Girl Talk

Here’s what I had to say in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

I confess: I dread this time of year. It might sound strange coming from the executive director of the National Women’s Studies Association, but Women’s History Month reminds me of our education system’s failures.

I hope you’ll read the full op-ed, and especially my ideas for solutions, and let me know your hopes for this time next year.

Calling all girls studies scholars and advocates for the National Women’s Studies Association 2010 conference in Denver, Colorado. The Call for Proposals specifically invites folks doing work on girls (and many other areas–see the Call for full details) to submit proposals.


November 11-14, 2010 Ÿ Denver, CO

Proposal Submission Deadline: March 1, 2010

Program Co-Chairs: Beverly Guy-Sheftall, NWSA President and Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies, Spelman College and Vivian M. May, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, Syracuse University

About the Theme

In response to wide demand, NWSA 2010 builds on conversations that began in Atlanta at the 2009 conference. Difficult Dialogues II will explore a range of concepts and issues that remain under theorized and under examined in the field of women’s studies.

NWSA 2010 identifies several thematic areas in which ongoing and new difficult dialogues are urgently needed:

  • Indigenous Feminisms: Theories, Methods, Politics
  • Complicating the Queer
  • The Politics of Nations
  • “Outsider” Feminisms
  • The Critical and the Creative

Hope to see you there!

My daughter turned 9 this week, and she reminds me of a wave about to hit the sand, full of power and beauty at the same time. Rarely have I wanted to turn back the clock to any earlier life stage—after all, I’m learning as I go—but girlhood right now looks pretty impressive from my towel safely above the shoreline.

Number 1: Title IX Rules

Title IX became law in 1972, so I am also a beneficiary of the legislation, but I think that my daughter will reap its rewards more fully. Title IX applies to both athletics and education, but its impact on athletic particpation is especially dramatic. In 1970 only 1 in 27 females played varsity sports; the number is 1 in 2.5 today. My daughter already plays soccer, a sport that I never encountered as an elementary school student; in fact, I didn’t have any opportunities to participate in team sports in middle or high school, either.

Number 2: Girl Power Rocks

Three cheers for the Girl Scouts! My daughter joined a Brownie troop last year, and while I don’t love everything about Girl Scouting, I do love the values of leadership and social consciousness that scouting promotes. My daughter dashes out the door to Friday meetings on dark winter evenings (when a week’s worth of work and school activities leave me feeling ready to hunker down at home) and bursts into a giggly gaggle of girls who sincerlely work—and play—at building community across differences.

Number 3: It’s All About Social Justice

My son and daugther spent last week hanging environmental responsibility signs around our house: they posted reminders on bathroom doors about conserving water during showers and decorated the hamper with a sign about wearing clean clothes more than once. Today my daughter took money to donate to a Haiti relief fund at school. To be sure these efforts are small and inconsistent (we discussed contributing to earthquake relief instead of buying birthday gifts and my daughter was not quite so selfless). Yet I’m hopeful that social justice issues are woven into her home, school, and extracurricular life in ways that reflect a larger generational trend.  What do you notice about the girls in your lives, GWP readers?

Difficult Dialgoues

Get the latest on girls and girls studies this week at the National Women’s Studies Association annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia from November 12-15.  The conference theme is “Difficult Dialogues,” and we expect our largest event in recent history.  On tap: more than 1,600 feminist scholar-activists gathering to exchange ideas in more than 300 sessions.

You’ll hear analyses of girls’ lives and experiences, including sessions like “Girls of Color and Performance Ethnographies” and “Voices of Girls in Urban Schools.”

And if you can’t make it you can find updates on our Facebook page or after the conference on the NWSA site where we expect to make a podcast of the Angela Davis keynote address available.

Wimpy Kids

You can also hit the newsstand and pick up the latest issue of Ms. Magazine where you’ll find my contribution on Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid book series.  My daughter Maya is one of my expert sources along with Sharon Lamb, Lyn Mikel Brown and Mark Tappan, who’ve just released Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes.

I loved reading Emily Bazelon’s interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

I loved that she gave this interview so strategically, with its publication on the eve of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings.  The interview both anticipates and undermines the predictable sexism and racism (see, for example, all of the ink spilled about the “wise Latina woman” quote, and Ginsburg’s spin on that tempest in a teapot) that have informed both the hearings and the media coverage surrounding the Sotomayor nomination.

I loved that it was feminist.  From talking about why women matter on the court and in public life to arguing that “[t]ime is on the side of change,” with regard to abortion rights, Ginsburg’s responses are unabashedly feminist.  How wonderful to see this on display—at length—in a mainstream media publication.

