Saturday, November 22, 2008

The evolution of “women’s issues"

by Chloe Angyal

On Thursday, I had the privilege of attending the Wellesley Center for Women conference, “Post Election: What’s Next for Women in the Media?” The WCW, based on Wellesley’s campus, is a research institute that, since its inception in 1974, has conducted “interdisciplinary studies on issues such as: gender equity in education, sexual harassment in schools, child care, adolescent development, gender violence, and women’s leadership—studies that have influenced private practices and public policy.”

The purpose of Thursday’s conference was to discuss the relationship between gender and the media, particularly during the 2008 campaign. On the panel were Diane Sawyer, Michelle Bernard and Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, all of whom are established television journalists. The discussion was moderated by Wellesley alum and ABC journalist Lyn Sherr.

The discussion covered topics ranging from whether or not Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were treated fairly by the media, to the importance of introducing paternity leave policies so that women’s careers (in the media and in all fields) are not put indefinitely on the backburner by the decision to take time off to raise children.

Most fascinating to me was the discussion of the difficulty that women reporters often have when they’re trying to pitch stories about “women’s issues” to editors or producers who are often hesitant to run them. Bernard is the CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum, an organization whose slogan is “all issue are women’s issues,” and who stated on Thursday that she also believes that “women’s issues are everyone’s issues.” She said that when she was starting out as a journalist, if she mentioned women’s issues to a producer, they would immediately assume that she wanted to discuss reproductive rights or sexual harassment. In response, Lyn Sherr, who is in her mid-60s, replied that when she was starting out, “women’s issues” meant cooking and cleaning.

This interaction shed some very welcome light on the evolution of public discourse by women and about women, and Bernard and Caruso-Cabrera, the youngest members of the panel, also provided some insight into where we need to go next. The IWF is committed to ensuring that women are informed on all the issues, and that everyone is informed on the issues that concern women. This seems like an excellent, and completely necessary mission, and Caruso-Cabrera took on the first point in her response to a question about the current financial crisis.

Caruso-Cabrera, a finance journalist who reports for CNBC, stressed the importance of women being financially literate. She noted that, in these trying financial times, one of our goals should be to overcome the old stereotype that balancing a family budget is the only involvement in finance of which women are capable. That’s goal she is contributing to simply by being a woman in the public eye whose job is to explain concepts like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities. Fifteen years ago, she noted, that a woman would be doing what she does (a Hispanic woman, no less) was unthinkable.

More from the WCW conference soon!

"Simulating" Poverty: Insightful, or Insulting?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Walking around campus this week, I've seen a lot of signs for the Student Volunteers Council's "Poverty Simulation", a concept which puzzled me, especially since in addition to "experiencing" poverty, participants will also be given free lunch. I'm glad that the SVC is trying to call attention to issues of poverty, especially because of Princeton students' relative isolation from the 35 million Americans who are destitute, but this is most definitely not the right way to go about it. Even if we fast for a day, we will understand hunger - but with the knowledge that the next day, we will be able to eat.

It's insulting to imagine that we can attend an hour-long conference and come away with an idea of the magnitude and horror of poverty in America, especially as it affects women. As we slide into a recession, women are the first to be laid off; single parents are overwhelmingly female, and overwhelmingly likely to be impoverished. As anyone who has read Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent book Nickel and Dimed will understand, living in poverty is exhausting in a way that is incomprehensible to a Princeton student.

"This event will help people understand the complexities and frustrations of living in poverty day-to- day, said Marcia K. MacKillop, assistant director of the Crisis Ministry of Princeton, the group which co-sponsored the simulation. "With a greater awareness of its impact, we can more effectively address the poverty issues in our community."

Greater awareness of its impact? I understand that this activity is well-meaning, but can we really understand, or help, people in poverty, just because we spent a morning trying to imagine what it would be like to be poor? I'd be interested to hear from any of the 100 people who were signed up to attend this activity whether it was enlightening, or useful, because frankly, I'm skeptical.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A reminder about our comments policy

We will not publish your comment unless it has your name, or some identifying variation thereof, on it. There are some very insightful comments languishing, waiting to be permitted, but they don't have a name on them. We'd love to publish them, but we'd also love for everyone who comments on this site to own what they think.

Keep the comments coming!

Chloe and Amelia.

Hero of the week: Greg Mortenson

by Laura Smith-Gary

On this Friday, I want to celebrate someone taking real and practical action to improve the lives of women -- Mr. Greg Mortenson. This man gives me hope.

The banner stretching across the top of the Central Asia Institute's website is simple. "Mission:" it states, "to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Aghanistan." The picture above the banner is a dazzling sweep of a mountain range, with a boxy stone building in the foreground beside a pizture of five little girls in brightly-colored head scarves, each peering intently at a book in her lap.

Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute, is partnering with villages in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to help them build schools. These are the mountains, you may recall, where al-qaeda is regrouping and radical madrassas are springing up. The warlords who run the northern reaches of Pakistan have consistently blocked any attempt by the government to pass laws punishing the murderers who perpetrate "honor killings," and honor killings take place with terrifying regularity. Women are most commonly seen as the property of their male relatives, and the idea of equality between the sexes is nowhere to be found. It is an area of poverty, despair, and deeply entrenched anti-women mindsets.Yet it is here that schools are being built -- schools for girls.

Mortenson's project is effecting change on a number of levels. The Central Asia Institute's "community-based" approach to education means that community members are invested in the schools and in the education of their children, male and female. It also hints at Mortenson's long struggle to work within the culture and community -- "community-based education" means coaxing village elders to allow boys and girls to study together, obtaining rulings from Islamic leaders confirming that these schools are not engaged in Western propoganda or Christian evangelism (and thereby protecting them), and convincing herders and farmers to invest their precious stores of time and energy into pouring concrete and mortaring together bricks.

Then there's the education itself -- "especially for girls." One of the first triumphs recorded in Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea is the success of one of the female students of the first school built. Now studying to be a doctor through a CAI scholarship, she told Mortenson that she's planning to return to her village to serve medically and to educate other women. The pride of her grandfather, a village elder, is almost as touching to me as her own determination, and evidence of the fundamental changes in mindset that are intertwined with the advent of education for women in this part of the world.

While I think "studies show" is usually an empty phrase, investigations by the UN and human rights watch groups have found that the level of education of women is inversely proportional to the level of violence against women, and (more evocatively) that when education of women increases, violence decreases. Some international surveys have pointed to education as the only reliable factor -- rather than affluence, religion, race, official political rights, or any other indicator -- in predicting the level of violence toward women.

Other factors are important, no doubt, but it seems indisputable that an inclusive effort to increase the number of women who are educated is not only beneficial in increasing the number of educated human beings but in fundamentally changing the community's perception of women and men's rights over them. Since the first schools, the CAI's mission has expanded (usually by the prompting of the villagers themselves) to providing scholarships for further education, helping groups of women begin cottage industries, and providing information and training around public health. Each step of the way, women are encouraged to become more financially independent, learned, and healthier -- with the the support of their male relatives and the congratulations of their communities.

When it comes to violence against women, especially in predominantly Muslim areas of the world, outrage is plentiful and effective action hard to come by. Greg Mortenson's action, which gives villages a chance to promote prosperity, education, and female empowerment themselves, may actually prove successful.

The Central Asia Institute's website is -- their approach and impacts are described far more eloquently there.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Best Friend...

by Jordan Kisner

I turned twenty-one recently, and a big glittery card arrived in the mail from a close childhood friend. Brightly colored and decorated with hearts, flowers and sparkles, this Hallmark classic reads in a curly script:

A Best Friend...
Is there when you need someone,
But understands when you want to be alone.
Sees the bright side of a bad hair day
Remembers when you met.
Notices when you lose five pounds, and gets excited about it.

There was the more on the card but, at that point, I stopped reading.

A best friend notices when you lose five pounds and gets excited about it. Huh.

Now, I am sure that my friend didn’t pay particular attention to that one line, but I found it really shocking, and have been spending some time thinking about how women talk to each other about our bodies and how they impact our self-worth.

First, let’s imagine how this card might be different if it had been designed for a male recipient. There may be fewer flowers and sparkles, and there would certainly be no mention of weight loss (though the incredibly ironic declaration later in the card that a best friend knows your favorite pizza toppings would likely survive the card’s masculinizing). Clearly, this card was designed by someone who wanted to appeal to “girly-girls,” with pink glitter and tropes of female friendship, but why does Hallmark think that female friendship includes a vested interest in each other’s body shape? Why does a real friend celebrate when you lose weight?

I suspect that this is because women are conditioned today to be unhappy with their bodies—to find them too heavy, droopy, tall, disproportionate, whatever. The list of imperfections we are taught to feel ashamed of, and then hide or change, is endless. The assumption that this creates a ‘we’re all in it together’ female camaraderie about hating our bodies is wrong and –I think— dangerous. Wrong because I know of a lot of women with close friendships in which weight, fitness or body type is absolutely irrelevant. Dangerous because this kind of sick camaraderie (which does exist between some women) legitimizes the crippling misconception that, as women, our self-worth is dependant on our bodies’ adherence to some unattainable model of beauty.

As much time as I could spend deconstructing what one silly birthday card indicates about modern American ideas of gender and body image, I’m more invested in pleading with women not to buy into this idea of female interaction. For women and men, friendship should provide a safe haven from this constant pressure to look a certain way, an area of life where physical appearance doesn’t matter. Fight for this in your friendships! Ladies, the next time one of your friends complains about her body, tell her you think she’s just right the way she is. Today, call your best friend, and tell her that you love her because she’s smart, or kind, or funny, not because of her appearance. Let’s prove the glittery, flowery stereotype wrong.

