Thursday, January 26, 2006
Every so often (or I suppose, not very often at all), a television show comes along that I not only thoroughly enjoy but that does an important social service – the prime example being ABCs Commander in Chief. For those non-American readers, or those American readers with other plans on Tuesdays at 9, Commander in Chief stars Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen, an Independent politician who takes over for the Republican president after he dies. The show has its unabashed moments of cheesiness and ill-thought-out dialogue, but I find it overall thrilling and stimulating. Last week Mackenzie stood up to the Joint Chiefs to prevent outright war with North Korea – hearing and seeing a woman (albeit a fake one) wielding so much political power really gave me chills. The good kind.
I bring up this seemingly innocuous prime-time drama because women leading countries is all the rage these days and all over the news, as Carter-Ann mentioned a few posts back. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Angela Merkel in Germany, Michelle Bachelet in Chile are just the three most current examples but there are others; currently Latvia, the Phillipines, Ireland, Sao Tome and Principe, Sri Lanka, Finland and New Zealand have female heads of state. There have been more in the past and will undoubtedly be more in the future.
BBC News had readers share their thoughts on the eve of the inauguration of Johnson-Sirleaf to answer the question “Do Women Make Better Leaders?” Overwhelmingly, and to me a bit surprisingly, readers responded Absolutely Not. Many highlighted consequences of the rules of Thatcher or Indira Gandhi. Most argued that politicians are politicians, or people are people, regardless of gender. In short, they don’t think gender matters.
In so many ways I disagree with this statement. I believe it is of vital importance to have a more significant number of women world leaders, and generally regardless of whether or not they agree with my political sympathies. This statement is tricky and not a little controversial, so I break down my argument into three main reasons why the promotion of women world leaders is so vital.
Diversity Of Representation
Anyone who says gender doesn’t matter to them is lying. Traditional notions of women and men, what they think or believe and how they behave are as rampant now as they ever were. Consider a recent piece on supporters of Condoleeza Rice for President in 2008. Even the frame of the debate – Blondie vs. Condi – is one that is implicitly gendered: Would a male presidential candidate ever be referred to by his hair color?
The fact is, gender does matter to people when considering who they will vote for. Supporters of Condi see her as a perfect adversary for Hillary Clinton, but would they put her up against an equally qualified male candidate?
There is a glaring lack of diversity around the world in the highest political offices and parliaments. And not just gender diversity, but all types – and perhaps women aren’t even the worst off (I would wager that a Christian female candidate had a better shot at the US presidency than a non-Christian male). Racial diversity is limited (right now, Barack Obama is the only African-American in the US Senate); socio-economic diversity even more so, particularly in the developed world. Even amongst all the women I listed above, a good chunk come from affluent families or were educated at the foremost institutions in the US or Europe.
This is a large and multifaceted problem that necessitates a clear look at the intersectionality of identity. But one does not need to support women candidates at the exclusion of other forms of identity. I believe that gender is one diversification that can happen in my lifetime – and hopefully one of many.
Potential to Reframe Politics
Perhaps you still ask then how a woman might offer diversity to the political system. All other identities being equal, what would a woman bring to the Oval Office that a man could not?
The best answer to this comes from Cynthia Enloe, a brilliant academic who, in her piece on “Masculinity as a Foreign Policy Issue”, explains how feminist analyses on policy can provide clear insight into how pervasive masculine ideologies are in political decision-making. While we in the US have made strides in asking the right questions of domestic policy (e.g. Will this policy have a disproportionately negative impact on girls and women? Does this policy derive from unspoken assumption about men’s employment / health / etc.?), this type of debate is silenced in the foreign policy arena. Increased militarization and equation of foreign policy with military policy have made being tough and manly a vital prerequisite for political office. Analyses like Enloe’s help us realize that it is not just male leaders but the intrinsic masculinist discourse in the entire political system that is the root of the problem.
Two brilliant movies I’ve seen lately, Syriana and Why We Fight, both tackled the issues of about increased corruption and militarization in American politics. Neither of these movies brought up the fact that ALL of the policy makers or people in power they featured were men. They did not venture a hypothesis that perhaps many of the current problems the US is facing come from the exclusion of women in everything from high government offices to powerful military positions to terrorist training camps. To me, the lack of gender diversity was glaring.
