Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bikini Beach Babes; or, Fanny Hill in the Virgin Islands

by Chris Moses

Odd juxtapositions can prove revelatory in the most interesting ways.

While in St. John for the Thanksgiving holiday I read John Cleland’s eighteenth-century classic Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill. I’ve even got a better excuse than being an odd-ball graduate student: this summer I’ll be teaching a course on “Forbidden Fictions,” an exploration of banned books, censorship and artistic engagement with the taboo.

So set up on the sands of an exotic Caribbean island, I couldn’t help avoiding the uncanny sense that my historical novel proved a better travel guide than anything written by Lonely Planet:

‘Novelty makes the strongest impressions, and in pleasure especially: no wonder then, that he was swallow’d up in raptures of admiration of things so interesting by their nature, and now seen and handled for the first time.’

Now this has nothing to do with national parks, even if tourists might be more stimulated than they realize by taking treks in the lush wilderness as a daytime companion to their vacation’s wild nights of lush-like lovemaking. This scene unfolds as Fanny takes a sly act of revenge: she seduces the young male servant of her client-captor after having caught him in arrears with another woman. Part prostitute, part pariah, Fanny uses this young boy to make her own investment in infidelity.

‘On my part, I was richly overpaid for the pleasure I gave him, in that of examining the power of those objects thus abandon’d to him, naked, and free to his loosest wish, over the artless, natural stripling: his eyes streaming fire, his cheeks glowing with a florid red, his fervid frequent sighs, whilst his hands convulsively squeez’d, opened, press’d together again the lips and sides of that deep flesh-wound, or gently twitch’d the over-growing moss…’

I can’t help but wonder about the mental state of that pudgy fellow down the beach, cheeks red from sun burn and sweet daiquiri, eyeing scantily clad ladies as he massages the sand into a castle-like fortification as ready for defense as for an inevitable watery conquest. Or even his enviable friend, gym-toned and bare-chested with the chance to wrap an arm around the real thing.

But back to the book.

For a novel that endlessly reproduces such loquaciously graphic scenes, it nonetheless does so with a tremendous level of literary and intellectual sophistication. At play throughout, Fanny explores her sexuality as it is exploited by older men and women who too have their doubts and insecurities exposed through the secrets of their business and bedroom dealings. Do we all-consuming readers enable Fanny’s downward spiral of depravity or push her towards redemption and the rewards of virtue? A constant suspense tacks between Fanny-the-innocent and Fanny-the-savvy-narrator, between the perils and pleasures of sex depicted in real-time and the doubts of every morning after.

Just like on the beach.

For every woman taken as that ‘real thing’ of male desire, another walks with ease and conviction—sure of herself, satisfied with her body and certain about the looks she shoots back, of welcome or warning, to anyone that catches her eye. No single wave of feminism crests across these waters.

Sandy shores’ place between sea and land have been a perennial sight for mediating (and meditating upon) the uncertain and unresolved. Since at least Fanny’s time, when Robinson Crusoe’s island isolation ended with his discovery another man’s footprint in the sand, this place of encounter has led to more questions than answers.

Has the bikini, a sign of feminist independence, become a means for infantilizing women? Do the slim trunks, slung below ideally small hips and across a girlishly flat stomach, show off self confidence—or do they sacrifice womanhood to an ideal of pre-pubescent insecurity, as hairless as it is harried to find a man for control and protection?

Even swathed in their broad-covering board shorts, do men fall victim, too, as they invest far more time in the nuance of hard abs as opposed to hard ideas?

However exposed men and women might make themselves on the beach there’s an importance to baring most everything with the chance to think, learn, imagine, fantasize and wonder. For every bit of insecurity that’s provoked by such exposure a sense of normalcy comes from witnessing the imperfection and diversity of our fellow humans. Gazes can go from guys to girls and back again without worry as to the high-tide, low-tide extremes of gay and straight. Young and old alike hide less by fashion than they otherwise clothe through the pretensions of social difference.

No eden-like equality exists on the beach. Bodies carry as many marks of class and culture as do designer labels. The point is that slightly more exposed, we learn more and hide less from this powerful reality. In fact the power of metaphor (and alcohol aided musing) may be the most important tool for greater personal surety.

Take Fanny’s own conquest over the man who offers most in the role of conqueror:

“[C]oming out with that formidable machine of his, he lets the fury loose, and pointing it directly to the pouting-lipt mouth, that bid him sweet defiance in dumb-shew, squeezes in the head, and driving with refresh’d rage, breaks in, and plugs up the whole passage of that soft-pleasure-conduit, where he makes all shake again, and put once more all within me into an uproar…”

By way of florid fiction, is this real? Does Fanny’s coy reluctance prove her forever lessened power as a woman, or does ‘dumb-shew’ have more to do with performance than persecution? This ‘pouting-lipt mouth’ looses control after getting plugged up by the penetrating phallus, but it’s Fanny other mouth that has complete control over every aspect of the story. For all his fury and rage, the man’s the one who ends up with his head in the dark.

The questions raised by this kind of partial revelation are purposefully both prurient and profound. This suspense as to what might lie within—books, bikinis and boardshorts alike—also suspends the inevitability of male dominance and female capitulation, the default story of sex as subjugation. In the land of make-believe we imagine that anything can be possible. Only from here can new alternatives be made real—another sort of naked truth.

So why the rush away from this in-between place, in and out of the water, to the bar and back, off into the hotel bed expectant of anything but sleep? Even as the odd-ball attraction reading an Oxford World Classic in the shade, my time did not lack for wonder. Quite a bit of satisfying fun can be sustained by thinking on the beach, rather than simply thinking of ways to get off.

All quotations are from page seventy-seven of Peter Sabor’s edition (Oxford, 1985).

Friday, December 12, 2008

We're going on vacation!