What not to wear: Aussie edition

by Franki Butler

As winter rolls into Princeton, I take a sort of masochistic pleasure in reminding myself that summer is gearing up in other parts of the world and thinking about how southern hemisphere frolicking compares to my winter misery. I’m particularly pained by the thought of not hitting the beach for at least another five months. In the interest of living vicariously through others, I must recommend this article in The Sydney Morning Herald as a fun read. Short version: people have taken to wearing the smallest amount of clothing allowable by law on the beach and elsewhere because they think it’s sexy. I must admit, I’m no stranger to skimpy clothing – though I would balk at any item the designer referred to as "a bit like a wedgie, a sexy wedgie."

The ridiculous skimp-tasticness of the bikinis mentioned in the article is not my biggest problem with the skin-is-in trend. It’s the suggestion that women who don’t have butts one could bounce a quarter off of should “wear a kaftan” to the beach. Aside from the fact that buns of steel aren’t the be-all-end-all of sexiness, such a suggestion limits fashionable beach wear to those who are either genetically blessed or spend an ungodly amount of time in the gym. It’s the beach, for crying out loud. If you don’t want to see bodies that aren’t perfectly chiseled, stay home and watch re-runs of The O.C.

Shallow jabs at bikinis aside, the article does touch on a deeper problem with our nearly-naked culture: women baring all because that’s what they think it takes to get a man’s attention. First off, anyone who’s only interested in me because I flash my breasts at him probably isn’t someone I want a relationship with. Probably not even someone I want to hook-up with. I’m not saying that women should remain fully covered at all times, but as with so many other things, one’s reason for throwing on that miniskirt is important. There’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of skin because you think you’re absolutely fabulous and aren’t ashamed to show the world what you’re working with. But that confidence and comfort is crucial. Making oneself uncomfortable just because it’s in style or because it will get a guy’s attention isn’t worth it.

That said, I find it interesting that men are jumping on the skimpy bandwagon as well. One must wonder how much of the man-kini trend is aimed at attracting a mate, and how much of it is just about showing off. After all, I know few people, gay or straight, who would find these getups (Warning: link NOT SAFE for work or lecture!) appropriate outside the bedroom, though I will applaud anyone with the confidence to pull it off. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the men in those pouches have to deal with the same amount of slut-shaming a woman in a similar ensemble would face. Swim fashion: promoting equality in all the wrong ways.

Oh, well. That’s all the way over in Australia; we in the States get a brief reprieve from such stylistic concerns. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go daydream about sandy beaches and a comfortably full-coverage bikini. Then I have to find an appropriately skimpy top to wear out to the Street.

Words from the wise

by Chloe Angyal

The Daily Beast's Sexism Poll, which was conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, released its findings this week. Some of them are really interesting (and, predictably, some of them are downright disheartening):

By an overwhelming 61% to 19% margin, women believe there is a gender bias in the media.

Only 20% of women are willing to use the word "feminist" about themselves. Only 17% of all voters said they would welcome their daughters using that label.

4 in 10 men freely admit sexist attitudes towards a female president. 39% of men say that a male is "naturally more suited" to carrying out the duties of the office.

63% of women said the press did not treat women equally during this year’s Presidential campaign; more than two thirds of women said that they were being treated unfairly in the workplace (68%) and in politics (72%).

Finally, and tellingly, women over 50, the first generation to have a majority in the workforce, see far more discrimination in every area of life than younger women.
This reflects the attitude I see among young women quite often, the perception that feminism is no longer necessary because its work is done. Equal pay legislation got passed, right? Game over. We have access to birth control, right? Move on! A woman just ran for Vice-President, for God’s sake! Feminism is moot!

And yet, women over 50, those who were on the front lines during the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, say that we still have work to do. I’m young and headstrong, and while I'm convinced, like any young person, that I know everything, I’m inclined to listen to those older, wiser women. They’ve been around, and they know discrimination when they see it. Having lived through the sweeping social changes that have occurred in this country since their adolescence, and having watched women gain so much, they know how much still remains to be achieved.

In a year when 72% of us think that women are being treated unfairly in politics, our work is not done. In a year when 63% of women think that the press didn’t treat women equally in the campaign, the game is not over. And in a year when 40% of men freely admit to having a sexist attitudes towards a female President, feminism is sure as hell not moot.

So listen to your moms and grandmas, ladies; they are wise and worldly women. Unless of course, they’re among the voters who said they wouldn’t welcome their daughters calling themselves “feminists.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Isn't she pretty?"

by Laura Pedersen

As a member of an improv comedy group on campus, I’ve grown more and more convinced that there is psychology experiment lurking in the humorous lines that spill forth from our mouths when we're under pressure.

