Sunday, February 7, 2016

This feminist is for Sanders

“Young women have to support Hillary Clinton… It’s not done and you have to help. Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Former secretary of state Madeline Albright told a crowd of Clinton supporters yesterday in New Hampshire. Albright was not alone in addressing young women voters this weekend.

In an interview on Friday, with Bill Mahers, Gloria Steinem suggested that the main reason Bernie Sanders has so much support from young women is so that they can meet boys: “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’” While Steinem has since apologized for her statement, I don’t really buy it and I’m starting to get offended.

In attempting to support Clinton, Steinem reduced young women to mindless bimbos who are unable to make rational political decisions on their own, and instead politic based on the whims of their hearts. Surely, revolutionary feminist Steinem does not agree that young women are incapable of critical decision-making. However, her views, and Albright’s, echo a widespread sentiment that drives the rhetoric that voting for anyone other than Clinton is both un-feminist and untenable.

I am a feminist and I support Bernie Sanders. It isn’t because he reminds me of my grandpa (which due to their shared Brooklyn accent and white hair, he really does). And it isn’t because of his “willingness to look and sound like a hot mess,” or that Hillary just isn’t cool enough. It also isn’t because his fervent fan base convinced me. It’s because after a careful analysis of Sanders’s and Clinton’s politics, my beliefs are more aligned with Sanders’. I also firmly believe that Sanders’ policies are feminist policies.

As Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra wrote in their 2015 article, “All issues of wealth, power, and violence are also women’s and LGBT rights issues.” Sanders supports single-payer healthcare, women’s reproductive healthcare, free college tuition for public universities, and a $15 minimum wage -- all policies that benefit women in this country. Sanders has an established history supporting LGBTQ rights, in stark comparison to Clinton who supported DOMA and did not announce her support of gay marriage until 2013. Sanders’ history of opposing foreign wars, the Patriot Act, and the death penalty are all reasons that I support him for president. This is not an exhaustive list, it is merely illustrative of the fact that I, a young, female, millennial am capable of comparing two candidates and coming to my own feminist conclusions.

My support for Sanders does not mean that Clinton has not faced an enormous amount of misogyny and sexism in this election, and throughout her career. Nor is my support for Sanders unwavering. I have legitimate qualms about some of his policies. I’m worried about his age. I’m worried about his effectiveness implementing his policies once in the White House (though, to be honest I am not sure that Clinton will do any better).

That said, my support for Sanders is indeed rooted in my feminist beliefs. Beliefs that recognize the complexity of womanhood, and the need for intersectional politics that acknowledge race, gender identity, class, and more. I have to support the candidate that I feel embodies those beliefs and I truly believe that Sanders will be the better candidate for all women. After all, I don’t want to end up in that special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.

Worker Coops and Economic Empowerment

I don’t know if women—or for that matter, anyone—can “have it all.” This country has an intractably imbalanced work-life culture. Add to this the deeply rooted expectation that women should act as the primary caretaker and a whole host of gendered consequences flow from employment in America. Women who work full time receive 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, or even worse, only 67 cents on the dollar when comparing female and male earners with professional degrees. Women are also less likely to have health insurance or retirement savings plans offered by their employers, according to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.

When viewed on a macro-level, the weight of these problems seems crippling. It feels as though there are no viable solutions to a stubborn workplace structure that discriminates against women and fails to recognize their economic contributions.

Luckily, I discovered a source of optimism in the form of worker cooperatives. As a summer law clerk at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, CA I became involved in community economic development efforts—efforts to empower communities through economic opportunities that respect the rights of workers, provide job opportunities to marginalized groups, and add needed services to surrounding communities. Worker cooperatives play an essential role in these efforts.

According to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a worker cooperative (“worker coop”) is a business entity that is owned and controlled by its worker members and adheres to a one member, one vote model. Workers invest in, own, and are the primary beneficiaries of their labor. You can think of worker coops as democratic workplaces that are owned and controlled by the workers themselves, as opposed to outside investors or management.

Rather than wait for a national consensus on workplace issues—like raising the minimum wage or requiring paid family leave—worker owners can set their own priorities and enact workplace policies that meet their individual needs. And, fortunately, California just made it easier to incorporate as a worker coop.

Prospera, a worker coop incubator, has helped establish successful female owned and operated ventures throughout the Bay Area. Prospera was founded in the mid-90s to specifically address the lack of economic opportunities for Latina women in the Bay Area. Prospera incubates worker coops, meaning it provides business expertise and connects entrepreneurs to start-up capital and the institutional knowledge necessary to help a business get off the ground.

