Saturday, January 10, 2009

Can't we just take a joke?

by Josh Franklin

In her recent post, Equal Writer Elizabeth Winkler wrote about a short video produced by Princeton students which she described as "disturbing beyond words". In the video, a man dressed in a sweater and a scarf set against the backdrop of an ideal domesticity, explains in a sarcastically cheerful tone how to engage in "man's oldest sport": slapping a woman.

I want to talk about the creative intent of this video. Elizabeth writes: "and let’s not forget perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this entire issue – the participation of a girl, the ‘object’ of the video’s slapping." What should we make of this girl's participation? Elizabeth's reading, which uses the interpretive lens of the subjection of women to patriarchy, implies a problematic distinction between the creative input of the men and of the woman who worked on the video. Elizabeth is justifiably concerned with the content of the video: "...the video reaches cross the threshold of the remotely acceptable, let alone the humorous. After all, one has to wonder if – on a certain level – these guys actually mean what they joke about." Does "these guys" include the woman who was involved in the production of the video? If not, why is she specially exempt from responsibility for the work? If so, why does she merit a special identification as the creator whose participation is "the most disturbing aspect of this entire issue"; that is, why is it particularly problematic that a woman participated in this production?

I think this is an unfortunate consequence of a certain kind of feminist critique. We want to acknowledge patriarchy's power to shape experience, desire, and sense of normalcy. It is productive and important for us to realize that gendered power dynamics define to a significant degree the ways in which women can and do act in our society. But by employing this particular interpretive logic, we can arrive at a perverse conclusion; we grant agency to men and deny it to women. If it seems correct to us to attribute the creative agency of this work to the male participants, isn't our analysis grounded in precisely the phallocentric assumption that constitutes patriarchy? If we consistently use the assumption that men are the abusing agents endowed with free will and creative capacity and women are brainwashed or dominated by a patriarchal society, don't we merely restate and reinforce the very power dynamic we are trying to challenge?

The answer to all of this is, of course, that the woman involved in this video is subject to the oppression of patriarchal culture. However, men are also subject to patriarchy. Both men and women are given persistent messages about gender and gender violence, and we are all subject to the stable expectations that patriarchy creates for us. Men and women are subject to patriarchy and different ways, and men are certainly granted agency in power in our society. But men aren't patriarchy--men are subjected to patriarchy--and male agency is defined by the same circumscription as female agency; we live in a world where joking about gender violence is accepted and expected.

I don't want this to be read as an apology for male power in general. The truth is that relationship violence does discriminate statistically against women; this is a horrible tragedy. But both men and women are victims of relationship violence and both men and women contribute to a culture that lets that violence persist. I'm not calling for a pardon to be granted to men, nor am I suggesting that we blame the victim and focus on the significant but admittedly limited contribution that women make to the cultural normalcy of gender violence. Rather I am calling for a more nuanced feminist critique that recognizes the ways that both men and women are engaged in a complex balance between individual agency and submission to patriarchy.

Is this video a horrific act or a bad joke? Relationship violence is certainly not a joke; it is a deep tragedy. Although I was inclined to read most of the video as very sarcastic, I'm not really sure how to feel about it. I can't say whether we ought to heap moral condemnation onto the video's producers or we ought rather to excuse it as a joke in very poor taste. However, I do think that it's wrong to see this video as indicative of men or male power dominating a woman and forcing her to behave in a certain way. Rather I think that the gender dynamics of this video's creation are more complex; this work is symptomatic of our culture's lack of concern for relationship violence in general. This lack of caring is something for which we must all be held accountable.

Memo from Cambodia

by Christopher Moses

In recent weeks Nicholas Kristof has used two powerful and daring articles about sexual slavery to document the captivity, torture and brutal exploitation of young women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. National Public Radio, too, has given air to these painful stories.

Context and perspective can either obscure or clarify an issue; too often explanation becomes an excuse to dull or obviate moral outrage in the face of ghastly immorality.

Instead, I hope this week context can bring clarity to the disgust raised by Kristoff’s reporting. In future posts I will share more from my own current travels in Cambodia, but for now history offers a necessary beginning.

Last week marks a tremendous anniversary. Thirty years ago on January 7, 1979, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge, one of the most heinous and genocidal regimes in history. Under the perverse rule of Pol Pot and in only three years the country suffered absurd devastation as a means of a radical anti-modern revolution. Cities were evacuated; money was abolished; forced labor became the rule and the government oversaw the deaths of about 1.7 million Cambodians—at least twenty percent of the country.