An experience I had this past Sunday took me one step closer to this experiment.

The group and I had gone to see an improv troupe at a comedy club in New York City. The club had mood lighting, musical interludes, hecklers, hecklers who always made comments about sex and herpes (I’ll save it for another post), shot glasses for sale, and… one terrible MC.

It wasn’t that she was incompetent. It was just that everything spilling forth from her mouth got jumbled on the way out. Her mistakes had started to cause small ripples of appreciative tension in the crowd until (at last!) a savior stepped forward to save face. After her awkward admittance, “Gosh, I can’t talk tonight!” a fellow member of the improv team called out in a loud voice, “Isn’t she pretty?”

Whistles and applause ensued.

A few improv games later, and another verbal stumble produced a second acclamation of her looks. Worse yet, she started to feed into it: “Ok, I’m just going to go home and cut myself.” And later, “Yeah, I’m really going to go home, dye my hair black, listen to Goth music and cut myself.”

I was appalled. I will stumble and grasp for words at some point in my improv career, but I will take responsibility for them as a full person and not be bailed out by a cheap pitch to appearance. And I will certainly not allow myself to turn to self-abasement to smooth over the glitch.

Squeezed under the constraints of extemporaneous speech, these are the remarks that spilled out. So what was really on display at that comedy show: humor, or a pretty woman?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


by Molly Borowitz

If you happen to be a fan of either The Daily Show or 30 Rock, you probably already know exactly what a "cougar" is. Like my heroine (and by that I mean "lady hero;" I don't wanna inject you and listen to jazz*), Liz Lemon, I learned the term from Jane Krakowski, but as a (newly minted) twenty-one-year- old, it never occurred to me to apply it to myself. But when this exchange happens frequently—

SOMEONE: Wait, who's your boyfriend?

ME: Oh, he's a sophomore.

SOMEONE: [one of a veritable library of cat-call related sounds]

—you start to reconsider. Let me be clear: I am not remotely embarrassed to be dating a sophomore. The renegotiation of two years' worth of cultural, social, and experiential difference was difficult, but hey, we're figuring it out. I, like Liz Lemon, have had that affirming "So this is why Demi Moore does it"** moment. But that doesn't mean I've made my peace with the "cougar" label. Why do we have to be compared to predatory cats? It's not like we're after their money (Jamie, the May to Liz's December, is a penniless twenty-year-old coffee delivery boy); we could easily pick on someone our own size (because what fortysomething dude wouldn't like to date Demi Moore?); and it's not like men don't do it too.

Both 30 Rock and The Daily Show make this point fairly strongly. When Liz expresses embarrassment to her boss after being caught on a date, he laughs at her—he even calls her sexist for arguing that it's easier for men than for women to date much-younger people. Yet the joke is clearly on him, because her response to his "Don't be silly! You've never looked better. Do I look ridiculous when you see me with a younger woman?" is an awkward silence followed by an uncomfortable oblique comment. The interaction is very entertaining, but the point sticks: men are just as guilty as women of "preying on" younger partners, and as such, the term "cougar" isn't particularly friendly—or fair.

On the The Daily Show, women's-issues correspondent Kristen Schaal addresses the inequity by attempting to come up with an equally unflattering name for older men who date younger women. Obviously her objective is to make the audience laugh, but her presentation of a "real live cougar"—an attractive middle-aged woman brought out by a handler and placed on Jon Stewart's lap (yes, it's hilarious)—emphasizes the term's absurdity because the "cougar" is about the same age as Stewart.

The choice to handle the "cougar" like a wild animal is well in keeping with The Daily Show's penchant for mocking the issues it covers, simultaneously suggesting and ridiculing the notion of post-menopausal women leaping instinctively at the first pair of sexually-promising trousers to walk past. Schaal's suggestions for a male-equivalent referent are also silly (she ultimately settles on "Redenbacher," after the popcorn magnate), but Stewart acknowledges her point as valid; men have been chasing much-younger partners for years without being labeled—why are women the only ones to bear the stigma?

I don't mean to suggest that "cougars" don't exist (here I am, living proof), and older men dating younger women certainly get stigmatized too ("He's dating a freshman? What a sketchball"). Clearly these phenomena are equally recognizable in society at large, and certainly in our smaller microcosmic version. But—in keeping with my comedic gods—I think the discursive inequality is worth considering. If there are at least as many older men dating younger women as older women dating younger men, how come "cougars" are the only ones with a name?

*Forgive me the gratuitous 30 Rock references, but it's too good not to quote.
** Seriously though, 30 Rock is awesome - ed.

