Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ode to a Single Father

When I was just seven years old my mother lost her multiple year long battle with breast cancer. My father was left to raise my little sister and I by himself, in a country and culture that was not his own, with family members on the other side of the world unable to provide support. His subsequent path as a single father that was both supportive and involved not only allowed me to grow into a functioning adult but I believe also importantly shaped what I associate with gender and gender-roles in relationships. 

For example, during discussions in class and on the blog the class has talked about emotional labor. Looking at my own relationship with a cis-gendered heterosexual man I did not observe that one of us did more of the chores, planning, or worrying. Could this be because growing up I only saw my father worry about whether my permission slips were getting signed and that I was doing my homework? Or could it be because I did not grow up with a hetero-sexual couple that had been socialized in a culture that expects women to take on the brunt of the emotional labor?

I also observed the possible influence of having a single-father during the class discussion of cultural feminism. During class the students put adjectives under "feminine" and "masculine" that they believed were often associated with the two ideas. Almost all the adjectives under "feminine" were things that I associated with my father - he was creative, forward thinking, and not single minded. Many of the adjectives and stereotypes that were placed under the feminine column were descriptions associated with raising children and taking care of the home, which is probably symptomatic of the fact that women are seen as being responsible for the sphere of domesticity in our society. While my father may have exhibited these traits even if my mother was alive, his position of being a single-father may have also forced him to. 

To see whether my interpretation that growing up with a single-father impacted my view on gender roles was something shared by others, I took some time to research whether there was a link between single-fathers and feminism. My brief search turned up mostly information on how feminism has treated fathering in general, not single fathers specifically. In "Between Two F-Words: Fathering and Feminism", Andrea Dorcet explains how different strands of feminism have taken multiple approaches to fathering. On one end of the spectrum radical feminism sees women's interests as separate from men (thus may not include the interests of fathering), while some feminist strands view fathering as important to feminism, especially in the context of the work-family balance for couples. Single fathers do no apply to the context of helping work-family balance in a heterosexual couple in that by definition they do not have a relationship to bring that balance to. However, I believe single fathers can be part of feminism when they teach their daughters or sons that a man can do as much as a woman when it comes to taking care of the family and home, and thus should be expected to do so.

While the different strands of feminism may disagree about what role men and fathering play in the feminist movement I can say that having a single-father has personally had an influence on my own feminism and outlook on the world. So thank you dad, for showing me that fathers can braid hair, do the laundry, and cook a delicious dinner all in the same day. Thank you for showing me a man can have a job and run a household. And of course, thank you for always unabashedly buying me tampons at the supermarket when I was too embarrassed to buy them myself. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sexism; A Thing of Subtlety?

It has only recently come to my attention that, while painfully present in today’s society, sexism has become a very subtle thing. I look at advertising and the media and lack outrage. It was only when watching ‘MissRepresentation’ in class this week that I realised, while I am fully aware of the inappropriate way in which women are portrayed by the media, I have become so used to the hyper-sexualisation of females that now I barely recognise the underlying current behind it. I was brought up watching women be exposed this way so it has become so ingrained in my brain that this is the norm, to me, it has become the norm.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s class, I spent a lot of time considering just how affected by the media we really are. Essentially, it is everywhere. The average adult spends 20 hours a week online. What is even worse than this statistic is that the impressionable teenagers of our generation, are spending an average of 27 hours online every week. During this time, they are being exposed to images that are unrealistic portrayals of the female body. Websites such as Facebook and Instagram are forums for people to display themselves, to show the world the best physical version of themselves. Many take these as opportunities to distort themselves and their natural appearance with the intention of gaining “likes” and “followers”. The concern for people using these sites is rarely the substance of their post and, often, the popularity it will help them achieve.

Moreover, the media is also feeding women and girls a false notion that all they should ever amount to is looking like the best version of themselves. Amy Schumer recently highlighted this issue on her Instagram page. She posted a photo in which a magazine aimed at women was placed next to a magazine aimed toward men. The cover of the male-oriented magazine contained the headline “Explore Your Future” while the female cover stories were much more superficial, for example, “Your Dream Hair”. Upon seeing this post, I was shocked and outraged at the blatant sexism on display but, after further consideration, I realised that I witness such things on a very regular basis and never find myself noticing or caring about them. Sexism has become a thing so normal to me that I am basically unaware of its existence in the media.

