Category Archives: Feminism

Ignorance is not Governance

Your regular reminder–no federal money given to Planned Parenthood may be used for abortion services and this has been the case for my entire lifetime. Additionally, federal (again for most of my lifetime) law prohibits Medicaid funding for abortions, except in cases of rape. incest or life endangerment. Some states supplement Medicaid funding for medically necessary abortions (such as fetal impairment).

So defunding Planned Parenthood is either: (1)  not about funding abortions or (2) proposed by people profoundly ignorant of what they’re talking about.

The Path to Liberation

Part of my work is in voter behavior and I’ve been irritated by a language use/descriptive issue I’m seeing constantly in reporting on voter behavior in the last election. It led me down a data hole the other day when I should have been working, which was a great distraction, but in the grand scheme of the clusterfuck of this past election it is truly a minor point.

It also got me revisiting some of the first liberation philosophy and first feminist work I was exposed to in college: namely bell hooks, Sojurner Truth,  Ntozake Shange (it was, admittedly, very much a narrow exposure, though there were other essays whose authors I no longer remember). The white woman problem in American feminism and in the last election is very real, no matter how you describe it.

pleaseSo stop focusing on which white women, or on proving you’re not that white woman. Just keep not being that white woman (or, as the case may be, learn how to not be that white woman). Stop thinking about why you need to prove you’re not her and just don’t be her, by letting go of your sense of importance, by rejecting the focus on you. In the broadest possible sense, it’s the failure to attend to others or to prioritize needs greater than your own that has gotten us into this vile administration.

Just listen and focus on the greater issues: the percentages of African-Americans and immigrants and Native Americans who are disenfranchised. Whether through the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Or through the New Jim Crow. Or through lies, intimidation and other bullshit.

And work to correct the greater issue of the failure of our municipalities to accommodate voting for all people (but particularly the poor and marginalized and those without paid time off or flexible work schedules or child care or the ability to travel to a polling place easily). Focus on how our election commissions fail to make ballots clear, to make all our votes count and equally. Fix how difficult it is for some people to even register.

But don’t forget, there is a white woman problem in American feminism and we have failed to recognize our debt to women of color, as Feminista Jones says here at the Women’s March. Start acknowledging that “the path to liberation has been mapped out by the brilliance of the black Woman’s mind.”

Memes, Context and Unguarded Places

13245432_193001741094399_2178145280221345906_nAttributed to Eris Koleszar and it quite nicely summed up the discomfort I felt when I saw the original meme. Many of the comments on the edited photo also quite nicely summed up the discomfort I felt seeing who chose to share it.

One of the things that is easy to forget about the internet is that people who don’t know you, who can’t hear your tone of voice; who don’t know how you live your life or how you treat the friends, enemies and strangers you encounter every day; or have any context at all for your comments see the comments you make.

This means–more often than not–the unknown person on the internet who sees your comments also sees unintended subtext or unexamined subtext (often resulting from unexamined or privilege). Perspective is personal and it is an impossible task to live every moment or to choose every word with a complete–or even skillful–understanding of every perspective someone might bring to your words or actions. Sometimes, you’ll be confronted with a meaning in your words you had no idea was there. But it is. And when someone shows it to you, you should try to understand how it could be there without you meaning it or why it could harm someone you’ve not consciously meant to harm.

It’s not always possible to anticipate this. It is, however, always possible to learn from it when it happens.

When I saw the original meme, I was surprised that the thoughtful woman who had shared it (a woman who is responsible for my understanding of intersectional feminism, for a little perspective here) had missed the othering subtext. But I realized that my friend was only seeing the part of the graphic that said “I don’t give the slightest concern to who is in the bathroom with me, as long as there is parity in the facilities and I don’t have to wait twice as long to pee because I’m using a toilet, not a urinal.”

I realized this because I know her and am familiar with her perspective. (<–that, by the way, is the privilege at work–the luxury of being able to reduce the entire issue to the convenience of peeing now, as opposed to the safety of peeing now)

The meme was–to the mind of a hetero-normative, cis-gendered, graduate-level-educated, middle class American woman–a statement of exasperation that she’s supposed to worry about people with penises in the bathroom, when most of the time she’s aggravated because she can’t get into any bathroom at all. And I had that moment of recognition at the sentiment because while I don’t have any problem with sharing a public bathroom or a locker room with a transwoman and can’t think of a reason why I should care that there is a transwoman in the bathroom or locker room with me, that does not mean there is no there there. For me, transwomen in the bathroom is not a problem, and I will happily oppose attempts to make it a problem, but that does not relieve me of the responsibility to consider my words before I attempt to deflect the suggestion that no problem exists.

