Tuesday, March 8, 2011


My name is Colleen, and I'm a feminist.

I'm a college student. I'm a bibliophile. I have wavy brown hair and brown eyes. I like to wear cardigans. I work five jobs. I play the ukulele. I'm going to England next year. I like to paint my nails pretty colors. I'm a National Merit Scholar. I'm a photographer. I want to be a teacher. And I'm a feminist.

I'm a feminist because:

Gender inequality hurts everyone. For every girl tortured by femininity, there is a boy trapped by masculinity.

I want ALL people to be free, equal, educated, and happy about their lives, their jobs, and whom they love.

My bachelor's degree will earn me the same pay as a man with a high school degree.

Around the world, sex is used as a tool of power.

Women work 2/3 of the world's hours, yet earn 10 percent of its income and own 1 percent of its property.

Happy International Women's Day and Feminist Coming Out Day, y'all!

Sleepless and earnest in New York: An insomniac's ode to feminism

So it's 5:10 in the morning, and I haven't slept at all. I blame this on my crazy midterms sleep schedule, my body readjusting to the sounds of the city at night, and my inexhaustible brain (it is a lonely brain at 5:10 in the morning! Everything is dark and quiet, so naturally it just wants to chat about the work I have to do over break, the exams I will have when I return to school, sendoff, shock your mom, what I'm going to do this summer, the application I have to write, how my friends are doing, how everyone in my family is doing, and how strange the rest of my room looks at 5:30 in the morning. Was that something moving in the corner?) Needless to say, I'm writing a lengthy (unless I fall asleep) blog post about why I'm a feminist, what feminism means to me, and why it is important for me to publicly identify as a feminist. I'm writing about my feminism today because it is officially Feminist Coming Out Day, the thought-baby of a queer student group and a feminist club at Harvard; the two groups got together to raise awareness at school, and they've teamed up with Bitch Magazine to take the campaign nationwide.

I love the idea of being able to put faces (hopefully a diverse, wide-reaching range of faces) to feminism. I think a lot about how to make feminism (any and every kind of feminism) accessible to everyone as a personal identity, a creed that informs political views, a mode of self-help, a comfort, and a way to connect. I exist in a very privileged and progressive sphere, in that I am from New York City, that I go to Kenyon, and that the people I surround myself with/classes I take/activities I help organize or participate in at Kenyon are all relatively aligned with my politics and my worldview. It's really easy to forget that the face of feminism for the majority isn't nearly as young, fresh, witty, snarky, and inspiring as my feminist role models are. Instead, when feminism isn't demonized by right wing politicians, it is dusty, old, and even "dead." So it's really exciting to see a ton of young (and not so young...here's my mom's new photo, pictured with my grandma) facebook users from all over the country, feminists who aren't simply cis, straight, rich, white females. It's exciting to see my newsfeed blow up with friends changing their profile pictures to claim their feminism (it's exciting to be reminded that I have so many awesome feminist friends, and to be pleasantly surprised by friends I've never gone near the topic of feminism around "coming out" via facebook). And it always feels really good to see facebook being used to further issues I care about and to bring people together in an organic, authentic way; I think facebook and the proliferation of other types of social media has the potential to be really destructive (concerning, among many other things, rigid gender constructs), so I love when it is used in a wonderful way.

Now it's six in the morning. Prime time for feminist sap. I grew up with feminism - my grandma started the "Women's Project" in family therapy and wrote a book about how to raise sons without imposing society's strict, limiting, and often damaging normative masculinity on them. She was a housewife during that period when every white middle-class woman in America was a housewife. One day she decided that she was profoundly dissatisfied, and that she was going to go back to school at 40 years old with three children to raise on the side. She raised three hippies, one of whom became my hippie-dippie mother, who ran women's consciousness raising groups in San Francisco during the 70's and threw me a ceremonial party when I got my period for the first time (during which all of her hippie-dippie friends gave me gifts like herb filled heating pads, special pens to write poems and thoughts with, and womanlove scented candles). But none of my friends in high school talked about feminism, and I don't think I claimed feminism as my own movement until I got to Kenyon and met my remarkably outspoken new roommate (or soulmate) Katie. It wasn't until I had someone my age to talk about feminism with that it ceased to be something I associated with the matriarchal tradition in my family, and became something i associated with this exciting period of my life - with my youth, my idealistic politics (my youth), and my sense of self as a grown, autonomous person in the world. Feminism began to inform and transform everything about my life; it had always been there before, but now I was consciously putting it into practice. I was treating myself and my peers differently, I was treating my body differently, I was devouring feminist blogs and literature, I was discovering my sexuality as a beautiful, delicious thing, I was learning, learning, learning. I "came out" to Kenyon via allstu during the second semester of my first year at college. It was the practice of putting all this into words (albeit much fewer words) and putting these words on display, that really forced me to acknowledge how central, vital, and irreplaceable feminism is in my life. And it is the practice of publicly claiming feminism again and again (especially at 6:30 in the morning!) that keeps me enlivened, outraged, connected, and grateful. So so so so grateful.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

