Sunday, September 30, 2012

Favorite Female Figure: Sameness or Difference

The documentary Miss Representation explores the portrayal of women in the media. One of the main messages of the film is that women cannot be what they cannot see. It demonstrates that women are portrayed as shallow characters in the media with little ambition or thoughts of their own. As a result, young girls don't have female role models in popular culture and this drastically affects their goals in life and notions of gender.

The discussion of women in the media begs the question: who do we want as role models for young women? In determining the answer to this question, I am quickly confronted with the classic debate of difference and sameness between the sexes. Should the media embrace the inherent "women's voice," as described by difference feminists such as Carol Gilligan in her book In a Different Voice, and portray women excelling within the framework of relationship based thinking and emotional intelligence? Or should the media embrace sameness between the sexes, embraced by Joan Williams in Deconstructing Gender [1989]?

Determining which of these theories is correct would take much more than a blog post. Instead, I'd like to think of it slightly backwards. First, I'd like to start by describing which female figures I admire and why I am attracted to them. Then I would like to see where they fit on the spectrum of difference or sameness theory.

Although a completely subjective inquiry, it will shed light on which theory is more persuasive in portraying complex and appealing female characters, at least to me. It will also expose me as an avid TV watcher, as all of my favorite female figures are from TV shows.

My Favorite Female Figures

Arya Stark, on Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones is a fantasy show depicting a power struggle for the Iron Throne that includes dragons, mythical "white walkers," and some magic. Arya is a young daughter of a claimant to the throne, who always seems to be getting into trouble and then getting out of it. I relate to her in that we both like to try to chase cats because "[t]hey're as quiet as shadows and as light as feathers. You have to be quick to catch them." (episode: Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things (2011)) . She is states that getting married and having children is "not her" and she would prefer to be a lord herself. She has quick wit, such as when she called a man a liar. He said she shouldn't insult people that are bigger than her. She responded, "Then I wouldn't get to insult anyone." (episode: Game of Thrones: The Night Lands (2012)).

Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, on The Wire.
Snoop is a ruthless killer in a drug dealing gang. In a review of the show, Steven King described Snoop as "the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series." In part, because she is smart. Although she is loyally follows orders as a solider in the gang, she is witty and distinctively independent. She is androgynous, dressing in unisex clothing and speaking in low drawn together slang.

Leslie Knope, on Parks and Recreation.
My favorite network female character is Leslie Knope (there are few to choose from). Knope is the Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department and then elected City Councillor. She is deeply loyal to her hometown of Pawnee, a small town in Indiana. She is optimistic to a fault. She is has a string of hilarious and awkward relationships, and she is currently with the supportive and loyal Ben Wyatt.

Sameness or Difference Spectrum

In reflecting on my favorite characters it is obvious that they fall much closer in line to with the theory of sameness between the genders. Each character contains a multitude of emotions: confidence, vulnerability, wit, emotion, and loyality. In short, none of these characters' essential traits are tied to the fact that they are female. Instead they are each personalities defined outside of their femaleness. They are Arya, Snoop and Leslie, before they are "female."

So now that I have determined that the "women's voice" doesn't appeal to me on the TV screen, what does that mean? In short, I want to reject these essential differences between male and female. I want to move past defining 'women's voice' and whether it's nature or nurture and what to do about it. I find it much more interesting and compelling to discuss the entire system. The entire system is made up of individuals. It's made up of good stories, friends, enemies, villains, and heroes. Let's talk about these things instead.

Having females in roles that do not focus on their femaleness is the best way to provide young women with complicated and multifaceted role models.

I'd be curious to know what other female figures in TV fellow feminists call their favorites.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Total Liberation

            The second thing that was always true of feminist movement 
            in the United States was that its agenda really was and is 
            revolutionary . . . it also demands changes like the 
            reconstruction of the relationship between the market and 
            the state and the disassembly of the traditional family. Indeed 
            feminism, taken seriously, ultimately requires that gender
            itself be disassembled, that the category “women” be 
            reconfigured. And feminist theory sooner or later forces a 
            confrontation with the other hierarchies in which patriarchy 
            is embedded, including heterosexism and race.
                                     - Angela P. Harris, What Ever Happened to 
                                       Feminist Legal Theory?

Angela Harris concludes the paragraph with this sentiment: “Faced with this complex and daunting agenda of total transformation, it is not surprising that the people working on it have in recent years stepped back from the larger vision and focused their energies on sub-issues.” Until I read this passage, I did not realize why I found myself discomfited by our studies thus far. Recently, Professor Pruitt mentioned in class that law students seem fond of pushing the law to its limits—where its principles fold in on themselves and ultimately collapse. Listening to discussion and reading for class, I wandered down just that same path. Our framework formed a patchwork quilt, but I could not discern how the smaller pieces connected to the larger question. I found myself myopically distracted by sub-issues, leaving the broader context blurry and incomplete.

