Thursday, September 29, 2011

One week's evidence of modern anti-feminism

On September 28, 2011, the New York Times ran an article titled “Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say.” The story reported “thousands of sexual assaults that occur in the United States every year are not reflected in the federal government’s yearly crime report because the report uses an archaic definition of rape that is far narrower than the definitions used by most police departments.” Namely, the Uniform Crime Report defines rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” Critics of this definition say that it “does not take into account sexual-assault cases that involve anal or oral penetration or penetration with an object, cases where the victims were drugged or under the influence of alcohol, or cases with male victims.”

I read this news story shortly after also reading Catherine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989). I couldn’t help but juxtapose the news story with an excerpt from that scholarly work: “Women have been excluded from jobs in male-only prisons . . . because they might get raped, the Court taking the viewpoint of the reasonable rapist on women’s employment opportunities. The conditions that create women’s rapability are not seen as susceptible to legal change.”

In what may seem like a non-sequitur – don’t worry, I’ll tie it back in – I also just finished reading the teenage book series the Hunger Games. In the Hunger Games (a futuristic survival story), the protagonist Katniss hunts to feed her family, and she is a skilled fighter. After escape from what can most concisely be termed evil forces, Katniss returns to her village only . . . to agonize over men. In the series’ second novel, when Katniss isn’t debating which man she should marry, she is asking one of her two husband-candidates to validate her beliefs and actions.

Reader, you’re probably thinking: what on Earth do the Uniform Crime Report, a judicial decision prohibiting women from working in prisons, and the Hunger Games have in common? The short answer is, situation theory. When Catherine MacKinnon writes “the sexes are not equally situated in society with respect to their relative differences,” some might argue, “that’s outdated.” Yet consider the diverse evidence above, collected from sources published in 2011, 1989, and 2008. Violence against women is, as of now, still condoned by lax statutory definitions and paternalistic judicial opinions. In our works of fiction -- which should reflect our highest ideals -- female role models for the next generation succeed only when they fill male roles (hunter, fighter) and remain “measured according to correspondence with man, their equality judged by proximity to his measure.” The male-female gender hierarchy manifests both physically and intellectually. It is, though not overt, ubiquitous.

I believe that modern feminism’s most important task is to communicate this basic reality, one that I myself was skeptical of prior to enrolling in this class. For many, it’s easy to dismiss equality as something that we thank our Grandmothers for – as a fait accompli. Other times, "no structural analysis is possible, because everyone is too busy with self-analysis." (Judith Baer, Our Lives Before the Law.) What Feminist Legal Theory has made me see in almost everything that I encounter, from news stories to novels to conversations with friends, is just how entrenched anti-feminist attitudes are, and just how much they impact all women. Feminism hasn’t reached its goals; at best, it's halfway there.

By way of comments I’d welcome examples of books, TV shows, or practices in mainstream culture that you once accepted as normal, but have realized are anti-feminist since taking this class.

Even in Obama's White House

Last week Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, stirred controversy when he published his newest book, Confidence Men. In the book, Suskind examines the most recent financial crisis and follows the Obama Administration as the young President struggles to fix the U.S. economy. Michiko Kakutani, literary critic for the N.Y. Times, describes Suskind’s portrayal of Obama as one of “a young, inexperienced president lacking the leadership and managerial skills to deal effectively with the cascading economic problems he inherited; a brainy but detached executive with a tendency to frame policy matters intellectually ‘like a journalist, or narrator, or skilled observer’; an oddly passive C.E.O. whose directive on restructuring the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was, [Suskind] says, ignored or slow-walked by his own economic team.”

Of the many aspects of the Administration Suskind depicts, his description of the work environment for women during the first two years of Obama’s term has sparked the most controversy. Suskind quotes Anita Dunn, a former communications director, as saying “[the White House] would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . [b]ecause it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.” Christina Romer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said she “felt like a piece of meat” after being left out of a meeting with Lawrence H. Summers, former chairman of the National Economic Council. Suskind describes the situation, “There was chaos where people weren’t aware of who was supposed to be invited to what meeting. In many cases, the women were excluded. The guys banded together. The president was not monitoring it. The women were excluded. They felt, ‘Hey. What about me?’

Fortunately, Obama eventually made strides to ease the hostility after Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, expressed her concerns about the issue to the President. In November 2009, Obama held a dinner with women on his staff. According to Suskind, Obama sought open discourse with the women and wanted to understand how the women felt. Jarrett would later say that the dinner was “empowering.”

I admit I was surprised when I first read about the controversy. Even though I’ve spent the last few weeks learning about the prevalence of gender discrimination in the workplace, I hardly thought Obama’s White House would be one of those workplaces. Obama has done well to have a diverse administration, at least compared to past presidents. See Krissah Thompson, Obama Administration Continues Path Toward Diversity, Washington Post, Jun. 22, 2009; Krissah Thompson, Sisterhood of Powerful Black Women in Washington Politics Comes to the Fore, Washington Post, Mar. 18, 2009. He has issued Executive Orders to promote diversity and inclusion to increase minorities, including women, in the workforce and to create the White House Council on Women and Girls “to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy.” Not only has he nominated two women to the U.S. Supreme Court, almost half of all his confirmed judicial nominees are women. I thought Obama’s White House would be the last place that would suffer from the boys’ club mentality. Clearly I was wrong.

Yesterday, I discussed Suskind’s book with two of my female peers who are also alum of this class. I shared with them that I was surprised to discover the gender discrimination in the White House. Interestingly, they weren’t surprised at all and were amused that I was. They rightly assumed that the boys’ club would be just as prevalent in Obama’s White House as it would be in any other political or business organization. One of them even felt that the same would have happened had Hillary Clinton been President.

I can’t help but wonder whether the difference in our reactions is because they have been personally excluded from the boys’ club. I would probably feel differently if I faced what they had. What do you think? Am I the only person that is surprised?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Driving change in Saudi Arabia

Today, without a thought, I got in my car, drove to the airport, flew to San Diego, and hailed a cab to arrive at a job interview. I did not for a moment stop to appreciate my freedom to move about the country without restraint, and without escort. Saudi women, apparently, do not enjoy this freedom.

Saudi women are not allowed to obtain driver’s licenses, nor are they allowed to hail cabs without a male escort. (Other restrictions on Saudi women include the inability to marry, divorce, or enter a public hospital without the permission of a male guardian.) The ban on travel reflects a deeply entrenched religious belief that women are prone to sin and, thus, must be restricted or escorted by a member of the allegedly morally superior sex. So, how do these women get around? They either rely on male relatives and friends, which I, personally, believe involves a constant test of patience and flexibility, or they hire drivers.

