Molly MacDermot is the Director of Special Initiatives at Girls Write Now

I’ve had the honor of editing five annual-anthologies for Girls Write Now. Today’s next generation of women writers are alright, and their stories are making the world better. They’re also making me feel better —filling me with hope. When Tin House editor Masie Cochran proposed publishing an anthology that showcases two decades of true stories from our young female writers, I was ecstatic. Finally, readers can enjoy the evolution of female thought in one book. Pre-order your copy from Books Are Magic, here.

In Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices (Tin House/October 17, 2018), you’ll meet Danni Green (her knockout essay “Dear Kanye” opens the collection), who can’t get her dad to sign her financial aid paperwork for college. She desperately wants to believe she’s meant for a different life than what she sees around her, but she’s not sure if believing is enough. You’ll witness Romaissaa Benzizoune wrestle with wearing a hijab to school, and Maggie Wang’s struggle to be what she calls “a model minority girl.” You’ll also delight in the lighter moments, like Tashi Sangmo remembering the morning bird chatter in her birthplace of Tibet, or Michaela Burns peeling red apples with her grandmother.

Together, these stories offer an overdue portrait of what it is to be a girl in New York City, and in America as a whole. They’re stories we desperately need to hear. 100% of these writers are high-need. 94% are girls of color. Many are first- and second-generation immigrants. Astonishingly, 100% of them have gone on to college and the majority have graduated, flying in the face of national averages (nationwide, only 8% of low-income students will matriculate). And trust me, we’ll be seeing many of these names on book covers for years to come.

An excerpt from Danni Green’s “Dear Kanye”. Danni was born in New York and graduated from Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon

Dear Kanye, January 14, 2012 7:45 pm

Nine days ago I called financial offices of the colleges I applied to. Told them I had to submit my FAFSA without parental information. Told them Shawn won’t give me his information and my mother and I have tried. Told them how Shawn raises his voice, shows his ignorance, and shouts like he’s Otis Day. How he calls me stupid. Says I shouldn’t be trying to get money from the government. Every time my mom and I try.

Each college said my parents are married and Shawn lives in the house so they couldn’t help me. They told me I was in a tough situation. They told me I was in a tough situation like I didn’t know that. Like I don’t see the lives of the people I live with and how content like a snake has opened its mouth and swallowed their lives whole. My brother Robert is jobless. Almost thirty. Has an Associate’s degree and no idea what to do with his life. My sister Jessica is sleeping with the man she loves and isn’t her husband. She just got laid off. Has four children and no more Food Stamps. And her rent has to be paid. My brother Darius made a house out of my Grandfather’s room to avoid everything that’s on the outside of his door. My younger brother Philip has taken the Geometry Regents three times. Cuts classes. Smokes weed and wonders what he’ll do with his life. My mother. Had she gone to UCLA would be a doctor right now. The closest Aunt Carla has gotten to being an actress is watching the Academy Awards every year. She flips the pages of her celebrity tabloids looking for herself.

Who am I supposed to look up to? Who is supposed to show me how I can make my dreams real?

I’m watching Jon Sands and Adam Falkner live at The Bowery Poetry Club. But I’m sitting in my computer chair looking at them on a screen. Seeing them makes me want to pull the pretty stars out the sky. Rip open my chest and stuff them in. Because I want to be pretty. On the inside. And I’m hoping stolen stars can shine away whatever’s in me trying to kill the person I can be if I were only not Here.

Adam was my English teacher. Last summer I bought Jon Sands’ book. I know this guy. Like had conversations with this guy. Like went to this guy’s workshops. If they are not made of better stuff than me like stars then why are they where I want to be and I am not?

I’m not in a tough situation, Kanye. But if I don’t get out of the house on Wyckoff Street I will be, but it’ll be My Life. It’ll be a husband I don’t love, an affair to make me feel alive, a checking account with a zero balance, a job that’ll brand me Good Enough and children whose faces ask, What’s for dinner?

Currently it’s 7:54. The 14th day of 2012. A Saturday. But it feels like 2011 and 2010 and ’09 and ’08 and ’07 and ’06 and every year when I felt I was absolved of any good thing in me the second I walked through the front door of my house. Barriers between the days are crumbling and morphing 24 hours into one long minute.

There is too much contempt in my soul to have a life like the ones I see daily. My family has redefined happiness to make their life mean something. Since the second semester of tenth grade I worked my ass off to get A’s. I lost sleep to write essays, didn’t hang out with friends to do homework.

But it’s slowly sinking in. There isn’t an escape from what dirties the dishes and puts the dust between the floorboards of my house. Not living your dreams is a sickness. My parents are carriers. It is in my plasma waiting to infect my cells. And sometimes I cry like I’m terminally ill. The tears tumbling down to my shirt is evidence that I’m dying. Because everything has just gotten so hard. Like breathing. Like having faith in myself. Like believing I won’t stay Here. College was supposed to get me out of Here.

