Saturday, October 10, 2009

Birthers, babies and the politics of reproduction

by Christopher Moses

Recent and ongoing right-wing debates about Barack Obama’s birth—and in turn his ability to serve as President—belie a larger, darker fear about women’s rights and gender equity.

Race plays a definitive role, too. Though Obama himself has, I believe, made the brilliant, categorical decision to deny race as a factor in current political debates (the ‘I was black before I was elected’ line). With him we’ve all flip-flopped: liberals now espouse a color-blind, color-doesn’t-matter politics, while the right sees a conspiratorial rainbow overshadowing their white world. With Obama unwilling to engage, they either get cut off at the race-baiting pass, or end up saying things so absurdly racist that the President can just wink and nod.

This profound and consequential shift in debates about race deserves much more attention and analysis. But for now, a post more squarely about gender—though still with a tawny tinge.

Let the Birthers speak for themselves:

[Obama’s] mother perhaps believed color was not an issue in human relations. But her influence on him evaporated when she sent him back to Hawaii, and as a 10 year old, the feelings of abandonment festered. As nature abhors a vacuum, so does the soul. A race agitating, communist Frank Marshall Davis took this young psychologically impressionable boy and befriended him… Davis built up the young Obama’s sense of “Black Pride,” until he became more black than the 50% white of his birth.

However fascinating this analysis of racial ratios and darky disfigurement may be (aren’t these usually nature-over-nurture folks?)—instead the central issue here involves the power of patriarchy.

The whiteness of Obama’s mother couldn’t cut it, couldn’t persevere within this impressionable young man. The ever-greater power of personhood inherited from his father magnetized this racial rage until he became less white, less human, and, above all, less American. Back to the Congo—or woops, I meant Kenya—did the blackening boy go. (Geography gets hard with Africa one big continent of a mess of brutal barbarity and backwards savagery.)

How could a mother ever give to her son the things of greatest importance (race, rights, what have you?) Yet for all their faults, the Founders were reacting fiercely against an aristocratic culture of lineal privilege and patriarchal power. Birth meant a fresh start, not a bonded, stagnant status (except for slaves, but that’s another story). For people just as for the new nation, each day meant a call to make the world anew. Such was the rage of republican motherhood and women’s importance for raising a country of caring citizens.

American Democracy and the Constitutional provisions for citizenship undercut patrilineal decent. So the Birthers really are a self-contradictory and screwed up mess: ‘Dedicated to the rebirth of our Constitutional Republic,’ they might need to allow mothers a bit more wherewithal. (At least they’re on track with race and slavery.)

Giving birth and giving citizenship make women extremely powerful and, in turn, a rather dangerous threat . Birther absurdism may be just that, but as with the broader right-wing assault against reproductive rights, end-of-life care and individual freedom—their desire to reinstate a patriarchal theocracy—we need to keep fighting for the revolutionary promise of our Founding Fathers—and Founding Mothers. (Minus the slavery.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Stay at home moms

by Beth Zak-Cohen

Growing up in a city, the phrase “stay-at-home mom” brings to my mind suburbs , white picket fences, soccer practices, and cupcakes. That’s why I was surprised to see a new study by the Pew Research Center. Stay-at-home moms today, it concludes, are more likely to be younger, poorer, Hispanic, and foreign born. More likely simply means that more stay at home moms fit this description now than ever before. Another interesting fact from the article is that 12.3% of moms who stay at home were below poverty level, compared to 5.1% of their counterparts. This begs the question: why are these mothers staying at home, when they could be working and, possibly, bringing their family above the poverty line? I think one major reason is probably lack of childcare. Many areas, especially rural ones, do not provide public daycare or nursery care and babysitters are expensive. Kids cannot be left alone, so what’s the alternative?

I don’t want to assume that these stay at home moms aren’t there by choice. But, according to the study, only 3 out of 10 say family responsibilities are the reason they don’t work so what’s the explanation for the other 7 of 10?

