Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An interesting reason for not voting in elections . . .

Read here a story reporting the comments of Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and now a candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor of California, on why she was not registered to vote until 2002. Here's a quote from Whitman:
I was focused on raising a family, on my husband's career, and we moved many, many times. ... It is no excuse. My voting record, my registration record, is unacceptable.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on military moms

Another item in the New York Times "Women at Arms" series appears in today's paper. Lizette Alvarez's feature story is headlined, "Wartime Soldier, Conflicted Mom." It features poignant vignettes of several military moms and explains that the military has adapted to having women serve in Iraq and Afghanistan with, for example, birth control and gynecological exams now available on bases in war zones. Adapting to the challenge of mothers as soldiers has proven more formidable, in part because of the challenges the women face as mothers.

Alvarez reports that almost half of the women who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are mothers. That's more than 100,000 solider moms. Among them, a third are single mothers, and the overwhelming majority are primary caregivers. Alvarez explains why they join (many of the same reasons men do, duh) and summarizes some of the challenges they face:

The pay is good, particularly in a war zone, the benefits are excellent and the jobs offer financial security and career advancement — all of which is good for their children. Many love their work and feel a sense of pride and patriotism in defending the country. Yet mothers, whether married or single, say that long periods of time away from their children and then the transition back to domestic life — where they are expected to immediately resume household responsibilities — can be excruciatingly difficult.
Not surprisingly, then, the military faces enormous challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining women. Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, an organization that the U.S. Department of Defense supports, observes:
The Army’s challenge, but also the military’s challenge, is to help service members feel they don’t have to choose between family life and their military career. They leave when they can't figure out [how to do both].
I suppose Alvarez explains her focus on "mothers" as soldiers instead of "parents" as soldiers by noting that most of the military mothers are primary care givers. Perhaps we are to assume that most male soldiers are not. Or, maybe Alvarez is just following the U.S. military's lead in terms of how it sees this matter--as one about mothers rather than about parents. In any event, it would be nice to know that the Dept. of Defense is working to address these same issues (e.g., balancing work and family) as they play out for soldier fathers, too.

See other blog posts about this NYT series under the military label.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Science, Social Studies, and Gender Stereotypes: Gender Bias in School Textbooks

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated by a process too complex to be explained by only one factor, but intuitively, school textbooks are powerful tools of socialization. If gender bias does exist in school textbooks, eradicating it probably won’t lead to the complete destruction of gender inequality in this country, but it would be a start.

A paper prepared for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2007 discusses the recent history of gender bias in textbooks across the globe and in the United States. I will focus on the United States in this post not only for the sake of brevity, but also because as American citizens, we can make a more immediate impact locally.


Beginning on page 12, the UNESCO report discusses a 1971 content analysis of thirty of the then newest primary school textbooks adopted or recommended for use in second to sixth grade California schools. The results of the analysis do not paint a pretty picture. 75 percent of the main characters were male, less than 20 percent of the story space of the average book was devoted to the female sex, and only 15 percent of the illustrations were devoted to girls or women. In addition, female characters were not held in a positive light. One book depicted Madame Curie as "a mere helpmate for her husband’s projects, and in the illustration, she is shown peeping over her husband’s shoulder while he engages a male colleague in serious dialogue.”


The UNESCO report concludes that, thanks in large part to the feminist movement and the passage of Title IX, the intensity of gender bias is in fact diminishing, in that the most egregious and blatant examples of sexism seem to have disappeared or been muted. But, recent content analyses of textbooks that measure the proportion of materials involving women and girls have found only modest rates of improvement. Across the educational spectrum, American textbooks still focus on females less than males.


So today, girls no longer have to endure textbooks informing them that “…men will have to know about nuclear power. And girls will be needed to work as stewardesses on the giant submarines.” (page 14 of the UNESCO report) Yet bias still remains, and I have to admit I am somewhat surprised by that. Although I disagree with Kingsley R. Browne, it is at least arguable that the “glass ceiling” persists because women do not make the same kinds of human-capital investments and occupational choices as men, and the reason they do not is because of biological differences in personality and temperament. But when it comes to textbooks, what justification for gender disparity could there be? Textbooks are not the product of biological evolution, socialization, or any interplay between the two, at least not directly. Textbooks are adopted through democratic processes. In California, elected officials and appointed members of the public are responsible for the development of the curriculum. As constituents, we can exert pressure on our elected officials not to adopt textbooks that are unfairly geared more toward boys. This seems like a worthy and attainable goal. Who wouldn’t want to make school a textbooks gender equal? It seems so straightforward- we should pressure publishers to develop materials that represent females as often as males, depict each sex engaging in a wide range of activities, and show that each sex can possess a broad spectrum of traits and abilities. Regardless of what may or not be true about the nature component of our behavior, shouldn’t the nurture component stress equality?


