Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Self-reflection and moving forward

I began this semester of Feminist Legal Theory with doubts. Given the opportunity to put my federal loan money where my progressive mouth was, I doubted myself. Up until this fall, I took advantage of having a marginally stronger grasp of feminist concepts than my male contemporaries. I accepted the social capital without trying to grow my knowledge, change my lifestyle, or push for more. I let myself remain complacent because I felt better than most, and that was enough. After the first week of class, I realized how little I knew. If I quit, I could revert to the ignorant belief that it was enough to be more feminist than the average guy. Thank goodness I did not let fragile masculinity win this battle.

Most of our critiques and discussion throughout the semester centered on more abstract concepts like social constructs or media representations.  Now I want to engage in a more personal critique to close the semester: where I fit in the scheme of masculinity theories.

Understanding and working on my own flaws to become a better ally are the type of every-day activities in which I can engage. But understanding my role in perpetuating or upholding traditional masculinity isn’t just for my own benefit; a stronger understanding of masculinities supports antiessentialism. (I learned of the connection reading through the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender Volume 33, Issue 2; it is a fantastic series of articles and I highly recommend reading them. Link below.) I believe issues of race, class, and gender are inseparable hurdles to a fairer legal system, a benevolent government, and an egalitarian culture; eliminating the self-inflicted wounds of masculine hegemony is a part of that agenda.

For my own self-reflection, David Cohen’s article “Keeping Men ‘Men’ and Women Down” (from the above mentioned Harvard Journal of Law & Gender issue) helped as a starting point. Cohen focuses on how various forms of sex segregation reinforce a “hegemonic masculinity,” defined largely by three qualities: anti-feminine, heterosexual, and physically aggressive.  This hegemonic masculinity perpetuates patriarchal subordination of women and pressures men to conform. Relatedly, the pressure to conform creates the phenomenon of fragile masculinity. Because men are constantly attempting to portray masculinity, and therefore avoid femininity, they buy ridiculously male gendered products, are quick to jump to violence, and avoid appearing “weak.”

After reading the article, I realize I have failed to recognize how I fit, and often strive to fit, within the hegemonic masculinity. First, I devoted years of my life to two of the most violent forms of competitive sport, and the prioritization of physical aggressiveness spills off the field and into everyday life. While I benefited personally from the regiment and structure of American football and rugby, to this day I never considered what brought me to those sports over all others. I enjoy profoundly less violent sports such as basketball, soccer, baseball. However, I gravitated to the more violent games. It was not the violence in of itself that attracted me to them, but the social capital I received as a male for playing them. I believed bullies would respect me and girls would like me if I played these sports.

I also put great effort into outward appearance, one of the chief ways gender is broadcast to the world. Whether by body composition, clothing style, or facial hair growth, my personal choices create a decidedly not feminine look. While in of themselves, embodying hegemonic masculine tendencies is not the problem, my blunt refusal to acknowledge the conformity is.

I have never stopped to consider how the way I portray myself influenced younger teammates, the boys I coached, or my own brother. If hegemonic masculinity perpetuates itself by conformity, I cannot ignore the part I play in that. It doesn’t matter that I do not subscribe to the concept of an ideal masculinity, if I passively promote its existence.

While I am not likely to change myself fundamentally, I can remain cognizant of how I advertise myself and begin to critique the underlying motivations for the choices I make. I can use my dollars to influence the market by not buying products that reinforce the hegemonic masculinity. I can make efforts to outwardly signify the ways in which I don’t conform.  More than anything, I must continually push myself beyond my comfort level. Doing just so this semester has paid off, and I can’t stop now.

Link to Harvard Journal of Law and Gender:
Link to David Cohen's article:

The fight for faith in feminism

After November 8th, I assume a lot of people started praying again. I certainly did, out of fear, out of confusion, out of anger. I am Catholic by culture, but as I’ve grown more educated, more liberal, I’ve not only distanced myself from my own religion, but grown skeptical of religious institutions. Religious doctrine is used as a justification for political ideology I disagree with. This fundamentalist approach frustrates me for myriad reasons. I think rigid religious doctrine shuts out potential followers and it leads to discrimination or violence. I think absolutism when interpreting ancient text is a folly in of itself (see, the Constitution). And I think unquestioning loyalty allows massive institutions to go unaccountable. My worries apply mostly to the two largest Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam.

