key concepts of GWS and why they might make the academy angry

Earlier this week the National Women's Studies Association published a document addressing some problems and new guidelines for evaluating tenure and scholarship in the field of Gender and Women's Studies (for simplicity, we'll just go with that name, even though I understand that it is contested). This document contains lots of interesting and important information about how faculty in GWS can contribute to the profession and to academia in general and about how traditional tools of evaluation in other disciplines are sometimes not fitting or appropriate within the context of GWS departments and career tracks. In the section entitled, "What is Women's and Gender Studies: An Overview of the Field?," on page 6, the document states:

"Approaches to knowledge production and transformation in women's and gender studies are highly divergent. Thus in providing an overview of the field, our aim is to offer context and background for assessment, rather than a directive or mandate for the field. We outline below four key concepts central to women's and gender studies scholarship, teaching, and service."

In naming these 4 key concepts it seems that the document (and the working group who authored it) is doing two things. First, they are identifying/explaining elements that are important throughout and common within the diversity that is GWS. Second, they are attempting to show that because GWS contains these key concepts, the academy misunderstands, is perhaps threatened by, and does not fairly and adequately evaluate the importance of GWS scholarship and teaching.

So, pages 7 & 8 describe the four key concepts and how they are misunderstood by the academy are:

1) The Politics of Knowledge Production- Since GWS is concerned with the examination/interrogation of the production of knowledge, GWS can be seen as "disloyal or transgressive to institutional norms."

2) Social Justice- Since GWS values participation in collaborative activist projects, GWS may be seen as less academically rigorous than other types of scholarship that are traditionally valued by the academy.

3) Intersectionality- GWS encourages scholars to deal with multiple and interacting systems of inequality (racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc.) and that maybe hasn't been valued in other fields. (I was a bit unclear on why the academy might have a problem with this aspect of GWS.)

4) Transnational Analysis- Since GWS works to de-center western thought and to understand the way that "the center is always multiply constituted in and through it's relationship to 'the periphery,'" GWS may be seen as a threat to the primacy/power/centeredness of the academy. (This wasn't explicitly stated, but that is my read of this section of the document.)

I find these key concepts and the ways that they might be misunderstood by traditional tools of academic evaluation to be really helpful in two ways: first, because it helps me feel that the diversity of GWS is at least provisionally unified about the value of these four key concepts and second, because it helps me more clearly see the ways in which I want to resist and interrupt the pressures of the academy.

I'm not sure if this document will really change the ways that institutions evaluate the work of GWS scholars, but I think it does change (or at least start to change) the way that I envision myself as part of the academy. Perhaps more importantly, this document helps me understand (and be able to more helpfully address) why the academy might be nervous or angry at me....and it helps me not take that anger so personally.

Happy International Women's Day... or not

Unknown The feminist in me is conflicted as I wish people a "Happy International Women's Day" today. On the one hand, of course, I think that women--their lives, bodies, and experiences-- need attention, appreciation, and empowerment.

But I also wonder if having a day to celebrate "women" doesn't also do two pretty harmful things:

1) Having a day to honor "women" continues to convince us that the category "women" is real/objective/fixed-- we are told again that some people are women and some people aren't and that is negotiable. Problematic. I think that if we are ever going to have radical equality, we need to complicate/interrogate the terms "men" and "women" and highlight their arbitrariness and their culturally contextual construction.

2) Having a day to honor "women" forces people to identify themselves as "women" or "men." For a variety of reasons, people may not be able to or may not want to fit nicely into those two categories, and it is cruel to continue to force them to do so.

I hear the accusations of post-feminist heresy in the offing.

Your thoughts?

"invisible" oppressions (part 1)

So, when I say "invisible," I don't mean oppression that is totally unobservable; instead, what I mean to highlight here is forms of oppression that people perpetuate inadvertently. I believe this happens it two main ways: 1) we may individually perpetuate a form of oppression because, as a result of our culture, we are blind to the harm that the practices cause & 2) we may be complicit in forms of oppression that are structural. And, as we will see, these two ways are not really that separate. For this post I will stick to describing the first type of invisible oppression (blindness due to culture), then I will post next week about the second type (structural).

In particular contexts around the world, girls often undergo a procedure that alters their genitalia. This procedure may be called Female Circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Genital Cutting, depending on the perspective of the person speaking. Whatever you decide to call it, this procedure is generally performed on these girls by or at the request of their mothers. These mothers are convinced--by the form of religion they have been taught, by social pressure, or by the traditions they were raised with, etc.--that this procedure is necessary for their daughters to be successful and respected women in their society. It would therefore be a dramatic misunderstanding to assert that the mothers who have these procedures preformed on their daughters are purposefully harming/oppressing them. These mothers are simply doing what they believe is required for their daughters' success and happiness. Whatever harm these procedures cause their daughters, they believe that it is worth it. Furthermore, the identities and self-respect of the mothers themselves has been formed within this context. The mothers themselves probably underwent the procedure and understand themselves to be respectable in society because of that. In this way, the culture "forces" (I use quotes to suggest that this term requires negotiation) the women to have their daughters undergo the procedure at the same time that the women-forcing-their-daughters-to-undergo-the-procedure produce the culture which "forces" them to have their daughters undergo the procedures; it is a simultaneously co-productive cycle. (That sentence is purposeful, so it is seems confusing, please re-read it.) Standing at a distance from that practice, we might quickly say that this is oppression. It is fairly easy, and I think reasonable, for us to assert that no amount of improvement in social standing merits the intense pain and lifetime of medical complications that these procedures cause. The UN has even established a "International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation" which is to be observed on February 6 each year. So, while the term oppression itself remains in constant negotiation, I think we can agree that "forcing" girls to undergo this procedure is a type of oppression. But the mothers of these girls do not see the procedures in this way at all; if they did, I believe that they stop the practice. The way in which these procedures might be oppression is made invisible to them by their social/cultural context.

