Man walking in a storm by Evertt Shinn.
It is a common, although frustrating, reality that social movements are often accompanied by resistance and strong adverse reactions. Susan Faludi explores such resistance to the feminist movement in her book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” Backlash is often an unpleasant sign that change is happening--that those who enjoy the status quo are getting nervous.
Arizona is providing the nation with the latest dose of backlash in the form of Senate Bill 1062. The bill is intended to amend the state’s current Religious Freedom Restoration Act which would allow business owners to deny service to gay and lesbian customers if they claim they are doing so for religious reasons. The bill passed
both the Arizona state Senate and the House of Representatives, and is now awaiting a decision from Governor Brewer.
Many suspect that Brewer will in fact veto the bill, possibly because of the controversy it has caused nationwide. Protesters
rallied last Friday in Phoenix and Tucson, asserting that the bill is discriminatory and urging the governor not to sign it. Three GOP state senators who initially supported the bill are now asking the governor to veto it.
Advocates of the bill seem to be surprised by the amount of protest the bill is receiving and argue that they are trying to protect people’s religious rights. However, many have questioned the need for such a law, as most businesses are already able to refuse service to customers and Arizona state law does not protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. It is hard to see this bill as anything other than an example of backlash against the gains that have made toward securing equal rights for the LGBT community in the United States.
Even if Brewer signs the bill, it is not likely to last long. The battle between “freedom of religion” and discrimination against entire groups of people is not a new one in this country—let us not forget that there was a time in our recent past when laws that discriminated against African Americans were defended with religious arguments.Courts have been moving more and more in the direction of striking down laws that discriminate against the LGBT community so it is hard to imagine that such a blatant example would hold up.
The movement toward social justice is not always a swift or easy one, and battling backlash can feel like trudging through a powerful storm. And just like a tough winter, it can be survived. No matter what Groundhog Phil or the haters have to say about it.
Image from Forbes.com
As to be expected, President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address was followed by lots of media “spin” and discussions for days afterword in which various experts attempted to analyze the speech and what it means for the president and the nation. One of the responses I was surprised to hear was the idea that Obama didn’t bring up any “big ideas” in the speech. I beg to differ.
Obama spoke frankly about a number of economic issues facing workers within the USA that are often left unaddressed. He advocated for a raise in minimum wage and announced
that he would use an executive order to increase the minimum wage for employees working under federal contracts to $10.10 an hour. He also highlighted businesses (both large and small) who pay their employees a wage above the minimum required by law and called on policy makers around the country to do more to move toward the creation of a living wage. No one working full time should live in poverty. Period.
Obama also called out workplace policies
that he said belong in a “Mad Man episode,” referring to the fact that women make 77 cents on the dollar of what men make and the lack of workplace policies to support parents. While these ideas are not new, they rarely make the center stage of political discussion, despite the fact that they have an enormous impact on the lives of most Americans. What makes these ideas “big” is the President’s assertion that it is time for our nation to address them and change the way our workplaces function.
Despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1973, making it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work, a wage gap has persisted in the United States, decreasing over the decades, but not closing. Most figures
indicate that currently, women on average make 77 cents on the dollar of what men make. When economists attempt to consider all the factors that contribute to the gap, about 5% can be explained only by the gender of the individual. Further, many of the other factors that contribute to the gap (field of study, for example) are impacted gender stereotypes and discrimination. (See my earlier blog post "Stop Calling Women Stupid"
) Understanding and eradicating the gender wage gap is complex, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that it cannot be solved. But it is hard to find solutions if everyone keeps denying the problem. I am amazed how often students entering my courses have never even heard of the wage gap--which is why its inclusion in Obama's speech was so meaningful.
In addition to the wage gap, Obama made reference to workplace policies regarding pregnancy and childcare. Many experts agree that the US is far behind
other countries in family friendly workplace policies. The Family Medical Leave Act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they have a new child or a sick family member, but some small business are exempted from this law. This act exists in stark contrast to other countries
which provide paid leave to both mothers and fathers and various protections against discrimination of pregnant women. According to Stephanie Cootz
, a combination of social and political forces may be to blame for the slow progress made on this issue in the USA.