Unfortunately, eliminating gender discrimination in school textbooks will not be easy simply because textbook adoption is government controlled. Although curriculum development is currently handled at the state level, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty proposing, among many other things, the elimination of gender stereotypes in school textbooks. 185 nations have ratified the treaty, but the United States is not one of them. At least one prominent critic of the CEDAW does not appear to be fighting fairly, describing the feminist model (and the CEDAW following that model) thusly: “break up the family, force women into the workforce, and send kids to daycare.” Such dishonest representations are tough to combat. And if we can't join nearly every other country on Earth in a treaty to eliminate gender bias, maybe there is little hope for success in a state by state effort. But if we can’t eliminate gender inequality in a domain where the public has a fair amount political sway, what chance do we have in eliminating it in other contexts, like the marketplace? Pardon the cliché, but we have to draw the line somewhere.


Ultimately, with this blogpost, I am trying to argue that school textbooks are still an important battleground. Maybe Amy no longer has to be the stewardess while Jake gets to be the captain, but why should Jake still be the star of the show?

Gender sells.

I use Yahoo! as my homepage, personal email server, and RSS reader (through MyYahoo!), so I view the main page every day--usually several times a day. I'm not the only one--as of May 2009, it was the second-most visited web page in the world.

I love the convenience having everything in one place, but lately I've been thinking about pulling up stakes. Why? Because earlier this year, the web company introduced a new subdomain specifically aimed at women--Yahoo! Shine--and began to incorporate feature stories from the new site into its home page's newsfeed.

One look at Shine's navigation bar tells you what it's all about. Managing your life. Fashion and beauty. Healthy living. Parenting. Love and sex. Food. Astrology. These are the things Yahoo! supposes women are interested in. Of course there's no mention of politics, current events, or science on this page. Nor is there any content relating to issues of genuine concern to women specifically, such as domestic violence, rape, birth control, or the wage gap. Instead, we have articles like "Can being single trigger an anxiety disorder?" "Is it ever okay to go braless?" "How to give a great hand massage" and "What men want: women who dress up when they're out." "Healthy living" is about weight loss and dieting, and "love and sex" is about how to find, please, and keep a man--or how to survive being without one without becoming a mess of neurosis and depression! The dating articles focus on stereotypical male and female roles, discussing why men have so much trouble communicating and what women are doing wrong in their relationships. (Being too emotional or "high maintenance"--because there's nothing worse than a woman who makes too many demands--is a commonly emphasized mistake, naturally.)

As noted by the L'Atelier article on Shine's debut linked above, this website is advertiser-driven, not informational. Like most advertising aimed at women, its very design is to promote gender-based anxiety and insecurity towards the goal of getting women to buy products that will supposedly make them thinner, prettier, more attractive to men, and better at "managing their lives." The underlying message is that none of us are quite good enough as we are or worthwhile at all without male attention. This incredibly sexist, heterosexist, superficial pablum is funneled into my consciousness every day through Yahoo's "news" page--and as offensive as it is to my feminist sensibilities, as completely alien as it is to my priorities and interests, I sometimes find myself pulled into its toxic world.

That pull is something we've touched on repeatedly in our feminist legal theory class. Some of us have expressed frustration and anger at times approaching despair at how difficult it is to escape the traditional sex roles that we have internalized. All one has to do is look at this website--or the women's magazines by the grocery store checkout stand, the portrayals of fictional women in movies and television, and the commercials that show mothers cleaning up after children and husband to produce a shining, spotless home--to witness the reason why those roles are so etched upon our sense of ourselves as women, even as we consciously try to buck them. These messages about femaleness and femininity are reinforced everywhere. Pretty is powerful. Skinny is healthy. Marriage is happiness. Motherhood is fulfillment. You have to live under the proverbial rock to avoid them.

Men don't escape their own version of this indoctrination, either. To make an example of Yahoo! once again, links to "Men's Health Magazine," a media outlet devoted to traditional and stereotypical masculinity, also appear on the website's front page from time to time (although the company has not seen fit to make a site just for men, another instance of the "men as default" theory of gender.) Here we have articles on "The Shortcut to Her Bedroom," "Your Plan for More Sex," "Nine Ways to Protect Your Manhood," and "Best Tasting Guy Food," reinforcing the ideas that masculinity is sex-focused and sex-hungry, that coercive sexual techniques are socially acceptable, that "manhood" is always being threatened, and that there is such a thing as "guy food" as opposed to "girl food." As with the very idea that "men's health" and "women's health" are such very different things, this last seems to me a particularly ridiculous concept, as if men and women are two entirely different species. Must everything be gendered? Isn't this all a transparent ruse to persuade heterosexual couples to buy two of everything--his-and-hers lunch meat, pink and blue painkillers--with an eye to making twice the revenue?

