Thursday, September 30, 2010

One step forward for Canadian sex workers, two steps back for their US peers

Two important legal transitions have occurred lately in the realm of sex worker rights in the US and Canada. In Ontario this week, a judge issued a ruling that essentially decriminalized the acts that made prostitution illegal. This same month, court battles in the United States over Craigslist's Erotic Services internet site lead the site provider to remove the controversial sex worker utilized section and replace it with the word "censored". While Canada seemed to move forward in line with other progressing Western attitudes regarding the attitudes towards criminalizing sex work, it appears the United States digresses to again attempting to control individual's rights of the use of their bodies.

The issue of sex work is a deeply moral issue. Sex is complicated and eternally wrapped up in morality and personal value systems. The power of sex has translated into intense morality debates around the profession of sex work. The judge in Canada clearly began to distinguish morality from legal responsibility while considering this case, as she was quoted in the
National Post as saying,

It is important to state at the outset what this case
is not about: The court has not been called upon to decide whether or not there
is a constitutional right to sell sex or to decide which policy model regarding
prostitution is better,” Judge Himel said. “Rather, it is the court’s task to
decide the merits of this particular legal challenge, which is whether certain
provisions of the Criminal Code are in violation of the Charter.

She did find that the Charter violated rights of citizen sex workers, specifically the section of the Criminal Code that she found
force[d] prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to
security of the person
Judge Himel considered other nation's laws regarding the criminalization of sex work, and in line with the trend of legal progression in industrialized nations like the Netherlands and New Zealand, chose to force the hand of change for sex work politics in Canada.
Sex workers in the United States were not so lucky as to experience the validation of social progress this month. In the midst of a continuing legal battle over a section of adult ads on Craigslist, the internet site provider pulled the section off the web. This section of ads was frequented by adult service providers, many of whom now must find new and possibly riskier ways of advertising their services.
Losing access to the private and generally safe(for the sex work profession) venue of Craigslist is a strong blow to the dignity and safety of sex professionals. Melissa Petro, who briefly used Craigslist for sexual business transactions, wrote about her experience in the Huffington Post and offers that the closing of this site harms sex workers more than it protects them.
The simple fact is that people do have sex for money--many different kinds of people for many different reasons, people as varied as those looking to buy concert tickets, sell a collectible or adopt a pet--and these people will continue to. Whether the choice to do so is being dignified and protected with its own forum..
remains up to Craigslist to decide amidst deep legal and moral controversy.
In general, most countries that have decriminalized the sex trade have seen an increase in safety in the profession despite certain morality argument of the contrary that decriminalized prostitution will lead to rampant disease and moral disintegration. I hope Craigslist has the strength to be the new standard setter in the United States. If Craigslist will uncensor the adult ad section, it will be taking a progressive step in legal evolution mirroring other growing and legally improving ideologies. Maybe the court system in the United States won't turn out to be ready for such change and growth as the Canadian court system was but Craigslist certainly is in a position to encourage the leap of change.

There's A Place...

"There's a place in Hell reserved for women who don't help other women." - Madeleine Albright

Last night, I was able to see Madeleine Albright at the Mondavi Center. One of the questions asked at the end of the discussion section was how Albright felt about this quote and thoughts she had upon it. Her answer: Well it's true.

She found that in the context of diplomacy, women are under-represented but not limited in their position. The most interesting aspect of this experience she stated as the first woman Secretary of State in the United States was that she never felt any less respected because of her status as a woman by other nations - specifically conservative nations like Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Rather she said, it was the men she worked with in the United States that actually placed her in such a position, because they felt they rightly deserved the job over her because she used to be their subordinate.

As a woman, Madeleine Albright not only became the first woman Secretary of State but more importantly a role model for all of us. She stated that when she was hired by Georgetown University as a professor, they hired her because they wanted her to be a role model for the women at their campus. I have to say that even though I never got to take a class with her, seeing her around campus was enough for me to feel empowered all the same. Last night's talk proved that women can not only talk "shop" but can also support each other in the national and international context.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


When it comes to human rights, how much have we really changed? Women are still compensated much lower than men, racism still exists in all facets of our society, and the LGBT community is still the victim of many acts of prejudice.

Just a few days ago, Just Cookies, a bakery in Indianapolis, refused to bake cupcakes for the gay community at Purdue University, who were going to use the cupcakes for their celebration of next month's National Coming Out Day. Although the bakery is located in the City Market, which is an equal accommodations establishment, owner David Stockton stated the following to justify his prejudice:

"We're a family-run business, we have two young, impressionable daughters and we thought maybe it was best not to do that."

What does that even mean? “Best not to do that”? Really? I mean what could possibly happen from baking some cupcakes? Is David worried that his daughters will turn gay from doing business with the local gay community? Or is he worried that his daughter might actually learn to be accepting of the gay community? Whatever the reason, his actions are very inappropriate.

This situation really grinds my gears. I really can’t seem to get past it. Growing up, I was afforded a very accepting childhood, so dealing with ignorant and close-minded people is very painful (please excuse my frustration).

America, can we please get it together. We pride ourselves in this country as the land of the free, but when it comes to providing equal rights and doing away with discrimination, we like to turn the other cheek. Honestly I was under the impression that we had made some major strides in the past 50 years, but it seems that it was nothing more than just small step in the right direction. Small steps are not enough. We need to take incidents like this one more seriously; we should boycott such institutions, making a public statement that we as a nation do not accept this behavior.

In the words of the Dali Lama,

"All human beings, whatever their cultural or historical background, suffer when they are intimidated, imprisoned or tortured . . . We must, therefore, insist on a global consensus, not only on the need to respect human rights worldwide, but also on the definition of these rights . . . for it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity, and they have an equal right to achieve that."

Double standards

This weekend, like every weekend, I went through my DVR and tried to catch up on all the shows I had missed during the week. One show that really caught my attention was Jersey Shore (season two). On the latest episode there is an incident in the house that really raises some issues about gender inequality, especially in the social sphere. Angelia, one of the eight roommates of the show, decides to lie about sleeping with a guy who she has been dating on the show for the prior two weeks The night before she spent the night with Jose, she had “smushed” (slept with) Vinny, another one of the roommates. This raised a lot of tension among the cast members.