46% of stay at home moms had not attended college. Maybe this contributes to mothers staying at home. With the economy how it is right now, college degrees are becoming more important in finding a job with decent benefits and hours. When given the choice between a minimum wage job with long hours and spending time with my kids, I know which I’d choose. With the 34% of stay at home moms being Hispanic or foreign born it’s also possible that either immigration status or racial prejudice keep these below-poverty line mothers out of the workforce.

The New York Times quotes a NYU professor who offers an alternative from the theory that sprang to my mind. Stay at home moms, he claims, are younger, so they’re probably still attending school. This would make them non-working, although they’d presumably be above the poverty line, as they can afford college.

In some ways this study can be seen as positive for feminists. Upper income moms are more likely to work and lower income moms more likely to stay home, than ever before. This suggests that neither income nor societal expectations are affecting women’s decisions about how to raise their children. But should that be a personal choice? If that personal choice affects your ability to feed or clothe (or for upper class working moms, to see and really be a part of the life of) your children, maybe you should have second thoughts.

The demographic of the stay at home mother is changing in a a way that those 1950s sitcoms could never have imagined. It certainly shows that are society is changing, becoming one where women have more choices than ever before. However, by providing childcare and jobs to these women, we could make sure they all have real choice as to how to spend their days and how to raise their children.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gay book prize accused of discrimination

by Kaite Welsh

As most of the literary world gears up for the Booker prize, new guidelines for another prestigious award are causing controversy. The Lambda Literary Award is presented every year to an author whose book deals with LGBT issues and characters. Whilst in previous years authors of any sexual orientation were allowed to enter, now submissions for the award, which open on Thursday, are restricted to “LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives”.

The move has divided readers of all sexualities. For a large number of gay readers, objections to the new guidelines are seen as an issue of entitlement, of straight writers impinging on one of the few spaces open to gay and trans authors. These authors are seen to be appropriating gay culture and issues from a position of heterosexual privilege, which would negate the veracity of their writing.

Katherine V Forrest, Interim Trustee of the LLF and herself an openly lesbian author of several classic science fiction novels, says that the decision was taken partly out of “consideration [of] the despair of our own writers when a heterosexual writer, who has written a fine book about us, wins a Lambda Award, when one or more of our own LGBT writers may have as a Finalist a book that may be the only chance in a career at a Lambda Literary Award.”

Regardless of the ethics of the award’s new guidelines, it cannot be disputed that the market works against writers who identify themselves as gay, bi or transgender, and the effect of the current economic climate on independent publishers and booksellers has hit the queer literary community hard.

So when an award designed to promote LGBT experiences is won by a straight author, it is natural for the gay and trans communities to feel slighted – as though their experience wasn’t good enough, was only valid when filtered through the perspective of someone who may have observed these issues but has never lived them.

But there is another problem that Forrest does not address – that of authors who are reluctant to reveal their sexual or gender orientation, even if it means losing the opportunity to have their work lauded by their own community. According to the new rules, by submitting your novel for the award, you are effectively outing yourself and many writers, regardless of their subject matter, are not ready or able to take that step.

Catherynne Valente, whose work has twice been shortlisted for the rival Spectrum award, says that she has “serious reservations about an award committee becoming an arbiter of what is and is not LGBTQ. Many authors are not out and their experience is no less valid.” She herself identifies as bisexual but admits that she in the past she has not “always felt comfortable disclosing my sexuality in professional circles".