Now I’m too full of fear that I’m going to be My Family. I’ve seen the way their muscles fold, how their joints crack. I feel that what’s in Them is seeping into me. At times I ask myself Who am I kidding thinking that I’ll be different? That I’ll do something with my life? Adam is playing the piano. Jon Sands just read a poem. I like it. The crowd clapped. I want someone to clap for me. To be proud of me. Tell me Good Job. So I could stop thinking I’m such a failure. Because I strived for college but can’t pay and will likely defer a year and I’ll see my friends leave and I will stay. Jon Sands is up in front of people. A mic before him. Performing poems. All I want to do is write poems. Touch someone with my poems. I want someone to like them. What am I doing with my life that I’m not on stage. That I’m not There? If I were There I wouldn’t know another hungry night, I wouldn’t be scared to pray. I wouldn’t wake up feeling so weak. I’d be doing something with my life. I’d…I’d… Did you ever ask yourself, Kanye, what am I doing with my life that I’m not There? If you did. What was your answer?

Roxane Gay’s advice to young women writers:

“Everyone has a voice. It’s just a question of just finding the courage to use it, and the first step in finding the courage is knowing that no matter who you are or how quiet you think your voice is, your voice matters. You’re never going to please everyone with what you say, but you don’t have to worry about that. You have to only satisfy yourself to start with, and I think, with that kind of acceptance, you can begin to use your voice. Regardless of any insecurities you feel have to have an innate confidence in yourself and your voice because if you don’t believe in your voice, then no one else is going to listen.”
Roxane Gay



Girl w/ Pen is happy to share the following guest post from Kayla Parker, a senior Sociology major and Entrepreneurship minor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (read more about Kayla at the end of the post)

Being a black woman in America can be absolutely terrifying at times. One of those times was a year ago when I stopped for gas off an unfamiliar exit and left thankful I still had my life. At this gas station, I was both objectified and degraded in a white man’s twisted version of a compliment. When I went inside for gum, one man shouted at me, “Oh you’re a cute little nigglet, aren’t you!” Acknowledging the 15:1 ratio of white men to my black ass, I turned to leave. Only to have one of them follow me. I left the gas station alive, but for a moment, I thought I would not. I remember hitting my lock button five times, like I do every time now. Regularly, I fear that my physical body will be assaulted for being a woman, being queer, or because of the melanin my skin contains.

In my Gender in Society class, we explored the unfortunate realities found at the intersection of race and gender and how those who find themselves there navigate white spaces. In The White Space by Elijah Anderson, Anderson defines white spaces as “overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, restaurants, schools, universities, workplaces, churches and other associations, courthouses, cemeteries, and situations that reinforce normative sensibilities in settings in which black people are typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present.”

Black spaces, on the other hand, are often depicted as crime filled ghettos and are easily avoidable spaces for weary white people. Growing up black, I quickly learned that it would not be as easy for me to avoid white spaces as it was for white people to avoid black spaces. Finding a way to navigate these spaces is a condition of my existence and historically, navigating these spaces incorrectly has had negative and, sometimes, fatal effects on black women.

For centuries, black women have been persecuted in the United States and reminded that they are outsiders who need to find a way to incorporate themselves within our predominantly white and patriarchal society. Subtle reminders, such as the events that took place on the Napa Valley Wine Train in 2015, are intended to remind black women of how to behave in white spaces. One victim says it best when she explains that their only offense was “laughing while black”. On August 22, 2015, a group of book club members, ten of them black and one of them white, hopped aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train for a fun trip through the Wine Country. Though allegedly laughing no louder than the other inebriated white passengers on the train, they were asked twice by management to lower their voices. Minutes later, they were ordered off the train and turned over to the police.

Time and time again, we’ve seen differences between how black women and white women are treated when doing otherwise normal acts. A few actions that garner disproportionately negative and sometimes fatal responses for black people that achieved trending topic status on Twitter included: #LaughingWhileBlack, #DrivingWhileBlack, and #ShoppingWhileBlack. In my experience, I would’ve hashtagged #BuyingGumWhileBlack.

In The Continuing Significance of Race: Antiblack Discrimination in Public Places Joe Feagin states, “[One problem with] being black in America is that you have to spend so much time thinking about stuff that most white people just don’t even have to think about.” Activities that white men can do without simultaneously thinking of their race, gender, or sexuality are not available to me because I don’t have that privilege. I was born queer, black, and female so activities like buying gum at night put me at a higher risk for assault than most.

To navigate white spaces as a black woman, I am constantly making sure I’m Black but not too Black. To ensure my safety when I navigate these spaces, I stay strapped, but I also make room for white people. When I am walking on the street, I find myself constantly stepping out of the way for white men and I believed I was doing so at a disproportionate rate than my white female friends.

My friend Emma and I decided to obtain some empirical evidence. We sought to discover if white men, whether consciously or subconsciously, make room for white women on the crosswalk more frequently than they do for black women. Whenever the crosswalk had over five people, one of us would stand directly across from a selected white man. When the light would turn red, we’d cross the street and if we had to move out of the way within two feet of chosen white man, we counted it. Emma and I tested this and walked across the crosswalk over 250 times. Emma stepped out of the way for 51 white men. I stepped out of the way for 103.

My overwhelming feeling on this crosswalk was that I did not belong. There were several times when I would move out of the way too slowly and would find myself bumping shoulders with the men I passed. Twice, I found myself stepping out of the way for a gaggle of three to five white men. One time, one man angrily mumbled under his breath when I did not move out of his entitled pathway.