So when Eris Koleszar (whom I do not know–I choose the “she/her” pronoun both because the name is a woman’s name–to my knowledge–and because the one reference I saw to her was a mailto link with the phrase “contact her “. I apologize if that’s incorrect) reacted to the meme and made explicit the harmful subtext in it, she was not making a fuss over nothing. Koleszar was not being over-sensitive, nor making up an insult to react to. The re-made meme simply exposes the subtext that a wider context brings to the original expression.

I saw many people accuse the remade meme of making mountains out of molehills. Of missing the intended subtext. Of creating hate where none was intended. Which the remade meme simply does not do.

And, to my original point, people who think the exposure of unintended subtext is an attack on their character are wrong. They must stop reacting that way and do the difficult work of setting aside their own ego in order to listen.

No-one is capable of never making a mistake, of never speaking unguardedly. We will all sometimes miss the alternate meaning of our words, no matter how kind or progressive or successful our actions when we are being intentional. If you’ve got privilege of any kind, you will speak from a position of privilege at the wrong moment. When that happens, acknowledge it; learn from it; and continue trying to do better. If you’re calm, respectful and willing to listen, not only will you better understand the world around you, but you’ll better understand yourself and how the world has shaped you. You’ll have more to offer someone whose difficulties don’t resemble your own and be better positioned to solve your own problems without unintended harm to others.

My Tiny Voice

Reading some of the remarks made about Williams’s curves, it would be easy to think you were privy to the observations of circus attendees gawking at an unfamiliar body, as opposed to journalists and sports commentators.

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My tiny voice is only in awe of Serena Williams (and her sister Venus, too, frankly) and the way they play the sport.

In the 70′s and 80’s, my dad was quite good in amateur tennis tournaments and he played for hours every day. And he tried to teach my sister and me to play. My sister was better than I was–I was much too afraid of the ball to get even competent.  But I still remember struggling to learn. Wanting to make my body do athletic things, to coordinate competently, to return Dad’s held-way-back service. Not just to make Dad happy but also because I wanted to be good at something.

So if, when I talk about how amazing and awesome Serena Williams is as an athlete and I feel the need to talk about irrelevant things, my tiny voice is only going to bring in my nostalgic anecdotes about my dad, that awful Texas sun, and Kate being better at something again.  I won’t add irrelevant opinions about Williams’ body or her value as a person based on her shape or size or the expectations of women’s bodies that have permeated my entire life.

I want to be one tiny voice not adding racist, sexist, demeaning or misogynist comments about my impressions of Williams’ body. Enough tiny voices and the background noise changes.

Everything is baby steps.

No, That’s Not It

You know the saying “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people“? It’s often conflated with the inadequate and ultimately damaging statement “Feminism is just about women being treated equally to men.”

I’ll give you a beat to see if you can spot the difference between the two sentences.

Here, take another second.

In the first notion women are people. In the second, they are reflective of men. Accepting feminism as the idea of women as people first and women later requires conceptualizing humanity as something that does not have “man” or “male” or “that guy” as the standard. In the concept of feminism as a radical notion that women are people, there is an implicit rejection that you measure the respect for, or the value of, a given woman by the respect for (or value of) a comparable man.

In the second statement, you are implicitly accepting that “Man” is universal, aspirational, preferable.

That’s why “feminism” is a radical notion. That’s not a snarky, sarcastic epigram; it’s a linguistically, metaphysically accurate one. It takes a massive effort to change one’s thinking to a place where “male” is not the default imagery. It’s a drastic alteration of context, even for women or feminist philosophers or agitators.

Making it more difficult is that in some arenas–equal pay for equal work, for instance–feminist arguments appear to shake down to egalitarian ones. Right now, men are paid more for comparable work; so the feminist goal is appears to be raising women’s pay to match men’s because the work should be compensated at the same rate whether it’s performed by a woman or a man.

But the radical assessment of the situation requires us to value the work by the value of the work itself, not by the value we’ve been assigning to it when it’s accomplished by men, rather then women. Put simply, maybe we overpay men because they are men. Perhaps the feminist notion (equal pay for equal work, regardless of the sex, gender or identity of the person doing it) in this case is a lowering of compensation in some sectors, while raising it in others.

