Christine Gallagher Kearney is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and President of DePaul University’s Women’s Network and the Business Manager for the Office of Public Relations and Communications.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman leader in the 21st century in the context of the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique as two women leaders left the spotlight during these past few weeks while a third prepares to instruct others to Lean In.
Within days of each other Pauline Phillips, the Dear Abby columnist, passed away in Minneapolis at age 94, Hillary Clinton prepared to step down as Secretary of State, and Sheryl Sandberg moved onto the public stage ahead of the release of her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. On the surface, these three women have little in common, one the doyenne of advice, another the doyenne of diplomacy, the third a corporate female success story. But all three negotiate their femininity as prominent women leaders to varying effect.
Phillips and Clinton held, and still hold, a unique place as leaders in American culture. They are both role models to women across the country and both women played the femininity game, leaning in and out of stereotypical feminine traits to get the job done. Phillips was trusted with intimate details of American lives. She trucked in the personal, but she also acknowledged the political. Clinton demonstrated a full spectrum of strengths during her tenure as Secretary of State, most recently at the Benghazi defense hearing, where she showcased her power, knowledge and authority in addition to her compassion and sensitivity.
As a society, we still expect women to abide by classical feminine traits and some women leaders are accepted as more feminine than others. There are those—Michele Obama, Sarah Palin—who are acceptably feminine; there are those—Margaret Thatcher, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—who are not. This isn’t new, and some women are making gains in the workplace, regardless.
A 2011 study completed by researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Business confirmed that women are indeed moving forward, “In the business world, women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident but who can turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances get more promotions than either men or other women.”
That doesn’t change the fact that women’s leadership is plagued with double standards, with the expectation that public women must be nurturing, collaborative, graceful and maternal. This expectation is ingrained in our social fabric, and both Phillips and Clinton tried, at times, to fit the mold. Phillips answered her letters sharply without losing her so-called feminine graces. For example, in 1979 she acutely suggested that “Nob Hill Residents” move after expressing discomfort with having gay neighbors. Many readers perceived her response as too liberal, but Phillips didn’t balk at the criticism. Hillary Clinton answered questions during the Benghazi defense hearing with anger and compassion, never backing down in the face of questions that had been asked a million times before. She, like Phillips, responded with wit. But humor was lost in the undercurrent to the extreme frustration Clinton felt as she slammed answers back at the panel much to the nation’s apparent surprise. Feminine women, after all, don’t show anger in public.
If we—including Sandberg—can learn anything standing in the line to leadership, we can and should look to Phillips and Clinton. We can play the femininity game, because whether we like it or not, women leaders need to come across to some extent as “still” feminine if they are to succeed. A female leader’s femininity becomes the point of departure for media analysis, character assessment and just about everything else. Instead of focusing absolutely on her strengths, regardless of gender, Barbara Walters asked Clinton a personal question—about her hair—during her recent 10 Most Fascinating People special. Case in point.
But, if we are ever to gain equity in leadership, this double standard needs to change from day one. What cannot be forgotten is that gender characteristics—masculine and feminine—are socialized traits. Girls and boys learn from a very young age what is, and what is not, an appropriate expression of their biological sex. There are consequences to stepping outside a stereotypical gender line. For example, the backlash against women’s advancement that Susan Faludi wrote about way back in 1991. More than 20 years later, there are moments of backlash still; witness the resistance to women participating in front-line combat. And there are still conservatives who respond to women’s gains by encouraging them to lean back into the figurative kitchen—permanently.
Personally, I don’t think there are too many of us from Generation Y willing to lean into the kitchen, and only the kitchen, anymore. I recognize the fantastic gains made by our foremothers with a great shout out to all the women that paved the path for women born in the 80s and beyond. But we cannot be lulled by the nostalgia of the previous generations. Mad Men is a TV show, not a model for 21st century living. Phillips left her life as a homemaker to write, Clinton left her husband’s side to run for office, and Sandberg is encouraging us to aggressively pursue our lives in and outside the home.
Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s Chairman and Editor in Chief, believes that Sandberg’s forthcoming book “has the power to change not only our outlook, but also the world, and that it will become a touchstone publication for a generation of women.” We surely could use one, suggests Rachel Shetir, who took current women writers—Liza Mundy, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Caitlin Moran—to task in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Feminism Fizzles: Where is Betty Friedan when you need her?” Shetir strongly feels that current writing on women “barely acknowledge[s] the psychological complexities, the subterranean and contradictory forces pulling at women, as well as new possibilities offered.”