It's interesting to me that so much of this messaging is perpetuated by advertising, chiefly by the incredibly lucrative diet and cosmetic industries. In this day and age, women have the financial agency and power of contract once denied us by the law of Blackstone--and yet that power is still exploited and subverted by the spirit of Blackstone. In today's consumerist world, sexism sells. Traditional gender roles are used to fuel the market for products that none of us really need, and which may actually be poisoning us. I'm left wondering whether a less consumerist culture would be a less gendered one. Likewise, would a less gendered culture produce a different kind of economy? Is this glut of gendered marketing just a reflection of a culture of oppression or a central culprit in its perpetuation? Is there a real economic advantage inherent in enforcing strict gender roles, or is it possible to conceive of a working capitalist model that does not depend so heavily upon damage to its participants' self-esteem and personhood? And how do we fight these pervasive gender stereotypes when powerful media providers such as Yahoo! have such a significant financial interest in maintaining the status quo?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Third Wave Feminists Under Scrutiny

After attending a luncheon today, where “Third Wave Feminists go to Law School” was the topic of conversation, I started to feel a little like a science experiment. (For a brief look at the differences between the waves, click here) Us “third wave feminists” are being watched, and some second wavers are none to shy about expressing their concerns over our sure failure. This is an old debate, see this article from 2002.

In my naiveté, I wanted to believe that everything was “alright”. A lot of us bank on the idea of fairness, of a just world, where things are as they should be. I was under the impression that women were happy, and if not happy, at least hopeful, about passing the torch onto new generations of feminists. Apparently apprehensive is a more accurate descriptor than hopeful, which leads me to this question: What is so scary about third wave feminism?

One critique: The 3rd wave’s emphasis on the individual is akin to a marketing tool, weakening the goals of feminism by dispelling common goals and making the movement susceptible to consumerism. Heather Tirado Gilligan writes in her critique of the third wave:

The passé problem is particularly evident in the third wave's output, as it seeks to truss up feminism as desirable and sell it to women in their thirties and younger by defanging the political edge of the movement, essentially making feminism marketable. Mainstream feminists organizations are also guilty of trussing up feminism for a new age. The Feminist Majority's "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" ad campaign is a key example of this rebranding: feminists are a pretty, multicultural bunch of men and women who just happen to love equal rights.

Palatable, true, but this everyperson definition of feminism is so broad as to be meaningless—what action is expected of women as a result of calling themselves a feminist?

Another concern: The individualist attitude of the third wave may not be as apt as the activist approach of the second waive at tackling the problems facing women. Here is another quote from a Women’s eNews article, quoting novelist Mary French:

Comparing the collectivist drive that defined the feminist movement during the second wave to the more individualist attitude prevailing among women today, several panelists said they were concerned about the future of the movement.

"If there should be an economic downturn or right-wing forces try to twist things to say women should go home again, I hope that women would have the consciousness to resist"

Perhaps instead of questioning the future of feminism in the hands of third wavers, or doubting the authenticity of the movement, we should be inquiring as to what unique solutions this current wave can bring.

One of the main critiques of the first two feminist waves was that their ideas were based on the experiences of the privileged, and really only applied to heteronormative individuals. Maybe the 3rd wave's individualistic approach based on agency, anecdote, and successes is the best way to finally break these barriers. Perhaps the third wave's desire to acknowledge individual stories along with the realities of widespread victimization, is a more inclusive and flexible approach than the activist system of the past.

“I don’t see a female. I see a soldier”

Last Tuesday, Sergeant Major Theresa L. King became the first female commandant of a drill sergeant school. In a New York Times story, Sergeant King said, “When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a female. I see a soldier.”

Still Seeing a “Female,” not a “Soldier”

Unfortunately, Sergeant King’s comrades do not share her de-gendered perception of soldiers. Sergeant Sarah Scully writes, “In the Army, any sign that you are a woman means you are automatically ridiculed and treated as inferior. The perceived inferiority of female soldiers makes women targets of sexual violence.

Last July, a Congresswoman Jane Harman reported that “Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq. According to recent studies, 41% of female soldiers have been sexual assaulted and 29% have been raped while serving in the armed forces. In most of these cases, rapists target younger, or lower-ranking women. As a result, 90% of rape victims in the Army are junior-ranking women.

“Blatant Sexism and Misogyny”

Female veterans attribute the epidemic of sexual violence to “blatant sexism and misogyny” in the military.

A female sergeant suggested that some misogynistic cadences (marching songs) are “crafted to engender men’s rage at women. For example, at the Naval Academy, recruits used to sing, “Who can take a chainsaw/Cut the bitch in two/Fuck the bottom half/And give the upper half to you. To see more examples of military cadences, click here.