Hey there loyal readers,
Equal Writes is going on a bit of a vacation, since it's the end of the year and Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years festivities will be keeping us occupied for the next few weeks. So we'll be posting periodically between now and January 5th, but not as regularly as you've come to expect from us. On the 5th, we'll be back at full capacity, and with a few new and exciting writers for you.
Have a lovely holiday! Stay safe, give love, and remember, if the holidays get tough, you can always watch the puppies.

Yes, yes, oh yes, oh... hey look, a baby!

by Chloe Angyal

Lisa Belkin of the NY Times' Motherlode blog wrote yesterday about the "best kept secret of childbirth," which is that some women have orgasms as the baby exits the birth canal. The phenomenon is explored in a new documentary called "Orgasmic Birth."
As a twenty-year-old with no babymaking plans for my near future, I'm not sure exactly what to think about this, but I thought that some of you might. The politics and social pressures that form around pregnancy, motherhood and childbirth are obviously huge and complex, and I'm incredibly grateful that, as a younger woman, I'm not exposed to them (yet. We younger women might worry less about the pressure to be perfect mothers, but we're still dealing with the accepted yet impossible idea that we should be thin, intelligent, successful, witty, fashionable, charming, sexy, virginal, yet not intimidating, and do it all without breaking a sweat. Awesome). But one of these days, we're going to want to start thinking about the social pressures that surround motherhood and childbearing, and to that end, Belkin raises some good points.
She notes that some women might see this as "yet one more way to raise expectations and make new mothers feel inadequate if they do not experience the 'ideal' birth:"

The message of the film is “that women can journey through labor and birth in all different ways. And there are a lot more options out there, to make this a positive and pleasurable experience,” Pascali-Bonaro tells ABC. “I hope women watching and men watching don’t feel that what we’re saying is every woman should have an orgasmic birth.”

...the documentary by Debra Pascali-Bonaro, a childbirth educator and a doula, asks the question: What would happen if women were taught to enjoy birth rather than endure it?

What do you think? A more enjoyable birth experience, or just another way to make women feel like they're sub-par mothers if they don't "have what she's having" in the delivery room? And, call me crazy, but when you're in that kind of pain, can you really be taught to do anything but endure it?

Thanks to Sarah for the tip!

The governor who cried "sexism"

by Laura Smith-Gary

As the transcripts of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's alleged dirty dealings pile up, it's become clear that if the accusations are true he wasn't just out to get money and power for himself. Ever the team player, he was also allegedly looking for a high-paying job for his wife Patricia -- perhaps a post on a corporate board -- in exchange for giving President-elect Obama his pick for his Senate replacement. Furthermore, in the transcripts she's (again allegedly) heard egging him on as he drives his bargains and threatens the Chicago, snarling profanities that are now giving commentators untold delight. The cries of "Lady MacBeth" have already begun.

I have to admit, when I first heard the story I got a very tiny secret thrill from seeing a disgraced politician's wife as a partner in crime as opposed to a helpless victim. But then I found out about one more really cheap trick he had played, which happens to be a pet peeve of mine: making accusations of sexism to fend off questions. That killed even the teeniest hint of a thrill -- though not the hilarious absurdity of the situation. Blagojevich wasn't just throwing out "sexist," he actually called reporters "Neanderthal." In 2006, Chicago Tribune reporters were trying to ask the governor about over $100,000 worth of suspicious commissions his wife had racked up doing business with clients to whom Blagojevich had political ties, when he began roundly condemning them all for their knuckle-dragging ways. Read a short version of the story here. Apparently, the reporters' questions (my paraphrase: "Hey, isn't it weird that your wife only earned four commissions last year, and all the clients were political connections of yours?") were an affront to all working women and dragging us right back into the cave.

Drat you Blagojevich and your ilk! This is why people don't take accusations of sexism seriously. Remember when Hillary Clinton was running against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, and lots of people complained about how "the liberals" would call them sexist if they didn't vote for Clinton and racist if they didn't vote for Obama, and everybody was afraid to call anyone out on their sexism (or racism) for fear of looking oversensitive? (Remember the Facebook group called "Hillary Stop Running For President and Make Me a Sandwich?") They were scared of looking like Blagojevich! Remember Sarah Palin, when accusations were flying left and right and no one seemed to be able to figure out whether it was more sexist to question her experience or to shield her from reporters? Nobody wanted to be the guy called a Neanderthal when he was just trying to do some investigating. For heaven's sake, women can be corrupt just as well as men, and we should get to the point where we don't have to think twice about the fact that its a female voice shrieking that The Chicago Tribune writers should be fired. Right, First Lady of Illinois?

As feminists, and as people who are sensitive of levels of institutional and personal sexism that many people aren't aware of or don't think about, we have to be extra careful never to make "Well, you're sexist!" a meaningless retort. I am miles away from saying sexism doesn't exist and isn't a powerful force within society -- and I also think that it shouldn't only be applied in cases of obvious, clear-cut discrimination against women. We do, I think, have an obligation to society to point out the subtle and sneaky ways sexism creeps into our consciousness -- why does it cause such unholy glee that the first lady was ranting at the bleeping Cub's bleep? Covert sexism is some of the most pernicious kind of sexism, since the reason it's covert is often because it is deeply entrenched. The same goes for other forms of prejudice -- and we need to bring them up. However, we need to also be vigorous in our rejection of accusations of sexism being used as a tool or a cheap deflection. Make "sexism" the beginning of a conversation, not a parting shot.

Now let us all pop some popcorn, turn on Jon Stewart, and avoid taking bribes as much as we possibly can.

"I'm a journalist, so I have to pawn this to pay my rent"

Sarah Haskins strikes again! This time, she takes on jewelry commercials. I wish she would be my best friend already.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Black folk and Prop 8

by Franki Butler

This is going to be the last thing I say about the Proposition 8 fallout (okay, probably not, but it’s a nice thought), mainly because I would like to stop playing the post-Proposition 8 blame game. I would really like to stop playing to post-Proposition 8 blame game. But with The Advocate printing covers that say “Gay is the New Black," and The New York Times publishing op-ed pieces blaming those bitter black women folk for everything, it’s a bit difficult.