My beef with "Keep Your Laws Off My Body"

Real quick here, because I have to do SO MUCH HOMEWORK and I can post all kinds of exciting things about Walk for Choice Ohio LATER, when I am done with two tests and two papers.

Recently I saw, on the wide wide internet, a meme sort of thing. (I can't find it now, which makes this whole sentence rather anticlimactic.) Point is, it said at the top, "Keep your laws off my body!" and at the bottom, "Pay for my abortion."

Though I think the maker of this meme and I have rather different views about abortion, it struck a chord--why, after all, do a lot of pro-choice activists use the phrase "Keep Your Laws Off My Body" ? I appreciate the sentiment of the phrase because really the point of it is just that a bunch of rich white legislators shouldn't be allowed to make terrible, terrible decisions of women's health, that government doesn't have a place in our medical choices.

But I do want the government all up in my healthcare! OBVIOUSLY I don't want government to tell me what I can and can't do with my body or keep me from receiving important medical care. That. Should be. A GIVEN. (It isn't. But it should be.) I would, however, very much like for the government to provide ALL of its citizens with healthcare. I would like for the government to pour lots and lots and lots of taxpayer money into healthcare (and education, and not war, etc.).

"Keep Your Laws Off My Body" sends the wrong message there. I'd much prefer "Make Laws to Take Care of My Body!" There are a lot of laws and legislative whatnot that DO or WILL provide important medical care (or education, etc.) to a lot of people! And we like those laws! So let's not go stomping on all legislation, or all legislators; it's not all bad.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What a Nice Guy

"Look, college twat."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was in a car with my best friend, her boyfriend, the boyfriend's roommate, and their friend, another student at the University of Pittsburgh's Honors College. We were on our way to a gay club on the other side of town. Their friend, sitting next to me in the backseat, said these words as he pointed out the window toward some women on the sidewalk.

I'd been hanging out with them for about four days, visiting my friend before I went back to Kenyon. As usual, I brushed off most things that they said. Karen had told them that I came to Pittsburgh from Feminist Winter Term and they seemed alternately frightened of offending me and delighting in attempts to find ways to offend me. (They hung their new Playboy calendar. I wasn't fazed.) I'm used to people not watching their language as closely as I do—so words like "bitch" and "slut" slipped out among various discussions that made me vaguely uncomfortable but not angry enough to interrupt conversation. (Note: The word "bitch" can be complicated. More on that another time.)

But now this—"twat"? I have plenty of arguments with friends at Kenyon over using "slut" and "whore" and "crazy bitch" to refer to women (and sometimes to men). But I've never heard anyone at Kenyon use this particular phrase. ("Cunt" I have heard plenty, but only in a reclaiming-it way, and/or to refer to the actual vagina rather than a person.)

I don't remember exactly what I said to the man who said this—something like "not okay."

His response was something to the effect of, "But they are." I told him that it's not a respectful way to refer to a woman.

"But they're all wearing these skanky clothes," he insisted, "They're just going to get drunk and have sex with random guys."

I bristled. "Then that's their prerogative!" I told him.

"And it's my prerogative to judge them for it."

"No. No it is not."

Conversation returned to normal. I wasn't blazing angry or anything, I kept laughing, kept talking. I was a little bothered by his hypocrisy--those girls were probably, like us, on their way to a club. Hell, I was wearing a pretty short little number...would he have called me that if he'd seen me walking around the campus? I was a little ticked, but I felt that this conversation was just one of many I'd already had with people who used words without quite knowing what they meant, or what they implied, or that people could be deeply offended by them. After all, this friend had been, in all other ways, a nice guy.

A nice guy. It hit me later that night, as I was shampooing the heavy scent of smoky bar out of my hair. I suddenly realized that there was a name for this person, and for so many people that I knew, and that name was: Nice Guy.

I frantically began to mentally compile the characteristics of Nice Guy, realizing with shock again and again just how many of them were in my life.

