Saturday, September 19, 2009

A woman? In football?!?

by Jordan Kisner

Sarah Thomas’ career is headed right for the top. At thirty-five, she is one of the most successful referees for big-time college football, and is on the short list of referees waiting to be tapped for the N.F.L. Fellow referees and N.F.L officials commend her as an “excellent official” who can be counted on to make “one tough call after another.”

Thomas did not intend to make football refereeing her full time job. A former athlete herself, she began working for youth leagues and eventually moved through the ranks to middle and high games, all the while developing a successful career in pharmaceutical sales. She had two sons with her husband, Brian, and decided in 2006 that she was going to stop refereeing; but, before she quit, she got a call from Gerald Austin, the coordinator of football officials for Conference USA, who eventually hired her to work in college football. Her career has been steadily on the rise ever since.

Thomas’ transformation from pharmaceutical salesperson to highly successful football official is certainly a worthy human interest story on its own, but the profile of her that the New York Times ran yesterday seemed interested only one fact about Thomas: her sex.

Sarah Thomas happens to be the only female referee for big-time college football, and, if she gets picked to officiate in the N.F.L, she will be the only female referee there as well. According to Thomas and her coworkers, the fact that she is the only woman on the field isn’t a problem, and Joe Drape of the New York Times is just tickled to death.

Indeed, Drape’s enthusiasm for Thomas’ singularity in her field seems tinged with the kind of proud disbelief displayed by parents watching a precocious and totally unself-conscious child. He makes sure to include an anecdote about how out-of-place Thomas looked when she continued refereeing through her pregnancy, and assures his readers that this career path is all right with her husband. He begins and ends the article with descriptions of instances in which she has startled players, and repeats the phrase “Thomas and her fellow officials say her gender has never been an issue” enough times that one wonders if he is having trouble believing this for himself.

I wonder why, if Thomas and her coworkers regard her sex as a nonissue, Drape seems so obsessed with it. I appreciate the impulse to honor a woman who is succeeding in a male-dominated field, but making her sex the focal point in an article about her career undermines Thomas’ victory in making her gender irrelevant to her job. I also appreciate the impulse to celebrate the fact that she faced neither discrimination nor sexism on her journey, but I for one will be more excited to celebrate the day when stories like Sarah Thomas’ don’t meet with a “Gee! Can you believe it?” attitude from the press.

Make the grade

by Christopher Moses

Two conversations have been blaring around campus these first days of the term, each one seeking pecking-order clarity and comfort: how to get the best grades—what courses, what approaches, what professors—and how to look good, to turn heads or at least to have eyes lifted and glances held for a quick one-over. The first heard, the second seen. Though really they are one-in-the-same.

Status-seeking makes us who we are; it provides comforting anxiety and provokes competitive self-scrutiny. How do we match up? Where do we stand?

Vexingly, best efforts often don’t cut it. The urge demands recognition and confirmation in comparison to others: my flat stomach falls short of allure next to his ever so slightly more defined abs; her mid-term only rates B+ next to the marginally more stylish A- by the Chanel-wearing goodie-two-shoes.

And someone else always does the marking. However entitled or prepared, smart or sure, judgment only carries weight when applied from without. Clearly given grades have that much more security, but noses turned, shoulders snubbed, phone calls left unanswered all carry a level of obviousness that gets missed only by those who can’t help but further admit their laughably pitiful inability to read the writing on the wall (ugly! fat! cellulite! zits! smelly!).

Look to your left, look to your right—that sort of cliché, but worse, both of them will be here next year. So you better not slip up.

If the stressful, doubtful, sometimes cruel truth of it all makes for despondency—and redoubled efforts for victory—then it’s all the more odd to me why the shared obsession over A’s and appearance rarely gets explored as such. At least my teacher-training session didn’t link the two so clearly.

Yet there’s much more than comingled artifice at stake. Take two exams, one of them intellectually unoriginal but smartly written, clear, well organized and to-the-point: The Great Regurgitation. The other has flashes of brilliance, is suggestive and shows tremendous analytical talent but lacks for clarity, misses part of the question and so on: The Eccentric Genius. Do they each merit the same middle of the road assessment?

Fairy tales provide much better diamond-in-the-rough examples of Cinderella surprise. We tend to adore the hottie in the paint-spattered hoodie but, who, really, would take that risk in real life? So many days of floor-scrubbing for that one elusive, princely night?

Similarly, what about progress and growth? If I arrive personally-trained, decked out in Madison Avenue’s finest and only refine slightly my prep-school-inflected articulations, should I get credit ahead of the person who still lags but came Wal-Mart-clad and McDonalds-chubbed from small-town nowhere (and can now look quite good in gym shorts and an appropriately insider t-shirt, that sort of five-paragraph essay of suggestive attire)?

When it comes to intellect and academic achievement, we tend to reward leaps and bounds of progress from the underprivileged or ill-prepared, especially and most often juxtaposed to apathetic excellence by the already proficient. Such greater clarity—the rewards of learning over the distillation of vanity, up-from-your-bootstraps against to-the-manor-born—actually obscures much more closely linked issues of identity, success and imagined fulfillment.

Granted certain unfortunate lapses in fashion sense, how many prominent professors do you know who live slovenly lives, hopelessly homely in appearance?

Ideally we want it all: the ease and élan, that savoir-faire and joie de vivre, that je ne sais quoi. (Not to fetishize the French’s monopoly on sexily-sounded self-satisfaction.)

But whether because of Protestant work ethic or a simple love of self-suffering, for it to come so easily would only mean doubt and further anxiety. Success means hard work. Damn those bastards all the more who appear to just role out of bed, never crack the book, get the glass slipper and become valedictorian.

From the personal to the society-wide, crucial questions of justice mirror these bouts of personal pouting: the lottery of good looks is in some ways as arbitrary as that for native intelligence. So what if any corrective and compensatory structures ought to be in place for those less fortunate, with little of that which is more regularly rewarded in this world?

No happy, be-yourself answer can square this circle. But I do think we can be more explicit about how we ask the question and, more so, the goals and rewards we seek along the way. What can we allow behind these necessary facades of everyday life? Let-it-all-hang-out joy? Where can comfort counterbalance competition? Towards what do we strive as we accumulate all this baggage along the way?

Romanticize a bit, certainly. Some sense of nakedness, of rawness—in body or mind—carries both allure and revulsion with equal measures of shame and satisfaction. This imagined naturalness and clarity is as symbolic and constructed as anything else.

Still variety is the spice of life. Take some charge and mark yourself. Bring some self-consciousness to bear. Have a bit of fun along the way. Above all, stop talking and start doing, less looking and more loving. Then we can all avoid any contraction in the opportunities for being smart and sexy. Fear not efforts against inflation: you can make your grades quite satisfying all on your own (or ideally with a little help from a friend). Just don’t cheat.

