"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A rose by any other name: U.S.Congress revisits the ERA

Yet another reason to be glad we elected a liberal Congress. I learned today from the blog Biting Giants that the House and Senate reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment this week, albeit under a different name: The Women's Equality Amendment. (Read the story from the Washington Post.)

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(Women fight for the ERA, 1982)

So, yeah. After much debate and waiting, it failed in 1982. But it's important to note that in 1982, we were no longer at the climax of the second wave of feminism, and we were experiencing in full swing the Backlash that Susan Faludi defined and described for us ten years later. Newly elected Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and conservatism and a return to "traditional values" were all the rage. And then there was good old Phyllis convincing women not to fight for their rights by making them irrationally fear being drafted into the military and having to share public restrooms with men.

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(Phyllis Schlafly leads a protest against the ERA, 1982)

So are we better prepared today, in 2007, to ratify an amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women? George W. is still in office, and the Christian Right has more political influence than ever. Phyllis Schlafly is alive and well, still rallying conservative support against the ERA. Only this time around, one of her main weapons is to insist that the passage of an amendment that allows no discrimination on the basis of sex will lead to the legalization of gay marriage. And then there's the common attitude that an Equal Rights Amendment is simply unnecessary, since, technically speaking, women are not exactly excluded by the current language in the Constitution. The latter sentiment is the one that was directly taught in my twelfth grade American Government class by my stridently Republican teacher.

Then again, our new democratic Congress seems enthusiastic. A handful of states have enacted their own equal rights amendments since the defeat of the national one. And the Washington Post article points out that great strides toward an attitude of gender equality have been made in the last thirty years, especially in the southern states where the amendment did not have favor the first time around. Also, although we may not be living in a time in which feminism gets overt media coverage, perhaps it is a benefit to our cause that so many of the gains of women's movements are now so deeply ingrained in our society. As Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards wrote in Manifesta:

"For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it - it's simply in the water." (p.20)

(Support progressive, independent booksellers. Buy Backlash at Feed Your Head Books.)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

USA: Grade D Nation

South Carolina is currently working on passing a bill that will require any woman seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of the fetus and sign a document saying she saw it. Only two U.S. states have legislation which guarantees that women's birth control perscriptions will be filled despite self-righteous pharmacists. In 2006, South Dakota, (like fourteen other states with similar legislation) banned abortion altogether. Other states have various parental consent laws, mandatory waiting periods or coercive counseling sessions, denial of insurance coverage, extremely limited clinic access, and severe restrictions on which health care professionals are permitted to perform abortions. Overall, NARAL: Pro-Choice America gives the United States a grade of "D" when it comes to legislation for reproductive choices. To see how your state measures up, check out their State Report Cards page.

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(Cartoon by Stephanie McMillan: www.minimumsecurity.net)

Media That Matters: "A Girl Like Me"

I first heard about this video by 17-year-old filmmaker Kiri Davis
at the Center for New Words, and when it was mentioned again in a discussion about race and racism over at Thinking Girl's blog, I thought I would include it here:

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Yorkie: It's Not for Girls!

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Months ago, I heard about Nestle's Yorkie: a big, hearty chocolate bar, sold almost exclusively in the UK, that uses the ad slogan, "It's Not for Girls". Weeks ago, I happened to see one up close at my local World Market store. And just days ago, my friend Katie came to visit from her home in New York City, and she brought with her a just-purchased Yorkie bar, knowing it was something she couldn't resist showing me. So, since it was already in our possession, I just had to see what all of the fuss was about.

We studied the wrapper for its ingredients and any other writing, looking to find any information as to why it should not be consumed by females. We tore it open, we each snapped off a square, and, knowingly engaging in an activity expressly discouraged by the wrapper, we ate it.