Presently, women all over Saudi Arabia are participating in an on-going mass protest against the ban on driving. These women, some with the support of progressive husbands, videotape themselves driving around in broad daylight (gasp!). The videos, posted online, draw hundreds of viewers and serve to increase awareness and draw international support against a discriminatory practice that has simply gone on for too long. Most of these brave activists are stopped, and told to go home.

One female driver, however, was sentenced to 10 lashes, ironically, just one day after King Abdullah, leader of Saudi Arabia, granted women the right to vote in the upcoming election (2015). King Abdullah has since revoked the sentence, but the ruling did not go unnoticed in the international community. Philip Luther, an Amnesty International deputy director commented: "Allowing women to vote in council elections is all well and good, but if they are still going to face being flogged for trying to exercise their right to freedom of movement, then the king's much trumpeted 'reforms' actually amount to very little."

Interestingly, some Saudi women do not desire reform. This begs the question—is this practice of restricting a woman’s movement an integral part of Saudi culture; are we applying our own ethnocentric vision of equality to judge the accepted practice of a foreign nation? Rowdha Yousef, a strong-minded Saudi woman, recently started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, she had collected more than 5,400 signatures in support of continuing conservative practices like the one restricting women’s movements in the public sphere. In Yousef’s opinion, activists are rejecting their cultural heritage in exchange for Western values. Notably, Yousef may be the only Saudi female leading a campaign to perpetuate restrictions against women.

Female academics in Saudi Arabia, however, recognize a need for change, while still acknowledging the importance of culture. Reem Asaad, lecturer at a college in Saudi Arabia cites the incontrovertible facts: “In ‘economic participation and opportunity’ for women, the kingdom ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries, above only Yemen. Many Saudis would rather see a woman in poverty than have her work.” Put this way, it seems only practical to allow women, and men, and any person who so desires, to seek gainful employment. And the obvious right to support and sustain oneself is meaningless without the means to travel to one’s place of work. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corps., hit the nail on the head at a speech he made in Saudi Arabia in 2007. To a comment that Saudi Arabia intended to be one of the Top 10 nations in the world in technology, Bill Gates responded, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Patriarchal System: The Victimization of Men and Women

When comparing men and women's rights, one often uses a male dominated template, upon which to compare various strains as feminism. As one member of feminist legal theory explained, women are always viewed as "ratcheting up" to men. When women are viewed against this masculine metric, women are bound to come out on the bottom. This concern also resonates throughout Catherine MacKinnon's analysis of the problem inherent in using a masculine backdrop. According to MacKinnon, whether one views the female/male relationship as one of "sameness" or "difference", fundamental gender inequality persists because "Masculinity or maleness is the referent for both." As long as traditional masculinity remains the frame of reference, feminist theories may poke holes at the male-centric structure, only to find that deeply entrenched patriarchal structures are innately averse to gender integration. Therefore, in order to eliminate the purely male/female binary as a negative concept, we have to completely redefine masculinity as it is viewed in a patriarchal culture.

One may find it extreme and perhaps humorous to view the male hierarchy that largely controls society as organically opposed to it's female counterpart. However, author Mary Becker suggests that patriarchy exists as a means for men to control other men. The subjugation of women is a byproduct of internal competition among men. For as long as this patriarchal structure exists (which harms men but is ten times more detrimental to women) femininity will continue to operate outside of, and against, this "male-identified" circle. As Becker explains, inevitably some women will prevail, but it will mostly be those who have been able to conform to a male dominated culture. This effectively does nothing to help other women who cannot- or do not- wish to relinquish their individual femininity in order to assimilate to the male status quo.

The question then emerges: how does one dismantle a patriarchal system so that one no can no longer emasculate a man who may appear "effeminate" or criticize a female for her "masculine" like qualities? For Becker, patriarchy is not a static system, but an ever evolving component of our society that is dynamic and susceptible to change. Both men and women have multiple opportunities to gradually change sexist ideas that our endemic to our society. According to Becker, small steps can effectuate large, systemic change. From a man congratulating a female worker for a job well done, or by refusing to refer to women as "babes," men may defy the patriarchal system that oppresses not only women, but men as well.

Anyone who refutes the argument that a patriarchal system is capable of change need only look to recent history. Though women and men still have much ground to tread before they may be considered "equal," women are undoubtedly better off now than we were even 50 years ago. Becker's position that the patriarchal system punishes both men and women who diverge from the masculine model shows that both men and women have an interest in restructuring the way we view conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Even men who are active and willing participants in the patriarchal order (which most men are) feel the destructive effect of a competitive and patriarchal order.

If typical "male" traits are not mutually exclusive from those that are "female," than a female reference to a male trait is no longer a fatal comparison for women. Gender neutral no longer means treating men as women the same, but rather a cross-section of traits and social norms that are applicable to both female and males. On an individual level it is much easier to achieve a feeling of gender neutrality than in a large group, and rehauling gender norms to rid patriarchal tendencies may take years. While we may have female lacrosse players, female CEOs, and female presidential candidates, we have yet to witness a famous female NFL player. Men still inhabit the traditionally powerful sectors of our economy, and reside in the most lucrative business ventures. Bit by bit, women have managed to chip away at this monolithic patriarchal structure, and (some) men have become our willing allies in the process.

Though it is impossible to determine with any precision exactly what is needed to break apart the male hegemonic hold, it appears we are heading in the right direction. The secularization of modern society has been a quantum leap and helped to dissolve at least one hurdle in disintegration of patriarchal ideals. The increasing presence of women in corporate boardrooms, law schools, and medical schools will hopefully help to dissuade men from engaging in misogynistic behavior. Above all, it is most important that we continue to encourage females and males to work together and remain weary of any gender categorization that separates men and women based on the traditional male and female dichotomy. Most of all, it is essential that we do not become content with the status quo, lest we fall into a false sense of equality that has yet to be fully realized.

"Manning" down

We have discussed many times in class that women are choosing to start families later in life. Whether or not the "when" is a woman's “choice” is debatable. But what is becoming more and more apparent is that men, too, are starting families later in life. Later than decades past. So what becomes of 20-somethings if they aren’t settling down and starting families? Numbers would suggest that due to the increase of women enrolled in and graduating, from college and other institutions of higher education, women are busy working. Not to say that 20-something men aren’t working, but what they aren’t doing, is maturing.