The thing that struck me most by the documentary, however, was not just the way in which women are scrutinised but the extent to which it occurs. Watching and learning about the comparisons and contrasts made between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin made me very concerned about the criticism we are bound to face. Regardless of their appearance and whether or not it was considered attractive, they were being scrutinised based on how they looked. Clinton, a dignified woman with plenty of experience and qualification, was being regarded as old and haggard. While, on the other hand, Palin, a young mother who was considered to be very beautiful looking had, due to her good-looks, difficulty being taken seriously. It seems to me that, by this standard, there is no winning position for a woman. Either you are criticised for not looking the right way or you are criticised for looking the right way but that, in turn, meaning you couldn’t possibly be regarded as being sincere.

It scares me that these comments that are made are done so on such a frequent basis. Everyday there are new stories in the media and new photos posted online, all accentuating the “perfect” way to look. In the lead up to summer everyone is so worried about getting that “perfect bikini body” and all the tabloids are trying to guarantee women the quickest and easiest route to getting there. But men don’t wear bikinis. Where is the pressure for men to get the “perfect swimming-trunks body”? We see these messages and allow them to influence us without ever really noticing that they do. I see coverage of the presidential election and accept the media’s perception of Hillary Clinton because she is a woman, without ever paying homage to the fact that a man in the same position would never be regarded from such an angle.  I worry, and maybe it is just me, that somewhere down the line we grew so accustomed to sexism that it is now almost acceptable. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shine bright like a diamond

My favorite episode of IT Crowd is "Italian for Beginners.”  It focuses on Jen, one of two women at a meeting of department heads at Reynholm Industries.  The other woman, Linda, is running in place as she gives a presentation on her suggestions for the company.  When asked about it, Laura informs the group that she is doing a virtual triathlon to benefit orphans. Mr. Reynholm then proclaims, "Linda, you're the best woman." 

The rest of the episode follows Jen as she pretends to speak Italian so that she can impress the board room and beat Linda for the title of Best Woman, alienating a valuable resource in the process.  In a world where most board rooms look just like the one in IT Crowd, it's all too common for women across industries to be competing with each other to not just be the "best woman," but to even get in the room.  But is that the best approach?

In her 2013 New York Magazine article "Shine Theory: How to Stop Female Competition" Ann Friedman suggests another way.  She encourages women to identify those women who inspire feelings of jealousy and competition, and befriend them.  "Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison." she says, "It makes you better."

Friedman points out that associating yourself with cool, accomplished women immediately makes you seem more interesting and accomplished in the eyes of people who know you.  Sure, my friend is obviously the most amazing person for having sold her first company in her senior year of college.  But how cool am I for being someone she wants to be friends with? Friedman also points out the career benefits of having successful friends--those are the women that will be recommending you in life.  Or conversely you may have an opportunity to recommend one of them for your company, and that's going to reflect well on you.  Shine Theory is all about believing and acting on the idea of "if you shine, I shine."

Perhaps pinning my hopes that board room demographics will shift on Shine Theory is a touch fanciful.  But, I do truly believe that choosing to act against the stereotype that women are constantly competing with other women is a huge step in that direction.  If Jen had embraced Shine Theory, she and Linda could have made a valuable contribution to Reynholm Industries.  Not only that, but they could have spent energy on things they actually care about, rather than fighting over title handed to them by a man.  

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hillary as mediator: why the job of POTUS might suit her more than you think . . .

For several months now, I’ve been wanting to love Hillary. She’s already my candidate because of the lesser-of-two-evils-condition of this election, but I’ve felt very conflicted. I don’t resonate with her as a person, but I get instantaneous tears in my eyes when I watch her enter a stage. That woman, right there, that person of my gender, could be our next president. I want this so badly I get a lump in my throat typing it.

. . . But I’m still not able to connect with Hillary. And I’m not alone. I decided to do some soul-searching (and more research) into what makes Hillary less accessible than other politicians, though she is a powerhouse of a lawmaker. Once you look into her approval ratings, what you see is that the nation approves of Hillary more when she’s working in a job than when she’s trying to garner their approval in a campaign. This is strange, but you start to see the pattern all over the place: she frequently delivers stilted, 'shrill,' speeches, but when she was a Senator, she amended 67 bills in eight years and served on five senate committees. As Secretary of State, she brought Iran to the negotiating table, improved US-Cuba relations, increased exports to China, and more. These are no small feats, and people liked her while she was accomplishing them. So where is the disconnect between her success and her, well . . . popularity?