And what exactly was that larger question? What is the ultimate goal of all our questioning? What principle underlies the feminist movement? Harris defines a “liberation movement” as “a demand for an end to prejudice and discrimination based on an arbitrary characteristic like race or sex.” Yes! Simple, but potent. This discrimination is both personal and systemic. Historically, the voice of male dominance sought and succeeded to obscure the systemic and focus on the personal.

This philosophy, while still prevalent, is no longer the dominant discourse. As Harris’s article points out, feminist theory is sophisticated – “the problem is not a failure or absence of theory; the problem is political opposition, plain and simple. The big-vision days are over for this work; theorizing has moved closer to the ground.”

Joan Williams, in Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it, discusses the relationship between the family and labor market in the classic problem of “work-family balance”—a terminology I appreciate. More common reference terms it “work-life balance.” But women and men are not being asked to choose between work and life, but work and family.

This problem posits individual women to solve it for themselves, when it is truly a structural problem that crosses gender and class boundaries. Harris traces Williams’ discussion: “Drawing on generations of feminist theory, Williams shows how individual women have been encouraged to think they can and must solve it for themselves, how stay-a-home mothers and mothers working for wages have been encouraged to sit in judgment of one another, and how today’s labor markets penalize ‘mothers’ and benefit ‘others.’ Her work builds upon feminist theory, but her most important task is no longer theory-building; it is turning theory into practice.”

Knowing that we’ve been given an impossible task in the guise of “work-family balance” is somehow comforting. This particular objective is not something I need to feel frustrated in not achieving; it is not my fault. It is the foundation our current society stands on. To achieve this goal means an overturning of our societal structure as we know it. And if that means toppling a system riddled with unconscious racism, flooded with sexism and heterosexism, and driven by industrial profits instead of social justice, then that’s not a bad thing.

Women in wine

Like many other industries, men dominated the wine industry for thousands of years. There are, however, a few historical examples of women revolutionizing the industry, and their contemporary counterparts continue to grow in number. An article from UC Davis Magazine from a few summers ago states that according to the Wine Institute, 15 to 20 percent of winemakers in California are women. Women Winemakers currently reports the same figure, and suggests, "gender parity will soon be achieved." 

The "Champagne Widows" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:  

Madame Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery are examples of female revolutionaries of the wine industry. When Madame Clicquot was widowed at age 27, she inherited a winery from her husband. Not only did she successfully manage the thriving champagne brand, but she is also credited by some historical accounts as developing riddling, a technique used in the production of champagne to consolidate the yeast in the neck of the bottle for removal. Today, the Veuve Clicquot champagne brand is among the most prestigious and valuable in the industry. 

Unlike Madame Clicquot, Madame Pommery did not inherit an already successful champagne house. However, during her reign she not only grew her own company, but also influenced the whole industry to make greater efforts to improve wine quality. This included using better raw materials and investing in the production process. This improvement in quality enhanced the reputation of champagne abroad and led to increased global sales.

Today's women in wine:   

Following in the footsteps of the "Champagne Widows" before them, many women have shattered the glass ceiling and made a name for themselves in the wine industry. The UC Davis article mentioned above reports that in 1965, MaryAnn Graf was the first woman to graduate from the university's famed viticulture and enology program, but by the 1990's nearly 50 percent of its graduates were women.

MaryAnn Graf is not only the first female winemaker to graduate from UC Davis, she is also the first woman to serve on the Board of Directors of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. MaryAnn co-founded Vinquiry, a wine-testing lab in Sonoma County. While she retired after more than 40 years in the industry, she continues to consult.

Another UC Davis graduate and winemaker, Merry Edwards, said she encountered gender discrimination repeatedly while pursuing her career. She found that the perception of women as the weaker sex worked against her, even after she was able to prove that she could handle the physical aspects of the job. Today, however, she has her own winery, label, and Pinot Noir vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

Yet another well-known female champion of the wine industry and UC Davis graduate is Heidi Peterson Barrett, who Robert Parker dubbed the "first lady of wine." In addition to making her own wines under the La Sirena label, Heidi has several ultra-premium clients including Amuse Bouche, Paradigm, Lamborn, Kenzo Estate, Au Sommet, Vin Perdu, and Fantesca. In 2000, a 1992 six liter bottle of Heidi's Screaming Eagle sold at the Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000- an auction record.

Female consumers also play a role in the wine industry: 

In addition to highlighting the triumphs of several female UC Davis graduates, the UC Davis article notes that in addition to making wine, women love to drink it. It reports that according to the Wine Institute, 57 percent of wine consumers in the United States are women. This has an influence on industry marketing professionals, as women rank label design, bottle shape, and winery philosophy as important as wine quality.