The Feminine Mystique, of course, radically changed a generation of American women, including Phillips and Clinton. Sandberg has the opportunity to challenge the direction and influence the fate of the current generation of women by her example, but time will tell if playing the femininity game will be enough to change double standards around leadership placed on women at the top.
I hope Sandberg, and her book, helps challenge our outdated yet still potent double standards, because I’m next in the leadership line. By the time I’ve leaned all the way in, I can only hope playing the femininity game will be a quaint relic of times past.
KYLA: Thank you Healthy Weight Week for helping me keep my sanity this New Year’s Resolution season. With everyone whining about holiday weight, the 15 pounds they’re determined to shed this year, and the oh-so-annoying weight watchers commercials, a fat girl needs something to hold on to! I was particularly dismayed when I first saw the Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercial with this former fat girl role model singing about the “miracle” of weight loss. Guess I’ll go back to Camryn Manheim and her fab “this is for all the fat girls” Emmy acceptance speech. Oh, and cling to the message of Healthy Weight Week: “Our bodies cannot be shaped at will. But we can all be accepting, healthy and happy at our natural weights.”
Truth told, I thought I’d put all this body hatred behind me when I came out and embraced queer culture. Surely this community that trumpeted acceptance, gender fucking and whole-selves rhetoric would understand the beauty of bodies? Apparently not. Or at least, not as universally as baby dyke me had hoped for. At one of the first gender studies conferences (read: queer nerd breeding ground) I attended, I encountered the patronizing, shaming “concern” for the health of “our women” (i.e. fat lesbians) that I have since run into repetitively. According to promulgators of this message, we need to be concerned about the health of lesbian women because they tend to be fatter than straight girls. What they see as a health risk for the community, I see as the beauty of size diversity, which apparently is oh-so-threatening.
This refusal to accept and celebrate size/body diversity is hurting our communities and our movements. When we start internalizing the phobia of society at large, we start policing each other. And rather than creating radical communities with new norms (or where the idea of “normal” is abandoned all together), we recreate the oppressive forces from which many of us were trying to escape in mainstream culture. It’s sapping energy away from fun things—like flirting and dancing and changing this world. As a community, we queers are already battling messages that there is something “wrong” with us. Our bodies don’t have to be another source of wrongness.
AVORY: It’s interesting that you had that experience at a conference, Kyla, because I sort of have found the opposite–and yet, I’m not surprised, given the queer community’s tendency to both celebrate diversity and forget about it simultaneously. I’ve found a lot of fat-positive fat queers out there, particularly in femme queer female and genderqueer circles, something I attributed to the similarity between those two identities. Both queer people and fat people have to deal with a lot of community-enforced shame and stigma, and both of those communities have groups of people who like to be stand-out and fabulous about their identities.
However, the queer community also does tend to brush aside other identities in favor of the big queer umbrella, and the “concern” for fat queer women seems to fall in with that. I’ve seen similar trends with acceptance of kink and polyamory in queer circles, while at the same time some queer folks are claiming that vanilla and monogamous sexualities are being ignored.
The fact is, we’re never all going to be the same. The message of Healthy Weight Week is that bodies vary, “healthy weight” varies, and we should celebrate that. The concern-trolling that sometimes crops up in the queer community may be in some way tied to the very idea of a “community”–that a queer person should look a certain way, relate a certain way, and too much diversity will hurt us somehow. Of course, that’s bullshit. It’s not healthy for the most privileged members of a huge, diverse community to try to create community identity through policing the community’s boundaries. And ultimately, I don’t think that they can succeed.
Then I went to college. My academic record was stellar, and my professors, both male and female, told me that I had potential. They encouraged me to go on to graduate school, to use my talents and abilities to their utmost, and they believed I could do it. This was the first time I had been given these messages. While my parents had always praised my intellectual ability and encouraged me in my academic pursuits, they also taught me that my role was to be a stay-at-home mother, not to have a career. Now I was realizing for the first time that I really could be anyone I wanted, do anything I wanted.
Of course, this encouragement did not automatically change my view of feminism. The pivotal point for that was a class I took on the history of the 1960s. One week of the class focused specifically on feminism, and by week’s end I was calling myself a feminist. What had changed? It’s simple, really. I realized (a) that feminism had been very much needed and had brought about some wonderful changes; and (b) that the stereotyped image I had of feminists as selfish family-destroyers was flat out wrong.
