Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why can’t men join the feminist movement just because it is the right thing to do?

 There has been a lot of momentum in the media lately about including men in the feminist movement. Moreover, feminists seem to be spending a lot of time trying to convince men that gender equality is actually a good thing. Yet despite the perks of involving men in the feminist movement, the efforts women are taking to convince men to support gender equality are far from ideal.  Why can’t men join the feminist movement because it is the right thing to do?

“Choreplay” is a recent attempt to try to get men to support gender equality in the home. Choreplay, as defined by the Daily Beast, is the use of household chores as sexual leverage – for example, women leveraging sex to get their partner to take out the trash. Granted, the New York Times Op-Ed written by Sheryl Sandberg coining “choreplay” cited a study stating that couples that split household chores have more sex. That might be true, but it feels like we are demeaning men’s intellect by assuming they will only partake in household chores if they get a “carrot” for doing so. If the garbage is overflowing, can’t we assume men will just take out the trash because it needs to be taken out? Moreover, using sex as a reward for taking out the trash feels like a twisted way of over-commodifying the female body. Sexual empowerment and agency is great, but can’t choreplay be easily reduced to men doing the dishes as a way to pay for sex?

Men should support gender equality not because someone came up with a kitschy, quid-pro-quo pun to get them to do so. They should support gender equality in the home because it’s the right thing to do.  As Jessica Valenti points out, these are the men we want participating in the feminist movement – not the men who only do the dishes as a way to get laid. She states:
“But we can give men more credit than this: many are smart, many are feminists, and I truly believe that a lot of them are interested in helping women achieve equality for equality’s sake, not just because they can get something out of the deal… It’s those men that we want on our sides.”
Similarly, we should stop proposing gender equality to men as a movement to support just because they can get something out of it. Gloria Steinem recently pitched feminism to men by explaining it in terms of providing a more compatible life partner. In reference to marriages in the 1950s, she stated: 
Men have been lonely without partners who share interests, and without that kind of closeness… They were being told essentially to marry housekeepers with whom they may or may not share interests, and their lives became instantly different in the home and outside the home. The conversation and closeness and comradeship was very, very difficult. Each one was a trophy for the other, but not a person, not a whole person.”

While this is a legitimate point, there still seems to be something amiss by pitching feminism to men this way. Perhaps I am being too optimistic, but I want to believe men would still join the feminist movement if solely for ending the oppression of 50 percent of society – not because they are trying to increase the compatibility of their romantic partners.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Changing Katherine’s perspective: the anti-motherhood mindset in the United States workplace

Employers and employees in the United States workforce place high value on "masculine qualities," and place little value on "feminine qualities" like caretaking and motherhood. It's not only men who devalue employees with familial obligations. Women can be equally judgmental.

A recent Fortune.com article illustrated this point. Katherine, a former executive, described her mindset as highly judgmental and unaccepting of her coworkers with children. She would question the commitment of mothers who couldn't make last minute happy hours with her work team, and she even supported the idea of firing another woman before she became pregnant. In her article she stated:
For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t realize this – or how horrible I’d been – until five years later, when I gave birth to a daughter of my own.
Katherine underwent an awakening after she gave birth to her daughter. She wrote this article to apologize to all the women that she judged for having caretaking responsibilities. When I read her article, I thought it was great that Katherine finally realized the obligations that come with being a mother.

However, I found myself wondering if Katherine would have changed her attitude if she hadn’t given birth. Stated another way, how can men and childless women with similar mindsets as Katherine, reach this place of understanding without going through a similar awakening? Is giving birth the only way to accept and value caretaking? The mindset continually perpetuated—commitment to the employer over caretaking—needs to change in order to stop pushing mothers out of the U.S. workforce.

The need for this change is not only apparent in anecdotal stories. The White House recently released the 2015 Economic Report of the President. The report discussed prime-age female labor participation rates between 1991 and 2013. In the early 1990s, the United States ranked 7th out of 24 OECD countries for female participation rates; well above average. Since then, U.S. female participation rates have plateaued and drifted downward.