We will have to wait to see whether/how President Obama puts his statements into action. But in an era where most politicians have refused to even touch these issues it is refreshing to hear them addressed in the State of the Union. Because, as Obama said, the current condition of the policies is frankly, embarrassing. It is time for our nation to own up to these problems and work on real solutions. Let's leave the Mad Men policies to the TV writers and move into the 21st century.
Image taken from http://www.nydailynews.com /sports/football/anti-redskins-tribe-pushes-change- nfl-article-1.1502078
Superbowl 2014 is less than a week away. As many in the country gear up to watch the game—and/or the commercials and the half-time show—there is much buzz about the sport. Most of that has focused on the weather and the possibility of moving the game to a day with not plagued with freezing cold or blowing snow (April, anybody?), and of course lots of talk about the two teams, the players, the strategies—basically lots of football chat I don’t understand. Even those who are not football fans are usually aware that the game is coming and talk about their plans for the day. Lots of organizations that have no association with football build off of the event in various ways. Pittsburgh’s local independent music station is hosting an alternative “souper bowl”
including a fundraiser for a women’s shelter. This time of year is a reminder to Americans that football holds a spot in our cultural milieu. Which also means it is a great time to talk about one of the problems plaguing the sport—the use of racist mascots.
Last fall Mother Jones announced
that they were joining a few other news organizations in their decision to stop referring to the Washington Redskins by name, as a small but significant gesture meant to protest the continued use of the racist term. When I first read the story on Facebook I was thrilled and thought “It’s about time!” Despite decades of protest from American Indians and non-native allies, the Washington pro-football team continues to use as its mascot a term that most consider a pejorative against Native Americans. The issue has recently received new steam as a result of a federal lawsuit, Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc.
, in which a group of five American Indians are fighting to have the trademark rights removed from the team. Daniel Snyder, the current owner of the team, has responded
that the team will never change its name, arguing that it has a longstanding tradition and the fans know what the name represents. Do they? And if they do, does that make it ok?
I first learned about the fight to get sports teams to stop using native mascots during a class I took in college about the American Indian Movement. I was somewhat familiar with the topic already, being part Cherokee myself and attending a college that had a nickname based on a Native American tribe (The University of Utah’s Running Utes). By the time I was in college, the University of Utah had already dropped the use of a native mascot and urged students to not dress in native garb. There are new rumors
that they will be dropping the name altogether and adopting an entirely new mascot.
My firsthand experience with the mascot issue continued when I completed my predoctoral internship at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a school that continues to struggle with mascot related turmoil. U of I had an 80-year tradition of using a native mascot, Chief Illiniwek, which they “officially” dropped
in 2007 after the NCAA deemed it to be an offensive use of American Indian imagery. The NCAA banned the school from holding any postseason event until they changed the mascot. Before this time, students would don buckskin outfits and perform made-up dances at athletic events. I say that they “officially” dropped the mascot because during my time on campus (in 2008-2009) you would have been hardpressed to guess who the mascot was if it was not Chief Illiniwek—“Chief” gear was everywhere. Students wore regalia with the chief image, yards had signs saying “keep the chief”, and like most college towns there were numerous small shops filled with college gear—most of it had the chief on it.
During my time at the University of Illinois I served as the liaison between the Counseling Center and the Native American House, a cultural and resource center on campus. The center brought in the renowned Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, whose installation piece on campus was vandalized five times.
There was a student group whose sole mission was to reinstate Chief Illiniwek as the mascot. The atmosphere was often charged with tension around the issue—it was a challenging place to be Native American.
Change is hard. People often only see things from their own perspective. Many of the students at U of I had family members who had attended the school. They grew up watching the school’s sports teams, hearing stories about family members’ adventures, and looking forward to one day becoming a “Fighting Illini”. As Snyder said of the Washington team—the fans saw the name as part of the tradition. While they genuinely felt a sense of loss of not having the mascot they anticipated, that loss is far outweighed by the costs of keeping the mascot.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the removal
of all American Indian mascots and symbolism from schools, organizations and athletic teams. APA has referred to numerous research studies which demonstrate the harmful effects of native mascots on American Indians. The practice also reinforces stereotypes about Native Americans and traditions of oppression against entire groups of people. The fact that so many White Americans think that Indian mascots are “not a big deal” or that tradition should overrule the requests made by many Native American individuals and nations reminds us all that privilege is a powerful weapon. Snyder and many of the students who fought for a native mascot at Illinois argued that such mascots are a way to “honor” a group of people. Just for future reference, if a group of people assert that a practice and/or a term is offensive, continuing its use is not honoring them.