Mike “the situation,” began calling Angelina a many synonyms associated with the word whore. Soon after, all of the other males in the house got involved in the bashing as well. The scene was followed by a cut-a-way to Mike, so that he could explain why he was bad-mouthing Angelina when he himself is infamous on the show for sleeping with different girls every night. He responded by first recognizing that there was a double standard in our society between men and women when it comes to promiscuity. He said that it was not only okay for him to sleep with many girls, but it makes him a “pimp,” and pretty much, a “hell of a guy.” He then went on to explain how similar actions by a girl make them look “trashy.”

This however was not the most disturbing part of the episode. The part I found most disturbing was that Angelina has absolutely no support from her female roommates. They were even getting in on the bashing. “Snooki,” one of her female housemates, explained that Angelina was a “slut” precisely for doing what Mike “The Situation” had claimed made him a so-called pimp.

Have we not evolved from these prehistoric gender stereotypes? Do we still live in a society where men are free to flaunt their sexual conquests, only to be awarded with praise, while women are shunned, even by their own, for wanting to lead the same lifestyle? Sadly, I think the answer to these questions is YES. I find it very difficult to deal with, that after all of these years of advancement in women’s rights, many of the oldest and most outdated gender inequalities still persist. I am truly shocked to find that our society still believes in a double standard when it comes to private consensual sex.

Worst of all, why are women bashing other women for trying to live their lives with the same standard of men. This really tolls the advancement of women and really strengthens outdated stereotypes. I would really like to believe that this primitive thinking is limited to this show, but I know full well that many Americans still live by these ideals.

Here is a link to the latest episode.

Women Wednesdays...third time is the charm!

This week, I wanted to share lyrics of one of my favorite song by Ani Difranco. This song is about how women have been oppressed and ignored simply for being women, but encourages seeing people for more than their gender. Listen to the song below, and as always, feel free to comment about what this song means to you and relate any personal stories.

"32 Flavors"

squint your eyes and look closer
I'm not between you and your ambition
I am a poster girl with no poster
I am thirty-two flavors and then some
and I'm beyond your peripheral vision
so you might want to turn your head
cause someday you're going to get hungry
and eat most of the words you just said

both my parents taught me about good will
and I have done well by their names
just the kindness I've lavished on strangers
is more than I can explain
still there's many who've turned out their porch lights
just so I would think they were not home
and hid in the dark of their windows
til I'd passed and left them alone

and god help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room
and god help you if you are a pheonix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying back

I'm not trying to give my life meaning
by demeaning you
and I would like to state for the record
I did everything that I could do
I'm not saying that I'm a saint
I just don't want to live that way
no, I will never be a saint
but I will always say

squint your eyes and look closer
I'm not between you and your ambition
I am a poster girl with no poster
I am thirty-two flavors and then some
And I'm beyond your peripheral vision
So you might want to turn your head
Cause someday you might find you're starving
and eating all of the words you said.

Misconceptions: is radical feminism giving feminists a bad name?

"I am NOT a feminist!" A girlfriend of mine declared during a recent conversation. "Feminism is a bad thing. Everytime I hear the word 'feminism,' I cringe! It is all about hating men and thinking women are better than men, and burning bras. I am not a feminist, I just believe in equality."


I proceeded to let her know that her conception of feminism is not completely accurate. While some strands of feminism have extreme views, and may negatively portray men while depicting woman as superior beings, most feminists have a more moderate perspective.

I explained to her that being a feminist simply means that you recognize that our society generally treats women as inferior to men, that you believe in the equality of the sexes, and that you want to promote this idea in some way. In fact, I told her, "you sound like a feminist!"

My friend's deep-rooted negative reaction to feminism is unfortunate, but not uncommon. Society tends to emphasize strands like radical feminism, which have the most shocking views, and widely publicize its most unconventional ideas. For example, I have yet to come across any strand of feminism that seriously advocates burning bras, and in fact some say that there is no proof that bra-burning demonstrations ever happened. It may just be a myth intended to create a vivid picture of the rabid feminists! But I digress...

People with views outside those of the dominant group tend to expose themselves to ridicule and disdain. Here for example, those who do not want to achieve equality of the sexes, presumably because equality would be of no benefit to them, would be inclined to counter and contradict feminist theory. One way to successfully tear feminism apart is to declare it a radical notion and to promulgate certain ideas that most would have a difficult time agreeing with, in hopes that it will be promoted as a ridiculous and worthless theory and/or movement.

For example, one of the ideas behind radical feminism is that "men fuck and women are fucked" both literally and figuratively. Of course, this is a loaded and general concept that is easy to disagree with. Especially the literal part. Thus, an anti-feminist would jump on this "anti-sex" belief of feminists and circulate the message that if you are a feminist, then you hate sex and you hate men. Therefore, feminism in general is "bad" and "wrong."

Although this is an idea that has presumably been started by men, women buy into it as well. Even my friend, who is an intelligent and progressive law student, has been fed misconceptions about feminism, when she clearly is a feminist at heart.

The true feminist message is important to learn about and to understand. The more we understand feminism and study feminist theories, the more we are exposed to the injustices that face women in our society. The more we are exposed, the more solutions we will advance, and the more we will be inclined to reverse these injustices!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Women in leadership positions: the Swiss Federal Council

On Wednesday, September 22, 2010, the Swiss Parliament elected two new female cabinet ministers, resulting in Switzerland’s first-ever female-majority cabinet government. According to the Telegraph, the Federal Council cabinet, which is comprised of seven politicians, governs Switzerland without a fixed Prime Minister or President. The latest election resulted in a four-female, three-male coalition government. Ironically, Switzerland represents one of the last countries in Western Europe to allow women the right to vote in national elections (in 1971), but now stands as one of only five countries in the world (alongside Finland, Norway, Spain, and Cape Verde) that have a majority of women in government. According to the New York Times (“NYT”), Switzerland did not choose its first female minister until 1984, and only six women have ever held ministerial rank.