I believe this experiment speaks volumes to the character of our society and negates speculation that we are moving towards a “post-racial” world. For centuries, Blacks were legally banned from white spaces, thus coddling and developing white entitlement to these spaces. Today, Black women face the consequences of the white man’s entitlement.

In this era of Trump, a man who campaigned and won with rhetoric of textbook sexism, misogyny, and xenophobia, we must work to de-normalize the white supremacy that thrives at the expense of other minority groups. Stepping out of the way for a person of color may seem small, but I’m sure we’d see some positive outcomes from us feeling more included on the goddamn street.

Our society must be better and our society must be more tolerant. Maybe a world where black women and white men are equal on the street, is a world where a black woman doesn’t have to be afraid to buy gum from the gas station.

After transferring to UTK in 2015, Kayla continued her passioned for business but also discovered that she has a passion for social justice. When seeing the growing wage disparity, racism, and sexism in the world, Kayla began dreaming of ways to make Knoxville more tolerant and more safe for everyone, especially those who are disenfranchised. Combining her love for business and social justice, Kayla worked as a Marketing and Event Planning Intern for Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee. She helped plan, organize, and host their largest annual fundraiser, Cash 4 Kids Sake which helped pair more positive mentors with impoverished youth in the community. She continues to volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters during events. The marketing and event planning skills acquired during this internship with nonprofit, BBBS helped Kayla in organizing and planning events for her on campus organization, Students Who Stand (SWS). SWS is a support group for student sexual assault survivors. Their aim is to provide an inclusive environment to provide support to survivors, increase awareness, and engage in continuous dialogue with the University to encourage policy changes that will make campus safer and more supportive. Recently, Kayla organized, executed, and hosted a Sexual Assault Round Table with University administrators who handle sexual assault cases and activist Kamilah Willingham who was featured in CNN’s The Hunting Ground. She also organized an open mic for sexual assault survivors called Survivor Voices ft. Kamilah Willingham which gave other survivors a safe platform to share their experiences. Kayla has recently discovered her passion for writing and writes on her blog. In her final year of college, Kayla plans to continue to dedicate herself to her studies, grow her organization, and dream of the day she can finally own and love a Great Dane.

I’ve long been a fan of Lyn Mikel Brown’s, professor of education and human development, author of six books about gender and girlhood, and cofounder of multiple grassroots organizations and projects, including Powered by Girl, an online media activism campaign for girls by girls. I’ve more recently become a fan of a sophomore in high school named Lilly Bond, whose middle-school activism you may have read about in Time, The Nation, Cosmo, and on feministing. (If not, I urge you to watch this video and learn about it! Lilly rocks.) I put the two of them together to discuss Lyn’s newest book, Powered by Girl: A Field Guide to Supporting Youth Activists. Here’s how their exchange went down. – Deborah

LILLY: My mother used to be a women’s studies professor at Columbia Chicago, as well as Northeastern, so I was raised in a very “girl power” household. I’ve got an older and a younger brother, and my dad’s a high school teacher. In middle school I went through a whole ordeal where the school banned leggings because they were “distracting” to male students. My mother and I did interviews with the news and were written about by several different news outlets including The Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post. I loved your book. So as I continue my own activism, I’m interested to know: what got you interested in writing it, or even more broadly, what got you into feminism?

LYN: I remember reading about your activism! My interest in feminism developed in high school. Like so many girls, I was frustrated at the way I was treated because of my gender, both at home (I had two brothers who lived much less protected lives) and at school (I was an athlete and the differences between the support and resources available to boys’ and girls’ teams at that time were startling). As I look back, I see I was also naming injustices that arose at the intersection of gender and social class–the ways my experiences were dismissed relative to other girls or times when I was not seen, heard, or taken seriously because I was a working-class girl.

I read a lot. I asked for a gift subscription to Ms. Magazine in high school. I read Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions in college. I took Women’s Studies classes, and was introduced to In a Different Voice, This Bridge Called My Back, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Reading Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice was an epiphany, an “a-ha” moment. I saw how the field of psychology was not all that different from my high school in the ways it privileged the experiences of boys and men. I applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to work with Carol and could not believe my luck when I was accepted and later asked to join her research team of graduate students and post docs. We became, collectively, the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development. For years we interviewed girls and young women in schools and community organizations–our goal was to learn about girls by listening to girls. We saw girls as experts on their own diverse experiences. Our goal was to insist that psychology as a discipline do the same.

Powered By Girl has its roots in this early work at the Harvard Project. We were developing a way of listening, a way of being in relationship that centered girls. As I moved into my career, I explored more deeply girls’ lives at the intersections of gender, race, and class.

The book also has its roots in community and online activism. For me, it’s never been enough to write about these issues. I really wanted to work with girls to make the world a better, more just place. In 2000, I joined with community activists to create a local feminist nonprofit, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and then later with colleagues to create SPARK Movement. SPARK, especially, has become a platform for girl-fueled activism. The SPARKteam taught me so much about what girls need to effectively engage in youth organizing and develop social change campaigns.

So I wrote the book as a way to share what I have learned with more people, including my undergraduate students, and in celebration of girls and the power of intergenerational activism.

LILLY: I can definitely relate to the being-treated-differently-than-brothers thing; it’s frustrating to say the least. Your experience sounds a lot like mine. I’ll have to look up some of those books 🙂
I was also wondering, how would you suggest youth activists get involved and active, and be taken seriously? It can sometimes be hard for young girls to be listened to, as I’m sure you know.