With the newly elected women leaders, there is a sense that people may be starting to realize the benefits of feminizing political power. Now, I hate essentialism as much as the next person – and I don’t like the assumption that because one is a woman she will be kind, generous, peaceful – but frankly, I’d like any leader to have those characteristics. Consider the discourses surrounding the elections in Chile and Liberia. A New York Times article highlighted the maternal rhetoric surrounding their elections and the idea of bringing a woman leader in to unify and heal previously war-torn or dictatorially terrorized nations. This is proof that the discourse can change, that politics can be about something other than war, defense spending, or the military industrial complex. Johnson-Sirleaf and Bachelet are leading the way.
The Role Model Factor
I hope I have established for the reader the complete lack of diversity and the need for a reshaping of political discourse as two important reasons why you should support female political candidates. But this leaves one outstanding issue: the Condi quotient. You cannot simply assume that a woman will support feminist politics. Rice is one of the administration’s loudest screeching hawks and her views on affirmative action are indeed retrogressive. She may not be explicitly pro-life, but her own position within her party would likely preclude her for making pro-choice initiatives part of her platform. Her politics are in many ways far from those of your average feminist. Yet, part of me is excited to have her in a position power.
When I was in kindergarten, we had to complete a project where we cut out a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. At six, I clearly thought I had the chops to be President, so I brought in a picture of Reagan – and was promptly laughed at for wanting to be Reagan when I grew up. People though it was ridiculous that a woman would ever be President.
As the White House Project perfectly reveals, “visibility is viability.” Each time we see or experience a woman in high political office, be it on television or in real life, it becomes less strange or out of the ordinary. Perhaps it can almost become commonplace.
The eventual goal is to of course reach a place where gender does not matter, where a candidate is elected on the principles and beliefs and not on their genetic makeup. But we’re not there yet. So I say, bring on Condi vs. Blondie, ’08…and look for me on the campaign trail!
Monday, January 23, 2006
I know that it all was happening yesterday and hopefully hundreds of blogs were filled with criticisms of Bush and words of celebration for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
One of the great things about Bloggers for Choice is that it includes the voices of women who have not necessarily experienced the effects of Roe v. Wade directly. What so frequently happens in the debate around abortion is that the podium is mostly given to women who have experienced it and they are asked whether they regret it or not. It is these women who are given the strongest voice - but what I hope will happen with Bloggers for Choice, and from what I have seen so far has happened, is that women (whether or not they have had abortions) will demonstrate how much it is right that is valued and not taken for granted, not used as a form of contraception and not only used as a form of revenge, not used by children/man-hating women - whether or not they have previously experienced it. And I have not forgotten the numerous men that have also been blogging for choice and support the pro-choice movement.
One of the things that outrages me the most about the pro-life movement is the attempts to erase part of women's history by claiming that illegal abortion were not as numerous and popular as the feminist movement may claim: that back-alley, coat-hanger abortions rarely happened and that they have the figures to prove it. They claim that if this is the case, there would inevitably be statistics somewhere that demonstrate this affront on women's bodies - therefore the fact that there are very few hard stats about this can only mean that the huge demand for abortion that exists now is because of women's increasing promiscuity and the use of abortions for contraception. I hate that they are wiping away the experiences of so many women and also ignoring the deaths of so many women.
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Carlos sent me an article from an organization called Accuracy in Academia (they are one of Ann Coulter's "Patriot Links"...YAY!) about the futility and uselessness of women's studies programs. The author argues that taxpayer’s dollars could be better spent on movies like the classic Mel Gibson tome “What Women Want,” which, in his humble opinion, do a much better job of explaining the complex nuances that separate the genders.