Within the American context, these types of invisible forms of oppression may be harder to identify because we are already ingrained in the culture that perpetuates the practices. However, one example might be the way that our society forces women to meet certain expectations of beauty. Our culture teaches us that women must be thin, wear high heels (In Sexism & God-Talk, Rosemary Ruether says you can tell the status of women in a society by their footwear.) and makeup, and dress and behave in feminine ways in order to be attractive, well liked, and successful. We learn these lessons from society in a thousand different ways. We learn those lessons when the media discusses what Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama are wearing instead of what they are saying. We learn those lessons from Carl's Jr. commercials, America's Next Top Model, and fashion magazines. But we also learn those lessons from each other. When we tell a little girl that her dress is pretty instead of asking her about her favorite book, we perpetuate the oppression. When we compliment a woman (or man) for losing weight by saying that they "look thin" (instead of focusing on health), we perpetuate the oppression that continually defines women (and increasingly men) by their ability to conform to expectations of appearance. While these small actions don't feel like oppression when we do them (they may even feel like we are being nice), I contend that they are oppression, or at least that they might be oppression and therefore deserve further reflection. We individually perpetuate these harms on each other because the harms that these "compliments" cause is made invisible to us by our society/cultural context.

To give further examples:

  • In a context where women have never had leadership roles in government, the women may say that they are not oppressed because their fathers & husbands speak for them in politics, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't encourage those women to question those practices.
  • In a context where a certain group of people has never been taught to read, they may not articulate that as oppression because they may not know that they have the ability to read and are being denied access to the resources necessary to allow them to gain that skill. But, after being taught to read, these people would likely look back at their illiteracy and understand it as oppression.
  • In the context of extreme poverty, employing children in sweatshops may be experienced by the families as an opportunity, not oppression. But I am still against the practice.
  • In the context of a religious group that convinces LGBT individuals that they can, through therapy, become straight, these individuals may see this therapy as hope and freedom. But I would want to ask these people to consider finding hope and freedom through less painful alternatives (re: acceptance, etc.).

What these examples demonstrate is that oppression may exist even when people (both those in power & those without it) do not recognize it as such. Oppression can even exist when the oppressed people themselves do not articulate their experiences as oppression. We have to be suspicious of the way that people articulate their own experiences, because their experiences are experienced through their own cultural location. [See Ann Stoler's Race & the Education of Desire for more on this.] However, this also does NOT mean that we can go around telling anyone who doesn't live like an elite American that they are oppressed. That would be a whole other type of oppression. Instead, my point here is that oppression is a term that must be constantly negotiated. Oppression looks different in different contexts and to different people. It is slippery-- constantly changing, hard to grasp, and often nearly invisible. Therefore, we must be constantly questioning the ways that our own actions may be inadvertently oppressing others, and we must be alert for ways that others' actions may be subtly oppressing us. It is only by keeping the term oppression in flux that we have any hope of being able to address it.

Can you think of other examples of contexts where a group of people may not articulate their own experiences as oppression even though you believe they may be oppressed? How would you go about addressing that situation?

Do you participate in any behaviors that may deserve further interrogation regarding potentially being a form of invisible oppression?

What do you think about the possibility that all oppressions are at least partially "invisible"? If a form of oppression weren't at least partially invisible would people still perpetuate it?

How do you feel about leaving the definition of oppression in constant flux/negotiation?

a guide to friending/tweeting/blogging with non-peers

Ok, so having throughly convinced you in my last post that using social media with non-peers is extremely important...I want to make a list of guiding principles for connecting with non-peers on social media sites. While I have thought carefully about this, I am the first to admit that this is a primary list. As a society, I we are all still learning how to use these tools, so I'd love to hear your feedback, experiences, horror stories, inspirational stories, etc. So, without further ado, a guide to using social media with non-peers in safe and effective ways:

  • DO understand your privacy settings. Yes, they change all the time, and they are a pain, but you must understand how to use them.... and you must review them fairly frequently. Know how to keep your information from being publicly searchable. Know how to use Facebook lists as categories of people for privacy settings. Also, when you connect to someone immediately put them on a list/circle that places them in a certain category of privacy. Then if your relationship to them changes later, you can change their group/circle. Lastly, don't let other people post (tag you in posts or photos) about you without your approval.
  • DO post, tweet, and blog about personal stuff. Demonstrate that you are a whole person, show what you care about, show how you spend your free time, show how your professional life impacts your personal life. Use social media as a way to show your friends what you do professionally and your colleagues what you do in your personal life. In both cases, they will appreciate your openness, and sharing these details will help your friend understand you better and build rapport with your colleagues.
  • DO use Twitter hashtags, retweets, and replies to connect and engage with organizations, celebrities, and politicians. Be respectful (of course!) and assume that everyone in the world can read what you've written, but engage! There is so much collaborative potential there, so we need to take advantage of it.
  • DO live tweet at professional conferences and bonus knowledge events. Those tweets will get your name out there, and it will be super useful to other people either in the room or who couldn't attend. It also shows that you are involved in the field and care about attending events.
  • DON'T post anything that you wouldn't say to the person's face. Although they are important, you cannot be sure that privacy settings will be consistent at all times. You can't be sure that someone won't retweet or share your post with the person that you didn't want to see what you wrote. You must assume that everything you write and post is available to anyone who wants to find it badly enough. Because of that, but more importantly because it is an important part of embodying feminist politics and community, you must learn to voice your critiques in respectful, careful, and productive ways. You must learn to think about the implications of your words before you speak and post. Name calling, hate speech, and being inconsiderate are unacceptable offline and online alike.
  • DON'T use separate profiles for professional and personal communications. You are one person; be one person. Using two profiles undermines that potential of these technologies to encourage transparency, to challenges hierarchies of power, and to make ourselves helpfully vulnerable to others. Now, let me say that I understand that some people must use two profiles because they are engaged in work that causes some threat to their well-being. If that is the case, then by all means, do what you must. However, if you find yourself able, I strongly encourage you to use one profile because I think doing so  models some important feminism commitments (as described above).
  • DON'T use social media to vent. Venting is for best friends, spouses, and therapists, but not for public consumption. You will lose followers if all you do is complain, and you will get in trouble with the people you are complaining about...so just don't do it.
  • DON'T pretend to be or have something that you don't. Don't pretend to be more important than you are, because that will come back to bite you. But also don't pretend to be less than you are because denying the power that you have is an abuse of power.
  • DON'T pursue connections with people over whom you have power. Let them pursue the connection with you. It seems to me that a student might feel compelled to accept my friend request because they believe that their grade depends on it, and that feels like an abuse of power. I wait for my students and athletes to connect to me.
  • DON'T post pictures of yourself doing anything that is irresponsible. This means no pictures of breaking the law, company policy, or ethical standards. If you are breaking rules as a purposeful act of protest, take the necessary precautions to keep yourself safe, but that is not what I mean by irresponsibility here. What I mean is that if you are simply being irresponsible (this includes excessive nudity or alcohol consumption) as a way to blow off stem, don't document that irresponsibility. Or better yet, try not to be irresponsible.... try to find other ways to let off steam.
  • DON'T live tweet/post every detail of your whole life. It's annoying, boring, and over share. It means you'll lose followers, and it likely means you aren't posting things that are particularly meaningful which means people will assume that you don't think particularly meaningful thoughts.
  • And finally, DO think carefully about the implications of all of your posts. In fact, I recommend that you compose a post, then think about something entirely different for five minutes. At the end of five minutes, reread your post and see if it still seems helpful and appropriate.

 

Additionally, as a teacher/mentor:

  • DO require your students to use these technologies. Make assignments that require them to blog or tweet. Students need to learn to use these technologies in safe and effectively ways. They need to learn to speak and write publicly. They need to learn to function in an online world. And we must help them learn those skills while the stakes are low. This also applies to co-workers that are under your mentorship.
  • DO communicate openly (and face to face) with your department chairs/deans/bosses about how and why you are using social media. It seems to me that most of the resistance/difficulties people have with implementing social media practices and assignments is that other people don't understand why and how they are making this change. If communication is established early on, much of that resistance can be avoided.
  • DO have a class session devoted to discussing technological responsibility. This includes consideration of the risks involved with these technologies and some mutually agreed upon practices for minimizing those risks. This may include talking through some of the bullet points listed in this post. In the classroom setting, this should also include very detailed descriptions of what is expected with regard to these assignments (re: summary content, analytical content, frequency of posts, length of posts, grading rubrics, etc.)
  • DO learn from your students. Ask students how to do things! Working together to learn the technologies helps students realize and analyze their own behaviors, and it is mutually beneficial. Again, this also applies to co-workers that are under your mentorship.

 

Question time:

(Please do take a minute to comment; I really would love to hear from you!)

What have your experiences been using social media with non-peers? Have you found it difficult? Rewarding?

Do you have any other suggestions to add to this list?

Do you disagree with any of these points?

I vote for a worldview.

I know that you are probably drowning in political ads, posts, and articles (but I hope you aren't drowning in Hurricane Sandy!). I'm sure you have a million voices telling you how to pick a certain candidate, but if you can stand it, I'd like to offer you one more possible way to evaluate the candidates. I'd like to tell you about how I evaluate political candidates....not that my way is the best way, but it is a way that you may not have considered, and I hope it might be somewhat helpful to you. Evaluating a Candidate's Worldview

It seems to me that campaign promises are never as easy to keep as we would like. Policies get watered down by opponents, and decisions must be made on the fly in response to sudden events. As a result, it seems to me that we cannot ever be certain about what politicians will accomplish during their terms (not necessarily because they are deceitful people, but mainly just because the circumstances of legislation are unpredictable). Because those campaign promises are so unreliable as predictors of policies to be passed during a term, it seems to me that a more reliable way to predict a candidate's future spur-of-the-moment policy decisions is to start from their worldview. A person's worldview will underscore all of their actions, so I assert that voting for a candidate with an agreeable worldview will more likely ensure that the candidate will enact policies and decisions that support your perspectives.

*What do you think about using a candidate's worldview as a more reliable way to predict their future policy decisions?

How to Determine a Candidate's Worldview

First, however, we need to consider how to determine a candidates worldview, especially given that so much of what a candidate says is carefully scripted to appeal to the greatest number of voters. My approach to this determination is two fold: first, I believe we can get to candidates' worldviews by looking for the underlying assumptions hidden in their scripted statements and second, I believe that we get a glimpse of candidates' worldviews in the unscripted, sometime unintentional, comments that they make to supporters (or bystanders with recording devices). Even these two methods are not fool-proof, but they give us small pieces of the candidates' underlying perspectives, and if we piece these together, I think we have a fairly solid understanding of the worldview that a candidate holds.