The fact that the football team housed in our nation’s capital continues to hold tight to using a racial slur as a name is a disgrace. It is time for the team to make a change that many other professional sports teams, schools, and universities have chosen to do. It is time for fans to step back from their desire to support tradition and see the need to support human dignity. At the end of the day, isn’t the right for equality for all the bigger American tradition?
So this year when talk of Superbowl Sunday rolls around, consider opening up a dialogue about
retiring Native American mascots. The issue may not trend like a Janet Jackson half-time show, but let's see what we can do if we put our minds to it.
This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty in the USA announced by President Johnson in his first State of the Union Address. Most of us agree that we are not much closer to winning that war than we were in 1964. While the conditions of abject poverty may have changed (most housing today has indoor plumbing, for example), many measures suggest that the current economic conditions are even worse than they were when Johnson became president. In particular, some argue that in addition to continuing the war on poverty, it is time for our nation to go to war on wealth inequality.
My husband and I hosted our family’s Christmas celebration and had a number of family members staying at our house. My family and I tend to talk about current events (among other things) and one night we had a long conversation about the state of the economy, the declining middle class, and the future of the country. I was raised in a working class family, by two parents who highly valued education. They worked hard to provide my brothers and I with resources to increase our opportunities to access education and find a career path that suited our interests. My mom went to college after having us and worked her way through a Ph.D. program and all three of my brothers and I have or are completing Ph.D.’s. We are what some refer to as the “bridge” class. Most people today would classify me as middle class (based on my education, current job, and annual income), yet I continue to hold many of the values (as well as some of the anxieties) that I acquired growing up in a family where it was hard sometimes to make ends meet. In many ways, like President Johnson
, my personal experiences with economic insecurity have increased my interest in resolving issues of poverty and wealth inequality.
One of the things my family discussed was the way in which wages have changed over time, including the widening gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.
When my dad was born in the 1950’s, the wage gap ratio between the average CEO and the average worker was about 20-1. In 2012, that gap was 354-1, according to the AFL-CIO
. And since that is an average, it includes CEO’s who make 19 times their average worker (companies like Whole Foods) and those that make 1,795 times
. This huge discrepancy in the difference between the pay of the average employee and the head of a company is related to two phenomenon: 1) the rise in wages granted to those at the top and 2) the stagnation of minimum wage.
These trends have huge repercussions for individuals and society as a whole. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Despite the increase of minimum wage
in some states as of January 1st, most are not above the federal amount, and Washington state has the highest minimum wage at $9.32. Some cities have decided to make increases above this, but these movements have been slow and only reach small numbers of people.
Just in case you think that $7.25 an hour is “just fine and dandy” I encourage you to run a little online experiment. Go to http://livingwage.mit.edu/
and search for your city. The chart will show you what the estimated wage is and how much it costs to live—but only factoring the bare necessities (ok, not even the bare necessities because the budget doesn't include clothing). The site will also list the average wages for a number of jobs and how many of them are below the living wage for one adult and one child. In Allegheny County where I live, almost half of the fields listed fell below the living wage minimum. Many more likely would if the calculation was based on a more realistic representation of one’s living expenses.
No wonder people are going on strike!
What I find more surprising is the fact that there are not more discussions about these issues and how to change them. It seems like Miley Cyrus can’t open her mouth without the whole world talking about it, but very few people were discussing the anniversary of Johnson’s speech or what it means for us today. While NPR and other news stations covered it (as well as some current politician’s responses), it certainly did not get the airtime (or social media time) that many of our pop culture figures take for granted. In fact, in many ways it seems that most media forms are invested in sending the message that no one need worry about poverty (unless they are making fun of or criticizing those who live in poverty), and that America is a country basking in wealth. Marketers certainly benefit from convincing people that they should focus their time, energy and money on acquiring more goods. Children (especially girls) are told that they should incorporate materialism into their identity—being a “shopper” is one way to be “empowered.” Shows that glamorize excess and wealth serve to distract people from the realities of the disparities that exist and often send them false hope about the likelihood that they will “make it” someday.