In particular, Prospera has successfully incubated eco-friendly house cleaning businesses. These businesses developed out of necessity to deal with a traditionally exploitative industry that funneled predominately Latina women into low-paying cleaning jobs, exposed them to harmful chemicals, and provided little control over workplace policies. While commercial cleaning is an accessible service industry job for workers lacking professional degrees, it’s also notoriously exploitative. By melding together the accessibility of the cleaning industry with the democratic nature of worker coops, Prospera helped create an economy for women to shape their own workplaces and economic opportunities.

One of Prospera’s creations, Emma’s Eco-Clean, has generated $9 million in sales since 1999, employs 27 workers, and provides health and dental benefits along with flexible vacation time—benefits virtually unheard of in the commercial cleaning industry. The worker-owners in Prospera coops have also, on average, tripled their income compared to their pre-Prospera employment.

Worker coops are not a cure-all solution. As with any new business venture, entrepreneurs need access to capital, a consumer base, and some level of business savvy. Nonprofit incubators, like Prospera, are helpful in connecting entrepreneurs with the resources necessary to start a successful new business. But these low-income, entrepreneur-focused incubators are few and far between. Women in rural communities may find it especially difficult to access the resources necessary to start these businesses. And nothing excuses this country’s inability to deal with inequality on a larger, national scale.

Even so, worker ownership puts workplace policies in the hands of the people most affected by these policies. In the context of women’s worker-owned coops, women are empowered to set policies that meet their particular needs. This is a more localized model that gives me hope in a larger economy that disempowers workers and sets unreasonable expectations for employees and their families.

Friday, February 5, 2016

A different perspective on Orange Is the New Black – Part I

Orange Is the New Black (OITNB)—the Emmy-award winning Netflix show—has received critical acclaim and rave reviews. More importantly, it’s prompted people to talk about women in prisons—a topic that isn’t exactly commonplace in most American households.

Despite the fact that on any given day an estimated 200,000 American women are behind bars, most of us haven’t thought much about what life is like for these women—who they are, where they came from, and types of struggles, humiliations, heartaches, and indignities they face on a daily basis.

But, since OITHB's release in July 2013, people all over the country are talking about just that. Talking about important, and historically neglected, issues like abortion access, sexual assault, treatment of transgender inmates, shackling of pregnant inmates during labor and delivery, and pregnancy related health care in correctional facilities.

In 2013, The New Yorker’s television critique, Emily Nussbaum, praised the show, noting that “for all its daffy, dirty ways, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is more strongly rooted in the real world…it intends to illuminate injustice by using stories so bright that you can’t ignore them.” I was intrigued.

Over the next year, it seemed as if everyone around me was singing the show’s praises. “You will love it,” friends told me. “Get ready to binge watch, because you won’t be able to turn it off.” My experience was rather different — I did not love it, and I did turn it off.

These stories have certainly drawn attention to critical social justice issues, but they have also, on several notable occasions, missed the mark. These are stories that aren’t “rooted in the real world,” misrepresent key aspects of the issues, and perpetuate dangerous and already deeply rooted stereotypes—stereotypes, that in a time of unprecedented attacks on women’s reproductive rights and access to care, do incarcerated women — and us all — a tremendous disservice.

One such issue is that of anti-abortion violence and harassment. While the show raises the issue, it distorts it in a way that is insulting to women and abortion providers — many of whom risk their lives every day to ensure that American women continue to have access to safe, comprehensive, and essential reproductive health care.

The first season’s primary antagonist, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett, is incarcerated for murdering an abortion provider. Episode 12 includes a flashback of her in an abortion clinic, as a patient — shortly after receiving an abortion. While recovering from the procedure, a nurse looks at her critically and with disdain tells her “Number five, huh? We should give you a punch-card, get the sixth one free.” Pennsatucky then storms out of the clinic, grabs a gun from her friend’s car, storms into the clinic, and shoots the nurse.

Harassment and violence towards abortion providers is a real issue in this country, but when we portray it, let’s get it right.

Every day in America, intimidation, harassment, and violence endangers the lives of both clinic staff and patients, and it is severely interfering with and compromising access to reproductive health care.

Including the November 2015 attack in Colorado, there have been 11 murders and 26 attempted murders due to anti-abortion violence. These horrific crimes were perpetrated by fanatic individuals who oppose abortion. Not one of them was a patient.

