The floor plan of the White House recently made headlines because of a subtle change that’s caused a bit of a stir: it now features a gender-neutral restroom. Just one. But one was enough to make headlines. Many people don’t think twice about which restroom to use in public. Some people’s choice, however, is more of a dilemma than you might assume. Many transgender individuals struggle with the restroom issue in public settings. And this is an issue that forces cis-gender folks to confront deeply held beliefs about a gender-segregated setting—beliefs some may not fully realize they hold and many may be ill-equipped to discuss.

Making use of a public restroom is not often understood as a political act. Yet, a group of transgender folks in the U.S. and Canada are participating in a bit of digital activism by doing just that. It’s a quiet social movement, but it’s already gained some media attention. Pictures posted alongside the hashtags #Occupotty, #WeJustNeedToPee, and less often #LetMyPeoplePee on all manner of social media are starting a much-needed conversation about gender in and around public restrooms.

Brae Carnes
Brae Carnes, a transwoman in Victoria, depicted here using a men’s public restroom to raise awareness about what discriminatory legislation associated with “bathroom bills” would actually look like in practice.

Brae Carnes is a transgender woman living in Victoria, Canada whose photo-activism went viral when she posted an image of herself applying lipstick in a public restroom with a line of urinals against the wall behind her (see left). Brae told reporters at the Times Colonist, “I’m giving them what they want… I’m actively showing them what it would look like if that became law and how completely ridiculous it is” (here). And Brae is not alone. Michael Hughes, a transgender man living in Minnesota, also caused some digital waves when he posted a series of pictures of himself in women’s restrooms with captions like: “Do I look like I belong in women’s facilities?” (see below). Brae and Michael are part of a vocal group of trans* rights activists opposing legislation that would force transgender people to use the public restroom facilities associated with their birth gender (the sex they were assigned at birth). So-called “bathroom bills” are being introduced in the U.S. and abroad, and #Occupotty is an important challenge to the proposed legislation.

B_6vNpGUQAAm_bgThose introducing bathroom bills most often justify them as being about “protection,” “public safety,” and as attempts to reduce violence and assault. The bills rely on the transphobic myth that transgender individuals are sexually perverse and that they are likely to be sexual predators.  Thus, defenders of these bills often claim that they are about protecting cis-gender people. This avoids the troubling truth that transgender individuals are far more likely to have violence committed against them than they are to commit this kind of violence against others. Indeed, Media Matters found no evidence to substantiate the claim that restroom sexual assaults were higher in trans-inclusive jurisdictions.  One survey of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in Washington D.C. found that 70% of respondents reported having been either harassed in, assaulted in, or denied access to public restrooms (see here).   It’s an important issue and Brae Carnes and Michael Hughes are helping to draw more attention to the lives that hang in the balance.

Bathroom bills portray trans* persons as sneaky and deviant and as attempting to trick the rest of us into using a restroom with them. But, as reported, there have been zero reported attacks on cis-gender people by transgender people in public bathrooms. All of the documented attacks victimized trans* persons. So, why is the conversation about transgender people committing violence rather than about protecting transgender folks from cis-gender violence?

This is an instance of what Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt call a “gender panic”—situations in which people collectively react to challenges to biology-based ideologies about what gender is and where it comes from by attempting to reassert those ideologies. Bathroom bills produce just this type of ideological collision where biology-based ideologies and identity-based ideologies are pitted against each other in public discourse. Inside this ideological discord, we gain new information about the gender binary, gender inequality, and how our beliefs about gender difference take a lot more work to uphold than we may assume.

Bathrooms are intensely gendered spaces. The belief that men and women, boys and girls, ought to relieve themselves in separate rooms is a powerful illustration of our collective investment in gender differences. But, sex-segregated bathrooms are a matter of social preference and organization rather than being recommended by our biology. And when we attempt to resolve this gender panic by resorting to biology (such as introducing legislation mandating the criteria of “birth gender” for public restroom use), we continue an awful tradition of putting transgender people at risk of violence under the guise of protecting “us” from “them.”  But, social scientific research shows that we are in far greater need of policies that protect “them” from “us.”

Bathroom segregation is a political issue and one that deserves academic and public feminist support. The proposed legislation relies on myths associated with cis-gender and transgender people alike. Whether motivated by hate or misunderstanding, these laws fail to acknowledge well-documented facts about violence against transgender people, and in doing so, play a role in perpetuating continued violence and discrimination against transgender people. #Occupotty is a political statement and a request for recognition and rights. But these brave digital activists are doing more than that, too. They are exposing a set of myths that also work to justify gender and sexual inequality. Whether openly acknowledged or not, it is for this reason that #Occupotty meets resistance and it is for this reason that it deserves more support.



This article was republished on Wonder Anew, an ongoing project born from an idea that personal positive change (finding the best in ourselves) is a way to gain insight and wisdom to live a better life, that sharing our personal changes lifts others’ spirits, and that listening to others’ changes can inspire us to be contributors to the world.

Professionals wear many hats. I’m a scholar, author, researcher, editor, educator, analyst, speaker, evaluator, advisor, collaborator, investigator, advocate, and consultant. I’m also a yoga instructor. In addition to my advanced degree in social science, I’ve logged more than 300 hours of formal yoga training and taught more than 400 hours of public classes.

Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana - Big Bend National Park
Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana – Big Bend National Park

Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” means “yoke” or “union.” The practice uses a variety of movements, breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation techniques to help the practitioner achieve union (balance) between the mind, body, and spirit. Although yoga can be traced back thousands of years, modern yoga has morphed into a variety of new styles that incorporate classical and contemporary philosophies and methods. It may be practiced as a form of religion, lifestyle, leisure, or fitness. Americans spend $6 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, workshops, videos, books, and more. Yoga has become so popular as a health modality, with about 17 million practitioners in the United States alone, that doctors are starting to recommend yoga to their patients to improve health and enhance allopathic medicine.

Many modern practitioners (70 percent of whom are women) do yoga specifically to improve their health. I started practicing more than 15 years ago for that same reason. Since then, yoga has become more than a pastime for me. It is the singular item I resist from crossing off my ever-expanding “to-do” list. It is the activity I seek out within the nooks and crannies of passing time. Yoga gives me a chance to breathe, to balance in perilous positions, to stand on my head and quite literally experience the world from a different perspective. Yoga calms me down; it helps keep me sane. Yoga informs my being, my living, and my work.

I’ve practiced yoga for thousands of hours. I’ve taught outdoors in parks and on rooftops, and indoors in living rooms, lounges, classrooms, dance halls, yoga studios, and occasionally in the session rooms at academic conferences. Yoga has been this thing in the periphery of my professional life. But every time I teach a class I witness a palpable shift in the room, a sense of calm that sweeps in and through, from beginning to end.

I used to think my yoga practice was more tangential to my work, but upon reflection I realize that is not the case. I now see that yoga is also a body project that has the potential to engage feminism and inspire feminist consciousness. It is neither a necessary condition nor a guaranteed outcome. But the body has long been the beating heart of copious feminist work.

Feminist Theory and the Body

Early western feminists didn’t always consider the body to be central to women’s empowerment. Women have been equated with the body (not the mind) throughout history, and this helped to justify the treatment of women as property, objects, and commodities. Some feminists therefore believed that equality between men and women rested upon the notion that rationality (reasoning) was the universal human capacity that could render neutral the seemingly fundamental biological differences that promoted gender inequality. Simone De Beauvoir’ radical exploration of such inequality in The Second Sex brought the relation between the body and the self to the center of feminist theorizing. Unlike the history of (dualist) western intellectual tradition in which the body was absent or dismissed as irrelevant, feminism’s second wave argued that the body matters; materially, discursively, performatively, and phenomenologically.

Corporeality is entangled in culture and biology, meaning and substance, identity and lived experience, mind and matter. Yoga can be a window into these varied dimensions of feminist conceptualization.

Culture and Biology: Yoga provides an opportunity to participate in an ancient, though modified, cultural tradition while experiencing the rhythm of life through the synchronization of breath and movement.

Meaning and Substance: As the body breathes and energy flows, mindful attention to the positioning of the body in physical space (in the shape of a cobra, an eagle, a triangle, a wheel, a warrior, a mountain, a corpse) allows awareness of oneself, as corporeal and beyond the body, to surface.

An actor and an observer at the same time, a yoga practitioner may become aware that sensory activities give rise to perceptions and judgments that may be based in reason (e.g., pulling weeds all weekend contracted my shoulders, limiting my range of motion) or may transcend both reason and experience (e.g., I’m not strong). Through the practice, we can learn that perception is not purely sensation; nor is it purely interpretation. Consciousness is a process that includes sensing as well as reasoning.

Identity and Lived Experience: Practicing yoga with others perhaps inches away and planted, firmly or precariously, on their own plot of imagined earth (often delineated by a 2’ x 6’ sticky mat) places the individual in relation, in an orchestrated flow of energy and motion. Unlike many social interactions we simultaneously experience ourselves with, and apart from, others. On a level we know, too, that we are an element of their perceptions just as they are a component of ours.

Mind and Matter: With regular practice, yogis may experience equanimity: a perfect, unshakable balance of mind. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston define it as “an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).” It is the essence of well-being, the foundation for clarity, neutrality, and insight.

Why does the mind-body-spirit of yoga matter for feminism?

Much of feminist organizing focuses on informational empowerment and structural change to improve human conditions. This is vital. Yet the body still matters. It is a source of meaning, identity, empowerment, and connection. It is part of life. It is life. Yet, the body is judged, controlled, politicized, medicalized, contaminated, and abused. The body is objectified, commodified, marked in accord with perceived social value, and exploited for its labor. The body remains a site of inequality and therefore must remain a feminist project.

For me, yoga is a way to remember that I am not a brain on a stick. Being in my body, and connected through yoga and meditation reveals an inner potency and respect of self. I am strong yet vulnerable. I am in my body, of my body, and beyond my body. And when I find equanimity in my yoga practice, the unity of mind-body-spirit provides healthy fodder for my feminist work and the life I want to live.

Additional Resources:

Around 10 years ago, when I was going through menopause, I switched to a new OB/GYN who nearly convinced me to go on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). I had told her that my mother struggled with hot flashes and depression during her “change of life”, as they say, and I was worried about what it would be like for me. As a preventive measure, she prescribed HRT. Jump two frames forward and there I was, standing in line at the local pharmacy waiting to pick up my meds, but feeling very ambivalent. I’ve always been drug-adverse, and I thought, ‘why am I considering taking these meds unless it’s absolutely necessary?’ I was trying to stave off a problem that didn’t actually exist!