While the downturn in labor participation among females is unsettling, the decline is worse when compared to participation rates in other high-income countries. In other OECD countries, female labor participation rates have continued to rise since the 1990s, demoting the U.S. to number 19 out of OECD countries for the statistic. The White House report primarily attributes the rise in other countries to the expansion of leave.

When it comes to maternity leave, the United States is not only an outlier among its peers, but also amongst most countries in the world. In a study of 185 countries by the International Labour Office, the United States and Papa New Guinea were the only two countries that did not legally require paid maternity leave. The report found that while 12% of private sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave, only 5% of low-income workers currently have access to the entitlement. 
Paid Maternity Leave Around the World
Country Weeks of Paid Maternity Leave
Australia 18 weeks
Azerbaijan 165 weeks
Germany 57 weeks
Honduras 8 weeks
Japan 58 weeks
North Korea 11 weeks
Qatar 7 weeks
Russia 78 weeks
Sudan 8 weeks
United Kingdom 39 weeks
United States 0 weeks
 Source: Buzzfeed
Is the United States stuck in the past because there are too many Katherines in political office and in the workforce? I think so. The overwhelming majority of countries in the world have mandated paid maternity leave, because they value caretaking as a public good necessary to protect the economic and physical wellbeing of women and children. It's rather pathetic that the most powerful nation in the world has yet to recognize the value of motherhood and caretaking through a Federal law requiring a minimum period of paid maternity leave. It's time for the United States to take note of the leave practices in 183 other countries around the world, and initiate systematic change here.

For a discussion of maternity leave practices in Switzerland compared with the United States, read Child Cost (Part 1): Maternity Leave.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s analysis of patriarchy’s genesis

Considering that yesterday was International Women’s Day, I believe it is fitting that I write a post concerning a left-leaning intellectual’s discourse on woman’s subjugation. I find that Simon de Beauvoir’s historical prominence as a feminist theorist is somewhat related to the revolutionary socialist movements that engendered what we know as International Women’s Day.

As a side note, which I believe is worth making because it is almost never made, International Woman’s Day is the product of the revolutionary outbursts of the early twentieth century. The earliest Woman’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York; it was organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union. In 1917, demonstrations in Saint Petersburg commemorating International Woman’s Day inaugurated Russia’s February Revolution. Thus, following the October Revolution, the newly established Soviet Union made Woman’s Day a national holiday in 1917. It was not until 1977 that the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as a day commemorating woman’s rights.

In relation to all this, as stated above, the following is my assessment of book one, chapter three of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The chapter is entitled “The Point of View of Historical Materialism.” In the chapter, de Beauvoir critiques historical materialism, as delineated by Friedrich Engels in his treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. De Beauvoir asserts that Engels’ historical materialism is fundamentally incapable of accounting for the origin of woman’s subjugation.

As de Beauvoir puts it, historical materialism is a Marxist conceptual framework based on the premise—at this point, it is axiomatic—that humanity is more a historical reality than an animal species. In other words, the human condition is contingent “upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution man has attained.” As Karl Marx famously puts it in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

This is a rudimentary explanation of the concept, but for the purposes of this post it will suffice.

De Beauvoir explicates that Engels in his treatise employs historical materialism to explain the origin of man’s primacy. As she recounts, Engels proposes that humanity, in its earliest historical stages, was embryonically egalitarian. The land belonged to all members of the tribe. The primitive nature of the tools of survival, spears and hoes, limited agricultural development, so that woman’s strength was sufficient for gardening. While man hunted and fished, woman remained at home tending to the tasks of domestic labor, which was productive labor—e.g. making pottery, weaving, and gardening. Consequently, woman played an integral part in economic life. Gender equality naturally sprung from this equal relationship of production.

However, this egalitarian division of labor was upset with the discovery of various metals, which would be used in the invention of new, more sophisticated tools. Men were thus capable of enlarging the scope of agricultural production and clearing vast expanses of wild land. As Engels puts it: 

The same cause which had assured to woman the prime authority in the house— namely, her restriction to domestic duties—this same cause now assured the domination there of the man; for woman’s housework henceforth sank into insignificance in comparison with man’s productive labor—the latter as everything, the former a trifling auxiliary.