In addition, abortion opponents have directed more than 6,948 reported acts of violence against abortion providers since 1977, including bombings, arson, death threats, bioterrorism threats, and assaults, as well as more than 194,615 reported acts of disruption, including bomb threats, hate mail, and harassing calls.

Patients are not the perpetrators of these crimes. They are, along with clinic staff, the victims.

As a former employee of a reproductive health care provider, I have experienced these threats first hand. And, I have seen the devastating effects they have on women’s ability to access health care, and the experiences they have when they do. They are called offensive names, harassed, and photographed when entering clinics. And, for many women, the massive groups of protesters and the harassment they are subjected to, prevent them from receiving the care they need.

This care could be an abortion. But it might also be prenatal care, or a breast exam, or even a visit with a primary care provider. The fact is, abortion is a health care service, and it is part of comprehensive health care. Many clinics that provide abortions also provide other reproductive health services, and some offer primary and pediatric care. Often they are community clinics that serve low-income individuals and families— so when harassment and intimidation keeps patients from accessing care, some of them have nowhere else to go.

But in portraying Pennsatucky’s abortion experience, OITNB paints a different picture. Instead of being harassed by protestors outside the clinics, she is mistreated and disrespected by a staff member. And, instead of fearing for her own safety or witnessing violence and harassment at an abortion clinic, she commits it.

The portrayal of the clinic worker is also problematic. OITNB depicts her as unprofessional, cold, and judgmental. Why? If this is really an attempt to raise awareness about abortion access and anti-abortion violence and intimidation, why portray the clinic staff in this way? What value does it add to the show? None.

Every day, the brave men and women who work in abortion clinics face threats of murder, violence, and intimidation. Threats, that are as we have seen, very real. And yet, they continue to provide care — even when this requires wearing a bulletproof vest to work and spending their days in buildings that receive bomb threats.

Given the severity of anti-abortion violence, it’s no surprise that there is a shortage of abortion providers in the U.S.. In some states there are none, and doctors fly in from other parts of the country. They risk their lives to ensure that women in America continue to have access to their constitutionally protected right to abortion.

These people aren’t villains. They are heroes. To depict them as cold, unprofessional, and judgmental is not “rooted in the real world.” It’s disrespectful and insulting.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Vocal Fry and Shrill-ary Clinton

Last spring I attended a hearing in federal court. A female attorney argued on behalf of the defendant. After the hearing I debriefed with my colleagues. One of the men I was with mentioned that he found the female attorney “off-putting” and “shrill” and "he couldn't even pay attention to what she was saying." Adjusting my voice, I asked him what he meant. My questioning was met with a long-winded defensive non-answer.

Shrill. This is a real concept women in the workplace have to contend with. Not only are we expected to be conventionally attractive and intelligent (but not overpowering), we also have to worry about the natural tenor of our voices.

A few weeks later I was filling out the evaluation for an adjunct professor’s course I had taken that semester. I overheard a male student talking about her. “She’s just hard to listen to.” Again, I pressed. What did he mean? Why was she hard to listen to? He offered no explanation. Weeks later I heard the term “vocal fry” for the first time.

Vocal fry is the term coined to describe the oscillating sound heard in speech. It is the “fluttering of the vocal cords, resulting in a popping or creaking sound at the bottom of the vocal register.” Based on media discussions, vocal fry is not something one should wish to possess. Though both men and women fry their voices, the phenomenon almost exclusively hinders women.

Women are expected to have higher-pitched voices. Yet, people with deeper voices are perceived as dominant and successful, and more often than not land coveted leadership positions. Men prefer female partners with high-pitched voices and female leaders with low pitched voices. This double standard manifests in vocal fry, which occurs when women attempt to lower their vocal registers. The result is a vibrato that many find unprofessional. One journalist described vocal fry as a “fingernails-on-the-blackboard phenomenon” and vapid.

The correlation between deep voices and professional success is unsettling. Our voices (like so many other female-attributes) are already held to an unattainable standard. If we speak too quietly we are meek, if we are too loud we are abrasive, if our voices are high-pitched we are mousy, and if they are too low we are masculine. The natural tenor of women’s voices has become a subconscious factor in how we perceive a woman’s intelligence and professionalism.