Serendipitously, I started to chat with the woman in line next to me, a friend of a friend, who suggested that if I had questions about HRT, I should take a look at Dr. Christine Northrup’s book, “The Wisdom of Menopause”. Even though I walked out of that store with a filled prescription, I never cracked the bottle. Northrup says, “I’ll take my chances with the hormones that mother nature has taken at least 3 million years to come up with”, arguing that women with healthy ovaries and adrenals may not need (HRT). Even for the one-third of women who have had their ovaries removed and may benefit “from a little estrogen or a little progesterone or possibly a little testosterone”, Northrup says that “in no case should these be the conventional hormones that are synthetic. This is important for people to know: you cannot patent a naturally occurring hormone”. (Northrup’s advice about nutritional supplements below.*)

It turns out that there are some serious reasons to avoid HRT. Medical sociologist, Gayle Sulik, writes:  “Clearly, there is a relationship between the use of synthetic hormone therapies and breast cancer even if the mechanisms are not fully understood. In 2002, when the findings from the Women’s Health Initiative estrogen-plus-progestin study came out, about 38 percent of postmenopausal women in the U.S. were using some type of hormone therapy drug. When the WHI findings hit the news, sales plummeted and breast cancer incidence rates also dropped”.

An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine also linked a sharp decline (6.7 percent) in breast cancer incidence in 2003 with the release of the first Women’s Health Initiative report “and the ensuing drop in the use of hormone-replacement therapy among postmenopausal women in the United States.'”

I later read somewhere that around 40% of women who get their HRT prescriptions filled never take the stuff, and that info validated my choice. The link between HRT and breast and other cancers was too real to me. My mother had had breast cancer, and it seemed like taking these drugs was like playing with fire. Instead I devoured literature on alternative ways to deal with menopause symptoms, drank my soy milk and copped a “bring it on” attitude.

As if there weren’t enough reasons to question the use of Hormone Replacement Therapy, I just discovered another. Call me naïve or sheltered, but it never occurred to me that Premarin – an HRT taken by a number of my friends – was named for what it actually is: Pregnant Mare’s Urine. In other words, the drug of choice for so many menopausal women comes from horses that are “farmed” for this exact purpose. Northrup says, “People will tell you that Premarin is natural–yeah, it’s natural if you are a horse!”

According to an April 5th Boston Globe article by Nestor Ramos,, these horses are kept “inside long barns in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan”, lined up in rows of small stalls, “tubes snaking up from under them into vessels nearby”. Geez! Ramos, comments, “It sounds like science fiction — some equine version of “The Matrix,” in which a superior species saps humans for their nutrients — but it’s true: The urine is precious”.

The article is a human interest piece focusing on two women – one, age 70; the other, in her late 20s – who share a love of horses. It turns out that while selling Premarin is a profitable industry, “keeping hundreds of horses pregnant every year” in order to gather their urine has a downside. The mares have babies, and selling the foals for meat is also apparently a profitable business. The elder woman has spent years going back and forth to Manitoba to rescue some of these foals from the “slaughterhouse floor”, but her energy to make this trip has waned, so having a protégé who shares her passion has made it possible for her to carry out this mission, and in a way, build in the potential for someone to carry on when she no longer can make the journey.

I love the story of these two women: one in which the passion and leadership of the “elder” inspires the younger, and the vibrancy of the younger who makes this difficult journey possible. But what if there wasn’t such a lucrative industry around harvesting pregnant mare urine in the first place to supposedly rescue aging women from a natural change in their reproductive cycles? Northrup comments, “The hormones that naturally occur in the human female body have been altered so that the drug companies can justify the R&D programs to patent a hormone and therefore make their money. It’s frightening!”

Check out this Huffington Post piece by investigative reporter Martha Rosenberg, called “When the publication plan is ready, the research will appear”, in which she describes how the marketing arm of a drug company published articles denying the link between HRT and cancer. “Though the marketing firm’s “science” is egregiously flawed — HT has strong links to breast cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s — the papers have not been retracted.”

The cultural narrative for menopause, very much aided and abetted by the pharmaceutical industry – is that it’s a medical crisis to be tackled. Women’s natural reproductive functions have long been viewed as indicative of “otherness”, weakness and incapacity, from menstruation to menopause. While many women surely benefit from a medical approach to easing symptoms of menopause, we must question who and what the medicalization of menopause serves, and recognize that menopause isn’t a wasting away, a time in which we go bonkers and lose our minds and bodies. It is just another passage in a series of chapters in women’s lives.

* Northrup does recommend the use of nutritional supports such as omega 3 fats and B vitamins, “to help clear estrogen dominance from your system”.  Because when you stop ovulating and you don’t have progesterone to balance the estrogen, “that can create a state of anxiety, jitters, and headaches”. Her advice? Eating soy or ground up flax seed “helps a great deal to give you plant hormone support while your body is making the transition”.

For more reading, see:

Peter Conrad: Medicalization and Social Control:

Meyer, Medicalization of Menopause: Critique and Consequences:

Marlene Cimons: Medicalization of Menopause: Framing Media Messages in the 20th Century:

A couple of weeks ago, Gayle posted a wonderful review of Kris De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s new co-edited book, Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Book CoverChange in Higher Education. I am delighted to be a contributor to the book, together with my co-author Susan Gardner.