The legacy of this catastrophic genocide remains, not least in its demographic impact. Half of the current population is under 16 and yet even with this disproportionate age distribution the gender ratio remains skewed with only 94 men for every 100 women (up from 86.1 to 100 in 1980).

Torture, sadistic murder and barbaric slavery flourished. Tuol Svay Prey High School, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, remains haunted by violence that impeaches any semblance of humanity—the vivid record on display leaves you with an indescribable vacuum of selfhood.

In many ways the actions of the United States Government contributed directly to the causes and circumstances of Pol Pot’s rise and the ascedency of the Khmer Rouge. Ben Keirnan, Yale historian and leading expert, argues: “Although it was indigenous, Pol Pot’s revolution would not have won power without U.S. economic and military destabilization of Cambodia, which began in 1966 after American escalation in next-door Vietnam and peaked in 1969-73 with the carpet bombing of Cambodia’s countryside by American B-52s. This was probably the most important single factor in Pol Pot’s rise” (The Pol Pot Regime, 16, emphasis added).

Thirty years is a long time and the Khmer Rouge in no way explains or excuses the contemporary plight of child prostitution in Cambodia. Nor should any weight be given to a sort of cultural prejudice or essentialism about an uncivilized or less moral people.

Still if a weak state, corruption, poverty, meager educational resources and limited opportunities for economic self-improvement play a role then indeed this history is tremendously relevant. More than proximity connects the many prostitutes who line the entrances to clubs just around the corner from the Tuol Sleng Museum—there, in the open, seeking Cambodian patrons, a bit farther a field from the clubs catering to foreigners.

Current awareness and righteous indignation should call forth the shame of those who permit and perpetrate rape, child abuse, kidnapping and forced sexual labor. Yet the clarion call of American indignation rings slightly off key without any context or shared culpability for the Cambodian present.

We should all learn about and protest against the evil and inhumane suffering that takes place daily in our world—often not so indirectly following from the blind excess and unconscious consumption of much first world living.

Better to avoid creating tragedy than celebrating the chance to make a devastated country into the poster-child of reform and recovery. Every year Cambodians die or suffer grave injury from land mines that remain decades after the Vietnam War and the subsequent civil conflict while the United States refuses to support the international treaty to ban them.

Understanding must arise from basic historical inquiry. Justice may be blind but can never be amnesiac. Most disturbingly, a recent news story reports that a standard 9th grade Cambodia history textbook has completely excised mention of the Khmer Rouge, perpetrating ignorance upon the two-thirds of the population born since Pol Pot’s rule. Political controversy remains as to whether the Vietnamese action in 1979 constituted a liberation or an invasion and subsequent cultural and economic colonization. Within that dispute the Khmer Rouge can too easily be romanticized or become a justification for current political repression—in both cases understanding suffers and its legacy continues rather than heals.

Today take a moment to learn about Cambodia’s history. Do not displace the rage precipitated by Kristof’s columns. Those responsible for the late 70s genocide are in the midst of criminal prosecution but the process has moved slowly and only sustained attention will force speedier action (Pol Pot himself died in 1998 never having had to answer for his crimes). Rather enhance and deepen your understanding and in turn strengthen your ability to raise awareness and take action against such horror.

For broad context consider the Yale University Genocide Studies Program. On Cambodia more specifically, Kiernan’s book, The Pol Pot Regime, offers a comprehensive history and his earlier monograph affords a longer current in which to place the Khmer Rouge period. For powerful person testimonies see Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices of Nine Cambodian Survivors in America. Similarly moving is Luong Ung’s book, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers and a broader study of American-based survivors can be found in Sucheng Chan’s Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States. For further books, reviews, web resources and other materials, this Yale page has an excellent bibliography.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fantastic newsflash!

The Lilly Ledbetter Act passed in the House of Representatives today! If you want a more elaborate explanation about why this is amazing news, take a look at Emily Sullivan's post from earlier this week, but in brief: the bill reverses an incredibly unfair 2007 Supreme Court decision which stipulated that a worker must file claims of wage discrimination within the first 180 days of the decision to pay that employee less, regardless of whether the person was aware of the disparity.

The bill will be up in the Senate in the next few days, so watch out for it! Last year, the bill was blocked by only three votes, but the Democrats have a stronger majority now, and it might actually pass.