The thing that makes Hillary less accessible has a name. In his illuminating article Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees Isn’t the Clinton Colleagues Know Ezra Klein calls this “the Gap:”
There is the Hillary Clinton I watch on the nightly news and that I read described in the press. She is careful, calculated, cautious. Her speeches can sound like executive summaries from a committee report, the product of too many authors, too many voices, and too much fear of offense. . . And then there is the Hillary Clinton described to me by people who have worked with her, people I admire, people who understand Washington in ways I never will.
I now see exactly what Klein sees in Hillary. What’s more, I have come to see that the Gap is why I think she will make an incredible President.

As this is legal blog, I’d like to frame things from a lawyering prospective. Clinton is an attorney, along with over half of past presidents, so it seems fitting to apply the profession to her demeanor. I feel there are really three types of lawyers. There are (1) the orating-suave-extroverted types, (2) the attention-to-detail-introverted-sharp-witted types, and (3) the mediating-community-organizing-consensus-building types. Most lawyer-politicians fit entirely into category (1), or are sometimes a mix between (1) and (2) (read: Bernie Sanders). The category (1) lawyers are the ones that have the most success with campaigning: they are affable, charming, and thrilled to hear themselves speak. However, Hillary is right between lawyers (2) and (3), she has nearly none of the natural orator in her, and she, in contrast to nearly all of her peers, is a listener. Though she was a litigator in the past, I think that Hillary’s personality makes her more of a perfect mediator.

She embodies all the qualities of a great mediator (learned in my Mediation course with Steven Rosenberg, here at UC Davis). First, she’s an incredibly active listener embarking on “listening tours” to kick off her last two campaigns and is inclined to use what she hears (e.g. ‘card-table time’ wherein she re-reads all her notes from listening and develops policy). Second, her work-style is collaborative and consensus building. Though this is sometimes to her detriment, it gains her great loyalty and gives her a large network of people from whom she can ask favors and ideas. Third, she is flexible, and fourth she is creative in developing thoughtful initiatives like this one. Finally, Hillary is persistent. It doesn’t take much to see that she has been working toward this since possibly the mid-eighties.

To my mind, these qualities make her a perfect fit for the presidential office. Indeed, Matthew Yglesias is in accord in his Vox article Hillary Clinton is bad at speeches for the exact reasons she'd be a good president:
The very qualities that tend to make Clinton bad at speechwriting — a penchant for the least-common-denominator and a passion for making sure no small thing is forgotten — are qualities that are extremely relevant to effective leadership in a political system that’s built to favor transactional relationships over big ideas.
I’m interested in a president who listens, who is consensus building, who is flexible and creative, and who remains persistent despite the great quantity of hate coming her way. I'm enthused by what I now know about Hillary's style of leadership. It is worth noting that all of these Mediator qualities are also seen as traditional female qualities (female leadership strengths tend to be undervalued, BTW; also see an unpacking of the complicated concept of female ‘traits’ in Judith Baer’s book Our Lives Before the Law: Constructing a Feminist Jurisprudence). However, great Mediator traits aren't solely ascribable to females, in fact there are more males in the Alternative Dispute Resolution professions in the US than there are females.

I am thus not persuaded that it’s simply Hillary’s femaleness that informs this mediation-type leadership style; women have been shown to take all kinds of approaches to accomplish mediated results. I think Hillary has simply discovered the method of governance that works for her. I am inspired by that method.

Now that I'm learning about mediation, I'm likely to favor it over the exorbitant cost of litigation. I’m similarly inclined, based on similar learning, to favor a mediating president over a fighter who may cost the country a lot in the long-run.

I am now, overwhelmingly on board with scores of other women. I’ll sing that fight song with you every time, Ms. Clinton. There’s that darn lump in my throat again.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Frotteurism : a variation of street harassment 

Gender-based street harassment is very common nowadays and I am fairly certain all of us have heard of it, witnessed it or experienced it by now. We can easily find testimonies about street harassment online (for instance, in this previous blog post).

Feminists have argued that street harassment is a manner for men to claim that the public space belongs to them and that women should remain in the private sphere. For example, Deborah M. Thompson stated in an article in the Yale journal of law and feminism : 
If [...] women are subject to violation of that zone of personal privacy when they enter public areas, that very invasion of privacy effectively drives women back into the private sphere, where they may avoid such violations. Thus, by turning women into objects of public attention when they are in public, harassers drive home the message that women belong only in the world of the private.
In New York, the Rob Bliss Creative Video Agency filmed a woman walking on the streets for 10 hours (youtube video). In Belgium, Sofie Peeters a documentary film student filmed the streets of Brussels in her documentary Femme de la Rue (Woman of the Street).