On The Advocate cover: No, guys. Just…no. First off, it’s false advertising, as the article referenced makes exactly the opposite point. The struggles are distantly comparable, in that the queer community is currently a socially acceptable target for outright bigotry in a way the African-American community once was (and some would argue, still is), but the similarities and differences are incredibly complex, not to mention the fact that, newsflash, there are black members of the queer community, who could probably explain a lot to you about the intersectionality of these identities and how the oppressions they face differ. Gay is not the new black, and it’s not necessary to appropriate the identity and struggles of another minority group to articulate your own. There are so many reasons to support gay rights (the main one being that treating all humans equally is generally a good thing to do) that this use of the "Oppression Olympics" is unjustified and unnecessary.

On the Times article: For the link-phobes out there, the article boils down to this: black women are bitter, divorced Jesus-freaks who oppose gay marriage because they don’t want man-on-man marriage snatching up all those available black men they can’t get for themselves. I’m not sure how the article’s author thinks these women rationalize this to themselves, unless they believe that they have magical powers that will automatically turn gay men straight, so long as they’re not married to other men first.

I showed this article to my (black, divorced, church-going) mother, who immediately questioned if the author actually knew any black women. Jokes aside, we agreed on the following point: people need to stop this “desperate black woman” crap. I’m certainly familiar with the stereotype of jealous, domineering black women who don’t want anyone taking their men, be it white women or gay men. But a stereotype is all it is. For every one woman like that, there are many more who are unconcerned with the mythical shortage of “good black men” out there. Relationships with men are not the defining characteristic of a woman’s life. The article itself quotes the statistic that nearly 70% of all black children are born to single mothers. I find it difficult to believe that every last one of those women has “Getting a good man, and keeping those gay dudes from getting to him first,” as number one on her priority list.

It is a sin and a shame that such a large percentage of black women voted against Proposition 8, but that likely has much more to do with the morally conservative and socially all-encompassing nature of the black church community than any essential man-hungriness on the part of black women. I know it’s tempting to paint straight black women as bitter and vindictive (because we’re obviously all so angry), but it’s not true. Unless someone paints us as desperate harpies; then we may have to throw down.

Feminism and the Anscombe Society

by Christina DiGasbarro and Kelly Roache

In a recent post on Equal Writes, Laura Gary-Smith dissected the Anscombe Society’s position statement on “Sexuality and Feminism." However, as both members of this group and contributors to this blog, we believe that Anscombe’s position has been misinterpreted and would like to offer an explanation of how it actually encourages equality of the sexes.

The Implications of XX Chromosomes
“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.”

This statement, far from being “far-from-obvious,” is, in fact, a simple truth rooted in biology. That there are inherent physical differences is pretty obvious just from looking around. The question, then, is: why are men’s and women’s bodies different? Answer: women have XX sex chromosomes, and men have XY sex chromosomes. And the significance of this difference is that one’s particular set of sex chromosomes influence the hormones one’s body produces, which influences the physical and sexual development of the body.

Compounds that are so powerful as to cause drastic changes in one’s body cannot be expected to have a merely physical effect. For instance, consider the pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), which, granted, some women suffer more from than others. Mood swings, irritability, and anxiety are associated with PMS, which is the result of the changing level of hormones in a woman’s body prior to menstruation. This is a clear example of a physical characteristic—hormone levels—affecting emotional, behavioral, and psychological characteristics. It is also a clear example of an inherent difference between women and men (who don’t menstruate).

Consider also the effects of steroids on women who use them. Women who use anabolic steroids, which are primarily composed of synthesized testosterone, may lose their periods, experience a deepening of the voice, and grow more body hair, among other things—in essence, they acquire certain male characteristics. Both men and women who use anabolic steroids may also experience more aggression as a result of the excess testosterone, which is believed to contribute to aggression. This shows that hormones are indiscriminate: they affect the human body in certain prescribed ways, regardless of whether the person has XX or XY chromosomes. However, one’s particular combination of sex chromosomes determines the relative concentration of one’s hormones, which affect a person physically, emotionally, behaviorally, and psychologically.

It has been duly reported that Anscombe believes “these differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other,” and this is absolutely true. Men and women do differ as explained above, but those differences do not in any way compromise human dignity. Men and women, being equally human, obviously have equal human dignity and deserve equal rights. There is no reason that differences between men and women preclude equality.

Notice that Anscombe claims no rational, intellectual, ethical, or moral differences between the sexes. This is because the way one thinks, what one thinks, and what one believes are derived from how one is raised—i.e., not by the chemistry of one’s body. Intellect, ability to reason, sense of morality and ethics—these qualities vary widely across all of humanity, regardless of sex. It is also these qualities that are (or ought to be) directly relevant when considering candidates for jobs, political office, etc.

There is still a need to help children understand the differences between men and women while also understanding that men and women are equal to one another as human beings. Children can recognize differences and be concerned by them; parents need to help their children understand that yes, there are some differences between boys and girls, but these differences are no cause for alarm. Nor are these differences cause for treating people in a worse or better way based on sex; children must sometimes be helped to understand this as well, especially because they are inevitably exposed to aspects of society that seem to indicate otherwise.

“True Feminism”
Traditional feminism does sometimes imply things against the spirit of true feminism. While we wouldn’t accuse our fellow Equal Writers of employing this standpoint, there is a large, vocal school of feminist thought that actively argues women’s superiority over, rather than equality to, men. This “cultural feminism” has largely supplanted “equality feminism.” Ironically, it first concedes that there are significant differences between men and women – for instance, men are more incommunicative and aggressive, while women are more empathetic by nature. However, it exploits these differences, using them as justification for female superiority. Cultural feminists don’t want to be equal to men. How is this not equally as odious as misogyny or male chauvinism that we as feminists (rightly) condemn?

