Saturday, December 6, 2008

Females, femininity and the Anscombe Society

by Laura Smith-Gary

The website's title proclaims, "The Anscombe Society: Confirming the Goods of Family, Marriage, and Faithful Love." Below, a welcoming statement proclaims that the Society is committed to human dignity and has "been led" by the consensus of "sociology, psychology, medicine, philosophy, theology and human experience" to take certain positions on "the family, marriage, sexual ethics, chastity, and sexuality."
Links situated between the title and the welcome allow the viewer to jump to the Society's mission statement and an explanation of their name, a calendar of events, contact information, a long list of web-based resources on subjects such as "chastity and culture," "feminism," and "marriage," and the Anscombe Society's position statements on Family and Marriage, Sexual Ethics and Chastity, Sexuality and Feminism, and Homosexuality. It is the Society's position statement on Sexuality and Feminism that I am addressing now.

I know for a fact that there are self-proclaimed feminists (like Equal Writers Kelly Roache and Christina DiGasbarro - ed) who are members of the Anscombe Society, and I do not doubt their sincerity. However, a close reading of the Society's position reveals attitudes that define women by their "feminine characteristics" – very broadly defined – and their capability to give birth.

XX Chromosomes = Feminine Body, Feminine Actions, Feminine Instincts, Feminine Feelings, Feminine Thoughts, Feminine Choices, Feminine Priorities
The Anscombe Society begins its position statement on Sexuality and Feminine with a sweeping declaration of fundamental differences between the sexes: "The Anscombe Society recognizes that there are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women, and we affirm and celebrate these differences as wonderful and complementary."
The use of the word "recognize" implies they are merely observing a deep natural truth, not actively asserting a far-from-obvious position. The structure of the phrase "inherent… differences" is also revealing. They are saying that at the most basic levels, even in the absence of gender-defining culture, men and women are fundamentally unalike not only physically but in their behaviors (and "behavior" is either a very shallow term – women shop! Men hunt! – or a very deep one, implying different wills, perceptions of the world, and life-defining values), their emotions, and their minds.
With the possible exception of physical differences, every one of those "inherent differences" which are so obvious they need only be "recognized" can be expanded almost indefinitely to endorse and justify adopting different attitudes and actions toward men and women. To make such a broadly sweeping an nonspecific statement amounts to a sweeping endorsement of ascribing any perceivable difference between any aspect of men's and women's actions, personalities, thoughts, choices, ect. to inherent – inherently good -- differences that should be affirmed rather than examined.

The statement continues that "These differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other," but can differences to the extent that they describe co-exist with equality? Obviously, if differences between two groups of people are so sweeping, they should be approached differently. This doesn't necessarily mean their political/civic rights would be different, but if an entire society thinks and feels about men and women differently, and has learned to treat men and women differently, then how relevant will a facade of political rights be? Women can run for office, but if it were true that men and women processed information differently and cared about different things than men did, then there would be a legitimate question about whether or not both sexes were equally qualified to lead. And which sex, do you think, would end up being declared unfit to be Commander in Chief?
The best scenario I can envision under this system of thought would be women in "caring" leadership positions such as Secretary of Education or Program Director of nonprofits, with men occupying "rational" leadership positions like business CEOs. If you think that's how it should be, own up to it -- argue that it's the divinely intended or evolutionarily beneficial arrangement of responsibilities, but don't pretend it's equal. Truly equal rights "in the community," let alone in the workforce, cannot coexist with the presupposition that men and women are inherently different to the extent asserted by the Anscombe Society.

Of course, a few paragraphs later the Society states "We believe...that children be raised with an understanding and appreciation of the equality and differences between the sexes." I disagree with the action this sentence is endorsing – the inclusion of "equality" notwithstanding, for the reasons I described above – but I find it particularly interesting because it suggests that contrary to all their assertions so far, they do recognize that to children will not naturally understand the concepts of "masculine" and "feminine," let alone divvy up physical, behavioral, emotional and psychological differences according to these categories. The Society may, of course, merely be asserting their opposition to the radicals who attempt to raise their children gender-neutrally, but their obvious awareness of the need for differences between the sexes to be taught tells its own tale.

"True Feminism"
Instead of elaborating on the concept of "different but equal" – an attempt that would almost certainly lead to self-contradiction or (as I explain below) explicitly religious arguments -- the Society attempts to bolster its position by undermining a possible wellspring of objection: traditional feminism. "The Anscombe Society supports true feminism," they write, immediately implying that other forms of feminism are false or flawed. "True feminism does not embrace the idea that women should become more like men, or that they abandon feminine characteristics and instincts. Nor does true feminism assert that women are superior to men." By constantly prefixing feminism with "true," this paragraph slyly infers that other, apparently more false, forms of feminism do in fact want women to become like men, abandon feminine characteristics and instincts, and assert that women are superior to men. The Society then concludes that "true feminism recognizes the natural characteristics, strengths, and abilities of women and seeks to affirm them in this identity."