When it comes to 20-something men, women tend to have quite a few things to say. But 20-something women aren’t the only ones with criticism of our male peers. There appears to be a growing concern with what some call a “delayed adulthood.” Most of the chatter over the condition revolves around what we’ve already discussed: marriage and children. The mean age for first marriages amongst men is rising. That might not be such a bad thing, especially if it leads to less divorce. But what else might it mean?

One author, Kay Hymowitz, whose book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, suggests that a combination of social factors has given rise to a “pre-adulthood” for young men. As the title of her book suggests, she believes that because more women have sought higher education and entered traditionally male-dominated professions, boys are delaying entering manhood. This generation of 20-something men, she explains, enjoy more recreational time, exhibit a general lack of desire to get hitched, and have a tendency to shirk adult “responsibilities.” I do think it important to note that the “responsibilities” to which Hymowitz refers are based on very traditional notions of male and female roles. Regardless, her theory raises many questions.

I first read one of Hymowitz’s articles last year, in the Wall Street Journal. One of her concerns is that young professional women are going to have fewer choices for mates because 20-something men would rather play video games than have meaningful relationships. I do not necessarily disagree with Hymowitz (I have enough 20-something male friends to know that some of them have a deeper emotional connection with their Fantasy Football team than the women they date). What interests me more is her hypothesis that women’s professional success in the last few decades is what has led to a generation of male pre-adults.

I was having dinner with my mother and stepfather last weekend, and my stepfather mentioned that there has been an increase of female professionals in his line of business (he is a real estate developer). He noted that female project managers are becoming more common on large construction sites. Additionally, some of his professional peers have suggested that the reason that young female professionals are becoming more common is that they are “better” at what they do. He explained that in recent conversations with colleagues, there is a growing consensus that young men, especially recent graduates, are less responsible and competent than young female graduates.

This sentiment may very well be limited to my stepfather’s and his colleagues’ experience, but I started to think that there must be something else there. Hymowitz suggests that it is because of women’s success that young men are delaying adulthood. But I wonder if it’s not more intertwined than that. Women’s professional success may have created a generation of “boyish” men, but how has a generation of "pre-adults" then turned around and affected women? I would argue that, perhaps, it’s been a benefit to 20-something professional women. If what my stepfather said about female versus male graduates in the construction field is accurate, then it would seem that 20-something women may be looking at even greater professional success in other areas of business.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

To birth or not to birth?

During a daily mini-vacation from class, I was perusing my Facebook newsfeed and found a post referring to an interesting link from Above the Law. The article was focused on well-educated women and their “refusal” to have children. Working women refusing to have children? This caught my eye.

The article placed a “comedic” spin on a Wall Street Journal article discussing a recent study that examined women with high-powered careers and the challenges they face in having a family. The study found that 43% of skilled Gen-X women, ages 33-46 years old, haven’t yet had children. It suggested that the pressures women face from demanding work schedules, career ambitions, heavy debt loads, and a weak economy force any childbearing plans to take a second seat to their career path.

This study seems to confirm our discussions regarding the enormous pressure women feel as working professionals. On one hand, there is the struggle to break barriers and overcome gender discrimination. On the other hand, society continues to maintain its cultural expectations of women as mothers. How do women overcome this dichotomy? This study seems to suggest that women must choose between one or the other.

Indeed, given the financial and emotional challenges that accompany a decision to have a child, the current economy greatly impacts the ability to have a family. But are we internally assuming that all women want to have a child early in their adult lives? Personally, I want to enjoy the present without the added pressures of raising a family. Even without law school, I would still not want children at this stage of my life. Many other women that I know do not want to have children until they reach their 30s. As much truth as there is behind the external pressures that constrict the decisions of professional working women, I also believe that our generation and the Gen-Xers are unlike the generations before us. Our generations are also choosing to delay the order of traditional life milestones and the results of doing so are just now becoming apparent. Certainly the demands of a career prevent many women from having a family. But I also wonder whether the 3,000 white-collared women surveyed were asked if they wanted to have children any sooner in their lives. Did some of the women choose to delay that milestone, similar to so many other decisions that our generations are making? What would the study look like then?

Moreover, I was somewhat surprised by the tone of the Above the Law article. For example, the author (a male) discusses the similarities between this study and the premise of the movie Idiocracy, in which smart people begin having fewer children than the unintelligent. After "imploring" women in Biglaw to have more children, he writes, "And dumb women, all across the world, are pumping out impoverished spawn as if there was an invisible being that lives in the sky who outlaws birth control." Nevermind the well-known statistic that impoverished communities have less access to birth control. And he closes the article with this gem, "I wouldn’t trade places with a career woman for anything. All indications are that it sucks. But we need these women to pass on their intelligence, their ambition, and their money to the next generation."

Certainly, we are well aware that the website is a “Legal Tabloid” filled with the latest legal news and gossip. Therefore, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the sarcastic overtones found within the article. And while I appreciate the author’s decision to shed light on this study, I found several comments to be over the top. Even in jest, it is these types of comments that perpetuate the gender binaries women have struggled for decades to overcome.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Women in Saudi Arabia

For my second blog post, I’d like to discuss the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The plight of Saudi women, like those of other many other Muslim and Arab women in the Middle East and North Africa, has been a topic which I have always found to be both perplexing and horrifying. According to Wikipedia, “all women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian. Women cannot vote or be elected to high political positions. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. The World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity.”

Amnesty International’s human rights report for 2011
states that “Women continued to face discrimination in law and in practice and to be subjected to domestic and other violence. The law does not give women equal status with men, and rules on male guardianship subordinate women to men in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and freedom of movement. This leaves women vulnerable to violence within the home, which may be committed by men with impunity.” Human Rights Watch stated, in its 2011 report that “Saudi Arabia strictly enforces gender segregation throughout the kingdom, including in work places, impeding women's full participation in public life…Women's unemployment rate is four times that of men…Women cannot work as judges or prosecutors. Promises by the Justice Ministry in February to draft a law allowing women lawyers to practice in court remained unmet.”

Even when compared to other repressive societies in the region and in the world, the daily indignities endured by Saudi women are shocking and an affront to our basic notions of human rights. The fact that such oppression is fundamentally unjust and should be abolished is not a controversial issue in most of the world. What is more controversial is the question of what we, on the outside, can do to help. We should also consider whether the majority of Saudi women desire the same freedoms women in many other countries enjoy.