As a result of the increased production, which these new-fangled tools allowed, man began to accumulate more than he required for survival. This became his private property; a wholly new concept made its way to the core of the human condition. Man began to trade the surplus, and he began to enslave other men and women.

Thousands of years pass, men and women, on account of the advancement of thoroughly technologized industry, become equal in terms of their capacity for productive labor. However, according to de Beauvoir, the Marxists clamor that it is the resistance of ancient capitalist patriarchy that prevents the materialization of this equality.

De Beauvoir’s criticism of Engels’ account is actually quite simple. She takes to task Engels for what she calls the slurring over of the passage from the regime of community ownership to that of private ownership. She writes, “Engels assumes without discussion the bond of interest which ties man to property; but where does this interest, the source of social institutions, have its own source?” Moreover, she asserts that it is not clear that the institution of private property must have necessarily involved the enslavement of women. She criticizes Engels for not having even attempted to offer his interpretation of this paradigm shift.

In response to what she sees as a conceptual vacuum, de Beauvoir posits that private property can only be understood with reference to the original condition of the existent. That is to say that man’s latent cognitive proclivity toward autonomy and individuality enabled private ownership. Without the advent of technology, man thought of himself as a passive element at the mercy of the natural world. With the birth of complex tools, man became a creator, a manipulator of the forces of nature. Thus, because of new inventions, man lost his feeling of inferiority and fear, and he found within himself the courage to live sovereignly and individually.

De Beauvoir adds—prototypical of contemporary critical theory—that man innately possesses an ontological substructure, a foundation in the nature of his being, which was kept dormant until the creation of new tools. This fundamental quality, as it were, is the drive to possess the Other. According to de Beauvoir, each individual finds life’s meaning through alienation; we seek to find ourselves in something outside of ourselves, an Other, by making it our own. To the collective hunter-gatherer tribe, the Other was the land. And, once the individual man becomes detangled from the tribe, he needs a personal incarnation, an Other, over which to take mastery. To him, the Other is the plot of land and the various trinkets he begins to appropriate, private property. The Other, to man, is also woman.

De Beauvoir continues by writing that woman’s physical limitations for hard labor constituted a disadvantage only from the perspective of man’s inherent need for transcendence. Effectively, woman was not able to keep up with man, thus she became inferior. However, she concedes that this need for transcendence did not really engender inequality, as man could have easily had a relationship of friendship with woman throughout his voyage of transcendence. The phenomenon of subjugation was ultimately “the result of the imperialism of the human consciousness, seeking always to exercise its sovereignty in objective fashion.”

Before I evaluate de Beauvoir’s work, I should say that, since my undergraduate studies, I have been drawn to the provocative appeal of French existentialism. However, that appeal is actually very superficial. Existentialism as a philosophy postures as something radical and new-fangled, but in reality it is simply another—certainly more poetic—articulation of prevailing modes of thought. At best, it is beautifully written prose, and nothing more—a sort of prose we do not really see in academia today because of the rise of tedious empiricism, positivism, and citation based research literature. For instance, there is something to be said about the way de Beauvoir describes sex as “a revolt of the instant against time, of the individual against the universal,” or in how she writes, “marriage finds its natural fulfillment in adultery.”

Style is no substitute for substance. De Beauvoir’s critique of Engels falls far short of cogency. First of all, her account of the historical materialist perspective of woman’s subjugation is incorrect. She writes that her Marxist contemporaries claim that modern gender inequality is the product of vestigial capitalist patriarchy. The claim of her contemporaries was not that woman’s subjugation remained, without any material foundation within capitalism, because of the backwards sentiments of a few privileged men. It was that the economic substructure, which conditions the ideological and political, necessitates and reproduces woman’s subjugation. Capitalism ineludibly maintains patriarchy, sexism, or gender inequality—whatever one desires to call it—because it is highly profitable and politically advantageous. On one hand, individual captains of industry, men and women included, profit from the spurious, socially constructed division of gender because, on account of its cultural pervasiveness, they can justifiably pay women laborers at a lower rate than men. This disparity in remuneration allows an increased accrual of profit revenue. On the other hand, spurious divisions between common women and men cripplingly alienate the two, and thus they are prevented from engaging in effective political action.