In our piece, entitled “Confronting Faculty Incivility and Mobbing,” Susan and I aim to understand how faculty experience mobbing and, in particular, to understand how mobbing manifests in a public institution with striving aspirations. Mobbing, defined as “a ganging up on someone using rumor, innuendo, discrediting, humiliation, isolation, and intimidation in a concentrated and direct manner,” affects as much as 15% of the working population in the United States.

In addition to mobbing, we were interested to know how differently gendered faculty may experience organizational culture differently. In recent years, the institution where we collected data has worked hard to improve its US News and World Report rankings and to increase research and grant activity. The consequence of these efforts has been a shift in culture that seeks a faculty more focused on research and less focused on teaching. At the same time, state support of higher education has dwindled. The result is an environment in flux, where expectations of faculty seem to be increasing while resources dwindle. We wondered how this organizational culture might shape faculty experiences.

Our findings are based on our analysis of data collected at one institution where we conducted two faculty satisfaction surveys and interviews with 30 women faculty. We examined faculty members’ experiences with a set of questions focused on mobbing (e.g., “I am treated with respect by colleagues” and “I feel excluded from an informal network in my department”) and another set focused on organizational culture more generally (e.g., “The department is supportive of family leave” and “I am satisfied with the promotion and tenure process”).

Our survey results reveal significant differences between men and women in their experiences of mobbing. In particular, women were far more likely than men to report being excluded from their department’s informal network and to feel that their work is not formally recognized by their department. Women were also more likely than men to report feeling isolated in their department. These experiences include two of the most common mobbing tactics: isolating colleagues and discrediting their work by not formally recognizing it.

We also discovered gender differences in how faculty experience the organization’s culture, though these differences were less pronounced than those in our mobbing items. Significantly more men than women reported feeling that their department is supportive of family leave and that there is a strong fit between the way that they approach their research, teaching, and service and the way that their department evaluates these items. As noted, however, these differences were far less pronounced than differences on the mobbing questions.

Our interviews with women faculty suggest that the striving culture may create a campus climate where mobbing is not only common but too often overlooked. With the institution so diligently focused on raising its status, “housekeeping” matters such as nurturing a positive workplace climate may inadvertently shift out of focus.

To combat mobbing on campus, we recommend clear and unambiguous policies that delineate mobbing behaviors from sexual harassment, which is regulated under federal law. This and other recommendations, along with complete details about our data and findings can be found in our chapter, Confronting Faculty Incivility and Mobbing,” in Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education.

“The fag” and “the slut” are both symbols of contemporary gender relations. Stories about each provide social mechanisms for bonding, betraying, and belonging. Research suggests that “fag” and “slut” are among the more ubiquitous insults traded among young people. Each is simultaneously all about sexuality and has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. For instance, most of CJ Pascoe’s research participants in her study of the use of “fag” among boys at River High said that they would never aim the insult at someone who is “actually gay.” Pascoe suggests that this indicates a need for a more nuanced way of understanding sexuality—not as some thing inhering in specific bodies or identities, but as something capable of operating to discursively construct social boundaries in social life as well. “Slut” is used in similar ways—as a mechanism of gender policing. Most of the research focusing on either is primarily about gender policing and gender and sexual inequality. But, research shows that sexual discourses play a key role in racial and class inequality as well.

51TJlLPKAJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Pascoe discovered that “homophobia” didn’t fully explain exactly what she observed at River High. It was a gendered and racialized form of homophobia that Pascoe refers to as “fag discourse.” Fag discourse is all about drawing boundaries around acceptable masculinity. Boys hurled the insult at each other in jest, sometimes at random, and as a part of a social game—one in which they were incredibly invested. But it was a “game” primarily played among white boys at River High. There’s a whole section of her book dedicated to “Racializing the Fag” that explores the intricacies of this interesting nuance associated with fag discourse. At River High, Black boys and white boys rely on distinct symbolic resources when “doing gender.” For instance, paying “excessive” attention to one’s clothing or identifying with an ability to dance well put white boys at risk of being labeled a “fag,” but worked to enhance Black boys’ masculine status. Pascoe also discovered that Black boys were unable to rely on fag discourse in quite the same way that white boys did. Indeed, though they were much less likely to use the term, Black boys at River High were much more likely to be punished by school authorities when they did. Black boys were also the only students reported to school authorities for saying “fag” by their peers. White boys, in other words, relied on racial hierarchies to control the meaning of the discourse such that saying “fag” was interpreted as “playful” and “meaningless” when they used the term and “dangerous” and “harassing” when Black boys did.

armstrong book cover, paying for the partyIn a separate study of sexuality in college life, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura T. Hamilton, Elizabeth M. Armstrong, and J. Lotus Seely investigated the meaning of the term “slut” among college women. This paper is a part of Armstrong and Hamilton’s larger research project and book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Armstrong et al. discovered that “slut” had a fluid meaning for college women. Not all of them understood the same sorts of behavior as putting someone at risk of receiving the insult. At the institution at which the study was conducted, they found that social status among women fell largely along class lines. “High-status” women were almost entirely upper and upper-middle class. This was at least partially due to the fact that performing the femininity necessary for classification required class resources (joining a sorority, having the “right” kind of body, hair, clothes, etc.).