The numbers suggest otherwise.
Some people are outraged by the current economic system and using all tools they have available to them to get their voice heard. Occupy Wallstreet continues to use social media to inform people about poverty and econo, and others and finding news ways to fight for equality.
Let’s hope we don’t spend another 50 years losing this war.
I went to see “The Punk Singer” last night, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna. Punk scenes have always felt like a boys club to me, so Bikini Kill and rrrriot girl make me feel nostalgic for a scene that’s never really been mine to begin with.
But mostly, I find myself craving feminist stories and depictions lately. I wasn’t born into feminism. I have had a lot of feminist mentors in my life, but I didn’t start calling myself a feminist until college, and have since attempted to incorporate it into as much of my life as I can. Something clicked for me. Feminism made sense as a movement, but it also gave me lens with which to view and understand the world. It was like all these things that did not make sense in our culture suddenly fit together, and I had a language to talk about it. All these social justice issues that seemed disconnected aligned with feminism in a way that I understood.
So I was able to create these kind of feminist “bubbles." I surrounded myself with awesome, inspiring women who encouraged me to be a better feminist through their actions and their lives. It was in part because I wanted to be like these women, but it was also that I was these women. I am opinionated. I am loud and eager, and sometimes I have an urgency of wanting to talk and share. I am defiant. And I want so badly to do something that has a positive impact on people. These qualities are not always appreciated in the dominant culture, but they can be helpful in feminism. So I gravitated towards these feminist circles.
Early in my feminist identity, I was arguing with someone I was dating and they told me they were tired of my “nitpicking feminist bullshit.” And in the back of my mind, I thought maybe it was true. But I was working in a domestic violence shelter. And I was doing gender research. And I had a community of feminists reminding me that no, it wasn’t true. That advocating for social justice and equality isn’t “nitpicking.” And feminism wasn’t “bullshit.”
But then I moved across the country. And so far, the feminist community has not manifested itself the way it has for me in the past. So it has become increasingly harder to filter out the negative messages I receive constantly about feminism.
Last week, I was talking with one of my coworkers, who I have known for months and with whom I have a positive relationship, and he was surprised to know that I call myself a feminist. He asked, “Are you an equalist or a feminist?” So I told him that I was a pretty big feminist, and he replied, “So, like wanting to bring men down, man-hating….” And I was floored. I carefully explained that that’s not really what feminism is, encouraged him to take a women’s studies class, and told him we could get coffee and talk about feminism sometime.
What bothered me was that I could tell instantly that his opinion about me had changed. I like to believe that if I live as a positive example of what feminism is, that it can change people’s perspectives like it did my own. In some cases it does, but other times people allow their misconceptions to fill in the gaps about what they don’t know. I wish I had felt angry or complacent, but I just felt bummed. And this time, I didn’t have a community of feminists to go to reminding me how valuable what I am doing is.
So seeing “The Punk Singer” now, particularly, was emotional for me. On screen, illuminated, were so many things that I admire and aspire to, all in one person, one woman, and one feminist. There are lots of ways to engage in feminism. What I am most interested in is sharing feminist stories. Yes, as a movement (and as individuals) we have to be critical and self-aware. But we also need to be constantly reminded of what brings us together. We have to actively work to create a community that welcomes the voices, experiences, and truths of all women.
At the end of the film, Hanna says, “I don’t care if people don’t think feminism is important, because I know it is…and other people can think whatever they want. My problem is when people get in the way of feminism…If they don’t want to believe in it and they don’t want to care about, that’s totally fine. But they should have to stay out of my way.”
I am nowhere near as badass as the feminists I have had the privilege of knowing, listening to, or reading about. But spending my time trying to live up to their legacies sounds a lot more worthwhile than shrinking so that I don’t offend others. So yes, I’m a feminist. You can spend all day debating what that means and if it matters, but the rest of us have work to do.
