Sunday, October 31, 2010

Show a little... a lot of skin

I cannot tell a lie, I was a teenybopper. I grew up listening to (and obsessing over) N'SYNC, Backstreet Boys, and 98 Degrees. My role models consisted of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson. My eighth grade year was spend daydreaming of JC Chasez and hoping one day a nice guy would "rub me the right way." Looking back, everything was so innocent and wholesome. But things change and people grow up. Unfortunately for my role models this meant a complete 180 degree change from their bubblegum image to a hyper-sexed "performer" (we all remember Christina and her Dirty video). Apparently, to be a successful female entertainer you have to show a little... well a lot of skin.

Last month's GQ shows that the trend continues with the girls of "Glee." Scantily dressed in mini skirts and underwear, while running around a high school locker room, the female stars of the popular show revealed a little too much. I shouldn't be surprised by the steamy photos, Victoria Secret ads are just as revealing. However, there was something about this photo spread that didn't seem right. Although the show is known for its "generous helping of pot-laced brownies, girl-on-girl- subtext, and choreographed dry-humping," I couldn't help but notice how different the male and female stars were portrayed. Cory Montieth, one of the male leads, is fully dressed, either in a long sleeve sweater or overcoat, and is shown playing a drumset. Dianna Agron and Lea Michele, on the other hand, are wearing close to nothing and are shown either straddling a bench or ripping a part their shirts.

My first thought, why isn't Cory shirtless? My second thought , why are the girls in their underwear? These questions can easily be explained with responses like it's a men's magazine- guys don't want to see guys shirtless, sex sells, and it's all for fun. But these responses still don't explain the extreme difference in how the male and female leads of Glee were portrayed.

In Good Girls Gone Wild Frank Bruni suggests that there is a cycle young female performers must go through if they want a chance at surviving in the "business." Female performers can start off naive and innocent, but must eventually break away from their bubblegum image if they want to appeal to the masses. Thus, to wind up somewhere in the middle, female performers must take drastic steps away from the image that made them popular. Unfortunately, unlike their male counterparts who can easily mature through their talent, female performers must show their maturity and talent in a more obvious way. Bruni explains,

for a child actress or singer looking to establish maturity, flesh is the fastest and most attention-getting route... for their male counterparts? In a sexist world, it doesn't work quite the same way.
Of course there are some outliers, Taylor Swift, who seem to have avoided their "erotic emancipation." But what is the future of young female performers? Does success really require so much skin? More importantly, what kind of message are we sending our youth, especially the young girls who help make these female performers famous by idolizing them during their bubblegum stage? There are no clear answers to any of these questions, but there is hope that things may (start to) change. For various reasons, including the finding that media has become an integral part of youth's lives and three of the most common mental health problems among girls, eating disorders, depression or depressed mood, and low-self-esteem, are linked to sexualization of girls and women in the media, the legislature has introduced the Healthy Media for Youth Act. If passed it would provide grant money to promote media literacy and youth empowerment, provide reserach on the role and impact of girls and women in the media on youths' development, and created a National Task Force on Girls and Women in the Media.

Friday, October 29, 2010

LOL . . . ?

Over the summer, I was randomly Google-ing recently confirmed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, when I came across an article that gave her props for “having a sense of humor.” In that same vein, the article also commented:

If you give them an education and a chance at the microphone, women are funnier than men

While the gist of that particular article was not to make jabs at the female sense of humor, but was written more for the purpose delivering general praise to Kagan, I was still offended by the select statements and fixated on that. Why does a woman need to be educated and needed to be given "a chance" in order to be funny, while men are way more easily accepted to be funny in general? Why is there an abundance of male comedians, while female comedians seem to be more lacking . . . or at least, not quite as popular or have garnered the attention that male comedians have? There are so many hilarious female comedians out there, (Tina Fey is also a personal favorite of mine that that list does not mention). Why does it seem like they are merely secondary to supposedly bigger power players, who happen to be male?

There are different implications to dissect and routes to go down when assessing this broad topic – one way of looking at it is breaking down what the lifestyle and career of a comedian really entails, and if maybe it’s seemingly more “ambitious” and therefore appealing to men. But, at the core of the issue is the very basic question: are men simply just funnier than women? A sense of humor and one’s funniness is entirely subjective and varies from person to person based on a number of circumstantial factors. Ideally, that should be the end of the analysis. Does it need to be gender based? Carol Gilligan’s rather traditional views on the female voice leans toward the notion that women’s concerns are more group-based, fueled by the need to nurture and based more on contextual thinking. In general, she claims that women speak in a different voice than do men. Does this contribute to whether or not the way a female thinks lends easily to whether or not they have the ability to speak in a “funny” voice? The fact that we use different parts of our brain more readily than men do? That we're more focused on emotional and selfless thinking, so that can't possibly be as funny?

My personal preference when it comes to what I find funnier are bits and comments that tend to be self-deprecating (Conan O’Brien and Dave Chappelle are both personal favorites when it comes to this kind of humor), and I know this is a common preference for others as well to appreciate this particular brand of funny. Is it because men, on top of feeling more comfortable in their skin and confident enough to be self-deprecating, also are seen as the more acceptable gender to be vulgar and crass (also another type of humor more common amongst male comedians and preferred largely by the masses)?

I am mostly personally offended by the, albeit extremely, general notion that males are funnier than female because I don’t find myself to be a dry, humorless female who lacks the ability to find amusement in things and make others laugh. I also am not comfortable with the implication that if I were to be dubbed as funny, it’s because I’m behaving more like a man, or that it’s because I try harder. I don’t try at all - I’m naturally funny, is that okay? I’m also a female. Those two are not mutually exclusive and that memo clearly needs to be sent out already.

Addressing cisgendered privilege:a chance for growth among feminists

"Biology is not destiny" and "Keep Your Laws Off My Body" are generally thought to be iconic feminist pop protest statements. I certainly had both as buttons or bumperstickers in my earlier feminist years. Now some thirteen years later, these statements bring to mind so many different forms of body control and oppression than just the original constraints of childbirth and abortion.
Kate Borstein drew this relation between these old feminist slogans and their application to the bodies of transgender, genderqueer and other gender non conforming persons in her book, Gender Outlaw. She spoke to her struggles as a transwoman seeking acceptance in the feminist community and the irony of the application of such feminist slogans to the transphobic oppression she was experiencing within the community itself.

Certain feminists claim that transgender people seek only to serve the patriarchy. For example, a transphobic feminist might view a transgender woman as a type of male spy, slumming it in the oppressed class. Or this feminist could view a transgender man as a pure appropriator of male privilege. An especially extreme version of such transphobia prevalent in America's feminist history is evident in this quote about transwomen from Janice G. Raymond's 1979 book The Transexual Empire.
All transexual's rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women's sexuality and spirit, as well.