Armstrong, et al. found that high-status women used “slut” to refer to a specific configuration of femininity, one they defined as “trashy.” While high-status women rarely actually deployed classist language, their comments relied on understandings of performance of gender stereotypically associated with less-affluent women—what Mimi Schippers would refer to as “pariah femininities”—and allowed them to situate their own sexual behavior and identities as beyond reproach. Similar to Julie Bettie’s study of white and Mexican-American girls, Armstrong et al. found that performing “classy” or “preppy” femininity (a performance that is simultaneously gendered, raced, sexualized, and classed) worked to shield high-status women from “slut” stigma.  The low-status women in Armstrong et al.’s study understood “slut discourse” to be more about sexuality than gender. Situating themselves as outside of the alleged “hookup culture,” low-status women used “slut” to stigmatize the sexual behavior of high-status women (sex outside of relationships). In an analogous way to Pascoe’s findings regarding race and fag discourse, these classed differences involving women drawing moral boundaries around femininity were enforced unevenly. While both groups reconstituted “slut” to work to their advantage, casual sexual activity posed little reputational risk for high-status women, so long as they continued to perform a “classy” configuration of femininity in the process.  Similar to Pascoe’s research, high-status women here relied on symbolic class boundaries to control the meaning of the discourse such that participation in casual sexual interactions took on a different meaning when coupled with “classy” performances of gender.   Here, class worked to insulate high-status women just as race worked to insulate white boys in Pascoe’s research.

Both studies illustrate important intersections between sexuality, race and class. Sexual discourses are invoked in a variety of ways throughout social life. They play an integral role in policing gender boundaries. But it is also important to continue to consider the role that sexual discourses play in bolstering boundaries around race and class.

Book CoverKris De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s new co-edited book, Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education, is an engaging, evidence-based toolkit for building gender equity in higher education. I just got my copy of the book two weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to put it down.

The first four parts of the book emphasize challenges facing U.S. women faculty (structural, cultural, interpersonal). Each part opens with an introduction that intersperses narratives from the data the editors collected for the book, and ends with a case study to give readers a sense of the difficulties and costs women academics face as a result of inequitable workplaces. It then offers action steps as starting points for other academics in similar situations (and those who support them) to use.

The chapters in Part 5, “Tools for Changing the Academy,” illustrate how broad, complementary approaches must work with smaller, progressive steps that both evaluate and correct equity issues on campus. This part concludes with real examples of recent, successful change initiatives from universities across the U.S.

With its “tool-kit” approach, Disrupting the Culture of Silence has a comprehensive list of resources compiled for faculty, administrators, and practitioner-researchers seeking to create a more inclusive academy. These resources are not only meant for women. De Welde and Stepnick write:

Though we focus on women faculty, these issues are not “women’s issues”; they are relevant to the academy, its members and constituents, and beyond. West and Curtis (2006) argue:

“The barriers for women in higher education not only raise questions of basic fairness, but place serious limitations on the success of educational institutions themselves.”

The academy reflects societal biases and hostilities. Yet, it could direct social change too. Our biographies, experiences, and training in feminist scholarship compel us to disrupt complacency among those who might claim that things are “better” or “good enough.”

The Back Story

What I also love about this book is the story behind it. Seven years in the making, Disrupting the Culture of Silence was borne from Kris De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s earlier work and a series of thematic workshops and sessions held at national conferences. After hearing about so many instances of hostile, vindictive, intimidating, and demoralizing situations among women faculty, these women decided to commit their scholarship and activism to working out concrete and meaningful strategies for helping them/us to persist, thrive, leave, or transform the very institutional environments that give rise to injustice. It makes me shudder.

The first step was a fact finding mission. They created Disrupting the Silence sessions to be held at key academic conferences that focused on the experiences and challenges of faculty women. Prior to each meeting, they issued a “call for experiences” that exemplified ‘difficult’ workplaces. They removed identifying information and  edited several of narratives into digestible stories to share at the sessions. After participants read them, they gathered into small groups to brainstorm about how to manage the situations and/or take actions that would have impact at multiple levels — individual, interpersonal, institutional, and even beyond the institution.

Faculty members who served as panelists and facilitators invited the participants to share their own experiences and the strategies they used to overcome challenges. From unequal policies, to coping with a hostile department or problematic pathways to tenure, to many other topics, those in attendance discovered that many of their challenges were common across campuses. They were not alone. After the groups reported back, their responses were documented. De Welde and Stepnick wrote up the results and shared them in other outlets read by women faculty.

The idea caught on, and women faculty flocked to these sessions every time they were held.

Next, the “Disrupting the Silence” sessions morphed into other workshops focused not only on coping with effects of gender inequality (crucial in its own right) but on Building Gender Progressive and Multicultural Departments. What could gender progressive, multicultural workplaces, departments, organizations, and institutions look like? What would be involved in creating them? What kinds of strategies are people already using to make progress?

Since all of these sessions were held over the years at multiple conferences, starting with Sociologists for Women in Society and then branching out to the American Sociological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, there was a broad cross section of women faculty across the country who shared their stories and provided input. The book that grew out of these informative, supportive, and constructive sessions and workshops necessarily combines these real-life experiences and case studies with contemporary research, concrete strategies, resources, and tools.

Disrupting the Culture of Silence is an essential read. More than that, it is a resource that faculty members and administrators will want to re-read, and reference, and use “to make change on their own campuses and in their professional and personal lives.” Be sure to get a copy or two for your libraries and teaching centers.


Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education is available from Stylus Publishing. Discount Code: DTCS15 saves you 20 percent.