One Saudi female journalist
writes, “Non-Saudis presume to know what’s best for Saudis, like Saudis should modernize and join the 21th century or that Saudi women need to be free of the veil and abaya (long black cloak required of all women in Saudi Arabia) and be able to drive. And by freeing Saudi women, the West really means they want us to be just like them, running around in short skirts, nightclubbing and abandoning our religion and culture.” While it is true that we should take into account the cultural differences among different cultures, I think most will agree that there are certain fundamental rights, such as voting, driving, free movement and freedom of expression, that are universal and should be adopted in every society. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as if any fundamental changes will be occurring anytime soon, given the views prevailing among Saudi men and women.

UPDATE: Good news!

"Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, considered a reformer by the standards of his own ultraconservative kingdom, decreed on Sunday that women will for the first time have the right to vote and run in local elections due in 2015."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Feminism, modern dance, and the ironic obligations of the modern dancer

Roger Copeland once described dance as “the art of pure physical presence in which women are most fully reduced to and equated with their bodies.” The founding mothers of modern dance knew this all too well. Together, women such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Katharine Dunham, and others courageously rejected the constrained nature of classical ballet. Rather than torturing their bodies into the restricted constructs of a male-designed paradigm, these women embraced self-expression. They tore off their corsets, danced with bare feet, and allowed emotion, gravity, and breath to fuel their movements.

Outstanding male choreographers and dancers also participated in this movement. Yet, as Copeland highlights in his article “Why Women Dominate Modern Dance,” modern dance traces its roots to the efforts of some founding fathers and several founding mothers. The foundations of modern dance thus depart from the male-driven, male-dominated traditions of most other art forms.

Unsurprisingly, feminism and modern dance inherently intertwine. Women played a key role in the movement at the time of founding, and the post-modern and contemporary dancers of today continue the female legacy. Feminist concepts and ideals, whether intentional or not, influence the developments of modern dance and make their way into the repertoire of this art form.

Many of the early modern dance companies were comprised solely of female dancers. Consider, for example, Martha Graham’s company. The company began with several working women who attended Graham’s dance classes after work. The company remained all-female for over a decade. Graham also addressed common human experiences through pieces featuring women such as “Lamentation” and strong female characters such as the pioneer woman in “Frontier” and Joan of Arc in “Seraphic Dialogue.”

Modern dance choreographers also explored the sameness/difference aspects of feminism. Graham—a powerful, intimidating, yet warm character—invented an almost radical, sexual technique centered on the natural concept of contraction. In Dance Magazine, Marnie Thomas described the contraction as "essentially an exhale that curls the pelvis under and allows the chest to hollow inward. The body shapes itself as if embracing an enormous bubble, while allowing the audience to sense the completion of the circle." In contrast, choreographers such as Twyla Tharp created un-gendered, intellectual pieces that focused the audience on the dance rather than on the sexual aspects of the female figure. Over time, just as many female members of society began to re-embrace femininity, choreographers such as Tharp created pieces reflecting a realization that the same stage could showcase the differences and similarities of the genders.

These inspirational women most definitely played by their own rules, and the influential choreographers today—even those who occupy a more commercial dance realm—follow in step. Sonya Tayeh, a choreographer frequently featured on the hit television show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” created pieces such as “Kick It” and “Game On” portraying women in strong roles. Choreographers including Tyce Diorio, Mia Michaels, and Camille A. Brown draw inspiration from female experiences involving, but definitely not limited to, issues such as breast cancer, relationships, and the life of a modern woman.

However, an inherent irony exists within the female-influenced, explorative world of modern and contemporary dance. Rejecting the confines of ballet failed to change the reality of the dancer’s self-sacrifice. Dancers are often required to reject their personal preferences and identities in order to successfully portray the character envisioned by the choreographer.

In the inclusive, non-judgmental environment of the 2003-2007 UC Berkeley Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies Department, dancers met daily to study modern dance technique. These dancers included individuals of all genders, shapes, sizes, cultures, and politics. The space fostered a community dynamic characterized by respect, trust, acceptance, and inspiration. Within this environment, I fearlessly flung my body into the trusted arms of fellow dancers; improvised with males, females, and transgendered individuals; and grew to appreciate the beauty of movement from vastly different body-types.

Yet, in 2007, I was reminded of the commonly submissive, restricted role of a dancer—even a modern dancer. A well-respected choreographer selected a number of dancers to perform in her final piece with the department. YLC, an LGBT individual; myself; and a few other dancers were chosen to perform the piece. At the first company meeting, the choreographer asked us to agree to the terms of an American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (“AFTRA”) contract. This particular contract included a term stating that the dancers must agree to wear the costumes, make-up, and hair styles selected by the choreographer. None of us anticipated any issues that might require the enforcement of this contract.

After the first on-stage rehearsal, though, the choreographer decided that all the women must shave their legs and underarms for the performance. This struck a chord with YLC, for she was struggling with gender identification in her personal life. In fact, today “she” now goes by “he.” YLC’s hair was central to the outward expression of her self-identification. Subjected to the contract, and respectful of the choreographer’s vision, YLC—albeit reluctantly—removed the hair.

Thus, modern dance frequently represents a female-driven realm that breaks boundaries, embraces freedom, and reflects changing societal mores. But, nothing is perfect. The modern dancers may still need to wear pink dresses, apply fake eyelashes, and shave their legs to achieve the choreographer’s vision.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Precious lives, and the threat of violence.

I'll start with statistics.

From the Domestic Violence Resource Center:

One in four women has experienced domestic violence (physical, sexual) in her lifetime. Three in four Americans know personally someone who is or who has been a victim of domestic violence. 30% of Americans say that they know a woman who has been physically abused by her husband or close intimate in the past year.

From NOW:
Women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence. The poorer the household the higher the rate, and African-American women experience far higher rates of domestic violence than do their white counterparts.

Also consider that these statistics do not include the significant number of women who do not report domestic violence to the authorities.

Violence by men against women is a troubling and persistent reality. I knew this. But I knew it too often in the abstract. Two items this week grounded it in truth, and alerted me to the frustrating fact that many of these women --those who survive the violence and those who don't-- do not get to choose their fate. It gets chosen for them.