Madame Bollinger on champagne:

"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it if I am; otherwise I never touch it- unless I'm thirsty." 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Are you a woman and a lawyer? There may be an app for that

This weekend marked the release of yet another popular Apple product: the iPhone 5. Avid fans waited in lines for days, with some receiving payment for waiting in line. The much sought after iPhone 5 is now sold-out, but it is likely that out of the millions of iPhones sold this weekend, a female lawyer or two picked one up. Soon these women lawyers may be able to download a new app onto their iPhone 5 that could help to boost their careers.

Last spring Forbes featured the development of a new smartphone app targeted at female attorneys. Three law students developed and worked to design the app through LawWithoutWalls, a program created by Michele DeStefano and Michael Bossone at the University of Miami School of Law. LawWithoutWalls facilitates projects that law students from various law schools around the world undertake. The students work in groups to create a solution to a problem in the legal field. The projects are organized thematically and are called Projects of Worth. Typically the projects are a business plan for a product, company, or service. Once the Project of Worth is complete, the students present the finished product to an audience that includes venture capitalists.

One of the themes for the 2012 program was Women in the Law: Is the Glass Ceiling Cracked, Smashed, or Unbreakable? In response to the prompt, three law students, Tao Zu, Lynette Brooks, and Lauren Quattromani, decided to create a smartphone app for female attorneys. The students intended the app to be a "networking assistant" that would provide information on women's legal organizations, access to current news, events, and research and development in the legal field. According to information from the three students that The Girl's Guide to Law School featured, they hoped to create a product that would help "women in climbing the professional ladder and reaching higher levels of leadership in the field of law." To determine what should be included in the app, the students created a survey that was sent to women in the legal profession.

The survey asked what the app should provide. The survey takers had to rank their interest in the app including networking and information by practice areas, chat rooms and forums on gender topics, and women's initiative and change strategy. The survey ended with a question of whether the survey taker believed that women are equal to men in leadership and positions of power in the legal profession. It would be interesting to know what the survey takers felt was most important to have in an app. The results of the survey, however, do not seem to be publicly available.

What features or information should such an app include? The author of the Forbes article, Victoria Pynchon, had some suggestions: "how to negotiate maternity leave, return from leave, origination credit, salary, promotional opportunities, and what to say when asked to head the diversity committee (no!) or the finance committee (yes!)." In addition to networking resources, I would want to see information on how to handle sexism in the office and how to succeed in business development. 

My first thought when I came across the project was, why do women lawyers need a separate app? Does this kind of technological tool reinforce female difference in a negative way? Or should we celebrate the app as a new means to help women create stronger communities in the practice of law? While I am skeptical that an app alone will help women break through the glass ceiling in the legal profession, I do think it could be useful. For those women lawyers who think they do not have time to look up women's legal organizations or discuss gender issues, having easier access to information through an app could make such gender specific information and networking more available to more women. In addition, anything that can help build stronger networks of female attorneys can only help in the progression towards greater equality for women in positions of leadership.

LawWithoutWalls' website suggests that the app's design is complete. Yet, an app search on my Apple device yielded no results. As such, there is no information on whether such an app has been helpful or useful to female attorneys. Maybe by the time the female members of our class of 2013 venture out into the wilderness of the legal field there will be an app made just for us that could help us climb the leadership ladder in the legal profession.  

History and Identity

This week after talking a little tangentially (surprising I know) about female historical figures, La Malinche came to mind. In Mexican cultural identity there are three important and pervasive female figures; La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche. Of these three only one is an actual historical figure, La Malinche.

La Malinche, Dona Marina, or Malintzin, lived in the early 14th century throughout Mexico and Central America. Born into a prominent indigenous family, after her father’s death her mother remarried.  Historical accounts detail her mother and step-father selling her to Mayan slave traders, who then "gifted" her to Hernan Cortez and his group of Conquistadores. By this time Malinche was only 14 years old.  Malinche became Hernan Cortez’ lover and interpretor. Speaking both Mayan and Nahuatl she became extremely important and in many depictions of Cortez she is seen standing by his side. Eventually she gave birth to his son and later married another conquistador after the fall of Tenochitlan.

What I find interesting about La Malinche is that although few disagree with the facts of her life, interpretations of her role in Latino (specifically Mexican) identity differ drastically. Throughout Mexico historians and intellectuals (exclusively male) labeled Malinche as a traitor. The word Malinchista became synonimist with traitor, especially during the war for Mexican Independence and the Revolutionary war. At that time a Malinchista described a Mexican national allied with western foreigners. One of the most well respected intellectuals and historians of the 20th century Octavio Paz, describes la Malinche in The Labyrinth of Solitude:

Doña Marina becomes a figure representing the Indian women who were fascinated, violated or seduced by the Spaniards. And as a small boy will not forgive his mother if she abandons him to search for his father, the Mexican people have not forgiven La Malinche for her betrayal. She embodies the open, the chingada, or our closed, stoic, impassive Indians.... This explains the success of the contemptuous adjective malinchista recently put into circulation by newspapers to denounce all those who have been corrupted by foreign influences. The malinchistas are those who want Mexico to open itself to the outside world: the true sons of La Malinche, who is the Chingada in person. 
Octavio Paz was not a fan of La Manlinche.  But is this fair, to lay an entire conquest on one person?  In my view Malinche owed no loyalty to a people who had twice sold her into slavery.