De Beauvoir’s alternative to what she considers Engels’ conceptual vacuum is not only implausible on its own terms and at a theoretical level, but also—and, more importantly—it suggests absurd consequences at the practical level. De Beauvoir attributes certain unsavory essential features to woman. She writes that woman is “more closely enslaved to the species,” is servile, and is complacent. To de Beauvoir, it is man’s natural inclination to view himself as an autonomous being in opposition to woman’s weakness that led to woman’s decline. De Beauvoir provides no explanation as to why woman lacks man’s intrinsic yearning for individuality; she merely asserts it as if it were self-evident. She paints a necessarily submissive portrait of woman. This coupled with the assertion that woman is more animal than man, as it were, is actually quite deprecating toward woman. Not only is it disparaging, but also de Beauvoir’s propositions cannot account for the fact that a substantial amount of women have attained a great deal of individuality and autonomy by having controlling positions in industry, finance, and politics. To argue that a woman like Margaret Thatcher or Condoleezza Rice does not possess a drive for autonomy and individuality is odd, to say the least.

Moreover, de Beauvoir claims that man’s need to personally incarnate the other requires that he enslave woman. This, at a practical level, implies a very bleak outlook for the future. If the advent of sophisticated tools opened up man’s domineering nature to the world, and that nature leads to the enslavement of woman, how is woman to break the centuries-long pattern of oppression? Are woman to somehow change man’s nature so that he can live peacefully with woman? The very meaning of nature is that it is immutable, thus woman would not be able to change man. The only alternative would be for woman to either turn the tables on man, or to decimate every man. But, from de Beauvoir’s perspective that is impossible because woman would not be capable of such a thing on account of her complacency and innate lack of self. Moreover, de Beauvoir admits that such an alternative is bizarre. In effect, de Beauvoir provides only nihilism for woman, which, of course, she answers with her own brand of existentialism, a thoroughly individualistic philosophy not aimed at social change.

On a theoretical level and on its own terms, de Beauvoir’s interpretation of history leaves much unanswered. Indeed, because she posits an ontological framework separate from what she calls the economic monism of historical materialism, she begs many new questions, which Engel’s theory did not, as he hesitated to speculate. De Beauvoir posits that the advent of tools unlocked man’s latent desire to be autonomous, but she does not elucidate why man possessed a hidden drive for autonomy. From where did that desire originate? Are we to believe that it simply exists? In a word, her assertion only functions as an empty conceptual placeholder, as it cannot clarify what accounts for man’s “nature of his being.”

Moreover, de Beauvoir’s theory uncannily resembles the polemical propaganda uttered everyday by the many exponents of inequality, both sophisticated and unlettered. Her concept, even within its historical context, is not original. It can be boiled down, without adulteration, to the platitudes regarding humanity’s wicked nature uttered by every drugstore political scientist and philosopher opposed to progressive change. This is not say that de Beauvoir was a reactionary, but, regardless of her intentions, her logic is retrogressive as it ultimately substitutes real emancipation, a sweeping social undertaking, with the illusory emancipation of atomization, existentialism.

In addition, de Beauvoir’s assertion that man possesses an innate drive to enslave an Other is problematic. Again, she conjures this concept out of thin air. From where does this despotism originate? She provides no answer. And, again, this sort of description of man and humanity is identical to the verbiage of thousands of political obscurantists, vulgar charlatans, and their ignorant victims. But, assuming for the sake of argument that man possesses an impulse to dominate, de Beauvoir’s conception does not answer why man chose to dominate woman in particular. Is it because woman is somehow physically weaker? That does not seem to answer much, for a party’s relative weakness does not imply that the stronger party will seek to dominate the weaker party. In actuality, de Beauvoir’s account of history does not clear up the haze that frustrates her; it simply makes things cloudier.

