Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 9.13.33 PMWorkplace consultant, coach and work-life advocate Rachael Ellison penned an excellent post chock full of qualitative data at HuffPo Parents last week, “Why Caregiver Discrimination Is Bad for Business.”

Too good not to share.

Remember Catalyst’s Bottom Line series? That groundbreaking research series that first explored the link between gender diversity and corporate financial performance? Well, this is of that flavor, but focused on the bottom-line benefits of retaining working parents, and based on stories from accomplished, successful professionals in their thirties and forties in dozens of industries. As Ellison notes, “In order to create or sustain family friendly workplaces, you need buy-in from organizational leadership, effective manager training, and employee accountability. Most companies don’t have all three, and as a result they lose their top talent. And, it’s costing them a fortune.”

Ellison is working on a book, REworking Parenthood, for which she is currently collecting stories from parents in the trenches, that will help us understand how companies are succeeding and failing in supporting employees’ lives.

Read on, share away, and follow her at her blog and Twitter (@REworkingparent) as she goes.


Last week Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice sponsored a screening of the film Anita: Speaking Truth to Power.For me the afternoon was an emotional roller coaster, a visceral reminder of the power and the risks of speaking out.

The film tells the story of Anita Hill’s testimony during the October 1991 US Senate hearings for President George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Hill’s testimony, carried on live television, reverberated throughout the country. Never before had the sexism and racism of the overwhelmingly white male majority of the US Congress been so publically exposed. The all white, all male Senate Committee quizzed the young University of Oklahoma Law School professor relentlessly. They repeatedly asked her to re-state the precise details of the sexual harassment Clarence Thomas had engaged in when Hill worked for him at the EEOC and the US Department of Education. To a man, the Committee simply ‘didn’t get it’. Across the nation tempers flared, women were energized and far too many men joined the Senators as members of ‘ Club Clueless’.

One of the most moving lines in the film is Hill’s recollection of her mother’s proud words of support, “You know who you are.” The movie ends on a hopeful note– scenes of Hill working with young women, helping them find their own voices.

I was still lost in renewed anger as the film ended and a distinguished panel took the stage. Watching members of the Senate Committee asking whether anyone else had witnessed the exchanges, implying that Hill’s word could not be trusted, hearing Senators dismiss Thomas’s behavior as ‘only words’ was infuriating. I found myself seething as Senators harped on the fact that Hill had not immediately reported the harassment—as if doing so were the easiest thing in the world.

It all should have felt like old history. It didn’t.

Ignorance of the reality and impact of sexual harassment might not play out on televised Senate hearing in 2014, but the same lack of understanding surrounds us today. It’s in the entertainment media, in the comments from professional sports spokesmen and military commanders, in the judgments of school and university officials, in the denials of work place supervisors. After all, the response too often goes, ‘its just words, or horseplay or something the girl/woman provoked.’

Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times and author of the book Strange Justice: the Selling of Clarence Thomas, introduced the panelists: Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandies University, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, the only African American man to step up in 1991to join Hill’s advisory team, and Nan Stein, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has focused on in sexual harassment in K-12 education since 1979. Their discussion focused on public discourse around issues of gender violence—where we were in 1991 and where we are now.

We’ve made progress. Private conversations have turned into public ones, but as Hill pointed out, the past twenty-three years have been replete with brief moments of public engagement with the issue that then fade, only to be repeated when a new outrage occurs. We haven’t yet found a way to move beyond sporadic points of awareness to more sustained, effective action. Stein noted that with all forms of gendered violence increasing in severity and occurring at younger ages educators cannot hide behind the term ‘bullying’. Bullying is not illegal under federal law, but sexual harassment is. We owe it to our children to name the offense clearly in order to provide appropriate avenues of redress.

Some say, “Well, verbal harassment isn’t the same as rape or battering.” But while words may leave less physical damage, they leave lasting scars, can effect careers and stunt emotional and intellectual growth. Ignoring or belittling any form of sexual abuse provides fertile ground for the escalating gender violence all round us. More than 60 colleges and universities are under investigation for their handling of campus sexual assaults. This week the Huffington Post reported that less than 30% of students found guilty are expelled.

Hill addressed another aspect of the hearings: the extent to which progress in public discussion and understanding of acts of gender based harassment and violence has not been matched by similar progress in discussions of gender and race. No one watching the original hearings or viewing the film can forget the words with which Clarence Thomas stopped the Senate Committee in its tracks, effectively intimidating them from calling other women waiting to testify about Thomas’s behavior. Categorically denying all charges, Thomas called the hearings a ‘high tech lynching”. The Committee backed off.