LYN: I think it’s so important for youth activists to seek out allies, to find people and groups who share their passion about issues. I also think it’s important to read about the issues they most care about–to move beyond the surface and better understand the root causes of problems. Youth who have researched and explored issues and who can talk with some authority about why a cause matters are much more likely to be taken seriously. They’re also more likely to attract others who share their concerns. And because they see things more complexly, they are more likely to understand how their concerns intersect with others’, which means they recognize opportunities for coalition building.

I also think it’s important to seek out adults who respect youth as change-makers. They can offer perspective, as well as connections with others who have resources and connections. I know this is tricky–it’s an unusual adult who really listens and supports and doesn’t try to take over. So when you find such a person, take full advantage of what they can offer.

LILLY: I agree totally. Lastly, what do you think will change about feminism in the next few years? What new or old issues do you think will come up?

LYN: Given the presidential election and the rise in racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and the assault on reproductive rights and the environment, I think we will experience a new era of feminist activism. In recent years we’ve made progress on these fronts, but there’s clear indication that these gains can be taken away if we are not vigilant and prepared to fight.

We are facing wicked problems—problems that are widespread, complex, and interconnected—and finding solutions will require us to work across our differences and in coalition. It will require organization and participation on all fronts. In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, activist Jamia Wilson writes, “history has shown us that power is taken, never given, so resistance is critical if we don’t want our freedom eroded.”

I think we are facing a real challenge to our basic rights as human beings and we will be tested.

Is refusing to wear a corset really breaking news in 2016? As multiple news, fashion, and entertainment sites have discussed over the past week, Emma Watson, the actress playing Belle in Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, will not be wearing a corset in the film. Articles covering this phenomenon state that Watson worked closely with costume designer Jacqueline Durran to recreate Belle’s iconic yellow gown to be “light” with a “lots of movement” because Belle is being reinterpreted as an “active princess.” The dress does hide a cage underneath layers of silk, satin, and organza, and Watson is wearing high-heels, but apparently these features of the dress will not impede the new Belle’s activity level.

Masking the absence of corsets as a major coup for gender equality is like hiding a wolf (or should we say beast?) in sheep’s clothing. It gives the illusions of progress, and generates praise and profits for Disney, without changing anything. Girl’s are already active; their participation in sports is at an all time high. Let’s keep encouraging female physicality. But we really need to stop insisting girls and women look hot while running, dancing, or or leading the free world.

Another major news story this week, at least according to our facebook feeds, is the “huge” decision Victoria’s Secret made regarding their 2016 fashion show. The models will be “embracing” their natural hair. Strangely, Victoria’s Secret’s vision of natural hair doesn’t actually involve letting hair remain natural. Models’ natural texture will be “enhanced” (read: styled) by professionals using a host of products and appliances. But in what is being reported as a major break from the past, every model’s hair will not look exactly the same.

It’s not that refusing corsets or presenting more than one hairstyle isn’t a step forward. But it’s ridiculous to call these decisions a momentous move toward a more inclusive beauty standard. If we’re going to cover this, let’s call it what it is: the teeniest, tiniest tip-toe toward progress.

Victoria’s Secret got the message that they shouldn’t dress white models in racially offensive costumes to sell bras. The lingerie corporation has been featuring more black and brown models in recent years. But skin color is the only way these women deviate from the standard lingerie model “look,” making Victoria’s Secret about as progressive as the Miss World pageant. At least at Miss World the contestants are permitted to talk and wear clothes.

Sustainable social change is often incremental. It doesn’t ever happen as quickly as the people demanding it want. It is partial and provokes backlash. But there’s incremental advancement and then there is recasting the most diminutive wobble toward progress as “making history.” Let’s not reward corporations for exchanging the pink bow on the same old narrowly restrictive beauty standards for a blue one.

Some might see looking to Disney or Victoria’s Secret to model a more inclusive gender or beauty ideal as a lost cause. Both are giant corporations, in the business of selling stuff and generating profits. Unless it leads to more money, they don’t have an incentive to challenge the status quo regarding gender stereotypes or cultural beauty standards.

But Disney and Victoria’s Secret are big business. The Beauty and the Beast trailer was viewed 127.6 million times in 1 day, making it the most watched trailer in a 24 hour period. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will be broadcast to 800 million viewers in 190 countries on December 5. On the off chance either wants to put their money where their mouth is and “embrace” some real diversity or approach any type of action that could semi-reasonably be referred to as “making history,” here are a few suggestions for Victoria’s Secret:

  • Use a range of models with a variety of body types that average out to the height and weight of the average US woman.
  • Put on a fashion show in which none of the models have had cosmetic surgery.

And for Disney:

  • Make a movie with Emma Watson (who has proved her feminist bona fides on numerous occasions) that isn’t called “Beauty and the Beast.”
  • Cast a Belle who isn’t white, thin, and perfectly in line with conventional beauty standards. Unlikely, we know, but in a world where candlesticks and teacups can talk anything is possible.
  • Clarify what it means for a princess to be “active” (hint: it should involve more than not being a passive damsel in distress). Then make sure this active role model isn’t half the size of her male counterparts.