But most of all I loved the way it represented women supporting one another.  Maybe this is what our feminist foremothers had in mind when they used the phrase, “sisterhood is powerful.”  I have to say that I’ve never had much use for the idea of “sisterhood” in my definition of feminism, since the term seemed to rely on artificially flattening differences among women.  It seems to assume that gender struggles are the most important ones, something that has been most often true for white women.  (As many GWP readers already know, GWPenner-in-Chief Deborah Siegel has a terrific analysis of the conflicts and controversies at work in feminist ideas of “sisterhood” in Sisterhood, Interrupted).

So with all of that history in mind, that show of support is what I especially loved about Ginsburg’s interview.  Positioning herself as white, Jewish woman from Brooklyn, she was standing up for her Latina. . .colleague (sister??) in a very public, political way.  Speaking as a white woman myself, we need to this more often, and not just when it comes to gender struggles.

I’ve also been thinking about this public, political, feminist show of support in the context of girls’ relationships.  My daughter has recently been grappling with what is probably the beginning of many girl friend conflicts that center around attention, inclusion and exclusion, and degrees of “best friend-ness.”  (For example, “I have no one to play with on the playground.  Sally and Susie are spending all of their time together and they don’t include me.”)

I’m saddened that these conflicts are arising already, in second grade.  But I’m also thinking from a feminist perspective about how my daughter can learn to value her female relationships, and about how I can model female friendship myself.

I return to thinking about the Ginsburg interview.  It’s clear from the Q&A that Ginsburg and Sotomayer don’t know one another well.  Certainly they would not call one another friends.  But no doubt they share a passion for their work, a commitment to advancing social justice, intellectual curiosity, and much more perhaps.

Friends are important in life, no doubt.  But so are feminists.  I hope my daughter finds plenty of both as her relationships unfold.

Much as I want to think of myself as a feminist parent, sometimes I doubt my credentials.  After all, I don’t forbid Hannah Montana for my daughter or swordplay for my son even though both of these activities certainly do reinforce gender stereotypes (although I should probably add that my daughter took jui-jitsu for a time and my son happily watches Hannah Montana).

But I know that when it comes to discussions of loving relationships, this is one area where my feminism comes through loud and clear.  With the current setbacks—like yesterday’s California High Court ruling in support of the gay marriage ban and victories over gay marriage, I see this as an important social justice issue.  After all, I want my daughter and my son to grow up in a culture that will recognize and equally value their loving relationships whoever their partner may be.

Katy Perry as “Compulsory Heterosexuality 101”
My 8-year-old daughter loves Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” She’s especially familiar with the chorus, which goes like this:

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chapstick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it
It felt so wrong
It felt so right

Recently after the song played my daughter asked, “Why is she worried about what her boyfriend will think?”  I explained that the song was about two girls kissing.  Perhaps not surprisingly, she had been listening to the song and singing the words without really understanding it.  When I explained the idea of two girls kissing, some predictable “ew’s” and “yuck’s” ensued (the standard grade school reaction to all romantic kissing).  I also explained that some people think two girls or two boys kissing is a bad thing.

I went on to tell her what I thought—that two people who love each other can kiss, whether they are two girls, two boys, or a boy and a girl.  I talked about the way that “gay” can be used as an epithet, and how in my view such a usage was inappropriate.

My daughter wanted to try the idea on for size.  What would be the difference between using gay in a “mean” way and in a “nice” way, she wanted to know?  She thought out loud, “I could say, ‘You’re gay, hooray!”

I loved this response.  Tolerance is one thing: plenty of research suggests that young people are more supportive of gay marriage than their older counterparts.  But celebration is another, and my daughter is right there already.  Dismantling heterosexism and homophobia are important parts of this mix as well: my daughter may not be there yet, but that’s where my feminist parenting comes in, and we’ll take it day by day.

While I don’t think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” lyrics are especially feminist—heterosexual male enjoyment of “lesbian” sexuality has been around for a long time, it opened a great window of conversation and analysis for our family.  Now that’s feminist, so thanks, Katy Perry.

GWP, readers how does feminism influence your parenting?  I’d love to hear your stories.