A female Army Specialist complained that a fellow soldier described female soldiers as “eye candy” sent over to “keep the guys sane.” This soldier explained that the female soldier’s role in Iraq was analogous to the prostitute’s role in Vietnam. Read her story here.

Columnist, Helen Benedict points out that “civilian women have been seen as sexual booty for conquering soldiers since the beginning of human history. So, it should come as no surprise that the sexual persecution of female soldiers has been going on in the armed forces for decades.” To read Benedict’s column, click here.

Inadequate Legal Recourse?

Even though the Uniform Code of Military Justice criminalizes rape, “there is anecdotal evidence of some continuing failure to enforce those laws. To read the stories about female soldiers who were penalized for reporting rapes, click here.

Statistical evidence paints a similarly dark picture. One year, 2,212 female soldiers reported sexual assaults. The military referred 181 of these reports to court martial. The military took “unspecified action” in another 419 reports, which included “anything from punishment to dismissal.” It is not clear what the military did with the other 1,613 reports of sexual assault, nor is it clear how many incidences of sexual assault were not reported at all. To see more statistics, click here.

Looking Forward

The military must provide legal recourse for victims of sexual assault. In 2005, the Pentagon reformed the military’s procedures for reporting sexual assaults. Next, the Pentagon needs to reform procedures for investigating reports and enforcing rape laws. Currently, Congresswoman Harman is working to pass a bipartisan bill to “halt rape and sexual assault in the military.” To read more about Harman's bill, click here.

But legal reform will take time. For now, promoting Sergeant King to commandant of a drill sergeant school is a step in the right direction. Sergeant King’s promotion debunks the misogynistic notion that female soldiers are “eye candy” or “sexual prey.” After all, it would be hard to view a woman as your inferior when she’s ordering you to “Drop and give her 20!” A female boot in a male recruit’s neck could do more to cure the epidemic of military misogyny than a decade of legal reforms. Hoorah!

Gender Based Violence: A Paradigmatic Shift

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference on Asylum and Gender Based Violence at UC Hastings. Hastings is home to the Center for Refugee and Gender Studies, which was a co-sponsor of the event. Paradigmatically and thematically, the conference was expansive both in my own legal work in the UC Davis Immigration Clinic and in reference to our class. The theme of the conference was the “duty to protect and heal” and much of the conference dealt with the larger questions of: how do we protect and prevent violence against women when this violence is often done by non-state actors in the dark of their own homes. How also, I would argue, do we then allow women to heal and seek refuge from this violence when gender is not a category of relief for those seeking asylum. Claims on gender based violence can now come into the courts as “members of a particular social group,” but I question how we can actually protect and prevent violence when gender is not even a cognizable form of relief.

Both the personal and institutional power that folks (I use folks because I also include transwomen and gender non conforming people in this group) seeking asylum relief based on gender based violence have to face is enormous. The story of Fauziya Kasinga is one such example. Raised by culturally liberal parents in Togo, West Africa, Kasinga escaped Togo after her father died and her relatives had arranged for her to enter into marriage. Kasinga’s father did not believe in genital cutting, but her relatives did, and so a day or two before her wedding, her mother and sister said they needed to run an errand with her and instead took Kasinga by taxi to the airport where she boarded a plane to Germany with nothing except the clothes she was wearing. The extraordinary legal struggle that ensued (hers was the first case of a woman seeking asylum in the United States to be granted based on gender) illustrates the immense personal struggle that people seeking asylum face, and also highlights the deconstruction of power that must take place if individual women are to succeed on these claims.

Considering that asylum, as a verified form of relief, is relatively uncommon (and does not even apply to gender based violence committed against United States citizens), the serious and almost styming question remains: how can we as feminists and change agents begin the paradigmatic work of protecting each other and dismantling power? How can womens’ bodies become proactive axis of strength instead of a forum in which power is acted upon them? The speakers at the conference suggested that we turn to civil society. The US government and governments in many countries are seemingly unwilling to tackle this issue on both a thematic and a legal sense, and so it is up to us. How do we shift the issue of gender based violence from dark to light, to release ideas of shame and duty and responsibility from the victims of this violence and allow people to actually heal?

The Real Body as Radical


Plucking, dissolving, pulling, sugaring, threading, shaving, epilating, depilating, waxing, laser-ing, zapping, dyeing, trimming, bleaching--

Sound familiar? Does it make your skin crawl? Of course it does. If you are like most American women, you have been subjecting yourself to irrational pain as the seemingly nominal cost of beauty. The pressure to remove body hair is an omnipresent phenomenon in America, and these days neither gender is immune from attack. Last year, the shaving and hair removal industry made $1.8 billion dollars. Cleverly using ad campaigns marketed at both men & women, the hair removal industry wants to believe that the American public can be convinced to shave just about anything. We have to be attractive, right?