Instead, Anscombe advocates “true feminism,” which seeks equality over superiority or entitlement. As shown in the previous section, the inherent physical differences between men and women lead to a different experience, but Anscombe believes it is possible to pursue distinction without discrimination. True feminism recognizes and celebrates the unique characteristics of men and women, but draws no distinction when it comes to the rights and privileges each deserve and should be afforded by law and culture. In this brand of feminism, men and women complement each other and are stronger in union than the sum of their parts, whether through marriage or collaboration in society.

The Centrality of Motherhood
There is no way around the fact that motherhood is critical for the continuation of the human race. While we should strive for and expect social and political equality, we cannot obviate the biological differences that make women the child bearers during pregnancy, thus conferring some measure of physical responsibility upon them that men simply do not have. This incontrovertible connection between mother and child continues after birth; for instance, women are able to breastfeed while men are not. Upon establishing this, it becomes clear that certain aspects of childrearing rest immovably with women, and as this cannot be circumvented, society must adapt to make equal opportunities available to them.

The Anscombe Society works to this end, seeking “career opportunities that can coexist with motherhood and the unique responsibilities it entails.” Rather than restricting women to a maternal role, as its detractors claim, the group actually advocates more freedom of choice by fighting for more options in the workplace, giving women the “luxury” of simultaneously having both a career and children.

The question of balancing motherhood against other roles—for instance, having a job—is a serious one. It is one with which we personally have struggled. We know that we want to be mothers. We also know that we want to have jobs, careers. There is very much a feeling that one must be incredibly fortunate to be able to do both. If forced to choose between kids and a career, neither of us honestly knows which we would pick, but whichever way we chose, we would feel that we were denying ourselves something very important. Anscombe does not want women to have to face this choice; if a woman wants to be a mother, that's wonderful; if a woman wants a career, that's wonderful; and if a woman wants both, that is also wonderful, and we should do what we can to make that possible.

It is modern society that relegates women to a pre-defined, inflexible role by forcing them to choose between working and having children. Three-quarters of abortions in the United States are caused by women’s concerns that a child would disrupt their career or education; by creating a culture in which women feel pressured to sacrifice motherhood in order to succeed, we try to make them into men who have no such biological “limitations” and strip them of their right to attempt it all. When we as feminists choose one over the other, we allow ourselves to be constrained by this “all or nothing” model. By contrast, Anscombe desires novel opportunities for women in the workplace, rather than restricting them to jobs that are already compatible with motherhood. Anscombe's statement means that regardless of the career path, greater efforts must be made to help women pursue motherhood while remaining dedicated to their field of work.

In wanting women to be given this choice freely, Anscombe seeks to counter ideas that motherhood is a burden or second-class responsibility. This may not be the predominant view of motherhood, but there are undercurrents of such a view. People wonder why such a smart or talented or ambitious woman would “waste” those gifts in order to focus her children. People make jokes, that stay-at-home moms spend all their days watching soap operas and eating chocolate bon-bons. There probably are some women who manage to do that, but most mothers will tell you that being a mom is not a walk in the park and requires a lot of hard work, patience, and creativity, among other things. Whether a woman is a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, we need to be sure that she is equally respected in her capacity as a mother as in any other capacity.

Moreover, Anscombe’s commitment to family implies that women will not be expected to raise their children alone, and should have every right to pursue rewarding careers, as well. As the website states under its “Family and Marriage” section, “The intact…family offers the best environment for raising children, providing them with…love, support, and education.” Nowhere does Anscombe claim that women are solely responsible for staying home with their children – quite the opposite. A mother should be supported by her husband, who has an equally integral stake in his sons’ and daughters’ upbringing.

Overall, Anscombe seeks to promote equality and welcomes feminists like us. This incredibly dedicated, talented group of individuals – both men and women alike - has been a rewarding part of our Princeton experience and has proved truly harmonious with our own goals and those of Equal Writes.

"Because you're not THAT guy"

by Chloe Angyal

Because that guy does nice things for his wife. And nice things are for pussies. Be a man: buy her diamonds.

Look, diamonds are lovely. And if diamonds are the present that a really woman wants, I’m sure she’ll appreciate diamonds. But here’s the thing: telling men that doing something considerate for your partner, something that costs nothing, is for sissies, and that buying expensive jewellery is the manlier option, doesn’t do men any favours (despite the claim that Helzberg Diamonds have been "helping regular guys" for years). All it does it shove them into narrow and stereotyped gender roles.

Commercials like these reinforce the old divide between “fake” men, the ones who don't watch football and who wash and groom teeny dogs, and “manly” men, the ones who go to the game with the guys and who express their affection in platinum. This ad, playing on that divide, suggests that mindless material gifts are the only way to be in a romantic relationship without ceding your masculinity in the process.

But guess what, guys? A real man knows that thoughtfulness and compassion are the cornerstones of masculinity. A real man isn’t afraid to express his love with something other than precious metals and stones. And yes, a real man can wash and groom a teeny tiny dog without feeling unmanned.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Goodbye, Australian gag rule?

by Chloe Angyal

Rock on, Prime Minister Rudd! RH Reality Check reports today that the PM is reconsidering AusAid's gag rule, which prevents Australian aid funds from being used for "activities that involve abortion training or services, or research trials or activities, which directly involve abortion drugs." The rule was invoked twelve years ago, much to the detriment of women in the countries to which Australia sends aid. Ramona at RH Reality Check writes,

"This change could not possibly be needed more urgently given the grave harm to women's health and rights that result from the narrow-minded restrictions. Australia's aid program focuses on Asia and the Pacific, with selective assistance also provided to Africa and the Middle East. Approximately, 50 percent of unsafe abortions globally occur in the Asia-Pacific region and about one-third of these results in maternal death."

Next on the agenda: lifting the States' global gag rule. Yes we can!

Drop Dead Sexy

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Apparently not even the dead are exempt from our unflinchingly judgmental standards of beauty. This article from MSNBC details the latest foray of the beauty industry - into boob jobs and collagen injections for corpses.