First of all, what are "feminine characteristics and instincts?" Do not be deceived into thinkng that because the society is not listing a set of traits – caring, vain, emotional, fickle, maternal, irrational, ect. – that it is not supporting the existence of such lists. If you insist women are a monolithic block in terms of certain characteristics and instincts they possess, and you are writing in a society that is fairly enlightened but still has a strong awareness of what traditional "feminine" traits are, and you provide no specifics on what you consider "feminine characteristics," then obviously you're not trying too hard to disassociate your views from the traditional view. And honestly, off the top of your head – what "feminine instincts" do you think they're talking about?

Despite the positive framing of the society's final conclusion of what "true feminism" is, its impact is entirely negative. It bestows on womankind one pre-determined "natural" identity, painted in the sweeping terms of "characteristics, strengths, and abilities." It also functions to suggest that women's characteristics, strengths and abilities are all ascribable to their sex. And though it does not say so explicitly, this statement also suggests its mirror image – that women also share weaknesses and limitations of ability that are supplemented by men. Of course, it seems that the Society would also hold that men have shared sets of characteristics, strengths, abilities, and weaknesses to be supplemented by women – but men are not mentioned. The parallel statements about "masculinity" are not made – perhaps unintentionally conveying the impression that women are a more uniform group than men.

The Centrality of Motherhood
Of all the "feminine characteristics" of women, the most important to the Anscombe Society is clearly the ability to be a mother – defined, naturally, not just by giving birth physically, but also in behavioral, emotional, and psychological terms. Almost the entire second half of the position statement is devoted to this topic, introduced on the heels of "true feminism": "[W]omen should be guaranteed equal rights and freedoms in the community, as well as career opportunities that can coexist with motherhood and the unique responsibilities it entails."
At first, I found this sentence very puzzling. The first part seemed relatively clear, although I coudn't decide whether "in the community" was intended as a restriction (as opposed to "in the workplace") or merely as a rhetorical flourish allowing them to insert the word "community" into the statement once again. The second clause, however, makes things more clear: it seems to imply that "in the community" is a restriction (although it's still unclear what it means), and that in the workplace women should be granted career opportunities in which the important point is not whether the opportunities are equal to mens, but whether or not they are compatible with "motherhood" as it is broadly conceived by the Anscombe Society. The statement does not go so far as to say women should not be given equal opportunities, it merely shifts emphasis – in the community, equality and freedom are important and should be guaranteed. In the workplace, motherhood is important and should be guaranteed.

They move quickly to rebuff any possible criticism of these values by going on the offensive: "In contemporary society, motherhood is sometimes seen as a burden, and being a stay-at-home parent maligned as a second-class responsibility. On the contrary, we assert that motherhood is of the utmost importance, a vocation to be honored and respected." I have no patience with claims of persecution by persons who are not the slightest bit persecuted, and I object to the religious overtones of labeling motherhood as a sacred calling or even a sacred duty – especially without an explicit admission of that position.
I would also like to call your attention to the lack of any attention at all to the importance (or even existence) of fatherhood. This indicates that the purpose here is not entirely (or even primarily) to ensure children are well taken care of, but to define a woman's identity and the choices available to her by her ability to become pregnant.

The Society does not, they add, believe that all women are "called" to be mothers or men "called" to be fathers. They then follow this religiously-laden language with an appeal to a their humble recognition of deep natural order: "We simply recognize what science and humanity demonstrate, namely that mothers and their children share a special bond and we do not believe women should have to sacrifice or deny this bond in order to be seen as equal participants in society."

In this, the concluding sentence of the Anscombe Society's position statement on Sexuality and Feminism, they manage to re-emphasize a number of points, asserting that:

1. The Anscombe Society is not making any kind of radical, prejudiced, or culture-shaped statements, nor are they driven solely by religion, but are instead merely affirming obvious truths evident in the world.
2. Women love babies, and this love defines their lives: they are feminine beings, and the central characteristic of femininity is motherhood.
3. Society is hostile toward women seeking to enjoy this love or any other "feminine" characteristic, and contemporary society, rather than the Anscombe Society, seeks to squelch women's equality.