Struggling with the "freshmen fifteen"

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Earlier this week, in the midst of the chaos of back-to-school obligations, I arrived at dinner and realized that I had literally forgotten to eat all day. Sitting at a table full of friends, I looked down at my plate full of salad and vegetarian lasagna and almost cried with joy at the thought of food. The sense of pure, unmitigated gratitude that I felt was unusual for me. I love food, but like most women and, increasingly, men, I have a fairly twisted relationship with my body and the foods that I use to nourish it. Two years ago, for example, I was so hell-bent on avoiding the freshmen fifteen that I ate nothing but salad, Diet Coke and yogurt (hardly a balanced diet) for a period of months, and when I finally made peace with my body weight and shape, I stopped thinking about what I was eating altogether, and suddenly found myself ten pounds heavier and back into a cycle of self-loathing, occasional fasting, and constant guilt when I didn't visit the gym.

College does not make it easy for people who struggle with issues with food. Eating disorders are rampant, but rarely discussed. We're all familiar with the glance to a friend's plate, to see whether she is eating macaroni and cheese or salad, and the implicit self-judgment that follows, and we recognize the man or woman who is always on the treadmill at the gym, desperately trying to erase every scrap of body fat (Courtney Martin describes this eloquently in her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters). Freshmen year is one of the most challenging times for people who have struggled with body issues, because it is full of adjustment and confusion. If you decide to start drinking for the first time, alcohol adds hundreds of phantom calories that you vaguely feel you should be counting, but you're often too busy and overwhelmed to think about what you're putting in your mouth. Thus the dreaded "freshmen fifteen" - the extra weight that countless college guides warn against, and offer helpful tips to help avoid (I will never forget the sight of my freshmen year roommate, who owned such a book, scraping out the innards of a bagel and munching on the empty shell, saying, "I think bread is going to be my worst enemy this year."). Some colleges have decided to join the struggle against this supposedly unnecessary weight gain, including Yale, which recently added calorie counts to residential dining halls.

There was an interesting article in Newsweek this past week about this very phenomenon. New York City was the first to lead the way by requiring calorie labels in all major food chains, a decision that I feel very uncertain about, but college campuses are following, in an attempt to encourage college students to put down the French fries and reach for some lettuce instead. The calorie counts are supposed to make students more aware of what they're eating. But do they really? The article points out, rightly, that the sight of calorie numbers can be very triggering for people who are struggling with eating disorders already - instead of thinking about nutrition and eating a balanced diet, they fall back into patterns of calorie counting and guilt over eating. Calories add a level of shame to the process of eating that is all too familiar to me. Sadie over at Jezebel points out, rightly, that it often doesn't really help to know that a doughnut might actually have fewer calories than a bagel with cream cheese. Chances are that I'd eat the bagel anyway, but most of the pleasure would be taken away. I'd feel like I didn't have any self-control, and later that day, I'd deprive myself of another food I wanted.

Counting calories makes eating into something clinical. And inevitably, the focus should be on health rather than weight - going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week is great, but you don't need to go every day. Eating a salad is good for you, but if you want some ice cream afterward, you should have some - without feeling guilty. If dining halls really want to make students healthier, they can offer more vegetarian and vegan options and cut down on the amount of grease and fat in the food options. I gained weight my freshmen year because it was impossible to be vegetarian and eat healthily. Pizza was my only option, and knowing the number of calories would only have made me feel horrible about myself, and maybe not eat at all.

Going into my junior year, I still struggle with food. I scold myself for not going to the gym, and will go a week without dessert for some terrible, arbitrary reason. But I do know that the only way my school can help me is by giving me better food options, not by playing to the Type A calorie counter that lives deep inside me and countless other college students. And I hope that freshmen entering Princeton this fall can find ways to eat healthily and celebrate their bodies and their meals at the same time. After all, eating is one of the most intense physical pleasures we can experience. And in a college student's stressful life, it should be a source of joy.

Cats and the gender binary

by Nick Cox

Like most people nowadays who call themselves feminists, I like to think that I am capable, at least to some extent, of transcending gender. I like to think that, when I interact with someone, I can see them merely as a person rather than as a man or a woman. And, to some extent, I believe I can. This summer, though, I had an experience that reminded me of just how deep-seated, and how inescapable, our categories of "male" and "female" really are.

On June 15, my fiance and I were driving down a highway in Virginia when we discovered a tiny kitten wandering around on the side of the road. We pulled over and offered it some milk, and eventually decided to adopt it and take it home with us.

This is only the beginning of the story, but I should pause here and point out that gender has already become a problem, implicit in my use of the word "it." Because English does not yet have a gender-neutral animate pronoun—"he or she" is unwieldy, "they" is just wrong, and I'm still working on being able to use "sie" while keeping a straight face—it was not obvious what pronoun we should use to refer to the little kitten. "Oh God, it must be so hungry" was what came naturally at first, but the more time we spent with it the less right it felt to be referring to living creature as though it were an inanimate object. We had only known this kitten for about an hour, and we already had to decide on its gender just so we could talk about it.

Our decision was based on scant physical evidence—the anatomy of cats, especially young kittens, is such that determining their sex is not so easy. We both took a perfunctory glance under the kitten's tail and neither of us saw a penis, but our decision was still based primarily on the archetypal femininity of cats in general. We decided to name her Ariadne, after the daughter of King Minos. Ariadne is the princess who gives Theseus a ball of string to help him find his way back out of the labyrinth—we figured that a mythic figure associated with balls of string would make a perfect namesake for a cat. We brought little Ari home with us, and everything was fine until a few weeks later, when we took her to the vet.

You probably saw this one coming: the vet took a look at our little Princess Ariadne and told us that she was, in fact, a boy. We were pretty taken aback by the news, partially because "Ariadne" had been such a perfect name and now we had to come up with a new one—we decided on "Dorian Gray," which was okay but not nearly as good as "Ariadne." When we took "Dory" home, though, it soon became clear that the change went deep. We didn't just call him by a new name and refer to him with a new set of pronouns; we also saw him differently, in a way that is difficult to articulate. It was almost as though we had a new cat. Our little princess, who had previously been (in our minds) so dainty and ladylike, had suddenly become much more masculine.

We got accustomed quickly to our little boy very quickly. Soon we could hardly believe that we originally thought he was a female—he just seemed so boyish, we didn't know how we could possibly have thought otherwise. We found that we felt better about roughhousing with him, got less worried when he climbed up to high places in our apartment, and snickered a bit when he adopted a pink scarf as one of his favorite toys. We could not help but see everything we did through the lens of his newfound masculinity, even though the vet had had to put on her reading glasses in order to discern his sex.

After about two months of having Dorian Gray running around our apartment, we were hit with another bombshell: a different vet took another look and determined that Dory had actually been female all along. We couldn't believe it, but we were more or less convinced after three other doctors had corroborated his observation. This time the change was very noticeable. Our cat immediately looked more feminine to us. And not just her behavior; even her face looked different. We changed her name back to Ariadne, and enjoyed getting to know her for the third time, even though it had been the same damn cat all along.