I was checking Under the Radar magazine’s website for their yearly music review when I found this blog
discussing the ways in which feminism is failing at highlighting sexism in the music industry (and in general, really). “…how many times is someone going to read the absolutely valid comment that “I was objectified and this is absolutely not on” from a female singer before they feel a sense of déjà vu? Whilst it’s unfair to criticise anyone for speaking out against objectification, the very nature of ‘everyday sexism’ means that the subject will become repetitive and, without adding anything new to the debate, the point cannot help but become belaboured and overwhelming.” –Dan Lucas
You know, part of me gets it. I feel his pain. I’ve read so many articles about the sexism and harassment female musicians experience while on tour. I’ve read multiple articles about the lack of female-fronted bands at music festivals. I’ve read countless articles about the problematic portrayal of women in the music industry. Add in other aspects of identity (women of color, lesbian/queer/trans- women, older women, etc.) and the picture gets even more dismal.
Where the author and I disagree is the target of our frustration. I, too, get that “not this again” feeling when reading/hearing about yet another experience of sexism. But my frustration is not at the individual sharing their story. My frustration lies in the fact that it is still happening. Despite the fact that gender discrimination and feminism have become more mainstream to talk and write about, the pervasiveness of sexism in our society is still deeply entrenched in our culture.
And I know that, for as many individuals courageous enough and able to speak out about their experiences, there are countless others whose voices are never heard.
I agree with Lucas that the hypocrisy of whom we pick and choose to villainize in the media is problematic. But the solution is not to refrain from being critical. It is to spend more time understanding why some artists get a free pass and others are scapegoated. It means spending more time having conversations about the greater structures and norms that allow sexism in the media to exist at all levels. It requires more conversations and greater reflection, and then it requires action.
So in 2014, I encourage you to continue to speak out against oppressive systems. Share your stories. Share your experiences. Use your position to help expose discrimination and give a platform for those who may not have the social capitol to speak. Support awesome organizations like Girls Rock.
To those who find the conversations mundane: We are not sharing our stories to entertain you. We are not sharing them to show you how unique our experiences are. It is the repetitive, redundant experiences of sexism that women (and men) are living every day. I assure you—it is as belabored and overwhelming to live as it is to read about. If you are tired of hearing about sexism, then be an ally. Find ways to promote and book female-fronted bands in your city. Make shows a safe space for women to both play and attend. Have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment at your local venue.
I don’t know what will eventually get people to pay attention. But I know for a fact that silence doesn’t work. And although the author did not want to write “an ill-advised ‘men’s rights’ column,” he may have fallen into his own category of “ the well-intentioned who fuck up their own arguments.”
The author does seem to respect the feminist opinions of Miley Cyrus: “The evidence, from her original and intelligent thoughts to her cynical-but-correct unspoken acknowledgement that the controversy she generates benefits her career, suggests that Cyrus is a far more astute woman than she gets credit for. We could learn a lot from her.”
Reminding us, yet again, that the voices are women are best heard and recognized if they come paired with hypersexuality and scandal. Apparently Dan Lucas, like much of America, can’t be bothered with our everyday sexism. It’s just not…sexy enough.
As the calendar reminds us that one year is coming to close and another is about to begin, many of us will pause to reflect on the past year and consider what is ahead for us in 2014. One of my yoga teachers remarked that this is a time of year where we try to seek balance between the past and the future. If we spend too much of our energy focusing on either we will find ourselves off kilter. But there is much we can learn by reflecting on the past while being mindful of our hopes for the future.
As I write this, there is a paper taped to the wall next to my desk—it is titled “Britney’s 2013 Intentions.” I wrote the document one year ago and today I took the time to reflect upon the past year with these in mind. Some of them (“learn how to use my new camera”) I am proud to say that I accomplished. With others (e.g. “learn basic Cherokee”), I fell short of my goals. But many of them (such as “pick my battles”) are not things that can be accomplished. There were written down as a reminder of the importance of practicing these intentions each day.