This article is brilliant in its stupidity, don’t even bother reading it, seriously. I highlight it here only because of the byline, from, let’s recall, “Accuracy” in Academia:
Malcolm A. Kline is the excecutive
director of Accuracy in Academia
Like I said, brilliant in its stupidity. You can’t make something like that up.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
On Tuesday night I went to see Naomi Wolf talk at the ICA for a lecture called 'The Beauty Myth Revisited'. As hinted by the title, the lecture started with her discussing the impact her book, 'The Beauty Myth', had when published 10 years ago and it's relevance today. Just to quickly recap her main theory, in case you haven't read it, there are three 'myths' that keep the whole system going:
1) Beauty is natural
2) Beauty it transcendental
3) Beauty is about sexuality
These myths are upheld by a number of industries that rely on their existence to function successfully: cosmetic industry, dieting industry and the cosmetic surgery industry. Furthermore, the beauty myth is most prominent in its role in the backlash against feminism. The beauty myth is used to exploit and control women, fluctuating according to women's status she cites compares key period of women's liberation such as getting the vote (the fashion then switched to extremely thing, unfeminine form) to the advent of birth control in the 70's - once again presenting the ideal woman as Twiggy. Obviously the book gives a much clearer picture...
When I first read her book a few years ago, the power of these industries was somewhat of a revelation for me: advertising restrictions, article censorship, lack of medical testing, dumbed down results of any existing testing etc...I think there is tendency to forget that these are industries, not philanthropic organisations making face cream and cosmetic surgery procedures for the benefit of womankind. In the lecture, Wolf discussed a term that explains the importance of the relationship pretty clearly: 'change agents'. She points out that when she first wrote The Beauty Myth, what she was saying was considered very extreme. People didn't really believe that there was any problem with women's bodies in terms of how they felt about them or what they were told about them. Eating disorders was still very taboo as was cosmetic surgery; models were not considered to influence young girls body image etc...Now discussion about bulimia or the correlation between body image and self harm etc. is no longer seen as ground breaking information. This is not to say that these issues are not as problematic as before. However, this new consciousness about beauty means that some women are engaging differently with these industries. The marketing term for these women, according to Wolf, is 'change agents': women who are actively trying to define their own notion of beauty. And it is making an impact in certain areas of marketing. Just think of the Dove ad campaign with 'real' women. Whether you liked it or not, is what different. (As a side note, Wolf openly discussed her involvement in The Dove Report: Challenging Beauty).
In the lecture, Wolf concluded that things are better than ever and worse than ever. Even though it still exists, the notion of the beauty myth is more in the open. At the same time, pornography industry is growing incredibly strong and is relying on both the sexes to uphold certain notions of beauty and sexuality. It is more and more prolific in public space and cultural. Pornography (I'm including hardcore and soft-core) is no longer really considered something that only adults who are slightly daring use. There is a new pornographic consciousness. The use of cosmetic surgery is rising as are eating disorder rates.
Pornography, and the beauty industry, have appropriated the language of victimisation/empowerment - previously seen as a feminist discourse. Beauty industries used to have a language of degradation where as now indulging in cosmetic surgery or dieting is about empowering oneself, taking control of one's body, reclaiming youth etc... However, this appropriation of language still remains attached to some form of degradation because women still hate their bodies. This reminded me of Susie Orbach's 'Fat is a feminist issue', particularly the part about how dieting has now become a form of socialisation. Women learn from a very young age how to interact with other women through discussions of their bodies: what diet is working for them, which body part they hate the most etc...
For me, the most relevant part of Wolf's lecture was her reminder to feminist activists to look at the bigger picture. Don't just attack the lad mags because they are so obviously offensive to women. Lots of things are obviously offensive to women - that's the point. The notion of 'picking your battles' came up when a member of the audience asked what feminist action could be taken when such magazines and the pornographic industry so often turned around to feminist protest, responding that engaging in pornographic films or photography was a sign of empowerment and therefore simply another form of feminism. Wolf's response to the question was basically 'why should you respond seriously to a response that is obviously not serious?'. Lad mags that use the language of feminism are not sincerely trying to promote the notion of sexual liberation through feminist values so it is somewhat of a waste of energy to sincerely try to fight them on the basis of what is or is not a 'feminist value'. If you want to campaign against pornography or the use of cosmetically enhanced models, focus on the number of health risks that cosmetic surgery brings or the number of women who engage in pornography who were sexually abused as children etc...There are many other battles to pick.