Yet it seems to me that in this model there is no equality, no flexibility, and no questioning, but rather a rigid definition of "femininity" and a uniform hostility toward any contemporary conceptions of gender.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"There's no crying in baseball!"

by Chloe Angyal

So I'm at home with a glass of red wine (OK, fine, it's a Dixie cup, but whatever), watching one of my favourite movies of all time, A League of Their Own. Baseball, swing music, Tom Hanks drunk and 1940s fashion, plus a serious feminist message - movies don't get much better than this, so I thought I would share it with you.
And so, for your viewing pleasure, here's one of my favourite clips from the movie, the bit where the social commentator condemns women's sports (as well as careers and higher education) for causing the "masculinization of women." It's nice to remember that anti-feminism isn't anything new. Skip to 4min20sec for some hilarious and (thankfully) outdated social norms.

Sarah Haskins on why women love vampires

by Chloe Angyal

For her hilarious Target Women episode this week, Sarah Haskins hit the road, heading to a Twilight poster signing, where she asked young women (and their moms) what it is that makes vampires like Edward, the 107-year-old vampire in the hit novel series, so damn sexy. Her words, not mine.
She also asks those same women about the whole getting bitten/losing your virginity connection that the book explores. My thoughts: it's only a matter of time before the huge numbers of Twilight fans make neck-condoms the biggest growth industry in America.
As usual, Haskins sees the potential for feminism, and for funny, in the most everyday things (though a swarm of screaming, Robert Pattinson-obsessed girls isn't something that should be inflicted on anyone on a daily basis).
Happy Friday, everybody.

"Are you a good wife?"

by Elizabeth Winkler

A friend recently forwarded me an online quiz: “Are you a good wife?” The quiz is accompanied by a picture of a smiling woman dressed in pink from head-to-toe with pink curlers in her hair and a feather duster (pink again!) in her manicured hand. After some snickering and rolling of eyes, of course I had to take the quiz to see just what is required to be a ‘good wife’ in today’s world.

Three or four multiple choice answers were provided for each question, answer which seemed invariably divided between submissive, devoted wife; wife-is-equal-to-(and loves)-husband; and wife is angry, pissed and selfish. After answering each question, the website provided a percentage breakdown of women’s responses. The responses were delightfully balanced, with the vast majority of women falling into the middle category (except when it comes to cooking – “I always have something ready for him when he comes home” – and laundry – “I take pride in properly folding all his clothes so he looks good when he wears them”).

An interesting paradox: American women experience a considerable level of equity in marriage (according, at least, to their responses) and yet, this ridiculously outdated, phallocentric, Stepford-wife-esque quiz still exists.

Are you a good wife? Because if you’re not, you better be worried and you better fix it. Nothing worse than a wife who doesn’t cater to hubby’s every whim! You don’t spend all day cleaning the house for him and preparing his favorite meal? You don’t play dumb when you discover his affairs? What kind of woman are you!?

Perhaps what the quiz reveals most obviously is a perpetual female insecurity about living up to the standards of acceptable womanhood and femininity. These online quizzes and similar magazine confessionals perpetuate the assumption that feminine identity is a perpetual struggle with dissatisfaction about oneself. Self-doubt becomes the root of her search for approval, an approval that is doled out by social mandates, themselves rooted in the satisfaction of male desire and demands. The feminine identity, in its perpetual sense of insufficiency, thus becomes centered on lack and potential disappointment, absence and negativity.

I looked over the website’s list of other quizzes: there wasn’t a single variation of “Are you a good husband?” to be found. Of course, it must exist somewhere, but how many men can you really imagine taking it? Their masculinity, social acceptability and sense of identity are hardly staked on the role of husband. How often can we really say the same about American women?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Maternal instincts

by Angie D

The New York Times recently reported a worrying trend: women are no longer spending enough money to keep the retail economy afloat. Well, to be exact, mothers are cutting back on personal spending in order to be able to afford Christmas presents for their children. And while “it may be a noble sacrifice for women to spend less on themselves to benefit their families… it is bad news for the troubled retail industry, which relies heavily on sales of women’s apparel.”

What is a mom to do? Her duty as a mother is to ensure that her children are able to indulge in the toy-driven consumerism of the holiday season. One mom explains, “I want [my daughter] to be able to look back and say, ‘Even though they were tough times, my mom was still able to give me stuff.’ ” But this mom’s role as a woman dictates that she spend on clothing and household goods, to ensure that her person and her home are up to the standards set by marketers and magazine editors. This is indeed a tough choice, but it seems the maternal instinct is prevailing; a survey cited by the Times suggests “mothers, more than any other group, would spend less money over all and postpone big-ticket purchases, like the dishwasher that [mom above] wants to buy.”

Gerald L Storch, Chairman and CEO of Toys R Us, assures us: “While times are difficult, the last thing parents are going to cut from their budget is the Christmas present for their child. We are not seeing price resistance for the hot toys.” All I can say is thank goodness that mothers are making sure their children learn the true meaning of Christmas… getting stuff. Even in a recession, it’s important to follow the material… er, maternal instinct.