Exposing Hair Discourse

Hair removal has been a prevalent practice in many cultures over time, yet there is very little explanation for the American beauty norm of feminine hairlessness. Ultimately, we tend to collectively blame the fashion industry (short skirts & bare legs of the '20s), technology (invention of the disposable razor & nylons), popular media (pornography & celebrities), the male gaze (beauty defined by men), and the hair removal industry itself (lasers & fancy razors) for compelling women en masse to remove most body hair.

America's body hair ideals support the pervasive idea that women's bodies in particular are unacceptable unless they conform to the gender norm of hairlessness as feminine. Though hair on a woman's body is a sign of sexual maturity, the feminine norm that has evolved requires women to appear pre-pubescent, as this 1980s commercial very precisely conveys:


We culturally accept a gender binary where body hair on women is "gross" and "manly." In contrast, body hair on men's bodies is acceptable as the demarcation of virility and masculinity, and shifting norms for men (i.e. "the metrosexual") are arguably not as closely monitored or criticized.

Ad campaigns have a field day with portraying body hair on women as animal-like and offensive, particularly a recent campaign portraying women with body hair as gorillas. The ensuing debate on a popular magazine website offers a sampling of common public perceptions on hair removal. For example, many women refer to being “fortunate” if they have lighter hair, feeling “sexy” when they have hairless legs, or accepting that their male partners “prefer” them to be entirely hairless.

A radical feminine body is one that has all of its natural hair intact. When it comes to hair, women have no problem judging one another. We even scrutinize and chastise celebrities for "keeping" facial, underarm and leg hair. Adherence to this beauty norm is protocol, rather than choice. We are in dangerous territory when a photographer's work chronicling women with facial hair is radical subject matter, and a "woman with a beard" is a full-on news story. We continue to normalize the notion that meticulous preparation and alteration is an unquestionable requirement before women can expose their bodies in public: A woman's body is a body that needs work. The feminine body, in its unaltered state, is unacceptable.

The Cost of The Hairless Feminine Body: Appearance Discrimination?

By normalizing the work and cost of body hair maintenance as inherent to femininity, we are quietly waging a war in the workplace that puts women on unequal footing. Our society places great weight on appearance, and employers are largely free to discriminate on the basis of appearance with seemingly no consequence. According to feminist legal theorist Deborah Rhode, the impact of appearance discrimination in the workplace needs more discussion in order to "expose the price we pay for undue emphasis on appearance."

Being well-groomed is an element of attractiveness, and in the workplace attractiveness is disproportionately rewarded by promotions, higher pay, and job security. Rhode argues that bias based on appearance is for the most part lawful in the United States, and the egregious lack of a legal remedy for discrimination based on appearance demands closer scrutiny. When individuals are fired from jobs or being discriminated at work because they are overweight or not groomed according to societal standards, what protection do they have?

In considering appearance discrimination, to what extent does our acceptance of body hair norms complicate the treatment of women in the workplace? Can hair removal be considered a viable "grooming" standard for women without violating antidiscrimination laws? With the exception of a 1994 case where a hotel employee claimed she was fired because her employer did not approve of the dark hair above her upper lip, case law on women and body hair is scarce. This is likely because the burden of proof for appearance discrimination is high: how can you prove that an employer fired you because you are unattractive or unfeminine?

Currently, grooming codes are permissible as long as they involve no immutable characteristics, no fundamental rights, and no greater burden for one sex than the other. If courts have found that putting on makeup is not considered an undue burden to a female employee because it does not discriminate against her on basis of immutable characteristics of her sex, then is it possible for courts to find that hair removal (i.e. facial, underarm, and leg) in workplace grooming policies are similarly permissible? Already, we accept dress codes requiring skirts and/or hosiery as not being problematic, so where do we draw the line when it comes to our perceptions of feminine beauty burdens and how those translate into legal constructs of femininity?

Radical Acts At Home

When I was an undergraduate, I would shave the hair on my head to demystify feminine norms. Somewhat of a reversal has happened after becoming a mother to a young daughter. I had no reasonable answer for my daughter when she asked why I shaved the hairs on my legs, underarms, or tweezed my facial hairs. Let's not even talk about what a fool I looked like when she walked in on me bleaching the hair on my upper lip. Not thinking too deeply about it, I tried to explain to her that some women make the "choice" to "take away" hairs sometimes.