I think this occasion illustrates a compelling modern sketch of women in leadership positions, at least in the Western hemisphere. According to NYT, the female-majority Swiss government “is seen by Swiss commentators as more symbolic than practical.” One commentator interviewed by NYT stated, “What this vote shows is that gender is no longer a huge issue.” Indeed, policy-wise, the female-majority will not change much because the same parties make up the cabinet with the same number of seats. I tend to sympathize with the sentiment that gender is no longer a huge issue, but I believe that the statement requires clarification.

I think that gender does matter in the sense that a decision made by a female leader is probably somewhat informed by her perspective as a woman – at least to the extent that her gender may be at all relevant to that particular decision. However, I think that other characteristics – such as race, socio-economic background, core values, etc. – also factor in to the decision-making process, to the extent that these other characteristics are similarly relevant. Moreover, the influence that these characteristics have on a given decision may not be easily separable and may actually interact in incredibly nuanced ways. For example, I think that if the U.S. Supreme Court heard an abortion case in the near future, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s opinion – whatever that may be – would probably be informed, at least somewhat, by her status as a Puerto Rican woman who was raised in the Bronx and attended an ivy-league law school.

I think that gender matters in this way – that a woman or man brings to the decision-making process her or his perspective as a woman or a man – and that this aspect regarding gender should be highly valued in society. I think that varied perspectives, backgrounds, and life experiences are important in the political sphere because it is probably more difficult for a representative to fully understand or appreciate a constituent’s concerns without shared perspectives, backgrounds, or life experiences. In such a diverse society as ours is, I think that being as inclusive as possible at the highest levels of government will lead to more cooperation and compromise between groups that may hold different values.

On the other hand, I think that gender does not matter in the sense that I do not hold prejudicial preconceptions regarding the ability of a woman to competently run a government as a result of her gender. As an analogy, I do not hold prejudicial preconceptions regarding the ability of a black man to serve as President of the United States as a result of the color of his skin. As a corollary to my valuation of diversity of opinion, gender does not matter in the sense that I am not fearful, resistant, or angered at the notion of a woman filtering her decisions through the lens of gender.

In short, I understand the sentiment that the election of a female-majority Swiss cabinet has more symbolic significance than practical significance. I think that, with my generational peers anyway, we are much less prejudicial (though not completely free of prejudice) regarding a woman’s perceived ability to do any task that a man can do – and vice-versa. Therefore, it does not make a practical difference to me whether the United States elects a female president or a male president. Here, however, I think that the election of the female-majority Swiss cabinet is also symbolic in a practical way.

When the cabinet must make decisions that unmistakably concern gender, their outcomes will now likely be more balanced and informed by female perspectives that were not previously represented on the council. I think this representation of perspective is important in terms of process, even if the actual outcome would be the same as if made by a privileged, all-white, all-male group. Ultimately, I think that the election of a female-majority Swiss cabinet is unremarkable in the sense that society should have realized the benefits of such a balanced representation long, long ago.

Desperately seeking housewives, stay-at-home moms, and homemakers

I was listening to a radio show on Words by Radiolab, and the core idea of the show just hit my feminist bone. The idea was that words precede thinking, or they are mutually beneficial to one another; we don't even know for sure what their relationship is. But it is impossible to think without having words for the things we are to think about. Humans' vocabulary grows during their socialization, and the way their vocabulary grows, their cognitive ability increases, too. So, it occurred to me that we cannot effectively change how our society treats women, until we change the way our everyday language treats women. Well, it's bad enough that English has gendered pronouns. But there is another, more insidious role language plays in degrading women (as well as non-white races, but that's another story). This role is well-documented, at least in the racial stereotyping arena.

Let's talk now only about mothers who do not work "outside of the home."  See the difficulty I am having even to describe what these mothers do? All mothers are working mothers. Schlepping kids to school, extracurricular activities, friends, etc., is work done outside of the home. As the bumper sticker says:
If the woman's place is by the stove, why am I always in my minivan?
I was "at home" with my two babies for four months each, and it was the most intensive work experience of my entire life. Not even law school got close to the demands of motherhood. And I, too, had to be out and about a lot -- mainly because my nurse practitioner implored me to get out of the house as much as I could.

When people ask me what was my mother-in-law's profession before she retired, I just mumble something along the lines of homemaker. That word is more descriptive of what she did than stay-at-home mom, because she truly made home for her husband and seven children. She handled all the finances of her very poor family, cooked three meals daily (some days even more), shopped for everything anybody in her family needed, washed and cleaned, and ran this whole operation with cheer and incredible energy. She had to jump into her beat-up Ford Fiesta at least ten times a day, she was on her feet from dawn to dusk. Homemaker does not even begin to describe the complexity of her responsibilities. 

Well, one may say she was a housewife, but that doesn't solve my problem.  Was she the wife of the house? Not at all.  She was the wife of the love of her life: my father-in-law. But before she married him, she did the same type of work, even though she was a widow. She was widowed young, with three young children (yes, for those of you doing the math, she had ten children total). It is ironic to call a young widow a housewife.

What is the solution? I am thinking of referring to her as the CEO of a small business, because in my eyes, that is what she was. Let me know what you think. I am open to ideas.

The art of blogging - Part 1

The year after I graduated college, my friends and I decided to start a blog called Feminists Without Borders. The blog was a way for us to stay in touch since many of us had moved across the country or to different countries, as well as a way for us to continue to discuss and learn about issues as feminists. Our posts lasted for a about a year and half, and then life took over – so while a few of the members have continued to post, it has been some time for me.

The other day, I was telling one of my friends (who wrote on the blog as well) about how our class blogged and how it reminded me of what we had tried to do a few years ago. This conversation led to a conversation about feminist blogs in general, and I thought that it warranted a post. So this post and the following post will seek to explore the usefulness of a blog, the beneficial aspects of such blogs to feminism, and also how commercializing such blogs may dilute the theory behind feminism. Of course, this is entirely my opinion, but as there is a proliferation of such blogs it is interesting to take a step back and see what works and what could work better – just as we seek to do with feminism itself.

The post today will talk about two potential problems that my friend and I discussed. These aren’t problems in the larger sense, but rather issues that may arise in the context of a blog. Next week’s post will discuss how feminist blogs are incredibly beneficial – especially in relation to marginalized groups.