We read a lot of primary documents from the origins of the second wave feminist movement, and I was completely shocked. I might have been taught that women are to be homemakers rather than have careers, but the idea of women making a lower wage for the same labor was horrifying. When I read that women weren’t even allowed inside Harvard University’s library in the 1950s for fear they would “distract” the male students, I was floored. The more I read the more incredulous I grew. The more I read, the more angry I grew. Suddenly, my entire perception of feminism was shifting. After all, if I’d been in their shoes, I would have stood up and demanded change as well!
But before I could actually embrace feminism, I had to deal with my understanding of feminism as anti-family. Perhaps, I thought, feminists had dealt with real problems by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Once again, though, the readings for the class were excellent. While some feminists did call for the abolition of the family, I found that their numbers were few, and besides, I could now see why some would go to that extreme. The more I read about second wave feminism, though, the less threatening it sounded. As it has been aptly described, “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
I learned that feminism wasn’t about forcing women into the workforce, but about giving women options. Feminism wasn’t about destroying the family, but about making marriages equal partnerships. Feminism wasn’t about selfishness, but a reminder that women, too, are people who have needs and desires. Feminism wasn’t about wanton abortion, but about giving women the ability to control their sexuality and reproduction. Feminism wasn’t about leaving women unprotected and alone, but about giving women the means to protect themselves. This was all completely new to me!
I felt like a butterfly who had gone through some sort of weird transformation. Having been raised to see feminism as my enemy, I now could not see it as anything other than my friend. Having been raised to be a homemaker, I now had a desire to use my talents in the workplace. It was like my world had suddenly turned three-dimensional.
Those of you who are college professors or teachers can help young women raised in anti-feminist homes to come to a similar revelation. It’s simple:
- Believe in your female students and affirm their potential.
- Explain why feminism was necessary by talking about how things were before.
- Combat negative stereotypes of feminism with more realistic understandings.
- Discuss the good feminism has done for our society, and the good feminists hope to do in the future.
Rachel Coleman is working on her Ph.D. in history at Indiana University. She is married to a man who shares her newfound feminist views, and is enjoying charting new waters of marriage equality. Together they have a daughter who is breaking down gender stereotypes even at her young age.
From the UCLA Center for the Study of Women:
Thinking Gender is a public conference highlighting graduate student research on women, gender and/or sexuality across all disciplines and historical periods. We invite submissions for individual papers or pre-constituted panels on any topic pertaining to women, gender, and/or sexuality. This year, we especially welcome feminist research on: gender roles in relation to marriage, parenting, or being single; critiques of biosciences and biotechnology as they pertain to fertility, sanitation, and/or medical experimentation at a local, national or global level; mobility as duress or success–for example, in relation to migration, immigration, or upward or downward economic mobility; life stage issues, such as aging and girlsʼ studies; and feminist storytelling or research in modes such as oral histories, graphic novels, theater, comedy or other inventive expressions.
CSW accepts submissions for both individual papers and pre-constituted panels from all active graduate students. In order to give everyone an opportunity to present, we do not accept submissions from people who presented at Thinking Gender in the previous year. Also no previously published material is eligible.
Students proposing individual papers are to submit a cover page (provided on our website), an abstract (250 words), a CV (2 pages maximum), and a brief bibliography (3-5 sources), for consideration. All components are to be delivered in one document and labeled according to the submission guidelines found on the CSW website. For panels, a 250-word description of the panel topic is required, in addition to the materials that must be provided for individual paper submissions. For a more detailed description of submission guidelines, please visit:
Send submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Deadline for Submissions: Monday, October 17th, 2011 at 12 noon
Conference to be held on Friday, February 3, 2012
UCLA Faculty Center
Event is free and open to the public, but please be aware that there will be a $30 registration fee for presenters, to cover the cost of conference materials and lunch at the Faculty Center.
For Westerners involved in social justice movements, this is just one thread of a difficult conversation as they attempt to discern their appropriate role as allies to Middle Eastern activists. The accessibility of social media makes it far too easy to participate in activism on a superficial basis, and for allies with academic backgrounds in area studies, international relations or a related field, it can be all too easy to mistake a university education for substantial experience. The combination of these two factors can inadvertently result in a destabilization of the very movements Western allies seek to support.