How to properly condone domestic violence

by Elizabeth Winkler

Over winter break, I came across this video – disturbing beyond words – on collegehumor.com in which men who are clearly meant to imitate Princeton students demonstrate the ‘superior’ abusive skills appropriate for use on their ‘bitches.’ The video – which begins by introducing woman-slapping as “man’s oldest sport” – is set against a decidedly Ivy-league background (presumably meant to be comical) of a roaring fireplace, red wine (to relax before the “big night” of abuse), argyle sweaters, cigars… you get the picture. It’s the perfect, cozy home environment towards which the American dream aspires. Except in this American dream, domestic violence is the order of the day.

The video outlines three key steps: Pre-Slap Preparation, Hand Placement, and Rebuilding Comfort and Trust (Post-Slap). As the preparation phase makes clear, violence against women should be the result of rational thought and deliberation: rather than the accidental result of boiling emotions, it is absorbed into the realm of the everyday and the acceptable, not to mention a sort of leisure activity for the stressed breadwinner. The hand placement segment illustrates the ‘sweet spot’ on a woman’s cheek, and follows the demonstrated slap with an aesthetic splattering of ruby red blood. Finally, make sure your girl understands not to “make me ever have to do this again.” It’s the girl’s fault, don’t you see!? Help her apply concealing make-up; practice a cover story: it’s all part of the fun! What’s more: “after that, your relationship will be stronger than ever.”

While some may attempt to argue that the video is, in actuality, a witty, ironic critique of paternalism and the domestic violence culture – its creators certainly seem to find themselves abundantly amusing – the extremes that the video reaches cross the threshold of the remotely acceptable, let alone the humorous. After all, one has to wonder if – on a certain level – these guys actually mean what they joke about. And let’s not forget perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this entire issue – the participation of a girl, the ‘object’ of the video’s slapping. One is quite forced to admit the utter failure of feminism and domestic violence awareness when another woman happily joins in the making of a video that advocates the ridicule, abuse and dehumanization of herself and others of her sex. Honestly, how much worse can it get?

Lastly, let me remind you that this video was posted on Dec. 28, 2008. For all the ease of projecting problems of our world onto ‘other places’ and ‘other people,’ this video is valuable, if anything, for placing a human rights issue before us, right here and right now.

The career...lattice?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I wrote a post earlier this week about the interesting proposition that Michelle Obama (and all future first ladies) should be paid. I was a little skeptical of that idea, simply because one doesn't necessarily have to be qualified to serve in the role of First Lady (if we even knew what those qualifications were), but I think that behind the paycheck issue lies the very real fear that Michelle Obama is being forced to put her career on hold because of her husband's political success. I was talking to my mom earlier today and she expressed her disgust for the role that Obama is suddenly filling. My mom asked, reasonably, whether Bill Clinton would be picking the curtains for the White House if Hillary had been elected. But she wasn't just upset with the system that makes the role of First Lady amorphous and domestic; she was disappointed in Obama, who she thought shouldn't just be accepting the demeaning, upholstery-choosing role that seems to be reserved for presidents' wives.

I was thinking about all of this when I encountered an article from last Sunday's NYT Mag about Caroline Kennedy's Senate bid, and the way that we think about career experience. The author, Lisa Belkin, suggested that the "career ladder" simply doesn't work for women who want to take time off, as Kennedy did, to raise their children. These women don't just sit home and eat chocolates, Belkin argues, they perform a wide range of activities that enrich their experience but are difficult to articulate on a resume. She writes,

"Women changed the culture of the workplace, not least when highly visible women began to leave it. The rhythm of office work — its hours, its demands, its life cycle — is designed for a man, ideally a man with a wife back home with the kids. Ever since the industrial age, career tracks have been built on the assumption that you can work around the clock in your 20s, shoulder increasing responsibility in your 30s and 40s and begin to ratchet down and move over for the next generation in your 50s and 60s.That doesn’t work for many women, who are apt to want to pause, physically and emotionally, for children, maybe slow down in their 30s, when men are charging ahead, and come back with a new energy in their 50s, when men are slowing down."

Courtney Martin at Feministing correctly points out that this is a very middle class way of looking at career paths. But Belkin's idea of the "career lattice" instead of the "career ladder" is intriguing, and it seems friendlier not just to women who want to take time off to raise their children, but to men who want to have families as well. And I wonder if we thought about careers this way, as flexible rather than linear, based on adaptation rather than a specified climb to success, we would be less willing to see Michelle Obama pigeonholed into the role of "mom-in-chief". In other words, if the idea of the "job sabbatical" was socially accepted, both for men and women, would we be taking Obama more seriously? And would she feel that she could accept the power of her position more readily? What do you think? Is the idea of a "career lattice" crazy, or brilliant, and is it even possible?