To me, the moral of the story is that the categories of male and female will not be leaving us anytime soon. People like Judith Butler who say that gender is socially constructed are certainly right to a great extent, but that revelation does nothing to "defeat" the binary of male and female and bring about some sort of post-gender society. Gender is inescapably interwoven into the very fabric of human perception and cognition in ways we are not even aware of until something like my experience with Ariadne throws some light on them. We may wish that the binary of gender would just go away, but transcending it will require much more than has been done thus far.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Women on the road

by Emily Sullivan

Months ago I wrote a piece about hitchhiking for women. I mentioned that it is not as scary as everyone thinks, and that female hitchers have some pretty great advantages. This summer I put my money where my mouth is, and any expectations I had were overwhelmingly exceeded.

I rode my bike from Seattle to Los Angeles, clocking 1600 miles in just over a month. From Seattle to San Francisco I traveled with my friend Melissa, and the rest I rode alone. We were definitely a rarity—a vast majority of fellow bike travelers were men, and all the women we met on the road were traveling with a guy.

Trading stories with other bike tourists made it obvious to me that my adventure was quite different. Stealth camping on the side of the highway—while an essential part of the trip to achieve any degree of street cred—was a huge part of the adventure for most. My adventure was in the many ways I was able to minimize the amount of camping I had to do. Pastors, college students, cowboys, chefs, marijuana horticulturalists, writers, bike mechanics, and nuclear physicists are among the many incredible strangers who welcomed me into their homes. People who had never picked up hitchers before gave me a ride. Old people really enjoyed giving me their extra food. I barged into people’s lives unexpectedly and--with any luck--broke down the walls of fear that shelter people away from one another. I was able to do this in large part because of my gender.

I’m 5’6”, 130 lbs, and built pretty strong. A fellow camper noted one night that I had the burliest leg muscles he’d ever seen. I’m white and had reddish hair cut into a mohawk and usually hidden behind a bandana. Melissa, on the other hand, is itty bitty. She is also white with short bleach blonde hair. I give you our descriptions to demonstrate that we are not an intimidating pair by any means. That said, I was stronger than many of the guys touring, and generally felt just as well equipped to defend myself as anyone else on the road.

It is fair to say that even though I am just as equipped to handle a dangerous situation, I am also a more likely target to be fucked around with. This is true. But people who are looking to fuck with college-aged females are much more likely to be on college campuses than on some random part of Highway 1. Put it this way: if I want to go fishing, I’ll go where there are fish. The road can be a dangerous place, but so can our campuses and neighborhoods. The world is so much safer than we are conditioned to believe, and we can rely on each other.

There is a short list of the worst things that could possibly happen while bike touring. One thing is taking a spill and needing to go to the hospital. Check. Another is having a mechanical issue that I couldn’t repair on the road. Check. The incredible goodwill of strangers made it possible to overcome these setbacks, and learning to trust, rely, and depend on people is among the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned.

Check out the experience of another female solo traveler, as chronicled by The New York Times.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just one word: "skank"

by Chloe Angyal

If you’ve never seen an episode of the TV show Neighbours, I’m not at all surprised. As its spelling suggests, Neighbours is an Australian show that, as far as I know, is only popular, in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. That’s the extent of its market. An extra vowel can kill you that way.

Neighbours is Australia’s longest-running nightly soap-opera. Every night at 6:30pm, it chronicles, in 22-minute installments, the tumultuous lives of the residents of Ramsay Street in Melbourne. A list of former Ramsay Street residents would include Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia and House’s Jesse Spencer (on whom I had an enormous crush circa 1996).

I haven’t watched the show in several years, partly because I left Australia in 2005 and partly because I prefer to watch shows that are intentionally comedic rather than inadvertently hilarious. My sister, on the other hand, lives in London, where Neighbours is hugely popular and where each episode airs two or three times in one night. This week, finding ourselves at home in Sydney, we sat down together to watch an episode of Australia’s national televisual treasure.

I was prepared for the bad acting, the overzealous extras and the Facebook-centered high school drama plotlines. I wasn’t prepared to hear the word “skank” twice in the first ten minutes of dialogue. This was not the Neighbours I remembered.

In both instances, the character uttering the word was a female high school student. And in both cases, unsurprisingly, she was using it to describe another female high school student. In neither case was the word used to describe the young woman’s sexual life or level of sexual activity, as the words “skank” and its slightly more objectionable sister “slut” often are. Rather, it was used as a catch-all or short hand to describe the young woman’s general dislikeability. It was used to cast aspersions on her character more generally, rather as one might use “mean” or, if one weren’t in a prime time slot, “bitch” (I’ll return to this in a moment).

Is this how the script writers at Neighbours imagine young people talk? Is this, like their use of Facebook in plotlines, their attempt to keep the show relevant to their high school audience members? Or has the word “skank” simply become so mainstream and inoffensive that they see nothing objectionable about putting it in the mouths of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old characters during a 6:30pm time slot?

Either way, I would argue that the situation is cause for concern. After all, the word’s history is less than pleasant; until just a few years ago, when it began cropping up everywhere, including in prime time, “skank” essentially carried the same meaning as “slut.” And to many people’s understanding, it still does. Today, even more so than slut, “skank” carries with it the slight sense that the skanky person is dirty and tainted, either as a result of sexual activity, or for some other reason. It’s for this reason that “skank,” despite its more sexual past, has become shorthand for “unlikeable” or “bitch.”

If, as I suggested earlier, the word “skank” is being used to denote general dislikeability, this is similarly problematic. Given that the word is usually used to describe a woman’s sexual life, to use the term as shorthand for the rest of her life seems less than ideal. In fact, it seems like an example of the phenomenon described by Jessica Valenti in The Purity Myth, whereby a woman’s sexual life – her skankiness, or lack thereof, one might say – comes to represent her value as a person. This not only represents a traditional gendered double standard (men’s sexual lives rarely affect our judgments of their likeability), it’s also a rather unproductive way of assessing a woman’s value as a human being. Is she smart? Is she hardworking? Is she attractive? Who cares: the girl’s a skank.

Regardless of the word’s precise current meaning, do we really want to be mainstreaming and modeling the practice of young women calling each other skanks? To paraphrase Tina Fey’s character in Mean Girls, calling each other sluts and whores (or skanks) just makes it acceptable for guys to call us sluts, whores and skanks. If women accept and adopt this model of talking about women, what message are we sending to men?

Of course, one episode and two “skanks” do not a trend make. But my sister, who is a regular viewer of the show, was unsurprised by the use of the word, which suggests that what I observed yesterday is not an uncommon phenomenon. Similarly, to take Neighbours as representative of the state of Australian youth culture is to overstate the importance of the show and to level an unnecessary insult at the young people of my homeland.

That said, the repeated appearance of “skank” in this episode raises interesting questions, ones that can only be answered by closer observation of the show – all in the name of research, of course. It looks like I’ve found my newest guilty pleasure.

First day of school: advice for the freshmen from EW bloggers

Because we at Equal Writes know how disorienting, confusing and exciting the first day of college can be, we've compiled a few anecdotes and pieces from advice from our writers about their first year at Princeton. This will continue sporadically throughout the next week, as our writers have time, so please enjoy, and add your own insights in the comment section.

Feeling homesick?