One day when my daughter was three-years-old, she was worried about the hairs on her legs, and I told her that every hair on her body is beautiful. The next time she saw me in the shower with a razor, she impulsively exclaimed, "Mommy don't take away your hairs, they're beautiful!" I realized that I had never conceptualized my own body hair as beautiful. In fact, I had spent so much of my post-adolescent life deftly removing my hairs that I had never even seen my body with all of its hairs--unaltered.

For the past year, my husband has supported my new vow to cease from cutting, shaving, plucking or bleaching any of my body hairs. My daughter, now five-years-old, has no memory of my body being any different. I am oddly satisfied to know that she thinks of my ever-present jet-black body hair as entirely normal and feminine. What began as a semi-political experiment transcended into a newly realized sense of self (although, I confess I still tweeze by eyebrows when my daughter is not around, as I am by no means perfect in my vigilance to remain unscathed by beauty norms).

As I traipsed around town with my family, confidently with all of my body hair intact while wearing sleeveless dresses, short skirts, and shorts -- there was no public outcry, no chastisement, no burning at the stake. I have been fascinated to notice that nearly every woman I pass by has clean-shaven legs and underarms, from the very young to the very old. What I find the most moving, however, is that no one has criticized or questioned my "natural" appearance (except for my mother, of course) -- leaving me still without an answer to tell my daughter the reason why women have to "take away their beautiful hairs."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Cute-sifying" Sexual Assault

A friend at an East Coast law school alerted me to a recent string of sexual assaults around the DC area, allegedly perpetrated by the “Georgetown Cuddler”. The man enters a woman’s apartment, lays on top of her to prevent her from moving, and physically assaults her until she wakes up and screams, at which point he flees the scene.

Sexual assault on college campuses is still shocking for me, no matter how many times I hear the staggering statistics. In this situation, however, my horror came from the nickname – “cuddler?!” I asked her? The Washington, DC police apparently agreed, stating in response to the nickname "You cuddle someone you love," said D.C. police Cmdr. Matt Klein. "We're looking for a criminal."

Still floored by the “nickname”, I did a little more digging. Apparently this phenomenon is not exclusive to the Washington, DC area. Chatter surrounding the “Piedmont poker” circulated the Berkeley campus last year; Wellesley students were relieved when authorities finally caught their resident “campus flasher”; and students at the University of Connecticut are advised against walking “the rape trail” alone. Even in my hometown of Omaha, the local news cleverly dubbed a serial rapist the "midtown molester".

In one respect, these nicknames ease our fears. They allow us humor as an outlet for coping with threats to our own safety. This is not an unusual mechanism for accidents or random scenarios that are out of our control. On the other hand, it is no secret that sexual assault victims are disproportionately female, while assailants are almost exclusively male. By turning these horrible, traumatic acts into a joke, the women who survive them are further blamed and belittled. Not only were they probably already accused of wearing too little, drinking too much, or bringing it on themselves with general negligence, but after all that they only got “poked” and “cuddled”. What’s the big deal?

I am further disturbed in researching these cutesy nicknames to find that many of these jokes are being further perpetuated by some groups that seem pretty exclusively male. When a user of this bodybuilding forum asked (neutrally) for someone to explain what the UConn “rape trail” is, other users responded with laments and (hopefully) “jokes” like “the best we have at WVU is the rape courtyard” and “we have rape fields...I'm jealous of you alls [sic] rape trail”. These are not the comforting kinds of jokes we make when our plane hits patchy turbulence or our power goes out in a storm so that everyone can have a nervous laugh. These are hateful statements that degrade and diminish the traumatizing experience of sexual assault.

Rape jokes are not appropriate. Trivializing violence against women is absolutely unacceptable. How, then, do these mischaracterization of serious (and often serial) incidents of violence and assault make their way into our national consciousness? How damaging can this be? If extensive, how can we combat it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Want to succeed in the Army? Be masculine, but not too masculine.

I was struck by the bizarre way the New York Times article reported on Sgt. Major Teresa L. King's success.  It seemed to be grasping for justification, as if no ordinary woman could ever achieve this high honor in the military.  The article ends up portraying Sgt. Major King as a sort of freakish amalgam of male/female, and doesn't do a lot to congratulate her on her well-earned promotion.  

There was a lot of focus on Sgt. Major King's distinctly 'male' traits; as a child she preferred tractors and basketball to cooking lessons, and volunteered to take spankings in the place of siblings who were in trouble; she is "gruff" and "imposing"; a drill sergeant at heart.  On the other hand, the article is compelled to explain that Sgt. Major King is still a women; showing tenderness and calling soldiers "her children"; "soul-searching" after a failed marriage and a pregnancy that ended in tragedy; and in one instance, hugging another soldier who needed comforting.  The article points out that she is "confident, no nonsense" but also "compassionate".  In short, Sgt. Major King is manly, but not too manly.