Abortion and depression

by Chloe Angyal

Reuters reports today that, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins, "no high-quality study done to date can document that having an abortion causes psychological distress, or a "post-abortion syndrome," and efforts to show it does occur appear to be politically motivated."

That abortion causes depression is a major argument against it, since such a causal connection would prove that abortion doesn't just hurt the fetus, but that it also hurts women. If abortion is damaging to the health, mental or otherwise, of the mother, it's easy to argue that the practice goes against the feminist imperative to protect women's health. But this debunking of the "post-abortion syndrome" myth makes the pro-life feminism position a little more difficult to defend.

If you're interested in this kind of stuff, don't miss Princeton Pro-Life's lecture "The Paradox of Pro-Life Feminism" this Saturday at 2pm, in Lewis Library 120.

“He’s Cirsumvrenting the Law!”*

by Jordan Kisner

I know Chloe and Laura already touched on this, but I want to take another moment to reflect on the new Bush administration law regarding reproductive healthcare. This law is merely the latest of a string of Bush administration attempts to deny women the right to abortions by limiting their access rather than challenging Roe v. Wade in the courts. The strategy is a clever one: rather than meeting the controversial issue head-on by way of a direct legal and ideological challenge to a woman’s right to choose, President Bush has instead instituted a series of laws that have made it harder and harder for women (particularly lower-income, uninsured women) to take advantage of their legal right to this procedure, either through funding cuts, allowing doctors to “opt out” limiting the number of sites where abortions are available.

This most recent proposal takes this pattern to a new and inexcusable low. By allowing anyone involved in a medical scenario to refuse to participate in a medical procedure because of moral reservations, President Bush has jeopardized women’s access to abortion, birth control, infertility treatments and even routine gynecological procedures like the HPV vaccine or STI testing. Think about it: now is it legal for a doctor to refuse to give an unmarried woman the HPV vaccine because s/he thinks it encourages premarital sex. Sure, it’s insane, and sure, it’s unlikely. But now it’s legal.

Think for a moment about what the Bush administration’s pattern of undermining women’s legal right to reproductive healthcare means for you, your sister and your friends, and women all across the country. Think about it, and then, if you are so inclined, speak up about it. Check out the NOW Foundation website for ideas about how to take action.

*Obligatory Arrested Development reference. Too good to pass up.

More on Bush's "conscience" rule

by Laura Pedersen

So, the Right of Conscience rule. Here are a few things you need to know:

The Right of Conscience rule would allow health care workers to refuse to participate in medical procedure they personally deem morally objectionable. It is a very broad interpretation of the phrase "assist in performance," which appears in a current law that allows health care professionals to refuse to participate in abortions.

This broader term could limits women’s full access to a wider range of sexual reproduction rights: birth control, artificial insemination, as well as abortion. It also has the potential to allow health care workers to refuse to distribute information about these procedures.

Women living in poverty would feel a greater impact, given that they already have a fewer number of procedural options available to them.

The new rule targets a specific profession, precludes court protection on the basis of individual opinion and disadvantages those already in a position to be disadvantaged by virtue of their socioeconomic status (and raises the potentially amusing, potentially unsettling question as to why an individual morally opposed to a certain procedure would be working in a department where that procedure is performed.)

Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies Melissa Harris-Lacewell at (huzzah!) Princeton University and women’s reproductive rights advocate (huzzah, huzzah!) noted that this proposed rule follows a legislative tactic pro-life groups have been employing to limit rather than outright defeat a woman’s right to choose. The Bush administration’s bottom-trawling approach to scooping up abortion would have an enormous bycatch. Nurses morally opposed to anesthesia? Yes, such things exist.

What do I think about the conscience rule? I think that whether or not you believe in abortion should not be a question when considering this proposed rule. This new interpretation has too many larger implications for this to remain the focus. This is a question of irresponsible legislation.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Want to write for us?

Want to write for us?
We're in need of a few good women or men (or anything in between) to write for us. If you want to write about feminism and gender issues, this is your chance! At Equal Writes, you can write about anything from policy to pop culture, from semantics to sexual health. All we ask is that you're a self-identified feminist, and that you can stick to a deadline, be it weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.

If you're interested, email us at

Nice ass!

by Emily Sullivan

In Sidewalk, Mitchell Duneier’s* book about the lives of book vendors on 6th Avenue, he devotes a chapter to interactional vandalism—the intentional breaking of social cues to undermine a system of inequality. He’s talking about the kinds of social entanglements we all—especially women—find ourselves in. Duneier’s point is that it is a power play—a way for men on the street to assert the only source of social power they have—their maleness. As a result, the women must face harassment and the resulting “white liberal guilt” of having to be rude to the men in return.