Like Borstein, who heavily criticized Raymond and other transphobic feminists in Gender Outlaw, I find arguments that transgender people inherently serve the perpetuation of misogyny to be thick with lense of cisgender privilege and coming from a place of deep rooted cultural essentialism. Cisgender is a gender identity for a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth or its subsequent gender roles. Some people also prefer the identity term "non-trans." A common frustration with this label however, is that it creates identity in terms of the other, even if it attempts to make transgender people the normative label.

The lense of cisgender privilege, like all other intersections of privilege, heavily colors the assumptions that cisgender persons make about the live's of transgender people. The Cisgender Privilege Checklist can help break down what this privilege looks like from the view of those of us who do not experience these powers. If Raymond had examined her own cisgendered privilege, she may have been able to see her views for the transphobic oppression that they were.

The lives and legal regalities of transgender, genderqueer and gender non conformists are beginning to garner more and more attention nationally and internationally. As this happens, I think its pertinent for the mostly cisgendered legal community educate themselves on how their gender privilege affects their interest in trans legal justice and their attitudes towards trans people.

In the legal world where everything gray is attempted to be made black or white, transgender bodies get socially and legally and medically policed in way that often negates their identity soley to "surgical status." Surgical status meaning whether and what surgical modifications have been done to a person's genitals. Raymond did this when she negated transwomen to being "artificial" women. This reduces a person's identity to genitals and a transgender identity to being a medically based one. One good step towards addressing cisgender privilege in the feminist legal community is to encourage scholars and lawyers to move beyond seeing transgender people as defined only by their bodies.

Borstein wrote Gender Outlaw in 1994. In sixteen years has feminism in the US opened its mind and addressed its transphobia? Some age old struggles, like the transphobic policies at womyn's only music events, remain but many feminists have become fierce cisgendered allies to transpeople. The Gender Across Borders Blog has great resources for how to empower transgender children, for example. I think this speaks to the the main feminist populace as being more open minded and anti-essentialist as it may have been twenty or thirty ago when transgender feminists were still seen as tools of the patriarchy.

My hope is that one day most feminists will grow to the understanding that I think many people who live without cisgender privilege have come to themselves; that often the first step to dismantling the patriarchy is to dismantle your own gender and put it back together again as your own design. Like Borstein argues in Outlaw,

Well, its a patriarchal culture, and gender seems to be basic to the patriarchy. After all, men coudn't have male privilege if there were no males...Doing away with gender is key to the doing away with the patriarchy, as well as ending the many injustices perpetrated in the name of gender inequity.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Victims of rape

Why are female victims of rape treated so poorly? Historically, our judicial system has limited the amount of criminal and civil charges that could be brought against a rapist. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 20th Century that the courts finally recognized spousal rape as a form of rape. Prior to this time, there was a belief that a woman had given advanced consent to a life-long sexual relationship through the wedding vows. Additionally, the court placed a high burden of proof on women accusing a man of rape. They had to prove a lack of consent by showing bruising, scratching, or some other physical evidence of resistance.

Today, many jurisdictions are beginning to favor an approach that places the burden of proof on the alleged rapist, requiring them to demonstrate that there was affirmative consent to have sex. These new reforms, however, do very little to help the actual victims who must continue their lives in a society that fails to recognize the consequences for victims of rape. Just recently, a 16-year-old cheerleader at Silsbee High School in Texas, who was raped at party in 2008 by two of the schools star athletes, was cut from the cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer for the players that had raped her. She had been told by the superintendent to either cheer or be kicked off the cheerleading team.

As an outsider looking in, I wonder what is going on in Texas. How could the school board even tolerate this type of behavior by a public school administrator? I fear it may have to do with the fact that this crime happened in a rural town, a town where high school athletes given the right to do whatever they want and are virtually untouchable. I would not be surprised to find that people in this community point the finger at the victim, accusing her of being a slut and trying to give the athletes a bad name, much like the town’s reactions toward Charlize Theron’s character in “North Country,” in which a girl had been raped by a teacher in high school.

Exactly why does society have such distaste towards women who have been raped? Although one might argue it has to do with the fact that we live in a male dominated society, which therefore is governed by a legal system that is gender biased, this theory does not explain why other women shun these victims as well. It seems that a lack of support by other women for these victims is counterintuitive in that it helps further laws that seem to have a gender bias, such as rape laws. Perhaps it is time to create a stronger solidarity among women, particularly in rural areas, where this support is needed most.

I'm with it.

The saying always went "if she is hairier than you, she is Persian." And listen, it was true. But sadly, our society does not accept hairy women, and unfortunately for a young Yazzyjazzy, they also do not accept hairy children.

I can remember a time in the fourth grade when all my non-Persian girlfriends were comparing their arm hair. Stacy began, "you guys, my arms are sooo hairy!" and all of our friends would shake their heads and tell her it was not true. "No way Stacy, look at MY arm hair," Tiffany would say. And everyone would be appalled with that statement. "You and Stacy have NOTHING, just look at my arms! I'm like a gorilla," Suzanne would say while the girls kindly denied that it was even a possibility.

I always had suspicions that I was a hairy little girl, but thought to myself that this is the perfect opportunity to find out the truth. I even thought these girls would deny my hairy-ness even if I was hairy, and then at least I would have a false hope that I was like everyone else.

So I went into the middle of the group, and said "you guys, look...I am so hairy!" However, instead of the support I was hoping for, Suzanne said "ooh...yah, you should do something about that."

There began the obsession with waxing, tweezing, nairing, epilatying, shaving, name it, I did it. It also began the discussion with other Persian girls my age about how we were alike, and how we suffered the same teasing because we were different from the kids at school. This is reminiscent of a feminist legal theory known as essentialism. Essentialism theorizes that people of the same gender and/or with the same racial features have a common bond. And that was exactly the case here. In this group, I did not get teased and I was understood, not only for my outside appearance, but also for my cultural differences. I could be considered "cool" for my personality and interests, instead of "uncool" because I was different on the outside.

I’d like to say that today, we Persian women embrace our hairiness, but that would be a lie. On the inside, I am well aware that it is illogical that women have to shave or wax certain parts of their bodies to be considered attractive, and definitely that becoming hairless was a man’s idea. But until you have had gorilla arms and have gone through fourth grade teasing, do not judge.

By the way, I was recently told that being Persian "is so cool now" because of the show "Keeping up with the Kardashians," which is a reality show that follows a rich and beautiful, half-Armenian family. This was pretty exciting for me, and my fellow Persies. They talk about how they are pretty hairy too, and they make it seem fun to go laser it all off, so I just wish they were around when I was a kid.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Violence against women, Part 3 - Rape in the U.S.