Scurvy is bad, unintended pregnancy is worse

by Laura Smith-Gary

I am a grapefruit junkie, because it is a fabulous food. Sweet and tart and juicy, fun to eat (I recommend picking it apart with your fingers so you get every bit), beautiful ruby red flesh, packed full of scurvy-fighting vitamins and antioxidants, seasonal in the winter... it's wonderful. Upon reaching the check-out line on my last shopping trip, I realized my cart contained nothing but grapefruit juice, grapefruit-flavored seltzer, organic grapefruit dishwashing soap, grapefruit air freshener, and actual grapefruit. One of the most romantic gestures I have ever experienced was while I was writing my thesis: my boyfriend would take extra grapefruit from breakfast and leave it in my makeshift carrel for me to find. In short, I love grapefruit.

So it is with deep, deep sadness that I feel compelled to warn you about this luscious fruit. Despite its myriad virtues, grapefruit has a few very serious flaws. You've probably heard it interferes with some prescription medications, but did you know it can lessen the effectiveness of some kinds of birth control? Grapefruit affects the body's absorption of estrogen, the key component in many kinds of oral contraception. Since I think we can all agree that avoiding unwanted pregnancies is a goal to be vigorously pursued, this is the kind of information everybody should know. If you use oral contraception or know anyone who does, talk to your doctor (or tell them to talk to their doctor) about how to ensure your (their) birth control is operating at maximum effectiveness.

And though, as a grapefruit junkie it pains me to say this, if you take any kind of estrogen medication, it might be best to get your grapefruit fix with the dishwashing soap.

Women weigh in on Dati

Rachida Dati, France's Justice Minister, has returned to work just five days after giving birth by C-section, and the French and British papers are all over it. In The Guardian, a bunch of women give their views about what this means for women and for the future of maternity leave, de jure and de facto. Here's a sample:

This is not a case of women wanting it all. It is important to attract the most talented people to business and public life. Some of those people will be women who want to have children. Many women are already opting out of the competitive race for the top because it involves too many sacrifices. As a society, we should encourage our leaders to show that it is possible to take proper maternity leave and hold down a high-profile job.

And there are of course some very valid counter-arguments. Check it out.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Urban Dictionary is hilariously offensive

by Chloe Angyal

I just had my day either made or ruined - I can't decide - by this little gem from UrbanDictionary.com:

FEMTARD
A combination of the words "feminist" and "retard." All feminists are femtards, because feminism is the singular most ridiculous ideology to ever be contrived by the human mind (which is saying a lot since there are Jehovah's Witnesses out there!). Feminism is, at its very root, retarded, because (but not limited to):

1) Feminists harp on about equal rights while attempting to legislate superior rights for women.

2) Feminists maintain that women can do anything men can do and then get fire departments, local police, and the military to lower their standards so more women can be employed.

3) Feminists hold to such horrific fables as, "Women never lie about rape" (LACROSSE, anyone?).

4) Feminists maintain that men and women are the same, while noting that men are more violent than women, and women are more nurturing and cooperative than men. So in the feminist's doctrine, men and women are the same except for where women are better than men....

5) Feminists simultaneously maintain that women are strong enough to lead countries yet also maintain that when women do not get their way at home their husbands are being "controlling" and are guilty of "domestic violence."

6) Feminists maintain that women are strong enough to lead countries, yet need to be protected from bikini calendars in the workplace.

For all these reasons and a thousand others, all feminists are to hereby be referred to as "femtards."

Usage:
That judge just found that Joe was guilty of domestic violence because he threw a sock at that sow slut of a wife he has - judges are such femtards.

Oh man, haters are fun! And seriously misinformed (domestic violence in scare quotes? Seriously?). And offensive to pretty much everyone (leave the Jehovah's Witnesses alone!). But they do make for a hilarious study break.

Rousing the complacent feminist

by Dhwani Shah

I've been trying to write an article for Equal Writes since the blog began last semester. I've had lots of ideas for pieces--ad campaigns that were atrociously discriminatory, news events, happenings on campus. But I never actually got motivated enough to write anything. Why? Mostly because, like all Princeton students, I was extremely busy. But also because I was largely complacent. I've been lucky enough to live in an environment where my opportunities were not limited by gender inequalities. Over break, I lost my complacency.