Let’s stop spreading the pseudo-progressive message that girls can do anything they want as long as they stay thin, tiny, and beautiful while doing it. Until Disney, Victoria’s Secret, or other corporations are interested in making meaningful changes that lead to more inclusive gender and beauty ideals, let’s hold off on all the “celebrating” and “embracing.”

Alexa Trumpy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Norbert College. She studies gender and social movements. Marissa Elliott is an undergraduate student at St. Norbert College. She is double majoring in sociology and psychology and plans to attend graduate school.

ACLU Lawyer Gillian Thomas’s book, Because of Sex, demonstrates that once a law is passed, the work has just begun. Thomas traces fifty years of court cases that interpreted the meaning of sex discrimination as established by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thomas grips her reader from the start, opening the book with the controversial introduction of “sex” into the Civil Rights Act by Howard Smith (Democratic Representative from Virginia). To this day, scholars debate whether this addition was a sincere attempt to promote gender equality or a sexist joke aimed at derailing the Act. Ultimately, the clause stayed in and the Civil Rights Act passed prohibiting discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. However, as Thomas and other scholars have pointed out, because “sex” was a last minute addition to the law, its meaning received little attention from Congress. Therefore, it has been up to the courts to interpret what sex discrimination looks like. This is where Thomas spends the majority of her book.

Thomas argues that Title VII has led to “revolutionary” legal and cultural change and consequently “transforming what it means to be a woman who works” (p. 229). Each chapter of Because of Sex tackles one court case that made its way to the Supreme Court and set precedent for the interpretation of sex discrimination in employment. This case study approach allows Thomas to introduce her readers to all the players involved in each of these cases, giving background and historical contextual information that brings each case to life. For example, I’m very familiar with Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, wherein sex stereotyping was ruled sex discrimination after Ann Hopkins was denied partnership for her management style and told to go to charm school. What I didn’t know was that after winning her case, Hopkins was offered $1 million to NOT return to work at Price Waterhouse. Hopkins turned them down and rejoined the firm after fighting them in the courts for nearly a decade. According to Thomas, Hopkins became a fierce advocate for diversity in the firm, which explains in part why now you can see Price Waterhouse on top lists of workplaces promoting diversity. What really hit home for me was how long these landmark cases take and how life moves on for the plaintiffs in the meantime. Their names may go down in legal precedent and/or history books for changing the direction of sex discrimination law, but in the meantime, they have to pay the bills. And as someone suing for employment discrimination, that isn’t always easy.

This is a book that fellow wonkettes may pick up for a quick and informative read. It may not be a book for academics looking to cite new research. Thomas does not situate her book within a larger literature, her argument lacks a theoretical or empirical contribution, and her methodology of choosing which cases to analyze is unclear. However, Thomas writes with a narrative style that makes reading legal cases accessible and enjoyable.   Let’s face it – reading about the law can be quite dry and boring even to those of us who are sincerely invested in its nuances, idiosyncrasies, and possibilities. Thomas uses her legal expertise and experience to translate the law for everyday readers. I especially appreciated how she threw in important procedural details to those of us who do not practice law. For example, she shows how a case moves from a district court, to an appeals court, and, if their petition is accepted, to the Supreme Court. Once at the Supreme Court, Thomas explains that there is no trial. Instead, each side’s lawyer has thirty minutes to present their argument and it is expected for the justices to jump in immediately and ask questions. Therefore, lawyers typically practice their argument through moot courts or assemblies of their peers, anticipating the questions justices may ask.

Because of Sex would also be a great supplementary text in college courses. For instance, I can imagine assigning sections of it in a Gender and Work course to help my students understand the various forms of sex discrimination. In my experience, the only form of sex discrimination college students know about is wage inequality. The case studies in Thomas’s book provide clear illustrations that sex discrimination can also involve denying employment to mothers, height and weight restrictions, discriminatory pension plans and leave policies, sexual harassment, and sex stereotyping in promotion decisions.   Thomas’s book could also pair well with legal mobilization literature, providing tangible examples of how people consider their legal rights, the various actors involved in advocacy, and how legal cases connection to larger social movements.

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas is a good introductory text for folks looking to explore how courts have interpreted sex discrimination since its introduction to the Civil Rights Act.

Reading Rachel Hills’ The Sex Myth was like reviewing my Sociology of Sexualities syllabus. Application of Foucault’s theory of power and social regulation? Check. Discussion of heteronormativity? Check. Mention Gayle Rubin’s charmed circle of sex? Three checks! Hills offers an analysis of contemporary sexual norms that is rich saturated with sociological research. She touches on many of the issues I unpack with my students at City College, but adds her own journalistic flare, making this book not only an informative but enjoyable read.

Hills argues that in this age of supposed sexual liberation and unprecedented freedom, sex has actually become heavy with significance, warping our perceptions and expectations. For instance, pressure has shifted from not having sex to having sex – and lots of it. Thus, the social denigration of virgins after a certain age or those with few sex partners. Hills finds that people tend to assume everyone around them is having more sex than them, and this becomes a race to keep up. She refers to this as a “gap between fantasy and reality.” One consequence is that folks become pre-occupied with whether or not they are having enough sex. The measurement of “enough” is based on assumptions and occasional check-ins with close friends on how much sex they are having. A better barometer of sexual satisfaction, though, would be asking yourself whether you’re having all the sex that you want. This may vary depending on what else is happening in your life.