Support Princeton Proposition 8

A message from Chris Simpson of Support Princeton Proposition 8
We believe that California's Proposition 8 is illegal and immoral. The use of a state-wide referendum to limit the rights of a minority group is the very sort of action the that the constitution ought to defend against. We hope to point out the danger and absurdity of that proposition by advocating for our own "Princeton Proposition 8" which will ban freshmen from walking on campus sidewalks. We hope to parallel the language and actions of the real Prop 8 as much as possible, as we believe the injustice speaks for itself and needs no exaggeration. We will be careful not to turn this into an attack on any particular group or organization, instead choosing to focus on the moral, legal, and logical reasons why Proposition 8 should be overturned.

Princeton Proposition 8.
Secures the Definition of Sidewalk. Eliminates Right of Freshmen Students to Walk on Sidewalks. Initiative Amendment.

This initiative measure expressly amends the bylaws of Princeton University by adding a section thereto; therefore, new provisions proposed to be added are printed in italic type to indicate that they are new.

SECTION 1. Title
This measure shall be known and may be cited as the "Princeton Sidewalk Protection Act."

SECTION 2. A section shall be appended to all Princeton University regulations pertaining to the usage of sidewalks, footpaths, walkways, or other paved areas of pedestrian egress owned and maintained by Princeton University, to read:
Only walking on sidewalks by Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors is valid or recognized in Princeton.

Getting started
To kick-off the satirical campaign, we will begin postering this Tuesday night and will have a group demonstrating at a prominent campus location (TBD) from 9:30-5 every day, starting this Thursday. We will also be writing letters to The Daily Princetonian explaining our position and advocating for Princeton Prop 8. There will be a petition for students in favor of "Princeton Proposition 8" (and thus against California Proposition 8.)

We are looking for students who share our sentiments who will be willing to help us in any of the following ways:
Signing up for brief shifts to support our day-long demonstrations
Signing the petition
Hang paper posters (a daily task - they will be removed because we are not an official student organization)
Creating posters and signs for the demonstrations

Working with music, film, t-shirts, and other artistic media to get our point across
Writing letters in support of our cause to the campus publications and student government

To join the Facebook group: click here

To get involved, contact Support Princeton Proposition 8 at

Rock on, Kate Winslet... kinda

by Chloe Angyal

Kate Winslet, The Sydney Morning Herald reports today, refused to use a body double or lose weight for the nude scenes in her most recent film The Reader, wanting a completely realistic look for her character.

Rock on. I hope this becomes a real trend, and not just the occasional few flashes of sanity: last year, Keira Knightly refused to let studio execs photoshop her breasts on a movie poster to make them appear larger.

Describing her own body, Kate admits to having aged, but maintains she is proud of her flawed physique, saying: "Here we go, I have a crumble baby belly, boobs are worse for wear after two kids... I'm doing all right. I'm 33. I don't look in the mirror and go, 'Oh, I look fantastic!' Of course I don't.

I was with her until, "Of course I don't," a statement that totally normalizes negative body image. Why shouldn't she, or any other woman for that matter, look in the mirror and say, "Oh, I look fantastic!"? Winslet makes the idea of a woman looking in the mirror and being satisfied (or even - God forbid - happy) with what she sees sound totally ludicrous.

And frankly, these days it is. Fifty-four percent of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat, and 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat. One in five women suffer from an eating disorder or disordered eating. In our society, negative body image is normal. It's the people who love their bodies who are unusual. Imagine living in a world where negative body image wasn't the norm, and the where people who didn't say "I look fabulous" when they looked in the mirror were a small minority, instead of a depressingly vast majority.

Ms. Winslet did win me back with this, though:

"Nobody is perfect. I just don't believe in perfection. But I do believe in saying, 'This is who I am and look at me not being perfect!' I'm proud of that."

A feminist playlist, continued

Yesterday, Feministing asked their readers about their favourite feminist songs. The list was very long, and was partially responsible for the iTunes shopping spree that I went on last night. As you'd expect, Ani DiFranco, Queen Latifah and India.Arie were popular favourites, but a lot of people also mentioned Emilie Autumn, and in particular, her song "Thank God I'm Pretty."

The audio isn't really my cup of tea, but the lyrics are awesome:
Thank God I'm pretty
The occasional free drink I never asked for

The occasional admission to a seedy little bar
Invitation to a stranger's car
I'm blessed
With the ability to rend a grown man tongue-tied

Which only means that when it's dark outside

I have to run and hide can't look behind me

Thank God I'm pretty

Thank God I'm pretty
Every skill I ever have will be in question

Every ill that I must suffer merely brought on by myself
Though the cops would come for someone else

I'm blessed

I'm truly privileged to look this good without clothes on

Which only means that when I sing you're jerking off

And when I'm gone you won't remember

Thank God I'm pretty

Oh, oh and when a gaggle of faces appears around me

It's lucky I hate to be taken seriously

I think my ego would fall right through the cracks in the floor

If I couldn't count on men to slap my ass anymore

Wow. Seriously powerful stuff. What are your feminist songs?