Awards like Lambda are necessary not only for the writing community, but for disadvantaged groups as a whole. They tell people that their experiences are not only worth writing about, but worth offering prizes over. They up the standard of writing, and award authors who present marginalised people in a positive light. Whilst restrictions on the entrants in order to preserve a safe space for gay writers makes sense, the LLF would do well to consider the sections of the LGBT community that they are inadvertently excluding.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How women deal with depression during pregnancy

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I was surprised and pleased to see this article in the NYT yesterday, discussing the unspoken taboos surrounding depression during pregnancy. I actually wrote a paper on pregnancy advice books last semester, focusing specifically on the language that the books used to advise pregnant women on putting substances (medication, alcohol, and food) into their bodies, and although post-partum depression was fairly extensively covered (thanks, perhaps, to Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields), there was barely a mention of what women should do if they were taking anti-depressants before becoming pregnant, or if they became depressed during pregnancy. There is such a proscriptive language surrounding what pregnant women should ingest during pregnancy that this isn't surprising - most pregnancy advice writers would have women forget about their own bodies entirely, and concentrate on what would most nourish the fetus. There is a gaping absence of any advice about what expectant mothers should do for themselves.

The problem is that if there is any chance of danger to the fetus because of a particular medication, like anti-depressants or even asthma medication, most people advise pregnant women to refrain, "for the good of the baby." The idea that it might be more important for the mother to be happy and healthy rarely enters into the picture, which is why anti-depressants seem unfeasible to most pregnant women. Disappointingly, the NYT did not really interrogate the social taboos of pregnancy (something I've written about, particularly with respect to alcohol, several times on this blog), but they did begin with a telling story from a mother-to-be who eloquently describes the dilemma that pregnant women face.

“Every single thing you put in your body when you’re pregnant, you wonder, ‘Oh, my God, am I growing my baby an extra finger?’ ” Sherean Malekzadeh Allen said. “I was worried that I would hurt the baby if I took the pills, and I was worried I would hurt the baby if I didn’t.”

There have been connections between heart defects, fetal malformations, and pulmonary hypertension in babies and anti-depressant use in pregnant mothers. But the risks surrounding anti-depressants are relatively low. The APA and ACOG both agree that therapy should be the first recourse for pregnant women suffering from depression, but also recommend that decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. Their research is full of caveats, and I'm not sure how much it will do to shatter some of the paralyzing guilt that is placed on pregnant women who might be in need of anti-depressants, even though it might actually be more harmful to the fetus to refrain from taking them. And indeed, according to the NYT, "studies have linked depression during pregnancy to premature births, growth changes, and irritability and inattention in the baby after birth."

The bottom line is that undertreatment is the main issue. “By the time I get to hear about somebody’s perinatal depression,” said Dr. Shari I. Lusskin, director of reproductive psychiatry at N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center, “it’s usually worse than what can be treated with psychotherapy alone, because women go out of their way not to complain; they don’t want to be put on medication, and they feel guilty."

I can attest from my extensive reading of pregnancy advice literature that the guilt placed on pregnant women is pervasive and powerful; I always think of a line from What To Expect When You're Expecting where the author instructs women to, "as they lift fork to mouth," to think, "is this a bite that will benefit my child?" Where are the pregnancy books telling women to do what they need to do to have a happy, healthy pregnancy? Where are the acknowledgments that maternal and fetal health are intimately connected? This article is a good first step, but we need far more information - and far less proscriptive rhetoric - before pregnant women will be able to make healthy decisions for themselves, guilt-free.

Guinea citizens raped violently during political protest

by Jillian Hewitt

On Monday, the NY Times ran an article documenting the horrors of sexual violence in Guinea. I commend Adam Nossiter, the author, for writing the piece and the Times for running it on the front page; it is only with the help of the national news media that these atrocities can be exposed for what they are.

This is what happened: in the wake of a coup, citizens protested in a stadium. The demonstration was brutally crushed, and in its wake, witnesses are (and anonymously) coming forward about the use of rape and violence as political weapons.

Almost 50,000 people assembled to protest the actions of the leader of the military junta, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. According to human rights organizations, at least 157 people were killed by government forces. But beyond that, witnesses have come forward, some with photographs taken with their cell phones, to describe the systematic use of rape as a weapon of violence, shame, and humiliation. This is a shame so penetrating that “victims are reluctant to speak, and local doctors refuse to do so.” It is astonishing to think that, had it not been for the courage of the witnesses who spoke out, these systematic rapes might never have been publicized.