The first is my viewing of Precious, a piece of fiction, but a fact-based film about the real lasting impact of violence and sexual abuse in the home. It also, in subtle ways, a story about America, and American women. I watched the film last night. The young woman (Gabourey Sidibe)
who plays the title character is captivating. Her acting is true, her emotional scenes completely honest and unrestrained. She acts when she isn't speaking, and she never breaks character.

The title character is a 16-year-old, living in Harlem, still in junior high, and pregnant with her second child. Her father (no longer in the picture) is the father of both of them. Her mother, in a strong performance by Monique, allowed the sexual abuse to happen since Precious was at a very early age, and she resents Precious for bearing more children than her husband "gave her." Now, angry and scraping by on the scraps of welfare, her mother dishes out a daily torrent of verbal and physical abuse against her weakened daughter.

Precious accepts this because she knows no other reality. She knows it is not right. She knows she does not deserve it. She knows there is another way. Yet her reality has become so hard, so grounded, that she sees this "other way" in the form of glamorized, stylized distant fantasies -- as a celebrity R & B singer, or an actress on the red carpet. Fans covet her, and the men are kind and adoring. This is her escape.

She speaks to us, in voice-over, about a world of closed doors: "There's always something wrong with these tests. These tests is painting a picture of me with no brain. These tests is painting a picture of my mother, my whole family, as less than dumb. Just ugly black grease to be wiped away. Sometimes I wish I was dead... I'd be okay, I guess. Cause I'm lookin' up. [Laughing] Lookin' up for a piano to fall."

Precious finds reason to look up, in the form of an alternative school and an impassioned teacher that sees in her a bright spot and a need for love. She also finds strength in commitment to her newborn, which acts as a powerfully ironic symbol of her freedom from her family oppression.

The transition, as played out in the movie is a bit sudden; and it pushes Mother, hastily and perhaps unrealistically, to the sidelines of Precious' life. But it is a genuine change, and suggests promise for our heroine. I resist the cruel impulse to tell you the ending.

The second item is a personal story. This story was told to our Feminist Legal Theory class two weeks ago by Professor Pruitt. It is elaborated here. It is a touching reminiscence of a standout woman and former King Hall student. I will not add much to it, because to do so would be to subtract from its impact. You should read it. The post is a demonstration of the powerful effect we can have on each other. It is also a reminder of how a woman's life is precious -- men's violence can be swift and sudden, and it can be completely and maddeningly inexplicable.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Legal protections for domestic workers (Part 2 of 2): The (disadvantaged) help

This article is my second part of two, discussing a recent bill proposed in California (Assembly Bill 899) which would provide more legal protection for domestic workers.  This post will discuss the implications and undertones affecting this bill, which very few seem to address in the ongoing public debate: race and socioeconomic factors related to domestic workers. Unfortunately, the bill failed to pass before the California Legislature recessed until January, and I cannot find any reports indicating whether it will still be on the legislature's agenda or whether it has been permanently tabled.

It seems like an almost too-well-planned-to-be-coincidental moment for this bill to be proposed in the legislature.  At the same time as the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help, is playing nationwide in a theater near you, a bill recognizing many of the issues faced by the African American maids in The Help was playing out on a state-wide stage in California. While I intended to read the book in its entirety before watching the film, I gave up last weekend after realizing that I had neither the time nor the patience to wait any longer.

I will attempt to summarize the storyline of the film without giving too much away. If you intend to watch and don't want spoilers, I suggest you skip these next four paragraphs.  Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the beginning of the 1960s, the story focuses almost exclusively on a group of (mostly) young white women, all members of the Junior League, and the (mostly) middle-aged African American women who work as "the help" in each of their homes.  As described by the iconoclastic main white character, Skeeter, the domestic workers serve as the mothers to the town's white children--feeding them, changing them, nurturing them, teaching them--until the white children reach adulthood and in turn employ and subordinate their former substitute "mothers."  The cruel white women pay "the help" less than minimum wage to cook, clean, babysit, and virtually run their households. If they "misbehave," or otherwise embarass their white bosses, the help are not only fired, but their former bosses spread lies about their behavior throughout the Junior League so that they are effectively rendered un-employable in the town at large. The cruelty is overtly and unapologetically racist. One of the white women even starts a campaign to mandate that all white households have a separate bathroom for their black servants, to prevent contamination of the whites with "their diseases."

Skeeter convinces one, and eventually, many of the women working as "the help" to speak up and tell their stories, in what she eventually publishes as an anonymous book, entitled (unsurprisingly) The Help.  Of particular interest to Skeeter is the fact that while many of these women are busy raising other women's children, their own are neglected and forced to fight for themselves.  The protagonist, Aibileen, even tells her about starting work as a maid at the age of 14, dropping out of school to help pay her family's bills.

The book is a resounding success, and not only are many of the white women in Jackson shamed into pretending that the book is about another town, but Skeeter shares the profits with each woman who contributed her story.

Even though the women seem to have developed their voices, the end of the film depicts Aibileen getting fired for contributing to the book,  knowing she will never be hired again in Jackson. As she walks away from the house of her former employer, the young white girl she had been caring for is screaming and crying for her to return.  The girl's inept mother is last seen holding her second child, appearing not to understand how to hold him or provide him with basic care.  As Aibileen walks away, she realizes she has found her voice and decides she will be a writer.

The Help has been characterized by friends of mine as being something akin to "racism light."  As an Ethnic Studies concentrator in undergrad, I couldn't help but view the film through a lens that was hyper aware to implications on race and class (and, partially because of this class, gender).  Indeed, by the time I left the theater, I was furious.  This film was witty, it was funny, it made me laugh, it made me cry.  It made all of the (mostly white, female) audience laugh and cry as well.  But it also appeared to emphasize the fact that the time and circumstances pictured were then, and this is now.

Thank goodness we no longer live in a world like the Jim Crow South! How wonderful that we are a fully integrated society!

Except... we aren't.  Everywhere I go throughout California, it seems there is a similar divide between domestic workers and their employers. Employers are (usually) white. Domestic workers in California are almost exclusively people of color--even more specifically, Latin@. As the text of proposed AB 899 states, "The vast majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants and are particularly vulnerable to unlawful employment practices and abuses." How often do we see janitors, gardeners, maids, and nannies who are white? Not often. Although many in the media would like to portray AB 899 as the "babysitter bill," most of the employees the bill targets are not white teenagers hired to watch the children one night a week so the parents can take some time for themselves.