Finally, de Beauvoir writes that capitalism has equalized the labor capacity of man and woman, thus resolving the contradiction—strong versus weak—that led to the decline of woman. However, she argues that patriarchal customs have kept women from fully realizing this equality. As I wrote above, it is not antiquated customs that have kept woman back, but rather it is the system of production, capitalism, which maintains those backward customs, that shackles woman. As Marx wrote in the preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

Today, the world bears witness to a contradiction between an equalized work capacity between the sexes on account of technology and the vile framework of capitalist patriarchy. This contradiction in order to be resolved requires “an era of social revolution,” not a stunting, alienating cult of self founded on the baseless premise that “hell is other people.”

However, in conclusion, de Beauvoir makes a worthy point: any future venture into comprehensive transformation requires that we should not “be blind to [woman’s] particular situation.” As I see it, one of the tragedies of twentieth century projects of change was that they did not fully integrate women within the ranks of leadership. The list of male leaders is endless (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eugene V. Debs, Che Guevara, etc.) but the list of women is shamefully small. However, women must not be integrated because they offer some inherent, softer qualities that men do not possess, but rather because, in practice and through example, the contradiction between mental labor being of man and drudgery being of woman must be erased.

De Beauvoir’s place as feminist vanguard may be well established, but it appears that the premises upon which her particular philosophy rests are taken for granted. In the end, she is guilty of the same offense of which she purports Engels and Marx are culpable. I am certain she was well aware of this. So, why did she bother to propose this conceptual placeholder, which is far too reminiscent for comfort to reactionary modes of thought?

How using only half our human capital hurts our global economy

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently released a letter stating that investment in women's and girls' education and health is a key means of achieving growth for nations and communities around the world. I wholeheartedly agree. According to at least one report, women's increased participation in the workforce in the last few decades has resulted in more economic growth globally than has China's entire economy. Considering the fact that many women and girls worldwide remain uneducated and do not receive the same opportunities as males with regard to employment or labor, how much more advanced would our global economy be if women and girls were allowed to realize their educational and economic potential?

For instance, women do at least half of the farm work in Africa, but agricultural education in African countries is largely geared toward males. As a result, women's farms are not nearly as productive as those of their male counterparts. By including women in agricultural education programs and providing them with the same kinds of technology provided to many male farmers (such as mobile phones that enable farmers to access weather reports and market prices), the African farming industry can significantly increase its productivity and even achieve food security for Africans by 2030. Last year, the World Bank reported:
[i[f women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%...Gains in agricultural production alone could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.
Moreover, education is considered a basic human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other international treaties. Countries that exclude girls and women from education and the workforce impede the growth of their own economies by allowing only half their labor force to participate in the economy in a meaningful way. The World Bank estimated in a 2012 study that there are at least 31 million girls that are not in school. However, over 25% of economic growth in OECD countries in the last 50 years can be attributed to girls' increased educational attainment.

The World Bank also found that average wage gaps between men and women in the workforce are about 20% worldwide. However, at least one report has shown that females could collectively increase their global income by up to 76% if the wage gap and employment participation gap between males and females were closed. This translates to a global value of $17 trillion.

Moreover, according to evidence from several countries worldwide, women who are in control of household income are more likely to spend that income on ways that benefit children, by spending, for example, on food, health, and education. Further, women who received an education are more than twice as likely to send their children to school compared to mothers who did not receive an education.

It is abundantly apparent that communities and nations worldwide have much to gain from educating their women and girls, and allowing them to participate in employment opportunities. For a further discussion on the denial of women's rights abroad, read this post. For a discussion on how restrictions on female education and employment worldwide predisposes women to violence, read this post.