On their face, these two religions are in direct opposition to the tenants of feminism. One need only peruse the Internet for a moment to find blog posts from religious types about the evils of feminism. Feminism, to these zealots, is about a murdering unborn babies, lesbianism, the destruction of sexual morals, and defying god’s will in creating two genders.
(Representative samples:,

They see feminism as a monolith with a clear and insidious agenda. NOT UNLIKE THE WAY I VIEW RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM. However, as they are actual institutions with leadership structures and centuries of violence perpetuated in the name of a deity, I would argue my inclinations are warranted. Despite what sounds like a critical tone, I think religion is valuable as a tool for individuals and a society. I know because of media biases, whether the demonization of Islam by conservative news, or my consumption of liberal media that is critical of fundamentalist Christianity in America, I was missing a piece of the puzzle. To no surprise, feminism and religion are getting along in powerful ways across the world.

Critics of feminism point a racist finger at Muslim countries and say, why don’t you protest about these sensational acts of violence, that’s real misogyny. All the while missing the points that misogyny is not about only about physical violence, and overlooking how our country treats violence against women. (Representative example: What these anti-Islam types fail to  realize is that Muslim women are those best equipped to combat misogyny in their home countries.

The Nation magazine’s Elizabeth Segran wrote a piece in 2013 about the Musawah (Equality in Arabic) movement. Twelve Muslim women from across the world founded the movement in 2009, modeled on a Malaysian organization Sisters in Islam. They hope to paint Muslim patriarchy not as a function of the religion itself but of the exclusive male interpretation of Islamic text. They are engaging with the text and people of Islam both, a dual approach spanning the globe. Musawah is looking for both private and public sphere equality by pushing civic engagement by women and refuting widely believed but unsubstantiated beliefs of sharia law. Rather than modeling their structure on secular non-government organizations, they’ve developed an approach specifically for Muslim countries. Musawah stands as another powerful example of women carving out space within their social structures.

While xenophobia and ethnocentrism can be blamed for the collective non-recognition of Islamic feminists, the lack of attention to Christian feminists in the United States stems from misconceptions our own culture perpetuates about feminism.  Notions of man-hating and sexual promiscuity are popular for anti-feminists, who assume feminism's only enemies are white Christian men. However, their ignorance blinds them to the work of organizations like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).

It is no coincidence that much of the conflict between Christian faith and feminism lays in reproductive rights; it is an on-going battle where religious belief is used as the sole argument for anti-choice advocates. The RCRC does not fit neatly with common assumptions about religious policial groups. The 30-year-old interfaith organization’s motto is “Pro-faith, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice.” Similar to Musawah, RCRC relies on alternative interpretations of religious doctrine to bridge the gap between feminism and faith. They utilize an outwardly intersectional approach, whether addressing marginalized communities’ access to reproductive health care, or branching out to advocacy on LGBTQ issues. RCRC also advocates for a stronger non-male pastoral presence to break down church patriarchies.

These groups are fighting for equality, to break down barriers, from within institutions that are associated with oppression. They undoubtedly face backlash and discrimination from others who supposedly share their faith. The willingness to stay and fight in their communities, to not give up a fundamental piece of their identities, gives me faith in these trying times.

Link to Musawah:
Nation article about Musawah:
Additonal Time Magazine article partially about Musawah:

The essential task of navigating male spaces

When life presents a dire set of circumstances with no easy path forward, how do you respond? Do you take the path of least resistance? Do you push yourself through adversity and accept the challenge head on? We all respond to adversity in different ways, but I think the means are secondary to the act of surviving those circumstances.