This is just one of the many examples Hills offers us of the consequences of “the sex myth” – the belief that sex is all important, powerful, and indicative of how we’re doing as individuals and a society. She also points to the troubles caused by holding too precious ideas of “normality” when it comes to sex as well as the influence of masculinity and femininity in shaping sexual expectations.

Overall I found The Sex Myth to be a great read. I appreciated Hills’ generous use of sociological research to ground her arguments as she weaved in personal narratives from her life and the lives of people she interviewed. It was also refreshing to read many of the concepts I teach in academic settings covered with the delightful writing style of a journalist.

My only critique is the limited age range represented in the stories Hills highlights. One of the lies the sex myth promotes is that your sex life peaks in your twenties and it’s all down hill from there. Unfortunately, Hills inadvertently reinforces this myth by only featuring the stories of twenty-somethings. There were only two interviewees over the age of 30 featured, and one of them was experiencing a lengthy sexless period of their life. Perhaps selfishly, as someone migrating my way through my 30s, I wanted more representation of sexual experiences across the lifespan and how these experiences are shaped by or counter the sex myth. If Hills wanted to focus on sex-pectations for twenty-somethings, that’s fine, but that frame should be made clear from the start.

Other than this age caveat, I recommend without reservation this book to anyone looking for a fun subway read, an introduction to thinking critically about contemporary sexuality, or a book to offer your undergrads in human sexuality classes.

amrita_singh2Amrita Singh ’15 is a film studies major and an Athena Scholar. She serves as president of Columbia University Film Productions (CUFP), a Barnard Student Admissions Representative, an IMATS Media Technologist, and she’s also involved with the Athena Digital Design Agency. Additionally, she is an intern with Big Beach Films. She’s never been to Paris, but has always admired French cinema–in particular, Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups– and the city’s art scene both past and present. As an Indian immigrant and francophile, she is eager to better understand multiculturalism within a global context and as it relates to the particular history of Paris, France, and also looks forward to participating in the symposium during Barnard’s historic 125th anniversary.

With Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement regarding her candidacy of presidency and the conversations surrounding the current state of female leadership during a period of revived interest in women’s issues in popular culture as manifested in hashtag campaigns and impassioned speeches by celebrities, I find that the movement pushing for gender equality would greatly benefit in the inclusion of the voices of women that often go unheard. For instance, while the more recent HeforShe campaign importantly advocates that women’s rights affect us all and invites boys and men to the conversation, I wonder what more we could gain in focusing on diversity instead. While it’s incredibly important to highlight that gender equality is not strictly a women’s issue but one that affects us all, when we celebrate men as feminists to gain more traction in advancing the women’s movement what voices do we unintentionally drown out? In a patriarchal society where women still remain largely underrepresented in positions of authority, with their presence in top management positions remaining below 9 percent according to a report by the American Center for Progress despite reflecting the majority of the population, its important to bring these experiences to the forefront of the movement to effectively work towards correcting imbalances of power that permeate nearly all industry sectors. Furthermore when considering how women of color fare far worse in claiming leadership opportunities, the question of solidarity takes on a new form entirely.

That’s why I find programs focused on cultivating a group of diverse girls and young women who see themselves as leaders prove incredibly valuable. Given my quiet personality, I certainly didn’t see myself as a leader until I entered Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women based in New York City. As a student pursuing directing and opportunities in filmmaking, a male-dominated industry that notably lacks diversity with a mere 7% of female directors last year according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, I found the space of a women’s college incredibly empowering in demonstrating that leadership takes on many forms and is an ongoing process. I never understood what the big deal was in being a leader, especially since I honestly felt most comfortable on the sidelines. Without having to compromise who I am, in claiming leadership, my voice felt validated. Thus, while many people still question the relevance of women’s colleges today, as an institution, Barnard was founded to challenge systems of inequality and even figures prominently today in the discussion of women’s rights and in addressing pertinent ideas of gender identity. This year marks Barnard’s 7th year in hosting the global symposia series, with Barnard student fellows both interacting with the larger New York community and traveling to Rio, Mumbai and Paris to engage in issues of women and leadership. In exploring feminism within different cultural contexts, the program relies on the diversity of experiences to better understand how identity impacts one’s individual encounter with systems of inequality. By celebrating the importance of including a multiplicity voices, both in theory with inspired discussions relating to relevant social issues, and in practice by way of the vast backgrounds of the leaders participating in the program, the symposium refocuses the conversation on feminism by tackling issues of representation directly. From leading artists including Panmela Castro who engages with activism through her vivid graffiti on the streets of Brazil to Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE USA, an organization fighting poverty, the symposium in New York City draws from the rich experiences of a diverse group of leaders to present a number of perspectives on explicit challenges that women face at a global level.

16618620978_a3a412d9b7_oI had the opportunity to collaborate with high school students abroad in the Paris Young Women’s Leadership Workshop and amplify their voices by encouraging them to embrace their identity as a platform for their leadership. Given the different cultural settings a part of each city explored through the Symposium, the exchange between Barnard students and participating high school students provides invaluable learning opportunities on both ends. Using these interactive workshops to inspire participants in developing social action projects empower these young women to see themselves as leaders who can actually take the steps to bring about this change in their respective communities. In cultivating a global network of individuals who embody what it means to be a leader in this day and age, the Barnard Global Symposium connects women of different ages, backgrounds and beliefs across the globe to take part in the discourse of women and leadership as agents of change, impossible to ignore. As Global Symposium Panelist, Ndili Nwunelli said, “As young people we are told we are leaders of tomorrow. Why tomorrow? We can be leaders of today and tomorrow.”