It is also important to remember that Malinche's son with Hernan Cortez is one of the first mestizos born in Mexico.  Unlike North American settlers, when the Spanish arrived in this part of the "new world" they intermingled with the Indigenous population.  The end result being that in Mexico the majority of the population has both indigenous and spanish roots.  For example, my family is both P'urhepecha and Spanish (although I am not as aware of any Spanish ancestrial ties).

Beginning in the 1990s many Chicana Feminist began to reimagine La Malinche and her role in Mexican identity.  Although this is the same historical figure, the way her "myth" has been reevaluated or recentered is drastic.  Adelaida de Castillo sees La Malinche as a powerful and active woman in her work “Malintzín Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective,” she claims that,
“Doña Marina is significant in that she embodies effective, decisive action in the feminine form, and most important, because her own actions synchronized two conflicting worlds causing the emergence of a new one—my own” (del Castillo 122).
In Castillo’s view of Malinche, she is so powerful that she is able to create a new world through her mothering of the first mestizo, an act so dominant that it would challenge the male domination of Chicano society, and thus must be controlled by making it shameful.

Chicana Feminist find action in Malinche's role as a mother.  She is almost literally the mother of a people and a nation.  Ultimately both Paz and Castillo are discussing the same woman yet it's their interpretation and the lense with which they view her that bring the myth to life. 

I Want a Dyke for President!

Zoe Leonard, "I Want A Dyke for President"

In the context of the upcoming elections, I wanted to revive this legendary work for my fellow feminist (or feminist-in-training) brethren. I first came across this during university, and remain floored by its genuine yearning, pain, and its power. I remain humbled at the ability of someone who has never met me, spoken to me, or known of me, to write something with which I identify with so strongly and intimately.

Anyone who knows me or has the misfortune of being my facebook friend will know that there are few people more in love with our current president than me (including possibly Michelle). I really really love him (and his big ears and even bigger brain) and what he's done for me personally because I am LGBT and a woman and a student and an atheist. But five years later, I still have a bone to pick.

Hillary Clinton was rejected as the Democratic nominee five years ago. Not because she had a vagina (or at least no one will admit to that as their reason for rejecting her), and not because she was a mother, but because she was publicly perceived as a "bitch." We all remember watching Hillary's hecklers yell "Iron my shirt!" at her town hall meetings and public appearances. I heard from male peers (Stanford undergrads, so an admittedly self-selective sample of progressive, young, and privileged men) that they couldn't relate to her and she never smiled and seemed "uptight" and "barely human." A Gallup poll from 2008 showed that she was regarded most strongly in the following three categories: "experienced," "qualified/capable of being president," and "dislike her." Seriously??

Thankfully, when Hillary was finally driven to tears in public, fellow woman-in-charge Maureen Dowd (and Pulitzer-winning journalist) at the Times finally confronted the issue.
“I actually have emotions,” [Clinton] told CNN’s John Roberts on a damage-control tour. “I know that there are some people who doubt that.” She went on “Access Hollywood” to talk about, as the show put it, “the double standards that a woman running for president faces.” “If you get too emotional, that undercuts you,” Hillary said. “A man can cry; we know that. Lots of our leaders have cried. But a woman, it’s a different kind of dynamic.”

In a super interesting article comparing the public opinion differences between Hillary and Michelle, researchers at the University of Illinois analyzed public opinion data on the two would-be first ladies from 1992 to 2008. Their results indicated that "spouses who embody the traditional role of first lady tend to be more popular, while spouses who assume an active role in advocating policy, such as Hillary Clinton, garner less support." This study also concluded that most to-be first ladies generate highly polarized reactions along partisan lines, but that more traditional spouses evoke a less divisive response. This reminded me of the backlash Michelle Obama faced for trying to tackle childhood obesity in America through legislative efforts, and how she's now trying to stay under the radar during election season for this contested issue. 

We are now four years after the findings of this University of Illinois article, and Hillary has served extensively as Secretary of State and harmoniously within the Obama administration. So when will it be her turn?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

On the evolutionary origin of gender roles

In his article Gender Is For Nouns, Richard Epstein argues that women’s “nurturing instincts” are “a set of attitudinal adaptions” that promote survival. Because women have these attitudes, they will derive more pleasure from nurturing activities. This will lead to specialization between men and women. And ultimately to domesticity.