As humans, we like to believe that someone somewhere can eventually decide which came first: the chicken or the egg. The reality is that social constructs are just not that clean. They are ourobouros. Determining how to value something or someone based on Human as default, instead of Man as default, will put you in impenetrable thickets of why and how and lead you to places where women don’t come out ahead.

As a doctrine, a philosophy, a radical notion, feminism accepts that changing the default from “Man” to “Person” will mean, sometimes, not entitling everyone but creating a more modest expectation. The modest expectation comes not from an inclusion of an inferior person (e.g., the woman) in the creation of the standard, but from recognizing that the standard has been artificially or unsustainably inflated in order to lock out a majority.

It’s not comfortable or easy; it’s radical.

I Don’t Have Much to Add

Unpaid child support became a big concern in the 1980s and ’90s as public hostility grew toward the archetypal “deadbeat dad” who lived comfortably while his children suffered. Child support collections were so spotty that in the late 1990s, new enforcement tools such as automatic paycheck deductions were used. As a result, child support collections increased significantly, and some parents rely heavily on aggressive enforcement by the authorities.

But experts said problems could arise when such tactics were used against people who had little money, and the vast majority of unpaid child support is owed by the very poor. A 2007 Urban Institute study of child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income. They were expected to pay, on average, 83 percent of their income in child support — a percentage that declined precipitously in higher income brackets.

The Obama administration is trying to change some of these policies, proposing to rewrite enforcement rules to require that child support orders be based on actual income and consider the “subsistence needs” of the noncustodial parent, to bar states from allowing child support debt to accrue while parents are incarcerated and to finance more job placement services for them.

“While every parent has a responsibility to support their kids to the best of their ability, the tools developed in the 1990s are designed for people who have money,” said Vicki Turetsky, the commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. “Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who couldn’t pay the order in the first place.”

Frances Robles and Shaila Dewan in the New York Times, emphasis mine.

I’m working a domestic relations pilot project at work right now. It’s a hybrid court, based off a community courts model, a triage courts model, and court-based legal services model. It’s a big project, with impressive goals and I hope we’re able to meet even some of them.

One intent is to connect families with non-judicial services that will help resolve conflicts and facilitate stability in the new family structure. Parents who no longer live together, after all, both remain part of the child’s family–that’s the family structure which needs facilitation when the family ends up in domestic relations courts. Among these moves to stability are providing job support services for precisely the reasons outlined in this article.

We have support from important people for the project and we’re getting excellent input from the community as to how the program should work. But I know there are problems not addressed by our proposal, chief among them the pull quote from Vicki Turetsky: “Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who couldn’t pay the order in the first place.”

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

I read this well-constructed blog post today “Okay, so here’s why girls don’t get flattered when guys comment on their bodies.”

It made me think, though, how we construct these conversations in qualified tones, most notably by talking about “unwanted attention”. Part of that is the necessity of defining terms, which is essential to understanding any problem and necessary for drafting any solution. As the internet reminds us, humans could not even see the color blue until we named it.

But this phrase today is bothering me. It’s sticking out to me as problematic. I understand the need to acknowledge the fundamental difference between a random compliment from one’s husband, or a drinking buddy, or even some stranger you find attractive and would not mind getting to know a little better in the appropriate context AND a cat-call or even a pleasant remark from Schrödinger’s Rapist.

The problem is framing it as “wanted” versus “unwanted”. Although “wanted” correctly assigns agency to the recipient woman, I think it is easily twisted into an expression of woman’s vanity or–worse–a belligerent version of the Nice Guy syndrome (if she though he was hot, she would like it). The “wanted” versus “unwanted” attention divide comes back into the false belief that women in public spaces are only–and specifically there as–targets of attention.

In attempting to acknowledge and validate the women’s various mental relationships to their own attractiveness, it reduces them to conduits of attractiveness. Again, the attention is reflective of the women as object: willing recipient or unwilling recipient.

Of course, they are not actors in the moment of having commentary about their appearance directed at them. But the problem is with the commentary itself, not with the woman’s momentary willingness or unwillingness to receive the particular comment, regardless of its phrasing or the intent of the speaker.

In other words, it’s not the receptiveness of the woman that makes a particular comment on her appearance sexist, offensive or otherwise rude. It’s the context of the comment.