In popular parlance, only black men are lynched. The Committee feared being labeled racist, but never seemed to consider their behavior toward Hill. And yet part of the reason they could bagger, doubt and ignore Anita Hill was exactly because she was black. If a young, white female lawyer had given the same testimony would the Committee have found it as easy to dismiss?  I doubt it.

By changing the discourse, Thomas succeeded. The Senate confirmed his appointment 52 to 48. Pundits labeled the hearings a case of ‘he said, she said’—-something no one could unravel.

But the outrage and the conversations continued and grew. In Hill’s words, “It was the wisdom of women rather the opinions of pundits that proved to be correct.” It was not that no one had addressed sexual harassment and gender violence before the Senate hearings. Stein noted that in Minnesota in 1991 high school student Katie Lyle had finally won some measure of redress for the savage sexual harassment she had endured at her school. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence had formed in 1978. But Anita Hill’s courageous, clear words in front of some of the most powerful men in the country had been witnessed across the nation. The hearings galvanized women.Female candidates ran for office at every level; several won.

October marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1991 Senate hearings. It is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. New White House initiatives and public service ads addressing gender violence are underway. We cannot let these initiatives be simply one more ‘point of engagement’ that flares, then fades.

Charles Ogletree concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that in 1991, ‘Women stood up.” There is more work to do. It is again time for women and men to stand up and speak out. To sit silently is to condone behaviors no one should endure.

“Go Hermione!”

Emma Watson HeForSheA young woman in my Sociological Theory class yelled those words as soon as she saw me pull up a clip of Emma Watson’s speech at the UN for the class to see. We were covering Charlotte Perkins Gilman that day, and I showed the video because I thought she articulated the core tenets of contemporary feminist theory pretty well. For ten minutes, my students sat in rapt attention as Watson explained how (1) gender inequality still exists, (2) gender binaries are socially constructed, and (3) masculinity isn’t healthy for men, either.

While these ideas aren’t new—Perkins Gilman voiced many of them over a century ago—Watson’s speech caught fire both in my classroom and on social media. What attracted the most attention was her call for men to join the HeForShe campaign as advocates for change. Within minutes, #HeForShe started trending on twitter. Within hours, male celebrities began posting pictures of themselves holding handwritten #HeForShe placards. This made me feel good about the world.

But it also made me sad.

The reason for this is because the statistics Watson outlined in her speech have been articulated at conferences, panels, and rallies across the country for decades. In terms of pay, power, and prestige, women almost always lag behind men. Nearly a quarter of women in the US will experience severe physical violence from their intimate partners in their lifetime. However, people aren’t retweeting and sharing Watson’s speech solely because of the facts she cited. Instead, her speech went viral because of the audience who finally listened: men. And this is what made me sad.

We all know that the fight against domestic violence will never be won by women alone. Men need to be an equal part of the movement. Yet, the question of how to get them involved is still a subject of debate. One way to recruit them is to praise their presence and applaud them for voicing their solidarity. This is an effective strategy to get more men involved. It works.

However, there is a downside to this approach. Namely, celebrating the presence of allies can sometimes exacerbate the same inequalities that organizations like HeForShe are trying to combat in the first place.

Moral wages - cover artI’ve seen this process firsthand. As a sociologist who spent roughly a year and a half doing ethnographic field work inside an agency that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, one of the most common questions I get about my research is, “so, what is like to be a guy in a place like that?” Not many men work inside rape crisis centers or battered women’s shelters. Most of the time, when I was answering the crisis-hotline or helping clients fill out legal forms, I was the only man in the building. And while many people presume that this would make my research harder, it had the opposite effect. It made it easier.

You see, like Emma Watson said, domestic violence victim-advocates and counselors aren’t man-haters. This caricature is completely inaccurate. You know why? Because stereotypes like “feminazis” make it harder for them to help their clients.

The more judges and cops see staff at these agencies as spiteful and biased, they less likely they are to sign their clients’ Orders of Protection or dispatch officers to enforce them. Advocates and counselors don’t worry about what people call them—they have thick skin. What they care about is their clients’ safety. Debunking these “anti-male” myths is a way to help their clients.

So, how do they prove they don’t hate men? They applaud men who help out the least bit.

In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Staff at agencies like the one I studied are typically underpaid and overworked. Pats on the back are sometimes the only thing they can afford to offer in exchange for men’s help. In my book, I call these symbolic rewards “progressive merit badges,” and they were given to men who understood how domestic violence was really just a means for abusers to exercise power and control over their intimate partners.