First, there are many definitions of feminism. Laying down in words to reflect a specific viewpoint on feminism may misconstrue things to the public as a whole. Words are permanent, and words on the internet not only have such permanency but also can influence many people. This is incredibly powerful, and can expose women from every walk of life to other women who are seeking equality in their own circumstances. However, at the same time the commercial aspect of some of these blogs can also link to certain posts like this, which dilutes any theoretical and public interest aspects of feminism. Trying to move feminist theory into the mainstream also forces many blogs to become much more commercial, and in doing so the views on feminism may shift to whatever sponsor they are seeking to get. Additionally, many posts are written in order to garner “the most comments” in order to maintain advertising, thus making them much more sensationalist.

This filters into my second point, that the anonymity the internet breeds can lend itself to “hate” speech against women who are expressing their position and perceptions of feminism. Comments are a way of allowing for discussion, which I believe is an important tool of the internet and what feminism seeks to do – engage in conversation. At the same time, the amount of derision that occurs can seem daunting. In fact, writing our little blog elicited so many hateful comments it was unbelievable. I wish I had some direct examples for you, but they have all been deleted. What I can say is that they ranged from personal put downs (one specific example coming from a post I wrote about college rape) to general derision of feminists. Of course, this is reality and truthfully this may be a helpful reality – a way to understand your opposition and find new ways to fight it. However, it is also frustrating mostly because it shows how much further we have to go as feminists.

I could go on and on, but I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this. Obviously, I have only linked to a few examples, which are very contextual and do not examine the entire gamut of feminist blogs. What my friend and I found was that these were two problems that may arise as we feminists seek to expand our horizons and educate people on the equality we want and justly deserve – even in the environment of the internet.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Violence against women- Part 1

Violence against women is a deeply personal issue for me. My mother was a single mom at age 25, with five children under the age of 7. She had no education beyond high school. After my father abandoned us, she worked as a waitress and ended up marrying her boss. My stepfather was an abusive alcoholic. He terrorized my mother and my family everyday. I saw first hand how violence against a woman is tolerated in a small rural Texas community.

Violence against women is so woven into the fabric of culture and history that millions of people across the globe today still view as a normal part of life. It is found in every country, throughout all socio-economic levels. The global brutalization of women is seen in practices such as female infanticide in China, female genital mutilation in Africa, sexual slavery in Bombay, and sex trafficking in Thailand. Rape and domestic violence are still tolerated in many societies.

Historically, women have been placed in a lower standing compared to men. Men were considered more perfect beings. Subordination was achieved through adoption of a systematic patriarchal view presumably ordained by gods, endorsed by priests and implemented by laws.

In Chapter 7 of the Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner describes early civilizations such as Mesopotamia as institutionalizing this patriarchal view.

The lifelong dependency of women on fathers and husbands became so firmly established in law and custom as to be considered “natural” and god-given.

Additionally, Lerner said,

Their sexual and reproductive capacities were commoditized, traded, leased or sold in the interest of male family members. Women had no choice but to acquiesce and begin to internalize this notion that they were somehow less valued.

If we are to create change in the opportunities for women globally, then it is important to be aware of some of the socio-political factors predisposing women to violence. Some of the key factors are outlined below:

Restricting women’s access to education

  • According to the World Bank, 60% of the 110 million children in developing countries that are primary-school age not receiving any education at all are girls.
  • Of the girls who do begin primary school, only 1 in 4 is still in school four years later.
  • The gender gap increases at higher levels of education.
  • Two-thirds of the 880 million illiterate adults around the world are women.
  • In Child Aid's 2010 Annual Report, Guatemala's indigenous girls are less likely to be in school at age 7 than any other group. In some areas, over 75% of women cannot read or write.

A prior blog post on this site from October 5, 2008, discussed the lack of education for Afghan women:
More than 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Women’s life expectancy is only 45 years, lower than that of men, mostly because of the very high rates of death during pregnancy. Forced marriage and under-age marriage are common for girls, and only 13 percent of girls complete primary school, compared with 32 percent of boys.
There is an old Chinese proverb that sums up this historical bias:
If you love your daughter, bind her feet, if you love your son, let him study.
Restricting women’s access to property

In a recent Washington Post guest commentary, Alyse Nelson, President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership shocked me when she said that a majority of the world's women do not legally own, control, or inherit property, land, or wealth. As a result, they are unable to start and grow small businesses. But, she said, in America, women-owned businesses have been significant in driving economic growth.

Restricting women’s access to protection under the law

Only about one third of countries around the world have laws protecting women against violence. Even in countries where there are laws combating violence against women, those laws are not enforced, well resourced or taken seriously. Violence against women and girls takes on many forms, such as human trafficking, harmful cultural practices, rape as a tactic of war, and domestic violence. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF), one in every three women in the world has experienced sexual, physical, emotional or other abuse in her lifetime. This is a staggering statistic. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in forty-eight surveys from around the world, 10-69% of women stated that an intimate partner at some point in their lives had physically assaulted them. With the worldwide prevalence of gender-based violence, whole communities stand to lose because women's full potential goes unrealized.

Economically, men are said to perform three quarters of all economic activities in developing countries, however, according to the United Nations, it is women who actually perform 53% of the work. The 1995 UN Human Development Report states:
An estimated $16 trillion in global output is currently "invisible," of which $11 trillion is estimated to be produced by women. Additionally, the report indicates that women in Africa represent 52% of the total population, contribute approximately 75% of the agricultural work, and produce 60- 80% of the food. Yet, they only earn 10% of the total African incomes, and own just 1% of the continent's assets.
These numbers indicate the tremendous barriers women face on the path toward gender equality. Despite repeated efforts made by governments, NGOs, and multilateral development agencies, the majority of women in the developing world are still relegated to micro-enterprises and informal tasks.