I was speaking to a distant uncle from India about Princeton and the American educational system. My immediate family emigrated to the United States many years ago, but nearly all of our extended family still lives in India. We spoke about the many differences between America and the motherland, and eventually the conversation turned to gender. I told him that I felt girls in India aren't encouraged to pursue education in the same way as boys, and advised him to take special care to support his own daughter's education.

And then, as families do, we started arguing. He said he felt like gender discrimination and inequality were largely "a thing of the past," antiquated customs of previous generations that were no longer relevant. My cousin, who recently immigrated from India for graduate school, largely agreed. He felt like discrimination was not a widespread problem, but rather something that happened on "a case by case basis." I countered with almost every statistic about gender inequality that I know, including info on the gender wage gap, the literacy gap (literacy rates for men are 1.5 times those for women in India), and the preference for male children over female ones.
When that proved ineffective, I cited disparities within our own family in the way men and women were treated. When my mother was married, she was forced to give up her job because women in her new family were not allowed to work. Women were also not allowed to touch other people during their menstrual cycles, or eat before serving their husbands food.

Neither statistics or anecdotes were particularly effective in convincing them of the reality of gender inequality. I was appalled. How could two men from India, a country which has ranked 114th out of 128 internationally on gender parity believe that inequality was a problem of the past? If they didn't believe in gender inequality, how could they act to eliminate it? I realized that I was upset with them for displaying a different version of my own complacency.

As a Princeton woman, with a world of opportunities ahead of me, it is easy to put feminism on the back burner. This complacency had left me sluggish--reluctant to stand for the rights of women like myself, or like my aunts and cousins who still face incredible gender discrimination in India. In a way that nothing else had, this argument with my relatives jolted me. And I hope that 2009 can be my year for vigilance and for action.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Take action: Lilly Ledbetter

by Emily Sullivan

Lilly Ledbetter was the only female manager in a Goodyear Tire factory in Alabama. Shortly before retiring, Lilly discovered she had been paid $223,776 less than her male peers just because she was a woman. A jury granted her $3 million in damages, but the Supreme Court revoked the decision because her complaint was not filed within a 180 day window. The window, according to the Supreme Court, began after Ledbetter received her first check from the company—unfortunately, Ledbetter discovered the discrimination shortly before her retirement after almost 20 years of service.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act will be the first votes to hit the New House of Representatives. Senate follows, and President Obama has already pledged to approve both bills.

The LLPA will help those who have been victims of pay discrimination fight their battles in court by redefining the complaint window to 180 days after the last check received.

The Paycheck Fairness Act aims to strengthen the Equal Pay Act, which was passed in 1963—sex-based discrimination is at the heart of the update. It also aims to prevent employers from retaliating against those who disclose their salaries, and introduces new compensatory and punitive damages companies need to pay out when it's proven that they have discriminated.

What you can do:

Support the bills by signing any of these petitions:
http://salsa.wiredforchange.com/o/1269/t/3076/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=2495

http://www.momsrisingaction.org/o/1768/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=26382

https://secure2.convio.net/nwlc/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=269

If you are a victim of workplace discrimination, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Yves Saint-Laurent: feminist?

by Laura Pedersen

The world of fashion has become a far too simple target for the feminist movement. The silk and sequined gauntlet has been thrown down: I officially challenge the accusation that the emphasis on physical beauty and the plethora of size zero models precludes the industry’s ability to contribute to the feminist movement.

An exhibit of Yves Saint Laurent finest haute couture pieces at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum of Modern Art has converted me.

In 1966, the recently established Laurent launched his women’s line, a line designed with the specific goal to liberate its wearers through the infusion of male wardrobe elements into classic female pieces. Hilary has Laurent to thank in part for the credence gifted this item (Laurent and, incidentally, the tampon, although that will be saved for another article). His unique color pallet, which has a not-so-mysterious resemblance for the hodge-podge mix that designers have recently entertained, further challenged the status quo. And yet, his work maintains a clear understanding of the feminine: waistline and bust are emphasized, particularly in his concept sketches.

It may be difficult to place Laurent and hippie bra burners in the same decade, let alone the same movement, but there is something to be said for a man inside the industry so many blog posts have come to criticize who used his influence to challenge the norm. The power of an insider should not be underestimated, particularly an insider in an arena where even ideas questionable in society’s eye can be accepted under the embracing category of ‘art.’
One final note: this clothing was meant for more than the runway. His haute couture pieces ended up in the closets of women who could literally wear his message, extending his range of influence. Nan Kempner, a San Francisco socialite, provides an exceptional example. (Feminists, take notes). During one eventful evening out, Kempner was detained at the doors of an upscale restaurant and told that her YSL pantsuit was not appropriate dinner attire for a lady. Kempner responded by dropping the lower half of the combination, converting the garment instantly into an ultra-miniskirt.