Leonard Nimoy attended University of California, Los Angeles in 1971 to study photography. He had already filmed the original Star Trek television series, which didn’t develop a cult following until reruns of the show aired in the 1970s. His love of photography, however, predates his portrayal of the half-Vulcan, Spock.

While this role is what most people are sure to remember Nimoy by, I will always think of him as a skilled photographer who engaged cultural rhetoric on the gendered and sexual body. Perhaps his most controversial work is titled Shekhina, which is his attempt to capture divinity in a “feminine” form. Shekhina, he explains here, is a Jewish “deity”—one so luminous that men in synagogue have to look down, away, or otherwise shield their faces. As a child, he wondered, “Why hide the face? Why can’t we look?”

Spending seven years searching for Shekhina through his photography, Nimoy produced images he describes here as a “crossover between sensuality and religion.” Consequently, he was asked to not show his photographs at a Seattle synagogue where he had been scheduled to talk about his work. The controversy around this censorship arose because of a religious discomfort with sexual portrayals of women—as sexually desirable and perhaps as sexually desiring—and the association of women with power. Nimoy saw his work as a “very strong feminist statement” partly because “to some degree, in the orthodox community, that makes people uncomfortable—the idea that god is a woman.”

Shekhina. Leonard Nimoy/R. Michelson Galleries

Nimoy’s Shekhina series at times conflates femininity with desirability, but it also challenges us to think of women as corporeally and inherently powerful. He captures the simultaneous idolization of femininity and invisibility of the female body in religion, specifically in Judaism. And the looking away from Shekhina speaks to her ideological incandescence as well as to the way religion is structured around gender dichotomies, whereby women are cast within an androcentric institution as heterosexually alluring and men as driven by primitive roots—or by what Martha McCaughey refers to in her book, The Caveman Mystique, as Darwinian ideas about sex.

At the same time Nimoy challenges the invisibility of a powerful, deific femininity, he also privileges hegemonic corporeal norms, situating in his frames thin, white women with long hair who often peer down. [When they look directly at the viewer, the images take to task representations of women as meek]. Nimoy recognized this, noting that it was not until he began work on The Full Body Project that he realized very specific bodies and definitions of beauty dominated his work. A large-bodied model contacted him to see if he was interested in photographing her precisely because she represented a different sort of body than he was used to shooting.

Joan Jacob Brumberg’s book on The Body Project looks historically to demonstrate the ways social norms have turned women’s bodies into all consuming projects. At any given time, women’s bodies are defined as malleable and docile, evoking Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon, by which women internalize narrow, sexist bodily expectations. To take on work that captures an alternative image of beauty, Nimoy said he had to ask himself, “Will you do something that scares you?” In other words, could he do justice to a woman who challenged him to rethink how he was portraying beautiful bodies and women’s sexuality?

Nimoy’s relationship with the model evolved into a larger venture as he found that when he showed his photography, it was pictures of this full-bodied woman that “got the attention. So I thought, there’s something going on there in our culture about this kind of body.” Nimoy appeared to know he was engaging larger conversations about the misogyny of fat-shaming and problematic definitions of what counts as a beautiful and thus culturally valued woman. He found a San Francisco burlesque group called The Fat-Bottom Revue that was happy to pose for him; the women were comfortable in their own skin and used the art of dance and theater to do body-positive activism. Along with these women, Nimoy highlighted bodies as cultural symbols that are constrained by gendered structures but also vehicles of agency through which we experience the world around us and develop intellectual, emotional, and physical relationships with others. [For more on The Full Body Project, see here and here].

The Full Body Project. Leonard Nimoy/R. Michelson Galleries
The Full Body Project. Leonard Nimoy/R. Michelson Galleries
Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy. Seth Kaye Photography.

As a gender scholar who studies issues of masculinity, I can’t help but wonder where the masculine body is in Nimoy’s work. Why not capture sensual photos of large bodied men? Or of female masculinity? Focusing on femininity and female bodies relegates “beauty” to feminine identified bodies, but it also keeps women at the center of a discussion of bodies and structures of power. [In my own research, I explore men’s relationship to beauty and the beauty industry. See here]. What Nimoy does so well in his photography is acquaint us with images of bodies that beget conversations about gender, sexuality, and social hierarchies. As Nimoy noted, his photos put us in touch “with something beyond what you see in the image;” and he saw his work as not about any particular model or group of models, but rather about “feminine power.”


Barber_PhotoKristen Barber is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Affiliate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She teaches courses on gender, inequality, work, and qualitative methods and is on the Gender & Society Editorial Board. Her book on women working in the men’s grooming industry is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press.

FR Huddle: Amy, Gayle, Trina, Tristan, & Mindy

Most of us here at Feminist Reflections (FR) just got back from attending the 2015 Winter Meetings for Sociologists for Women in Society in blustery Washington, D.C. Trina Smith organized a panel presentation on the founding of Feminist Reflections as “a space for feminist public sociology.”

We ended up with a time slot during the 3:30 – 4:30pm coffee break instead of our planned 2pm slot and, also without our knowledge, our panel was shortened from 90 to 60 minutes. Luckily, our small conference room was packed. We sped up our presentations to leave time for what was really an invigorating conversation. Thanks to all of you who gave up your coffee break to join us and participated in the Q&A.