These “nurturing instincts” evolved because women have chest-mounted baby food, which made them better suited to care for children while men went out “to explore, to fight, and to hunt.”

The central problem with this idea is falsifiability. It is a plausible sounding story, but there is really no way to test it. We can’t go back in time and talk to our early human ancestors. And innate brain differences don’t leave marks on fossils. These types of stories are so common in evolutionary psychology that they have a name: just-so stories.

Furthermore, for almost any behavior, an equally plausible social explanation can be given. For example, Catharine MacKinnon would argue that “attitudinal differences” are the product of men’s feet being on women’s throats. This is a very Nietzschean explanation. Just like Neitzsche’s slave morality, women’s “attitudinal differences” are the product of oppression. “Nurturing instincts” are not a biological adaptation, but a social one.

However, there is a more fundamental question that needs to be asked: can we trust evolution?

In his book The Emotional Construction of Morals, Jesse Prinz argues that an evolutionary origin does not grant moral norms any special privilege. His reasoning applies with equal force to Epstein’s argument.

First, “evolution does not optimize. It does not produce traits that are best, but only traits that are good enough…sufficiently efficacious for mating and raising offspring.” (Prinz, p. 258.) Epstein’s evolutionary domesticity may be a good solution to feeding babies in the wild, but it is not necessarily the best solution. Just like the human eye is imperfect, domesticity is imperfect.

Second, “biological fitness is not always advantageous to us as individuals. Biological fitness is most fundamentally defined in terms of genetic fitness: that which allows our genes to replicate. What’s good for our genes is not necessarily good for us.” (Prinz, p. 258.) For example, if killing your parents increases your own chance of survival, it is good for your parents’ genes (since you have their genes, too), but not good for your parents. (Ibid.)

Similarly, by having women focus all of their energy on their children, they almost certainly increase the fitness of their own genes. But this says nothing about the well-being of the caretaker as an individual.

Third, “even if evolved traits increased fitness in the past, they may not be advantageous now: what was fit for our ancestors is not necessarily fit for us. As skeptics have pointed out, evolution tends to provide norms that are quite parochial.” (Prinz, p. 258.) As Epstein himself puts it – while failing to grasp its significance – “modern women operate in settings far different from those of their ancient mothers.” Domesticity may have been a half-decent solution back when chest-mounted baby food was the only game in town. But breast pumps and baby formula have changed that. And so has a little thing called industrialization.

In short, if Epstein is correct, and domesticity is the product of evolution, it may be no better for us than junk food.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The right to pee

Male bias is inherent in our society because men have historically written the laws and shaped our institutions.  It follows that a law that treats men and women the same or one that is “gender-neutral” often does not produce equitable results.  As Judith Baer explained in her 1999 book Our Lives Before the Law, “[t]he problem is not how neutral you make it but how you make it neutral.” 

This concept is illustrated in our separate but “equal” public restroom accommodations.  Ladies, we have all experienced long wait times for restrooms at sporting events, concerts and even in more low-key settings like restaurants and movie theaters.  It’s all the more irritating when our male friends and partners cruise in and out of the restroom and wait around for us, looking annoyed.

Disproportionately long lines not only drain our time, but the wait can be physically painful.  I’ll be the first to admit that, on more than one occasion, I’ve said “screw it” and darted into the men’s room where I was greeted by angry stares, eye-rolling or rude comments about how I should use my own bathroom.

If you are not convinced from your personal experiences that the wait time for public restrooms is unevenly distributed between the sexes, consider these arguments:
  • Women have to use the restroom more frequently.  Men have a larger bladder capacity.  Women also have to use the restroom for super fun stuff like changing our tampons. 
  • It takes women longer to use the bathroom.  We have to sit down.  Also, we have to make greater adjustments with our clothing.  Although zippers conveniently facilitate a quick pee for guys, it’s not that simple for us. 
  • Many women (still) have greater care giving roles.  From what I have observed, there are more kids in the women’s restroom.   
  • Waiting in long lines puts women at a greater risk for pain and infections.  Women “tend to get more bladder infections than men… because women have shorter urethras.”  According to Webmd, cystitis is also “most common in women.” 
It is not surprising that gender inequality in public restrooms extends beyond U.S. boarders.  Earlier this year, women in Guangzhou and Beijing, China staged “occupy” protests in male public restrooms.  An article in the Economist summed up the protestors’ argument, 
In an ideal state of public convenience, the thinking goes, women would not have to endure the long queues created by a simple 1:1 allocation of toilet space, female-to-male. It is waiting times, not toilet seats, that should be shared equally. The Occupiers are calling for a corrective adjustment.

Assuming that we are all on the same page that an “equal” ratio of male to female restrooms does not produce substantive equality, the question remains: what is the appropriate remedy for the problem?

