My alarm clock is set to our local NPR station, so when it goes off each morning I am usually awoken to the latest news. Often the reporters are right in the middle of a story, so it can take a few seconds for my brain to register what is happening. Last week, I woke up in the middle of a conversation about women in combat. I wasn't exactly surprised to hear the story, as I knew it was coming. The Pentagon had lifted a longtime ban on women serving in front-line combat positions. Notice the wording here--the military is not "allowing" women to be in combat, they are no longer engaging in a policy which intentionally discriminates based on gender.
But we will get back to that.
As I laid in bed listening to the news, various individuals were being interviewed about their feelings regarding the change in policy. One woman was a member of the military and explained that she had already been in combat. This change in policy meant that she could now be recognized for the service to her country and have new opportunities for promotion and protection (as she noted, most combat gear is not made for women's bodies). But not everyone (or even all women) agree with the new policy. Some people have voiced concerns about whether women can meet the physical demands of being in combat or whether their presence will disturb the old boys club--er, I mean the "camaraderie" necessary for an efficient military. During the radio broadcast a military wife was asked what she thought about women being in combat and her response was...."what will they do if it is their "time of the month" and they are on the frontlines?"
At this point I sighed and decided to get out of bed. Is this really where we are as a nation? Despite the many wonderful gains we have made toward gender equality (I certainly have more opportunities available to me than my mother or grandmother ever had) we still seem pretty stuck. Women make 77% of what men make (based on 2010 national data), we have yet to have a female president (Hillary Clinton 2016?) and now we are arguing about whether women should be in combat because they menstruate. Any woman who has every been asked if it is her "time of the month" when she voiced a criticism or stood up for herself can understand my frustration with this argument.
I have some mixed feelings about women in combat, but mostly because I am opposed to anyone being in combat. I protested the war in Iraq and have had many arguments with loved ones about problems with the military. I am also incredibly concerned with the amount of sexual violence that women in the military experience. And while policies that reflect a belief that women are equal human beings are part of the long term solution to the violence; I think we need some immediate measures to protect women today.
Have I mentioned how much I love Parks and Recreation? Frankly I think Amy Poehler is a genius and this show is one of the funniest and wittiest shows on television (thanks, Aliya!). In a recent episode called "Women in Garbage" Poehler's character (Leslie Knope) expresses concern about gender inequality in the local government and puts together a working group to come up with solutions. Knope accepts a challenge to see if women "have what it takes" to be garbage collectors. Throughout the episode, Knope is faced with sabatoge, is asked to serve men their coffee, is told that women are not as "tough" as men, and even discovers that the other men on city council are keeping a diary of her menstrual cycles so they can decide when to "take her seriously." The parallels to the current debates about women in combat are uncanny and, frankly, disturbing. But they bring to the forefront the issues at hand; how our stereotypes about men and women perpetuate gender inequality. And this is not just bad for women--it is bad for men as well.
The arguments currently being made about why women shouldn't be allowed in combat reflect two big problems in our society. One is the belief that women are not equal to men--they are not as physically or emotionally strong as men and therefore are not "cut out" to be in the military. The other is that men are more disposable than women--that our society can not handle the idea of women being in combat and men would risk their lives and "the mission" to save a female soldier. (Check out one female veteran's response to the new policy: http://hotair.com/archives/2013/01/27/some-advice-on-women-in-combat-from-a-female-veteran/).
It is incredible that our society manages to hold these two seemingly opposing stereotypes simultaneously (what social psychologists would call hostile and benevolent sexism). The idea that men and women are so fundamentally different encourages our society to allow institutional discrimination (including the policy to ban women from combat) and make sweeping generalizations that limit the lives of women and men. Women are restricted from leadership positions and not taken seriously, and men are expected to be physically strong and emotionally resilient, even in the face of brutal war. The assumptions that women are not able to handle combat implies that men are; which completely ignores the reality that so many of our soldiers return from combat with PTSD and other emotional and physical injuries. Instead of arguing about what women will do if they have their period while on the front lines, maybe we should be arguing about whether we should even BE on the front lines. Rather than worrying about how women will feel if they have to pee in front of other soldiers (and whether male soldiers want to see this), we should be worrying about soldier suicides. According to the Department of the Army, 303 soldiers committed suicide in 2012, far outnumbering the deaths due to combat. Maybe the issue is not that women are not cut out for war. Maybe human beings are not cut out for war.