“I’ve had people mention that they want their breasts to look perky when they’re dead,” says David Temrowski, funeral director of Temrowski & Sons Funeral Home in Warren, Mich. “Or they’ll say, ‘Can you get these wrinkles out?’ It’s all in humor, but I think people do think [more] about what they’re going to look like when they’re dead and lying in a casket.”

It's all in humor? Really, David Temrowski? Or is there something horribly wrong with a society that is so beauty-obsessed and, frankly, so vain that we need to show off our "new outfit and plumped lips" in the coffin? You tell me.

Do something! Write a letter, sign a petition, eat a cupcake

Tonight from 10-12:30, in Murray-Dodge Cafe, the Princeton University chapter of Amnesty International is having a letter writing event where you can write your own letter or sign pre-written letters addressed to heads of state and governments in countries where human rights are being grossly violated.

The group is addressing 15 particular cases many of which concern women's rights and violence against women. Like the case of Justine Masika Bihamba:

Justine Masika Bihamba is a human rights worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As a result of her work as the coordinator of a women's human rights organization, Syndergy of Women Against Sexual Violence (SFVS), she and her family have been targeted by the DRC military. SFVS counselors have regularly been threatened and attacked because of their work.

On September 18, 2007, six army soldiers forced their way into Justine's house while she was away. They tied up her six children at gunpoint and demanded to know where their mother was...The group searched the house. One solider kicked Justine's 24-year-old daughter in the face, breaking her tooth. He then tried to rape Justine's 21-year-old daughter and sexually assaulted her with a knife.

On September 27, 2007, Justine lodged a legal complaint against the soldiers. In the following weeks and months, senior military and civilian authorities promised Justine that justice would be done. One year on from the attack, however, the men have still not been arrested or brought to trial. Justine regularly sees them in the street. They continue to threaten her.

A letter might not seem like much, but they can add up to making an incredible difference in the lives of the individuals and groups we are trying to help because governments do respond to the public international pressure. Please drop by tonight; it can take only a few minutes and there will to be cupcakes from The Cupcake House to sustain you as you write.

The letters will also be on the 100-level in Frist all day today, so you can sign them, as well as a petition encouraging Senator Frank Lautenberg (D. NJ) to sign the Violence Against Women Act.

Pink, fluffy and totally feminist

by Laura Pedersen

The pink cashmere sweater has the unfortunate responsibility of typifying my understanding of the word 'feminine'. Up until recently, I saddled this article of clothing with conveying what pearls, pumps, and pantyhose manage to do just as well. This sweater I imagined to be some subtly form-fitted article, perhaps with rhinestone buttons, gracing the front of an hourglass cut of cotton candy fuzz. For a while, the poor thing was also subject to my deep derision. Feminist shouldn't garb themselves in frivolity, I reasoned. If you're going out in the world to battle stereotypes, wear something that reflects the power-woman image you're crusading for; at the very least, an androgynous t-shirt, power pants, and a Rosie the Riveter bandanna.
Some deeper reflection, though, has brought me to a place of reconciliation with the pink cashmere sweater.

The feminist movement, the feminism for which I work, calls for a society in which neither the sucrose sweater nor the power suit is considered the proper uniform of a lady. The feminist movement for which I work means that a woman wearing a pink cashmere sweater is taken just as seriously as a woman with Hilary's wardrobe.

Clothing will always be read as a representation of the wearer. Feminism wants to be sure that feminine garb is not assumed to represent weak or undesirable qualities in the wearer. It's not about living in androgyny (which looks suspiciously like the male wardrobe, actually: pants, t-shirt, sneakers), but living respectfully with the differences.

I plan to swear my own pink sweater with pride.

So crazy right now

by Peale Iglehart

Yesterday just for kicks, I Googled “girls games” and discovered a treasure trove of online games for girls: shopping games, wedding games, dress-up games, alien games, cooking games, Bratz games… I mean, if you started as an XX chromosome (so the website implies), you will never be bored again. At first, I was having some tongue-in-cheek fun with the whole thing. I started with “Carb Invaders,” which features Regina George of “Mean Girls” notoriety. The instructions go like this: “Word on the streets is to lose the pounds, you gotta cut the carbohydrates. Help Regina fulfill her dietary requirements by eating a full 2000 calories intake, but keeping the cards below 30 grams. Use the arrow keys to move left and right and position her mouth near the food. Chomp the protiens [sic] and fats, not the carbs! Hint: avoid starches, like breads and pastas, and high sugar content foods! Meats, dairy, and certain veggies are ok! Get ready to diet!”

Wahoo!!! With such an abundance of exclamation points, how could I resist?! I moved the vapid Mean Girl around and made her chomp a donut and an ice cream cone. Oops! A message popped up: “You ate 30 grams of carbs. Don’t worry. Just wear loose clothes, no one will notice.” (!!!) Regina appeared in red high heels, standing on a scale with fluffy pink trimming. The game soon lost its allure.

I turned to “Peppy Beyonce Knowles Dress-Up.” I’m not sure what was “peppy” about it, aside from “Crazy in Love” playing the background. When I pressed ‘Play,’ Beyonce (a cartoon version) just stood there in her undies. Ho-hum. She didn’t even shake around when I put on the different outfits, just stood there stony-faced. Bo-riing.

So I decided to explore the Wedding section, and, since I am a fan of Sex and the City (I know, I know), I clicked on “Sex and the City Happy Ending.” A cartoon version of Carrie announces her engagement to cartoon Miranda, cartoon Charlotte, and cartoon Samantha, and we get an up-close view of Carrie’s rock. (Meanwhile, electronically-synthesized classical music plays in the background. Classy.) I clicked the heart icon that said “Play” and was confronted with the daunting task of choosing a hairstyle, dress, veil, and even a bridal bouquet for Carrie.

But right away I was distracted: the ad in the margin featured a tear-stained African baby wrapped in a shawl. Sponsored by World Vision, the ad announced “A child dies every 4 seconds” and a timer counted down the 4 seconds. Carrie was waiting expectantly for her next dress, but I was dumbfounded. The buttons for choosing her bridal bouquet and other accoutrements were literally right next to this baby’s tear-streaked face. I lost my ironic sense of “fun.”