What also came up in the lecture and caused some tension between Wolf and the other speaker, Natasha Walters (author of The New Feminism), was American feminism versus British feminism techniques for campaigning. Walters disagreed with Wolf's arguments about how British feminist activism could take a leaf out of the American feminists book about campaigning. The women's movement in the UK has become a bit stuck, according to Wolf and I agree with her. She also argued that in general women's rights are somewhat better in the USA (despite Bush's campaign to trample any right to abortion or effective birth control). Wolf points out that because of the relationship that money and politics has in the USA, the women's movement there has realized that they need effective funding to be able to play ball in politics: the women's lobby is now stronger than the gun lobby. The UK feminist campaigns are not playing hardball politics and they need do to be taken seriously. And I can already hear the complaints that 'then we would be acting just like men, playing by their rules etc...' and that strong funding sources usually bring strict restrictions. Obviously, there are a number of ways to campaign and I am all for grass-roots activism but at the same time think that UK feminist activism has tended to remain t00 grass-roots and not strived to campaign on a larger and more effective scale. Also there are no real strong financial backers for most UK feminist organisations. Many organisations that provide essential service for women (such rape crisis centre, battered women shelters etc...) rely on government funding. To this end, many have been shut down and/or the services they provide are not adequate for women who are in desperate need for support. Wolf also comments that civil suits have played a major part in changing how American corporations treat female employees. Although everyone mocks the American tendency to sue everyone and anyone, it is true that USA employers are much more afraid now of openly discriminating against women; something that I think UK corporations are still not afraid to do.
The tension that occurred between Walters and Wolf felt more like a reactionary response to some constructive criticism. If feminist activists can't take advice from eachother, things can't get much worse.
Statement on Dying to Be Thin by Naomi Wolf
The Porn Myth by Naomi Wolf
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
As Joan Smith, from the Independent, points out, these two elections highlight the total lack of gender-equality in politics when it comes to the USA and the UK. I am not discussing female representation because that is a whole other debate (i.e. -do female politicians actually representing women?) but female participation in politics beyond the vote. Arguments about women participating in politics tends to revolve around the fight for the vote, women's understanding of politics etc...it hardly ever seems to get past the VOTE. Women running for positions is apparently not seen as essential to women's political participation.
The White House Project
Vote, Run, Lead
Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics
Ms Magazine article
Monday, January 16, 2006
Friday, January 13, 2006
Having been raised as a feminist, the term radical feminism was part of my vocabulary long before coming across any theoretical explanation of the term. This being the case, for several years, for me ‘radical’ explained the drastic position of my opinions, not the extreme (i.e. radical) differences between men and women! For me, women were/are RADICALLY faced with more sexism and discrimination and to speak/believe as such is a RADICAL perspective.
To this day, I prefer my definition of the term, however academically inaccurate, considering the position that feminist holds in contemporary politics, social activism, education and culture, finding it to be more relevant to the reaction that is received when coming across the subject of feminism and women’s equality. More to the point, beyond academia and the close-knit world of feminist activism, making a distinction between Socialist/Marxist, Liberal/Radical, GAD/WID etc can be at times futile. It is often not a matter of discussing how the inequality between women and men has developed, but simply that it remains to exist. Proving this in itself is difficult enough. While I am huge fan of academic and theoretical feminism, the number of times I have actually discussed what ‘type’ of feminist I am outside of academia is limited.
As Alisha points out, getting past the ‘you’re a feminist?! But you don’t look like one…?’ conversation is a big enough starting point. Nonetheless, feminism does intersect with all areas of life and considering the different forms that sexism and inequality comes in, having an angle or specific insight into how these inequalities have developed is often illuminating. And while at times I am frustrated by the ‘fragmentation’ (for lack of a better word) of feminism, I am on the whole glad that it has developed to include such a range of perspective. Unfortunately, the categorization of feminism has remained within the academic world, by choice and by necessity. Considering the resistance and backlash against feminism, presenting multiple categories of it is hardly a viable option for the feminist movement, at the moment.