Who will AB 899 affect? People of color.  Yes, white employers may have to pay them a bit more. But, if there is no regulation of domestic labor, how can we ensure that people with the means to employ domestic workers are not treating them akin to the treatment pictured in The Help?

More importantly, The Help does emphasize the importance of the roles of domestic workers in their employers' lives. They enable men and women to focus on their professional careers. They enable parents to share more equally in only one shift, without burdening either--and usually the woman--with a second one.

And, in California, it appears that a line of employment that is almost exclusively for people of color continues to be exempt from basic protections that would prevent abuse and recognize the value of domestic work. Unsurprisingly, a search on google of "Assembly Bill 899" and "white," or "race," or "people of color" or "Latino" or any other amalgamation of a word which would indicate that anyone has discussed the bill from this perspective turn up nothing remotely akin to the above arguments.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Women (still) aren't funny

Nothing bothers me more than hearing someone claim that women aren’t funny. It’s an opinion that is thrown around as though it were a well-known fact of life. Even comic greats like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Jerry Lewis have said women aren’t funny. The “women aren’t funny” argument seems to persist as an acceptable vehicle for sexism, and women still struggle for respect in the comedy world. So why exactly is it that in 2011 women are still seen as unable to compete with men in comedy?

Taking a look back, women have been in comedic roles for the better part of the 20th century (Lucille Ball, Betty White, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin), but they still don’t get the respect they deserve, either on the streets or at the comedy clubs. In May 2011, Rosanne Barr wrote a scathing article for New York Magazine which details how her sitcom Roseanne (the first female-created sitcom) was hijacked by ABC, which essentially refused to name her in the credits as the show’s creator. Instead, the credits ran: “Created by Matt Williams.” What’s more, she reports how women were pitted against each other to fight for raises and were rarely promoted to writer, how an all-male team of writers created lines that were “what women would say,” and how when Rosanne climbed to the No. 1 spot in 1988 she was sent a chocolate in the shape of a #1, whereas male stars of No. 1 shows were typically sent new Porsches. But that was the 80s, right?

Sadly, Barr’s article dovetails with Tina Fey’s experience as a woman in comedy in the 90s and 2000s. In her recent (and very funny) autobiography, Bossypants. Fey recalls how in 1994, while with the improv troupe Second City in Chicago, she and Amy Poehler were not allowed to be on stage alone together - since a skit without a man wouldn’t go over well with audiences, and there wouldn’t be enough “material.” They had rules that there were never to be more women on stage than men in a given skit - the exact ratio required was typically 4 men to 2 women. Years later in 2004, Saturday Night Live’s popular segment “Weekend Update” was co-anchored by two women (Fey and Poehler!) for the first time. While Fey’s writing for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock (her own show on NBC) has received countless awards (including Emmys and Golden Globes), Bossypants reveals that the road to such success was one ridden with sexism and prejudice. Today, Fey and Poehler are nearly alone at the top as women in comedy.

Most recently, attention on women in comedy was revamped by the popularity of the movie Bridesmaids. Starring Kristen Wiig, another female SNL comedian, Bridesmaids is one of the best-reviewed comedies of the past several years, yet its praise is always cognizant of the largely female cast; most reviews seem to note their surprise with how funny women can be (who would’ve thought?!). Bridesmaids has grossed over $168 million, yet it is near the top of the list of top grossing movies never to make it to the No. 1 spot (the rest of that list is largely comprised of children’s movies). An LA Times review praised the film’s success given that, “R-rated female-centric, gal-pal entertainments don't exactly top studio wish lists.” Indeed, while Bridesmaids has been lauded as “easily the funniest movie of 2011,” it drew only a 33% male audience.

Another critic praised the film for turning the boys’ club of comedy on its head: “It is not insignificant to note that Bridesmaids, in all its outrageous, profane, bawdy glory, is largely the work of women -- written by, co-produced by, and starring a cast almost entirely made up of women. What results is not a feeling of ‘girls playing at a boys game,’ but rather the girls stealing the game and reinvigorating it with quirky energy, sharper comedic insight, and subtle depth.”

So if women have been succeeding in the big comedy business of Hollywood, why does the notion that women aren’t funny persist? One Australian comedian reported the most common reasons people gave in response to why they thought that women weren’t funny:

- Funny women only talk about relationships, vaginas, tampons, emotions, family, domesticity, personal problems, [insert 1950s idea of women’s conversational topics here].
- Funny women aren’t attractive.
- Funny women are aggressive.
- Funny women are too polite to be funny.
- Funny women lack confidence.

Another point that was frequently made was that women being crude (as comedians typically are) was unattractive and that men didn’t like seeing women in a crass role. The aforementioned list exposes how men seem to dislike women acting too much like men, and/or that in order to be funny women need to act like men. Women are placed in a double bind: when they act like men, it’s gross, but when they act like women, they’re not funny. Just like in other work environments, women are forced to toe the line between being too “manly” and being too feminine for men’s work - neither result yielding much more than unrelenting criticism or qualified compliments (“good, for a woman”).

This comes back to the sameness/difference debate: Should women be trying to convince audiences that they are just like men, or should they be promoting their own flavor of comedy? Each path presents its own problems for feminism and exposes opportunities to keep women below men in the comedy business. For if women are just like men, they need to play the game by men’s rules, a game at which they will inevitably fail. And if they brand their own style of humor, they’re relegated to the WNBA of comedy (the unpopular, “separate but equal” accommodation to feminism). And so women who do comedy play by men’s rules, and it becomes apparent that men want women as their audience, not as their rivals.

People often cite a difference in men’s and women’s senses of humor as the reason why women are perceived as less funny than men. A Stanford University School of Medicine study found that men and women share much of the same humor-response system; both use a similar part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition, as well as the part of the brain involved in language processing, but men and women interpreted what they found funny differently. But even if women and men do find different things funny, that rhetoric still goes on to conclude that women aren’t as funny as men, as opposed to concluding that men aren’t as funny as women. As in other male/female comparisons, men appear to be the yardstick by which women are measured. In turning to nurture over nature, the reasoning seems to come more into focus. As Kate Sanborn put it in her 1885 book, The Wit of Women, “What woman does not risk being called sarcastic and hateful if she throws the merry dart or engages in a little sharp-shooting. No, no, it’s dangerous—if not fatal.” Perhaps even today men feel threatened by funny women.