This led to a discussion about cat calling. While training as a runner in Phoenix, cat calls were a daily occurrence for my teammates and me. Many of the girls would scoff, but I never saw the problem. I appreciated the compliment, and didn’t give it a second thought—I wonder how many of the girls would smile if the rote reaction /isn’t /to scoff. This seems to be an attitude shared by my male friends—many of them said that if a woman yells out at him, he would be delightfully surprised. Does it expose men as seeing women as sex objects, and reinforce this view? Maybe. But reacting against cat calling does nothing to solve that issue. Men look at women, and women look at men—the difference between the licit and the illicit is spoken compliments. Given the number of terrible things men say to the women in their lives, and vice versa, a little bit of positivity never hurt anybody.

This is not to say that vulgarity or disrespect should be accepted by anyone. However, I like to think women have better things to do than worry about some guy on the street. Hell, the government wants to take power over our bodies, and our bosses still don’t care to pay us as much as a man. Given how hard so many of us work to get such nice asses, we should take those compliments in stride. And honestly, a man selling books on the street isn’t trying to undermine your status or assert his power as a man—he’s trying to get you to stop and buy his books.

*Mitchell Duneier is Department Representative for the Princeton Sociology Department, and co-teaches SOC 101.

Bush's new "Right of Conscience" laws

by Chloe Angyal

Rachel Maddow (rockstar!) talked a little last night about the Bush Administration’s new “Right of Conscience” rule, which would permit healthcare providers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and so on – to choose not to participate in any medical procedure they find morally objectionable. This includes, surprise surprise, abortion, as well as artificial insemination, dispensing of contraception, and so on.

Laws already exist allowing the first three kinds of healthcare providers – doctors, nurses and pharmacists – to opt out of any medical procedure they don’t morally agree with, but this new law expands that right to the and so ons. That means, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, “individuals who are members of the workforce of the Department-funded entity performing the objectionable procedure.” That means anyone, down to the people who perform the least medically significant jobs, like cleaning the medical instruments at a hospital or answering the phones at a pharmacy, can opt-out of their role in providing any of these legal medical procedures to women who need them. And that means that women don’t get the information they need, and they don’t get the services to which they’re entitled.

On the surface, laws like this don’t look like such a terrible idea. After all, we all have a right not to participate in practices that we find morally abhorrent. And, you might think that as long as you have doctors and nurses and pharmacists opting-in, and still providing the actual medical services, everything will continue as usual. After all, no one who finds abortion morally objectionable becomes an abortion provider, and no one who disagrees with the idea of artificial insemination chooses to artificially inseminate people for a living.

But what happens when administrative workers and janitorial staff across 15 bordering counties, or across a whole state, invoke this rule and decide that they aren’t going to have anything to do with these procedures or services? What if the person who answers the phone at a pharmacy one Sunday morning invokes the rule and decides not to tell the frightened, shocked sixteen-year-old on the other end of the phone that they have the morning after pill in stock? These kinds of laws make it not just easy, but totally arbitrary, to limit women’s access to services to which they’re legally entitled, and puts women’s reproductive rights in the hands of total strangers, instead of in the hands of women.

Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell (rockstar also!) weighed in on the new law, and pointed out laws like this, which don’t make abortion and other reproductive rights illegal, but simply restrict access to them, disproportionately affect poor women and rural women. These women’s access to these kinds of services is already reduced, and laws like this one would continue to further whittle it away. In theory, laws like this one seem reasonable. In practice, they negatively, and disproportionately, affect women who are already disadvantaged.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The fine line between wooing and stalking

by Jordan Bubin

Boy Gets Girl opens at Theatre Intime this weekend, and yes, as a disclaimer, I’m part of the cast. That said, you should go see the show—first, because it’s a wicked good drama, and second, because the play explores sexuality, feminism, and eroticism.

The play focuses on a New York magazine journalist who is stalked after a blind date. Since this is a stage production, and not a film, it’s not an hour and a half of running, but a more psychological look at what it feels like to be captive to someone you can’t see. I have no interest in giving away too many details of the plot, given my own little conflict of interest; so let me tease you in a different way.

What’s the line between wooing someone and stalking them? It doesn’t seem that difficult to figure out, but what about a basic romantic comedy plot? Say, a boy decides that he likes a girl, and the only problem is that she’s with some schmuck; the first boy decides that he and the girl can be together if only he shows he proves himself. There’s likable characters, and fun music, but come on—if the geeky guy from work started following you around, and climactically bursts into your wedding to scream that you’re making a mistake, it’s going to be a little strange. A surprise gift of flowers could be unwanted, and shrugged off—or not; several flower bouquets could be the sign of a romantic bent on convincing you to meet him for coffee, or it could be time to call the police.