My favorite theme in the article was the feminisation of a distinctly military trait.  Even though tidiness is ubiquitous in the male dominated Army, Sgt. Major King's ability to spot a "cigarette butt under the mattress" or a trash bag out of place doesn't sound like a soldier's strict adherence to rules.  It sounds like mommy went off to the Army and somehow became a commanding officer.   

The bottom line is that Sgt. Major King could not have become a high ranking officer without assuming a masculine stereotype.  The military is still a hostile place for women (as the previous post aptly points out), and Sgt. Major King reads like a man on paper.  But acing every training test and driving a black corvette still isn't enough to send her into combat, a fact that Sgt. Major King says is one of her regrets after 29 years in the Army.  How demoralizing to be in charge of training men to do something the Army still thinks you're not capable of. 

I'm not exactly sure why this article struck me as so condescending.  Maybe because it would have read so differently if it was a man appointed as the Army's top drill sergeant.  Or the fact that it wouldn't have made the news at all.  


Monday, September 21, 2009

The downsides of feminism's fruits? (or--why paid work and children are not all they're cracked up to be?)

Maureen Dowd's very popular column in yesterday's New York Times, "Blue is the New Black," discusses recent data about women's happiness relative to men's. Here's an excerpt that seeks to sum up why men have gotten happier over the decades, while women have become less happy. (African American women are a notable exception--they've gotten happier in the past several decades, but are still not as happy as African American men):
When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.
So, it seems, the breaching of the public-private divide has not served women well. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that getting for women what only men previously had has not been an unmitigated success.

Neither, it seems, are children. Dowd's column is based largely on the work of Marcus Buckingham, a former Gallup researcher, who found that children diminish rather than enhance women's happiness. This surprises me because of U of Michigan law alumni data that suggest the happiest female alums are the ones who are juggling work and family.

Dowd continues with a theme that is near and dear to my own heart (and mind) of late--aging.

Another daunting thing: America is more youth and looks obsessed than ever, with an array of expensive cosmetic procedures that allow women to be their own Frankenstein Barbies.

Men can age in an attractive way while women are expected to replicate — and Restylane — their 20s into their 60s.

She writes from a decidedly hetereo-normative perspective on another problem facing aging women:
Men also tend to fare better romantically as time wears on. There are more widows than widowers, and men have an easier time getting younger mates.
Read an earlier post related to happiness, marriage, and children here. Read an earlier post about the gender double standard regarding aging and appearance here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Professional women as "collateral damage" of the recession

Steven Greenhouse reports in today's New York Times under the headline, "Recession Drives Women Back to the Work Force." Many of the women featured in his story are lawyers, and Joan Williams of Hastings College of Law and the Center for WorkLife Law comments:
What’s happened is 78 percent of the people who lost their jobs in the recession are men. ... That has brought home to many families that having one income places you in a very vulnerable position. Some women who expected to take a long time out of the work force suddenly felt they needed to re-enter, in some cases much more quickly than they expected.
One commenter calls these women "collateral damage" of the recession in that it did not force them out of the work place, but rather back into it.

Here's a quote from Greenhouse's report that provides additional context:

In the last several years, some researchers have suggested that many affluent working mothers chose to leave the work force during the boom times of the 90’s and early this decade, saying there was a trend of women opting out of careers once they had children. The suggestion — highlighted in an Oct. 26, 2003 New York Times Magazine cover article — prompted a huge controversy.

Critics responded that most women had no choice but to work and that only a small affluent minority could chose not to. They said many working mothers left the labor force not because they were opting to, but because they were forced to by workplaces that made it too difficult to balance family and work.
If that's the case, I doubt the recession has made the work place any less forgiving or easy for women who may still be juggling care-giving responsibilities. Indeed, I bet workers--whether men or women--are under increased pressure to be what Joan Williams has called the "ideal worker."

A Feminist New Year


Last night was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a time for contemplation, renewal, and forgiveness. My love for the holiday is more associated with the food and tradition than the religious aspects. Although I grew up in a “Conservadox” (combination Conservative and Orthodox) household, I am more connected to my Judaism through my culture than religious practices.

I woke up early yesterday morning and began preparing the traditional Rosh Hashanah sweet challah. Every few years the holiday coincides with Shabbat, making for a highly caloric, delicious meal. I follow every measurement of my mother’s challah recipe, which I had her type up for me when I left for college. My mother’s challah is still the envy of every Jewish mother in my synagogue. Even if my mother gave someone the recipe, theirs always mysteriously turned out wrong. I, on the other hand, have less trouble with it. I grew up helping my mother make the challah every Friday.

As I began the ritual of making the bread, I called my mother to confirm the amount of honey needed (on every other Shabbat challah is made without honey). She had already made her dough, and I could sense her happiness in passing on her tradition.