It is hard to imagine now, but rape used to be considered a crime against a man: the man to whom the female victim belonged. If a man’s wife or daughter were raped, it was a crime that reduced the value of his property. If you look at the early punishments for rape, you will see that some rapists were required to marry the deflowered daughter, so that her father could get his “bride-price.” In case of the rape of a wife, both the rapist and the wife would be put to death! The wife would be considered by the community as an adulteress. As antiquated and strange as viewing a man the true victim of rape seems, the legal system seemed to distrust the female victim well into more recent times. It was not all that long ago that rape required proof that the victim “resisted to the utmost” the sexual assault. Because most sexual violence against women is perpetrated without witnesses, the standard of “resisting to the utmost” required serious visible injuries to the victim. That does not always happen in a rape. I am not trained in any kind of martial arts or self defense and I suspect that most women are not either. How much resistance would be sufficient to meet the term "utmost?" How constant must have been that resistance to produce sufficient physical injuries? In many of the early cases, women also had to show that they resisted the entire duration of the assault, otherwise their resistance was too feeble to meet this standard. This was a particular problem with proving marital rape.

From a feminist view, the underlying notion that the woman needed to continually resist to the utmost, points to an assumption that a man has permission from any woman to have sex on demand, unless he tries and the woman affirmatively resists, and continues to do so relentlessly.
Back in 1974, when I was a college student, rape shield laws began to spring up on the legal landscape. These laws were enacted to encourage women who had been raped to report the crime. In concept, the "shield" was protection for women who were not completely “chaste” from having all their prior history come out in court placing them on trial, instead of the rapist. Rape shield laws did represent some progress, but despite this new set of laws to encourage women to report rape (by shielding them from having their sexual history discussed in the courtroom) rape shield laws did not create much of a shield as is discussed further below.

By the 80’s, feminist theory had serious critiques of rape laws. Catharine MacKinnon said that rape was part of the larger issue of female subordination. She focused on the power imbalance between men and women. She critized how rape law permitted a unwanted invasion of women's integrity by the legal definition of non-consent. Laws punishing rape did more to perpetuate male dominance by subordinating women. Laws were not really about punishing forceful sexual acts. Rape laws continued to legitimize male sexual aggression. Laws forced females to seek the protection of males and did little to prohibit coercive sex. [Although the] line between rape and intercourse commonly centers on some measure of the woman's will, [the] substantive reference point implicit in existing legal standards is the sexual normative level of force.

In her book, Real Rape, Susan Estrich argued that the purpose of rape laws should be to protect a woman’s autonomy and the integrity of her body. Even slight coercion is inconsistent with the notion of consent and the consent doctrine in law. They argued that force requirements in rape laws were too high a bar and failed to account for intimate partner rape or acquaintance rape. Estrich focused more on the criminal law context. She argued that by defining “real rape” as a violent rape by a dark and sinister knife-wielding stranger, it ignored a large category of women who are raped by someone they know. She said:

[A] man can also force a non-consenting woman to engage in sex without resort to actual violence. Power will do.
She also criticized the judicial response to subtle forms of coercion:

Where threats are inarticulate, [the courts] often tell us that no crime has taken place and that fault, if any is to be recognized, belongs with the woman.

As it relates to subtle forms of coercion, Dorothy Roberts noted how rape law fails to recognize the “implicit threat of violence”. Women may fear that men will turn violent even if no threat was made.

In most jurisdictions today, the key issue in rape is consent. Under the consent doctrine, the initial presumtion shifts so that men have to get permission first to have sex. Nevertheless, it is still a very difficult task to prove a rape. Juries are not very sympathetic toward rape victims; women are afraid to face their rapists. There are still major hurdles that victims of date-rape face in prosecuting their aggressors. When coercion is more subtle, rape prosecutions are extremely difficult.

Although the consent doctrine represents progress over the notion of utmost resistance, it has limited effect on the issue of sexual coercion by a victim’s acquaintances. These kind of rapes are still largely under-reported and unpunished. Because 25 states have rape shield laws that have legislative exceptions (such as prior sexual relations with the defendant or evidence offered to prove a reasonable “mistaken” belief that the victim consented) the shield has been ripped away from the victim, allowing her prior sexual conduct to be aired like so much dirty laundry in court. This has a chilling effect on women’s willingness to reprimand their rapists in a court of law. According to the Department of Justice, a whopping 63% of adult rapes are committed by prior spouses or boyfriends. Until rape shield laws really provide a sufficient shield, women will silently suffer the indignity and long-term trauma of rape by someone they know and trust.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Female privilege, beauty privilege, and intersectionality

Last week, 2elle made a fascinating and thought-provoking post on female privilege, beauty privilege, and how they intersect. Various commenters left equally fascinating and thought-provoking comments. My comment got a little out of hand, so I’m making it a separate post, but I strongly encourage anyone who hasn’t done so to read 2elle’s post and the comments to it first, since I’ll be referring and linking to them throughout this post.

I agree with other commenters that I have a hard time getting outraged by seemingly preferential treatment of women and that it is important to consider the context. For me the context for female privilege and female beauty privilege is the discrimination women face, both as women and as members of other minority groups.

Women did and do experience various financial perks. Prior to litigation by feminists such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women were given formal advantages over men in obtaining alimony, survivor’s benefits, and benefits as dependents. Women still receive a variety of informal financial perks such as lady’s nights and men buying women drinks and paying for dates.

Unfortunately, however, these occasional financial perks don’t even come close to making up for the pervasive financial discrimination that structures women’s (and men’s) lives.

Joan Williams argues that our society operates on a heavily gendered split between idealized workers and marginalized caregiver. The idealized worker (almost always a man) works long, hard hours outside the home to earn money. However, the idealized worker is able to function in this way only because the marginalized caregiver (almost always a woman) puts in equally long, hard work cooking, cleaning, and caretaking, reducing or erasing her own income in the process. This pattern continues even after divorce, with the woman typically continuing to provide most childcare. (Joan Williams, Unbending Gender (2000))

In other words, women put in long hours of housework and child care that enable men to reap high salaries. In return, they get a few meals paid for and highly limited, poorly enforced child support and alimony. (Williams 121-123) Put in this context, female privilege starts to look less like real privilege and more like a half-hearted sop.

Female privilege is not just inadequate compensation for discrimination but, also, more insidiously, an opportunity for sexual exploitation and assault. As other commenters noted, most men buy women drinks not simply to be nice but because they are hoping to start up a relationship or a one-night stand. Most men understand that this is not a guarantee, but unfortunately some men think a woman owes them sex or a relationship in exchange for this and other female “perks.” And, unfortunately, a small minority of men use drinks as an aid to sexual assault. (Koren Zailckas, Smashed 202-204 (2005))

Even worse, this type of entitlement and manipulation isn’t exclusive to the social realm. As gtg263r points out, some employers carry it over into the work realm, offering women “perks” (that they may well have deserved anyway) in exchange for sexual favors. And while some cops will let a women off just because she's cute, some cops expect more.