In addition to considering my personal goals, I reflected on our progress at becoming a more just society. Some big accomplishments come to mind right away. The dual Supreme Court decisions (one regarding Proposition 8, the other DOMA) which drastically changed the landscape of LGBT rights within the USA will be forever remembered as an accomplishment of 2013. As this year closes, 18 states have legal same-sex marriage, and the year ended with an unbelievable turn of events in Utah
. The momentum developed in 2013 can lead us into 2014 with fervor to continue with this fight. I hope that this time next year my home state of Pennsylvania will be added to the list.
In 2013 we also experienced the loss of Nelson Mandela—an event that brought sadness and mourning, but also the opportunity to celebrate the life of a man who did so much for the cause of justice.
Sadly, there were many areas where we fell short. The lack of an immigration bill being passed by Congress means that thousands of individuals must continue to live with the threat of deportation and the upheaval of their life and the lives of their loved ones. The vitriolic response to the crowning of Nina Davuluri as Miss America was a painful reminder of racism that persists within the nation.
There were also moments that remind us of what we need to keep working on—areas where we can build on past success. SPARK followed up their 2012 campaign to get Seventeen magazine to decrease photoshopping with continued work challenging media that sexually objectifies girls and women and marketing that places the bottom line above all else. The strike by fast food workers was an important step in the movement to secure a fair, living wage for all—but much more needs to happen.
As you make your list of goals/resolutions/intentions for 2014, I encourage you to consider adding what you plan to do to make the world a better place. You might choose a measurable goal like starting a GSA at your school or a safe zone training a work, volunteering for a social change organization, supporting a candidate’s campaign or writing letters to support legislation. Or maybe you will add an intention about how you will treat others in your day to day life. Maybe you will commit to challenging people when they make sexist/racist/classist/homophobic jokes. Or practice saying “partner” instead of “husband/wife”. Or support your children when they express interests that don’t conform to gender stereotypes. Or challenge yourself when you make a judgment about others based on bias.
Tonight I will ring in the New Year with a wonderful group of friends. Tomorrow I make my list. I don’t know what 2014 will bring, but I intend to face the year with an open heart, with continued passion working to support the dignity of all people, and a plan to learn Cherokee.
Happy New Year everyone.
If you have been hanging around the Internet the past few weeks, you may have stumbled upon some of the R. Kelly controversy. In mid-December, the Village Voice published this article
interviewing journalist Jim DeRogatis about his work exposing R. Kelly’s history of sexual predation. This was prompted by R. Kelly’s release of a new album, Black Panties. Jezebel, the feminist-oriented blog, at first heralded the new album
. Following the Village Voice blog post and a much needed reality check from readers, bloggers, and media figures
, Jezebel changed their tune.
Since then, celebrities have weighed in on the topic.
Bloggers have given advice
to those who want to listen to R. Kelly without supporting R. Kelly. News sources have questioned our continued support of the celebrity.
R. Kelly even responded to the controversy
, with the tact and remorse anybody who has been following the case would expect. Ms. Magazine questioned whether you can be a decent person and still listen to R. Kelly. (Their response is a definitive “No”).
I know I said this blog wasn’t about R. Kelly. It’s not. It’s about this blog post: “Can feminists enjoy R. Kelly’s music? Short answer: No.”
The blog rehashes some of the same ideas and points made by other media outlets. However, the title specifically targets feminists.
I am not here to say that entertainment figures should not be held accountable for the violence against women, harassment, or sexism portrayed in their personal lives or through their work. I am not here to say that fans should not be accountable for the choices they are making as consumers. But feminist identity is not contingent on one single quality, choice, or decision.
Anyone who identifies as a feminist knows that it is an ongoing process of unlearning. It requires constant negotiation between what we think to be righteous and just and what currently exists in our society. We are working against the dominant culture while also living within it, creating a constant cycle of adapting to and dismantling of culture.
I am not going to ask anyone to hand over their “FEMINIST” card because I do not agree with their choices. We persecute feminists, then wonder why prominent figures do not support feminism. The minute Katy Perry decides she actually is a feminist, the Internet will ask in a frenzy, “Can Katy Perry be a feminist?”