This misguided intervention is illustrated particularly well by the controversy surrounding Tom MacMaster, author of the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” MacMaster spent years developing the character of Amina Arraf. Amina purported to be an out Muslim lesbian residing in Damascus, Syria, and a supporter of the opposition to Syria’s current president, Bashar al Assad. Later, Amina’s “cousin” reported that the woman had been arrested by forces loyal to Assad. But her online identity had begun to unravel as journalists in the region proved unable to verify her identity, and on June 12th the Electronic Intifada linked her identity to Palestinian solidarity supporter Tom MacMaster. MacMaster eventually admitted the hoax, and in a phone interview with the Washington Post, MacMaster described his motivation for adopting the persona of a queer Arab woman as a sort of writing exercise, a desire to prove his creative worth by taking on “the challenge of being someone who isn’t me.”
For MacMaster to so wholly portray this character, and to market his fiction to the broadest possible audience, he could not challenge the exoticization of queer women of color. Instead, he had to embrace it, and the freedom available to him as an American male allowed him to popularize his portrayal of the ultimate Other to such an extent that an already marginalized community of Syrian LGBT activists found their voices silenced.
Two of these activists responded to MacMaster’s hoax on Gay Middle East’s blog. Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym of a gay male blogger currently located in Syria, explained the potentially dangerous ramifications of MacMaster’s fiction for GLBT individuals living in a state whose draconian laws regarding human sexuality and the freedom of expression make it illegal to be either a blogger or openly gay. Hamwi directly addresses MacMaster in his post: “What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.” Hamwi adds that he personally began to investigate Amina’s alleged disappearance, at great personal risk to his own freedom. That sentiment is echoed by Daniel Nasser, another pseudonymous Syrian blogger: “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog; you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back.”
It is not likely that MacMaster intended to inflict such serious damage to the work of Syrian LGBT activists. In fact, his record of concern for the status of human rights in Middle Eastern regimes indicates the opposite intention. But his decision to blog as Amina Arraf reflected the presumption that his academic training could substitute for living the experience of a queer Muslim woman. The presumption that his academic background authorized him to speak as an Arab woman makes MacMaster only the latest in a long intellectual tradition of Western scholars and authors who, in their attempts to define the East for either academic or creative purposes, embrace a mythologized version of the region. It’s a tradition thoroughly criticized by Palestinian scholar Edward Said in his seminal work, Orientalism.
Orientalism rated a mention in MacMaster’s blog, in the final revelatory blog post that announced his hoax to the world. MacMaster defended his lie by justifying it as a project designed to reveal the “pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” That statement combined with his educational background as a student in Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University and his involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement make it reasonable to assume that he has at least a passing familiarity with Said’s work.
Said offers several definitions for Orientalism, among them the contention that Orientalism acts as a vehicle for maintaining control over the subject of the East. In his introduction to the original edition, Said wrote that “…Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it.” (12) By this definition, the Orientalist attitude is one of conquest. It is evident on an institutional level in the neoliberal policies of the United States and other Western powers, particularly so in their history of intervention in Middle Eastern politics. As Amina, MacMaster does not advocate for Western intervention on a state level. The opposite is true, in fact. But by portraying himself as a spokesperson for Syrian reformists, MacMaster intervened on a personal level and his actions threatened to destabilize the movement he supported. Fundamentally, his actions betray the same Orientalist prejudice that motivates the Western governments of which he is so critical.
Tom MacMaster’s elaborate “fiction project” should be viewed as a cautionary tale for Western activists. Yet it should not discourage allies from supporting the work of reformists in the Middle East. It simply requires an awareness of our privilege, the understanding that it is impossible for us to completely discard that privilege in the current world order, and a willingness to realize that an education limited to the classrooms of Western institutions is insufficient to give an accurate picture of life in the Middle East.
Sarah Jones is currently the Communications Associate for Femin Ijtihad, an organization committed to providing academic research and support to Muslim women activists. She has a degree in International Studies from Cedarville University and will enter Goldsmiths, University of London this fall for a graduate degree in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. She can be reached at email@example.com or at her blog, www.anthonybsusan.wordpress.com.
The following is the second installment of “The Next Generation” column, featuring young feminists under the age of 30 who are not yet established in an academic career. If you fit this description and are interested in writing your own take for us on bridging feminist research with popular reality, please submit your idea and a little about yourself via our contact form.
[Note: a version of this piece was originally posted at NCRW’s The Real Deal blog]
This summer I had the opportunity to participate in a webinar narrated by Terry O’Neill, the president of NOW, entitled “The Budget Deal is a Feminist Issue.” The webinar discussed how Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) 2012 budget deal would cut several social services on which women depend disproportionately. Programs on the chopping block included Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, Pell grants, job training, Head Start, childcare programs, and WIC nutrition programs. Women depend predominantly on most, if not all, of these programs.