While it might be easy to dismiss the progressive merit badges men can earn for helping out as inconsequential, that would be a mistake. In some careers, these stamps of approval have real value. I watched the men who earned them climb their career ladders quicker than their peers.

During my research, I watched male sheriff’s deputies promoted into better paying liaison positions because of their affiliation with the agency. I watched an assistant district attorney leverage his years of work with victims of domestic violence as a feature item in his successful campaign for judge. I watched a “batterer intervention facilitator” parley his experience counseling abusers into his own private practice.

In these cases, being an ally paid off—not just symbolically, but economically, too. This isn’t an isolated case. Privileging allies to combat social problems is, well… problematic.

To understand my concerns, first consider what it means to be an ally. An ally is someone who helps others solve their problems. Whites who fight racism, straight folks who battle homophobia, the wealthy who seek to end poverty; these actions are considered virtuous because of their presumed selflessness. We expect people of color, those who identify as queer, and the poor to fight to improve their condition. For whites, straight folks, and the wealthy, their privileged positions make their acts voluntary—they do it because they want to, not because they have to.

Second, under what conditions do allies become valuable commodities to social movements? Short answer: when others members of their privileged group behave badly. Without racism, there is no virtuosity in whites taking a stand against discrimination. Without homophobia, being a straight ally would be a meaningless term. For allies, their value is inversely proportional to the harm done by their social group.

To see this at work today, think about the recognition earned by men who declare their support for Emma Watson. The more credible we perceive the threats by some men to post nude pictures of her on the internet as revenge for her speech, the more valuable her male allies become. In other words, the more we fear gender terrorism by some men, the more we applaud other men for denouncing it.

The answer to this dilemma is not for women to do all the work themselves. Obviously, men’s presence is needed. Instead, the solution is to reflect on why male allies become such precious commodities in the fight against domestic violence.

Remember, not everyone has spare time, money, and energy to give; and not everyone can protest without fear for their personal safety. Conferring progressive merit badges to those who already have these privileges—especially considering their value in some career tracks—can unintentionally exacerbate the same state of gender inequality that is the root cause of domestic violence from the outset.

There is a lot of work to do, we need all hands on deck. Men’s help should be applauded just as any woman’s. But being a member of the group who created a mess should not be the criteria for celebration when a select few of them offer to clean it up.


Kolb PhotoKenneth Kolb is an associate professor of sociology at Furman University in Greenville, SC. He is the author of, Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim-Advocacy and Counseling, University of California Press, 2014.

Tina Pittman Wagers is a clinical psychologist and teaches psychology at University of Colorado Boulder. She just survived a heart attack.

Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon six weeks ago.
Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon seven weeks ago.

I am new to this role as a heart patient. My heart attack was five weeks ago, and I am getting the feeling that I have just begun down the confusing maze of angiograms, CT scans, EKGs, medications (and lots of ’em), heart rate monitors, cardiac rehab classes and blood tests. Indeed, even the phrase “my cardiologist” is one I never thought would pass my lips. Here’s why: I am 53 (we’ll discuss the significance of this age in a moment). I am fit, active, slim, haven’t eaten red meat for about 20 years and am a big fan of kale, salmon and quinoa, much to the chagrin of my two teenage sons. I live near the foothills in Boulder, Colorado, where I hike with my dog and often a friend or two, almost every day. I had completed a sprint triathlon two weeks before my heart attack. Ironically, this event was a fundraiser for women with breast cancer – it turns out that heart disease kills women with more frequency than breast cancer. But, hey, who knew?

My heart attack happened while I was swimming across a lake in Cascade, Idaho. I was about a quarter mile into the swim when I found that I couldn’t breathe, and was grabbed by an oddly cold and simultaneously searing band of pain about three inches wide across my sternum. My husband, Ken, was on a paddleboard nearby and helped pull me out of the water, and started paddling me back, stopping to allow me to vomit on the way back to shore. If you’ve never been on a paddleboard, it may be hard to imagine the balance it takes to paddle relatively quickly and keep the board from getting tipped over by the unpredictable movements of a heaving passenger in the midst of a heart attack. Suffice to say that I am grateful for Ken’s strength and balance in innumerable ways. An hour later, I was at a clinic in McCall, Idaho, where an astute ER doc was measuring my heart rate (very low) and heart attack-indicative enzyme called Triponin (rising) so I won an ambulance ride to St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho. I received excellent care there, queued up for an angiogram the next morning and was diagnosed with SCAD: a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, and, fortunately, a relatively mild one. Twenty percent of SCADs are fatal. Furthermore, I have none of the typical risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

I do have one of the main risk factors for this kind of heart attack, though: I am a woman. Eighty percent of these heart attacks occur in women. The average SCAD patient is 42, female and is without other typical risk factors for heart attacks. The current thinking about SCADs is that they are not as rare as originally thought, but are under- diagnosed because they happen in women who don’t look like typical heart patients.