Female privilege takes place not just in the context of discrimination against women, but also discrimination against racial minorities, LGBTI people, the working class, and the disabled. UCLA Law Professor KimberlĂ© Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to refer to the ways different forms of oppression and privilege intersect with one another. However, the basic concept has been around since at least 1851, when Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, saying:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?

Essentially, Truth pointed out that female privilege was often if not always denied to black women. I think this is still the case, although hopefully to a lesser extent. Women of color are less likely to experience favoritism from police and more likely to experience abuse. Less dramatically but still significantly, men (and, to a lesser extent, women) appear to be less likely to ask out black women (and therefore presumably to buy them drinks and dinner and so on) and I would bet the same is true for women who are visibly disabled, queer, or trans or just not conventionally beautiful.

I think there is also an intersectionality issue regarding women and beauty privilege. (Or rather, many issues.) Men also receive advantages for being attractive, without having to face the same risk of being sexually exploited or perceived as bimbos. I agree with 2elle and FeministGal that it’s important to understand that beautiful women receive beauty privilege, but I also think it’s important to understand that female disprivilege makes beauty privilege less valuable to women than it is to men.

No form of discrimination takes place in a vacuum. Sexism takes place in the context of beauty privilege, which takes place in the context of sexism, which takes place in the context of racism, which takes place in the context of classism, ad infinitum. To quote bell hooks:

One system cannot be eradicated while the others remain intact.

Questionable Conduct

As the saying goes, as everything changes everything seems to stay the same. Thus, while it may come as a shock to hear about the story Virginia Thomas, Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, leaving a voice mail for Anita Hill, the fact is that this is not unexpected. Thomas’ exact statement on the voice mail said, “I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”

Anita Hill, now a law professor at Brandeis University, is of course well known for her testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings. Specifically, Hill testified that during her time working with Justice Thomas at both the US Department of Education and at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Justice Thomas subjected Hill to inappropriate language that amounted to sexual harassment. Hill’s testimony, however, was viewed rather suspiciously because of the timing, contested events, and the inherent nature of sexual harassment claims – the stated reliance on “he said, she said” evidence. Hill, because of her decision to bring these claims at this time was subjected to a polygraph test, which found her to be telling the truth. Justice Thomas, however refused to take a polygraph test, stating that this was a form of “high tech lynching.” Justice Thomas was subsequently confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Recently, the New York Times ran a piece related to Virginia Thomas and her work as a Tea Party Activist. Particularly, the article stated that Thomas’ presence as part of Liberty Central, a group dedicated to “protecting the core founding principles” of the nation, posed a concern related to judicial ethics. The principle concern rests on the fact that Thomas’ activism has raised questions of large, unidentified contributions and whether this has some impact upon Justice Thomas’ activities as a Supreme Court Justice.

The ramifications of Hill’s testimony may include a public awareness of work place harassment, but perhaps a more concrete assessment of the impact of her testimony is the voice it gave to Black feminists. What is clear, however, from Virginia Thomas’ telephone call is that Hill’s testimony and its effects still exist. Moreover, the issues of recusal and Thomas’ activism pose questions not only in a political sense, but also in a feminist sense.

First, it is disconcerting to hear that Virginia Thomas still holds resentment over Anita Hill’s accusations. Despite evidence confirming the story, and the time that has elapsed since the testimony – the question remains, why did she choose to leave that voicemail? Of course, this cannot be answered. But the grave concern here the dynamics of power at play in this context. Virginia Thomas is married to man who is incredibly powerful. She also holds power both as her voice for the Liberty Council and as a Tea Party activist. Regardless of whether Hill’s sexual harassment did exist or not, the fact is that by rehashing her testimony, Thomas has now set a precedent that such harassment can continue years later – through books and voice mails. This undermines any woman’s right to step forward, without the threat that she or he would be subject to ridicule years later. Whether this power dynamic is seen through the annals of Washington or in the frame of a room, it is evidence that power can silence opposition and make it part of the law itself.

Second, as stated in the New York Times article (which features Deborah Rhode), two career families are now the norm and this results in no constraints on the political activities of judicial spouses – specifically in this case. This statement packs in a variety of different concerns, but perhaps it is also goes to show how influential family dynamics can be upon women and men in the larger political sphere. We have discussed this concept of the two career families, and how these dynamics work within the family, but perhaps larger considerations are valid as well. In this case, our judicial system and potential ethical considerations are here. While a woman’s career choice should be considered valid and legitimate regardless of the considerations at play, the choice in this case is dangerous. The danger is the fact that the people (the citizens of the US) have no idea who is donating, the amount that is being donated, and more importantly whether Justice Thomas is being influenced. A two career family may be the norm, and a woman should have the choice to have a career, but not if it means sacrificing ethics to pursue an agenda – especially one that stigmatizes women.

Despite the Thomas’ bitterness, Hill has demonstrated resolute integrity and grace. In this context, perhaps the ultimate losers of this whole ordeal are the women who want to achieve the power that the Thomas’ have, as well as the women who seek to have a voice when such power is overwhelming.

Sex trafficking and spatial isolation: part 1 of 2

The New York Times (“NYT”) recently profiled Iana Matei, a leading advocate who helps female victims of human sex trafficking in Romania. The article gives a broad overview of the sex trafficking industry in Romania, its effect on victims, and Ms. Matei’s efforts to bring victims back to a sense of normalcy.

In a recent session for “Feminist Legal Theory,” a class that I am taking in law school, my professor, Lisa Pruitt, assigned readings regarding feminism and rural women. These topics are of particular interest to Professor Pruitt, who has written extensively on both. The assigned readings discuss one theoretical framework that I think may have particular relevance in the sex trafficking context: spatiality.

Although Professor Pruitt relates spatiality with respect to rural women, as I read the NYT article, it occurred to me that this concept may also help to explain the victimization process of sex trafficking. In the rest of this blog post I will attempt to draw connections between the NYT article and Professor Pruitt’s theoretical framework regarding spatiality.

The beginning of the NYT article briefly discusses a fifteen year-old prostitute’s decision to escape her captors. The article mentions that she had tried to escape before and had been beaten severely; Ms. Matei was unsure whether the girl would have the courage to try again. This scenario is probably not uncommon within the trafficking industry. Regarding rural women, Professor Pruitt has argued that their “spatial isolation” from neighbors and law enforcement exacerbates the problems of domestic violence. (Gender, Geography & Rural Justice, p. 359.)

I believe that spatial isolation from law enforcement and outsiders similarly aggravates the helplessness and dependency that a trafficking victim may feel towards her physically abusive captor(s). The fifteen year-old girl in the NYT article was probably hesitant to try to escape again because her spatial isolation from anyone able or willing to help likely rendered an escape attempt ineffectual. Spatial isolation in the trafficking context is further illustrated by the fact that once girls and women are forced into the industry, “they are sold to gangs and locked up in brothels or forced to work the streets.”