It’s easy to feel lost when you first get to Princeton. Many of us (including myself) knew no one when we first came here, and many of us have never been so far from home for so long. But the thing about homesickness is this: you’re not the only one. For every time you feel uneasy, every time you wish you were at home with your friends and family, every time you wish you had someone here to talk to…there are a hundred other freshman here thinking the same thing. In the wise words of The Police, “Seems I’m not alone at being alone/A hundred billion castaways, all looking for a home.”

So I guess what I’m saying is, do your best to open yourself up to people. I had the amazing opportunity to move in a month before school started my freshman year because I played a varsity sport, and we were able to avoid a lot of that fear and discomfort just by being around each other so much. Ask your roommate about their family; sit with new people when you go to the dining hall; don’t underestimate the power of a simple conversation. And even if you’re not feeling homesick, you can bet that someone you know is. So do your best to pick each other up when you’re feeling down, and never lose sight of how lucky you are to be here.

What to do if you're feeling blue

So the first few weeks, Princeton will most likely be everything you dreamed of and more. And it is. But there might come a day when you may be sitting in a class or in your room, and suddenly thinking: What the hell am I doing? A lot of people here put on a front. But ask your close friends, and most likely, they haven't gotten everything figured out either. My suggestion is to figure out who you are first, and be ok with that person. In my experience, trying to “be” whatever you think you should be will drive you crazy and it will lead to an unhappy life. Depression is sometimes an issue, but don’t worry – it’s a normal reaction to a huge life change.

Put yourself first. Your mental health and your personal well being should be your top priority. If you know you are depressed - if things seem dull or you lost all your motivation or you're angry a lot - go to McCosh and talk to someone. Don’t worry about people seeing you, and after all, if they do – they’re there too! So, don't worry about people finding out. It feels better sometimes to talk it out and figure out what bothers you - maybe your parents pushed you too hard, maybe you have been role playing the A-student the whole time and now don't know who you really are, maybe you are getting too interested in partying and drugs, etc etc. It will take time though! Please, don't be naive and think it just goes away with 3 appointments. But it is totally better to get this “self-realization” thing out of the way now. And so many more people go through it than you think. You don't need to publicize it but don't hide it to the point you are hurting yourself. McCosh is available every day, 24-7. Psychologists are on call all night, so if you come home from the street and something felt wrong or you are thinking about hurting yourself, just walk into McCosh and things will get better! I believe you are never dealt more than you can handle and that things happen for a reason - embrace all experiences and know that you are smart, that you are at one of the top universities in the world, and that things will always get better when you believe they will.

More posts to follow on roommates, drinking, sex, classes, and stress - check back soon!

More from Britain: Harriet Harman

by Kaite Welsh

She’s an inspirational politician and a personal role model. And yet, as rumours swirl that Harriet Harman is considering challenging Gordon Brown to become the leader of the Labour party and therefore the next British Prime Minister, I can’t help but feel a flutter of anxiety at what her campaign will entail, and how it might backfire.

Currently the Equalities Minister, Harman has long been a bête noir of the right wing press. Christened ‘Harriet Harperson’ in a desperate attempt to be witty, they slam her politically correct stance and a month rarely goes by before the word ‘feminist’ is hurled at her as though it were an insult. But her support among party members is strong, and she has become a figurehead for many women voters - a demographic that has expressed dissatisfaction for Brown, the current Premier, and dislike of his main opponent, Conservative leader David Cameron. What was once a worst-case scenario for the Labour Party – a Conservative victory at the next election – is increasingly seen as likelihood, and Harman has been touted as the strongest candidate to put Labour back in power.

During her (ultimately successful) campaign to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harman’s team had this to say about her:

Throughout her career Harriet has campaigned for equality and social justice. During this campaign she has focused on the issues that matter to party members; affordable homes – tackling the housing divide, youth services in every neighbourhood, improving older people’s care, cheap, clean, public transport, equal treatment for agency and directly-employed workers and inequality – tackling the rich/poor divide.

That’s the kind of person I want to see running my country, no question. And yet, I’m apprehensive about the campaign she would run if she does go ahead and challenge Brown for the Leadership. Harman landed herself in hot water earlier this year when she commented that had a certain company been called the Lehman Sisters, we wouldn’t have the problems we do now. Her line, much as Thatcher’s was, is that the qualities that make her an excellent candidate, are qualities that our inherent in her – in our – gender.

Because it isn't a woman's job to clean up the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, it's a politician's, and the more that gender is brought into the equation, the easier it is for a male politician to pass the buck. Women don't benefit politics simply because they're women. There is no magical component to estrogen that makes us more susceptible to the plight of the underdog - our first female PM was Maggie Thatcher, for heaven's sake, and she wasn't exactly known for her cuddly, gentle side.

I'm not disputing the idea that women can bring a different political agenda to the table, I just don't believe that they automatically do. For every Harriet Harman, dedicated to making men and women as equal in the eyes of public policy as they are in reality, there's a Margaret Thatcher double-glazing over the hole she made in the glass ceiling. To assume that all women are going to protect the feminist agenda is not only narrow-minded and hopelessly optimistic, it gives men a carte blanche to ignore it. I want more women in the Houses of Parliament, in Congress, in the Senate, and in the White House. But I also want the men and women we vote for to shoulder their social responsibilities equally, because for the foreseeable future women will always have to operate within a political structure that benefits men most of all, and it can only be changed when everyone takes a stand and not just those who it adversely affects.

So when people ask me if I’m supporting Harriet because I’m a feminist, I’ll say no – I’m supporting her because she is.

A (baby) step forward for working moms

by Molly Borowitz

For we Equal Writers—most of whom are ambitious women at a prestigious university—the working mom is a pretty contentious topic. Because we don’t have government-regulated healthcare in the United States (yet), maternity leave is not a standardized health benefit: some companies offer six weeks with pay, some three months, some none at all. When I was born, my mom had to pool all her vacation time in order to get enough leave.

In the UK, however, the government mandates that women are afforded up to one year for maternity leave, if they want it, while retaining the right to return to their jobs. And, as of 2007, they are paid for nine of the twelve months they spend away from work. However, this week the British government has decided to provide new parents with an additional option: paternity leave. As of 15 September, new moms will be able to decide whether they want to transfer the second half of their maternity leave to their husbands: after six months, Mommy can head back to work and leave Daddy at home with the baby.

This new policy, an initiative of the left-leaning Labour party, is intended to provide families with greater flexibility and improve their child-care options. According to Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, “Mothers will be able to choose to transfer the last six months of their maternity leave to the father, with three months paid. This gives families radically more choice and flexibility in how they balance work and care of children, and enables fathers to play a bigger part in bringing up their children.”

In theory, I think this plan is excellent; as Ms. Harman states, it has the potential to encourage fathers to take a more active parental role in their children’s lives. In a January post on Sarah Palin and Caroline Kennedy, Elizabeth Wurtzel of the Daily Beast reminds us that (at least in the United States) moms are almost always the primary caregivers, even when they work as many hours as their husbands. Despite their additional responsibilities, they still manage the household, “delegating tasks to the father, who needs a list of instructions before he doles out child care.” In this regard, Britain’s proposed post-natal-child-care handoff is reminiscent of the Equal Parenting movement, providing dads with the opportunity to assume the primary-caregiver role and to develop the know-how to balance child-care responsibilities with their wives.