Another related factor: I am menopausal. The majority of SCAD patients are post-partum, close to their menstrual cycle or menopausal – all times in women’s lives during which we experience significant fluctuations of sex hormones. Up until five days before my heart attack, I had been on low doses of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), in an effort to vanquish the hot flashes, sleep disruption and cognitive fogginess I was experiencing. I suppose HRT might have also represented an attempt to hang on to youth, in a youth-and sexuality-obsessed culture in which the transition to menopause often means a dysregulated and sweaty march into irrelevance.

Since I had my heart attack, I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, but that’s another column) interacting with professionals in the cardiology world, trying to figure out what happened to me, and how I can avoid having another SCAD – the rate of recurrence in my population is about 20-50 percent. I have encountered some lovely people, but almost all of them are baffled about what to do with me. I am atypical, as they inevitably explain, but the medications, the treatments, the rehab programs that they have to offer are designed for typical patients. So, that’s what my doctors try, but there is a lot of “voodoo vs. science” as one cardiologist explained, because science doesn’t have the answers to my questions. (I would add that there is a cardiologist, Dr. Sharonne Hayes at The Mayo Clinic, who is doing a lot of the research and seeing the patients who’ve had SCADs. I hope to meet her one day. I imagine a scene something like my 13-year-old self meeting David Cassidy, only in an exam room in Rochester, Minnesota– it’ll be just that cool.)

One of the factors that contributed heavily to my medical predicament was no doubt my menopausal and HRT status. The American Heart Association points out that lower estrogen levels in post-menopausal women contributes to less flexible arterial walls, clearly a factor in SCADs. The question then arises: how might HRT help prevent another heart attack? However, as anyone who’s even scratched the surface of the HRT world, there is a lot of conflicting data about who should use HRT, who shouldn’t, what the benefits and risks are, and what the differences may be between different formulations and methods of delivery of HRT. One study, the Women’s Health Initiative study, was a large study started in the early 1990s, and was a valiant attempt to gather data about the effects of HRT on women’s health, including cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, the average age of the women in this study was 63 – 12 years older than the typical age of the American woman hitting menopause and considering HRT, so the results have been criticized for their poor generalizability to newly menopausal women.  The research on HRT since the WHI study has been scattered, often contradictory, and hard for the average woman to access.

Why do we know so little about women and heart attacks, why they happen, what the symptoms are, and what we can do about hormonal factors that contribute? A big part of the problem is that, until the National Institute of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act in 1993, researchers largely excluded female humans from their studies. NIH has just this year (2014!) decided to use a balance of male and female cells and animals in their research. Up until now, 90 percent of the animal research has been conducted on males. Animal research, which is often a precursor to clinical trials in humans, has been missing out on vast pieces of investigation related to the female body. I am living (fortunately) proof of the fact that the delays in including females in research have translated into significant gaps in clinically relevant knowledge related to women’s health. Well-meaning physicians and practitioners only have the “typical” approaches to try with their “atypical” patients. Why this appalling delay to include female subjects? Because female rodents as well as humans experience menstruation and menopause, which are frequently considered dysregulating nuisances to many scientists. As a consequence, we have an enormous amount of catching up to do in order to understand what factors affect female bodies and health problems in different ways than our male peers.

Emma Watson gave a great talk last week to the UN about feminism meaning equal access to resources. One of the most important resources we have is scientific knowledge that can be applied to responsible, effective and efficient clinical care. Let’s hope that women can start to be understood as typical research subjects and patients, not as inconvenient, fluctuating, atypical anomalies.

In 2013, I became the director of an unusual gender center. This is its story.

September 18, 2014

My Girl w/ Pen column is called “GenderLab” or watch what happens when you run one of the most unusual gender centers in the country. That sounds hyperbolic. I know because I can’t believe I’m living it. As we are about to finish year one today, I’ve come up for enough air to document this experiment. And this year I’m going to be writing about it.

Kurt Voss & Daughter Cassandra
Kurt Voss & Daughter Cassandra

The heart of our center is a story of father/daughter love. You heard that right. Not an abstract story about rights and politics–though we know from Women’s Studies that those things are also personal. But ours starts with the personal. This is a story of love across difference. Of grief and transformation. Of a father who listened to his daughter and a daughter who stayed in dialogue with her father.

