Bunker explains here) “centered on the ability of unions to require workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to pay fees to the union.” The decision, which abrogates those fees, may lead to even more decline than we have already seen in unionization.
Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld have shown how the historic decline in unions contributes to the rise in inequality since the 1970s. Public sector unions–I’m a proud member of one–have not declined as much as private sector unions, and this is relevant because the Harris case pertains to public sector unions. Meanwhile, a greater proportion of women are in public sector unions than private sector unions. CEPR’s Nicole Woo wrote here last week that strong unions are good for women…and good for families, too. Her column covers her recent paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which highlights just how valuable and important unions are to women. Weak unions are bad for many (and in many ways), but for today I’m thinking about how a decision weakening unions, especially public sector unions, is a blow to women workers.
A really bad day. Not nice at all.
The Nation sparked a robust discussion last week with its incisive online conversation, Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?, featuring moderator Kathleen Geier, Demos’ Heather McGhee, the Center for American Progress’ Judith Warner, and economist Nancy Folbre.
They addressed the “Lean In” phenomenon, articulating how and why Sheryl Sandberg’s focus on self-improvement – rather than structural barriers and collective action to overcome them – angered quite a few feminists on the left.
While women of different economic backgrounds face many different realities, they also share similar work-life balance struggles. In that vein, the discussants argue that expanding family-friendly workplace policies – which would improve the lives of working women up and down the economic ladder – could help bridge the feminist class divide.
A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which I co-authored with my colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, shows just how much of a boost unions give to working women’s pay, benefits and workplace flexibility.
For example, all else being equal, women in unions earn an average of 13 percent – that’s about $2.50 per hour – more than their non-union counterparts. In other words, unionization can raise a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does. Unions also help move us closer to equal pay: a study by the National Women’s Law Center determined that the gender pay gap for union workers is only half of what it is for those not in unions.
Unionized careers tend to come with better health and retirement benefits, too. CEPR finds that women in unions are 36 percent more likely to have health insurance through their jobs – and a whopping 53 percent more likely to participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Unions also support working women at those crucial times when they need time off to care for themselves or their families. Union workplaces are 16 percent more likely to allow medical leave and 21 percent more likely to offer paid sick leave. Companies with unionized employees are also 22 percent more likely to allow parental leave, 12 percent more likely to offer pregnancy leave, and 19 percent more likely to let their workers take time off to care for sick family members.
Women make up almost half of the union workforce and are on track to be in the majority by 2025. As women are overrepresented in the low-wage jobs that are being created in this precarious economy – they are 56.4% of low-wage workers and over half of fast food workers – unions are leading and supporting many of the campaigns to improve their situations. In an important sense, the union movement already is a women’s movement.
Education and skills can get women only so far. It’s a conundrum that women have surpassed men when it comes to formal schooling, yet women have made little progress catching up on pay. Many women who do everything right—getting more education and skills—still find themselves with low wages and no benefits.
With unions already playing a central role in helping to meet the needs working women and their families in the 21st century economy, anyone concerned about the well-being of women should also care about unions.
If you’re still looking for that perfect, think-y Father’s Day gift for the dads in your life, or a beach read for those who (like me) crave research packaged in narrative, science journalist Paul Raeburn’s Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked is the book to get this year. No father’s rights stuff here. Instead, it’s a heavily researched and highly readable story of scientific discovery–an overview of what psychologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and sociologists are finding about the role of fathers in their children’s and families’ lives. Raeburn writes for The New York Times, Discovery, and Scientific American and pens the About Fathers blog over at Psychology Today. He’s the chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT and a father of five.
I’ve watched Paul painstakingly compile the research and craft the narrative for this book over many years. His aim in writing it is not merely to publicize and popularize the new science of fatherhood, itself a worthy goal; he’s also invested in helping fathers—and their families—understand how fathers can be better at what they do. Here’s how our exchange went down. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Paul and I are both members of The Invisible Institute, a NYC-based authors group.)
DS: Moving beyond understanding fathers as sources of authority and economic stability in their lives of their children, you look at how new studies of the unexpected physiological links between fathers and children, from conception into adulthood, are forcing us to reconsider our assumptions and ask new questions. What are the key takeaways here?
One example of the profound connection between fathers and their fetuses is that fathers’ hormones do a dramatic turnaround when fathers’ partners become pregnant. Testosterone falls, and prolactin–yes, men have this nursing-related hormone–rises. The thinking is that this profound biological change changes men from competitive mate-seekers into more nurturing fathers.
And the connections between fathers and their children continue. Brain scans of fathers during their infants’ first four months have found striking increases in activity in the prefrontal cortex in response to looking at pictures of their infants or hearing them cry. The brain regions that changed seem to be associated with fathers’ motivations and moods and their involvement with their babies. Infants are sculpting their fathers’ brains to make fathers better able to respond and take care of them.
And as children grow, similar connections continue to exist.
DS: You’re a father of five. Is this book personal in any way?
PR: In this book, I wanted to collect the research on what is known about fathers and their contributions to their children. I mostly avoided personal recollections, because I think it’s important that we distinguish the facts–the scientific findings–from our personal feelings and impressions. I did, however, break from this rule on occasion, when I found I couldn’t resist saying something about my father or my children.
DS: What was the most interesting finding you unearthed from looking at the research on dads in the animal kingdom?
PR: I was surprised to learn how much humans and laboratory animals–even mice–resemble one another. Neuroscientists are using mice to find the circuits that govern fathers’ behavior, and they are doing it with mice for two reasons. One is that most human research subjects take a dim view of being sacrificed at the end of an experiment and have their brains dissected. Another is that mice’s brains are remarkably similar to humans’ brains. Both have the same structures and similar circuitry. If a discover is made in the brains of mice, it’s highly likely that the same thing is going on in humans.
DS: Research on mothers and mothering abounds. Why, do you think, we still know so little, relatively speaking, about the role of fathers in children’s and families’ lives?
PR: It’s hard to say for sure, but I think one reason is that psychologists in the 20th century became fond of a theory that excluded fathers from child development. Developed by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, this theory–known as the attachment theory–held that the bonding in the first days and weeks of life between mothers and children was essential for healthy child development. Fathers did not appear anywhere in this scenario.
If fathers were not important–which is what most psychologists believed–why bother studying them? I think this must have changed when a psychologist-father was nuzzling one of his kids, or rolling around on the floor, and caught sight of himself in a mirror. In that eureka moment, he might have said, “My child seems to be enjoying my company. Perhaps I matter after all!” And the rest was history.
DS: If you could suggest a research study, from any field, to continue what you acknowledge as the incomplete investigation of fatherhood writ large, what unanswered questions or quandaries would you most wish to resolve?
PR: I would like to know more about single-father families, and families with stay-at-home dads. On June 5, 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of fathers who do not work outside the home rose to a high of 2 million in 2012. “High unemployment rates around the time of the Great Recession contributed to the recent increases, but the biggest contributor to long-term growth in these “stay-at-home fathers” is the rising number of fathers who are at home primarily to care for their family,” Pew wrote.
I’m eager to see what we can learn from those families about fatherhood more broadly.
I also think gay and lesbian families have a lot to teach us. They are not as constrained by gender stereotypes as some of us, and they are inventing parenting roles anew. A recent study, for example, provided the first evidence that gay men’s brains change in ways similar to the ways mothers’ brains change when they have a baby.
Image (mouse): Flickr, Rick Eh?