Nossiter goes on to explain that “Rape is a fairly common tool of military repression in Africa, but large-scale violence against women has not been a previous government tactic here.” Events like these force us to consider how much degradation and human abuse is simply never covered in the media. But it’s when these abuses happen day in and day out for years on end that they become obsolete to the news media—it is a story with no ending, an article with no narrative. Not to mention the difficulty of writing a story about rape as a weapon of war when the women who are abused are too mortified to speak out.

Monday, October 5, 2009

International adoptions fuel "family planning" kidnappings

by Laura Smith-Gary

In late September, Chinese families told reporters from the Los Angeles Times that their babies have been stolen from them by "family planning" officials and given -- or perhaps more correctly, "laundered" -- to American adoptive couples. According to these families, the officials wield China's family planning policies as weapons, financially coercing and physically forcing Chinese parents to give up their children. The infants are then labeled “abandoned” and put up for international adoption, and the officials collect a substantial cut of the $3,000 in fees adoptive parents pay. These stories are supported by an investigation by the state-owned Southern Metropolis News, which found that at least 80 baby girls from the Guizhou province had been seized from their parents when the families couldn't pay exorbitant fines for having more than two children. The girls were given in transnational adoptions to American and European parents. The adoption fees, the News reported, were split between orphanages and local officials.

The demand for Chinese babies by American and other Western parents is fueling these outrageous kidnappings.* Many of those consulted by the Times point out that were foreign citizens not ready and willing to pay high fees for healthy Chinese babies -- and happy to accept that the infant they want to take home has been abandoned by its (usually her) parents -- it is inconceivable that family planning officials would go beyond their legal authority and confiscate children to be raised at the expense of the state. One of the cruel ironies of the situation is that the demand by Americans to adopt Chinese babies, especially Chinese girls, comes largely from the idea that Chinese girls are regularly abandoned by their parents and face a grim future if they are not adopted by foreign families. As one adoptive mother explained, "When we adopted in 2006, we were fed the same stories, that there were millions of unwanted girls in China, that they would be left on the street to die if we didn't help."

These stories are not without a basis in reality. In many parts of China, daughters are less valued than sons. Sons provide an economic safety net for their parents, give them honor and social standing, and customarily care for the souls of their ancestors. Daughters give no such benefits, and can be seen as a burden rather than an asset. Chinese limits on childbearing can also mean having a girl prevents the birth of a son -- in some provinces this is considered so serious that a couple who have a daughter as their first child are permitted to have a second in the hope of getting a boy. At times, Chinese families’ preference for sons leads to sex-selective abortion; in the most extreme cases a family desperate for a son may abandon a female infant who would fill their legally allowed number of children.

This situation is a bitter example of the tangle of problems Americans and other Westerners can inadvertently generate when attempting to change structural and cultural sexism in other societies, even in small ways. Adopting an unwanted female infant seems to be a private, personal way to affect a small amount of change, and there is little doubt that in many cases truly abandoned and subsequently transnationally adopted girls benefit greatly from the love, comfort, and opportunities their lives with their adopted family afford them. Understanding the full ramifications of Western interference, however, is tricky and must take into account the cultural structures and institutions playing a role in the layers of sexism in a country. China's family planning laws are an example of an institution that is fundamentally about controlling women's reproduction, and taken in the context of son-preferencing Chinese culture, they provides pressure that lead to some girls being aborted, neglected, and abandoned. It seems to be a fundamentally sexist law, and it also seems that mitigating its effects -- for instance, by adopting one of the unwanted female infants -- would be a purely good act.