* What do you think about this method of determining a candidate's worldview?

The Worldviews of the Presidential Candidates

In this presidential election, (even though the two major candidates seem to articulate their positions using largely the same language) the worldviews of the two major candidates seem radically different. While they both agree that we need to balance the budget, improve education, keep Americans safe, and grow the economy, the way they approach those issues are telling of their worldviews.

Romney's Worldview

Romney has stated that he believes that economic liberalism and free market capitalism are fair and yield the best products. He has asserted his belief that only the private sector (re: economic competition) will be able to lower costs and improve products. His policies demonstrate that he believes that wealthy people have worked hard to earn their wealth, and that they therefore deserve to keep it. He believes that everyone should work hard pursuing their own interests and that people who do work hard will succeed.  His policies also suggest that he believes that each person only deserves what they have worked for (re: no entitlements). So if we piece together those policies, we can first conclude that in his worldview everyone has equal ability to and probability of succeeding in the world. Second, given Romney's policies and unscripted comments about other social issues, we can conclude that his worldview includes that the Christian God has commanded certain principals that should never be violated and furthermore that those divine commands should translated into civil law. From what I can piece together, that seems to be his worldview.

*Do you agree or disagree with this characterization of Romney's worldview?

So, let's analyze that worldview.

At first, a worldview based on the equality of all individuals and on legislating the morality of Christianity might seem like a good way to bring fairness and morality into our complicated world. With further analysis, however, I think we will be forced to conclude that this worldview is actually ethically problematic and in fact dangerous. Let me explain.

First, regarding Romney's assumptions about the equality of all people, as I demonstrated in my post about the two definitions of equality, while we (feminists, but also ethicists) must assert that all people have equality of worth, we must also assert that all people have not had and still do not have equal access to resources. In that post, I also claimed that to forget the second claim is tantamount to denying the first one. [To review: if we deny that poor people (or people with mental illness, etc.) have had limited access to resources, then we expect them to perform at the level of people with access to lots of resources, and when they can't, we assume that they are lazy and therefore deserve their plight of poverty....which amounts to denying that their lives are worth as much as the lives of the rich/successful.] In light of that, I believe that we must conclude that economic liberalism and free market capitalism (which are built on the assumption that each individual has equal resources and equal ability to succeed in society) are systems which deny that all people are equal in worth. Denying that all people are equal in worth seems extremely problematic to me, and for this reason, I must conclude that Romney's worldview is ethical problematic.

Second, Romney's worldview is that it is good to legislate Christian morality, and I believe we must conclude that such a view is dangerous. Romney takes from Christianity views about same-sex marriage, about abortion, and about a number of other social issues. Taking views on those issues from religion is just fine for any individual (even the president); however, taking views from religion and then trying to make them into civil law is nothing more than forcing one's religious tenants onto people who are outside that religion. For example, we would be appalled if someone suggested that Kosher laws be built into the American legal system. And outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage are the same thing. If an individual religious person believes those two issues are wrong, I believe that is unfortunate, but we must accept that a person has a right to those views (as long as those views do not take the form of hate speech or violence). However, if that person seeks to make his personal religious beliefs about those issues into law, that seems to me to be oppressive and dangerous....not to mention that it goes against the American commitment to the separation of church and state. Here is an article that pretty starkly explains this.

*What do you think about these critiques of Romney's worldview? Do you agree that these two aspects of his worldview are ethical problematic and dangerous? Why or why not?

Because Romney holds that worldview, even though I agree with a few of his policies, I can only conclude that his future decisions would be (or at least would probably be) ethical problematic and dangerous in the ways I have outlined above.

Obama's Worldview

Now let's look the other major candidate's policies and unscripted comments to see if we can determine his worldview.

First, he acknowledges that poor people are poor, not because they haven't worked hard, but because they have been denied access to the resources (whether educational, monetary, physical, or psychological) necessary for success. His policies also demonstrate that he believers that society should try to make amends for that unequal access to resources; his policies have supported the idea that help needs to be provided to people (because society has failed them in the past and owes them rectification for that failure). Furthermore, his policies demonstrate that this help needs to be provided to people even when we know that some people will abuse the system. Because of these policies, it seems to me that Obama's worldview is built on asserting that people are equal in worth AND that they have not and do not have equal access to resources.

Secondly, Obama's (and Biden's) perspective is that individuals may hold religious beliefs (and may believe that certain actions or behaviors are wrong) but that those religious beliefs should never be made into law. Biden's comments in the VP debate about abortion demonstrated exactly this distinction. While he personally believes that abortion is wrong, he understands that abortions cannot be outlawed. He understands that he cannot and should not use his power to make his religious beliefs into secular laws. He understands the danger in forcing those outside his religion to follow his religion's tenants. In this way, these men demonstrate that they understand that practicing Jews are perfectly able to follow Kosher laws, but that all Americans should not be required to follow those laws. Acknowledging and upholding this distinction between religious beliefs and secular laws is telling of a worldview that embraces and nurtures diversity, which I believe is a critically important approach to governing.

*What do you think of this characterization of Obama's worldview? Would you characterize his worldview differently? What critiques do you have of Obama's worldview?

It is not that I agree with every one of Obama's policies or decision, definitely not. However, given that his worldview seems t to be based on real equality and respect for diversity, I feel compelled to support him.