Twenty states have enacted so-called “potty parity” legislation to address restroom inequality.  A common solution is to increase the ratio of female to male bathroom stalls to 3:2 or 2:1.  However, the American Restroom Association points out that, for certain venues, ratio mandates have led to the “ironic situation of potty parity legislation reducing the required toilet fixtures for women.”  

A few states have amended or repealed the ratio requirements after receiving complaints from men.  For example, LP Field in Nashville was built in compliance with the 2-1 ratio required by the Tennessee Equitable Restrooms Act.  After men reported waiting in line for up to fifteen minutes the Act was amended to allow extra men’s restrooms at stadiums, horse shows, and auto racing venues.  Florida also repealed their 1992 potty parity law, calling it “outdated.”  Apparently women in Florida have learned to pee faster or hold it longer over the last twenty years.

Another solution is to make all restrooms gender-neutral.  The movement for gender-neutral bathrooms gained momentum on college campuses over the past decade.  Although the movement originated as a remedy for problems facing transgendered students, unisex bathrooms are also a practical solution for the unequal wait times that women experience.

My freshman dorms had gender-neutral bathrooms and showers.  At first it felt a little weird, but I got used to it.  I have also used gender neutral bathrooms at clubs and restaurants in San Francisco.  I always feel comfortable.  However, I suspect that there would be a great deal of backlash to making all bathrooms gender-neutral.

The American Restroom Association takes a middle-of-the-road approach.  They suggest that establishments update the minimum number of toilets for both men and women and “increase the use of unisex toilets where possible.”  The ARA explains that “small restaurants, for example, often have 1 men's and 1 women's toilet.  Making them both unisex would reduce the chance of waiting for everyone.”  

After doing some research, I learned that the ARA’s definition of a unisex toilet is a single-user, private restroom.  While it’s a great solution for small restaurants, it would be expensive and an inefficient use of space to build the number of private unisex bathrooms needed to alleviate the longer lines for women at large venues like AT&T Park.  

I believe that the best solution is to increase the number of multi-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms, like those that exist on college campuses.  We don’t need to mandate that all bathrooms are gender-neutral.  Venues can continue to have separate male and female restrooms for those who do not feel comfortable going to the bathroom with the opposite sex.  Simply mandating that certain venues include large, gender-neutral restrooms will improve lines for women.  It will also produce the added benefit of normalizing the concept of using the restroom with the opposite sex.  

I'm interested in hearing what solutions you all prefer.  Maybe we can even talk about it while we wait in line together tonight at bar review!

Guns and Gardening: Crafting Michelle Obama's Image as First Lady

A Google search for "Michelle Obama's Arms" turns up over 4,000,000 results, featuring workout routines and pictures of the "first guns" (of the flesh rather than metallic type). In contrast, the first result for the search "Laura Bush's Arms" is Feminist Up in Arms Over Honoring Laura Bush. Michelle Obama and President Obama's campaign staff have created a distinct persona for the First Lady of the United States. But can this Ivy-league educated professional woman be the First Feminist while existing within the frame of a "traditional" wife and mother?

Showing off those famous guns
According to a Vanity Fair article published in 2007, Michelle grew up in a traditional nuclear family. She stated, “I came into our marriage with a more traditional notion of what a family is...It was what I knew growing up—the mother at home, the father works, you have dinner around the table. I had a very stable, conventional upbringing, and that felt very safe to me." However, Michelle did not follow this mold for most of her adult life. She seemed to define herself as a professional first. She is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and held high-powered positions in both the private and public sectors. She in fact met the man who would be President when she was his mentor attorney and he was a summer associate at Sidley Austin. In 2006, her salary was nearly double that of her husband's.

Michelle at Princeton
However, when Barack decided to run for President, Michelle put her career on the back burner, reducing her workload to only 20%. She described a decision to keeping working as "being selfish." She said if she had kept working she "would have felt guilty." Clearly, after President Obama won the election, Michelle gave her notice, just as other working First Ladies before had done. She instead dove into the role of First Lady and "Mom-in-Chief."

Defining Michelle Obama's persona as First Lady displays the seeming contradictions that many women embody. She is both strong and sweet. A professional and a frilly-frocked gardener. A glass-ceiling breaker and a committed mother.

A 2008 New York Times article written during the campaign details how Michelle moved from reluctant campaign wife to carefully crafted First Lady. It discusses how the campaign softened her image by downplaying her former career and emphasizing her role as wife and mother. For example, it states that in the beginning of the campaign, Michelle appeared on news programs, but moved to giving interviews on “The View” and in Ladies’ Home Journal. On her speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, the author writes, "Mrs. Obama’s presentation touched just a bit on her own career, as a lawyer, community organizer and hospital executive, concentrating instead on her roles as a daughter, a mother, a sister and a wife."