While attempting to work against institutionalized sexism, though, we must be aware that we may be feeding into other systems of oppression, like structural racism, poverty, and the exploitation of developing countries by developed countries. China's family planning laws and adoption laws exist in a number of systems besides that of gender, and must also be considered both in the context of rural poverty and disenfranchisement within China and in the context of wealth flowing between Western individuals and Chinese institutions. Family planning laws in China not only limit the legal number of children a family can have and allow forced abortions, sterilizations, and insertion of IUDs, they allow officials to levy steep fines to families found to be in violation of the restrictions on family size. This gives officials economic power as well as power over reproduction. The lack of legal redress available to those in rural villages also means that officials can exceed their legal authority and confiscate children without much fear of discipline. As one Chinese scholar told the LA Times, family planning officials are more powerful, and more feared, than the Ministry of Public Security.

The insertion of Western wealth into such a situation, even if done with the purest of intentions, has resulted in rampant corruption -- and now, kidnappings. Transnational adoption has fostered a system in which poor, powerless families from non-white, "third world" nations are exploited to meet the desires of white Americans -- even if that desire is to “rescue” a baby girl. Children become a commodity and an export, marketed to relatively wealthy Americans as exotic accessories, as demure and delicate "China dolls", or (and) as discarded infants in need of rescue from an oppressive patriarchal regime.** The discrimination girls face in China is extremely real, and it has also become part of the marketing for the adoption of Chinese infants. Upon reading this article I was ashamed to realize how I'd been thinking of Chinese parents who loved and valued daughters as the exception rather than the rule -- an absurd supposition stemming from my own racism and "othering" of Chinese families.

It is evident from the LA Times article that the interviewed adoptive parents love their children, also that they feel their lifestyle and the fact that they are "rescuers" entitles them to the children. One mother says she worries her daughter was stolen, and that though she would never consider returning her even if that was the case, she would “maybe send a picture.” While I can’t imagine having to contemplate the idea that your beloved child was kidnapped and functionally sold to you, but this struck me as a continuation of the racism-tinged idea that Chinese parents don’t really care about their daughters as American parents do -- the girl’s adoptive mother doesn’t seem to contemplate the fact that if their daughter was taken from them by force, six years later her birth parents are probably still in agony. The narrative (again, the not-unsubstantiated narrative) that some Chinese families consider girls dispensable is believed even if there is evidence that in this particular case it is not true. The idea that these girls are better off in America no matter how they got here lingers unpleasantly in the background. Indeed, they would probably have fewer opportunities as women growing up in China than they will growing up in America, and the fact that such a disparity of opportunity for female children exists is not something to be dismissed lightly. However, we should be extremely wary of using structural sexism in another country to justify any of our own racist beliefs about that culture (ie "Chinese people are barbaric, they leave their daughters on the streets to die"), and should be extraordinarily cautious about allowing our understanding of sexism in some culture to justify our exploitation of that country's people. In our naivete and willful ignorance, it seems we have been doing just that, feeding into a system that hurts girls and hurts families.

While I've moved this into the abstract a bit, I don't want to again make the mistake of forgetting that there are real families in pain, all individuals and none of them experiencing the loss of their child in exactly the same way. Concluding their article, the LA Times quotes a woman whose daughter was kidnapped by a "family planning" official and (the mother was told) adopted by Americans. The mother says that given the opportunity she wouldn’t try to force her daughter to come back to China, since the Americanized girl wouldn't want to live in a "poor village." Then she says, "But we'd like to know where she is. We'd like to see a picture. And we'd like her to know that we miss her and that we didn't throw her away."

*A few months ago I discussed a New York Times article reporting that family planning laws combined with some Chinese families’ desperation for sons had also led to a spate of young boys being kidnapped from urban areas and sold in rural provinces. There is more than one kind of trafficking of children happening in China, domestically and internationally, and though they have elements in common that should be noted, they are all subject to different sorts of pressures and motivations.

**This isn't only true of Chinese transnational adoptions -- it has been known for years, for instance, that Guatemalan children have been kidnapped to launder to American couples in adoption.

Hat tip, Resist Racism.