Two Conflicting Worldviews and the Future of American Politics

Seeing and analyzing these two different worldviews seems to me to very important, not only for this election but for the future of our country. It seems to me that people are building philosophical structures to explain every aspect of society based on these two worldviews. And, alarmingly, I believe these two worldviews are growing further away from each other.... which does not make me hopeful about the possibility for future political collaboration.

*Do you see two radically different worldviews undergriding the policies, decisions, and statements for the two major presidential candidates (or even the two major parties)? If so, do you feel that the gap between these two worldviews is widening? Are you alarmed by that? If not, how do you conceptualize the radically different approaches taken by the two candidates?

As always, thank you so much for reading, and please do join the conversation!

wedding vows that do not assume the woman is property

Many, many things about weddings really bother me. So many of the symbols and rituals of traditional wedding ceremonies are left over from the age of women-as-property being passed from one man to another... and K & I are just not on board with that (as I'm sure you can imagine). So, in 2009, when K and I decided to get married, we wanted to be sure to do it our way. We wanted to demonstrated our respect for one another as equals, as well as our commitments to feminist and environmental ethics. Because of that, our wedding looked nothing like any wedding I'd ever witnessed.

We and our 11 guests stood in a circle on the beach in Santa Monica, and each element of the "ceremony" was carefully chosen to say, demonstrate, or honor something or someone in particular. The most important element of the "ceremony" was our vows, which we wrote from scratch over a number of weeks. We wanted our vows to be almost like our constitution, and on each of our 3 anniversaries, we have reread the vows to evaluate our efforts at abiding by these promises... and perhaps promised to redouble our efforts about some parts of them. These vows demonstrate our commitments and our perspectives of the world. According to K, "These vows are a public expression of what we want our lives to be."

These vows are not perfect, but we think they set up a framework for building a relationship that both feminists and environmentalists can support. We think these vows give a realistic plan for nurturing a healthy relationship between equals....and they seem to be working well for us. (And K is just really awesome.)

Question Time!

What elements of traditional wedding vows (or wedding ceremonies) have you found troubling? Are there any elements of our wedding vows that you find troubling (it's ok to be honest!)?

What elements of traditional wedding vows (or wedding ceremonies) have you really liked and found meaningful? Are there any elements of our vows that you really like or find meaningful?

why do feminists care about racism, class-ism, and heterosexism?

I've received lots of great comments and questions about my feminism post. Several of these included surprise about my claim that feminists are primarily concerned (in addition to sexism) with issues like racism, class-ism, and heterosexism. Given that the term feminism seems to only indicate a concern for women, several people pointed out that if I am primarily concerned with all forms of exploitation/oppression then I may be more of a humanitarian or a proponent of equality in general than a feminist. These are good points, and a discussion of whether retaining the term feminism is more useful or harmful is definitely worth a post (coming soon!). For now, however, I would like to explain why feminists are concerned with these issues. Third wave feminism contributed a great deal to feminist theory. It is the 3rd wavers who showed us that up to that point feminists had been using the experience of white women to stand in for the experience of all women. The 3rd wavers began to hear from Black women and lesbian women and poor women, and as a result they began to understand that women in different places in society experienced oppression in different ways. At first, feminists tried to understand these differences in experience as mathematic equations wherein you could say that a black woman is oppressed twice as much as a white woman because she is both a woman and black. These two forms of oppression were understood as separate and additive. However, this understand of multiple oppressions was really problematic because it still claimed that all women are oppressed (as women) in the same way... and again used the experience of some women to explain the experiences of all women. Unacceptable.

So, feminists started to rethink the concept of multiple oppressions. It was clear that Black women were oppressed in ways that were different from the ways that white women were oppressed. For example, while a white women may have experienced familial responsibilities as oppressive and the workplace as liberating, a Black woman may have experienced the workplace (perhaps a white woman's home) as exploitative and oppressive, but her family life (while she controlled the finances, etc.) as empowering. In this way, it became clear that the Black woman was not oppressed as a woman and as a Black person. No, she was oppressed as a Black woman....and her oppression was unique and her goals for liberation were also unique.

This new perspective was helpful for a few important reasons. First, it acknowledged the real diversity of women's lives and stopped assuming that white women's lives could stand in for all women's lives. Secondly, this approach took seriously the way that each group of women understood and expressed their experiences of oppression. Thirdly, it acknowledged that no person's experiences are defined by one aspect of their personhood. This means that to understand and analyze a person's experiences of oppression we must take into account not merely sex or gender, but also race, class, and sexual orientation (and perhaps other aspects of personhood, like nationality, geographic location, etc.). Broadly, this means that the more specific you can be about understand a person's situation, the more helpfully you can understand their oppression and work for their liberation. Without this type of careful understanding of a person's situation, you may think you are working for her liberation and empowerment but your actions only result in further harming her. Fourthly, this approach to multiple oppressions clearly demonstrated that in order for all women to be liberated and empowered, all forms of oppression must cease. A Black woman cannot be empowered as a woman, while Black people are still oppressed. If Black people are still oppressed, then empowering her "as a woman" doesn't even make sense. Lastly, this approach avoided the trap of comparing oppressions or making them into a hierarchy. It is not at all helpful to say that women are more oppressed than Black people, nor does it make sense to say that women must be empowered before Black people can be. No, all forms of oppression are interlocking and simultaneous. If anyone anywhere is oppressed, then women are oppressed.... and more importantly, if anyone anywhere is oppressed, then none of us lives in equality.

For all these reasons, feminists are (and must be) concerned with opposing all forms of oppression. And we must not be primarily concerned with the oppression of women and secondarily concerned with other forms of oppression. No, feminists must be primarily concerned with all forms of oppression.