Related to the idea of spatial isolation is the concept of “spaces of dependence.” One scholar, Kevin Cox, has defined spaces of dependence as “the idea that some socio-spatial relationships are interchangeable within a given space but difficult or impossible outside that space.” (Gender, Geography & Rural Justice, p. 360.) Professor Pruitt has argued that the concept of spaces of dependence may help explain the lack of mobility among rural women. Extending this argument, I believe that spaces of dependence may partly explain the helplessness and inability to escape for victims of human trafficking.

First, in the case of a girl or woman who has been working in the same brothel or on the same streets for a long period of time, she may eventually cope with her situation by becoming accustomed to her local streets, clientele, or routine. However, if removed from her area of knowledge and familiarity and forced into prostitution in a new location, she may not necessarily be able to adapt easily to a new and unfamiliar place.

Conceptually speaking, a victim’s knowledge and understanding of her surroundings may be substantially filtered through the lenses of prostitution and sex trafficking. Even if she attempted to escape on her own or to seek help from authorities, her ability to effectively attain this help may be hampered by the fact that her local knowledge depends on mechanisms of oppression – sexual servitude, physical abuse, enslavement, and isolation. Thus, she may not have the confidence or knowledge to seek outside help in order to escape her circumstances.

Professor Pruitt has stated that “[e]mpirical research shows that rural women rely heavily on social networks for material assistance (e.g., babysitting services, transportation, and even assistance with paying bills), as well as social and emotional support.” (Gender, Geography, & Rural Justice, p. 361.) Similarly, victims of sex trafficking probably rely on their social networks – captors and other victims – for material assistance (e.g., money, transportation, protection, housing), as well as for social and emotional dependence. In this way, spaces of dependence apply to both physical and metaphorical spaces.

In part two of this blog post I will discuss: (1) lack of anonymity resulting from spatial isolation in the sex trafficking context; (2) sex trafficking as an example of the public/private divide reinforced through spatial isolation; and (3) using spatial isolation as a theoretical framework to assist recovering victims of sex trafficking.

Feminism and the Tea Party

Well, it looks like push came to shove.

The Tea Party is so desperate to remain in the eyes of the media, to monopolize and frame the discussion to fit their agenda (which is, basically, to regain GOP majority in Congress), their female candidates and mouthpieces are increasingly using the term "feminist" to describe themselves.  Now, being a liberal as I am, it should not bother me how a politician self-identifies, but identity politics is as strong now as ever, and I cannot sit tight and shut up when the extreme right-wing co-opts such terms.  (More should have cried bloody murder, too, when George W. Bush described himself as "compassionate conservative," as he famously lacked compassion when he signed more death warrants than any other elected official at that time in America.)

So, let's examine the concept of this "conservative feminism." This term was popularized by Judge Posner, whom I respect for many of his brilliant opinions in the stream of economic analysis of the law.  Alas, I have to disagree with his shortsighted analysis of feminist politics: he lamented that giving women "extra" benefits prima facie discriminated against their male counterparts. Sound familiar? This is precisely the same argument that advocates for a "color-blind" society put forward to defeat affirmative action. Never mind that past discrimination caused severe distortions in the economy of race or gender relations. We don't have to do anything to remedy that, because, you see, we want to treat each person fairly. Amazing what rhetorics can do: equality is now a demand from the conservatives. But what they demand is never actual, substantive equality. The quest for a color-blind and gender-neutral society is always a cry for merely formal equality: emphasis placed on the word treatment in "equal treatment under the law."

Feminists of all stripes agree that formal equality is not sufficient.  I may be happy that I can be addressed as Ms., have my own professional career, and even receive equal pay for equal work, but when most women go home at night, they still put in a second shift.  Child-care, after school programs, and the like are either so expensive, or their quality is so sub-par that waves of professional women have to decide to forgo developing their careers (for at least a significant amount of time) to properly raise and educate their children. Public transportation in huge swaths of this country is almost non-existent, so parents have to ferry their children to extracurricular activities. Guess which parent will "choose" to take that task on?  I could continue, but you got my point.  Thus, conservative feminism, which denies these realities, is no feminism at all. 

Nevertheless, the Tea Party Feminists argue that they are true feminists, because they are women demanding a spot in the spotlight. They are, as they self-identify, stay-at-home moms (don't even get me started on that)  organizing the Tea Party activities while at the soccer field, watching their kids' practice.  They are "out there," having an articulate voice on how this country should be run. Ain't that feminism?

My answer to them: No way.  Feminism is not about having women out there organizing for the GOP. That's Republican Party politics.  Feminism, on the other hand, has a mission to achieve: it was once the vote, the workplace, the sexual harassment laws, and so on.  Today's feminism still has a mission.  But Tea Party "feminism" is simply taking advantage of all the organizing true feminists have done for them.  They are, at best, essentialists, or "cultural feminists," perpetuating the myth of female difference, the idea of different voice.

Cultural feminists believed that women's different voice benefits society, and that's why society should allow women to have a voice: a loud, clear voice of sterling silver, that would balance out the iron-clad male voice.  Cultural feminists advanced the argument that women were better at cooperation, peace negotiations, human resource management, primary education, etc., where "soft skills," or "people skills" are required.  But women, they said, were probably not as good (or not as properly there) as men at combat, military strategies, spatial organization, driving, mining, long distance running, and the like.  Thus, women should have a distinct place in the public sphere, but not the same as men, just not quite.  This quaint vision of feminism still prescribes separate spheres to women, but not along the public/domestic dividing line.  And this strain of thinking still appears ad nauseam today in women's magazines ("Yes! You Can Have It All! Just Not At The Same Time!") while it continues to deny women's substantive equality.

As this blog on states:
If there was ever proof that the feminist movement needs to leave gender essentialism at the door -- this is it. If powerful feminists continue to insist that gender matters above all else, the movement will become meaningless. If any woman can be a feminist simply because of her gender, then the right will continue to use this faux feminism to advance conservative values and roll back women's rights.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Boys are better (protected) than girls

At the young age of 6, boys already feel the superiority complex that boys may be better than girls, physically and mentally. But where are boys getting this idea? There is much to be said about child development. However, one cannot ignore one of the biggest factors to this type of thinking: adults. Through example, we are instilling in children the preferential treatment of men. Through female and male interactions, both at home and in public, children are learning that there is a difference between men and women and that because of this difference men have an easier life.

The effects of family values on youth, especially with cultural differences and development, may be difficult to explain and combat in regards to this notion that boys are better than girls. However, we should not ignore the power and authority that public spheres have in molding our youth, especially in the school-setting. Although we ideally would like to believe schools are a safe place where everyone is treated fairly and given the opportunity to grow and develop into outstanding citizens, I am concerned that this may not be true. Multiple incidents suggest that schools are dropping the ball on providing an equal and safe learning environment for female students.