Hillary Clinton gave a speech this past Monday acknowledging her success at the Iowa Caucus. Before she even left the stage, users took to Twitter to attack not the content of her speech, but the what she sounded like. One commentator suggested that Clinton is “incapable of finding the difference between yelling and passion.” Another expressed fear that we would be forced to listen to her screech for the next eight years (“Imagine 8 years of that screech”). Hillary Clinton has long been the recipient of vocally degrading-epithets. Donald Trump has labeled her as "shrill." And the nickname Shrill-ary was tossed around during the 2008 election.

Yet Bernie Sanders is free to yell to his heart’s content. His vocal range is seen as passionate and revolutionizing. Bernie can be as unpolished as he wants—where Hillary must adhere to the feminine standards of both appearance and voice. In 2008, Stanley Fish, in a New York Times article observed:

If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine. 

Eight years later and little has changed. Hillary is a political powerhouse, but she is seen as “calculated” and a “politician” (which in 2016 is considered an insult). She embodies the establishment. Yet, each day on the campaign trail, she must control her tone. Each sound and word that escapes her mouth must be practiced and prepared or she might sound shrill or domineering. Her laugh is a cackle but when she does not laugh she is cold. She cannot win.

Hillary is a public figure, and some could argue that she has placed her voice in the spotlight. But she is an example of one real way women are silenced. Women’s voices tell stories, they advocate for others, they express ideas and values. The attorney I saw argue in federal court was articulate and accomplished. Because of the sound of her voice, her ideas went unheard.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Five Stages of Grief: My Evolution as a Feminist Sports Fan

I grew up watching and playing sports. NFL, NCAA, and other acronyms were a normal part of my vocabulary. But as I’ve become an adult, I’ve struggled to find my place in a sports world designed to highlight male athletes and cater only to male sports fans’ every desire. Could I be a feminist and still watch my favorite sports? Was I a bad feminist if I didn’t watch the WNBA?


Sure, there are problems in other sports leagues, with other athletes, but MY teams are fine...right? When I was a freshman at USC, one of our quarterbacks was arrested on rape charges. The charges were (of course) dropped and the story has been largely forgotten as his career progressed from college to pro.

This was the first time that I truly saw the sexist vitriol and victim-blaming implicit in media coverage of athlete sexual assault cases and it shook me – because I could sense myself needing to believe that Mark Sanchez was innocent, could feel myself being vindicated by the media coverage that encouraged and enhanced that belief, casting doubt on the victim’s claims from the second the story broke. In retrospect, not a proud moment to remember defending an alleged rapist.


The next time an athlete on one of my teams was accused of sexual assault, I was more prepared for the press and social media bias – and this time it was even worse. Six years had passed since the Sanchez case in 2006, and the sports “blogosphere” had evolved (devolved?) considerably. Just one sample headline from this incident? “Sexual Assault Allegations Against Drew Doughty? F*ck That.”*

The spread of blogs and social media coverage by nonprofessional, mostly male (and white) authors had created an incredibly hostile atmosphere for female sports fans and writers. I stopped reading blogs that I had been used to reading daily, disgusted and angered as the coverage of the incident devolved until the athlete was, as frustratingly inevitably seems to happen in these cases, cleared of all charges.


But was I done being a sports fan? Of course not. I'd just watched my team win their first Stanley Cup! Life was good! Instead, I entered the bargaining phase. Surely, I thought, it was OK to still watch sports if I spent the rest of my time continuing to donate to Planned Parenthood and fighting gender discrimination in my workplace. My feelings about sports during this phase are almost perfectly summed up by this so-true-it-hurts piece from The Onion (“Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show”):

“Honestly, it’s pretty exhausting to call out every sexist stereotype or instance of misogyny in popular culture, so sometimes I have to just throw my hands up and grant myself a little time off,” Jenkins said. “And given the state of modern media, momentarily suspending my feminist ideals is the only way to get through a night of TV without becoming totally livid or discouraged.”

I made it several years using this mechanism, simply tuning out all the many problematic aspects of professional sports and turning my feminist switch off whenever I turned the TV on.


Then Ray Rice was only suspended by the NFL for an insulting, measly, sickening two games after knocking his wife unconscious (on camera, no less). Then one of my teams chose to keep a player on their roster after he pled no contest to domestic abuse against his wife. Yes, they wanted to continue to associate the LA Kings name with someone who “punched [his wife] in the jaw, choked her three times, pushed her to the ground, kicked her and shoved her into the corner of a flat-screen TV.”**

Around this time, I found myself actively avoiding sports. I stopped playing fantasy football. I cancelled my cable subscription. I no longer set my schedule around LA Kings games.