The value is all in how you wear it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ridiculous & offensive news of the day

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Apparently, according to Air India, there is an optimum weight for demonstrating how to buckle an airline seatbelt. And (you guessed it!) it isn't on the heavier side of the scale. Air India has dismissed ten female flight attendants who were warned last year that their "physical fitness" did not meet airline standards. The Delhi High Court upheld the grounding of these flight attendants last year, saying that they were contractually obligated to maintain a certain weight. The airline claimed that the women had been given "sufficient time" to lose the weight.

Didn't we deal with this back in the '60s? Air India claims that it's necessary to maintain "certain standards" in order to compete with privately run airlines. Because clearly, when I get on a ten-hour flight from New Delhi to London, it is my ultimate right to be served orange juice and unidentifiable airline food by a woman who conforms to a strict standard of beauty. Let's just go back to the good old days, when flight attendants were called stewardesses and got fired at the age of 32.

Via Huffington Post and Yahoo News.

The pregnant woman's dilemma

by Eva Marie Wash

Taking advantage of our vacation time from school and work, my family took our first road trip in years to Detroit, Michigan in order to visit my father’s relatives. Each day consisted of small reunions with aunts, uncles, cousins—people I hardly remembered or had never met.

During one particular visit, I had the chance to speak to a distant cousin, a 31-year-old mother of two girls: a precocious (almost) thirteen-year-old and a year-old baby. When she was 18, she became pregnant and chose to have the child, despite pressure from the father and the sacrifice of her schooling. Apparently, the university she was to attend was not equipped to handle a pregnant student, especially one with mild learning disabilities. Within the supportive network that her parents and family members have created for her, she seems to be a happy and able mother. However, if it hadn’t been for the devotion and acceptance of her parents, having that first daughter would have seemed so impossible: with a boyfriend who wanted to avoid any responsibility, a school unable (perhaps even unwilling) to accommodate her, the fear, uncertainty, and shame of being an unwed mother—all these factors probably would have made abortion seem like the only feasible option, even if she deeply wanted to accept her motherhood.

Meanwhile, a close family friend, a high-powered attorney whose marriage is on the brink of divorce, just had an abortion because her husband had explicitly said “absolutely not” to the potential child-to-support and because her job implicitly discouraged pregnancy. Regardless of pro- or anti-abortion stances, we can all at least agree that in cases like these, society does not make the choice to have a child very easy. Similar stories in which women are pressured by employers to avoid or terminate their pregnancies, or in which young pregnant women feel that it’s impossible to continue their education and have a child, seem unfortunately common; instead of limiting us only to our role as mothers, society is now asking women to deny that natural and amazing capacity. Furthermore, these attitudes that hold active, devoted parenthood as so incompatible with a successful career affects mothers as well as fathers: they help to perpetuate the age-old bias that the “bread-winning” man will be necessarily less involved in the family, rather than encouraging attitudes of cooperation and compromise on the side of both parents.

One could argue that abortion has been the fundamental right in attaining equality in the work force, but yet, it is hard to deny that so many are still being treated unjustly. In the face of these impediments, the majority of women choose not to end their pregnancies, and thus more focus needs to be placed on ensuring that society—the government, employers, healthcare, their partners, families, etc—facilitate their choice and its consequences.

Monday, January 5, 2009

When boiled jeans look better than an abortion...

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

There was a depressing article in The New York Times today about the intense need to hide abortion or birth control in some communities, particularly among immigrants. Women who don't have access to legal abortions, whether because they are illegal immigrants, they can't afford it, or because of the social stigma attached to entering a Planned Parenthood often resort to drugs or other "home remedies" to end their pregnancies. All of these alternatives are dangerous, and some are downright bizarre - women mix malted beverages with aspirin, salt or nutmeg, throw themselves down stairs, or even drink concoctions made from the boiled hems of denim jeans. Other women buy drugs like misoprostol, which is actually intended to treat gastric ulcers. Misoprostol is cheap and frequently used throughout communities which are traditionally anti-abortion. But the women who take it often don't know how to use it, and the side effects are very serious.

This article is distressing not just because abortions are relatively inexpensive and easy to access - the pregnancies themselves result from a culture which is anti-birth control, and which values women's health less than their perceived reputation. Instead of admitting to having an abortion, women can tell their family members that they miscarried. But at what cost? And how responsible were these women for the pregnancy in the first place?