My mother did not have the option to leave the abusive relationship with my stepfather. She had five little mouths to feed, she lacked an education and job skills and she had limited economic opportunities. Perhaps her situation was a typical product of the times: it may have been a circumstance many women found themselves in the 1950’s. But as long as women continue to be denied access to economic opportunities and a basic education, they will continue to be vulnerable to violence.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Gender stereotypes and the regulation of trans women

Feminists and LGBT activists have made great strides in fighting the legal enforcement of gender stereotypes. Laws against cross-dressing and homosexuality have gone by the way-side in most developed countries, firing women for failing to wear make-up and feminine clothing is increasingly (but not always) illegal, and trans people are increasingly (although, again, not always) permitted to change their legal sexes to match their identities.

Unfortunately, however, the legal mechanisms for allowing trans women to change their sex and assert their rights have frequently been used, not to challenge gender norms, but to reinforce them.

To obtain a legal sex change, a trans women must almost always convince a mental health professional to diagnose her with Gender Identity Disorder and recommend her for sex change surgery. This should give pause to anyone familiar with mental health professionals’ long and troubled relationship with women, particularly their pathologization of women who refuse to conform to gender norms. As one trans woman explains “You must conform to a doctor’s idea of a woman, not necessarily yours.” (Julia Serano, Whipping Girl 136 (2007)).

Julia Serano writes that "most trans women underst[and] that they need[] to show up for their psychotherapy appointments wearing dresses and makeup [and] expressing stereotypically feminine mannerisms" (Serano 123-124). Many trans women have stories of being rejected for treatment when they showed up for therapy in stereotypically male or unisex clothing, and then immediately approved once they showed up in dresses and make-up (Serano 137).

For trans women who transitioned in the 1970s and before, doctors’ behaviors could be even more sexist. When deciding whether or not a trans woman was “really” a woman, many male doctors were openly influenced by whether they (the doctors) were sexually attracted to the trans woman and whether the trans woman responded to the doctor’s flirtation. (Serano 135, Susan Stryker & Stephen Whittle, The Transgender Studies Reader 68 (2006)). This reinforces the idea that women’s value is in their sexual appeal to men, and ignores the fact that many trans women are lesbian, asexual, or simply not interested in being sexually attractive to every man they meet.

Media coverage of trans women’s efforts to expand and enforce their legal rights similarly emphasize trans women's feminity and appeal to men. Trans women who show up for interviews ostensibly about trans legal activism say that reporters ask to film them putting on make-up and dresses and cut their interviews when they refuse (Serano 44-45). And if it’s no longer acceptable for doctors to emphasize trans women’s appeal to men, the media is still happy to do so. An interview with trans activist Calpernia Addams about the trial of her boyfriend’s murderers opens by recounting the men who hit on her during the interview.

Much feminist criticism of trans women has focused on trans women's perceived embrace of female stereotypes. However, to the extent that trans women do embrace make-up, dresses, and other attributes of femininity, they do so not just because they believe in or enjoy them (although many trans women, like many cis women, certainly do), but because (again, like cis women) they face serious legal and social consequences for refusing to do so.

Feminists have long fought against laws and practices that pressure women to wear dresses, apply make-up, and behave "femininely." Regulation of trans women is just one more way these pressures are brought to bear and must be part of feminists' fight.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Women in Advertisements

One of the great things about studying feminist legal theory is the heightened awareness that is gained about women's issues everyday life. I have begun to pay more attention to how women are portrayed in popular music, tv shows, books, and film. For the most part, the treatment of women in these various mediums runs the gamut from sexism to empowerment. I have noticed, however, that the treatment of women in television and radio ads is fairly consistent.

Consistent with stereotypical gender roles, that is.

Perhaps it's just my experience, but I feel like whenever the ad aims to sell anything related to household duties, a woman is always the one shown using the product. Whether it's a super strong garbage bag, an exotically scented candle, a disinfectant wipe (pictures on their site), or the flashiest new appliance - it's a woman that is shown using/praising it.

Often times (and this is even more annoying), the husband just sits on the couch while the wife cleans up the mess with her fabulous new cleaning spray. A self satisfied smile appears on her face as she looks fondly at her husband (while cleaning). What about marriage being portrayed as a partnership? An equal partnership (at least in my mind) is what it's all about!

While I understand that corporations are looking to sell their products to their target audience, most women today have a job in addition to their household work. In 2009, the United States Department of Labor reported that 59.2% of women were labor force participants. Thus for things to get done, both partners have to share in the household chores. Even from the corporation's standpoint I don't think it's beneficial to only show the woman cleaning in the home. After all, these products are mostly aimed at working class families because the very rich can afford to hire someone to clean for them.

Given that traditional gender roles no longer reflect the lives of many women, why do companies insist on promoting this image? It just serves to reinforce stereotypes that have been thrust on women (and men) for generations. Hopefully as public awareness of these issues increases, the frequency of these types of irritating ads will decrease!

Women Wednesdays...Edition 2

Happy Wednesday!

This week's quotes focus on questioning the anti-feminist perspective. Please feel free to comment on one or all, and to find out more about the incredible lives of the authors.

1. "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." ~Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler

2. "How good does a female athlete have to be before we just call her an athlete?" ~Author Unknown

3. "Women are the only oppressed group in our society that lives in intimate association with their opressors." ~Evelyn Cunningham

4. "Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths." ~Lois Wyse

and last but not least...

Women belong in the house... and the Senate." ~Author Unknown

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What ever happened to the gentleman?

Women have come a long way in the fight for equality. Slowly, but surely opportunities for women in the workplace, the home, and society have evolved, and we now have the opportunity to do (almost) anything. While the fight is far from over, the success so far has negative consequences. While discussing gender role expectations in class, the dominant and rational male versus the gentle and caring female, I pondered the shift in male gender role expectations.

Men are celebrated for their dominance and ability to take charge in the office and at home, but they were also once celebrated for their chivalry and loyalty. It was not too long ago when men were expected to be (and took pride in being) truthful, loyal, and courteous, especially towards women. Today, unfortunately, there has been a shift. The days of standing up when a woman enters the room are long gone. In fact, I can't even remember the last time a guy, a date or just a friend, came to my door when he picked me up, instead of texting to tell me that he is outside. This got me thinking: what ever happened to the gentleman?