Dating typically involves a little chase, from one side or the other, and it almost always involves ignorance of the other party’s intentions, at least at first. Boy Gets Girl, in part, is about when that ignorance is dangerous, and SHARE is joining in by sponsoring a discussion after the Saturday matinee.

Almost every interaction and line of dialogue offers some take on the objectification of women, the social construction of beauty, and opportunity for women. The characters—including the sexualized office assistant and the elderly porn producer the lead must write a piece on—help draw out the tension in these issues.

Of course, the play isn’t a morality piece. Nor is it a political diatribe. There’s plenty of food for thought, but it’s worked in between knives, smashed phones, and dirty old men; if you want to see a play that will touch on feminist issues this weekend, this is it. The is matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m.; nightly shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Abortion: the moral stalemate

by Chloe Angyal

I've got a piece up today at SpliceToday about the abortion debate, specifically about the wall you've probably found yourself hitting time and time again. It's the point you come to in the debate where it becomes clear that you're never going to agree, because what one side considers an awful but justifiable choice, the other side considers murder. And of course, what do you do when your job is to go beyond simply debating an impossible debate, and to make policy?
Check it out, and while you're at it, check out the rest of Splice. It's a great site with lots of young writers contributing their ideas.

The body as sacred

by Eva Marie Wash

I often feel proud that I avoid reading popular women’s magazines, patting myself on the back for circumventing the cycle of vanity and self-disgust that airbrushed fashion ads tend to perpetuate. However, the sad truth is that one cannot fully avoid the pressure to fit certain standards of beauty within our culture—they seem to be ubiquitous: on billboards, on TV, in stores, in our interactions with other people, in overheard conversations.

When the Eating Concerns Advisers put up posters of quotes from overheard conversations that were self-abasing and neurotic about weight, I realized how often women are not only saying such things, but also hearing them—from their closest friends, sisters, and mothers. How much harder must it become to accept one’s body when all of one’s lifelong models cannot even do it?

The film America the Beautiful, which the Eating Concerns Advisers screened last night, illuminates the pervasiveness of our society’s obsession with physical perfection, and how it becomes perpetuated and reinforced by the money-making media and by big business. Yet, for me, one of the most powerful and endearing aspects of the film was when Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues, described her experience amongst an African tribe; apparently, she had asked one of the women if she liked her own body, and the woman was shocked by the absurdity of the question. She loved her body for its strength, for what it enabled her to do and to experience. In a highly technological and consumerist society, American women hardly ever associate our bodies with any function besides attraction. Too often we take them for granted. Instead, we pour millions of dollars into weight-loss, cosmetics, hair, nails, plastic surgery, etc., in order to perfect them according to some unattainable standard.

Yet, when we think of our bodies in terms of how they make us unique and what they enable us to do, especially in regards to motherhood, they gain a beauty and a sacred value that the unattainable standard—of which the sole purpose is merely to attract—will never have.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Film screening tonight: America the Beautiful

Does America have an unhealthy obsession with beauty? The ubiquitous deceptions by advertisers and the media, that thin, beautiful models set the standard to which all women must aspire, has been identified by some as a primary cause of low self-esteem and the meteoric rise in clinical depression in women. Filmmaker Darryl Roberts traveled around the country talking to models, makeup artists, entertainment industry insiders and social commentators to try to answer this question: Does America have an unhealthy obsession with beauty?

Tonight, filmmaker Darryl Roberts is bringing his new documentary, America the Beautiful to campus. Mr. Roberts will be discussing his work after the screening. Please join us for a great film and some stimulating conversation at 7:30pm in McCormick 1o1.

Sponsored by the Eating Concerns Advisers, The Women's Center and the Vice President for Campus Life.

A feminist salute to Rosa Parks

by Kelly Roache

Fifty-three years ago today, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. She wasn’t the first to do so (there are at least three documented cases – all women – that predate Parks), but she was the only one to spark a 381-day bus boycott. She wasn’t, as her detractors claim, just tired, at least not physically: “The only tired I was,” said Parks, “was tired of giving in.”

Hailed by the United States Congress as the “mother of the modern-day Civil Rights movement,” Rosa Parks, through her famous act of civil disobedience, should also be celebrated as one of the heroines of modern feminism. By declining to relocate to the back of the bus, Parks simultaneously tackled two social hierarchies of the 1950s – those of gender and race – at a time when mention of even one was inconceivably taboo. Defiance of the former is her less-celebrated achievement; while Parks’ decision was irrefutably courageous from a Civil Rights standpoint, an undercurrent of racial unrest pervaded the culture of the time, while second-wave feminism wouldn’t publicly come into its own for several more years.