A marriage of #Dressgate and #Feminism

This past weekend, a South African branch of the Salvation Army released a new domestic violence ad on social media. The image references "the Dress" debate, or "Dressgate" -- a viral photograph meme that arose in late-February 2015.
Attending a wedding of two friends, Caitlin McNeil reposted a photograph of dress belonging to the bride's mother on her Tumblr account. The picture had originally been posted to the wedding couple's (Grace and Keir Johnston of Scotland) Facebook page.

http://swiked.tumblr.com/post/112073818575/guys-please-help-me-is-this-dress-white-and


The dress could not possibly look more blue and black to me, but apparently the vast majority of the online community sees a white dress with gold trimmings. The debate between #blueandblack and #whiteandgold quickly seemed to consume the Internet, with actors, musicians, politicians, and even government agencies weighing on the issue. Eventually, it was confirmed that the Romans Originals dress was -- in fact -- royal blue and black. The gold-and-whiters had perceived the photo as being underexposed, as opposed to overexposed.

The above South African Salvation Army ad (made in partnership with Carehaven, a home for abused women and children) poses a simple question:
Why is it so hard to see black and blue --The only illusion is if you think it was her choice. One in 6 women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women.
The message is superimposed over an image is of a young woman wearing a white-and-gold version of the Dress, her body covered in dark bruises. The subtext appears to be that domestic abuse - in its various forms - has almost become so commonplace that we are blind to it.

Of course, any relationship between an optical illusion and our society's failure to sufficiently confront the issue of violence against women is, at best, extremely tenuous. It's probably nonexistent. Yet, the effectiveness of the ad -- in terms of a large brand creating viral content -- is not disputed. The ad confronts us with a serious challenge: Although we may be excused for failing to see a blue and black dress, what excuses do we have for failing to see the black and blue bruises of domestic violence, however subtle they may be?

However, I'm curious to hear what other people think of the ad. Does the image go to far? Does the reference to a silly meme turn domestic violence into a punchline? Perhaps more importantly - who is the ad aimed at? Is the ad demanding that abusers stop their "abuse against women"? Is it asking society-at-large to support (financially or otherwise) Salvation Army initiatives that help abused women and children?

My suspicion is that the ad is primarily aimed at victims (alternatively, "survivors") of domestic abuse themselves. The Salvation Army has done a lot of great work in the service of abused and/or trafficked women and children over the years, and my guess is that it regularly faces the challenge of trying to help victims who may not want or understand their need for help. Victims may be trying to protect their abusers, deluded into not seeing the abuse, or -- as the ad suggests -- they may interpret the abuse as their fault, and therefore a consequence of their "choice."

In any case, I find the message powerful, and can admire -- especially from a marketing standpoint -- the mildly clever piggy-backing on a popular Internet meme to raise awareness of a more serious issue. Over the past few weeks, the Feminist Legal Theory blog has addressed issues ranging from the misogyny of online "trolls" on social media networks to the growth of "femvertising" as a marketing tool. We've also discussed the potential utility of memes (e.g., Feminist Ryan Gosling) in raising awareness of feminist beliefs through viral content on social media. So although ads such as this Salvation Army one may have its share of critics, I generally see it as very encouraging that despite the cruel and bigoted reactions that are often elicited from similar marketing campaigns, women's advocates are not backing down.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Keep ya head up: Tupac Shakur on women's rights

Despite his untimely death almost two decades ago, Tupac Amaru Shakur remains a universally beloved pop icon. Indeed, to consider him only a popular culture phenomenon is to grossly understate his career’s influence. To put it simply, to a large portion of the world’s population—spanning from this nation’s inner cities, to Latin American slums, to West-African shantytowns, to Parisian ghettos, and beyond—Shakur is not just a rapper, he is a legend, a folk hero. To these masses of people, Shakur represents an unabashed revolutionary spirit, which ultimately culminated in martyrdom.

Primarily, Shakur made this mark by recording music meant to compassionately and passionately shine light upon the social and economic injustices that plague impoverished communities. However, his music did not function only as an exposé. Perhaps more importantly, it served a cathartic purpose. His zealous compositions provided millions of listeners with a vicarious release. Shakur, by poetically and colloquially articulating his socially conscious anger and melancholy, gave listeners a larger-than-life companion and comrade.

Throughout his career as a politically conscious rapper, Shakur broached the often-overlooked matter of gender inequality in indigent communities of color. His impassioned and unprecedented advocacy of single mothers and abused women popularly established Shakur as a hip-hop emblem of the perennial struggle for social justice.