And you know what? Nothing happened. No British police came out to arrest or even chastise us for our transgression. And, to our disappointment, it was just plain, old chocolate. The only thing we could figure was that they decided to market it to men simply because it's bigger than your typical chocolate bar, with almost twice the fat and calories. And, as you know, men are the only ones who are given the advertising message that they are entitled to enjoy large amounts of rich and hearty food without being made to feel that it is a special treat. Advertising aimed at women usually encourages us to "be good" or to "be bad" with the foods we choose, making sure we know that eating something in a large quantity or eating something especially unhealthy is an unladylike indulgence. A guilty pleasure.

At any rate, a little research on the Yorkie bar yielded these results: (From the Yorkie page on the Nestle UK site)

Yorkie was launched in 1976 to take on brands such as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and provide a chunkier alternative to the slimmed down Dairy Milk bars.

Names originally under consideration for Yorkie included "O’Hara", "Trek" and "Rations".

Within two years of its launch, Yorkie topped 13 thousand tonnes and became firmly established as a big, solid, chunky eat, uniquely for men. Advertising reflected this with macho imagery - lorry drivers who take it one chunk at a time.

Now have a look at an old classic Yorkie TV commercial:

Apparently, in response to the idea embedded in pop culture that chocolate is a sweet that is craved and obsessed over by women, Nestle decided to breathe new life into the Yorkie bar by "reclaiming" chocolate for men.

A more recent Yorkie commercial:

The website explains:

In 2001 the Yorkie "It’s Not for Girls" campaign was launched because, in today’s society, there aren’t many things that a man can look at and say that’s for him.

Amnesty International estimates that only 1 percent of the world's wealth is owned by women, and that women make up 70 percent of the world's poor. Only ten of the 500 largest corporations in the world are run by women, and women make up only just under 17 percent of the world's politicians, and this number is a record high. But Nestle is right. Men have been dealt a bad hand. There just aren't many things they can look at and say that's for them. It makes perfect sense that they should have their own chocolate bar.

Alternahygiene Goes Maintstream?

If you grew up female in the U.S. and went to public school, it's likely that you can recall that one day of fifth grade where the they separated you from the boys and sent you to a classroom to learn about all the strange things that were about to happen to your body as you entered puberty. Likely, you spent this day embarrassed and giggling with your friends as you were shown a video with some scenario in which a girl about your age or a little older gets (gasp!) her first period. For example:

Girl goes to a camp-out-in-the-back-yard sleepover at Friend's house, only to wake up in the middle of the night to discover that she is bleeding "down there". (The viedo, of course, doesn't show "it", but we get the idea based on her mortified reaction.) Girl sneaks into the house, where she seeks out Friend's Mom, who maternally sits her down and proceeds to explain to her in detail what is happening to her body, while the film switches back and forth between their conversation and animated anatomy drawings of the female reproductive system. Benevolent Friend's Mom then proceeds to talk about "feminine hygiene" options, i.e. disposable maxi pads and tampons, and gives Girl one of these items to use. She then returns to the slumber party unnoticed and no longer embarrassed, thanks to Friend's Mom, who promises to keep the whole incident a special secret between just the two of them.

At this point, the lights are turned back on, and some sample pads and tampons are passed out to each of you, so that you will be prepared for this shameful and embarrassing event when it happens to you. Now flash forward _____ years to the present day. Are these same disposable products still the only ones you know to exist?

I was in my freshman year of college when I learned that there were other options out there -- alternatives to those costly and wasteful standards. In the midst of my first Women's Studies class, I stumbled upon this knowledge through advertisements in Bitch magazine, the kickass feminist quarterly recommended by my professor. It not only struck me that there were other options, but I couldn't help but wonder why this information was not more widely known. American women spend countless dollars on products every month, create tons of landfill waste when they dispose of them, and are bombarded with warnings about toxic shock syndrome, and yet two or three brands of disposable bleached cotton pads and tampons are the only choices presented to us in school and in mainstream media. Women who do not stumble upon the information through an Internet search or immerse themselves in feminist discourse are unlikely to ever learn that there are alternatives. This is why I was surprised to open up the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper when I was visitng a friend in Kentucky this week to find -- front and center of the Health and Family section -- an article entitled "Feminine Hygiene Options: Natural or Reusable Products Find Favor," by Jamie Gumbrecht.