Beyond the bus incident, Parks’ life is truly a feminist, American story. Educated at the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private institution run by progressive northeastern women, she cleaned classrooms to pay her own tuition. She recalled being the only woman at her local NAACP meetings, and served as the secretary for the Montgomery chapter at the time of her arrest. Rather than an isolated incident, Parks’ refusal to surrender her seat was the culmination of a longer struggle. In her own words, “It was just time…there was opportunity for me to take a stand…When I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate…because I felt that we had endured that too long.”

Posthumously, Parks continues to inspire us. At her funeral some of today’s most successful women, including Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey, attributed their success to her pluck. She was the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda after her death in late 2005 as flags far beyond Montgomery flew at half-mast. Parks passed away fifty years after her historic decision, much like two other American heroes after their defining moment: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. She renewed the promise of the nation they birthed in 1776, that all are created equal and with an equal claim to natural rights.

History matters. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, modern feminists should strive to emulate Parks’ respectful tactics, and to honor her by never growing complacent and by treasuring the spirit of the movement in which she was so instrumental. We must seek equality and dignity, never retribution or superiority. As Parks herself declared, “I want to be treated like a human being.” We should demand no more, and no less. Half a century later, we should all ask ourselves if we would be so stouthearted as to keep our seats.

I'm dreaming of a [slimmer waistline]

by Molly Borowitz

If your family, like my family, usually watches White Christmas over Thanksgiving weekend, you'll have caught your yearly glimpse of Vera Ellen's 16-inch waistline. You'll also have noticed that Rosemary Clooney, similarly stunning and objectively slender, looks somehow boxy in comparison (most especially when the two gals march out in their high-waisted khaki trousers to sing "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army"). Still, though, when Rosemary sings alone on stage, you'll have seen how those fifties dresses accentuate her perfect hourglass figure. You might have heard your mom say (as mine did), "God, look how small she was then!" And maybe your grandmother responded (as mine did), "Hard to believe when you remember how enormous she was later."

I don't mean to be mushy, but in that moment my heart absolutely ached for Rosemary Clooney, breathtakingly beautiful in her black velvet gown and white lamé gloves. Her perfect, smooth sound on "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" resonates painfully with the tired, heavy tone and shaky vibrato you can hear when she sings "White Christmas" with Linda Ronstadt (recorded in 2000), and her stunning silhouette reflects awkwardly on her 1994 role on ER as a fat, crazy bag lady.

But hang on—my mom, like me, was apparently unsatisfied to let that last remark lie. "Well," she told my grandma, "apparently she struggled with her weight all her life. Even now, when she looked like this, it was probably tough for her." I know it's not the perfect retort (perhaps the pithier among us would prefer a "Rosemary, society didn't do right by you either" kind of comeback), but this concession was soothing nonetheless. For one thing, the woman had five children. For another, my mom reminded me of the hell we put ourselves through to conform to some distant and unrealistic standard of beauty—which, after Thanksgiving weekend, isn't a bad thing to remember. If Rosemary really was "struggling" with her weight, who knows what kinds of unhealthy things she might have been doing to herself? What did she think when she looked in the mirror? How did she feel after spending months alongside Vera Ellen, who was born into a lithe, straight dancer's frame naturally narrower than her curves?

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that most women—in fact, most people—on this campus probably have a rough idea of the things she did, thought, and felt. We may be the most attractive Ivy, but we know firsthand that this coveted label comes at the high price of dieting, exercising, neurosis, and a whole lot of low self-esteem. I hate thinking about the pressure that Rosemary must have felt while "struggling" with her weight and the trauma she must have endured when she realized she'd finally lost the damaging and unnecessary battle. It must have been utterly unbearable to know that people who saw you thought, "What a shame—she used to be such a pretty, slender girl."

This Thanksgiving, I've learned a lesson from Rosemary: you can't set your standard by anyone but yourself as you are (not models, not actresses, not gym-frequenting friends, not even yourself as you were). Don't let other people decide whether you're a Carousel Club crooner or a frumpy, dumpy bag lady based solely on how you look. I don't care what you weigh—you wear that black velvet dress with the white lamé gloves if you want to. Rosemary did.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Baby Mama, NYT Style

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

What do we think about surrogacy, and couples or single women who pay another woman to carry their child? Alex Kuczynski, a New York Times writer and author of a well-regarded book on the cosmetic surgery industry (if you're interested, it's called Beauty Junkies - I haven't read it, but I want to) has a fascinating article in this week's New York Times Magazine about her own experience with gestational surrogacy, after she discovered that she could not have children. Surrogacy is not something that we think about, or discuss, very much, and if we do, it's in a humorous context, as in Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's recent movie, Baby Mama. The film is far from realistic (it was criticized by actual surrogate mothers, especially for the depiction of Amy Poehler's character as scheming and distrustworthy, a stereotype which plagues surrogate moms-to-be), and Kuczynski's article offers a fresh account of a process about which our society is decidedly ambivalent.