Cassandra Voss, for whom the center is named, was my student. She was effervescent. Let me give an example. When I first met her in 2004, I was two years into being an assistant professor. In class I was talking about the film Iron Jawed Angels, which is about Alice Paul and the suffragettes who secure the women’s vote in 1920. In the film, Alice Paul is played with pluck and determination by Hilary Swank; she wears her hair in long braids on occasion. After class, a young woman, Cassadra Voss, ran up to me and said, “Look, I wear my hair like Alice Paul. Ever since I saw the film, I love to wear my hair in braids like her.” I thought who is this luminous, geeky creature in front of me who does feminist cosplay? I loved her from the start.

Cassandra set out to be the first-ever major in Women’s and Gender Studies at our school. We started a minor in 2005 (notably late in higher ed), but she wouldn’t settle for that. She was also determined to put on the first production of the Vagina Monologues. And she insisted on hiring the first man in the Women’s Center. So she wasn’t so different from Alice Paul afterall. The thing that’s harder to capture about her is that she was one of the most hopeful, ebullient people I’ve met in my life. And that combination of bravery and delight was intoxicating. She was the kind of student who always bounded into my office and plopped on my couch. There was nothing small or half-hearted about her.

You see I’ve been in Women’s Studies a long time. Since I was 19–the same age Cassandra was when she first took Introduction to Women’s Studies. At her age, I was equally passionate about gender and social justice, but I was not nearly as loving. Early I had to manage so much anger about deep inequality and oppression; I didn’t know what to do with it. Cassandra managed to keep believing in people and “their better angels” which often made me feel a bit sheepish in her presence. She recentered my politics in love. And one of the ways she did that was how she talked about her dad.

Cassandra Voss, St. Norbert College
Cassandra Voss, St. Norbert College

I’ll never forget when Cassandra said to me, “My dad is coming to hear our panel on The Women’s Room and he’s conservative and I want you to meet him.” I had taken Cassandra and a handful of students to present their work on that interesting, rarely taught early classic, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. Now they were presenting it again at our undergraduate research day. I walked in the room and spotted him immediately. He had the starchiest shirt in the room. On a campus that is uber midwest-casual, Kurt Voss was pressed and tucked. And like his daughter, game for anything. Which is why the Fox-news watching, deeply religious CEO was in the front row taking notes about second-wave feminism. Some of Cassandra’s friends snickered at his questions which were uninformed, understandably, and real. Real questions, ones they needed to answer to not cocoon themselves in their private ideologies. That day in the spring of 2006, I had no idea that a little over a year later, Kurt and I would begin a friendship after Cassandra’s death that would last six years.

Cassandra died unexpectedly in 2007.  Sometimes I still dream about her. Only now when I wake up, I go to work and see her face every day in the building her father built for her. Some days I talk to her. Some days, I stare at the floor because I can’t look at her face. It’s just too much. I make my coffee and get to work. But there are moments, like her birthday coming up where I remember one of the three life-long goals she wrote on her then “Myspace” page in 2007: my goal is to make my dad a hard-core feminist.

She got her wish.

Stay tuned for how that dad built a multi-million dollar gender center.

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Cassandra Voss Center St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin
Cassandra Voss Center,  St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin

girl-32813_640Hey GWP Community!

A slew of interesting books “bridging feminist research and popular reality” (our tagline) are either just out or on the horizon, from Seal, Feminist Press, Demeter Press, and many more. Shoot me an email [deborahgirlwpen (at) gmail (dot) com] if you’d be interested in guest reviewing any of these–either individually or in a cluster–here on Girl w/Pen, with an eye toward the larger conversations, perspectives, and research they tap into:

Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years

Stacey Radin’s Brave Girls: Raising Young Women with Passion and Purpose to Become Powerful Leaders

Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism, Second Edition

Babygate: How to Survive Pregnancy and Parenting in the Workplace by Dina Bakst, Phoebe Taubman, Elizabeth Gedmark

Sarah Granger’s The Digital Mystique

Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelly’s anthology, Yoga + Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body

Queering Motherhood: Narrative and Theoretical Perspectives edited by Margaret F. Gibson

Reconceiving Motherhood by Patricia Hill Collins

Feminist Parenting From Theory to Life Lived edited by Lyndsay Kirkham

Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions Of Modern Motherhood edited by Linda Ennis.

And of course if there’s a book you’d like to review that’s not on the list, please inquire within.