MCMiley Cyrus is all grown up.  Yes, I am going to squeeze Simone de Beauvoir and Miley Cyrus into the same sentence.  If you’re following Miley’s career these days, you’ll know that she’s “becoming a woman” in the media and entertainment worlds.  Simone de Beauvoir definitely had it right, and rarely do we see so clearly exactly how someone “becomes” a woman.  But really, this is her “adult,” womanly roll-out, and just to be sure we get it the media coverage makes clear that Miley is all “grown up” now.  She’s on the cover of Glamour magazine this month, hit the American Idol stage this week in a sexy strapless gown, and has a movie in theatres nationally.  With a career like that she definitely has adult responsibilities, I’m sure.

But just ask my daughter—Miley is sixteen, which does not seem especially grown up to me, particularly as the parent of an 8-year-old (So my daughter is halfway to adulthood?? I hope not!).  Here are my questions: what does it mean for a sixteen-year-old (or her handlers) to be reinventing herself as a “woman” in media terms?  Can we expect her to shed the squeaky-clean image and angle for meatier (read: sexier) parts?  And what does it mean for her tween fan base to witness this transformation?  Finally, you tell me: when do girls become women?  What marks that transformation in your mind?

Becoming a man.  Judith Warner has a thoughtful column this week, “Dude, You’ve got Problems,” about the use of “gay” as an epithet.  She writes, “It’s weird, isn’t it, that in an age in which the definition of acceptable girlhood has expanded, so that desirable femininity now encompasses school success and athleticism, the bounds of boyhood have remained so tightly constrained?”  I’m not so sure, however, that I agree with Warner’s assertion that being called a “fag” has “almost nothing to do with being gay.”  Instead, she argues, “fag” is used to deride weakness or femininity.  Well, yes, and that’s what I call homophobia, which certainly does go hand in hand with sexism.

Is Women’s Studies the next Sex and the City?  Let’s hope HBO can do for women’s studies what it has already done for big city career girls, mobsters, undertakers, and polygamists.  The cable network apparently has a show in development about a former “feminist It Girl” who is now turned to being a professor at a small liberal arts college.  Will such a show poke fun at women’s studies?  Sure, this field offers plenty of material for laugh lines, but if we also wind up as the next hit series everyone is talking about, then the HBO line on my cable bill will have been money well spent.

–Allison Kimmich

As GWP readers know, we’re celebrating Women’s History Month this March. When my 8-year-old daughter came home from school with an assignment to write a biography about a woman from history, with the understanding that it could be a sports figure, a celebrity, a writer, a politician—any woman–I was at first dismayed. But I then grew excited about finding some strategies that can improve this month-long celebration of women’s history. I know we can do better, and I know girls deserve better!

For starters, the open-ended nature of the assignment overwhelmed my daughter. “Mom, how can I choose?” More important—from my perspective at least—how many women has her curriculum introduced as possible subjects for this assignment? The answer: not many. So while the field of choice was wide open in theory, having encountered few “important” women in school she really didn’t have many possibilities to consider.

Equally troubling to me: are a sports figure and a politician the same type of historical figure? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against athletes or politicians, but I do think that assignments signal educational values. Given the curriculum’s limited attention to women’s history, should my daughter be in the position to decide which life will define it?

But I’m writing to offer some suggestions for reinventing women’s history month, not to complain about it. In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between identifying problems versus creating solutions within feminism ever since I read Courtney Martin’s provocative analysis of a New York Times op-ed here.

So here goes:

Five Things You Can Do to Reinvent Women’s History Month

1. Volunteer to Talk in a School or Girl-Serving Group. Whether or not you have school-aged children, schools and nonprofits would welcome your expertise (and yes, if you are a GWP reader, I mean you). And I do mean welcome—with open arms! Most teachers love classroom guests, and kids love a break in the routine. You don’t have to give an academic talk, just a few highlights about an important woman you admire or about why women’s history matters. You still have time to make a difference this month, and if not, volunteer in April (or May, or September).

2. Share Your Ideas for Assignments with Teachers. Now I’m talking to the parents out there. If I have a casual moment with my daughter’s teacher (at pick up time one day, maybe) I will mention my thoughts about how she could make this assignment stronger (read: “more feminist”). Having a short list of “important” women from which to choose, and talking with the whole class about all of them, for example, would teach the whole class a bit more women’s history.

3. Advocate for Curricular Reform. I know, this is a steep hill to climb, but I’m in this race for the long haul. We can make interventions like the ones I mention above right now, but we really need to find new, inclusive approaches to teaching history (and English, and math, etc.). That can only happen when we have some broader thinking about K-12 curricular reform.