KelsyBurke.SpringHeadshotKelsy Burke is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Norbert College. Her first book is Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (forthcoming, University of California Press). 

The #DuggarScandal is rising once again to the top of media headlines as Jim Bob, the father of Josh who molested his sisters and other underage girls, explained away the incidents of sexual abuse in an interview with Fox News. “They didn’t even know he had done it,” he said about Josh “touching” his daughters after they were asleep.

CJ Pascoe and Sara Diefendorf explained earlier this week in another Girl w/ Pen post the rationale used by religious conservatives like the Duggars to make sense of sexual scandals. For these Christians, sexual sin is an expected and, as Jim Bob’s interview reveals, forgivable offense. Importantly, and outrageously, the sin of sexual abuse may be equivalent to the sin of consensual sex before marriage, pornography use, or masturbation. And while the liberal pundits may cry GOTCHA! in exposing the hypocrisy of fundamentalist families like the Duggars, their beliefs rely on a logic that does not see sexual sin as hypocritical, but rather as inevitable. All of us are sinners.

The long, long list of conservative Christian leaders caught in a sexual scandal is nearly all men (here is a story that details some recent examples). Not surprising, the critical-thinking feminist may observe, given that conservative Christian traditions believe in men’s headship and women’s submission. As one blogger described, the Quiverful movement of which the Duggars belong demands that women “never exercise a moment of sexual agency in her entire life.” Conservative Christian men may be hypocrites, but conservative Christian women are the victims or at least the dupes.

To be sure, the girls abused by Josh Duggar are victims of sexual assault. They did not choose it or deserve it. But let’s think for a moment, feminist readership, about the implication of the attitude that conservative Christian women have no agency or an ability to make choices on their own terms. (To be precise, the blog quoted above surmises that the Quiverful movement itself bars women’s agency, but even this isn’t an entirely fair assessment.) When feminist commentary on conservative religion deals almost exclusively with women’s victimization, we are left to believe that religious women indeed don’t have any agency. Is a feminist dismissal of conservative religious women actually endorsing the attitude of Jim Bob that these women don’t know any better?

What would happen if we acknowledged that women may make choices and feel empowered by them even if those choices seem to defy feminist logic? What would happen if we reimagined the plot lines in the typical feminist narrative of conservative Christianity? Instead of women as dupes or victims for believing in a patriarchal religion, how might these religions serve a purpose in these women’s lives?

Many scholarly accounts of conservative religious women suggest that they find some aspect of their religion to be empowering, all while believing they should submit to men. One of my favorite examples of this is a study of evangelical women who are married to “ex-gay” men (men who admit to, though do not necessarily act upon, same-sex attraction). Through interviews with these women, sociologist Michelle Wolkomir finds that they at first blame themselves for their inability to sexually entice their husbands. Yet Wolkomir finds that women overcome this guilt as they realize that their husbands are engaging in sin. This means that their wives are no longer obligated to submit to their husbands, but rather only to submit to God.

Evangelical women married to ex-gay men are certainly a small group, but the lesson here is far reaching: In patriarchal religions, God is the ultimate patriarch. Especially for religions in the Protestant tradition, women believe they connect directly with the final authority, the one who is In Charge. Converting to Christianity has the power to help women feel more, not less, in control of their lives: to have the strength to speak up to a cruel co-worker or to be optimistic about a recent divorce. Conservative Christianity may not change women’s life’s circumstances, but it can help women change their perception of those circumstances.

A common feminist mantra on the choices of other women, in the words of Amy Poehler in her book, Yes Please, is “Good for you, but not for me.” Yet feminists commenting on stories like the Josh Duggar scandal are quick to point to Christianity’s flaws, never its virtues for some of its followers. Women who are complicit in religions that appear to many feminists as anti-feminist seem to cross a line that has no defense. But why can’t feminists take up the attitude, “Good for you, but not for me.”? Of course there are obvious answers to this question: because these religions perpetuate ideas about gender and sexuality that harm us, especially women and queers. Gender-based violence, though, is a social problem that is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. And don’t we live in a world where nearly all dominant ideas about gender and sexuality harm us? How can we defend Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian and nail art and not at least acknowledge that for some women, conservative religions are “good for you, but not for me.”? We may learn from these women that we all must make our own choices in a world that tries to limit them.

Girl w/ Pen is excited to present this guest post from Laurel Wider, a psychotherapist with a speciality in gender, relationships and identity.  She’s also a mom and Founder of Wonder Crew, a new line of toys that brings connection and kindness into boys’ play.   

Play is how children learn, which means toys have the power to create change. As I began to pay more attention to toys marketed to boys, it occurred to me that so many of them emphasized muscles and aggression and NONE offered a play experience that encouraged connection or even friendship.  Thrilled by the surge of toys that encourage  STEM and positive body images for girls, I want to help expand the way boys see themselves and the world around them.