A few more resources: For more on transnational and transracial adoption, Racialicious has a good discussion going on here, which touches on the commodification of children and the narrative of abandoned Chinese girls covering dubious adoption practices -- I highly recommend reading the article and the comments, and following the links they give.

David M. Smolin's extremely informative paper for the 2005 Wayne Law Review titled "Child Laundering: How the Intercountry Adoption System Legitimizes and Incentivizes the Practices of Buying, Trafficking, Kidnapping, and Stealing Children" is definitely worth reading; it doesn't deal specifically with China but delves into the roots of corruption and exploitation in transnational adoption systems.

In 2002’s Law and Society Review, Kay Johnson writes “Politics of international and domestic adoption in China,” a fascinating analysis of hows and whys of China’s thriving international adoption and stuttering domestic adoption businesses.

Roller derby women in "Whip It!"

by Jordan Kisner

This week, women's roller derby is dominating the box offices in Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It. Whip It stars Ellen Page (of Juno fame) as a teenage girl who secretly joins a roller derby team in order to escape from the monotony of her life in a small Texas town. The film is ably directed by Barrymore, who is also featured as one of Page's teammates, and Kristin Wiig of SNL and Alia Shawkat (the memorable Maeby Funke from Arrested Development) are just two highlights of a truly awesome female cast.

There are two elements of Whip It that make it worth seeing, especially for feminists. The first is the introduction it provides to the world of roller derby, one of the most intense contact sports available to women and one of the most interesting integrations of feminine and masculine gender roles in one place. These women are tough: shoving each other into railings, tripping each other and throwing elbows, all while careening around a track on eight wheels apiece. These women are muscular, aggressive, and tattooed. At the same time, they wear minidresses and fishnets to play, along with heavy, punk-infused makeup. They play as dirty as the worst hockey teams, but in push-up bras. While the movie suggests that the almost campily feminized apparel is just for show, it shows us that the physical power engendered in the women who play the sport proves empowering for them personally: Ellen Page's character, Bliss, doesn't dress or style herself differently after she picks up the sport, but she does become more inclined to stand up for herself, cheerfully hip-checking a high-school bully over a railing.

The other strong point of Whip It is the fraught relationship between Bliss and her mother. Bliss' mother, played with sensitivity and vulnerability by Marcia Gay Harden, has a vision of the kind of life Bliss will have, one that involves a long line of beauty pageants and an advantageous marriage. In essence, she is the kind of Texan mother that my own mother had: traditional and well-meaning, if somewhat unable to creatively imagine her daughter's potential. She wants the best possible future for her daughter, only Bliss' personality and goals are at odds with her mother's vision. The most interesting, provocative moments of the film are the scenes between Harden and Page; their loving, if frustrated, attempts to reconcile their ideas about the kinds of goals young women should have are so believable and sweet that many if not most women will recognize something of themselves and their mother (or perhaps their generation and the previous one) in their relationship.

All in all? 4 out of 5 stars, a fun feminist flick for your weekend.

Thoughts on my experience as a male feminist

by Josh Franklin

Partially in reaction to the controversy at Feministe over EW blogger Tom Dollar's post titled "Remember the Men", and partially in reaction to my experience this year facilitating discussions about sexual assault after Sex on a Saturday Night, I wanted to write here about male involvement in feminist spaces. I realize that there is a lot that I don't understand about gender, and this is not a comprehensive critical account of male participation in discussions about gender. Rather, I want to share some thoughts and provide an additional perspective.

One of the most troubling things that I have noticed during my participation in discussions about sexual assault is the way in which male survivors are discussed. It seems to me that sometimes there is some difficulty appreciating individuality in discussions where understanding the meanings and effects of cultural categories--gender, sexual orientation, race, and so forth--are crucial. I think that there are often subtle but unfortunate conflations. The idea that women are more likely to be survivors is somehow transformed into the myth that men cannot be survivors or that there are virtually no male survivors. The truth is that, according to RAINN, 1 in 33 men is a survivor of sexual assault, which is 2.78 million men, a statistic that Tom referenced in his post.