In cultures known for their machismo, use of birth control is seen as a sign of unfaithfulness. “If I introduce the condom into a relationship, I’m basically saying I’ve had somebody else, and I’ve not been faithful to you,” said Haydee Morales, a vice president at Planned Parenthood of New York. Women are caught in a terrible double bind; they are culturally forbidden to use protection, but then must risk their lives in order to end the pregnancy and avoid social sanctions. But at the end, this is, very simply, a serious health risk. And it's widespread; the NYT reports that "in a study of 610 women at three New York clinics in largely Dominican neighborhoods conducted eight years ago, 5 percent said they had taken misoprostol themselves, and 37 percent said they knew it was an abortion-inducing drug."

It's easy to say that this is a cultural norm, and that to criticize it would be culturally insensitive. But on the other hand, women's lives are at risk, and I'm not sure how much it has to do with changing cultural standards about abortion - rather, everyone needs to be better educated about birth control so that women can avoid these situations entirely. And let's not forget that it takes two to cause a pregnancy, and that for the women to bear all of the risk in ending it is unfair and irresponsible, and certainly, if we're going to talk machismo, ungentlemanly.

Working Moms, Unite!

by Molly Borowitz

In her recent post "When is it Sexism?" on The Daily Beast, feminist writer Elizabeth Wurtzel highlights the differences between Alaska governor Sarah Palin's campaign for the vice-presidency and American royalty Caroline Kennedy's campaign for a New York Senate seat. In the course of her discussion, Wurtzel points out that the two women have taken a varied stance on the combination of motherhood with career; while Kennedy chose to exempt herself from the political world entirely on the basis of her children—she was already several months pregnant when she graduated from law school—Palin absented herself from the mayor's or governor's office for just days per birth. This striking dichotomy in lifestyle and mother-style leads Wurtzel to the following conclusion:

"It is, simply, impossible to take a timeout to raise kids and still compete in a man's world. Palin, to her credit, understood this. After a couple of days of maternity leave when her special-needs baby was born last year, she was back in Anchorage, running Alaska. Powerful female friends of mine with kids who maintain a high position in a man's world all did the same thing: brief leave and back to the grinder; they didn't want office politics and the forward propulsion of time itself—time the avenger—to put them out to pasture. For all the crap talk of "choice feminism"—whatever the hell that means—we are never going to feminize the world. Women who want to succeed pretty much have to work as long and as hard as men typically do, and that's that. What does Kennedy know of this hellishness? She hasn't held a paid position since her children were born, nor did she have a proper job even before that."

This assertion raises a few questions for me. What happens to "traditional family values" (a term I usually associate with traditional gender roles) when Mom is a full-time working girl on the national stage? Wurtzel mentions that working moms (40 hours a week) spend about 86% of the amount of time with their children that non-working mothers do, and that in two-working-parent households they are often still the primary parents, determining the necessary aspects of child care and then delegating some to their husbands. Hence, according to Wurtzel, many career moms are effectively working two jobs. But what happens when your job is running a state? House and Senate seats don't come with big white houses that you can move your family into; because these men and women spend several months of their year in Washington, their families are either uprooted or left behind. Both Hilary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy know just what politics can do to a family—and they weren't even the ones in office! Governors do get mansions to live in, but they don't get any time off. Congress takes recesses, but governors are always, always on call—which means that any time a crisis occurs (drama over the pipeline or off-shore drilling, discovering that your teenage daughter is pregnant, someone questioning why you fired your brother-in-law), you have to leave your newborn with Down's syndrome at home and spin the stories so you don't lose your job.

I should clarify: I am all for multitasking—my mom works and I have always been proud of it. I also have very serious respect for women who stay at home with their kids because I suspect that it's actually harder in lots of ways—at least my mom got to go to work, focus on herself and her patients, and blow off some steam. (Also, most of her co-workers are also parents, so they get to complain about us to each other.) But, having heard these working moms doubting killer-career-mama Sarah Palin's parenting skills, I have to wonder if perhaps Wurtzel is right. We seem to be stuck in a catch-22 where stay-at-home moms aren't ambitious enough, working moms neglect their children, and super-ambitious women are selfish for choosing not to have any children.