In one instance, school officials at Upper St. Clair High School ignored the pleas of a female student who told her teacher that a boy at the school sexually assaulted her and other female students. Instead of calling law enforcement officials, or even notifying the victim's parents, the principal initiated his own investigation because he didn't believe the female student,
Dr. Ghilani didn't believe that the students were in danger or that any safety concerns were present. Instead, he thought students were having consensual sex in school after hours...[he] believed that the girls liked [the accused], and were jealous of the other [alleged victims].
There are various reasons the principal could have reacted this way, but it's interesting to note that the female victim was instantly discredited and ignored, while the male accused received instant credibility. In a situation so serious, which takes a lot of courage to tell even a close friend, the female student was even given the benefit of the doubt by the school official, who is supposed to ensure the well-being and safety of all students.

What is even more appalling is that the victim was raped again as a result of the principal's "sting operation," in which he used the female student as "bait" to figure out whether students were engaging in sexual activity on school campus. Regardless of whether the girl engaged in consensual sex, the principal's actions were alarming and dangerous. He disregarded the severity of the situation as well as the welfare of the female student.

I would like to think this is an extreme situation and a one time deal. However, this is not the only school failing to act when female students are being sexually harassed and assaulted. Another "bait" lawsuit was filed in September, Hill v. Madison County School Board, in which school officials knew one of their students was sexually harassing female students. After school officials did nothing to punish the boy, a teacher used the "bait" tactic, which resulted in the raping of another female student. Similarly, school officials kicked a student off the cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer for her rapist.

What is happening at these schools? Why aren't female students being taken seriously when they implicate another student, a male student, for sexual harassment and assault?

It is clear that schools need to get serious and change their policy towards victims of sexual assault. But, in general, schools must guarantee equal protection and safety for all their student. Because schools are in the position to mold our youth, every action they take and how they handle sensitiv incidents will have an impact on their students. When students see this kind of disrespect, especially on a systemwide level, they are likely to mimic the same sentiments in life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October. The month of Halloween costumes followed by Halloween cavities. More importantly, however, it's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month!

In honor of this, I wanted to do some research about screening/prevention in order to educate myself as well as promote awareness. I definitely learned a lot. For example, I had never heard of male breast cancer before. The third week of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October is dedicated to raising awareness for male breast cancer. Male breast cancer is much more rare, accounting for 1% of all breast cancers. Like with other cancers, it is unknown if the cause is mainly environmental or genetic.

The symptoms of breast cancer in both men and women are very similar. Some things to look for to aid in early detection are:
  • Any new, hard lump or thickening in any part of the breast
  • Change in breast size or shape
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Swelling, redness or warmth that does not go away
  • Pain in one spot (for women: that does not vary with your monthly cycle)
  • Pulling in of the nipple
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly and appears only in one breast
  • An itchy, sore or scaling area on one nipple
Also, it is suggested that women obtain regular mammography screening starting at the age of 40, although if there is a history of breast cancer in the family this should be done earlier.

From a feminist standpoint, it is great to see how much media attention and support is behind something that is seen as women's cause (even though I do think there needs to be more awareness about male breast cancer). It definitely should be taken seriously as it is the "most common cancer in women in the US, aside from skin cancer". Based on current rates, 12.2 percent of women born in the United States today will develop breast cancer at some time in their lives. On a more positive note, this is a cause that brings women together.

I've participated in the Run/Walk for Breast Cancer in San Diego and one thing that really struck me was the sense of solidarity among the women. One of the criticisms often articulated (and rightly so) in this class is that there is a distinct lack of sisterhood among women. I think the breast cancer awareness movement is really inspirational in that it brings women together and I hope to see this kind of attitude permeate other aspects of life as well.

Women Wednesday - A Woman's Worth

Today's quotes focus on criticisms of what our society values in a woman. Feel free to comment!

"The average woman would rather have beauty than brains, because the average man can see better than he can think." ~Author Unknown

"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good." ~Charlotte Whitton

"Whether they give or refuse, it delights women just the same to have been asked." ~Ovid

Friday, October 15, 2010

“I really shouldn’t have another slice . . . but why?”

After eating some bad Mexican food once in college and being bedridden for a few days with food poisoning, several of my classmates commented on how much thinner (and “better”) I looked once I returned. Also, I sometimes will lose weight because of the “sick” diet (the faux, accidental diet that occurs when you lose your appetite due to an illness). More recently, after making the huge mistake of gorging on every item at a decadent buffet in Vegas to the point where I began to feel ill, I emerged from the bathroom after having heaved my entire meal and, after concerned friends made sure I was feeling better, they joked about how it was a win-win situation. Not only did I get to enjoy and feast on every fattening item, but I didn’t have to suffer the consequence of the excess calories that would’ve gone straight to my hips. Yes, I was thrilled . . . I guess?

Do men get comments of this nature as often as women? It may be a huge generalization to claim that women are more weight and image conscious than men in general, but hard statistics and facts prove that the majority of those who suffer from eating disorders are female and that society perpetuates a much more stringent standard on what a woman should look like (small waist, skinny face, but shapely breasts and bottom preferably – or the stick-skinny-all-around model physique). These views are not news in this day and age, I know, but what I began to ponder recently is if it’s entirely true and, not to suggest that women are more self-victimizing, but isn’t it slightly unfair to suggest that men don’t suffer similarly with weight and self-image issues? The chubby, overweight, or obese man is not considered, by societal or objective standards, more attractive than the chubby, overweight, or obese woman.

Going even further down this route is a comment my friend made to me recently about how, especially at my age where most of my peers are either dating or in concerned with kind of romantic relationship, when it comes to heterosexual relationships at least, there is often an unequal scale tipped in favor of women on the supply/demand scale. It is arguably easier for a woman of my age to get out there and land herself male affection than it is for a man of my age to receive the same from the opposite sex. If that’s sometimes the case, why is it still that women suffer more commonly from weight and self-image issues?

This is not to suggest even remotely that females are only concerned with their physique and looks to land a Mr. or to receive romantic/sexual validation, but just an explanation to ponder. Of course we’re concerned with the way we look because it contributes to our own self-confidence and self-affirmation. But, aren’t men?

Is it because the smaller a woman’s general physique is, the more attractive she is considered by general societal and media-created standards? While, on the other end of the spectrum, men are encouraged to “bulk up” more if they are scrawnier or skinny, and if they have a higher fat content, it’s not really an issue for them to lose it, but simply to turn it into muscle? If this holds any truth to it at all, it’s just yet another skewed perception that perpetuates the overall concern that feminism is trying to deal with – why more for the man, and less for the woman?

Grandmothers and grrrls: ecofeminist elders and fourth wave rockers personalize feminism

Feminism is a personal identity politic in my life. A brief history of personal identity politics on Wikipedia explains that:
the term identity politics has been used in political and academic discourse in the United States since the 1970s. One aim of identity politics has been to empower the oppressed to articulate their oppression in terms of their own experience-a process of consciousness raising that distinguishes identity politics from the liberal conception of politics as driven by individual self-interest.
The personal part of identity politics has provided one of the most powerful expressions and evolutions of my feminist understanding. Identity politics move feminist empowerment beyond just theories and discussion to include a narrative or a story; a daily living implication of the powers and oppressions addressed by feminism.