What kind of message does it send to girls to have “helping a child” be just one click away from choosing the winning dress-and-veil combination for Carrie? (Why girls are watching the very adult content of Sex and the City in the first place is a different question.) “Look, here’s a suffering baby! But don’t stress about that! Should Carrie wear a strapless or a halter dress?!” There’s something so disturbing about the juxtaposition of the baby’s suffering with the Barbie-ish version of Carrie (or Beyonce, or Regina) waiting to be dressed-up or slimmed-down.

All along, I knew these games were ridiculous, but that was part of the fun. But when dress-up Carrie was juxtaposed with a crying baby (presumably one sick or starving, the ad didn’t say), the games went from tongue-in-cheek fun to flat-out disturbing. They were always disturbing, of course, but I was able to laugh at Regina and Beyonce when they weren’t juxtaposed with a concrete reminder of just how frivolous they were. But seriously—picking out a wedding dress for stick-thin Carrie while a starving baby wails in the margins of the screen? Avoiding carbs on Regina’s behalf just inches away from images of starvation? What’s wrong with this picture?!

What does it mean for suffering and luxury to share the screen but not really interact? What does Regina’s diet have to do with Third World suffering? We don’t have to click that World Vision ad, but that doesn’t mean Carrie’s shopping spree is unrelated to someone else’s suffering, or that our obsession with Beyonce has nothing to do with that starving baby. Maybe they’re more intertwined than we’d like to think.

A woman's worth

by Angie D

Give a woman access to a bank and she borrows. Teach a woman to be a banker and she changes the world….

Dr. Marcia Odell gave a talk at Princeton on Friday to describe an exciting new development in microfinance, where women are the borrowers – and the bankers! Odell’s savings-led microfinance venture, WORTH, is a revolution in both finance for the poor and in social activism.

WORTH promotes literacy, financial inclusion, and empowerment of poor women in rural villages in the developing world. But unlike traditional microfinance organizations, WORTH does not establish its own bank and then lend to entrepreneurs, rather it teaches women to be bankers themselves, thereby allowing them to gain interest off of loans made through their own savings. Further, once a WORTH group is established, it has full rights to teach other groups of women how to run their own informal, village banks – so the institution is self-propagating and the payoff goes to the women, not the NGO.

But beyond this immediate objective of poverty alleviation and providing access to financial services, WORTH’s ultimate goal is empowerment of women. During her talk, Dr. Odell noted that where there is gender inequity and women are poor, they have no leverage in their homes or communities, thus they cannot fight against injustices such as domestic violence and forced unsafe sex. WORTH equips them with the female solidarity, group support, and financial independence they need to begin tackling these issues. Women who participate in WORTH have taken on anti-violence campaigns, set up insurance funds for each other in case of disease or other income shocks, and built infrastructure to benefit their communities. They are empowering themselves and others, as they become bankers and social activists.

To find out more about this sustainable, high-impact savings-led microfinance model, please visit WORTH's website.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Freaking out about making out

Hank Steuver has a great piece in The Washington Post today about the media fascination with men kissing other men on screen, as James Franco and Sean Penn do in Milk, which of course is all about the gay rights movement. Steuver writes:

Underlying [interviewer's] questions (and the answers) is this notion that a gay kissing scene must be the worst Hollywood job hazard that a male actor could face, including stunt work, extreme weather or sitting through five hours of special-effects makeup every day. We live comfortably, if strangely, in a pseudo-Sapphic era in which seemingly every college woman with a MySpace page has kissed another girl for the camera; but for men who kiss men, it's still the final frontier.

He's right on. If I have to hear one more Brokeback Mountain joke out of the mouth of a homophobic frat boy...

Smart girls have more fun

Check out Amy Poehler's new show Smart Girls at the Party, which "celebrates girls who are changing the world by being themselves."
The episodes are short and always end in a dance party, and even though the show is sponsored by Barbie (that's a pretty big "even though" for me, I'll be honest), the message is really great. That message is that girls are important - they're smart, they're far more observant than we give them credit for, and in a few years, they're going to be us. That is, they're the next generation of young women, and if Smart Girls is anything to go by, they're going to be a spectacular generation.
Also, the song will be stuck in your head for days. Yodel-ay-hee-hoo!

"Don't forget the ladies" in Iraq

by Eva Marie Wash

As the presidential inauguration draws near and with it hopes for an end to the war in Iraq, I would like to invoke the famous instruction of Abigail Adams to her husband--“Don’t forget the ladies”—in regards to America’s present and future approach to the establishment of peace.

A policy paper published by the Independent Women’s Forum, “Advancing Women’s Rights: Two Years in Iraq,” addresses the current obstacles facing women in Iraq, as well as the recent successes of a few, brave women’s organizations. With war still raging throughout the country, women are often sequestered within their homes, outside of which, they are subject to violence and also to the increasing control of sectarian and religious authorities who have usurped legal power.

The courageous leaders of NGOs such as Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq have established women’s shelters and even an Iraqi Underground Railroad, offering salvation for women oppressed by domestic abuse or at the risk of honor killings, which are far too common. The activities of these organizations and the protection of their members have not received enough support and focus during the reconstruction process so far. Future action on the side of Iraqi women should not only ensure their just treatment and well-being, but aid their engagement in the governance and affairs of the country. Their involvement is a necessary catalyst for positive and enduring change.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Now, feminism = alcoholism! What next?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

This article from New York Magazine is disappointing, but unsurprising. Writer Alex Morris makes the rather shaky assumption that growing alcohol abuse among college women is somehow related to feminism.

"More women are drinking, and the women who drink are drinking more, in some cases matching their male peers. This is the kind of equality nobody was fighting for."

What makes me angry with this article is not so much that these writers are blaming feminism specifically for college drinking, but that it's such an egregious distraction from the actual issue of alcoholism among young people. The idea that women are drinking because they are entering the "male world" of alcohol abuse is not the issue - all college students are victims of a culture that encourages dangerous levels of alcohol consumption.