Paradoxically, the use of such categories in popular/general culture might actually bring a better understanding to how wide spread the inequalities are between men and women. Hearing terms such as ‘Marxist feminist’ might help bridge the understanding between women’s economic standing and thebetween women’s economic standing and the progression of capitalism as inherently sexist (or not…). Or simply the term ‘feminist economics', as discussions of development rarely mention women’s role in such progress. It might also help ease the perception that feminism = hating man or that sexism = bad men being mean to weak women…
Classic Feminist Writings
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Recently, during my brief foray into the depths of Corporate America, I had lunch with a colleague and the conversation turned, as it tends to do when one eats with me, to some sort of gender-related topic. This co-worker, a woman herself, intelligent and a big “value-add” to the firm, was astonished when I said I was a feminist. “Well…it’s just…well, you don’t really look like a feminist,” she exclaimed.
Which, naturally, really got me thinking. What does a feminist look like? I asked her, and, slightly embarrassed that she may have insulted me, she muttered something about bra burning. This image of the radical feminist, bra on fire, legs and armpits full of hair, perhaps an unkempt crunchy-granola-esque look (interestingly enough, I think, this feminist is, in popular conception, always white) still pervades so much of American popular culture – this girl is loud, bossy and seriously pissed off.
There are, to be sure, many feminists that fit that particular description…but I definitely don’t. Most of my bras are from the Gap – how un-radical is that?
Feminists come in different shapes, sizes, colors, races, ethnicities, sexes and genders; from different countries and socio-economic backgrounds; maintain different religious and sexual preferences. In contexts where you find large groups of self-proclaimed feminists – gender studies departments, women-centered NGOs, international bodies or committees focused on women or women’s rights – we probably disagree more than we agree. But we are united by a common desire – equality. An equal (and equitable), just world.
This foundational concept of equality is exceedingly difficult to define on such a grand scale; it is, in fact, the myriad of different definitions of the term that cause so much discord between feminists and non-feminists, feminists and other feminist. In feminist theory, an enormously complex, unanswerable debate rages over the parameters of that simple world.
To me though, this does not matter. This difference of opinion is not the death of feminism, but rather its lifeblood. Throughout its history, feminism has survived and thrived through different incarnations (commonly referred to as “waves”) where the concept of equality, and who is and isn’t included, has been challenged. Intersectionality, the idea that one cannot examine gender in a silo, but as intersecting with other identities such as race, class, religion, sexuality, etc., is fairly common and accepted today. There is, of course, a great deal of debate on this subject, but in the humble author’s opinion (shared by some well-known feminist scholars, eg. Judith Butler, my homegirl), the constant challenging of the boundaries of feminism is a very good thing. But while who should be considered equal has changed and shifted, the basic tenet of equality has not. Under this banner, we have always been united.
American women of a certain class or educational background to me seem to shun feminism. In their microcosmic worlds, they believe they are equal, or if not, that things are just, for the most part. But feminism, contrary to what some may believe, informs arguments beyond the right to vote, the right to choice or the right to run a Fortune 500 company. The ideas that feminists and feminist theory have fought long and hard to be heard are critical to discussions on domestic violence and rape (problems that, despite what anyone may tell you, are not going away), to understand debates surrounding immigration , worker’s rights, the war in Iraq, the crises in Africa, the deepening poverty in the developing world – just to name a few.
True, you will find feminists on all sides of these debates, but what’s vital is their presence there. Their role in every instance is to amplify unheard voices, to force mainstream politicians to realize the differential gendered effects of their policies, to bring some (because despite how hard we try, it will never be all) women’s issues to the forefront of debate. To use decades of brilliant feminist theory to inform all of these arguments. And if the situation requires it, to be loud, bossy and pissed off.
I believe in feminism. I love it, I’m passionate about it, and I want more people to agree with me. I want to leave you today with something I read just this morning. Whether or not you may think you are treated equally, or even that all American women now have equal rights (a point on which I would HIGHLY disagree), understand that around the world, horrific inequalities exist for women even in the basic letter of the law. This piece reminds me why I studied what I studied, why I care as much as I care, and why I strive to revive a feminist consciousness in the educated, soon to be extremely powerful, youth of America.