I’m a mom, psychotherapist and now founder of Wonder Crew, a line of dolls that bring connection and feelings into boys’ play.  In my therapy practice, I’ve worked with several boys and men who have painfully grappled with impossible stereotypes of masculinity. Boys are raised to prioritize toughness and self-reliance – in my work with clients I’ve seen this lead to isolation, depression and sometimes aggression.

And then about a year ago, my son came home from preschool with the idea that “boys aren’t supposed to cry.”  I was floored that my own son had gotten a hold of this message. These stereotypes impact and harm everyone.  This is how I ended up a toy inventor.

questionphotoChange is generally something that happens gradually. With this in mind, I thought long and hard about how to create a “hybrid” toy, one that still resembled familiar play scenarios for boys, but also offered the opportunity to connect and nurture.  So I came up with action figure meets favorite stuffed animal.  This morphed into Wonder Crew:  a line of Crewmates (aka dolls) that come with a matching piece of adventure gear (dress-up) plus mini open-ended comic book.  The formula:  Child + Crewmate = Wonder Crew.

Right now we have one Crewmate, his name is Will and he comes in three adventures with a fourth in the 4_crewmates (1)pipeline:  Superhero, Rockstar, Builder and Chef.  These adventures were based on interviews with over 150 parents, educators and kids that spoke to me about play that they’ve observed/ kids’ favorite play scenarios.

At first I thought that these adventures were too stereotypical, but I’ve come to realize that it’s important to show that nurturing fits in with all kinds of play, even the kind that’s stereotypically masculine.  And really the big picture idea is that anyone can be a connected, empathetic, nurturing person.

group2bestfavorites_webready-43Wonder Crew is all about friendship and adventure and clearly this is not just a boy thing!  I plan to incorporate a girl Crewmate, while keeping with the same adventures. This would have been my preferred doll growing up.

While inspired by boys, Wonder Crew will be an interest-based brand, not gender based.  And the plan is for Crewmates to represent all kids (race, gender, ability).

Wonder Crew’s Kickstarter launched last week. We’re already over 40% funded, but we’ve got a ways to go. IMG_5037Please check it out and help spread the word!  It’s our goal to not only fund first production, but also to show public interest.  A large toy company told me that dolls for boys will never work; help Wonder Crew enlighten them!

Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society invites submissions for a special issue titled “Pleasure and Danger:  Sexual Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century,” slated for publication in the Autumn 2016 issue. The deadline for submissions is April 1, 2015.

At the heart of the feminist project is a persistent concern with thinking through the “powers of desire” (Snitow, Stansell, and Thompson 1983) and expanding the potential for sexual and gender freedom and self-determination at the same time that we combat sadly persistent forms of sexual danger and violence.  Exemplified in the US context by Carole Vance’’s landmark collection, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, feminist debates over sex, gender, and society have been incendiary.  First published in 1984, as proceedings of the infamous “Scholar and the Feminist” conference at Barnard, which initiated the equally infamous “sex wars,” this volume reproduced intense dialogue while also contributing to a much broader investigation of the politics (and pleasures, and dangers) of sexuality within feminist theory and culture. Articles that threw down gauntlets were subsequently canonized and celebrated.  Much has changed since that explosive conference and book. Even the subtitle, – “exploring female sexuality,” – would now be more deeply interrogated (biologically female? presumptively heterosexual?) and certainly pluralized.  But however reframed, the paradoxical joining that is “pleasure and danger” remains poignantly relevant.

For this special issue, we invite transdisciplinary and transnational submissions that address questions and debates provoked by the “pleasure and danger” couplet.  Submissions may engage with the historical (how different is our moment from that formative “sex wars” era? have the sex wars moved to new terrain such as trafficking and slut-shaming?); the representational (how does the digital era transform our sexual lives? what does “livestreaming” sexual assault do to/for feminist organizing? what possibilities are there for feminist and queer imagery in an era of prolific porn, commodified otherness, and everyday inclusion?); the structural (how do race, ethnicity, religion, and national cultures enable and constrain sexual freedoms? how do carceral and governance feminisms frame and perhaps contain earlier liberatory impulses?); and/or the intersectional (how do we analyze the mutually constituting relations of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, class, nationality, ability, age, and so on?). There are local and global questions to be asked and strategic arguments to be resolved.  And the very terms are themselves constantly debated (whose pleasure are we speaking of and for?  who is the “we” doing that speaking? who is imagined to be “in danger?” how does “gender” signify differently in that couplet from “sexuality?”).

We particularly encourage analyses from all regions of the globe that address pressing concerns and that do so in a way that is accessible and, well, passionate!  We encourage bold and big thinking that seeks to reckon with the conundrum still signaled by the pleasure/danger frame.  We especially seek submissions that attend to the couplet itself, to the centrality of pleasure/danger within the project of making feminism matter and resonate in ways both intimate and structural, deeply sensual and liberatory, simultaneously championing multiplicities of pleasures and a lasting freedom from violence and abuse.

Manuscripts may be submitted electronically through Signs Editorial Manager system at  Please choose the article type “Pleasure and Danger – Special Issue Article.” Guidelines for submission are available here. This Call for Papers is also available as a PDF. Please email the journal office with any questions.


Snitow, Ann Barr, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. 1983. Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. New York: Monthly Review.

Vance, Carole. S, ed. 1984.  Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.