To my delight, Gumbrecht's article included detailed descriptions and pictures of many alternatives to tampons and pads, lists of pros and cons for each, and information about where to obtain them. I recommend the article as a great source of information on reusable cotton pads, sea sponge "tampons", and products like The Keeper (pictured above). For more great information on the The Keeper, try this site.

We need to have real knowledge of our options before we are able to make informed choices about the products that go in, on, or up against our bodies. And the importance of learning about our bodies should never be compromised because of a social taboo that prohibits talk about our personal care and health. Bravo to Jamie Gumbrecht for writing her article for a mainstream media source despite a collective cultural squeamishness over women's periods. (E-mail her at jgumbrecht@herald-leader.com if you'd like to join me in thanking her.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thanks MSN, but I'd rather have a vacation from patriarchy.

Remember back before the Second Wave of feminism when classified ads were separated out into "Help Wanted Male" and "Help Wanted Female" sections? Back then, it was common knowledge to folks that certain activities were meant to be engaged in only by one sex or the other. These days, though, what with integrated want ads and co-ed gym classes and all, at least we can trust the folks over at msn.com to make it clear to us the difference betweeen men women. One of their headline stories for today is a pair of travel articles that let you view a list of either "Top Trips for the Guys" (featuring a picture of men skiing) or "Girls-Only Getaways" (with a photo of women relaxing at a spa). After getting the blatantly glaring (and somewhat redundant) message that men are active and women passive, I thought sure that the actual articles would not be so full of cliches about men and women. Boy was I wrong. They ended up being just another reminder of the way the mainstream media still treats gender - by severely limiting us all through rigid stereotypes.

The list of destinations for the guys seems harmless enough (unless you count the "topless bathing beauties" mentioned in the blurb about Euro vacations). The activities include all things adventurous and sporty, like surfing, mountain biking, fishing, and skiing, with special attention given to the wide array of delicious food and live music to be found at each of the vacation spots.

The list of female getaways comes out swinging with this fun little introduction:

Guys are great: Handy with a wrench, a football or a remote control, they can—every once in a while—swoop in and save the day. They often make excellent traveling companions as well, but they also can make for somewhat stressful ones. Who wants to be constantly re-evaluating your relationship while hiking through the Grand Canyon? Who likes to be hurried through the Dior boutique on the avenue Montaigne because someone wants to rush back to the hotel?

Although the only somewhat redeeming qaulity about that paragraph is the impliction that women might enjoy a hike through the Grand Canyon, most of the girls' vacation ideas revolve around relaxing at spas and going shopping. The article encourages us to "shed some pounds in London" by shopping 'til we drop, and those who are "tired of cooking the same old thing for dinner" can spend a week learning to cook gourmet meals in Tuscany. "Clearly the only difficulty here will be maintaining the same dress size after a week devouring the best this gorgeous region has to offer — so be sure to schedule the shopping for the end of your stay."

The list for gals is not entirely lacking ideas for outdoorsy activity, but the presentation it gets is a little different from that on the guys' list. In the men's article, surfing destinations are included with no disclaimer, but here's what they have to say to us girls:

Surfing: It seems so cool, so relaxing, so exciting — but also so terrifying. If this is your perspective, then surf camp may be all that remains between you and mastering the waves. Surf Diva Surfing School in La Jolla, Calif., offers five-day clinics for beginning and intermediate students looking to do more than manage standing up on their boards.

The last travel idea on the list for women takes the cake. Entreating us to "Do Good in Ghana", the article suggests a "volunteer vacation" where women pay $1,025 (not including airfare) to devote two weeks to charity work. Of course this has the potential to be a rewarding experience, but would this ever be presented to men as a great thing to do for an all-guy getaway? Isn't this just a reminder that women are expected to be caring and giving of their time and energy?