His most famous song concerning women’s rights has to be “Keep Ya Head Up.” It is one of his earlier songs, and one of his most famous songs. In what follows, I would like to critique the song’s lyrics. Time and space will not allow me to write a line-by-line critique, although that would be enjoyable.

“Keep Ya Head Up” has often been called the hip-hop feminist anthem. Throughout the record, Shakur touches upon colorism, basic economic inequality, catcalling, paternal abandonment, and more. In the first verse, Shakur clarifies his stance on various issues pertaining to gender inequality in impoverished communities. The second verse is dedicated to the struggles inextricable from poverty in general. The third verse is an extremely moving depiction of impoverished single motherhood.

The chorus is an interpolation of the Five Stairsteps’ soul classic, “Ooh Child.” It goes: “Ooh, child, things are gonna get easier. Ooh, child, things are gonna get brighter.” In between these lines, the phrase, “keep your head up” is sung in harmony. The uplifting qualities of the song are easily apparent in this segment of the tune. Uplift is worthy, but if it is not paired alongside some sort of plan of action aimed at transforming miserable material conditions, then it may ultimately only serve to pacify.

However, “keep your head up” is not only meant to be an uplifting phrase. It is also Shakur’s way of entreating that marginalized woman, despite the world’s coldness, maintain a sense of pride and love for themselves because, as Shakur would say, they are precious by virtue of being human and because “Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care.”

Shakur starts the song by uttering one of his most famous lines: “Some say, ‘the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’ I say, ‘the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots.’” Here, Shakur takes to task the pervasive notion that fair skinned women by virtue of their fair skin are more attractive than darker skinned women. In particular, Shakur attacks the view that lighter skinned black women are more attractive that darker skinned black women, a view widely held in the black community and the hip-hop community writ large.

Shakur continues by rapping: “You know what makes me unhappy? When brothers make babies and leave a young mother to be a pappy.” On its face, the sentiment is admirable, but I am disappointed that it is not coupled with a remark that explains paternal flight, in this context, as a direct product of crippling and atomizing poverty. Without appropriately fitting paternal abandonment within the overarching narrative of extreme indigence, victims of poverty are erroneously depicted as victimizing free agents.

Later in the first verse, Shakur states that he believes “it’s time we kill for our women, time to heal our women, be real to our women, and if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies that hate the ladies that make the babies.” Again, the sentiment is commendable, but I believe that in employing the possessive “our” Shakur confines his advocacy to a paradigm of patriarchal paternalism. Moreover, by describing ladies as those who “make the babies” Shakur could be seen as reducing women to their reproductive capacities.

But, perhaps I am being too harsh, as Shakur was around 20 when he wrote the song. Considering hip-hop tends to be a hyper-masculine musical genre, the fact that Shakur even thought to record and release this as one of his first singles is really awe-inspiring. And, the fact that this was a hit is unbelievable.

Shakur continues by declaring, “Since a man can’t make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one.” Shakur makes clear his stance on abortion. Nobody should have the right to force a woman to bear a child. It was his capacity to express weighty matters in such simple, rhyming, and fervent couplets that allowed Shakur to reach such a vast and loyal audience.

In my opinion, the final verse’s imagery, more than anything else, is what makes the song so emotionally stirring. A portion that I think is worth quoting goes:

You can't complain you was dealt this
Hell of a hand without a man, feelin’ helpless
Because there's too many things for you to deal with
Dying inside, but outside you're looking fearless
While tears is rollin’ down your cheeks
You steady hopin’ things don't all fall down this week
Cause if it did, you couldn't take it, and don't blame me
I was given this world I didn't make it
And now my son's getting’ older and older and cold
From havin’ the world on his shoulders
While the rich kids is drivin’ Benz
I'm still tryin’ to hold on to survivin’ friends
And it's crazy, it seems it'll never let up, but
Please... you got to keep your head up

Songs like this are not really produced in contemporary hip-hop, much less released for radio play. It makes me wonder what has changed since 1993 that prevents hip-hop artists today from touching upon these subjects. I could write much more on this, and may continue this in a follow-up post.