I assume that no further explanation is necessary for showing that racism is a form of oppression that must be opposed by feminists. If this needs more explanation, please let me know in the comments.

Class-ism may require a bit explanation. Class-ism is discrimination against the poor (or the rich, so we could discuss that at a later date). I think my post on economic inequality explains the necessity of opposing social structures that perpetuate historic differences in access to resources. Again, if this needs more explanation, let me know in the comments.

Hetero-sexism may also require some more explanation. Hetero-sexism is discrimination against anyone who does not meet society's expectation of establishing heterosexual and monogamous romantic relationships. Heteronormativity is another important term that points to the way that society is built on and structured by this heterosexual expectation. So, feminists acknowledge that these expectations and this structure of society oppresses people, and that they therefore must be opposed. For example, a Black lesbian woman will never be fully liberated until Black people, lesbians, and women (and we might say all humans or even all life forms) are liberated (re: seen as equal in worth, given equal access to resources, treated with dignity, and encouraged to flourish). The topic of hetero-sexism may deserve its own post, so if you would like me to say more about this, again please let me know.

As always, thanks for reading.... and please let me know your thoughts:

Does this help clarify why feminists are concerned about these other forms of oppression? Did you understand the problems with the additive approach to multiple oppressions? Any other thoughts on these topics?

two definitions of equality

I've gotten lots of great feedback, comments, and questions from some of you (either here, in my email, via Skype, or in person) and that feedback is super valuable to me, so please keep it coming. If you have anything that you'd like to know my thoughts about, please let me know! So, today's topic: feminism's 2 definitions of equality!

I think this is an important post because it serves as a backdrop to many other posts that I'll write and to my worldview and ethical perspectives in general.... so, without further ado...

Feminism asserts two claims that at first glance appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, feminists firmly assert that all people are fundamentally and irrevocably equal. And, on the other hand, feminists assert that people are profoundly and shockingly un-equal. Let me explain.

In the first claim, we are making a claim that people are ontologically equal in value. All people (no matter the race, gender, sex, class, nationality, sexuality orientation, etc.) are precisely equal in their worth as living beings. They can all contribute to society; they all deserve to be treated with respect, and none of them deserve to suffer under oppression. So, yes, I claim that all people are equal.

In the second claim, we are talking about something different. The second claim makes an observation about the world and the way that society functions. This is to say that feminists observe and want to call attention to the fact that different populations/people have vastly un-equal access to resources. The term 'resources' here is very broadly construed and can include access to wealth, education, clean water, support systems, medical care, mental health care, technologies, transportation, etc. By highlighting that some people can easily access all of these resources and that some people struggle to access even one of these resources, feminists (including myself) assert that people are profoundly un-equal. Basically, the claim here is that people have had drastically different levels of access to the things necessary for health and success.

This second claim and its implications require further explanation.

What I mean when I claim that people are un-equal in this way is that social structures function to continue to disadvantage those populations who have been historically disadvantaged. This can be observed on both an individual level and on a societal level.

Imagine a 16 year old Black girl, let's call her Tasha, who is being raised by a single mother who works 4 jobs. They live in an urban neighborhood in a high crime area in LA. Then imagine someone like Mark Zuckerberg, a white male who comes from a wealthy, educated, professional, and tech-savy family. Do Tasha and Mark have equal opportunity to succeed in the world? We have been taught to say yes. We have been taught to say that all people are equal so all people (with hard work) can achieve the American Dream and can be economically successful. But, I believe that this line we've been fed about the American Dream is at best a dreamer's fantasy and at worst a vicious and manipulative lie. Tasha will struggle to make it through high school, will not be able to use new computers or lab equipment because her school can't afford them, will not be able to afford to participate in SAT tutoring classes or other enrichment programs, and will spend her time avoiding trouble and trying to stay safe. If she makes it into college at all, it will likely be a community college, and definitely not an Ivy League school. And because of her poor education, even if she does make it into college, she will struggle to graduate and likely get less than stellar grades. Afterward, she will have to work hard to find any job at all (because all the other applicants will have better credentials from better schools). She will have to work very hard to overcome her situation, and even then her hard work will only get her so far. On the other hand, Mark will have grown up with the wealth, the tutors, the computers, and the safe free time necessary to become a hacker before graduating high school. He will then get into Harvard, and be able to attend because his family can afford it. Then, because he has a safety net to fall back on if he loses everything and because he has enough money to pay for startup, he has the ability to drop out of Harvard, move to Palo Alto, and spend every moment working on Facebook. He will then gain millions in investments, and become a billionaire.  So, did Tasha and Mark have equal probably of becoming successful? Hell no. Both of them worked hard, but what they were able to work hard doing was very different because of their different histories.

This pattern is also observable on a larger scale. After the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, we saw (some) factories commit to becoming explicitly anti-racism. They changed their hiring practices and their promotion policies. They strictly hired and promoted based on merit. However, if their new policy says, "We will promote to manger the people who are most qualified, as demonstrated through the success of previous managerial duties," and if no Black people have ever been given managerial duties, then it is still only white men who get the promotions. Merit based anti-racist practices often still perpetuate racism.... because people have not historically had equal access to resources.

This means that people's wealth/success or failure/poverty is much more a reflection of their access to resources than it is a reflection of their commitment to hard work. Hard work does not equal success. Access to resources equals success.