It is time to move forward. It is time to stop dividing ourselves into women vs. men. It is time to start solving our society's problems (be they collecting garbage or managing differences with other nations) as people--being open to the talent, ideas and hard work of all human beings.
May all our military members come home safely and come home soon.
Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that I am not a very adventurous person. I am kinda a picky eater, I am scared to mountain bike (although I own one and use it as a commuter bike) and I am not very good at snowboarding because I don't take enough risks.... But there is a way in which I am adventurous and that involves traveling. When I visit a new city I try to do three things. 1: run somewhere new (I am trying to run a race in every state; am currently at 31) 2: visit a wild or natural space (park, arboretum, mountain, etc) and 3: attend a yoga class. Doing these three things has led to many awe-inspiring memories, some so-so experiences, but also some downright scary moments (don't even get me started on the night I spent in a cabin in a deserted state park in Kansas).
I was in Houston last week for a conference. True to tradition, I sought out some adventures. One morning I took a bus to a yoga class and walked back to the hotel. There are not many better ways to get the real story of a place than riding a bus or walking a few miles through random neighborhoods. The weather was amazing during my trip (ok, 60 degrees and sunny, but it is 13 degrees in Pittsburgh as I type this) and I wanted to make the most of it. One afternoon I decided to take a break and visit the Houston Arboretum. I had looked it up before my trip (I do PLAN these things at least a bit) and knew it was less than 2 miles from my hotel. I asked the concierge at my hotel for a map and walking directions to which she said "oh, you can't walk there!" as though it was the craziest thing she had ever heard. During my four days in Houston I realized that people didn't really walk around much, so I could understand why that was such a weird notion to her.
But, I decided to walk anyway. Luckily I have a pretty good sense of direction, I can read a map, and I walk 3 miles a day on my commute to work so I figured I was fairly prepared. The first part of the journey was simple. The sidewalk did end at one street and pick back up the next block, but there wasn't any traffic so I wasn't concerned. After passing a few business parks, I had to go out onto the main road--a three lane frontage road next to the highway. It was loud and packed with flying cars, but there was a wide sidewalk with a barrier between it and the road. I listened to This American Life and soaked up the sun.
Before long, my peaceful walk was disturbed by a few passing cars yelling various obscenities, unwanted offers, and incomprehensible crap at me (and I know it was at me because no one else was out there). I couldn't help but think "Really?" Then I had an "oh, yeah" moment. "Oh, yeah" I thought. "In some cities you get catcalled in the middle of the day while walking by the highway." I have lived in such cities before, but in my 3 years at Pittsburgh I have grown accustomed to the comfortableness that comes with walking around a city with very little street harassment (it still happens, to be sure). I am now a bit startled to visit places where this is not the case at all.
So after about the fourth car it was hard to ignore. It was hard not to be aware of my WOMANNESS and everything that can go with that. It was hard not to think about safety and the implications of being a woman walking around alone in a city I don't know. And then the "uh-oh" moment happened. How it is possible, I don't really understand, but somehow in this asphalt jungle I was suddenly in the middle of the woods. To be fair, I don't think it was the woods so much as a bunch of overgrown trees and bushes, but the path went right through them instead of around them. I felt like little red riding hood hoping there was no big bad wolf. I and thought, "uh, oh--maybe I shouldn't have gone on this walk" and "if something happens to me, no one will find me for days" and " I am sorry for being stubborn and adventurous" (this last one was directed to those who love me who would have to deal with what happened to me).
Seriously. It was 4:00 in the afternoon. Bright and sunny in a suburb of Houston. The chances of something happening to me were so slim as to be laughable. But I couldn't laugh at it, because the fear was real. The fear of becoming a statistic on the news. In this (thankfully) brief moment, it was like I connected with the fear of every woman on earth who has ever been beaten, raped, murdered. Because that is what we are told to do. We are told to think about every possible bad outcome that could happen to us and make sure we avoid it. We women are told not to dress provocatively, not to drink at parties or let our guard down, not to walk around alone, or else we could become victims. We ARE connected to every woman who has been victimized simply for having the gall to be born female.