Yet here I am today, writing this blog post with the NHL All-Star Game on in the background. What changed?


I learned to accept and appreciate sports for what they are. I started following feminist bloggers who called out the sexist garbage. I also recognized that the major professional sports leagues will never care about their female audience if we all turn off the TV. If we keep watching, keep caring, keep protesting, then maybe things will change. And things are slowly changing for the better. Just in the past two years, I’ve seen one of the most popular hockey blogs promptly fire a writer after news broke of his sexual harassment, begin regular coverage of the new National Women’s Hockey League, and manage to professionally cover a star’s sexual assault charges while calling out the victim-blaming seen elsewhere – all of which would have been inconceivable not too long ago. And all of which I credit to the growing outcry by female fans and bloggers about sexism and misogyny in sports.

Are sports in America perfect? No. Are the pay, sponsorship, and media coverage disparities between men’s and women’s sports problematic? Absolutely. Will the Budweiser commercials next week during the Super Bowl be misogynistic garbage? Almost certainly. But despite all this, I still love sports and I’m proud to call myself a feminist sports fan, because I know I’m part of a community of women fighting for our right to be included in this space.

*I refuse to link to this blog because they don’t deserve the traffic. I also prefer to spare my reading audience from the content of that “article,” let alone the comments. If you’re really curious, there’s always Google.

**Yes, the player in question was eventually voluntarily deported to his home country of Russia, terminating his contract. But the Kings still made sure to retain his NHL rights should he return to the U.S.

Friday, January 29, 2016

If Roxane Gay is a "Bad Feminist," Then so am I

This post is part book review/part communication manifesto. Roxane Gay’s 2014 collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is undoubtedly one of the best books that I’ve read in the last year. Gay, whose work has been featured on countless media outlets, and in 3 published books, now teaches creative and professional writing at Eastern Illinois University.

When I first picked up this book, the glaring pink letters, BAD FEMINIST, almost seemed accusatory. But it doesn’t take more than a few pages to dig into the deep, messy complexion of that title. In a TED Talk last year, Gay plainly unpacked what exactly she means when she calls herself a “bad feminist.” Mainstream feminism, she says, has become an exclusive and unattainable pillar of perfection, to which the average women, nay, the average feminist, shamefully cannot measure up.

Gay has long identified as a feminist, and has done a lot of work to further the cause. However, she also admits to many classic “no-no’s,” like singing along to extremely offensive rap music, watching shows like The Bachelor, and occasionally faking orgasms. To the extent that Gay doesn’t always practice what she preaches, she unapologetically embraces the title of “bad feminist.” And this is precisely why I am so in love with her writing. The more elitist and idyllic feminism becomes, the more women, as imperfect humans, feel they cannot identify with feminism. As Gay says in her TED Talk, “bad feminism” is really just “inclusive feminism.”

A central theme in Bad Feminist is communication: how women communicate with each other, how feminists communicate with everyone else, and how society communicates around important issues. Her use of the phrase “bad feminist” is just the beginning of, what I see, as a major shift in the greater-feminism conversation. We need to move as far away as possible from the notion that feminism, and other social justice movements for that matter, is an exclusive club for educated, straight, perfectly-anti-patriarchy, white women.

In one of the essays from Bad Feminist, “How to be Friends with Another Woman,” Gay provides a witty, but tremendously helpful, guide to navigating female relationships. However, I would take it a step further and claim that several of these rules are directly applicable to learning the art of “How to Talk About Feminism without Being Elitist.” Really, it’s very simple. It all comes down to balancing honesty, criticism, jealousy and anger, with compassion, understanding, and a common goal to building each other up. We feminists are so quick to judge and attach. What if we employed some of the most basic communication skills that we teach pre-schoolers? Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Treat others how you want to be treated.

The whole point of Bad Feminist is this: flawed feminism is still feminism. A fear of perfection or criticism is no reason to shy away from the label. And on the other side of the coin, imperfection and mistakes are not reasons to exclude someone who wishes to identify as a feminist, or learn more about the movement. One thing unites us all, and that is Gay’s favorite definition of feminism: “women who don’t want to be treated like shit.”

If Roxane Gay is a “bad feminist,” in the way that she so eloquently describes it, then so am I. I am human, I am flawed, I am full of contradictions and imperfections. I often do not practice what I preach. But I still believe, to the depths of my soul, in equality for all women, and for all people. As Gay said herself, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”