Morris quotes Jon Morgenstern, a professor of psychiatry and vice-president at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, who says, “College campuses are the place where drinking norms are set for educated individuals. The rate of drinking is astronomical. College is really a training ground for becoming an alcoholic.”

The problem here is not that feminism allowed women to enter the hallowed male space of drinking too much. The problem is with college culture. And we are never going to address the problem of alcohol abuse among young people if we keep skirting it by blaming completely irrelevant factors, just as we're never going to tackle date rape or sexual violence by censuring women for drinking too much. It's easy to dismiss this article as completely absurd, but it's disturbing because instead of talking about how we can address alcoholism in all college students, it's pointing the finger at an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol abuse.

Thoughts on the USG referenda

by Molly Borowitz

With the passing of the Proposition 8 in November and the subsequent accusation that Princeton students are apathetic, politically uninvolved, and unoptimistic about their ability to "make a difference" (see the Daily Prince article from 19 November, "Proposition 8 stirs little public outcry at University"), Princeton's undergraduate community has landed itself in a situation uniquely parallel to that experienced by the citizens of California. We have the opportunity this week to vote on two crucial issues: (1) taking a unified stance as students on the issues contained in Prop 8, and (2) asking the University to represent that stance publicly.

Referendum 1a asks students to state whether or not they as a community "believe that the government of the United States and of the several states therein should, without delay, begin to afford same-sex partners the same rights and privileges they do to partners of a different sex vis-à-vis those that flow from the recognition of a marriage." In some ways, this referendum is the most important on the ballot, because regardless of whether the student body decides to ask the trustees to file an amicus brief or not, we're going to have taken a definitive—and publishable—stance on the way Princeton's undergraduate community feels toward same-sex marriage, and you'd better believe the results are gonna show up in the press. As you vote, it might be worth taking a moment to consider which response you think best represents the interests of our community and protects the beliefs and lifestyles of the most students on this campus. To my mind, that could be either response, depending on who you know best—but it's worth remembering that the referendum isn't asking what YOU believe. It's asking what we as a student body believe.

Three quick points about Referendum 1b; what bothers me about this section is that its language doesn't follow logically from 1a: "The USG shall ask the trustees of Princeton University to file an amicus brief on behalf of the Undergraduate student body with the Supreme Court of California, in support of that court's overturning California's 'Proposition 8' on the grounds that it is an instance of intolerable discrimination under the law." It is conceivable (although extremely unlikely) that if enough people vote NO on 1a and YES on 1b, we'll end up submitting an amicus brief to the California Supreme Court even after having declared that we as a student body don't necessarily believe in the immediate necessity for recognition of same-sex marriage.

Importantly, 1b differs from 1a in that it asks students to vote based on their individual opinions, not on their perceptions of the collective. Hence, there is no need to locate yourself within the larger community when voting on this section—do you think the University should issue a public statement against Prop 8? What I like about 1b is that it allows for some flexibility between declaring a student-body belief and announcing that belief on a national stage. If, for instance, you think the University community favors universal legalization of same-sex marriage but you regard the issuing of a public statement against Proposition 8 as problematic, unethical, exclusive, or maybe just unnecessary, you can convey those attitudes when voting. You could also vote the opposite—that the student body as a whole does not believe in the necessity of legalizing same-sex marriage, but that the University should issue a statement nonetheless.

The Equality Action Network's two referenda are opposed by a single paragraph composed by the Coalition for Intellectual Liberty, a group that includes Anscombe, the College Republicans, the Tory, and supporting individuals. Referendum 2, although in direct opposition to the suggestion proposed in 1b, addresses the much larger question of whether the University ever ought to make public declarations of opinion on behalf of its students. The CIL argues that "it would undermine the integrity of the community's intellectual freedom for the University itself to officially take sides on profound questions about which its members reasonably disagree, causing those members who dissent from the 'official' positions adopted by the University to be labeled as 'outsiders' rather than full members of the community." Since Princeton's role as a leading intellectual institution is to provide a safe forum for discussion, taking any kind of public position would threaten the university's ability to fulfill its purpose, making immediate "outsiders" of the students who disagree with its official stance. How big of a problem will it be to issue a public statement? Will people feel ostracized if they disagree with the University? The CIL doesn't want the University to create "a false impression of consensus" because—and we at Equal Writes certainly know this to be true—there is an impressive variety of opinions on this campus. I think this is a really valid concern (and I'm not just saying that), but I would also like to raise two small points.

Firstly, Referendum 2 urges Princeton's "officials and trustees to refrain from creating a false impression of consensus, or imposing on those holding minority positions, by associating the University with particular points of view on disputed questions of morality, law, and policy." This language does not make clear whether these disputed moral, legal, and policy questions are internal or external to the University (or both). Hence, this referendum could be interpreted as urging officials and trustees not to make public statements about University policies (maybe stuff like increasing the size of the student body, getting rid of early decision, or re-implementing the four-year college system). Of course, Sometimes we wish the University wouldn't issue policy statements on our behalf without asking us first (for instance, the annexing of Spelman to Whitman), but to restrict its ability to make them ever seems problematic. I suspect that the CIL did not intend for this "internal" scope to come into play, but the lack of clarification is potentially confusing.

Secondly, depending on how students vote on 1a, the question of a "public statement" becomes moot in a certain sense. Obviously the University's public support for a student opinion that stands in opposition to a legislative decision made 3,000 miles away would create a bigger splash on the national stage. At the same time, the fact that the majority of Princeton students voted in support of OR against the universal legalization of same-sex marriage is going to do a lot on its own. Whichever way we vote on 1a, people are gonna hear about it—and the majority opinion is going to be the one people associate with Princeton for some time to come, regardless of whether the University "officially" supports it or not.