One reason for the change in male role expectations may be the fight for equality. Our big message: "Women are not inferior. We are equals and should be treated as such." But does treating us as equals mean loss of male virtues? Men no longer hold open doors for their girlfriends (sometimes even letting doors slam right in their faces), but in general, men have stopped being polite, courteous, and respectful to all persons regardless of gender or age.

Grant Ziegler notices the change in generation Y. He admits men have stopped saying please and thank you. But he also suggests, ladies, that we may be at fault. In our struggle to be respected and taken seriously, we have turned the "gentleman" into the "creeper" or the "sexist." Men who smile or say hello are flirting and men who pull out chairs are jerks. Ziegler pleads:
Please understand that I know you’re fully capable of opening a door. That wasn’t the point. I was just trying to be nice. I open doors for men, too, of all ages and ethnicities. I don’t care if you’re 4 or 40, I just figured it would be considered rude to drop a door on your face.
While I am hesitant to take the blame for the deterioration of male etiquette, there is some truth to what Ziegler is saying. Each of us may have, at least one time in our lives, interpreted well intentioned politeness as something demeaning and rude. The problem arises when we allow ill manners to be the norm and expect that our equality means that men no longer have to do "the right thing."

This past summer, modern chivalry (or the lack of it) made national headlines, when a young man was caught on tape dodging a major league baseball, allowing his girlfriend to get hit.

The public's reaction to the incident does suggest we still have expectations that men should honor and protect women. However, the girlfriend's reaction to the incident leaves me wondering if we have lowered our expectations too much. Even after making headlines, she doesn't think it's a big deal that her boyfriend jumped out of the way and let her get hit with a major league baseball. In the interview, Wyble (the boyfriend) says he thought she would get out of the way. I recognize that she is fully capable of getting out of the way of an oncoming baseball, but does that mean because we as women can take care of ourselves, we should expect less respect and less considerate acts from men?

I am sure we could all use a good lesson in etiquette, but the trend seems to be that as women elevate in society, male manners deminish.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What’s for dinner? Excitement and innovation . . . or comfort and love?

As the most recent season of Bravo’s Top Chef wrapped up its 7th season this week, I eagerly made my predictions with my fellow self-proclaiming foodie friends about who would win this time, amongst the three male finalists. Yes, all male finalists – and that’s usually the norm, too. Albeit, there have been seasons where there were two males and one female. But, of the six seasons that have passed so far, there has yet to be any more than one female winner to take home the title of Top Chef. The challenge in the finale episode brought back “sous chefs” or winners from past seasons to assist the three current contestants . . . and of course they were all male. These facts left me a little initially distraught, so I started to break them down under the social microscope.

A woman’s rightful place is in her kitchen - being the mom and nurturing homemaker. There is always something to be said about one’s mother’s home-cooking. These very cookie cutter, traditional views have been held in place for decades, if not centuries, now in this country. While modern-day views on the role of a man and woman at home have shifted and made leagues of progress, it’s still not that much of a stretch to say that the image of a woman in the kitchen is still slightly more the norm than the image of a man in the kitchen.

Professional women chefs, however, are not seen in abundance. While there are some who rank high up there in the culinary world and while it’s definitely not the case that female cooking skills are inferior to that of a man’s, is it the issue and struggle to balance one woman’s demanding career with her inherent desire to raise a family and devote more time to her children that’s the age old struggle that we are grappling with in the culinary world, as well? Or could it possibly be that cooking and the preparation of food, more or less, started out as a woman’s domain, and in order for a man to surpass that and to make his own stomping grounds, they had to pull out a more flashy, more ambitious route in order to get to the place where they’re at? Are women chefs more subtle in their styles, while men more showy?
“Now, not all mama cooks are women but all the show-off cooks are men. Boys with chemistry sets. Boy food is about: ‘Look at me!’” (sfgate)
The professional kitchen is often described as a “boy’s club.” Knives and pans are toys, cooking during peak dinner hours is the sport itself, and after the score has been settled for the night, the aprons are hung and the male chefs head out to the bars to celebrate the game. While this view may be perceived as supremely generalized and perhaps insulting to a lot of female chefs who have made headway and who are just capable as any male chef is, the question still remains – why is it that the profession of a chef reads as so much more male friendly than female friendly?

What are the institutional barriers that women face in the culinary world? Is it the fact that while their capability is not the issue, people’s ideas and the general population perceives a woman’s cooking to be more “nurturing” and “subtle” while a man’s cooking is more “ambitious” and “flashy,” and that might make restaurants less likely to want to hire a woman chef over a man’s chef, despite both their skill-sets and levels of talent being comparable?

While the distinction is not necessary one that’s place along a hierarchy of which gender cooks “better,” it’s certainly a theory that each respective gender cooks differently - with subtle, but notable, purposes and styles. That may or may not lead to the reality of the situation in the culinary world of why there are more women in the kitchen at home and more men in the kitchen professionally. In the end, I’d love to explore this issue more . . . maybe even before I rant about who won Top Chef this season.

(That’s an entirely separate blog entry.)

Queering Femininity

In the deep rooted debate considering sameness versus difference between genders, feminists often question whether an ethic of care can be chosen by women under the constraints of decision making in a patriarchal society. Can women choose to be nurturers? Are they structurally capable as an oppressed class of people to make an empowered decision to embrace what would otherwise be considered socially imposed feminine gender roles?

In modern queer culture, there is an active gender identity movement gaining visibility and solidarity for femme identified people. As it is with all genders, it can be difficult to define what "femme" is. Femme is however, in the least, an intentional reclamation of the feminine gender role, or of gender stereotyped behaviors assigned to female bodied people.

For nearly ten years now a regular national conference has been held to bring femme identified people together for networking, validation and community building. The Femme Collective's mission for the conference, ,offers a basic impression of how self identified femmes identify themselves to the world at large-

We understand that being femme is more complex than just being a queer person who is feminine; it is part of our how we interact with and shape our world as queer academics,activists, artists, homemakers, parents, professionals, students, teachers, etc. Our conferences seek to explore, discuss, dissect and support Queer Femme as a transgressive, gender queer, stand-alone and empowered identity..