This is a common device for making a professional woman "relatable" to stay-at-home mothers. Clearly the campaign staff knows what they are doing, given Mrs. Obama's approval ratings went from 32% in March 2008 to 63% one year later. One academic hypothesizes that "in order to make Mrs. Obama more appealing to mainstream Americans, campaign managers accentuated her female identity rather than her racial identity...Mrs. Obama was rewarded with ascending favorability ratings and positive press when she was portrayed as an ideal mother, a fashion icon, and a favorable first lady" instead of the "angry black woman" the media portrayed her as in the beginning of the campaign.

Michelle as a law student
This year's Democratic Convention campaign video leading up to her speech did not mention Mrs. Obama's prior career at all. The video highlights a few important issues to the First Lady, including military families and combatting childhood obesity. The video titles move from her "Beginnings" in Chicago to "First Lady" to "First Family." It does not feature anything about her career or life before her husband's political campaigns. Although it does feature her "longtime friend" Valerie Jarrett, who actually was Michelle's boss when she worked for Mayor Daley in Chicago. The fact that Ms. Jarrett is Mrs. Obama's former employer is not mentioned. The video also features Dr. Jill Biden who says that the two ladies bonded over the issue of military families.

The video emphasizes that Michelle is "so good with young people" and shows her playing tetherball and exercising with children. Ms. Jarrett hypothesizes that the children "look at her like their mom because she is a mom." The majority of the video focuses on her Let's Move campaign to get kids to eat healthier and exercise. It then goes on to a section entitled "Family First." Ms. Jarrett again comes on to state that nothing is more important to Michelle than her children, her husband, and her mom, but neglects to state that at some point in the not too distant past her career was also at least a part of Mrs. Obama's life. The video frames the core of Michelle by her definition as a mother, wife, and daughter. President Obama then comes on and states that Michelle knows that the most important legacy in a person's life is making sure your children are raised right, to be good people. Undoubtedly, raising great kids is an important part of a person's life, but the video says this is the most important part of a person's legacy. I wonder if President Obama would say the same about himself.

The Let's Move campaign has dominated Michelle's tenure as First Lady. This issue fits nicely in the narrative of First Lady as "Mother-in-Chief." Michelle cares about the health of children because she is a mom herself. It is a safe issue to take on because it is relatively uncontroversial (except to a few right-wing talk radio hosts who can turn any non-issue into a "controversy"). Probably Michelle's most talked-about feature are her famously toned arms. To publicize the Let's Move campaign, she has competed in push-up contests with the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres on national television. Michelle is literally a strong woman. The emphasis on her strength and athleticism does separate Mrs. Obama from former First Ladies. She has proven that women can be physically strong and feminine at the same time, and is a role model for female athletes. This is great. However, her strength is still framed by her involvement with raising children. She works out with kids in a lot of campaign videos. She hula-hoops, double-dutches, dances, sprints, and does all kinds of physical activities with children around the country.

The other issue that Michelle has adopted is military families. Again, this is a laudable concern. Military families do have special needs and are often ignored in our society. But this issue too is connected to Mrs. Obama's role as wife and mother. She is sympathetic to the military families she meets because she can imagine how hard it is for them - because she is a mother.

Giving her speech at the Democratic National Convention 
Watching Michelle's stellar Democratic National Convention speech one cannot help but be impressed by the First Lady's poise and talent with public speaking. She can command a crowd. Her passion is inspirational. But it left me wondering: is there a way to be a First Lady without defining yourself as "Mom-in-Chief" first? It is admirable to emphasize the importance of caring for your children and it is fine to define your most important role as mother. But is this really how Michelle would define herself, or is this part of her campaign-crafted image?

Michelle Obama has accomplished some truly extraordinary things in her life and her career. I just wish the media and the Obama campaign could incorporate some of her accomplishments aside from her role as wife, mother, and daughter. This is a useful device for making her more relatable to the stay-at-home moms in Ohio, but does this send the right message to the young girls in our country? The message seems to be that you are defined by your relationship to others, particularly your family. She is a strong woman, and I believe a feminist. But her role as First Lady fits squarely into the "traditional" view of women as defined by their husbands and their children. When Mrs. Obama (hopefully) begins a second term as First Lady I would like to see her take on an issue important to her, irrespective of whether it involves children, family, or anything that women are traditionally supposed to care about. Surely a strong, ivy-league educated former attorney and high-powered administrator cares about something other than getting kids to eat their veggies.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Women and witchcraft: the feminization of black magic accusations

Women in parts of Africa and Asia are still commonly accused of witchcraft, although none among the accused has yet displayed any supernatural powers. The paradox inherit in witchcraft accusations is that powerless individuals (often members of powerless groups) are believed to have supernatural powers so advanced that they could change their socio-economic status (with only a wiggle of their nose), but they do not change their status, and remain powerless to protect themselves even from persecution. Witchcraft accusations are often made against women and are not based on reason (often thriving within their own internal logic). Instead, they are the manifestation of strong emotional discomforts within a society.