The reason I'm skeptical is that my mom and her co-workers—politically liberal, highly educated, personally ambitious, but also (as pediatric speech, physical, and occupational therapists for inpatients) extremely well-versed in the intricacies and pitfalls of parenting—were, frankly, kinda pissed at Sarah Palin for her apparent underinvestment in her special-needs baby. To be fair, that frustration was kind of personal—after all, they deal with lots of new parents who are disenchanted with their disabled newborns—but, as therapists, they were also acutely aware of how different and difficult it can be to care for a baby with Down's syndrome. But Palin didn't seem to be: she didn't suspend or alter her political plans after giving birth to a handicapped child (she wasn't even home a week with the baby); she didn't supervise her other children with the newborn (how can a seven-year-old possibly know how best to support the head of a four-month old with low tone?); she didn't keep the baby on a regular schedule (because how can you when you're living on a bus, attending endless meetings and rallies and press conferences every day—with your entire family in attendance?); and so on. And all of these facts were thrown into greater relief by the fact that she touted herself as a traditional mother ("If she's really so into traditional family values, shouldn't she be at home with her Down's baby?").

Now, I'm not saying that all these things are true. I never once felt that my mom's career was more important to her than I was, or that I was suffering because she spent a lot of time at work—and I don't see why Sarah Palin's children shouldn't feel the same way. I just want to point out that if working women don't even support each other, how the hell are we gonna get men on board?

First Lady...for a paycheck?

There was an intriguing article in The Washington Post about a week and a half ago which addressed the ever-problematic question about whether Michelle Obama is "opting out" by accepting her role as "mom-in-chief" for the next four (or hopefully eight) years. The author, Lauren Stiller Rikleen, proposed that we shouldn't consider the job of First Lady a step down; rather, it should be a paid position, with a specific job description. Rikleen writes:

"The very debate about whether Michelle Obama is sacrificing her career shows that we must develop a proper perspective about the position of first lady, including a job description for the spouse of the president. Surely the person in one of the most visible roles on the planet deserves a proper title and salary to go along with the intense demands of this most nebulous position, which is, in essence, a job."

I see several potential issues with this argument; the most problematic is the fact that the only qualification for this amorphous position is to be the spouse of the president-elect, but I do think that Rikleen raises an interesting question in that we don't give the First Lady enough credit for performing an incredibly difficult role.

What do you think? Should Michelle Obama be given a paycheck, just like her husband?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

More from Nicholas Kristof

A follow up from his last column. It's worse than the first one, but again, it's crucial reading:

Pross was 13 and hadn’t even had her first period when a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh. The brothel owner, a woman as is typical, beat Pross and tortured her with electric current until finally the girl acquiesced.

She was kept locked deep inside the brothel, her hands tied behind her back at all times except when with customers.

Brothel owners can charge large sums for sex with a virgin, and like many girls, Pross was painfully stitched up so she could be resold as a virgin. In all, the brothel owner sold her virginity four times.

Watch the video, too, if you can bear it, and take a moment to be grateful for how lucky we all are.

"Mrs. Darcy"

by Chloe Angyal

Everyone loves Lizzie Bennet. My friend Anna and I love her so much that whenever I come home to Sydney, we sit down and watch Pride and Prejudice. We prefer the BBC version, which is pretty faithful to the book, but since it's about eighteen hours long and we were short on time today, we watched the 2005 version, starring Keira Knightley. And we made the mistake of watching it with the US Alternate Ending.

This ending includes the repetition of "Mrs. Darcy" over and over again, as if to remind us that, despite Lizzie's fierce independence and resistance to the dominant social norms of the day (which we've just spent two hours experiencing), once she's married, her fate is the same as that of every other woman. She's married to Darcy, so she's happy, even if she's no longer the fiercely independent and freethinking woman she was before her father consented to the marriage (which, incidentally, is where the UK/Australian version leaves the story). The woman we see in these final minutes of the American version is no longer Lizzie Bennet, or at least, she's not the Lizzie Bennet we've spent two hours getting to know. She's now Mrs. Darcy.

But Mrs. Darcy isn't the woman we love as readers, the woman generations of readers have identified with and cheered for. It's Lizzie Bennet we love.

This new woman is totally alien to us, and, watching this interpretation of the ending, one can't help but feel that she lacks a lot Lizzie Bennet's wit and insight. It's as though by shedding her surname, she's shed the characteristics we loved most about her, and has become just another blushing, "incandescently happy" bride, like her sister Jane. It's not that we don't like Jane, we just don't like her the way we like Lizzie, who is sharp and quick and not afraid to call bullshit on someone. Jane, lovely but docile, isn't the woman we wish we could be when we read Pride and Prejudice. And "Mrs. Darcy," happy but two-dimensional, isn't the woman we wish we could be when we watch this ending of the movie.