Yes. Katy Perry can be a feminist. And Sheryl Sandberg. And Beyoncé. And people who dance to “Ignition” when it comes on the radio. Your feminist identity is a culmination of an ongoing effort to unlearn culture, critically address structures and institutions of oppression, and liberate those around you. That does not happen overnight, and it is not retracted by a single misstep.
So what should you do when you meet a fellow feminist who makes choices that seem contradictory to those goals? Instead of asking, “Can you really be a feminist and…” I suggest trying the following response: “I’m curious how [INSERT TOPIC] fits in with your feminist identity?”
You might learn that they have thought about it and have come to a conclusion that fits in with their feminist framework. Or maybe the conversation will give them (and you) an opportunity to process the issue in a different way. Or maybe you will learn that they have thought about it, and they know that it is problematic, and they are not ready at the moment to change that specific behavior.
So who gets to decide who is feminist and who is not? Who are the gatekeepers of feminism, protecting it against the wolves disguised in feminist dialogue? Because certainly, those people exist. I mean, Robin Thicke claimed “Blurred Lines” was a feminist movement.
Sure, there are behaviors and decisions that are anti-feminist. There are individuals whose track record reveals a consistent support of misogyny and oppression. But I am not talking about those individuals. I am talking about our allies. I am talking about creating a subculture that values curiosity, discussion, and awareness over persecution and alienation. I think it is absolutely necessary for feminists to be critical. I am asking for compassion and understanding so that, as individuals explore and grow in their feminist identity, they have room to make mistakes, compromises, and negotiations while they are figuring it out.
R. Kelly is a person. His actions are part of a greater culture that supports violence against women and hypermasculinity. It is from that culture that our music industry capitalizes off of sexism and the exploitation of women. That music industry is part of a greater economic system that values profits over people, with the most vulnerable and oppressed populations suffering the most. Patriarchy is the problem, and we are all a part of it. We are also all (potentially) part of the solution. So instead of casting stones at each other, I recommend finding the common ground and aiming it at the glass ceiling above.
You may have seen this video of an advertisement for Pantene that examines labels often used for women and men; and how different they can be.
If we set aside for a moment (although I don't think we should do so completely) that this is an ad about women's hair, the video does a nice job exploring the double standard often facing women in the workplace. It explores the way that women and men who are seen as competent and successful may be judged by others. Even when engaging in the same behaviors, men may be called persuasive while women are deemed pushy; men are dedicated when they stay up late to work while women are selfish; men neat and women vain; the list continues. This phenomenon is often found in studies where participants are given a vignette of a character--half of the participants are given a story that refers to a man. The other half have a story that refers to a woman. All other details (besides gender) are exactly the same. As in the Harvard case study
, women may be judged as competent in the circumstances, but are often viewed as much less likable than men.
The Pantene commercial
puts forth the solution that women shouldn't "let labels hold them back" and instead they should "be strong and shine." Like "beautiful" hair.
If only solving the double standards facing all successful women was as simple as changing our shampoo.
So, while I appreciated the ad's attempt to highlight how ridiculous these stereotypes are, I balked a bit at the victim-blaming solution.
Oh, us silly women. Lettin' those labels hold us back. No more! Let me shake out my hair and take 100% responsibility for the double standards I struggle with constantly.
Putting all sarcasm aside, I truly wish it were so easy. I
often tell my students that one of the difficulties of studying gender and social justice issues is that I still face the same stereotypes as other women--and while I may be more aware of them than some, that doesn't fully protect me from their impacts. I know how hard it is to feel like I have to choose between being seen as the "nice" professor or the "smart" one. My male colleagues are not struggling with this same false dichotomy.
The reality is that sexism in the workplace is way more complicated than simply changing the labels we use for women and men. Those labels reflect underlying assumptions that people are often buying into without questioning them.
Luckily a number of scholars have done extensive work to unravel these often unintentional but powerful biases AND have proposed ways to combat them. Stephanie Shields, P.h.D.
and her colleagues at Penn State University have developed the WAGES
project "designed to educate individuals about the sources and cumulative effects of subtle gender bias." Joan Williams developed the Gender Bias Learning Project to facilitate a greater understanding of patterns of gender bias.