I don't keep my feminism restricted to the classroom. It is something I live everyday. One small way I keep myself inspired as a feminist and take part in intentional conscious raising is through using an ecofeminist daily planner. Last year this planner was dedicated to a group of women actualizing the power of personal identity politics in a global way.

The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers came together as an intentional action of prayer and consciousness raising for the first time in 2004. Thirteen community elders from all over the world came together under the banner of spiritual activism. The Grandmothers Council explains their mission as:
We represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children and for the next seven generations to come.

The Grandmothers Council's activism inspires restored hope in creating a sustainable word and healing the suffering already in existence. And for me personally, I deeply appreciated the power of a feminist movement that sprang from the heart of an older population. The knowledge and resources of elders are too often ignored in our current society and in political activism.

Much like society ignores the input of elders, so too the voices of the very young as seen as having little value. When I was a pre-teen, feminism found me through riot grrrl. Riot grrrl was a manifestation of feminism through underground woman/queer made punk music, mostly in the North Western United States in the early 1990s. Riot grrrl was a musical or artistic expression of third wave feminism. Like most dedicated riot grrrls, that feminist movement and music changed my life forever. It began my exploration of personal identity politics. Today, the riot grrrls who have all grown up have grown a new wave of this movement to empower today's very young feminists.

Rock and Roll Camp for Girls started in 2001 in Portland, Oregon. It is a grassroots DIY organization that joins young girls ages 8-17 with local female musicians with the intention of :
building girls self esteem through music, creation and performance.
Girls Rock Camp may often be the first true act of feminist consciousness-raising many of these young people get to experience, and its a powerful one. The young musician's get to create entire songs,albums, bands and performances all with the intentional guidance of an often semi-famous and feminist local rocker. If you sat an 8 year old down and tried to explain consciousness-raising to her, she may not be able to totally grasp the complexity of such political action theories. However, if you give her a guitar, tell her that her voice is valuable and necessary and ask her to share it; then she has gone beyond having to understand consciousness-raising to actually participating in it.

Through personalizing feminism, at all ages and phases of life, it becomes easier to both digest the oppressions taking place in our lives and to deconstruct them out of us. Deeply personal forms of activism, like music and prayer, provide the daily sustenance of feminist living that academic theories sometimes just cannot.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Recently it has come to my attention that I may be a “metrosexual.” Many people have told me that I look “metro” (short for metrosexual), act metro, and have metro tendencies. I was never exactly sure what people meant when they used the phrase, but it seemed to me the word had a negative connotation, one that was emasculating. On one occasion I was asked, “as a metrosexual, who would you say spends more time on their hair, you or your girlfriend?” For these reasons, I have decided to examine the concept of metrosexuality closely and to try to understand what it means., defines metrosexual as, “[a] heterosexual male who appears slightly gay due to his impeccable sense of style, belief in designer hygiene, and willingness to emote. [B]y definition, a metrosexual must be male due to the ster[e]otype that women are usually conscientious of these things from the beginning.” Furthermore, it has broken up the typical metrosexual into 2 groups, Metrosexual A and B. Metrosexual A, is defined as a individual that depicts a more apparent form of metrosexuality--men that are physically metro. “This includes but is not limited to: hair dying, matching/nice clothes, clean nails, and tanning.” The other group, Metrosexaul B, is considered the less obvious metrosexual because you cannot tell from their physical appearance that they are metro. Instead, they are described as being interested in metro activities, which include but are not “limited to: musical theatre, celebrity gossip, appreciating fashion, and occasionally dressing well.”Metrosexual B men do not necessarily openly show their interest in these activities; in fact, one might describe them as “closet metrosexuals”.

These definitions really got my head spinning. Do we really need to create a category for men that have the qualities mentioned above? Am I some how short of being a heterosexual man for using hair products, wearing nice cloths and enjoying celebrity gossip? I certainly don’t think so. Our society as a whole has placed great weight on appropriate gender roles along gender boundaries. Stereotyping in this manner really threatens to limit the self-expression of others and promotes a specific image of what is appropriate for a particular gender. If we continue this practice, we will be taking away from what makes each of us human, freely expressing our uniqueness and who we are as individuals. I don’t want to be forced to become, what I guess you would call, a Metrosexual B male, but rather, I want to be free of any worries of how I may be perceived or treated by others.

One way we may be able to combat this type of limited thinking is to put a stop to it from a marketing perspective. Advertisements and marketing campaigns too often outline what is “manly” and what is “feminine.” This can be seen in ads for fragrances by companies like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Kline, and Hugo Boss, where you can clearly see the emphasis on the “for men” or “for women” label. Do fragrances really need to be labeled in such a fashion? Shouldn’t people be allowed to choose for themselves what fragrance defines who they are? It is sad that companies have such a large influence on how we essentially behave in society, but given that we live in a capitalistic society, we must learn to approach social problems, such as the one at hand, with this controlling presence in mind.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but your First Amendment rights can really hurt me?

The well-being and protection of children is a top priority in our country.

Or is it?

A couple of weeks ago, an 18-year-old male student from Rutgers University committed suicide after being bullied by his roommate for being gay. The roommate broadcasted live images of him having a sexual encounter with another man on the internet, according to campus and law enforcement sources. There have been countless other suicides related to anti-gay bullying this past year.

Less than a week after the highly publicized Rutgers suicide, I saw a preview for a movie called "The Dilemma." The preview began with Vince Vaughn words: "[E]lectric cars are so gay." These are the first words used to promote this upcoming movie, these are words meant to cause laughter, and these are words setting the tone for the rest of the preview. The country is aware of the excessive amount of teen suicides attributed to anti-gay bullying, many times using WORDS, and this movie uses anti-gay speech in its preview to get audiences to come watch it. It is absolutely disgusting that our society would allow this; hateful anti-gay expression is hurting, if not literally killing, our young people.

I have also noticed music on public radio calling women "whores," and "bitch[es]," and television shows making fun of people for acting "retarded." These are harmful words that send a message to society that women, gays, and people with mental deficiencies are weak and inferior, and that putting them down is acceptable.

The Second Circuit recently confronted the issue of whether using offensive language, even a single, isolated word, on broadcast television or radio is sanctionable by the FCC in Fox Networks, Inc. v. FCC. The court struck down the FCC's "fleeting expletive" policy, finding the FCC's standard for regulating to be too vague, and thus unconstitutional. It also implied that the crusade against these words is futile since people will presumably always try to find a way to express offensive language.