After O’Neill gave her presentation, she opened the floor to questions. I asked if any of the Ryan cuts would impact girls and teens, and she explained that it would cut family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood, which also offer services like mammograms, STD and HIV screenings, Pap smears, and other tests that can help save women’s lives. “That’s appalling,” she said.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed the webinar. (I told my friend about it and she told me, “You’re probably the only teenager on the planet who enjoyed hearing a presentation about the budget.” She’s probably got a point there.) In a personal correspondence, Anita Lederer, the NOW field organizer, asked if everyone could speak to their representatives, host a letter-writing campaign, or demonstrate in a rally against cuts. As the “super committee” makes its decisions on deficit reduction, and as we go into the next budget cycle, it is critical that young feminists continue these actions and oppose cuts that will disproportionately harm girls and teenagers.
While I absolutely loved the webinar, it bothered me a little bit that O’Neill felt the only way the Ryan budget would impact young women was by cutting family planning. Girls do have interests other than sex, after all. I know that I care about getting a college education, which could have been impossible if the Ryan cut on Pell grants had gone through. I also care about Medicaid cuts, since they could financially affect the family of a friend whose sibling has special needs. These are just a couple of my concerns – every young woman would have different worries.
It also bothers me that O’Neill didn’t even address the impact of the Ryan budget cuts on younger women in her original presentation, which is why I made sure to ask about it. I know O’Neill is of the baby boomer generation, and I would venture a guess that the vast majority of NOW members are as well, but isn’t it important to include people of all ages? Feminists go to extreme efforts to include gays and lesbians, people of color, the disabled, etc. Shouldn’t they consider it a primary goal to include younger feminists? We are the next generation, and if they don’t encourage us to join the movement, it will wither away and die.
I’ve noticed similar attitudes with other feminists—this is far from limited to NOW. I have been excluded because of my age in many different feminist forums, and that really bothers me. Why are younger women ignored? Aren’t we just as important as older feminists, if not even more so? We’ll be continuing the legacy of this generation’s feminists, keeping the movement alive. It is absolutely imperative that we are encouraged to attend, included in, and feel welcome at feminist events. If older feminists don’t include our concerns without being asked to do so, no one will want to accept the feminist torch when we’re adults, and all the work they accomplished will go to waste.
Feminists, please: think about about the budget, and make sure the people around you are aware of how detrimental cuts in social services, education, and entitlement programs can be to women and to the country at large. While you’re at it, make sure to inform the young people around you. They have brains and will understand the importance of the budget, once someone takes the time to explain it to them. Don’t discount the next generation of feminists. I happen to think that we’re pretty cool.
Talia bat Pessi is a teenage Femidox (feminist Orthodox) Jew who writes the blog Star of Davida. She also writes for various other feminist and women’s news resources. After high school and college, she hopes to get a JD/PhD in women’s studies and go into labor law, specializing in workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.
The following is the first guest post in our new “The Next Generation” column, featuring young feminists under the age of 30 who are not yet established in an academic career. If you fit this description and are interested in writing your own take for us on bridging feminist research with popular reality, please submit your idea and a little about yourself via our contact form.
Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar. (Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.)
Gloria E. Anzaldúa
I first delved into anthologies as an earnest teen combing the “Women’s Studies” section of the woefully-understocked local library. The few books with subtitles like: “Real Girls Tell Their Stories” were an enticing draw—an accessible bridge between the voices of young women in the YA section and the more dense, demanding academic writing on the shelves. In anthologies, professional and ‘amateur’ writers commingled, their only requirements that their piece adhere to the theme of the book and that they write from the heart. Though some pieces were well-researched, footnoted and produced within the context of an academy, some of the best were the uncensored thoughts of authors.
Through “girls,” I branched out to “women”—women writing about having children, about marriage, domestic life, queer women, women of color. I searched for years for a copy of This Bridge Called My Back, the groundbreaking anthology edited by the late Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, before finally being rewarded with the challenging, thought-provoking, and touching book that other anthologies so lovingly describe it as.
Learning how to read academic writing is a challenge, with a liberal arts education or without. Anthologies may be published less frequently, but their style lives on in the accessible, democratic “call for submissions” of the vast blogosphere.1
Anthologies are the bridge we build: the most direct bridge between writer and reader, and a bridge to new concepts. In the introduction, you get the condensed version of the topic. In the ensuing essays, you get the unfiltered perspective of people who actually live the experiences they are writing about: something of a rarity in traditional academic writing.