4. Write Feminist Children’s Literature. Again, I’m dreaming big. The list of “women’s history month” books at my public library was bleak. It included books on pioneers, explorers, and aviators. Well, okay. But I can tell you that those topics seem pretty foreign and uninteresting in my daughter’s media-saturated world where she uses “text” as a verb even though she doesn’t have a cell phone. We need some better books, and we need some that make history seem lively, relevant, and fun.

5. Talk with Girls (and Boys) About Women’s History. This is not exactly the same as my first suggestion. When this assignment came up I was struck by the fact that my daughter and I rarely talk about the need to recognize—or even study!—women’s accomplishments. That seems a little crazy to me, especially given that my own background is in women’s studies. Yet it’s easy to go along with the status quo, and my daughter is proud of her success in school. What would it mean to suggest that school is leaving some important things out? Whether or not you have children, I’m sure you encounter school-aged children in your family or among your social network. I think we can all do more to talk about what gets left out, and why it matters.

What would you add to my list? And in case you’re wondering, my daughter wrote about Michelle Obama, definitely my kind of “important” woman who is making history every day.

Dear Barack and Michelle,

I’m writing to you as the parents of beautiful girls, and as people who hold the future of this country in your hands for the next four years. I know that you both take seriously your job as parents as well as the way you can shape public policy to improve your daughters’ lives. Michelle has talked about supporting working parents and Barack has talked about fighting workplace discrimination so Sasha and Malia will not have to experience it as adults.

George W. Bush was a father to daughters, and so was Bill Clinton. But your perspective seems fresh, new, and dare I say the “f” word? Feminist. I think our friends at Ms. Magazine got it right:

Hallelujah. You recognize that the personal is political, and vice versa. Parenting daughters has clearly made you think about how you lead, and about how your political choices and policy decisions will shape your daughters’ lives.

Our country needs this framework, and your “to do” list is long. For example, I’ve blogged about my wish for some federal leadership on curricular reform, and I hope you’ll take a look.

But for now I’m content to wait and see what unfolds under your leadership and your parenting. I’m also raising an 8-year-old daughter, and I know that we probably share some of the same hopes and ambitions for our girls. I know for sure that I’m hoping to create a more equitable world for her, and yes, a more feminist one, too.

Allison Kimmich
Executive Director, National Women’s Studies Association

This post is part of a forum.

This post was first posted on February 6, 2009 at NCRW’s The Real Deal.

-Allison Kimmich

Like others who work in education, I was eager to see who President-elect Obama would select for his Education Secretary, and what that individual would represent. Obama’s selection of Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan was announced yesterday.

I am heartened by the fact that Duncan represents a both-and approach to school reform, recognizing that both teacher improvement and social support for children outside of school will play a critical role in taking the US education system to a new level of excellence (we can hope, right?).

But I’m left with an important question: Will we see federal leadership for curricular reform? Peggy McIntosh recently pointed out to me that the central structure of the American education system (math, science, English, social studies, etc.) has remained unchanged since the 18th century. To be sure, approaches to these subjects are updated and the curriculum has certainly changed over time. Yet I’m also convinced from experience that the more things change the more they stay the same, and that the status quo reinforces traditional gender stereotypes (along with stereotypes about race and class).

For example, I noticed that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher had divided the girls’ and boys’ workbooks by color-coded baskets (red=girls, blue=boys: hm, at least it wasn’t pink!). I notice when I pick my daughter up from her after-school program that the room is frequently segregated by gender and toys (girls playing with dolls while boys play with Legos).

No doubt you’ve noticed that my examples point to classroom arrangements rather than classroom content, and you might think I’m being too nit-picky. After all, they’re just colored baskets, right? No way! I’m convinced that the classroom arrangements and curricular content reinforce each other (see my previous post where I mention a sex-stereotyping book series that my daughter discovered thanks to her first-grade teacher). It may be red baskets now, but when women still have to fight for equal pay for equal work (among other things), I want to be sure I’ve done my part to make a difference.

When I mentioned my concerns about the color-coded baskets during a conference, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher was shocked to think that she might be perpetuating gender stereotyping. She gave me examples of ways she challenged the students’ gender stereotyping in the classroom (talking about her own love of math, “requiring” girls to play in the block corner). The next morning the baskets were changed, with the kids finding their workbooks based upon the first initial of their last name.
I’m sure that won’t be the last conversation I have with a teacher about gender inequality in the classroom, but I hope that we can expect national leadership and fresh thinking about what goes on in the classroom. Any word on whether Duncan is a feminist? And GWP readers, have you taken any steps to make your sons’ or daughters’ classrooms more feminist learning environments?

-Allison Kimmich