In practice, however, I sincerely doubt that many British parents will take advantage of this new scheme for the equalization of parental responsibility. The wage gap is just too powerful. Fathers are usually the bigger earners; in fact, Wurtzel goes so far as to say that “there is salary penalty on motherhood: A woman with children will typically earn 10 percent less than any man doing the same job.” Let’s do the math. Under option A (Mom takes one year of maternity leave with nine months paid), during the first nine months, Dad works and Mom gets paid time off; during the last three months, Dad works and Mom earns nothing. Under option B (Mom takes one year of maternity leave but switches with Dad after six months), during the first six months, Dad works and Mom gets paid time off; during the next three months, Mom works and Dad gets paid time off; and during the last three months, Mom works and Dad gets zilch. Assuming that Mom has the smaller salary, it actually hurts the family financially to make the six-month switch—and in this difficult economy, it’s hard to imagine that many new parents are going to take advantage of an option that lessens their total income, no matter how gender-equalizing it might be.

Ladies specials: female-only trains in India

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

It’s exciting that India, whose women “have poured into the Indian work force over the last decade” only to face “different obstacles in a tradition-bound, patriarchal culture,” has introduced a new set of eight female-only commuter trains to combat the prevalent harassment female passengers often face, according to the New York Times. These trains, called “Ladies Specials,” are in response to what is often called “eve-teasing,” which Ketaki Gokhale describes in the Wall Street Journal as “a benign-sounding term for the cat-calls, groping, and other forms of abuse that women here [in India] endure daily.”

NYT describes how India could, at first glance, “seem to be a country where women have shattered the glass ceiling. The president of the Congress Party, the current president, the foreign secretary, and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, are all women. Women are guaranteed equal rights and equal pay by law, and they are increasingly working in the “booming services sector or in professional jobs.”

But these signs of progress do not reflect the social climate for most women. The NYT article continues: the numbers of rape, kidnapping and abduction, torture, and molestation cases all “jumped sharply” between 2003 and 2007, perhaps sparked by the inevitable social tensions caused by women’s growing presence in the workforce. Gokhale writes that “[e]very woman in Delhi knows the rules: You don’t walk alone after dusk; you avoid eye contact; you tend to wear nondescript clothes, the more billowy the better.”

In other words, it’s great that these trains are giving women a safe space. But it’s also important to note that the Ladies Specials are only a temporary solution; for real social change to occur, something must be done to stop the catcalling men. Take Mexico City’s plan, for example. Last year, in dealing with a similarly unsafe public transportation system, the city began running women-only buses, but it also went a step further, according to NYT:

“To complement the single-sex buses, the Institute of Women in Mexico City, a government body that promotes opportunities for women, is pushing a public education campaign to make clear to men that inappropriate touching is illegal. In March, a new ordinance will make it easier to prosecute those found harassing women in public places.”

So, let’s celebrate this step in creating a safe environment for Indian women but continue to ask for a more comprehensive solution to the problem of public harassment.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Feminist epiphanies, by Ani DiFranco

by Jordan Kisner

Part 3: There’s Nothing Wrong with Your Face

Lately I’ve been staring into mirrors, picking myself apart.

So begins “Present/Infant,” the song that DiFranco wrote in 2008 for her newborn daughter, Petah Lucia. Though DiFranco always introduces the song live as one written for her daughter, it seems at first to be a song about her own ongoing insecurities about her physical attractiveness: I fear my life will be over and I will have never lived it unfettered; always glaring into mirrors, mad I don’t look better, she writes, articulating a state of anxiety that many American women know all too well. But why, we wonder, would DiFranco begin a song for her daughter by describing her frustrations with her face?

Now here’s this tiny baby and they say she looks just like me.

Ah. There it is. In this meditation on the tangled interconnectivity of a mother’s relationship with her body and her relationship with her daughter, DiFranco addresses in her own way an issue that is receiving attention from sociologists and bloggers alike: the communication of body image problems from mother to daughter. It seems increasingly clear that mothers play a much larger and more intimate role in the development of their daughters’ relationship to her body than other factors like peer pressure or the media.

In a very insightful post published earlier this summer, our very own Chloe Angyal wrote: “Before a girl is exposed to media images of incredibly thin women, before she is pressured into dieting by girlfriends, she is carefully taught that her body is always imperfect, but always perfectible, by the most influential woman in her life: her mother… [Our mothers] were also taught to hate their bodies, not just by their own mothers, but by a society that told women then, like it tells us now, that their worth as people would be measured by the curve of their hips. If they passed that lesson on to us, it wasn’t because they wanted us to hate our bodies. It was because hating your body was, and is, a major part of being a woman in this culture.”

I was particularly struck by this paragraph from Chloe, and this song from Ani, because I am a product of just such a mother-daughter relationship. My mother is a naturally slim woman, as am I, and she made it clear from very early on that she felt it was important that I remain so, often in ways that I did not appreciate. As a teenager, I responded to this dynamic with anger and resentment. As a young adult with fewer insecurities about my body, more perspective and a much greater understanding of my mother, my resentment has faded and I’m left wondering how to reconcile the way my relationship with my mother has complicated my relationship with my body, and the way that has complicated my relationship with my mother.

Much of the writing about this topic that I have encountered has great analysis of this phenomenon, but little advice for the daughters in question. Those who do mention it talk about breaking the cycle: it’s too late for us, but we don’t have to damage our daughters the way we were damaged. But those of us who learned to feel bad about our bodies from our mother either by example or through criticism need more than to break the cycle for the next generation; we need to end it now.

And I think Ani might just have the trick.

Faced with a daughter whose face looks just like her own, whose happiness she would defend “to the ends of the earth,” she can no longer look in the mirror with so much frustration. DiFranco’s insecurity doesn’t transmute onto her daughter; rather, the love she feels for her daughter inspires self-acceptance. When she sings the final line of “Present/Infant,” her voice rings with a joy that comes from knowing the line is both for her daughter and for herself: Love is all over the place. There’s nothing wrong with your face. In the end, this gift for her daughter is really a thank-you for the gift her daughter gave her: the ability to break the cycle for the both of them.

I believe this transformation of insecurity and frustration into love and acceptance can work in both directions. Daughters of this cycle, we can end this just like Ani, and without waiting another fifteen years to do it. We can look at our mothers, our sisters, our friends and their mothers and recognize their beauty, see how nonsensical their dissatisfaction with their bodies and faces is, and how nonsensical our own must be. We can tell them, and ourselves, and our future daughters, every day.

Love is all over the place. There’s nothing wrong with your face.

It starts at home

by Brenda Jin

It starts with unwanted physical contact deemed appropriate by society, a contact usually inspired by familial “love”… a pinch on the cheek, an arm around a shoulder, mild physical punishment like a spanking, a slap in response to an offensive statement, grabbing your hand and yanking you back to your seat when you decide you’ve had enough.