Both of these projects acknowledge that both men and women need to examine the stereotypes they have internalized about gender which contribute to sexism in the workplace. However, they do not assume that women simply need to rise above such assumptions. Instead of telling women to just "ignore others" who may call them a bitch for being opinionated, it is on all of us to shape a social structure that does not punish women for being competent and smart (nor men for being sensitive; but that is another blog post for another time).
Today I had the great pleasure of attending the graduation of the first PsyD students to complete the Counseling Psychology Program at Chatham University. All three of them are women--smart, talented, successful, dynamic, kind, multifaceted women. As I am the academic advisor for two of these women, I have certainly had conversations with them about navigating the world of work as a woman. We have talked about the labels they might face (and some they have already experienced) and how they might cope with sexism in the workplace. On this day of their graduation, I refuse to tell them to just ignore these experiences and shine anyway.
Instead I say to the world:
Make way for powerful women.
Make a way for powerful women to be respected, liked, treated with equity and dignity.
Don't build a box that you try to force these women into.
Don't ask them to choose whether they want to be liked or respected.
Don't sell yourself short by missing out on anything they have to offer.
Make workplaces for them where they can feel at home and shine.
Don't get out of the way of these women, but rather welcome them with excitement and enthusiasm they deserve. Appreciate all of the dimensions they bring to their interactions, both their compassionate and loving selves, and their smart and witty selves.
Make way for powerful women. For they are coming your way.
-Britney Brinkman, P.h.D.
I first learned about Nelson Mandela as a child. I was fortunate to have an elementary school teacher who believed it was important for kids to be well informed on social issues happening around the world (she also taught us about the Berlin Wall). I remember being amazed and inspired by his words. And also being saddened by his situation. He was still in jail at the time, but the pressure to release him and end apartheid was increasing. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to spend so many years in jail for fighting for equality.
To be honest, I still can’t.
Mandela’s passing last week has resulted in an outpouring of sentiment from around the world. Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days, followed by a funeral that is expected to be one of the largest in modern history. Political leaders (including those from countries who once deemed Mandela a “terrorist”) from around the world are making plans to attend. It is truly incredible to see how one man has touched so many lives—both directly and indirectly.
As we contemplate the loss of Nelson Mandela, let us first remember the man—a friend, father, husband, grandfather. Those who knew him will mourn the loss of the him in their life. Let us not forget that he was a person—one who his family described as “a caring family leader who made time for all and on that score we will miss him dearly.”
Let us also celebrate what he helped to achieve—an end to apartheid in South Africa. The importance of the work he did to rid the country of such a policy and to avoid civil war in the process cannot be overstated. During this time of reflection, I encourage all of us to learn more
about how apartheid came to be and the work Mandela did to battle it. As the saying goes, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Many of the individuals attending the events in South Africa belong to the “born free generation”—people who have lived their lives with freedoms and opportunities that were hard won.
Finally, let us not forget to honor the legacy that Nelson Mandela left for us. Those of us who never knew Mandela and were not directly impacted by apartheid (although such inequality anywhere has ripple effects for everyone around the world), have been touched by what Mandela represented. His work as a political activist inspired others around the world to fight for their own causes. But I fear that we will allow Mandela to become a symbol—while forgetting the call he charged us to follow.
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
We can do better.
We must do better.
The same day that Mandela died there were strikes at fast food restaurants around the USA—workers who are demanding a living wage. There is more work to be done in this world—and every one of us can play a role. But we have to be willing to take up that charge.
Fortunately, most of us will never be called upon to spend 27 years of our lives in jail for the causes we believe in. But let us not use that as an excuse to ignore the sacrifices that we can make. All of us can give a bit (or more!) of time, or energy, or patience, or money, or love to fight for a just world. To make the lives of the people around us better. To dismantle systems of oppression. Maybe that involves escorting women as they visit an abortion clinic, providing support with one’s presence. Or boycotting a company that funds anti-LGBT policies and groups. Or registering people to vote. Or writing a petition. Or challenging someone when they make a racist, sexist or homophobic joke. No one of us can change the world alone--but we can each take actions that will make a difference.
May Mandela’s spirit rest in peace. And may his legacy live on, burning brighter with the sparks of change each one of us brings.
"It always seems impossible until it is done. "