With all this in mind, I think students on both sides of the fence can agree that the University has an obligation to accurately represent the interests and opinions of its students. But the faculty, administrators, and trustees will only be able to represent us effectively if we tell them what we think. However you feel about these issues, please remember that the very best way to express your opinions is to VOTE!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Who am I getting dressed up for?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I was very fortunate, this weekend, to see Boy Gets Girl, the play which Jordan Bubin eloquently described in his post last week. The play raised a slew of important questions about stalking, pornography, commitment issues, and various and sundry other feminist thoughts, but I was most interested by a point which was brought up only in passing. The main character, Theresa, a woman who is stalked after two dates, remembers getting dressed for the first date, which ended up being one of the most painful and hilarious conversations I have ever seen. But before she knew how disastrously the date would eventually end, Theresa says that she tried on three outfits before she left the house. She confesses that she wanted, badly, to look beautiful to him - a man who ended up ruining her career in New York and forcing her to start a new life across the country.

This is an issue which has been brought up on this blog before, but I think it's a relevant question even when we're not talking about slutty Halloween costumes. The line between dressing for oneself and dressing for the male gaze is one which is very hard for young feminists, myself included, to define. When I put on makeup before class, I don't really think about it - it's simply part of my morning ritual, and I would feel as if I were not adequately "put together" (a bizarre phrase in itself - what am I if I'm not put together, falling apart?) without it. But who am I really putting on the makeup for? Why do I need to accentuate my eyes with mascara, or emphasize my legs by wearing high heels? Why do I belt my dresses, when it would often be more comfortable to wear looser clothes? I like my fashion sense, certainly, but there is an extent to which I'm uncomfortable with my obsession with looking "put together". Who defines "put together"? And who am I putting myself together for?

Moo! The Miss University London "cattle market"

by Chloe Angyal

This week, the English opinion columnists have been having a field day with the Miss University London competition, a beauty pageant into which 400 London college women have entered. London's female college population, and the columnists, seem to be divided over whether the pageant is a good idea or not, with those who object calling beauty pageants outdated and sexist, and those who approve insisting that Miss UL is "ironic," and that we're living in a "post-feminist" age.

From the former, we're hearing the usual arguments for women being treated as more than tits and ass , or, as some have put it, as farm animals. Elly James, women’s officer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), said of the pageant: “It’s like a cattle market. One of the things was that the contestants had to have their waists and breasts measured. I come from quite a rural area and that’s what they do to animals.”

And from the latter, those who are for the pageant, we have the usual arguments for women's self-empowerment through the choice to participate in the cattle market, and the argument that women have come so far, so now we can afford have a little "fun."

Times columnist India Knight writes today, "never mind feminism or post-feminism or any variants thereof. The question is whether it is right to split female students, who have gained entry into their various places of learning on academic merit, into the attractive lot and the plain lot."

And I'm inclined to agree with her. The most frustrating part of this whole affair is not the questions of whether or not beauty pageants are outdated and sexist (obviously), or whether we're living in a post-feminist age (are you freaking kidding me?). The most frustrating part is that this idea that women can either be beautiful or intelligent, but never both, just refuses to die. And it's clearly, to use a word they might throw around in the dorms of the University of London, bollocks.

Think about your women friends and relatives. I bet most of them are intelligent. I bet a good number of them are beautiful, too. And I bet that if we were to draw a Venn diagram (remember those, from 6th grade math?), there'd be an ellipse-shaped bit in the middle in which the "beautiful" circle and the "intelligent" circle would overlap. The beautiful intelligent woman is no myth, no paradox - she's real, and she's everywhere.

The idea that women must choose between brains and beauty, and therefore between being respected but not attractive, or attractive but not respected, is pervasive and powerful. And it puts women - many of whom are intelligent and beautiful - in a really difficult double bind, in which they feel the need to either dumb-themselves down (if they choose beautiful), or dowdy themselves down (if they choose brainy). In this model, those women can only ever be appreciated for half of themselves: they can only ever be half-people.

And it's not just women who suffer from this either/or model. For heterosexual men, adhering to the idea that women can never be both attractive and respected makes for thoroughly unsatisfying relationships with women. Imagine being sexually attracted to a woman you could never respect - that's not relationship material. Similarly, imagine having deep respect for the intellect of a woman with whom you would never want to be physically involved. That's not relationship material either.

At the end of the day, the brains/beauty choice does no one any favours. It hurts women, and the men who love them and it leaves everyone feeling unsatisfied. The beautiful, intelligent woman is real, she's everywhere, and she's really threatening. So regardless of where you stand on beauty pageants, ladies, don't make the false choice between being beautiful and being smart. You can be both. You don't have to be both, but you can be. You can be beautiful and demand to be taken seriously. You can be brainy and still have a powerful, potent sexuality. You can even get your breasts measured and walk around in a swimsuit and a tiara.

I just won't be joining you for that last one.

All the things she didn't say

by Josh Franklin

I want to relate an interesting experience that I had this past week listening to that modern musical masterpiece "All The Things She Said" by T.A.T.U. I was thinking about my own romantic experience, and feeling that the song didn't quite give expression to my own desires. T.A.T.U. sings about the forbidden and transgressive lesbianism that seems so alien to my own experience as a heterosexual male. But it was in this brief feeling of exclusion that I experienced what so many people must have to every time they listen to the majority of popular music that is written from a heterosexual male perspective.

Of course, I knew that popular culture privileges the heterosexual male. But even though I consider myself aware of heterosexism in our society, this short moment with T.A.T.U reminded me of the deep gap between theory and experience. I think it's an important problem for us to remember, one that is particularly significant for me as a heterosexual male feminist--I want to become aware of how I contribute to a culture of sexism and how sexism affects women, but I think it's important for me (and for all of us) to keep in mind the extent to which we cannot really understand the experiences of those we claim to speak for.

On the other hand, it's remarkable how much perspective can be gained from even an apparently cheap piece of culture like T.A.T.U. I think that a willingness to be open and self-critical can go a long way towards a real transformation of our gender culture, but I think it's important that we sometimes take a step back and realize how little we understand about sexuality and experience.