To get started, pick an anthology with a title and cover that resonates with you. Remember, this is a guide for beginners. Unlike most books, you’re not obligated to read the whole thing. Yes, a committed reader (or someone who feels guilty if they abandon books midway through) may plow through the whole book, but even then one is not obligated to read essays in order. In a good anthology, at least, a diligent reader is rewarded with opposing viewpoints and entries that titillate, resonate, force one to reexamine beliefs or form new ones.
At the very least, anthologies serve as an accessible, enlightening, and even enjoyable bridge into topics or groups of voices with which one is not familiar. Pick one up, flip through, and enjoy!
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation
Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme
YELL-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American
Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color
Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology
That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation
The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader
The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage
Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (Live Girls)
Cornelia Beckett is a young feminist writer, activist, and student at Smith College. Her own work appears in a feminist anthology called Click (Seal Press). She has also contributed to the NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland Blog and thefbomb.org.
We were interested to read Pamela Paul’s list of academic blogs, “Big Blog on Campus,” in The New York Times Education Life section this last Sunday. We felt her list of seven blogs that have achieved “blogosphere fame” didn’t reflect the much wider diversity of academic voices that populate the blogosphere. In fact, with the exception of one female blogger and one collective blog, the rest on the list are penned by white men. In the spirit of expanding this list, we are starting a list of academic blogs (not just feminist blogs). This is very much a work-in-progress; please let us know about others in the comments!
While a number of wonderful feminist bloggers converged at WAM! this past weekend, a few weeks ago I attended a conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, entitled Gender and the Law: Unintended Consequences, Unsettled Questions. The conference included a number of provocative panels, including one on gendered states of citizenship, and another called “Gendered Bodies, Legal Subjects.” Maggie Gallagher, of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, spoke on this latter one of her fear that legally doing away with marriage would create â€œgenderless-nessâ€ as an ideal and expressed her concern that, by forgetting how bodies matter, the law would eventually hurt women by taking away the special status of crimes like rape. Gallagher is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, and appears to use a similar, if more convoluted, rationale concerning the significance of bodies and gender to support this position, arguing that by making the gender of a citizenâ€™s marriage partner meaningless, the state interferes in a citizenâ€™s private realm by disallowing its citizens to attach meaning to gender.
Yet recognizing marriages in which the selected sexual partner is not of the historically normative gender does not seem to neutralize gender to me, but instead recognizes the full significance of gender as it intersects with sexuality and marriage-like commitment. Laws may need to be changed and language refined for marriages in which the partners are no longer assumed to be of opposite gender, but a more specific law seems an altogether better law to me.
I do, however, agree with Gallagher that marriage does still matterâ€”to both straight and gay couples. Yes, I can easily imagine a society in which government no longer has a say in, or provides benefits to, those who have made a private commitment to each other, but I donâ€™t think our current society has reached that point yet. Hence, full recognition of gay marriage is essential for the full equality of gay couples in the United States.
An opinion piece in the New York Times last month proposed a â€œreconciliationâ€ on gay marriage. The reconciliation was that the marriage issue should be dropped:
It would work like this: Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will. The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own. All of these changes would be enacted in the same bill.
I am sympathetic to the compromise trying to be made hereâ€”in order to progress the rights of gay couples at the federal level, the authors propose to jettison the concept of marriage and promote civil unions with religious exemptions. As a result, a church that employs a lesbian woman would not be required to provide health care benefits for her civil union partner. Yet I am wary of this being proposed as any sort of goal or focus for the gay rights movement as opposed to a necessary intermediary step.Â Two states have legalized gay marriage, and while this may not seem much, less than a decade ago we were still debating whether to support civil unions or not. The Vermont Senate passed a bill legalizing gay marriage a week agoâ€”marking the first time these rights may be granted through a legislative instead of judicial process. I appreciate these authors care for the practical benefits enjoyed in civil unions, and the progress made toward legalized gay marriage may seem like baby steps right now, yet it does feel like we are getting closer to a watershed moment that will result in a deluge. At heart, the very purpose in distinguishing civil unions from marriage to emphasize the need for full equality for gay couples, to enjoy the same rights as straight couples in the United States. For the many married couples in California who now face suits demanding their divorce, marriage is a very real subject. While momentary compromises may need to be made, marriage does matterâ€”and itâ€™s important to maintain as a primary goal.