As with other arenas where women attempt to enter a man’s domain, a disproportionate amount of attention is placed on looks and attractiveness. As a Vanity Fair article very candidly confessed, “[My] argument doesn't say that there are no decent women comedians…Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” A response to the piece noted how in the past women were simply not funny, then women couldn’t be funny if they were pretty, and now female comedians need to be pretty - even sexy - to succeed. Indeed, Tina Fey was put on camera only after losing 30 lbs, while male comedians like Chris Farley, Jack Black, and Seth Rogan don’t seem to be losing any work because of their weight.

While women in comedy continue to endure particularly harsh critiques simply because they are women trying to make it in the old boys’ club of comedy, funny is becoming closer to the norm for women these days. But then again, women are more prevalent in everything these days. Unfortunately, the trend is showing that women in comedy must increasing rely on sex appeal to get ahead, lest we forget that the entertainment industry is still controlled by men. Fortunately, it also seems as though women are more inclined to ignore the claims that they aren’t funny and to allow their success to speak for itself. In the end, I anticipate that it will be these women who will have the last laugh. In the meantime, it looks like women in comedy will continue to work overtime to overcome prevalent sexism, and this is no laughing matter.

Hillary Clinton: buyer's remorse?

This past Thursday, September 15, the latest Bloomberg National Poll revealed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the most popular political figure in America today. The poll results showed that "nearly two-thirds of Americans hold a favorable view of her and one-third are suffering a form of buyer's remorse, saying the U.S. would be better off now if she had become president in 2008 instead of Barack Obama."

I came across this bit of news yesterday afternoon and found it quite interesting given our discussion in Feminist Legal Theory yesterday morning in which we talked about the incredible amount of persistent sexist and antagonistic behavior toward Clinton. Perhaps because I was an Obama supporter, I was not fully aware of the abhorrent media bombardment of Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary race. After our class discussion, and especially after reading the results of the Bloomberg poll, I had the desire to conduct some research and found an overwhelming, appalling amount of extremely sexist photos, quotes, web pages, and jokes about Hillary Clinton. A vast majority seem to attack what are perceived as Clinton's "masculine" attributes, such as her physical appearance, high level of competency, and non-conformity to the traditional "feminine" stereotype of being warm and nurturing. Allow me to share a few:

"Hillary Clinton is really no different than the other candidates. She puts her pants on one leg at a time just like the other guys do."

"Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani should have been running mates. After all, both of them are power hungry and both of them have had serious marital problems. But the problem is that only Rudy Giuliani looks good in a skirt."

"Hillary Clinton won't commission a Presidential portrait if she's elected. She'll commission an ice sculpture instead."

In August 2009, Washington Post reporters Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza, in the web series "Mouthpiece Theater," said that an appropriate beer for Hillary Clinton would be "Mad-Bitch" beer.

Robin Givhan from the Washington Post discussing Clinton's cleavage on C-SPAN2, stating "There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable...To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation."

Glenn Beck, on his radio show, commenting that Hillary is the "stereotypical nagging bitch," and that she "sounds like [his] wife saying 'take out the garbage.'"

Another online compilation of sexism against Hillary (WARNING: graphic photos) includes numerous photos of Clinton's face photoshopped onto nude female bodies, some engaged in sexual acts; t-shirts that say, "Hillary Clinton can suck my conservative dick," and "Hillary Cries like a little BITCH;" and caricatures of her as the devil, among many others.

A heckler at one of Clinton's speeches

A "motivational" poster

Suffice it to say there are probably thousands of pictures, products, comments, and articles like these out there. After sifting through many of them and coming to realize the extent of the misogyny, I was (and am) quite disturbed. As "far" as women have come, they are still significantly restricted by traditional female gender norms, especially when they are in positions of power. I believe that men (and some women) feel extremely threatened by not only women who are intelligent, but women who are "competent enough" to be considered for the position of President of the United States. Women like Clinton push the boundaries of gender norms and, as we have discussed in seminar, most people still subscribing to those hetero-normative roles generally become very uncomfortable when faced with people who challenge them.

Hillary Clinton has been portrayed as cold, emotionless, a she-devil, etc., which are certainly not positive attributes. One would think that if she were to show more emotion and act more within the female norms of being warm, caring, and nurturing, perhaps she wouldn't receive so much shit for being a frigid bitch. However, when she does show emotion, she is put under just as much scrutiny, and is seen as being weak and unstable. For example, in early May 2011, a famous picture was taken of the top White House staff members (including Clinton) in the Situation Room watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound that resulted in his death. It was quickly disseminated and became the most-viewed image on Flickr. The news media highly scrutinized Clinton's facial expression in the picture, which was described as wide-eyed and horrified. Many people came to the conclusion that she was "too emotional," and made the assertion that if she can't handle "big-boy" stuff like this raid, how could she handle the Presidency? Clinton decided to respond, stating that her expression was a result of her "Spring allergies," and that perhaps she was just coughing.

This hype and scrutiny that followed the release of this picture really cements my belief that women are between a rock and a hard place. If we act traditionally male (stoic, competent, strong, and emotionless), we are chided for not being feminine enough; we are called bitches, cunts, and are generally looked upon very negatively. If we act traditionally female (emotional, caring, empathetic), we are admonished for being weak, irrational, and incapable. This is a serious problem that all women face, but especially women who hold and seek to hold positions of power - positions historically held by men.

Given my account of sexism against Hillary Clinton, you can imagine my (skeptical) surprise at the results of the latest Bloomberg poll. Buyer's remorse? Really? I suspect that at least some of the two-thirds of Americans who now view her favorably and one-third who suffer from buyer's remorse contributed to the sexist narrative on Clinton back in 2008 - so what happened between then and now? My guess is that it probably has to do with disapproval of Obama since he assumed the Presidency. I believe that much of his disapproval can be attributed to the constant, ruthless attack on him by conservatives that has essentially manipulated a significant portion of the American public (including Democrats) into thinking that Obama is fully to blame for the dismal state of affairs our country is in. I find this interesting because it seems as though much of the same people and groups who made sexist comments, articles and pictures about Clinton back in 2008 are those now conducting the merciless attack on Obama that has contributed to Clinton being the most popular political figure in America. The tables have turned in a very strange way.

As much as I want to believe that these poll results are the product of a more feminist society, I don't for the reason described above: I believe they are simply the result of the fact that the right-wing has shifted its fire-breathing to the black guy. Not only is it disturbing to me to think about how successfully manipulative the GOP is, but it frightens me to think about what the narrative will be should Hillary make another bid for the Presidency in the future.