A syllogism to summarize my perspective:

  • I believe the claim that all people are equal in worth includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to the resources necessary to be healthy and successful. (It should be noted that success does not have to be defined economically, but let's be honest, in our society, success is defined economically, so I'll just stay within that definition for now. Perhaps I will post an opposition to our current economic system later.)
  • I also think that observations of society can easily demonstrate that people have historically not had equal access to the resources necessary for health and success. Furthermore, I think we can easily conclude that a person's current access to resources is very related to (if not wholly determined by) their access to resources in the past.
  • Therefore, if we assert that all people are equal in worth, then we must also support practices that (at least start to) correct the history of un-equal access to resources.

I could be more blunt about what this means for me in terms of practices and politics, but perhaps I should leave that for another day. I also could relate this post to terms like 'structural racism' and 'privilege' but again, I think that might need to be saved for another day.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with my observations about the history of un-equal access to resources? Do you agree that previous un-equal access to resources greatly impacts current access to resources? Do you agree that a claim of equality of worth for all people includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to resources?

my feminism

I received a very helpful comment on the feminist pedagogies post from my good friend over at Not2Us. Her comment was about how feminism is a very contested term, and she pointed out that some people have given feminism a bad name. Yes, some people have used feminism to say that stay-at-home-moms are bad and that all bras should be burned. Some people have used feminism to say that women are better than men, that the world would be a better place if all leaders were women, or that men should be stripped of power and/or removed from society. I even sat in a class with a woman who once said that she wished all men would be put into prisons and that women would only have to interact with them when the women decided to have conjugal visits. Let me be as clear as possible: that is NOT my feminism. In my opinion, that is misandry (re: hatred of boys and men), and misandry is just as bad as misogyny. So, in this post, I will consider the following topics:

First, what does the term 'feminism' carry with it? Second, why do I use the term to identify myself? And third, what do I mean when I use it?

So, what does the term 'feminism' carry with it? (aka: some way-over-simplified history)

The history of American feminism is described in waves. I don't really know why they are called waves (movements or stages or eras would have worked too.... maybe someone was really into surfing?). Anyway...

First wave feminism (1880s-1920s) was mainly about rich white women getting the right to vote. Suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc.

Second wave feminism (1960s-1980s) was mainly about middle class white women trying to get equal access to higher education, to jobs, and to equal pay. Second wave feminism was about encouraging women to see themselves and their concerns as worthy of political attention. This is where you get the phrase "women's liberation" and yes, there was some bra burning.

Third wave feminism (1980s-?) was/is a critique of second wave feminism's essentialism (re: claims that all women share certain qualities and certain concerns) and their use of middle class white women as a stand-in for all women everywhere. Third wavers wanted to show the diversity of women's experiences and to include the voices of women and minorities who had not yet been heard-- poor women, Black women, Latina women, and LGBT people (both men and women).

If you want more info on any of that stuff, feel free to take a few moments to cruise around Wikipedia. This is a good place to start.

Ok, so then why happened? Well, diversity happened.

After third wave feminism, there is a great deal of debate about what the next era of feminism is going to be. Some call it fourth wave feminism, some call it post-feminist, some call it humanism, some call it transnational feminism, some people emphasize that it is feminisms (plural), some don't call it anything because it is still happening....

But as I understand it, whatever this new era is, I'm in it... and I get to participate in defining it.... which is sort of awesome.

Why do I self-identify as feminist?

Well, the history of feminism is not without its blemishes. Feminism has had its share of prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy, and hatred. It has not been a blameless walk toward equality. But, I think, it has been a movement defined by people who identified the problems that they saw and did the best they could to address them. It has been a movement unified (although loosely) by a commonly held (although constantly evolving) ethical system wherein empowerment of the disenfranchised (although that category has at times been blind to its own exclusiveness) is the primary concern.

So, I identify myself as a feminism for a few reasons:

1) because I can. By this I mean to acknowledge that there are many people in the world who share my concerns for the disenfranchised but are unable (for personal, religious, familial, or political reasons) to self-identify as feminist.

2) to take responsibility for feminism's problematic history. I do this first to take responsibility for the problems that I (re: middle class white Americans) have caused and to try to disrupt the continuation of those problems.

3) because it is empowering to me, but not only because I benefit from feminist successes. Yes, feminism seeks to empower me (as a woman) from the injustices of patriarchy, so feminism is directly empowering in that way. But, it is more than that. When I self-identify as a feminist, it gives me the power to help shape the future of this movement. By using the term, I have the weight of all those great feminist thinkers behind me. I can learn from their mistakes, build on their theories, and seek to dismantle patriarchy in ways that they couldn't yet imagine.... but I can do those things only because they came before me and gave me the theory and the analytical tools and the experiences that serve as the backdrop (re: prehistory, shout out to Butler!) to all of my work. Building on all of the work that came before me, I can (and I say this humbly) work to make their efforts even more effective--more radical, more helpful to the disenfranchised, or helpful to the disenfranchised that they didn't even know existed--than it was in their lifetimes.

Yep, so....I'm a feminist.

But what exactly do I mean by "I'm a feminist"?