A feminist, scientific perspective on the hook-up culture

by Eva Wash

The hook-up culture that pervades our college campuses is perpetuated by a basic, yet flawed assumption—that there exists a duality between our minds and our bodies and thus we can detach physical pleasure from any emotional significance. Some of us, especially men, may be more capable of such detachment, but research shows that women are physiologically predisposed to develop emotional attachments from physical intimacy.

Two weekends ago, I had the chance to see Dr. Miriam Grossman, the author of Unprotected: A Campus Psychologist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student, give a lecture on the medical and psychological consequences of the hook-up culture. After working for several years as a psychologist at UCLA, Dr. Grossman could no longer stay silent about the fact that many of her patients were young women feeling confused and used in their casual sexual relationships and that some were left to struggle with more permanent scars, such as STDs, that are a greater risk when the number of partners, and the number of partners’ partners, increases exponentially.

To illuminate for us the reasons why women often feel confused by this type of sexual behavior, Dr. Grossman referenced the neurological research of Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain who discusses the role of a particular hormone that sparks attachments to sexual partners. According to various studies, this hormone oxytocin is present in both men and women, but is more active and copious in women: while it is involved in both labor and lactation, oxytocin is also released in the brain during physically intimate behavior as innocent as touching and gazing into another’s eyes. In the brain, oxytocin dampers the activity of the amygdala, the neurological center for fear, and results in increased feelings of trust and safety with a particular person.

Obviously, this growing sense of trust with one’s partner can be a very positive and healthy development, but when a woman hardly knows a man before she pursues a physical relationship with him, she could be deceived by the sense of security and attachment she automatically feels. Moreover, other studies with oxytocin have suggested that when injected with the hormone, people in general are more likely to be generous and to take risks. Thus we have neurological evidence for why women generally seem prone to be more self-giving and less cautious when entering into new physical relationships.

My point is not to scare women away from physical intimacy by painting us as being biologically wired for vulnerability and heartbreak. Rather, in realizing that we do have these innate tendencies, I would encourage women to be more selective when it comes to the person who is becoming the object of such trust and self-gift. Compared to the hook-up alternative, such selectivity may require more self-control and less immediate satisfaction of physical desire, but it undoubtedly improves the chance at having a healthy relationship with a partner who deserves you.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Speak up!

by Molly Borowitz

I have a long-held theory, to which many of my female and gay-male friends have been subjected, that college women lower the pitch of their voices when speaking in situations where they want to present themselves as authoritative.

Obviously all voices are not created equal. Some of us have lower speaking voices than others. I remember being told as a tween—probably at eleven or twelve—that it was okay to have a low voice. After one of my teachers mistook me for a male classmate over the phone, my mom reassured me that lots of women are altos, like my aunt and grandmother (to the point that they sometimes get reported in department-store dressing rooms—no, I am not kidding: twice, someone has called store security to say there's a man in the ladies' dressing room), and that it doesn't matter at all.

However, it wasn't until my sophomore year of college, when I started working regularly at the Writing Center, that I became aware of how low my speaking voice was sitting. I would leave three-hour shifts vocally exhausted, the muscles around my throat literally strained. The same thing sometimes happened after three-hour seminars in which I was particularly vocal. I was perennially perplexed: why was my voice so tired?

Last year, when I finally got around to taking voice lessons, my teacher immediately criticized the way I spoke. "You need to raise your pitch," he said. "When you talk that low in your range, you make yourself hoarse." I was confused. That's just how I'd always talked, I told him—my speaking voice happened to sit really low. "No," he said. "Your voice is a lot higher than that; you're just talking at the bottom of it." Given that I wanted neither to develop vocal nodules nor to waste my $600 a semester, I started working on "raising my pitch."

And thus sensitized to where women speak in their ranges, I realized that in class, all the girls spoke at the bottom of their ranges. For some people it was more pronounced: in one of my 300-level complit seminars, there was a senior who quite literally went into vocal fry (that funny buzzing sound you make when your voice bottoms out) at the end of every sentence. By contrast, another senior—an actress now at Yale Drama School—spoke much closer to the middle of her range; she, unlike Julia, was vocally trained and knew how to use her voice healthily.

By the end of the semester, I was convinced, so I took the question to my feminist public. All of my female friends—including several singers—completely agreed. One friend, a religion major who's taken many upper-level courses, said that she had experienced the phenomenon most particularly in one of her graduate seminars, in which she was the only woman and the only undergrad. Most girls agreed that they only spoke that low in class or when they were in positions of authority—running a rehearsal, tutoring another student, giving a tour—and that in fact the opposite was true when they were trying to ingratiate themselves with authority figures (I experienced this phenomenon myself earlier this fall when, late for a class in Firestone, I realized I had forgotten my prox and found myself petitioning the security guard in a sweet soprano, rather than my usual voluble alto). The experience was universal, but so was our unawareness of it; none of my female friends, before this conversation, had had any conscious idea that they were lowering their voices to lend authority to their ideas.