This pair of articles goes much deeper than a simple list of great places to visit. By placing vacation ideas into separate mens' and womens' categories, they reinforce the entrenched (and insulting) notion that men can be adventurously active without fear and enjoy food and drink without consequences, while women need relaxing escapes to passively lie around and be pampered - as long as they don't neglect to maintain their figures and their roles as consumers. Thanks, MSN, but I'd rather have a vacation from patriarchy.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Male Privilege

Blog Against Sexism Day

When most people think of sexism or racism (or any of the other bigoted "ism"s out there), they tend to imagine concentrated acts of hate or violence or blatant attitudes of superiority. And in the absence of such obvious acts and attitudes, they assume that discrimination just doesn't exist. It is easy to assume that because we have some legal protections against the most overt types of discrimination and because vociferous hate of others is generally frowned upon in our society that oppression is a thing of the past. But laws and "politically correct" attitudes can not and do not change that fact that the groups of humans with (a)more power, (b)more money, (c) more numbers or more visibility, or (d)a history of more power, money, and visibility still have a lengthy list of automatic privileges that affect nearly every aspect of their lives.

My frist experience with learning about privilege came from the wonderful article by Peggy McIntosh: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (which is excerpted from a larger work and reprinted in full here). Another good source is the book White Like Me, by Tim Rice, an American white male who breaks down aspects of his life to explain how many of the comforts and the security he has enjoyed in his life are (directly or indirectly) a result of his being white.

There is white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, Christian privilege, heterosexual privilege, American privilege, able-bodied privilege, weight privilege, etc. etc., and the most interesting thing about privilege is how invisible it can be to those who possess it. The web's most popular checklist of male privileges can be found here, and it includes a great introduction, but I put the list in full below for the link-phobic.

Now, before you proceed to read the list, I must warn you. Some of these are, of course, subject to debate, but merely presenting a few exceptions is not enough to discount the items as privileges. And (especially if you are male and/or new to the idea of privilege) the list might cause an extreme feeling of defensiveness. Perhaps not all of the items on the list apply to you personally, but they still exist. The object of bringing privilege to light is not to personally attack members of a dominant group, but to promote awareness of what it is like to be a member of a marginalized group - to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see that things may not be quite as fair and egalitarian as they sometimes seem. The brilliant Twisty Faster over at I Blame the Patriarchy put it beautifully when she said that,

"...(a) all men excercise - and benefit from - male privilege whether they want to or not, and (b) that any exercise of male privilege is misogyny. The Twistolution understands that there are lots of men who don't actively choose this, but the involuntary nature of their participation in women's oppression doesn't make them any less oppressed by them."

The Male Privilege Checklist

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
2. I can be confident that my co-workers won't think I got my job because of my sex - even though that might be true.
3. If I am never promoted, it's not because of my sex.
4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won't be seen as a black mark against my entire sex's capabilities.
5. The odds of my encountering sexual harassment on the job are so low as to be negligible.
6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
7. If I'm a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are so low as to be negligible.
8. I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces.
9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I'll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I'm even marginally competent.
12. If I have children and pursue a career, no one will think I'm selfish for not staying at home.
13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
14. Chances are my elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more likely this is to be true.
15. I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see "the person in charge," I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters.
17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children's media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male heroes were the default.
18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.
19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.
20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented, every day, without exception. 21. If I'm careless with my financial affairs it won't be attributed to my sex.
22. If I'm careless with my driving it won't be attributed to my sex.
23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.
24. If I have sex with a lot of people, it won't make me an object of contempt or derision.
25. There are value-neutral clothing choices available to me; it is possible for me to choose clothing that doesn't send any particular message to the world.
26. My wardrobe and grooming are relatively cheap and consume little time.
27. If I buy a new car, chances are I'll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car.
28. If I'm not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.
29. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.
30. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called "crime" and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called "domestic violence" or "acquaintance rape," and is seen as a special interest issue.)
31. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. "All men are created equal…," mailman, chairman, freshman, he.
32. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
33. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if i don't change my name.
34. The decision to hire me will never be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.
35. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is usually pictured as being male.
36. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.
37. If I have a wife or girlfriend, chances are we'll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.
38. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, chances are she'll do most of the childrearing, and in particular the most dirty, repetitive and unrewarding parts of childrearing.
39. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we'll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.
40. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are much rarer.
41. I am not expected to spend my entire life 20-40 pounds underweight.
42. If I am heterosexual, it's incredibly unlikely that I'll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.
43. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