Growing pains: The tension between my parents' principles and feminism.

'Tis the season for fellowships. Many third year law students are preparing applications for fellowships across the United States. I recently submitted an application that asked: "Describe a personal or professional challenge that you have faced in the past and how you overcame that challenge. (3500 characters or less)."

Below is my response the fellowship question:

"Certain principles were instilled in me at a young age as a female raised in a traditional Latino family. Women are patient. Women are empathetic. Women are care-takers. Women are unselfish. We work with what we are given. We do not challenge men. We do not question authority. Granted, some of these principles are great assets. They help to define my dedication and compassion for indigent people. Others create hurdles to achieving my mission to be an agent of social change. Since continuing my education, I have struggled greatly with learning how to assert myself. This challenge only increased upon entering the legal profession, where the majority of my colleagues and superiors are men. This personal struggle is further compounded by the fact that I work in the public interest sector, where resources are limited. My personal struggles in learning to become assertive have become my greatest professional challenge, which I have learned to overcome with patience, grace and, most importantly, self-confidence and determination.

Although I was a good student and employee when not asserting myself, the burden of silencing my concerns impacted my work. Although I often had to work long hours, I have always produced high quality work-product, yet I remained submissive. However, when I began asserting myself and my needs, I was shocked to see that not only did my quality of life improve, but my work-product did as well. I quickly learned that being assertive was not synonymous with being confrontational. For example, I worked on a project where a teammate unexpectedly left. Our deadline was rapidly approaching. Although I took on the work, it was impossible for one person to complete the work on time. I feared informing my supervising attorney that I needed a new teammate or that the deadline needed to be changed for fear of upsetting--or worse--disappointing him. No matter how many ten hour shifts I put in, the project could not possibly have been completed in time. After building up the courage to tell him what I needed, we decided to change the project’s deadline to accommodate the circumstances, and the conversation effectively moved our work forward.

My attitude in response to the arguably sexist principles I was raised with changed over time for a number of reasons. One of the major driving forces behind my conscious and often painful effort to assert myself was the realization that if I remained timid I would be an ineffective agent of social change. I am ultimately hurting my clients if I cannot be the finest advocate there is, even if this means confronting some of the deep-seated principles I was raised with. Initially, I was overwhelmed and felt hopeless at times in my quest to assert myself. However, knowing that this was for the benefit of the people whom I aim to serve pushed me through. Oddly enough, my greatest form of support came from the other set of the principles instilled in me: patience, empathy and flexibility. These qualities are instrumental in providing balance to what had become my greatest personal conflict, the yin and yang of my character--an issue I no longer fear to confront. The courage to assert my voice on behalf of others serves my clients best because I am invested in the service for my well being and theirs."

Upon reflection, I find my response interesting for two reasons. First, I unconsciously chose to write about a personal challenge that has become a professional challenge over time. Strange enough, my greatest struggle in life is negotiating the principles my parents and family instilled in me with the need to be a strong and independent person - not only for myself, but for those I aim to serve as an attorney. The curious aspect of this dynamic is that until I was forced to articulate this struggle (via answering the above fellowship question), I failed to recognize its key players: traditional notions of Latina/o gender roles and feminism.

What is remarkable to me is that for the past decade I have been engaging in a serious and personally deep negotiation of the conflicting features of Latina/o gender roles and feminism without clearly identifying them. There is no doubt I have had my suspicions from time to time of who my "masked" players are, but sadly I never took the time to properly investigate. Instead, whenever I experienced an inner conflict between the two, I bit my lip, put my head down, and simply carried on. I chose never to question the sources of my conflict.

I attribute this lack of curiosity in part to the power of the traditional Latina/o roles I was raised with. As noted in my response to the question, I understood questioning things as being synonymous with being confrontational. Although I would not have been questioning a male or an authority figure in this instance, to question the conflict within me would still be risking confrontation with something. A woman is patient, and flexible. She works with what she is given. I have this conflict. I am supposed to simply work through it.

This passive line of logic has dramatically changed over time. Furthermore, now that I have identified the masked players in the greatest challenge in my life, I feel more empowered than ever. I am more comfortable and prepared to intelligently confront these challenges.
While discussing my response with a colleague, I was comforted to hear her echo many of the same challenges. Although I am sure there are other women out there who work through the same issues, I hope there are some women who do not. I would like to hear their responses and how they negotiate the tension between traditional gender notions of women in a male dominated legal profession.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Michelle Bachmann should be a feminist

Rising in the ranks as the only female candidate in the Republican primaries, Michelle Bachmann represents how far women have come since our bra-burning days. However, she is no feminist. In fact, women's groups like the National Organization for Women have expressed concern that “having Bachmann as the first female president would actually be a setback for women rather than a victory.” That may be true- Bachmann opposes abortion, and even more shockingly, believes that wives should be “submissive to their husbands.” But, by choosing to strategically alienate herself from women’s rights groups, Bachmann may be shooting herself in the foot.

Timothy Kelly, reporter for the International Business Times suggests that female presidential candidates are subject to a different, perhaps more intensive, type of scrutiny then male candidates. He observes that both Palin and Bachmann attact public criticism for “verbal gaffes” that male politicians like Joe Biden managed to escape. One study on sexism in United States presidential campaigns reveals that sexism towards women candidates is still very much alive in the media and among voters. For instance, voters are more likely to focus on appearance, clothing, emotional state (remember when Hilary Clinton cried?!) and character than on a woman’s position on the issues. Stories about women candidates are also more likely to mention children and marital status. While these observations may seem innocuous, they have the effect of pigeon-holing women into stereotypical roles that are not typically associated with leadership. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the unfortunate double standard that female candidate face: “Women who are considered feminine will be judged incompetent, and women who are competent, unfeminine . . . who succeed in politics and public life will be scrutinized under a different lens from that applied to successful men.”

Bachmann has already been the target of sexist criticism. In August 2011, a Newsweek article portrayed Bachmann as a wide-eyed, crazy “Queen of Rage.” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women came to Bachmann’s defense explaining: "Her policy positions are diametrically opposed to NOW's positions and I intend to defeat her. That's my job. But no male politician is treated this way. As much as I disagree with everything she stands for, she is a serious viable candidate for the United States presidency and there is no male viable candidate who has ever been treated this way."

. . . If Bachmann is going to endure scrutiny and criticism simply for being female, she may as well try to get some back up.