In 2006, the SF Bay Times talked with film maker Elizabeth Stark about her film FtF:Female to Femme In the article, Stark draws particular attention to the fact that people who choose to embrace femme identities do so at a strong social cost, further emphasizing that these people are actively choosing their genders in spite of their oppression.
[the concept of] 'women' is a ghetto whose boundaries are policed..You can be killed for attempting to move in and out of that ghetto-and you can be killed for staying put. I'd like to build a coalition whose goal was to tear down the walls of that ghetto.

I think many of the feminists like Catherine MacKinnon who have long argued that women can not reclaim femininity from a place of empowerment may be refreshed to see this new generation of a subversive feminine gender that is seeking to deconstruct female gender roles and rebuild them as something self created.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Teenage Pregnant Slutty Mama

Funny story...when a teenage girl has sex outside of wedlock, many in our society consider her a slut. But when a guy has sex, even with multiple partners out of wedlock, he is applauded. Similarly, when a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, our society thinks of her as a slut. But, her baby's father does not have to carry around any shame, and his life is not affected much. Meanwhile, she physically carries around her growing "shame" for all to see and discuss for nine months. And often times, not only are these girls shunned, but they are denied a helping hand in the upbringing of the child by the father, the public, and the law.

Seven hundred fifty thousand teen girls get pregnant every year and these young moms have to grow up quickly, change the course of their lives, and live solely around the needs of their babies. Many young moms will drop out of high school, and statistically less than 1/3 of all teenage moms that have babies before the age of 18 finish high school. This makes it nearly impossible for young moms to obtain higher education, affecting their chances at of employment and social class. To make things worse, less than 1/3 of teen moms receive any form of child support, and almost half of all teen moms end up on welfare.

This is not a funny story. This is another case of our society's double standard - attacking women for activities that are considered normal and/or commended when a man engages in them. This standard greatly affects the life of the mother (in the form of depression, poverty, and suicide), and in turn negatively affects the life of her child. It also affects our priorities as a society, and instead of helping these mothers with social programs and/or attempting to effectively prevent teenage pregnancy, we choose to blame the teen mothers for their actions.

Although it is very difficult to change people's perspectives through passing laws, I believe this is one area in which passing laws to benefit teen moms (and potential teen moms) and their children would be very effective in eliminating a lot of the stress that only a teen mom will face.

Sexual education must be a top priority, and it must have the aim of educating young people about BOTH abstinence AND contraception! In addition, sex education should relay how easy it is to get pregnant and the grave consequences that a teen parent will face. Another social service beyond welfare that should be a priority is making sure low-income teen moms can get childcare so that they can finish school and/or make money. Stricter laws should also be in place that force the fathers to be involved in the child's life, whether or not they wanted the child. Don't do the crime if you can't do the time!

Our society can't pass this problem off any longer as simply the fault of a teenage mother (hello! there are always two people that contribute to a pregnancy). It is our duty as a society to look out for the young people and to educate them about the dangers of teen pregnancy.

Below are some resources that can assist teens in getting help.

Planned Parenthood
1-800-230-PLAN - 24 hour hotline will direct you to the clinic nearest to you.

National Office of Post Abortion Trauma

National Abortion Federation

National Adoption Center
1-800-862-3678 - dedicated to expanding adoption opportunities in the U.S.

The Independent Adoption Center

Women on Television

Reality shows are promoting a terrible image of women. With shows like “Real Chance of Love,” “Flavor of Love,” “For the Love of Ray J,” and most recently, “Rock of Love,” it seems there is no hope for the advancement of women on television.

All of these shows are based on one premise, having a bunch of women compete for the “love” of a male bachelor--by any means possible. As one might suspect, the shows are filled with dramatic love triangles and vicious cat fights that only leave viewer asking for more. In fact, these shows proved to be so popular that they were all extended multiple seasons, some of which are still being rerun on VH1.

I find it appalling that our viewing audiences, many of whom are women; actually promote the furtherance of such shows by allowing them to get such high ratings. In fact, “Flavor of Love 2,” gave the VH1 network a record breaking 3.3 million viewers for its premier.

What is so amusing about these shows and what does this mean for the roll of women on television in the future?

The season premier of “Flavor of Love 2” started like most seasons,
“As Flavor Flav opens the door to the mansion, the new Flavor of Love girls race[d] like cattle to claim their beds. Less than thirty seconds into the house, two of Flavor Flav’s handpicked girls get into a flower-throwing, hair-pulling wrestling match over a bed.” This riveting season premiere (I really do hope you sense my sarcasm) came to an end with one of the girl’s defecating on the floor.

If the 3.3 million viewers of “Flavor of Love 2” are any indication of amusement, or at least interest, it seems that these viewers are amused at the destruction of the image of women on network television. Take a look at some of the audition tapes for the women that made it on the show.

The casting directors only look to cast people who we are willing to watch, which according to this video are “hoes” and girls that like to fight.

With the support that we are providing for these shows, it’s no wonder that it has become more and more common to have women depicted in this derogatory fashion on television. The only way we can bring about a change is to take a stern stance against these types of shows. I call for all feminists from around the nation to join together to boycott these shows. If we continue to allow ourselves to get sucked into supporting this type of programming, the image of women on television may never recover.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How I came to accept feeding a baby from breast or bottle as equally acceptable choices

After the birth of my first baby, I subscribed to two parenting magazines, believing that both will bring valuable perspective to my ongoing education on being a mother. One of them was Mothering, an earth-mama style publication that gave my maternal instincts a lot of validation, while educating me on the hottest controversies in childrearing: vaccines, co-sleeping, attachment parenting, etc.  The other, Working Mother, is an invaluable publication about work-life balance, especially if one needs to know which workplaces have the kinder, gentler policies allowing for mothers to continue working or to return to the workforce. Coming from different angles, both of these magazines helped keeping my sanity in those early, frantic years.