Critiques have been made about the racism and classicism of these films, because their focus is on a white young woman being harassed mostly by young black and Latino men. Since then, sources and movements are more cautious and have acknowledged that everyone can get harassed by pretty much everyone. Hollaback, an international non-profit and movement to end harassment in public spaces stated :
Replacing sexism with racism is not a proper holla back. Ditto to classism, homophobia, transphobia, and the usage of any other identity signifier. In our experiences, harassment comes from people in every facet of our cultures and every strata of society.
The same movement has conducted an illuminating international survey along with Cornell University in 2014. There was a total of 16,607 respondents. In the survey, we can learn for example that more than 81.5% of European women and 85% of US women have experienced their first harassment before the age of 17.

However, there is a variation of this phenomenon that gets less coverage in my opinion : frotteurism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as 
The paraphiliac practice of achieving sexual stimulation or orgasm by touching and rubbing against a person without the person's consent and usually in a public place—called also frottage.
In clear, it happens usually on public transportation, where people (usually men, aged 15-25) act like the place is too crowded and get closer to other people (usually women). They get so close that they touch the victim and basically grope them or rub themselves against him/her. A bus or subway never gets that crowded. In fact, it can be sexual assault, depending on the country's law.
In taking advantage of the fact that they are stuck on the public transport and in the crowd, the assailants count on the victim's impulse not to make a scene or not knowing how or whether to react.

It would be utterly interesting to have data on frotteurism and identify countries/regions were it happens or not. I struggled with finding such reliable information. However, it is very common at least in France and Italy. There even exists a special police force in Paris dedicated to spotting the frotteurs (to see them in action :

Frotteurism is considered to be a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.
The symptoms must have been present for at least 6 months and the patient must experience significant distress or negative impact on functioning [...] Diagnosis of frotteuristic disorder is based on recurrent touching or rubbing of one or more nonconsenting individuals on at least three occasions, and clinically significant distress. [...] Treatment of frotteuristic disorder focuses on the reduction of sexual urges and behaviors through behavioral therapy, used to identify triggers and redirect behavior, and psychopharmaceutical intervention.
I find it hard to believe that this type of behavior is a disorder. I am fairly certain that there are some places or cities where this type of harassment does not occur. Thus, it seems too easy to justify this horrific behavior by merely saying it is not something that the perpetrators can control.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Birth of a Movement: Top-Down versus Bottom-Up Women's Rights in Rwanda and the United States

How does the birth of a feminist movement in a nation shape the later culture in the country? For insight on this question we can look to the United States and Rwanda, two countries which had two vastly different starting points for the push toward women's equality.

The women's movement in the United States saw its birth in the 1800's with the suffragettes. Encouraging citizens to take to the streets to march, the suffragettes worked for increased political power and representation with initiatives for women to have full citizenship and the right to vote. They also tackled issues surrounding the amount of agency a women had at home, working for women to have custody over their children as well as the right to divorce.

While men were involved in the early American women's rights movement, it was women like Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton who created the backbone of the suffragettes. While the messages they promoted were vital to the promotion of women's rights, the lives they lead were equally important for setting the stage for the American tradition of grassroots feminism. Susan B Anthony put work ahead of having children and challenged modern norms of how a woman should act by travelling on the road alone while Elizabeth Stanton showed her peers one could have a family while still being publicly bold and politically engaged. Together these two women set the stage for the generations of women after them to use their own voices and leadership to push for women's rights and equality from inside the home to the highest levels of government.

It is not always the case that women create the catalyst for change that changes the landscape for how much political power a woman can obtain. In 1994 Rwanda suffered a genocide that left much of the male population either dead or in jail, resulting in 70% of the population being women. This phenomenon led to the leader Kagame and the government to rewrite the Constitution instituting a requirement that 30% of Parliamentary positions were given to women, and women's education was launched as an important goal for the country. Overnight Rwandan women went from a world of traditional patriarchy where they had trouble owning land to one in which they would take a prominent role in governing the country.

In a recent story, the authors of the podcast Invisibilia looked at whether or not these recent changes in Rwanda also changed how society and culture treated women. In other words, did the Rwandan society change from "the outside in?" They found that although women had power in the public sphere, in the private they could not escape the expectations of being a traditional Rwandan women that did not have equal power in the home as their male counterparts. Also, since the change that gave the Rwandan women political power came from the top down, they were seen as ungrateful when they voiced the issues they were experiencing at home.

The comparison of the United States and Rwanda shows that while top down feminist movements may institute gender equality in political representation faster than a bottom up movement, but it often will not reflect the cultural reality most of the nation's women live in. While the United States may not have the same representation of women in political offices as Rwanda, the bottom up creation of the women's movement in the United started a tradition in which women can use their voices to push for such a change.