All of these small violations are deemed appropriate. Adults love their kids, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren… after all, they knows what’s best. The problem is that when parents and family members touch children who do not want to be touched, they send the following message: “I am going to touch you, because I care about you, and I know what’s best for you, and you should let me touch you.” This twisted act of “love”, and the accumulations of these supposedly well-intended actions of forced affection, have a long-lasting effect: they erode a sense of personal space in the presence of someone who supposedly loves you—under the assumption that this person therefore knows better than you how much you want to be touched. When it comes to people who love you, your body and your space can be sacrificed so that someone can forcibly show affection.

The permanent erosion of personal space from an early age undoubtedly contributes to the fact that date rape is underreported in the absence of intense violence and in a context in which “affection” may seem apparent. Too often is physical affection interpreted with an obligation to accept by the receiver, an obligation that begins at home and leads to the incredibly difficult struggle to assert that you do not want to have your space invaded by someone who cares, that for once you want to say “no” to being touched. Because the fact is that rape is not always cold. Rape does not always happen between two people who do not like each other at all. Rape does not always happen in the absence of affection or warmth. Rape can happen in the supposedly safe presence of someone who cares for you, during an exclusive relationship, after dinner-and-movie, an accepted invitation to a beer or cocktail, passionate kissing, or declaration of affection. So the next time you try to hug your nice, nephew, son, daughter, husband, wife, friend, or sibling who isn’t thrilled with the idea of being touched, maybe think twice, step back, and let him or her say “no”.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Garden State Equality and New Jersey's fight for gay marriage

by Kelly Roache

Try as I might, I will never forget my first experience phone banking for a political campaign. I was a sophomore in high school when I volunteered with Victory NJ 2006, the GOP’s ultimately ill-fated midterm election effort to elect Tom Kean, Jr. to the US Senate. Many – if not most – of the calls ended in disconnected numbers or awkward and fumbling attempts with recipients who could not speak English. It was the latter case that led to a particularly disturbing encounter. As I read from a script about how the Republicans vowed to end the culture of corruption in New Jersey, the woman on the other end of the line interrupted me in broken English and a thick Chinese accent:

“I do not like the homosex.”

I don’t know that words really exist to describe the range of emotions – from shock to disappointment to pity – that I felt in that instant. I promptly wished her a good night and ended the call, unsure of how to react. Rarely in my life had I been faced with such ugly, discomfiting prejudice as I was right then – at least not until last spring.

It was shortly before the end of the semester that I caught wind of the now infamous ad released by the National Organization for Marriage – headed by Princeton’s own McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence – warning against the “gathering storm” of marriage equality, with its “dark clouds and strong winds” that make one of the actresses feel “afraid.” (The rest of their ads are also worth viewing, particularly one alleging that gay marriage should be banned to keep kids from getting “confused”.) I generally find myself on the same page as Professor George – and even if I didn’t, I would respect him for his notable achievements and intellect. But I found this menacing characterization of gay marriage just as disturbing as the woman on my call sheet at the phone bank years before.

A pro-marriage equality conservative is a difficult thing to be (but not as difficult, I try to remind myself, as a gay couple unable to marry under prevailing law). But for me it has always been an issue of conscience. This Republican Party has strayed far from its roots – the cause for my recent re-registration as Independent/unaffiliated. The thought of a
Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage should make, at least in my estimation, diehard small-government conservatives cringe. For me, the federal government has no business defining the morality of marriage between consenting human beings all of equal worth in the eyes of the law and their Creator. And it seems I’m not alone – Ted Olson (of Bush v. Gore fame (yes, he argued on the side of President Bush, as well as arguing for an end to affirmative action and working to impeach President Clinton) has agreed to represent two gay couples in a lawsuit challenging Proposition 8 in California:

“For conservatives who don’t like what I’m doing, it’s, ‘If he just had someone in his family we’d forgive him,’ ” he says. “For liberals it’s such a freakish thing that it’s, ‘He must have someone in his family, otherwise a conservative couldn’t possibly have these views.’ It’s frustrating that people won’t take it on face value.”

Yes, it is. Not belonging in either “camp” is a political challenge I’ve wrestled with time and time again, especially for those who believe that a conservative feminist is a contradiction in terms. Still, I was glad when a friend from home approached me this summer about volunteering with Garden State Equality, an organization working to pass same-sex marriage in New Jersey before the year’s end. With six* other states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, and, most recently, Vermont – condoning gay marriage, the movement in New Jersey is gathering momentum. Right now, Garden State Equality is just three votes short in the Senate of passing the bill, which will be decided after the November elections so that legislators can vote their consciences (and Governor Corzine can still sign it even if he loses a tough race to former US Attorney Chris Christie). With 20,000 postcards sent to state legislators, 10,000 more in the works before November, and weekly phone banks to turn out their base, the organization is well on its way to winning over enough fence-sitting senators to make gay marriage a reality in New Jersey.

My volunteer stint with Garden State equality may well be (fingers crossed) my first experience working with a winning campaign. The energy displayed by the people we speak to on the phones and meet at postcarding events is a radical departure – and a breath of fresh air – from the apathy and complacency typically plaguing Jersey politics. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, I know that I’ll always treasure the experience for what it’s taught me about challenging assumptions, something I’ve championed as a feminist but never really seen firsthand. When the phone script encourages us to tell call recipients what motivates us to support gay marriage, people on the other end of the line more often than not jump in to “sympathize” with me as a liberal or a lesbian. But I’ve been just as guilty of these assumptions myself; for instance, at a local summer jazz festival, I approached what I expected to be a group of supportive young people, only to find from their looks of disgust that they had no interest in passing marriage equality. That same night, I met an elderly pair of women who professed their excitement at finally “shacking up” after knowing each other since kindergarten. Meanwhile, a 91-year-old man who was anxious to send a postcard to his legislator in clamorous support of the cause: “Well, considering I was in a gay marriage for fifty years, I guess I didn’t know any better by these guys’ logic!”

While it’s uncertain whether Garden State Equality’s efforts will be successful, I think the words of the organization’s head, Steve Goldstein, sum up well the sentiments of those involved with the campaign: "I wouldn't trade where we're positioned with where (the foes of gay marriage) are positioned." With the vote two months out and outreach efforts planned on campuses all over the state, the best we can do is get – or stay – involved in what is quite possibly the civil rights issue of our time.

*Seven, if you count Maine, where gay marriage was supposed to be effective come fall. However, a Prop 8-style referendum coming to a vote in November has put the measure on hold.

Domestic violence as a "preexisting condition"

by Jillian Hewitt

This week the Service Employees International Union posted a blog revealing that in 8 states—and the District of Columbia—being a victim of domestic abuse is considered a preexisting condition by many insurance companies. This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.