Privilege is a touchy subject. Failure to recognize it keeps systems of oppression in place, because it is so freely (and often unknowingly) exercised by even the most well-meaning and least hateful people. Only when we are open-minded enough to become aware of it are we able to take steps to dismantle it or work to extend privileges to those who lack them. No one can presume to know what it is like to be someone else until they open their ears and listen, and we should all take some wisdom from Ms. Audre Lorde, who said:
"If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister's oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy. And yes, it is very difficult to stand still and to listen to another woman's voice delineate an agony I do not share, or one to which I may have contributed."
--from Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, keynote presentation at the National Women's Studies Association Conference, Storrs, Connecticut, June, 1981 -- printed in (Sister Outsider)

(Visit here and scroll down for a list of participants in Blog Against Sexism Day.)

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Baghdad Burning

There are so many things I could have written about in the last half of February. I had plans for posts about the talented and diverse female Academy Award nominees and about Norbit, the ridiculous new fat-suit movie starring Eddie Murphy, but none of that felt important anymore once I got engrossed in this book:
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Don't let the subtitle, "Girl Blog," mislead you into thinking it was written by a naive child. The author, who calls herself Riverbend, is an intelligent 24-year-old woman living in Baghdad who sheds light on what it is like to live in a war-torn country. She covers everything from the political climate, to what Iraq was like pre-occupation, to Iraqi culture and Islamic customs. Her open and honest writing also forcefully tears down countless stereotypes about Iraqi and Muslim people. She has been blogging since August of 2003, and the book is a full collection of her posts from that date through September 11, 2004, graciously put into print by the Feminist Press. The Press recently published a second book covering her posts from October, 2004, through March, 2006, but all of these posts as well as all of the new ones are available on the still-active blog, found at riverbendblog.blogspot.com.

Not every post is overtly feminist. In fact, only a small percentage of her writing deals specifically with women's issues. But it goes without saying that the mere presence of her powerful voice in the blogosphere is an inspiring political statement, as it is anytime an otherwise marginalized woman gets to tell her story. And when she does discuss the plight of Iraqi women, it becomes unquestionable that war is a feminist issue.
"More and more females are being made to quit work or school or college. I spent last month trying to talk a neighbor's mother into letting her 19-year-old daughter take her retests in a leading pharmaceutical college. Her mother was adamant and demanded to know what she was supposed to do with her daughter's college degree if anything happened to her daughter, "Hang it on her tombstone with the consolation that my daughter died for a pharmaceutical degree??? She can sit this year out."

The worst part of the whole show was when they showed a mortician in Baghdad claiming he hardly ever saw any rape victims! What rape victim is going to go, in our current situation, file a complaint? Who do you complain to? Besides that, women are too ashamed to make rape public, and why bother when you *know* the person will never be caught -- when no one is going to bother to look for the aggressor?"
As James Ridgeway states in the introduction to the second book of her posts:
"Dehumanization of the 'enemy' is a prerequisite of war - just as it is for terrorism and for torture - and Riverbend's work stands as a vital antidote to dehumanization. Writing from her home, she brings the war into homes around the world. As one reads Riverbend, the distance between Baghdad and New York or Washington - or Omaha, or Denver, or London, or Rome - diminishes."