I also took the theory to my mother (a speech pathologist) for verification, but was surprised to hear that the women she works with do not lower their pitch when talking to coworkers, patients, or parents. My mom works in a hospital; she interfaces regularly with lots of men, many of whom have graduate degrees and incredibly specialized bodies of knowledge. She works with surgeons (which, I've been told, are still kind of the "boys' club" of medicine), with general pediatricians, with occupational therapists and nurses. Yet she and her female coworkers, even when they have to assert authority over or advance conflicting opinions to these people, do not feel the need to lower their voices to do so. They don't need to sound like men; being confident in their knowledge is just as valid.

Now, my mom and her colleagues are only one example; I don't know what happens in finance, academia, public policy, law, or any of the other various fields that women are slowly but steadily conquering. But it's clear that at least in the college classroom, women think they have to sound more like boys in order to be respected. I think this phenomenon persists more because of our fears (doesn't sounding "like a girl" mean sounding ditzy, silly, unintelligent?) and less because of our audiences' attitudes. If you're making a valid academic observation, your professor isn't going to disregard it just because your vocal chords vibrated above a certain frequency.

So this week, ladies, I challenge you to speak up! Think about keeping that pitch up when you talk to professors, expound on your ideas in precept, meet with advisers, tutor students, run rehearsals, give tours, or do anything else authoritative. For one thing, your voice will thank you; for another, the people around you will respect your opinions just as much—maybe all the more because you're confident enough to utter them without changing a thing about yourself.

Put up your Ally signs!

I got home tonight to find an Ally sign slipped under my door, so if you haven't got yours already, it should be coming soon. The slip of paper with it reads:
"Princeton students can support their LGBT peers with just a piece of tape. Please display the enclosed Ally sign visibly as a symbol of support for Princeton's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals."
So what are you waiting for? Put yours up! And if you want to do something less symbolic and more substantive, contact the LGBT Center.

More Appalling News

Another horrific human rights violation came to light earlier this week - in Pakistan, 17-year-old Taslim Solangi was mauled by dogs and shot to death because she was accused of carrying another man's child. Her baby was drowned in a canal. These events took place 8 months ago, and are only now making headlines.

Feministe (a terrific feminist blog) has a response here.

Happy Monday!

Bad news, feminists.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, we're a disappearing breed. And according to The Guardian, the few of us who remain need to rethink our "contempt" for prostitution and the women who practice it.
Check these two articles out; they're interesting stuff. And now I have a great quote of the day:

"[Women saying they don't believe in feminism] is kind of like a fish saying it doesn't believe in gills, because feminism is the air we breath nowadays - it has transformed every corner of society - yet so many people see it as an ugly word when it's just another term for equality."
-- Sam de Brite (yes, a guy wrote that)

Happy Monday, everyone!

An open letter to President-Elect Obama

by Kelly Roache

Dear President-Elect Obama,

Two weeks after a fairly devastating electoral defeat, it would be easy for a staunch conservative like myself to take a combative approach to your administration, or worse yet, withdraw from politics all together for a couple of years. But as you said in your victory speech, you’re not just President of the people who agree with you: “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.” As you strive to uphold this, although I can’t promise not to speak out when I disagree with you, I will always search for and focus on our common ground. For instance, I can applaud your campaign’s dedication to making several key women’s issues a priority. It paid off: 56% of us voted for you. But I hope you’ll be just as concerned, if not more so, about those of us who supported your opponent, or even those who didn’t vote at all.

As you take on the responsibility of protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States, I hope that you will compromise with dissenters, but never sacrifice the promises that moved that 56% to your cause. Keep corporate taxes low so that female entrepreneurs can start small businesses and buck the tradition of underrepresentation in the business world. As we turn the page on our calendars from 11/11, please don’t ever neglect this country’s 1.7 million women veterans, and those returning home now. Protect us by strengthening laws and penalties for domestic violence and rape. Stand up for comprehensive sex education that gives an honest assessment of both abstinent and sexually active lifestyles, and especially the associated risks; promote a culture in which your daughters and 14-year-old girls everywhere won’t feel pressured or even encouraged to have sex. Above all, I ask that you keep an open mind, “especially,” as you said in your election night speech, “when we disagree.” I promise to do the same. Be receptive to novel arguments, such as that of pro-life feminism, and surround yourself with a symphony of motley opinions.