When I say I am a feminist, I mean that:

  • I oppose sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism in all its forms. Yes, this means that my feminism means that I support gay rights. And this includes drawing attention to both the obvious and subtle ways that women, ethnic minorities, the poor, and LGBT communities have been and continue to be disempowered by individuals and by social institutions.
  • I acknowledge that I am complicit in perpetuating sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism...and I hold myself responsible for doing something about this.
  • I suggest that stopping explicit "hate speech" is not sufficient for ending oppression and disempowerment. In addition to addressing the ways that individuals perpetuate hate through the speech and behavior, I believe that to do so we must analyze cultural practices, laws, institutional practices, media productions, population trends, and language itself.
  • I emphasize that white men are not "the problem". It is important to highlight that I am not suggesting that every individual white man has purposefully harmed women or minorities. Some have, but many have not. Instead, I want to suggest that the systems, practices, and traditions of civilization have, throughout history, continually disempowered women and minorities (mostly for misguided biological, economic, or political reasons) and that no one person is at fault for that mistreatment. Work to overcome misogyny and patriarchy must include and empower both men and women.
  • I also avoid asserting that the way to end these forms of oppression is to take all the power away from white men and it give it to women and minorities.
  • Instead, I assert that some of the important ways that we might end these forms of oppression are to radically re-think the concept of power, to fundamentally change the way that we understand ourselves to be related to one another, and to envision an economic future that does not depend on exploitation. If those three goals were reached, we would move a long way toward equality.
  • I also believe that the most effective (and perhaps the only) way to reach those goals is through 'real' education (defined as listening to and learning from everyone and acknowledging equal worth among each perspective).

So, my hope is that this is what feminism will look like in the future.

What do you think?

I imagine my readers to have a diversity of perspectives on feminism. Some are self-identified feminist scholars like me; some have great anxiety or even fear of the term, and many fall somewhere between those two. So, I really and truly want to hear from you (whatever your perspective).

  • Did you know the history of feminism? And does knowing it change your perspective on the term?
  • Would you self-identify as feminist? Why or why not?
  • What do you mean when you say the term 'feminist'? Does my definition radically diverge from yours?

feminist pedagogies

One of the most important boundaries that I transgress is by bringing feminism into the classroom. In this post, I would like to think about what feminist pedagogy entails. I think that at the heart of feminism is a commitment to seeing all people as ontologically equal, and thereby being equally capable of contributing to society and to others. With that commitment in mind, there are some principles I use (or hope/try to use) in my classes:

  • I do not lecture. My offer information and my perspectives, but in conversational form. I acknowledge that I have more background information to bring to the class, but I am explicit that each person in the course can contribute and that each contribution is equally important.
  • We sit in a circle. I do not sit at the front, and I do not stand. I am one among all those contributing to the class. This is a visible demonstration of our equality.
  • Students lead some part of every class session. No one wants to listen to me talk through a whole class session. Plus, it seems to me that students learn more from each other and than they do from me anyway. Additionally, this again allows each person to bring some information and personal perspectives to the class.
  • If the culture of the university allows it, I have my students call me by my first name. Using a title for only one person in the room creates a clear hierarchy, which I oppose. It would also be possible for everyone to go by their last names (again without titles). I had a professor in undergrad who did this, but at the end of a semester I would know classmates perspectives on really important issues but not know their first names, and I found this to stifle outside-the-classroom relationships.
  • I try to get to know students as people. I ask them about their weekend plans; I discuss TV shows with them; I ask to see pictures of their pets. I do this because I think that real education occurs in real relationships. And I do not know how to have a real relationship with someone while also restricting our conversations to purely academic topics.
  • I encourage students to let the course material impact their daily lives. This can take many forms. In its simplest form, I challenge students to look at the media more closely to analyze the subtle messages that they may be receiving. In a more complex form, specifically in religion and/or ethics classes, this can be more delicate. I, of course, do not want students to feel pressured to change their personal religious or ethical beliefs, but I do want them to be able to look at their personal beliefs from new perspectives. For example, today in class, I was asking students to use gender neutral pronouns for god, and there were a few students who felt very uncomfortable with this. One student in particular was very brave and was able to articulate why she felt such discomfort. As a result of her explanation, we were able to more fully address the way that academic pursuits have the potential to change personal beliefs. In that conversation, I re-emphasized that the purpose of the class was not to get students to change their religious beliefs, and I went on to explain that the purpose of the class was to get students to see and be able to ask the questions that they never knew existed. I explained that this may (and indeed probably will) bleed over into their personal lives. I believe this is another characteristic of "real" education, namely that you cannot leave it at the classroom door.
  • As mentioned above, I encourage students to ask the questions that they never knew existed or were never before able to ask. At the end of today's class session, the student who had expressed such discomfort with gender neutral pronouns for god stated, with a slightly shaky voice, that she had never even thought to question god's gender or what it might mean that religions have traditionally used male pronouns for god. Because of our class, she was able to ask the question... and I consider that a success. It is also important to note that this goal is not content specific, I work toward that goal in all of my classes--ethics classes, religion classes, gender and women's studies classes, even critical thinking classes. If students leave the class able to ask new questions, it means that their perspectives have been challenged and their worldviews expanded.

 

You may notice that these teaching methods seem to require a small, liberal arts type environment. Thus far, I have taught courses with between 10 and 32 students....so yes, I have only used these methods in small(ish) classes where sitting in a circle and having a discussion is possible.

I have applied for a job teaching at a large state university, where one section of a course may have 70 students. If I do obtain a contract to teach in this setting, I wonder how I will be able to enact my feminism in the classroom. Kevin and I have discussed this a bit. We've consider how technology can help with this, and we've thought about some other creative ways to let students contribute.... but we haven't really come up with any ideas that feel "right" to me. Perhaps that will be a post for another day....

Thanks for reading.

And please leave comments if you have any additional suggestions about how to enact feminist pedagogy or if you can share your experience with "real" education or with classes that impacted your life outside the classroom. See what I did there by suggesting that you, dear reader, have as much to contribute as I do? :)