We wanted to take this chance to reproduce some of our SWS panel for you here on FR. We started with some history and then moved on to why we blog, and why specifically we blog here.

Feminist Reflections was borne out of a discussion at the 2014 SWS Winter Meeting one year ago in Nashville. Gayle Sulik and Meika Loe invited Tristan Bridges to participate in a roundtable discussion on blogging and the lack of a digital feminist platform for public sociology. Amy Blackstone and Trina Smith were two of the attendees to this small group discussion, and over the hour that our conversation took shape, we came up with the idea of collaborating and potentially working with The Society Pages (TSP).

Slide02 Pre-FRIt took 5 months to get our ideas together, set up a plan, come up with a blog name that reflected our mission, and work with the incredible team at TSP to transform our idea into a reality. All of a sudden Feminist Reflections was real.

FR has been live for just over 6 months. We’ve had more than 75 posts, 5 amazing guest contributors, and we’re thrilled that one of our guest contributors, Mindy Fried, will be the newest member of our editorial board!

After this brief history, we [Gayle, Amy, Trina, Tristan, and Mindy] each presented on various reasons for blogging.

Gayle talked about blogging as a labor of love (emphasis on both the love and labor). But through blogging, Gayle has found extraordinary opportunities for collaboration, a professional platform, and access to audiences who, though they may benefit from feminist sociology, are not inclined to read the articles or books we most often use to share our insights and findings.

Public AmyAmy shared how blogging led to greater public visibility, allowing her to help shape a national conversation about making the choice to be childfree. She also discussed the support, community, and fun that comes from joining a collaborative feminist sociological blog.

Trina shared her experience of moving to the rural South and thinking about sociology as a coping mechanism to help process some of the struggles associated with that. She also asked us to consider important questions about power and knowledge—“Who can speak about sociology?” and “What can they speak about?” Amy Stone summed up Trina’s important answer:Trina QuoteTristan talked about using blogging as a way of injecting more nuance into conversations going on in the media related to his research. He also discussed the importance of blogging as establishing a new feminist network of support and engagement after leaving graduate school.

Mindy concluded our panel with an important discussion of the blurred lines between personal and professional that blogging sometimes allows. Like Gayle, she also addressed the power of collaboration through blogging in addition to some of the ways she uses blogging in teaching, applied work, and to make sense of feminist sociological triumphs and struggles.

Some of our engaged listeners.

After our panel, we had a chance to meet up the next day in person again to talk about future directions for the blog. As Gayle put it in her opening presentation at the panel,

“Feminist Reflections is a room of our own. Even better, there’s room in this room.”

We are committed to sharing this space with others interested in using feminist sociological lenses to reflect on issues important to them. And we’re open to these taking on a variety of forms: discussions of teaching practices, personal experiences, emerging research problems and findings, and more. We are excited to share the feminist reflections of others and are in the process of developing formal guidelines for guest contributors. Please consider Feminist Reflections as a potential outlet and platform for sharing your voice.

Amy Blackstone & Mindy Fried
Amy Blackstone & Mindy Fried
Trina Smith, Tristan Bridges, & Gayle Sulik


FR LogoContributing editors and guest contributors of Feminist Reflections will be attending the 2015 Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. (Feb. 19-22) to discuss our work.

Our Panel: “Feminist Reflections: A Space for Feminist Public Sociology”


How do we carve a space for feminist public sociology? Can feminist public sociology include not only highlights of important research in the media, but an understanding of the feminist sociological perspective, particularly applied to everyday life? How did a diverse group of gender scholars with varying research interests, places and positions within sociology, collaborate to create such a space? Feminist Reflections (FR) hosted by The Society Pages, is an example of this niche in feminist public sociology. The founders and contributing editors of FR include SWS members: Gayle Sulik, Tristan Bridges, Amy Blackstone, Meika Loe, and Trina Smith.

The panel will focus on the collective process of creating FR, the impact of this work, and our reflections on the first year. Panelists will address how FR is a form of feminist public sociology, the impact of this feminist space, and how blogging for FR has not only affects our research and teaching, but us personally. Panelists include the contributing editors and two feminist bloggers, Mindy Fried and C.J. Pascoe, who have contributed guest posts to FR and/or collaborated with the contributing editors. In addition, the panel serves as a way to build enthusiasm and support for this form of feminist public sociology by building a network of guest bloggers for FR.


old crazy

Why are mental health and disabilities fields that sociologists seem to neglect?

Historically, medical sociologists studied mental health and institutions. But there are few sources in the recent sociological literature on women and mental health. Feminist psychologists have done most of the research on these topics. With our intersectional frameworks, concern for social justice, and examination of structural oppression and intertwined institutions and identities, it is crucial for feminist sociologists to study gender and mental health (and disabilities).

We need to examine how women living with mental illness, and those with mental illness or disabilities in general, are labeled, viewed, and reacted to in a society that devalues emotions, lacks equity in access to quality mental health care, and criminalizes those with mental illness instead of supporting them. Even more necessary is perspective and insight on mothers who are living with mental illness, especially to give voice to women who may be afraid to speak about their experiences because of stigma.

David Karp is one of the few sociologists who has published on the experience of mental illness. In his book, Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness, he states:

“Given the pervasiveness of depression, it is not surprising that both medical and social scientists have tried to understand its causes and suggest ways of dealing with…… As valuable as these studies might be, something crucial is missing. My view is that to really understand a human experience, it must be appreciated from the subjective view of the person undergoing it. …Underneath the rates, correlations, and presumed causes of behavior are real human beings who are trying to make sense of their lives” (p.11).