I hope that as President you will be eager to admit and rectify any missteps. For instance, as The Seattle Post Intelligencer reported during the election, your campaign paid women 83 cents to every dollar earned by male staffers; this amounted to an annual $9,000 pay-equity gap. Moreover, only one of your best-compensated advisors was female, and only seven of your top twenty (by the way, if you’re still looking for a Secretary of State, I might know a New York Senator who could help). I ask you to fulfill your promise to “promote paycheck equity and close the wage gap between women and men,” to practice what you preach. Irrespective of ideology, integrity is universally valued.

What you proved on the evening of November 4th was beyond doubt historic. But I implore you not to settle for a resounding chorus of “Yes We Did” until you have worked tirelessly to cultivate your promises from rhetoric to reality. I’ll be rooting for you.


Kelly Roache.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Think before you speak: Laura Bush edition

PoliticalWire's bonus quote of the day:

"I showed her the closets. I showed her all the things that women are interested in."

-- First Lady Laura Bush, in an interview on CNN, on what she showed Michelle Obama during her visit of the White House.

Thanks to Molly for the tip!

The Vagina Dialogues

by Josh Franklin

The Vagina Monologues is beginning its campus recruitment. Invitations to get involved in this exciting production abound, except I'm a man, so I can't participate. Eve Ensler has set strict rules for the presentation of The Vagina Monologues, including the stipulation that men cannot participate as actors. What should we make of an institution that fights against sexism and gender violence by excluding men?

It's certainly not fair to say that the prohibition on male actors represents a deep discrimination against men. The justifications for insisting on an all-female cast seem fairly obvious. The play is about the vagina, something men do not have. More generally, male power is so pervasive in our society that the demand for a female space seems legitimate. Nevertheless, creating a space that excludes men seems counterproductive in deep ways.

One of the main objectives of The Vagina Monologues is to work to end gender violence, or more specifically, "violence against girls and women." Sexual violence is a great tragedy for its survivors, and for this reason a women's space is necessary. However, the logic of excluding men for the benefit of survivors does not necessarily translate to the awareness-oriented public performance of The Vagina Monologues. Gender violence is everyone's problem, and men are both survivors and perpetrators. Managing these statistics is always a bit difficult and controversial, but the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network says that in 2003, even though 9 out of 10 rape victims were women, 1 in 33 American men has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. And of course, the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men. Men are affected deeply by gender violence and ought to claim the greater portion of responsibility for its persistence in our society; how, then, are men supposed to take ownership of the issue of sexual violence if they are excluded from the spaces where it becomes a public dialogue? The goal of an event trying to fight violence against women ought to be to force men to realize their responsibility; The Vagina Monologues seems to merely reinforce the myth that gender violence is a 'women's issue', unworthy of serious consideration.

In a more general sense, I'm worried about how an event like The Vagina Monologues shapes the course of the transforming future of gender. If we perceive gendered relations to be systematically harmful in many ways, isn't that due to our culturally hypostatized notion of binary gender? In other words, the point of feminist critiques of gender is to teach us to stop treating people in certain ways or making certain assumptions about people on the basis of their categorization as a man or a woman. While The Vagina Monologues has the potential to be a radically positive institution that helps people to rethink gender in their own lives and create a motivation for taking ownership of gender violence, I think we ought to be wary of the ways in which it merely reinscribes patriarchal conceptions of gender. There is a culturally salient image of the radical, militant feminist who hates men, and one of the challenges for contemporary feminism in society at large is to overcome this stigma. Even though this conception is unfair, it has a great deal of cultural inertia in part due to the fact that when a feminist woman speaks out against it, it merely serves to reinforce the stigma itself. For feminist concerns, which are really concerns of humanity, to transcend their limiting framing as the idiosyncratic concerns of a minority of man-hating crazy liberals, we will need to see a great diversity of people--including men--taking responsible ownership of these problems that are faced by every human being. Maybe an institution with rules specifically excluding men is not a productive step in that direction.

V-Day campaign against domestic and sexual violence

As you know, Equal Writes' lovely co-editor Amelia Thomson DeVeaux '11 is directing this year's campus production of The Vagina Monologues. What you may not know is that this year, the V-Day Campaign (V for victory, valentine and, of course, vagina) is taking aim at the systematic and widespread rape happening right now in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Stop Raping our Greatest Resource: Power to Women in the DRC is a new global campaign to call attention to the wide-scale atrocities committed against women and girls in Eastern DRC and demand an end to the impunity with which these crimes are committed. The Campaign is being initiated by V-Day and UNICEF, representing UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

This appalling phenomenon, about which Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler recently wrote for the Huffington Post, has been getting a lot of media attention of late, and here on campus we're glad to be doing our part. But there's more to be done, and you can find out about how to get involved here.

If you are interested in being involved in this year's production of The Vagina Monologues, email Amelia at, and if you want to hold an event to raise awareness specifically about the DRC, there's more information about that here.