I almost feel like the Second Circuit is another bully. The FCC's policy is based on protecting young people, whose vocabularies can be expanded in a single instant. The policy is as clear as it can be, as there must be some ambiguity to account for contemporary standards for what is offensive. The FCC lists a few expletives that are sanctionable when aired, but reserves the right to review the context of words to decide whether they are indecent, profane, or obscene, and thus restrictable.

I am not arguing that eliminating offensive expression on public television or radio will cure the problems associated with bullying, but I think it would help. When our young people are crying out for help by taking their own lives AS A DIRECT RESULT of being bullied and put down for who they are, legal steps must be taken to make a change. Banning offensive language on public television and radio, to which our young people are exposed to on a daily basis, could be extremely effective. The less they hear offensive language, the less they will repeat it or be affected by it.

The FCC and many parent group intervenors are appealing this decision, and it is widely expected to go to the Supreme Court in a year or two on the issue of whether the FCC's policy is unconstitutional. I hope that the Supreme Court protects our young people from further injury by upholding this policy to ban offensive words on public radio and television.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Women in the military and their restrictions on combat engagement

The New York Times (“NYT”) recently profiled female Marines serving in Afghanistan. According to the article, the American military sent 40 female Marines to Afghanistan as part of “an unusual experiment” to create full-time “female engagement teams” to accompany all-male patrols in a particular rural region where men are culturally off limits from Afghan women.

According to NYT, the mission for these female Marines is to win over Afghan women by meeting with the women over tea in their homes, assessing their needs for aid, gathering intelligence, and assisting in building schools and clinics. This seven-month deployment is nearing an end, and the mission has been deemed a success. The article notes, however, that these Marines have also been involved in combat situations – such as firefights, ambushes, bombings, and base attacks – thereby sidestepping military rules restricting women in combat.

As stated by NYT, current military policy prohibits women from “combat” branches such as the infantry, armor, and Special Forces. Apparently, Congress has even tried to restrict women’s role in the military even more. However, possibly as a sign of the practical necessities of the military, women have been skirting these rules for nearly a decade in Iraq and in Afghanistan. To comply with the combat prohibition rule, women simply “attach,” rather than assign, to combat branches; female engagement teams simply “accompany” Marine infantry units.

In late summer 2010 the military reviewed and clarified certain rules: (1) female engagement teams could not go on foot patrols with the primary purpose of hunting and killing enemies; and (2) the female engagement teams were only allowed “temporary stays” of 45 days at combat bases. To satisfy the language of the latter rule, every six weeks female Marines travel from their combat stations for an overnight stay at a larger base camp before returning back to the combat outposts.

At least one female Captain has stated that “[t]he current policy on women in combat is outdated and does not apply to the type of war we are fighting.” The author of the NYT article notes that the Marines promote an image as “the most testosterone-fueled service,” and that the Marines are a long way from allowing women in the infantry. The remainder of the article offers a glimpse into the minds and typical days of three female Marines, but the author does not substantially probe the basis for the combat prohibition rule.

The most likely reason that I can think for this dual standard is a preconception that women cannot or should not handle the physical and/or mental requirements for combat situations. If so, this rationale seems rather presumptuous and calls to mind other prejudicial notions of what women are or are not capable of doing. It may be a biological fact that women are, generally speaking, physically smaller than men, but this may not necessarily hold true on an individualized basis for women and men who serve in the armed forces. A woman who wishes to serve in a Marine combat unit may be more physically-capable or more mentally-prepared than a similarly situated male Marine, but the military’s rules do not allow for this variability. Instead, the military applies a hard and fast rule that possibly rests on a questionable foundation.

Moreover, a comparison of the black-letter of the rules versus the real-world operation of the rules highlights the ineffective restriction that the rules impose. One rule prohibits female teams from going on foot patrols to hunt and kill enemies. According to NYT, however, female Marines involuntarily become engaged in combat situations simply as a result of doing their jobs. These types of situations basically boil down to "kill or be killed." From a practical standpoint, it does not make sense to prohibit female Marines from engaging in combat with a purpose when the military is placing them in situations where they will inevitably have to engage in combat anyway. Similarly, the “temporary stay” rule does not seem to serve any actual purpose when female Marines can, and do, circumvent the rule by complying with the black letter, but not the spirit, of the rule.

In conclusion, the military may have valid reasons for prohibiting women from serving in combat branches, but as a categorical rule, such a wholesale restriction along gender and sex lines seems suspect to me because I cannot think of why an individual’s gender or sex should factor in to one’s ability to join a combat unit. Furthermore, in the real world, female Marines sidestep these rules anyway, thus evincing a certain reality which the military's rules do not reflect.

Remembering the "W Effect"

Does anybody remember the Hillary Clinton/Barbara Bush Cookie Bake-Off of 1992?  If so, do you feel the shock, the outrage, like this blogger?  Or are you rather entertained and curious for more First Lady Cookie Recipes? But the cookie bake-off controversy is just the tip of the iceberg of how conservatives -- and a complacent, sensationalist media -- have reshaped the feminist landscape.

As Laura Flanders shows in her book: The W Effect: Bush's War on Women, the conservatives took the helm in the '80s and largely did away with what the feminists of yore have achieved.  Not even the supposedly liberal Clinton years could undo the damage; in many ways, Clinton's fiscal conservatism hurt the feminist agenda just as much as Reagan's.  But with George W. Bush, an onslaught of anti-feminist policies came to finish the job and wage a virtual war on women's rights.

The book is a collection of essays, interviews, and blog posts by investigative journalists, social critics, scholars and activists. It is divided to chapters with titles beginning with the letter W: World; War; Wages and Well-Being.  Especially illustrative is the title of the chapter on the Bush Administration's incessant attempt to control women's bodies and reproductive choices: "Weddings, Wombs, and Whoopee."

The essays range from lightweight to heavy-duty, the authors from Gail Sheehan to Gloria Steinem.  The range of emotion it provoked in me oscillated between desperation to outrage, including astonishment and vigorous head-shaking.  For example, I was surprised to find out that in 2003(!) we were already talking about this "current" Recession.  (After living through 2008, your memories of the recession of 2003 aren't that bad, are they?)  I was also jolted by the number of ultra-right wing, incompetent cronies Bush has placed in powerful positions, like naming John Klink, formerly the Vatican's representative to the U.N., as leader of our country's delegation to U.N. conferences on children's rights, population, and development.  (Mr. Klink went on to oppose emergency contraception and abortion even for victims of troop rape in the former Yugoslavia.) Or the infamous appointment of anti-contraceptive crusader Dr. Hager to lead the FDA's commission on reproductive health, another fox to guard the hen house, in a very literal sense.

Don't misunderestimate me: I am well aware that Barack Obama is now in the White House.  It seems the raging wildfire of anti-women's-rights policies is extinguished.  But I also know that it will take at least several years for President Obama to undo this damage.  It was all the more fitting that the first legislation he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  I am looking forward to many more similar initiatives, policies, and signings of progressive legislation, in the years to come.