As sociologists we need to move away from the debate on ‘what causes mental illness’ and make room for understanding the experience of those living with it, especially for women and mothers. As David Karp notes in his work, the etiology of mental illness is complex. Sociologists can add to this research on causes, but we cannot pretend we have the grand answer. Our focus seems to be on critiques of the pharmaceutical industry and how diagnosis can be a form of social control. These are important issues, but by focusing on critiques, we neglect the stories of those who experience mental illness.

Does this mean that we are saying mental illness is not real? From the stories of women living with mental illness, we can still understand the structural forces that shape the experience, without denying that experience, and hopefully decreasing the stigma surrounding it.

To support this idea, and as an introduction to my new research on maternal mental health, I share stories, in this post, and the work of those who are using stories to dismantle the stigma that women and mothers living with mental illness experience. mom pic art

Motherhood and Mental Illness-Master Status

The blog post “Mothers and Mental Illness” written by Karen Spears Zucharias, author of Mother of Rain, tells the story of her friend who suffered from postpartum psychosis. (While this is something that can happen, it is rare. However, we may hear more about it because of the tragic events associated with it such as the death of a child.) Karen speaks volumes about mental health in this country including how we treat people with mental illness and how they may feel. These relate to sociological concepts of statuses, identity, labeling, and stigma. Karen states:

“People look at you differently when you’ve suffered from mental illness. Even when you’ve healed, there remains the nagging “what ifs” in the minds of others.”

Mental illness becomes your “master status.” With this being the case, do you ever get to have an emotion or make a mistake without your actions labeled as part of the mental illness, without the stigma? And more so, what are the consequences of this stigma, those negative sanctions that might include ending up handcuffed because of your mental illness?

A Mother in Handcuffs handcuffs

Dyane Harwood, a mother of two who lives with the mental illness bi-polar, writes about a horrendous experience in her blog post “Handcuffed and Lactating.” When her husband called 911 when she was in a manic-episode, symptomatic of her bi-polar disorder, four police offers showed up at her house to transport her to the Behavioral Health Unit. Although she was being compliant, they handcuffed her.

In her words, from the poem that begins her post:

“To this day, I can’t believe it

Why a lactating mother of two would be such a threat

I needed treatment, but I complied; I was willing to leave

My children for the hospital, near the street where I conceived

I didn’t need handcuffs – I had to laugh a bit

I wasn’t armed with a gun…what a bunch of bullshit!

I hope no other mother who’s manic and admits it

Doesn’t go through the humiliation of being treated like a convict.”

Is it any wonder why mothers, especially those living with mental illness, are afraid to ask for help? Mental illness is not a crime, nor is being a mother with a mental illness. And handcuffs do not heal. These stories are real, but we do not hear them. We do not have a space for women and mothers to share them, save for a few blogs and websites.

Stories To Tell voice

The website Stigmama, founded by Walker Karraa, PhD, focuses on the perspectives of mothers and women living with mental illness, along with those who live with them. She argues that these personal perspectives make a difference and advocates that we use the term mental ‘difference’ instead of mental ‘illness.’ Dr. Karraa express this in a powerful way in the introduction to the website:

“I have always believed in the power of women, especially those who have been touched by mental illness or mental difference, to create change. We are different. We see what others don’t, write what others won’t, and give beauty to the deepest experiences of motherhood and the human soul. I created Stigmama for mothers of all ages to do just that. To speak their truths in a non-judgmental, supportive, creative community. We need the wisdom and support of others to unpack stigma of mental difference in motherhood.”

This relates to another quote from Karp, speaking to the importance of giving voice to those who rarely get to have a voice.

“The essential problem with nearly all studies of depression is that we hear the voices of a battalion of mental health experts (doctors, nurses, social works, sociologists, psychologists, therapists) and never the voices of depressed people themselves. We do not hear what depression feels like, what it means to receive an “official” diagnosis, or what depressed individuals think of therapeutic experiences. Nor do we learn the meanings that patients attach to taking psychotropic medications, whether they accept illness metaphors assessing their condition, how they establish coping mechanisms, how they understand depression to affect their intimate relationships, or how depression influences their occupational strategies and career aspirations” (pp. 11-12).

We need safe spaces for women living with mental illness to tell their stories and safe spaces, such as Feminist Reflections, to discuss the need for this research.

Moving Forward: A Call For Feminist Sociologists To Examine Mental Health

Like our fore-mothers in sociology, many of us as contributors and readers of Feminist Reflections want to make positive social change and give voice to those who are oppressed. While there is fabulous work done by sociologists on issues of race, gender, poverty, LGBTQ issues, and related identities and inequalities, we seem to forget about the hidden stigma and oppression of mental illness. Maybe we see it is as the psychologists’ domain as it deals with the mind. Or, we quickly turn to our critiques of medication and the pharmaceutical industry or diagnosis as a tool of social control. Maybe it is just too personal for some to study.

Whatever the reasons, I am pushing for feminist sociologists to study mental illness, especially women and mothers who suffer from mental illness. It is real for those who experience it— what we call the social construction of reality. Through women’s stories, we can deepen our understandings about the relationships among gender, motherhood, and mental health. And hopefully, we can help to decrease the stigma.

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