I found it difficult to sum up and categorize the subculture represented in Winter's Bone after we viewed excerpts from the film. The community depicted was easy to label in plain terms: rural, white, poor. But I sought a description that encapsulated not just what we saw on the screen but the why that subculture exists. After some reflection, I could articulate the description that was hanging on the tip of my tongue. The subculture is a manifestation of the failure of a combined system of capitalism and patriarchy.

The men in this subculture suffer a doubled-down degradation in a society that typically rewards the mere existence of white males. They are lesser men because they struggle to provide for their families; then their community has little racial diversity, leaving them without the apparent benefits of white privilege. Who is left in their community over whom they can control? Women.

The movie depicted the men’s propensity to resort to physical control over the female characters. The scenes were visceral and shocking. However, underlying it all was the way the women characters navigated this space. Scenes show how women would avoid violence by playing to male ego. Women consistently disobeyed male orders to achieve their goals, whether it was taking a truck or bringing Rhee to her father. I think these women in a way understood the men’s behavior, and rather than risk fighting, made the best of their situation. Implicitly the women displayed an acceptance of the outward power dynamic all the while pushing their own agendas.

Two comparisons came to mind as I thought about these women navigating their patriarchal settings. First, the many women portrayed in the documentary Half the Sky; these women navigate spaces dominated by men and poverty. Whether the criminal investigators willingly forgoing their duties in Freetown, or the Vietnamese father forcing his young daughter to work, the men operated as tools of injustice. And yet the women continued to make progress. Rhee overcoming her father's poor decision making, her uncle's reluctance to help her, and her community's antagonism shares a narrative arc with the women featured in Half the Sky.

Gender is not the only axis of oppression or disenfranchisement. However, after watching the two films, it is easy to see an essential struggle for women across national and cultural boundaries. I find the women awe inspiring for their individual displays of power and prowess.

The second example involves contemporary American politics. Over the last several elections gender framed issues such as reproductive health, paid family leave, sexual assault, and the gender wage gap have fallen along a tidy ideological divide. Our two major national parties have become diametrically opposed on the validity or solutions to these issues. The situation is so dire Democrats feel comfortable accusing the GOP of a “War on Women.”

I do not run in conservative circles (I live in a near impenetrable liberal echo chamber) but I imagine that political spaces leaning conservative share similarities with the town depicted in Winter’s Bone and the multiple locales visited in Half the Sky. Conservative female representation in the House and Senate are dreadful, approximately 9% and 11% respectively. It may be that conservative women, like the wives in Winter’s Bone, have to navigate that space and wield alternative forms of power. The late Phyllis Shlafly comes to mind as an example: a political stalwart leading, without holding office. (Link to her obituary below) But today, another female lawyer sits very much in a position of power crafted by her deft career maneuvering and commitment to the conservative cause.

That woman is Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to lead a Republican presidential campaign, after starting her own nationally reputed polling and trend company. She has an aptitude for knowing what the people want, but especially the consumer preferences of American women. She has parlayed this skill to become the GOP’s resident “Women Whisperer.” She specializes in taking the worst the party has to offer and making it work. Conway tried to put out the dumpster fire that was Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin (who claimed that women who were “legitimately raped” could shut down pregnancies and thus did not require abortion). Now she is tasked with attempting to make Donald “blood coming out of her whatever” Trump appeal to women, a nigh impossible task.

Though I disagree with nearly every single one of Conway’s political beliefs, I find her work inspiring in it’s own way. She exists a toxic pool of misogyny, whether she would admit to it or not.  I believe in a better world, she would be a New York congresswoman, or a chief-of staff. Instead, she works within the reality of a male dominated space fighting for her own success. I cannot fault the path she is forging for herself.

There may be an impulse to negatively judge Conway for her part in the election, and her recent antics in the media. Again, I do not agree with a thing that she says on television. However, her willingness to lead the Republican presidential campaign has cemented her place in political history. Like Rhee, she had to get her hands dirty but ultimately achieved her goal.

Link to Phyllis Schlafly obituary.