Now, I know that I live in one of the safest countries of the world (aside from the massive amounts of guns, but that is another post for another time) and there are millions of women living in places where the risk of being attacked is less of an "if" and more of a "when". There are girls and women risking their lives to get an education, walk to the market or give their opinion: those for whom writing a blog like this would be dangerous. So I know that I am lucky. But in those moments of fear I don't feel lucky. I do, however, wonder. I wonder what it is like to NOT feel this fear. I wonder what it would be like to walk on a sidewalk in a busy city in the middle of the day and not have an "uh-oh" moment. I wonder what our world would be like if all women felt safe. If we didn't experience daily street harassment, the threat of assault, the fear of violation. I wonder about a world where safety, dignity and respect are the norm, not a blessing.
In that worId, I wonder how much more adventurous we all could be.
I have been thinking a lot and having conversations lately about how we influence people, sometimes when we don't even realize it. This has reminded me that when we are aware of the impact we have on others, we also begin to see the way we change ourselves.
I am blessed to have a wonderful group of friends and neighbors in my life. Three of them have daughters all about 2 1/2 years old. I love the girls dearly and enjoy watching them grow and interacting with them. They have clearly reached an age where they are absorbing everything around them and trying to make sense of what it all means. As a feminist psychologist who spends much of my time studying and working with girls, I am a bit worried. There are so many negative and potentially damaging messages in our world targeted to girls about how they are "supposed" to look, act, feel and think. I know that despite their parents' best efforts (which are incredible!) it is impossible to protect these girls forever from such messages.
Thinking about this has made me especially aware of my own behavior--I think carefully about what I say and do around them. In addition to making sure I tell them how smart, kind and talented they are (not just how cute they look), I have made the intention to practice loving kindness toward myself as well. I want to model for them the possibilities of being a woman that are different from what they see on TV or in magazines. This is not always an easy task--I have my own self-doubts and insecurities. But when they ask me why my fingernails aren't painted, instead of thinking "boy I need a manicure" I tell them that I like get my hands dirty in the garden or I don't want to worry about how my nails look when I am doing yoga. Or when they come to a party at my house and I am wearing a fancy dress I make an intentional effort to play with them as much as I would if I were wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I don't want to be the one who teaches them that girls should focus on looking good for others rather than having fun. I know that I will mess up and I am sure they will learn things from me that I wish they hadn't --sorry in advance to their parents. But being intentional about what messages I send to them about what it means to be a woman has reminded me to think about messages I send to myself on a daily basis. Am I telling myself that I am smart and talented, or worrying how I look in a new dress? Do I forgive myself for making mistakes and try to learn something from the experience, or am I being critical and harsh toward myself?
The work I do doesn't always provide me with instant feedback--or any feedback for that matter. It can take months to hear about an article I am trying to get published, course evaluations only happen once a semester (although I usually sneak in a mid-semester one as well) and I may never know how my activism work will turn out. It can be challenging to pour my heart and soul into my work and not ever be sure whether it changes anything or anyone. I cherish the times that catch me by surprise, when I realize that the work I am doing does impact others. One my interns recently wrote about her experience working on a project with me..."Through collaborative activism, we should be able to create changes that we wish to see not only in ourselves and our communities, but, in each other through the work that we will be doing over the course of the internship." Reading her reflection reminded me that 1) students do listen to us and are not just checking facebook every 5 minutes and 2) through collaborative activism we are all the agent of change AND the target of change. Including myself.
So, while I intend to continue to strive to be a positive influence for the girls in my life and find joy in the moments when my work seems to make a difference, at the end of the day I remember that ultimately the only person I can change is myself. Sometimes when you plant a seed intended for others, you realize you planted your own tree.
Which leads me to one of my favorite quotes. I heard this for the first time during a yoga class I was taking while in graduate school. It had a profound impact on me and I now have it hanging on my office door. It reminds me to be authentic, to live passionately, and to stay true to myself.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
― Marianne Williamson
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.