Everyone knows that in this country people with cancer, diabetes, and all number of other diseases are denied healthcare. Everyone with cancer is susceptible, not just those who may have “participated” in their getting cancer, i.e. smokers. Everyone with diabetes is susceptible, not just those who may have “participated” in their developing diabetes by way of an unhealthy lifestyle. Point being, those who are victims of cancer, diabetes, and disease are made victims once again. In this way, denying coverage to people with this type of “preexisting condition” is extremely similar to denying coverage based on one’s status as a victim of domestic violence.

But here’s where the two classifications are different; here’s where it becomes even more disgusting, even more dehumanizing than denying healthcare to those with preexisting medical conditions: by denying coverage to victims of domestic abuse, insurance companies blame the victim when someone else is clearly to blame. It is dehumanizing in the most absolute, clear way—they are treated by insurance companies as investments. Some have more worth than others, some are bigger risks than others; it doesn’t matter why or how they came to be that way. As Ryan Grim wrote in a related Huffington Post article, it is the “cold logic” of the insurance industry. In this case, that logic is detrimental almost exclusively to women, who make up more than 90% of victims of domestic abuse.

I should note that there has been an attempt to end this ridiculous discrimination—Grim notes that in 2006 Senator Pat Murray (D-Wash.) introduced an amendment that would prohibit it; the amendment failed after a 10-10 vote. And in case you were wondering which insurance companies actually take part in this act of punishing the victim, Grim reports that “In 1995, the Boston Globe found that Nationwide, Allstate, State Farm, Aetna, Metropolitan Life, The Equitable Companies, First Colony Life, The Prudential and the Principal Financial Group had all either canceled or denied coverage to women who'd been beaten.” Finally, SEIU is urging people to speak out against the practice by petitioning to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). You can do that here.

To be transparent, I’ve been looking for a good starting point to discuss healthcare in this forum. With the discovery (or rediscovery, rather) of this explicitly sexist, dehumanizing practice, should come the realization that we are in desperate need of change with regard to healthcare policy. The practice of treating humans’ health as investments with which to make a profit will continue to cause the abused to be neglected, the sick to be abandoned, and the insurance companies to make profits that go beyond any standard of reasonability.

Monday, September 14, 2009

12-year-old Yemeni girl dies in childbirth

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I saw the headline "Yemeni girl, 12, dies in painful childbirth" in the gym this morning, and couldn't get it out of my head all day. The story of Fawziya Ammodi, the girl in question, is terribly sad, and appalling on so many levels. Fawziya came from an impoverished family, and because of financial hardship was forced to drop out of school last year (she was in fourth grade) and married to a 24-year-old man. She died of severe bleeding on Monday, after a three-day labor. Her baby didn't live.

Fawziya's death brings up the dual issues of child brides, which are very common in Yemen (more than half of girls are married off before the age of 18), and the quality of maternal health care, not to mention limited birth control education and resources. Dr. Ana Langer, the president of EngenderHealth, has a great post up at HuffPo about how planning pregnancies can save women's lives (she encourages all of us to contact our legislators about a spending increase in the FY10 Foreign Operations Bill - if you're interested in learning more, check out this link).

And then we're confronted with the horror of women who are forced to get married because of poverty, or because women are considered a burden to their family after a certain age. Regardless of conversations about the appropriate age for marriage in any society, I think we can all agree that 12-year-old girls should not be forced into sexual relationships with men twice their age. It's unclear as to why Fawziya's family encouraged (or forced) her to marry, but there are many, many circumstances where young women are essentially sold to older men. This was the case last year, when 10-year-old Nujood Ali escaped from her new husband, who raped her within weeks of the ceremony. In February, members of the Yemeni parliament tried to pass a law raising the minimum age for marriage to 17, but the initiative was blocked by hard-liners who argued that it violates Sharia law.

For me, the causes behind the tragedy of Fawziya's death are very hard to pin down, mostly because there are so many. And I'm afraid that it's going to be turned into yet another conversation about why Islam is bad for women, which is so often oversimplified. Obviously, the men who are using Sharia to block a minimum marriage age are propping up a patriarchal system where women can be bought and sold, but I don't want the child bride issue to be the only thing that comes out of this conversation. The horrible death of this little girl was also because of poor prenatal and maternal care, and an inability (or unwillingness) to access or use contraceptives. It was also because of her family's extreme poverty that she was married in the first place. The forced marriage of young girls is a human rights abuse, and it's really horrifying to think that there are more issues at play in Fawziya's death. But I hope that more comes from this tragic, tragic event than a simple condemnation of extremists in the Yemeni government.

Remember the men

by Thomas Dollar

I must confess I was a bit nervous about writing for a new season of Equal Writes. As a newly repatriated U.S.American coming off a year in Sierra Leone, I wondered how I could be relevant to a campus discourse on feminism. When I was a freshman, Republicans in control of Congress were attempting to force Big Government to overrule a family’s end-of-life decision, while Princeton liberals were protesting to save the Senate filibuster. (Whoops.)

But I have learned some important lessons from the world of international development, and there’s one I find particularly important for the world of collegiate feminism: it’s about the men too. I worked on a number of women’s empowerment projects in Sierra Leone—from expanding economic opportunities for small businesswomen, to ending sexual and domestic violence—and, without a doubt, the worst possible thing we could do was ignore the men. Aid organizations have learned this the hard way: women come home “empowered” from training sessions, only to face increased gender-based violence out of men’s resentment. (Liberia has experienced an increase in violence against women since the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. This is no doubt due in part to increased reporting, but may also be a case of a woman in power leading to more violent men.) More recent (and more successful) programs have sought to build a new gender paradigm by changing the long-term attitudes and behaviors of both men and women. Both sexes receive training, and teachers demonstrate why gender equality benefits everyone. This is a much more radical shift—and requires more work—but it’s impossible to build a better society without it.

Sierra Leone is at a very different stage in gender-equality from Princeton or the United States as a whole, but the need to remember the men is just as great here. All of the major “women’s issues” of our time are issues that impact men profoundly, require men’s involvement and engagement, and, in my experience, are issues about which young men feel a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. In fact, I think it’s a shame that we refer to them as “women’s issues” at all; not only is the term inaccurate, but it causes men to withdraw from talking and caring about them. Let’s call them “people’s issues.”

Although 3.2 million American men suffer relationship violence, the vast majority of instances of sexual assault and partner violence are committed by men against women. And our discourse on the subject largely reflects this. Unfortunately, this reality often leads us into the trap of viewing men as perpetrators and The Problem when it comes to sexual assault, rather than as a necessary part of the solution. I went through a (sex-segregated) training session by a SHARE advisor my junior year. Most of the men in the room were initially uncomfortable, anticipating being badgered, accused, or made to feel guilty about their sexuality. Once the advisor showed us that this would not be the case, we had a very productive and insightful dialogue. (For all you new Princetonians, SHARE is an excellent campus resource. My junior year, it had only one straight, male undergrad advisor, which was a damned shame since this was the demographic group that should have been most involved.) Ending sexual assault is a complex business, but it will certainly require openness and honesty in communicating feelings and desires, a more responsible attitude towards alcohol use, a respect for everyone’s personal and bodily autonomy, people’s ability to say “no” when they mean it, and people’s ability to say “yes” when they mean it. Moreover, our mission shouldn’t just be to prevent something bad (sexual assault), but to promote something good—respectful, honest and equal sexual relationships. This is something that benefits men and women, and will require active participation by men and women.