My household growing up was rather traditional. After my parents got home from work, my father would read for pleasure or study Torah, and my mother did everything else. I always resented that he didn’t help out more when I was spending hours cooking and cleaning on Friday afternoons before sundown. On the other hand, this time spent with my mother and sisters include some of the most memorable moments of my childhood.

As a feminist, I struggle with critiquing my immense pleasure in the Jewish practices that are relegated to women. The songs I know best, the chores I was responsible for, and the food I make for the holidays are all traditionally consigned to women, and most of them celebrate domesticity. I embrace these traditions as my own, but I am conscious that it was Jewish men who originally forced women into these roles. See http://www.jewfaq.org/women.htm for an overview of the traditional role of women in Judaism.

Traditions used to be insular, passed on from generation to generation. With the advent of the Internet, Jewish women now share recipes from around the world. See, for example, the newest post today on “Jewess With Attitude.” Some Jewish women even form groups to teach one another their recipes. In Pinellas County, Florida (my hometown) Young Israel Chabad women's group had an event for about 20 women called, "Everything Honey for 5770" (5770 is this year in the Hebrew calendar).

Cooking is very much a part of Jewish women’s culture. Whereas cooking can be seen as a way to domesticate women, conversations about recipes have enabled some women to connect outside of the home and form a culture of their own. The ability to share this experience with other Jewish women can sometimes overshadow the underpinnings of patriarchy that created our roles.

I continue to challenge the heteronormative roles to which I have been subjected, but it can still be feminist to enjoy one’s own traditions. As long as I understand that there is no monolithic Jewish woman’s experience and that rituals should be critiqued for their covert sexism, I am content with celebrating the New Year and making my challah.

Friday, September 18, 2009

pink toys-- eww, say boys

Our discussion today of children’s reactions to gendered toys interested me. We had discussed the color pink, the messages it sends little girls when we buy pink toys and clothing and bicycles for them, and toys in general. We discussed a little girl playing with Legos, which are often considered a boy’s toy, and we discussed a little boy playing with dolls and other feminine-gender associated toys. We discussed our own personal experiences with toys, and pink, and whether we had gendered reactions to the toys and clothes we played with and wore.

My own personal experience, as I mentioned in class, was that I was raised with toys traditionally gendered for girls, for boys and neutral gendered toys like stuffed animals. The way I played with the toys, however, betrays my own culture of care and interpersonal relationships: cars did not go “vroom”, they went “hello Barbie, how are you today?” I anthropomorphized not only my stuffed animals but my trucks, my miniature airplanes and even lego creations. Was this a “girly” reaction? Maybe it was, although it should be noted that I never once played with baby dolls pretending to be the mother.

So how do children in general react to and play with toys? I found two interesting and scholarly articles that dealt with the subject to a certain extent. First, I found an article detailing reactions of children to a commercial for a gender-neutral novel toy. The girls and boys who saw the commercial showing the same gender playing with the toy wanted to play with it more. The girls and boys who saw the opposite gender playing with it didn’t find it so appealing. A third category of children simply liked playing with the toy once they saw it on tv. This category was of children who were not yet gender conscious: children who answered poorly to questions about gender (e.g. “is that a man or a woman?” or “when you grow up, will you be a mommy or a daddy?”). Another article, similar to the first but without a commercial, details boys’ and girls’ reactions to toys they are told are “for girls” or “for boys”. Not only did they want to play with the toys they are told are for them, but when they found a toy they themselves liked well, they reasoned that others of the same gender would like it too and others of the opposite sex would not.

The end results of the articles? Children have notions of gender at very early ages: from preschool or at the latest, kindergarten or first grade. They also have strong feelings of difference from the opposite gender, even to the point of assuming that if they like a toy, that a member of the opposite sex would not like that same toy. They are heavily influenced by what they see other children doing, and identify with those of the same sex much more than the opposite. Thus, what we tell children and what they see in real life and television both needs to be very gender neutral if we want to show them that the world is their oyster and they need not be identical to every other child of the same sex.

After all that, I want to spend a second on pink. Pink has been a gendered color since when? I don’t know. But today it is associated with women, for better and for worse. For worse: it is a stereotype of the girly girl who is weak and intellectually stagnated. For better: it is Reese Witherspoon’s color as she aces the LSATs in “Legally Blonde” and goes on to work for a senator after law school. Can we take back the color not just in the fight for breast cancer but as a symbol of universal solidarity between women? Or is pink relegated always to Barbie’s color and unattainable ridiculous standards of beauty? I’m hoping for the former. But it seems like a question of balance to me, that just as I was raised with Barbie in her pink Corvette and He-Man too, I hope that we can raise our children exposed to every facet of society, not just the pink parts, and not just the non-pink parts as well.