How should we interpret this? It clearly doesn't mean that there is no power dynamic that privileges men in our society. It shouldn't be necessary to say this, but there is no single male experience: men have a wide range of experiences, determined in part by their race, class, sexual orientation, and so forth, but also by the idiosyncratic details of their lives. Just as we recognize the suffering that accompanies the sexual assault of female students at Princeton, despite their privileged status as Princeton students, we recognize the suffering of male survivors despite their male privilege. At the same time, the existence of male survivors doesn't excuse men in general for male power.

The essence of what I want to say is that although gendered structures of power affect our lives, they do not determine them. That is to say, patriarchy is a part of each of our lives, but it does not account fully for our experiences. A lot of the feminist discussions that I have participated in have emphasized that members of privileged groups are often not in a position to make fair judgments about social interactions, since they do not fully understand their privilege.

Personally, I feel that I have developed a tendency to suppress my emotions, telling myself that though I might think I am unhappy, I am too privileged to know what it means to be unhappy. I'm not sure whether this tendency is a feature of feminist discourse in general, or something specific to my experience. And maybe it's true that I'm too privileged to really know what it means to be unhappy. But I do know that I started this semester at Princeton with a lot of anxiety about eating, about my body, about my religious experience, and about my gender, which I had been dismissing for a while as illusions. I will write more about my experiences in the future, but for now I want to say only this: I find it very difficult to acknowledge my own suffering, maybe because I feel guilty for thinking that I suffer despite my privilege, which I accept as enormous. And this raises the question that I want to bring to EW, which is: how do we create spaces that allow men to accept their own difficulties without undermining the feminist project? Do we create men's spaces? If so, what should be men's roles in feminist spaces?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Women are almost half the workforce: why is this bad news?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I just returned from my grandmother's 92nd birthday party, where I found myself trying to explain to her that yes, indeed she is a feminist (this, surprisingly, was not a hard sell), and ended up hearing some heartbreaking stories about her experiences as a teacher in the 1940s and 1950s, when it was still against the rules to smoke, drink or get married. Although she wasn't one of them, my grandmother had colleagues who were forced out of their jobs because they got pregnant, or even because there was a man who wanted their position, regardless of whether he was better qualified. She was paid something like $1,200 a year (when the average salary in 1950 was almost $3,000) and finally quit her job for 19 years after my aunt, her first daughter, was born.

I was thinking about all of this when I came across Lisa Belkin's article in today's NYT mag. Belkin had some good news, and some bad news. The good news? Women are almost half the workforce - the numbers are so close that they may actually be half the workforce as you read this. This seems to be a fairly significant accomplishment, considering that women were only 34.9 percent of the working population 40 years ago.

We joyfully begin uncorking the champagne, and then Belkin reveals the bad news: it turns out that this good news isn't really all that good. Why are women gaining their place in the workforce? Mostly because men are the ones who are suffering during the recession - 78 percent of the jobs lost were held by men. And it's not necessarily because women are being retained over their male colleagues - they're being kept on because women are cheap. And because they're concentrated in lower-paying industries like health care and education, where there have been fewer layoffs. And because, Belkin claims, women are more willing to settle for less. Belkin quotes Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, who says that "women might be seen as less resentful about taking a job with less money and authority, and they might also be less likely to bolt if something better comes along."

Ironically, it might be better if women were losing jobs at the same rate as men. That might prove some kind of parity. As it is, women are still earning 78 cents on average for every dollar earned by a man, but this breaks down differently state by state, and there are some places where it particularly sucks to be female. Wyoming, for example, where women earn 64 cents to a man's dollar.