Issues of family and career are also people’s issues. Most of us reading this blog know that women still make less money on average than men do—even though by the end of this year women will constitute the majority of the American work force. While I’m sure that there are many complex reasons for this, one that’s often cited is women’s greater likelihood to take time off for their families, and this family leave adversely affecting future earnings. Three-fifths of women work outside the home, yet our career-track system remains stuck in the Mad Men-era. In Norway, by contrast, parents are guaranteed a year’s paid leave after the birth of a child—six weeks of which must be taken by the father. This has led to some of the most gender-equal parenting in the world—even among immigrant families that come from traditional societies. For a country that supposedly holds family values paramount, the United States does approximately nothing to make balancing career and family easier. (Though many employers—Princeton University among them—grant some paid parental leave.) Encouraging active fatherhood through paid incentives is something that benefits everyone.

Issues ranging from reproductive rights (we’re still waiting for male birth control) to sex discrimination (in this case, for not being a “manly man”) are not just women’s issues either. Feminism is a subset of a greater belief in human right—and those rights can’t be obtained without the participation of all of humanity.

Untouchable: Dalit women in India

by Laura Smith-Gary

Earlier this summer, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the home of over 190 million individuals, fury and small-scale violence erupted when a Brahmin (upper-caste) political opponent of the state’s Chief Minister appeared to suggest the Chief Minister, a Dalit woman (that is, from the lowest case, often known as “untouchable” because contact with members of this caste was thought to be contaminating), be raped in order to understand the pain of rape victims. Chief Minister Mayawati had been holding public ceremonies in which Dalit rape victims were given a small amount of compensation money (the equivalent of about $500) by government officials. Rita Bahuguna Joshi, a Brahmin (upper-caste) woman who is the leader of an opposing party, said that the women should “throw the money at Mayawati’s face and tell her ‘you should also be raped and I will give you ten million rupees’”.

Joshi was arrested on charges of promoting social enmity, insulting a woman’s modesty and insulting a person of lower caste. Riots erupted, and protesters set fire to her house. The charges against her carry a possible sentence of ten years in prison.

When I read what had happened, my first thought was that while inappropriate, Joshi's comments were actually defending rape victims. She said, according to the Associated Press via MSNBC, that she was trying to "expose a chief minister who has no sympathy for women." It does seem that Mayawati could be using rape victims for her own grandstanding, and capitalizing on Joshi's remarks to inflame Dalit voters, her main constituency. She has been accused of playing up caste divisions to garner support. Her denunciation of Joshi's words is particularly questionable given that she herself had said a similar thing about a political rival several months ago, announcing that his nieces would receive compensation if they were raped.

One of the problems I often run into when trying to understand international events and write about the underlying gender issues is my own ignorance -- there's so much I just don't know, and a few hours of research can't possibly allow me to understand the intersectionality of gender and the caste system, or the complex dynamics of Indian politics, which are often inflammatory. However, I do want to try to tease out this story a bit, as I think my initial instinct that this is fundamentally a story about political power plays was mistaken.

Over at Feministing, Samhita posted about this story, and while I was happy to see her covering it, based on my reading I think she missed the point. She wrote, “The crime however was not hatespeech, it was violating a woman’s modesty, or suggesting that she is not modest.” She pointed out, rightfully, that focusing on a woman's modesty smacks strongly of victim-blaming, and that the wording of the law is problematic. The problem with her statement is that while the wording of the charge might not make it clear, the crime was hate speech. The law under which Joshi will prosecuted, the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, is one that was intended to prevent (or at least, make prosecutable) atrocities against Dalits, members of India's lowest castes.

Joshi is a Brahmin, a member of the priestly, scholarly caste. The AP article I linked to above to states that Dalits have been "treated with disdain and contempt" by upper castes, particularly Brahmins, but this is an incredible understatement. Although India's caste system has officially been dismantled, Dalits have been and continue to be oppressed, crushed, terrorized, kept out of public life, and consigned to the most repulsive, dangerous and difficult work available. "Disdain and contempt" makes me think of an "east coast liberal" turning hir nose up at a "Nascar Dad" -- not centuries of near slavery, starvation, physical abuse and social ostracization, centuries of being seen as trash. (Human Rights Watch details some of the continuing discrimination against Dalits here.)

There is a strong pattern in India of sexual violence against Dalit women by members of upper castes -- raping them, mutilating them, parading them naked through the streets, and "insulting their modesty" in order to humiliate and degrade them. The bitter irony of the often used term "Untouchable" to refer to Dalits is that they have been seen as so contaminating that some upper caste members wouldn't eat food a Dalit's shadow had touched, they were never excluded from the most sexually violating forms of touch. This is paired, all too often, with blatant inaction on the part of police and officials. In the beginning of 2009 Mayawati ordered police to pay special attention to crimes against Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, and the number of reported crimes rose sharply, with 139 rapes and murders alone being reported in four months -- a fact which even the police themselves attribute to increased attentiveness on their part and increased willingness by Dalits to report crimes.

A quick search on google or wikipedia turns up a stomach-churning list of headlines from the past few months:

[Trigger warning]

Policeman suspended for not registering Dalit's gangrape

Dalit woman gangraped, beaten to death

Teenage Dalit girl gangraped in Uttar Pradesh

And from the past few years:

Dalit rape victim burned to death by high-caste rapist

6 Hindu teachers rape Dalit girl daily

Dalit woman paraded naked in Punjab village

Savage rape & killing of Dalit family wake-up call for India

Dalit woman tied naked to a tree in Punjab

The threat of raping a Dalit woman, then, seems to not only be a gendered insult but to bear the weight of a long history of rape and sexual oppression. While Joshi might insist that she was calling for compassion toward rape victims, a Brahmin woman bringing up the possibility a Dalit woman could be raped feels sinister, a reminder of her traditional power. Mayawati is India's most powerful Dalit politician, and whatever Joshi's intent her words could easily be read by the Dalit community as an attempt to force an "uppity" low-caste woman back into her historical place -- a place of sexual vulnerability without legal recourse.

I want to end by putting the focus on the people who should not be left out of this story: the Dalit women who have been raped. Mayawati was sending her Director General of Police Vikram Singh to the places where violent crimes had been committed against Dalits in order to raise awareness that under the Scheduled Castes/Sceduled Tribes Act, victims are entitled to compensation; Singh's visits also demonstrated to the public of Uttar Pradesh that the government and police force were committed to fighting violence against Dalits (see again). However, victim's advocates have objected (see the AP story), pointing out that these public ceremonies can stigmatize the women who have been raped and call unwanted attention to them. Others have objected to the compensation altogether -- feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia has said that compensation to those who have been raped reinforces their "victimhood" status and reinforces the idea that rape is inevitable and will not be addressed legally. Now, in the firestorm following Joshi's remarks, the Dalit women who have been assaulted have disappeared from the story, once again erased by those in power. Untouchable.