After four failed pregnancies, Kuczynski and her husband began to explore the possibility of gestational surrogacy. This is different from traditional surrogacy, in which the surrogate mother is also the biological mother. In gestational surrogacy, the surrogate mother simply carries (or gestates) the fetus, which is created from the mother's egg and the father's sperm. This process is much easier on everyone involved, Kuczynski writes. The surrogate mother is spared a genetic connection to the baby, and the couple involved can have a child which is biologically theirs. So although Kuczynski was not going to experience pregnancy, she was going to be a mother.

The surrogate mother, Cathy, was carefully chosen, and Kuczynski and her husband were present for ultrasounds, monthly doctor's appointments, and of course, the birth. Cathy and Kuczynski were from a similar class and background - they were both college educated, and married. Cathy had several children. But despite her connection with the woman who was incubating her child, Kuczynski found herself wrestling with questions about the meaning of motherhood, despite the fact that she accepted that pregnancy was "something Cathy was good at," something that she, for whatever reason, could not do.

"I worried that I was missing out on some great essential preparation," Kuczynski wrote. "What would I tell my son years from now? I was not able to produce you, so we outsourced you to someone with a better womb? Part of you came out of my tummy, but the rest of you came out of another lady’s tummy? Would I really be his mother? Was the key to motherhood carrying the baby?"

These are questions which have come up in my conversations recently, especially since I've begun to toy with the idea of becoming a birth doula. The home birth movement is adamant that childbirth requires a mother's awareness - she should not, if she can help it, take drugs for pain or numb the experience of birth, so that she can be fully conscious for the first moments of the child's life. My friends have reasonably challenged some of these assertions. It's nice to think that all women should be fully aware of childbirth, but in some cases, it's just not possible, and should we really be shaming women for their choice to lessen an incredibly painful experience? Are women who undergo non-elective ceserean sections poor mothers because they were not able to hold their babies in the first ten minutes of their lives? And what about adoptive mothers? The problem is knotty indeed, and surrogacy just adds another complication. Kuczynski's baby is biologically hers, but she still felt significant anxiety about the fact that she was not able to physically carry the child. What is wrong with our society, that we have such narrow, and such subtle, pressures to conform to certain ideas of motherhood? And I am fully willing to admit that the home birth movement may, inadvertantly, have contributed somewhat to the confusion of women like Kuczynski.

But the story doesn't end there. As the pregnancy progressed, Kuczynski reports that other women were actually jealous that she had escaped the experience of carrying a child - a reaction that she had not expected. Women said things like: “Well, thank God you didn’t have to give birth to that huge child!” Or: “You’re so lucky. Pregnancy is overrated.” Or even: “My God, Alex. You’ve really gotten away with some stuff in your life. But this takes the cake!”

"Did these women have such terrible pregnancies?" writes Kuczynski. "Did they all resent their big babies? Was not birthing a baby but still having a biological child really “taking the cake”? If so, the birth of Max [her son] revealed the ambivalence some women feel about pregnancy. It is a burden. It is scary."

So we have problems on both sides of the coin. On the one hand, it seems that we're not real women unless we have babies, and not real mothers unless we give birth to them. But on the other, pregnancy is an onerous process, one which can stall our careers, "destroy" our bodies, and make us very uncomfortable for a long period of time. And childbirth is presented, in a very unqualified fashion, as terrifying. There is a reason that so many women resort to drugs without experiencing labor at all - the media does nothing to make us think that anything about childbirth is pleasant. And all of this doesn't lessen the fact that even though Kuczynski's son is biologically hers, she still questioned the legitimacy of her choice.

The article is admittedly flawed. It's a heavy class issue - surrogacy is only available to the upper classes, and the idea of lower-class women carrying children for upper-class women is certainly problematic. And there's the question of how important it really is to have a child which is biologically yours - even though Kuczynski criticizes the culture that made her feel less like a mother because she hadn't carried her child, she spent thousands to have her own biological child when there are many, many children who have already been born unwanted. Kuczynski's position is interesting, and in many ways correct - our society creates an ideal of motherhood which is both arbitrary and damaging. But Kuczynski herself falls victim to the societal dictates that she critiques. So should we be mixing technology and conception, and can a woman's reproductive processes ever be appropriately commodified? What do you think?