Yours in bridging,

This image originally appeared at the Concord Monitor:

From a Politics of Shame to a Politics of Grief

On August 9, Officer Darren Wilson fired his gun at least six times at unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, killing him in broad daylight. Within a day, the streets of Ferguson became the epicenter of a national outcry over racial profiling and police brutality. As images of unrest in Ferguson circulated from the streets and into cyberspace, one meme has been particularly electrifying in calling attention to the ongoing problem of race in America. Typically, it has featured two frames: one taken from the Civil Rights movement, the other from recent events in Ferguson, MO. The intent is to draw the viewer’s attention to the disturbing parallels between today’s and yesterday’s racial landscapes, and most often, they feature men: men as protesters, men as police.

Where are the corresponding pictures of women?

After all, during the Civil Rights movement, women were often on the front lines to expose the blind injustice of Jim Crow America and inspire within white Americans – particularly Northern onlookers – shame by virtue of their apathy and lack of action in the face of images of water-hosed and beaten women. This was a politics of shame, and for at least a time, it worked.

Fast-forward to 2014, however, and a different kind of racialized motherhood is mobilized, one centered not on shame but on grief. On August 25th, three mothers – Leslie McSpadden, Sabryna Fulton, and Valerie Bell – embraced to publicly mourn their sons, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell. Speaking with CNN, they talked about the support they could uniquely mobilize for one another, about pushing through the pain of loss and despair, about what it means to carry on the memory of their sons in light of “character assassinations” used to justify their deaths. A day later, Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson proclaimed in a heart-wrenching open letter: “this is where we, as parents, have to be relentless in the vindication of our sons” (here).

Double Jeopardy, Double Injuries

In pursuing vindication for their sons by insisting that their lives are worthy of grief, the mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell and others face a particular kind of “double jeopardy,” a term that sociologist Deborah Kinguses to call attention to how race and gender intersect to deepen the marginalization of women of color. They are judged on two counts: first, they are on the stand for their sons in the court of law and public opinion. With their sons unable to speak on their own behalf, these mothers are in constant battle to assert the dignity of their sons, to insist on their moral character, to maintain their innocence.

Here, to be a good mother means navigating the sociolegal insecurities that come along with the criminalization of young men and boys of color. It means asking, and coming to terms with, a difficult question: “Will my child be profiled as a criminal, and arrested or even killed as a result?” To be a good mother thus means having – as sociologist Dawn Dow examines in her study of middle-class African American motherhood – “the talk” with their sons about the “first impressions” their mere presence gives to onlookers and how to interact with police to avoid escalation. Indeed, it means coming to grips with the police and the criminal justice system as antithetical to one’s responsibilities as a mother. Perhaps for this reason, Charles Epp, Stephen Maynard-Mooddy, and Donald Haider-Markel’s Pulled Over, a landmark study of racial profiling, found that African American women in their 40s were more likely to agree that “the police are out to get people like me” than any other age/race demographic aside from Black men under 30 years old.

While these mothers take on the burden of proving their sons’ innocence as if it were their own, this burden is their own to the extent that they are defending not only their sons – but their identities as mothers, as well. Patricia Hill Collinsargues that “controlling images” – of the welfare mother, the mammy, the jezebel – have long dictated the terms on which African American mothers are judged as bad, immoral or incompetent mothers. Each of these mothers has had to navigate their own character assassinations. For example, Sabryna Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, has been accused by conservative media of “cashing in” on her son’s death and intimidated by George Zimmerman’s brother from filing a civil suit as the case “might not be very flattering” for her and her family.

This double jeopardy reverses the sociological imagination, rendering collective responsibility for injustice into an individual (and apparently maternal) obligation. With this double jeopardy, the deaths of their sons bring a double injury: the injury of losing one’s child combined with the injury of having failed to navigate an impossible burden.

Cults of Motherhood

In this context, the popular portrayals of today’s grieving mothers of the post-Civil Rights era – the era of so-called “colorblindness” and “post-racial America” – do not cull a politics of shame in the viewer as much as reinforce a politics of grief. This is where the ‘cult of motherhood’ meets a ‘culture of poverty’ narrative to create a discourse that allows for empathy with these women as mothers while denying their structural position as Black women. The public focus on their mourning comes dangerously close to suggesting that the failure of American society is their failure, which is perhaps why these mothers are so appealing to the likes of CNN. Too often in their coverage, their grief is mobilized not to a reveal an uncomfortable truth about American society, one implicating all citizens as members of a structurally unequal society, as much as appeal to a depoliticized maternalism.

This supports a distinct cult of motherhood – a cult of the mourning Black mother, who bears the brunt of a vast carceral apparatus and who has no one to turn to but other mothers-in-mourning when she fails at this impossible task. Indeed, there’s something neo-Moynihanian about the public portrayal of these mourning mothers and the way this cult of motherhood has been distorted in ways that individualize their pain. This portrayal reinforces what many Americans want to think about their nation’s problem of race: that there’s really no broad issue of race, but rather an issue of circumstance and perhaps bad choices.