The feminization of witchcraft accusations is no surprise, however, since women represent the marginalized gender, whose marginalized status constantly poses a threat to the disproportioned balance of power between the genders. Even in earlier centuries, witchcraft accusers targeted women and protected men. One Scottish writer in 1785 accused various women of witchcraft, but “in justice add[ed] that the husbands of these ladies are in general no conjurers.” He wanted to ensure that “no innocent person may suffer from [his] accusations and that the Lord of any such great Lady may not…suffer for the witchcraft of his wife.” Antinquo-Modernus, To the Author of the Lounger, Lounger (Edinburgh, Scotland), Nov. 12, 1785, Issue XLI.

The accusation of witchcraft against women is certainly not a novel phenomenon. Surprisingly, neither is the wholesale disbelief in black magic. Even in 1785, the belief in witchcraft was laughable. Our 18th century Scottish writer accused those women of witchcraft because he wanted to challenge the disbelief of witchcraft in his time. What persists over time, however, is society’s inclination to reach for witchcraft accusations against women as a tool to resolve societal tensions that would not logically or fairly have an alternative institutional or legal resolution. The accusations themselves are a last resort for maintaining a society’s status quo and power balance.

In our time, the belief in witchcraft remains rampant among well-educated middle and upper class people in parts of Asia. Accusations of witchcraft against foreign domestic workers are astonishingly commonly in Singapore and other parts of Asia. Audrey Verma, Black Magic Women: On the Purported Use of Sorcery by Female Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore, in Negotiating Identities: Constructed Selves and Others 25, 26 (Helen Vella Bonavita ed., 2011).

The “maid trade” is predominately labored by women from poorer countries, some of whom are even certified teachers or nurses in their home countries. Cindy Hahamovitch, No Man’s Land 230 (2011). In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers earn $600 (US) per year and work (and live) under dangerously abusive conditions. Id. One worker was abandoned at a local hospital with two broken ribs after suffering “months of blows and kicks from her employer.” Id. Black magic accusations in the foreign domestic worker context results in the unfair treatment of a group that predominantly consists of poor women, and serves to perpetuate the exploitation of their marginalized condition.

Accusations of witchcraft serve the socio-functional purpose of maintaining the status quo within a community. Often, accusations of witchcraft serve as an indicator of societal tensions between groups of people – such as the threat of power realignment among classes or genders. Because the belief in witchcraft is irrational, it is grounded in strong emotional responses to those existing tensions. Thus, an accusation of witchcraft is the expression of both the existing tension between people, and their emotional response to those tensions.

Witchcraft accusations offer (problematic) mechanisms by which to resolve those tensions. In Ghana, for instance, women accused of witchcraft are often those who challenge gender roles by being overly eccentric, or threaten the class structure by inheriting substantial estates. These women present a gender and class tension in Ghanaian society that is largely emotional and without a legal or institutional resolution. Accused women are sent away to isolated witch camps – forever separated from their communities, families, and property. Witchcraft accusations give those with privilege a way to blame those who are oppressed for any misfortunes that the privileged face, all the while pulling attention away from the misfortunes of the oppressed that are perpetuated and often caused by the privileged.

The irrational nature of witchcraft accusations invites irrational and inequitable treatment of the accused. In 1789, on the Grain Coast of West Africa (where Guinea is presently situated), local tribes would prosecute all criminal defendants in fair and open trials, except for those accused of witchcraft. Witchcraft trials were always carried out in secret. Moreover, those convicted of serious crimes were sold into the slave trade, except those convicted of witchcraft – they were strangled and then their bodies were burned. Captain John Knox, Continuation of the Evidence before the Commons: On the Slave Trade, World, June 29, 1789, Issue 776. Today, witchcraft accusations are predominately made against women with multiple disfavored identities. As such, these already vulnerable women face inequitable and dangerous treatment upon being accused of witchcraft, and often are forced to flee their homes.

In conclusion, the feminization of witchcraft is no coincidence. Witchcraft accusations have heavily targeted women, and particularly women with multiple disfavored identities (i.e., noncitizen status, minority race, the elderly, the widowed, the heiresses, the eccentrics, etc.) In most cases, the accusation is the manifestation of an emotional response to a societal tension. Often, witchcraft is used to relieve tensions for the privileged because they have no alternative institutional or legal resolution available to them. However, the lack of institutional or legal solutions may be due to the blatantly irrational and unfair nature of the tension. For instance, tensions may be caused by the desire to maintain power balances against marginalized women. Since the accusations themselves are irrational, the resolution of the tension can often be dangerous and unfair to the accused women. Ultimately, the larger societal problem that allows the feminization of witchcraft accusations to persist into modern times is a structural misalignment of power and status between the genders and the classes.