On one issue, however, the two publications disagreed sharply. Mothering advocated breastfeeding zealously, which was my personal position at that time, thus it was easy for me to identify with their point of view. Working Mother, on the other hand, published a provocative article about a bottle-feeding mother, who never even considered breastfeeding and was a self-professed advocate of bottle-feeding as the true feminist choice. Consequently, Working Mother received a slew of letters to the Editor, deriding their choice to give bottle-feeding a “forum,” even in one article. I almost wrote in myself, because I thought there was really no need to advocate for bottle-feeding, a practice already sufficiently widespread in the U.S. And while breastfeeding is becoming the dogma in medical circles, there is still a long way ahead until it becomes (again) the norm.  As this article about an Ohio case demonstrates, smart lawyering can achieve a state Supreme Court decision stating that a woman fired for "unauthorized lactation breaks" was not discriminated against because of her gender or pregnancy-related condition. 

While I was thinking about what I would write to the Editor of Working Mother, I reflected on my own prejudices against bottle-feeding.

Like my fellow blogger admits here, some feminists view stay-at-home mothers as the losers of a zero-sum game. The same is true with women who are committed to breastfeed despite its inconveniences and pains (and also on demand of the baby, until such time as both of the parties involved agree that it’s best to stop): they often view bottle-feeding mothers with a dash of pity for losing out on creating such a special bond with their child. But there is no need to view breastfeeding as an “either/or” proposition and, certainly, there is no need to get our feathers fluffed over other women's informed decisions.

I came to advocate for breastfeeding to only those who have yet to make their decision, but once that informed decision is made, it is quite futile to try to convince women to switch to the "other side." Not only futile, it is likely anti-feminist to harangue one another because of our mothering choices. Women are absolutely capable of making these choices for themselves, and to educate themselves on the issues before making a decision. We, feminists, have to acknowledge this capability of all women, and avoid putting pressure on them to conform to any set protocol. It is also unnecessary to attach emotional significance to another mother’s rational choice in childrearing. Some mothers may want to create bonds with their babies in other ways, and if they are ingenuous enough to do so, the better for all of us. Women who experiment with different childrearing ideas are the ones who can share these ideas later with the rest of us.

In the end, I exclusively breastfed my first baby until she was 2.5 years old. With the second one, I was less anxious to be the perfect earth-mama, and I chose to supplement my dwindling supply with formula. That choice, in the end, has benefited us both, and opened my mind about the considerable need for flexibility in parenting. I ended up embracing my femininity, and my instincts as a mother, as parts of the complex that make me unique, and a more efficient participant in today’s co-ed workforce. But I also learned to judge other mothers less based their choices in childrearing, because there are as many flavors of it as are mothers.

Discrimination against pregnant women

Even in elementary school, I was very aware of the discrimination that stopped women from preventing or ending their pregnancies. The abortion battles, the refusal to subsidize contraception or provide adequate sex education- these were (and are) all popular news topics. However, it was not until very recently that I became aware of the extent of the discrimination that faces women once they become pregnant.

Of course, I had heard bits and pieces, here and there. I knew that in the past women were fired for becoming pregnant and forced to sign contracts agreeing not to become pregnant in order to obtain loans. I knew that our society failed to provide poor, mostly non-white women with the resources to care for their fetuses and then stigmatized them when their babies were born with health problems.

However, I did not realize that pregnant women were actually thrown into jail because they struggled with addiction, refused cesareans, or simply didn’t get enough bed rest. I did not realize that pregnant women were forcibly dragged to the hospital, strapped down, and cut open.

Even if these measures genuinely improved maternal and fetal health, they would be appalling. The irony, however, is that these assaults on women's bodily integrity often do little to improve maternal and fetal health. Frequently, they worsen it.

While drug use is certainly not recommended during pregnancy, the negative effects are generally much less significant and much less certain than courts assume.

The infamous crack baby epidemic is a case in point. During the height of the crack baby hysteria, one judge compared smoking crack during pregnancy to "tak[ing] a pistol and put[ting] it in your mouth and blow[ing] your head off." (Which leads me to wonder- does he think pregnant women who attempt suicide should be thrown in jail, too?)

However, a New York Times article "The Epidemic That Wasn't" reveals that maternal crack cocaine use is comparable to maternal tobacco use, and quotes a federal maternal cocaine use researcher as saying “Are there differences [between cocaine-exposed babies and other babies]? Yes. Are they reliable and persistent? Yes. Are they big? No.”

Forcing women to have cesareans or hospital births or jailing women for refusing to do so is even more ridiculous, given that the rise in c-sections appears to have contributed to the recent rise in maternal mortality in the U.S.

Throwing pregnant women in prison for allegedly failing to care for their babies betrays not only a lack of respect for their bodily integrity and a failure to pay attention to the medical literature, but a profound lack of common sense.

Care for pregnant prisoners is frequently atrocious. Women are often denied care even when they show visible signs of distress, such as leaking amniotic fluid or bleeding from the vagina for days after being repeatedly punched in the stomach by fellow prisoners. Women who make it to labor sometimes end up giving birth in their cells because guards refuse to take them to the hospital until too late. Although activist groups have recently succeeded in reducing the shackling of non-violent women prisoners in the hospital as they give birth, shackles are still routinely used as guards transport women to and from the hospital in labor.

The punishment of pregnant women for allegedly not caring for their babies involves not just sexist ideas about women’s right to bodily integrity, but also sexist (and classist and racist) ideas about intelligence. The probably white, probably male, almost certainly upper class doctors and judges are assumed to be correct about what is healthiest for the mother and baby. The frequently non-white, frequently poor, always female mother is assumed to be wrong. (Of course, if it turns out the doctors and judges are wrong, the blame is quickly shifted to the women- see Miriam PĂ©rez’s excellent article on so-called “voluntary” c-sections.)

I’ve always loved Marilyn Frye's birdcage metaphor and it’s very relevant in the context of reproductive rights. Fry explains that if you look at a single wire of a bird cage you cannot understand why the bird cannot just fly around it. It’s only when you step back and look at all the wires together that you see how they effectively trap the bird.

Restrictions on birth control and abortion must be understood in combination with discrimination, and both of them must also be understood in combination with rape, homophobia, pressure to have children, and problematic adoption practices. On their own, these things are painful enough, but together they combine to form a situation in which it’s difficult for women to avoid pregnancy and even more difficult for them to maintain their bodily integrity once they are pregnant.