Gendered frames become the co-conspirator of racial ideologies: the racism of a “colorblind” society becomes masked as nothing more than a mother’s failure. Whereas the politics of shame held white Americans responsible in an era of Civil Rights, today’s politics of grief reduces this issue to one implicating Black sons and their mothers. It shouldn’t take a maternal discourse to recognize, empathize with and speak truth to the profound injustice of racialized violence in America. These women should capture the American public’s attention not because they have proven themselves as mothers but because they are fellow citizens. Yet with the recognition of the value of black life tied to the cult of motherhood, Leslie McSpadden, Sabryna Fulton, Valerie Bell, Wanda Johnson and others are left with the burden of not only their sons’ deaths but also the heavy problem of race in America.


Jennifer Carlson (PhD, UC Berkeley) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto who studies policing, gun cultures, and violence. Her book Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (2015, Oxford) examines the growing popularity of gun carry among Americans.

Unknown  August 26th is Women’s Equality Day. It will mark the 94th anniversary of the final ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women in the United States the right to vote. Lately anti-woman political rhetoric, the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision and various state and national legislative proposals that would turn back the clock on women’s rights have left me pretty glum.

Even the awarding of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, to a woman for the first time in the entire 78 years the Medal has been given has me grumbling. We should be well past ‘firsts’ of this kind. And what about the fact that the first woman to win the Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani, now a professor at Stanford University, received all her early encouragement and education in Iran before coming to Harvard for graduate work? Are we doing enough to encourage and inspire young women in this country to pursue mathematics? No. The data still show that women in the U.S. are far less likely than men to hold professorships in the field. Old dated stereotypes continue to pervade K-12 and even college level environments. As Field Medalist Sir Tim Groves noted “I am thrilled that this day has finally come…I hope that the existence of a female medalist…will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.” Yes, me, too. But it sure is a long time coming.

I’ve been so grumpy that a friend recently suggested I take a break and get a grip. “It’s not as bleak as you feel, Susan. Think back to when women couldn’t even vote.”

And of course, she’s right. Her remark reminded me of my father quoting the old adage, ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’ when attempting to cajole me out of an adolescent funk because girls weren’t allowed to try out for track. It would take more than decade before Title IX began to change sports opportunities for girls, but it did happen.

Women have made major steps toward equality since the passage of the 19th Amendment. But my gloom is not entirely misplaced. Progress is not inevitable; backsliding surrounds us. The depth of inequality confronting Black Americans highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri is but one example of how far our nation has to go before achieving equality for all. Women and girls from every socio-economic level and racial/ethnic background are part of the continuing struggle for full civil and human rights. We can’t forget this. But the anniversary of the 19th amendment is a good time to recall progress, even if we seem smack dab in the middle of a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ phase of the struggle.

Too many women and men, girls and boys have no knowledge of the days when women were denied credit cards; few realize that 2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act giving women the right to credit cards in our own names. Nor are most people aware of a time when dozens of states prevented women from serving on juries. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, while focused primarily on racial discrimination, guaranteed every woman the right to serve on federal juries, but it wasn’t until 1973 that all fifty states permitted women to serve on state juries.

Job listings ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ and the illegality of birth control are often considered the ‘the stuff of feminist urban legends’ as one twenty year old recently informed me. And the very real threats to women’s reproductive rights strike some as far-fetched. After all, the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion long ago, way back in 1973. Yet today’s reality is that this right is being increasingly curtailed by state actions. Even current attempts to limit access to the voting booth are less understood than they should be.

So let’s celebrate and educate. Let’s celebrate Maryam Mirzakhani and the many other women ‘firsts’ who provide young women important role models in a wide range of fields. But let’s also be sure we remember legislative victories, the struggles involved, the decades required. Sometimes grumbling is both appropriate and necessary, but celebrations are important, too. There’s a long road ahead.

imagesSO much to pick from this season, but among our summer highlights for those of you who missed it or are just now dropping in:

Natalie Wilson finds a gender con at comic con.

Virginia Rutter sets us straight on love and lust.

Elline Lipkin looks at the poetry and prose of “real” motherhood.

Susan Bailey cries uncle on Hobby Lobby.

Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe critique the over-thanking of straight male allies.

Adina Nack culls intel from guest Mary Assad on the science behind medical claims around fat and women’s hearts.

Kyla Bender-Baird invites Jocelyn Hollander to weigh in on Miss USA and self-defense.