So it's definitely not good news that women may be turning into the primary breadwinners, if they're still earning 20% less than the men who are losing their jobs. We can't recover from the recession quickly if this is the story behind the statistics - or if men are simply restored to their jobs. Pay equity is the only solution, something we hoped for in the wake of the Lilly Ledbetter Act earlier this year. But until we have that, let's not wave around these statistics to prove that women have finally broken the glass ceiling.

Women in the Military: Changing Standards in Australia and Elsewhere

by Ayse Gursoy

On Thursday, TIME reported that the Defense Science and Technology Organization at Australia’s Wollongong University began examining physical standards for the military. This ongoing process will eventually require all branches of the Australian Defense Force (ADF) — not just the ninety-two percent currently open to women — to accept recruits purely on these physical standards and not on age or gender restrictions. The ADF has, up to now, claimed exemption to Australia’s 1984 Sex Discrimination Act and thus barred women from the remaining eight percent of military roles. Australia’s discussion of the role of women in the military complements similar discussions happening in the United States, especially in the context of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently, only a few nations allow women to serve in active combat roles. Israel, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Denmark, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland all permit women on the front. Some countries prohibit women in active infantry positions, such as the UK and the U.S., while allowing them to serve in support, artillery, or other key roles.

The involvement of women in the military is increasing. 220,000 of the two million soldiers (about eleven percent) who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. Admissions statistics for West Point reveal that seventeen percent of the Class of 2012 is female. According to The New York Times, women comprise only about six percent of the top military ranks. Ann E. Dunwoody became the first female four-star general, the highest rank in the U.S. military, in 2008. On September 22, 2009, Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa L. King was made commandant of the U.S. Army’s drill sergeant school in Fort Jackson. She is the first woman to run one of these schools, and will influence the training of every enlisted soldier. Sergeant Major King has affirmed her commitment to recruiting more qualified women as drill sergeants, and dismissed any suggestions that her success is due to her gender. When she looks in the mirror, she “see[s] a soldier”.

The changing nature of war makes defining “combat roles” extremely difficult. Urban warfare and counterinsurgency, namely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, make every role a combat role. Whether a soldier is on a base, out on patrol, or in a checkpoint, s/he is at constant risk of being targeted by suicide bombers, IEDs, or other insurgents. In such dangerous situations, women have proved to be capable soldiers, and have become an essential part of the military. While the U.S. military currently bars women from entering combat branches and serving in support roles for these units, officers circumvent these restrictions due to necessity. Women can lead some male troops as officers, and these limitations do not apply when women are “attached”, rather than “assigned”, to a combat unit. In Iraq and Afghanistan, cultural norms prevent male soldiers from searching civilian women for weapons. Ironically, this segregation on gender lines made women indispensable to the U.S. military, and the Marine Corps founded units of “lionesses” assigned to this task. The Marines also recently opened two more sets of intelligence jobs to women.

The expansion of women’s roles in the military obviously comes with opposition. An Australian politician and former officer, Stuart Robert, has dismissed the current discussion as “outrageous”. The most common objections cite physical and emotional differences between the sexes, health risks associated with pregnancy and menstruation, male reactions to witnessing female soldiers wounded, and enemy combatants’ fear (or lack thereof) of female soldiers. Many of these objections are themselves products of a male-dominated military; if women had historically served in combat, then these stereotypes preventing women from combat roles would not exist. The question of how to increase women’s involvement in the military is a classic catch-22. The U.S. military’s strict physical standards are gender-blind (but they are dependent on age). Women endure the same basic training as men, meet the same requirements, and are told that they are physically inferior? If a soldier, not a man or a woman, proves physically fit, they deserve the same consideration as any other. Eva Cox, a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (in Australia), points out that “Being told that you can't do something, that you're not allowed to do something, that you're inadequate in some way to do it, or that you're going to be just so distracting that nobody else is going to be able to do their job properly, I think it undermines the whole way that the culture or organisations work”. Given a chance, women have shown themselves to be capable soldiers. Hopefully the military will recognize this fact.

Image from BL1961's flickr.