Heather Hewett curates Emily Bent on what’s missing from girl power discourse in light of #BringBackOurGirls (namely: rights).

And I sound off on empowerment, tampon ads, and the Always #LikeAGirl campaign.

9780520277779by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo

Author, Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens (University of California Press 2014)


Are flowers feminine and lawn masculine? Or are gardens, with their domestic allure and food provisioning, feminine altogether?   Thinking about gender as a duality of flowery femininity and masculine mowing doesn’t get us very far. It’s like trying to squish bio-diversity into a binary code.   We know gender is shaped by intersections of race, class and nation, by myriad subcultural groups and by everyday acts of gender bending and deliberate non-compliance.  So what do we see when we look at the residential garden as a project of gender?

The lawn is the obvious place to start. The American suburban lawn once received derisive commentary from urbanites and novelists but now, as the entire western portion of the United States fries after years of drought, anti-lawnism is catching on with many sensible people. But who insisted on front yards of lawn in the first place? Suburban homes set back from the street, with ornamental plants around the foundation of the house and lawn stretching out to the street is a style attributed to Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), the nation’s first popular garden designer, merchant and Martha Stewart-like tastemaker. He loved the lawn. In his 1841 book, he instructed Americans on how to have a garden in good taste: men should tend the lawn, walkways, vegetables and fruit trees, and women, the flowers. Jane Loudon’s Gardening for Ladies, published in England around the same time and widely read in the U.S., cautioned women not to over-exert themselves in the garden. Meanwhile, lawn as a symbol of masculine status and power, was marketed to men by lawn mower companies as early as the 1850s.

As the suburbs expanded in late nineteenth-century America, the man mowing the lawn and the lady as manager of the home and garden defined new gender ideals that reached their apogee when the GI Bill swelled the ranks of suburban home owners. Today, this gendered template of women tending to life in the domestic interiors and men tending to the domestic exteriors still lingers, but it’s now a shadow. Gendered household divisions of labor have loosened and they have also been outsourced to others. In affluent communities around the nation, from Los Angeles to Long Island, it is increasingly Latina/o immigrant women and men doing this work. Latina women are cleaning and caring indoors, and Latino immigrant gardeners are tending to the plant life and the dirty work of mowing lawns and blowing away fallen leaves outdoors.

Photograph by photographer, Nathan Solis

Domesticas and jardineros are gendered mirror images, dual vestiges of nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideals that take shape in new racial, immigrant, and class formations. While men of color undergo surveillance in many public and upscale places, Latino immigrant gardeners freely circulate in white middle-class and upscale neighborhoods and stride through private gates into other people’s backyards. Their tool-laden trucks and mowers and blowers serve as their passports, allowing them to do gendered labor in other people’s private property.

Latino immigrant men are doing the hard work in residential gardens across the nation, but gardening still registers as flowery and feminine, calling to mind images of earth mother. Gardening, like motherhood, is associated with virtue, integrity, and morality and it is something women are supposed to want to do.  In my interviews with homeowners, men were not lusting for a chance to mow the lawn, but women yearned to grow flowers and herbs, to savor a moment of rest on the front porch. The women voiced wistful aspirations of “I should be in the garden” as they listed their many obligations and activities. No one—really, no one!—wished to mow the lawn. That iconic masculine performance of home-ownership has now become a quaint mid-twentieth-century relic in Southern California, and in other regions of the U.S. Professional class men who employ paid gardeners can now focus more on their leisure and relationships, easing their time-binds so they can be more present as fathers and soccer dads, as Hernan Ramirez and I underscore in a book with UK colleagues. It is the domestic labor of Polish immigrant handymen in the UK and Latino immigrant gardeners in the U.S. that make that possible.

Using a migration lens and intersectional perspective helps us to see the gendered garden in a new light. It’s not pink and blue, but it’s brown, and brown men’s labor allows for a blurred gender division of labor in households privileged by class, race and nation. The outsourcing of domestic exterior mowing, trimming, pruning and cleaning allows for new shifts in gendered household divisions of labor, freeing privileged men from some of their domestic masculine housework, and maybe opening doors to other types of family work.   Global migration is part of the shared landscape now.

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Our arguably coolest first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama, symbolically picked up a shovel and dug White House gardens. But of course they too outsourced the hard work of turning soil and making compost. Does that make the efforts of these uber earth mothers of the nation any less significant? I think not. Let’s look beyond the binaries of pink and blue, and strive for a world where environmental sustainability accompanies social justice and a cultural sustainability based on recognition and just remuneration for Latino gardeners.