Nice Guys are usually far more appealing (for friendships or romantic love) than the Frat Boys and Pussy-Huntin' Bros we usually spend our time raging against. They're a little more informed, often academic. They may be less traditionally masculine—they roll their eyes at guys who spend hours on end in the gym or who chest-bump over Natty Lights—even if they enjoy playing sports or video games or other culturally dudely things. They like art, literature, and music. They embody the "bromance" when they are with other Nice Guys. (See: Turk and JD on Scrubs...actually, JD on Scrubs is a really excellent example of Nice Guy!). They support LGBTQ rights. They would never pressure a girl to do something she doesn't want to do. And in general: They respect women.

The only problem is that Nice Guys can disqualify people from their respect.

I am never one of those people. Maybe this is why I have so many friends I can identify as Nice Guys (or maybe they are a fairly large proportion of the liberal arts college population, which is probably true). But what always happens is this:

"But Colleen, you aren't like those girls [those sluts, ditzes, whores, bitches]. You're smart." You don't wear makeup, so you're, like, genuine. You don't show a lot of skin. You don't have sex with a lot of people. You're reserved. You don't drink every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday night.

And that is why you earn my respect.

The term "benevolent sexism" comes to mind, and while I don't think the Benevolent Sexist and the Nice Guy are one and the same, they have a lot of similarities—they're men who like women, who value them. The Benevolent Sexist wants to protect a woman, to save a damsel in distress, to always pay for a date. The Nice Guy is interested in that too, of course, because he's Nice, but if a woman dares to have sex with a lot of men she's not in relationships with and doesn't care who knows it? Whoa boy, the Nice Guy thinks she's not a lady he wants to pay for dates with any more.

I don't necessarily like all guys, or all girls, but I try for respect, or at least tolerance. I'm not a huge fan of men who participate in hyper-masculine frat culture (not all men who do so, but there are specific groups of men at least at Kenyon I'd rather not hang out with, and that's okay) so I don't expect guys to be huge fans of girls who participate in hyper-feminine sorority culture if that's just not their cup of tea. But you've got to find other reasons to dislike people than "she's wearing a short skirt."

And if you don't like it? Keep it to yourself. Would you use the word "twat" to describe your sister?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Feminist Winter Term: What do you do with a BA in...

I'm not used to being the only English major in the room.

Okay, well, I wasn't. Molly is too, and there were some others at Feminist Winter Term. But most people were women's and gender studies majors (or minors, double majors, concentrators, etc.).

I'm sure a lot of them were comforted by the many successful activists we met who all said, "Yeah, I majored in Women's Studies. Now I have a swanky office, and you can do it too!"

Much of FWT focused on the path to activism, feminist careers, and networking, and we even had a whole day set aside for career-building. In the morning we went to the Ms. Foundation for a career panel, and in the afternoon we went to our half-day internships.

The Ms. panel was interesting because it was so realistic. We were encouraged to be go-getters, professionals with clean, tame Facebook profiles and memberships on LinkedIn (which, yes, I have now joined). We got advice on writing cover letters, contacting potential employers, interviews, and resumes.

Molly and I found this informative, but not quite as relevant--we're only sophomores. Which isn't to say that we shouldn't be thinking about The Future (true story: "The Future" is actually a label in my Gmail inbox for emails about jobs and things), but that it isn't as close for us as it is for the many college seniors and graduates at FWT.

A lot of this career stuff focused on getting into feminist activism, which tends to be 1) based in New York City and 2) not very well paid. I feel that after this week I definitely have a leg up going after internships at the organizations we visited, but I need to spend my summer earning a bucketload of money so I can go abroad (to a country whose currency is, of course, stronger than the dollar, waaah), and interning at an activist organization while living in New York is GENERALLY not the most advisable way to find yourself rolling in cash.

One thing I wish we had covered: How do you apply your feminist values in field that isn't explicitly feminist? Many of the women and men we met didn't have much of an interest in working outside of a feminist organization, but some of us do! Fellow FWTer Tiffany is currently studying Art Education, and we had some good chats about being teachers, especially in public schools, and working feminism into education while addressing a fixed and possibly not-progressive curriculum.

I've never really considered majoring/minoring/concentrating in gender studies because I see feminism as something that informs what I do, but isn't necessarily...all I want to do. I think Molly and I certainly shared this feeling, as you can probably see from our post on literature and media. I am a feminist, yes. But mostly I am a feminist student. A feminist English major. A feminist reader and consumer. A feminist hopeful teacher.

Do you apply "feminist" (or other political/social/economic/religious movement terminology) to something else that you do? How do you do it?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Feminist Winter Term: All good things must come to an end

Whew. Today was the first day I've spent sitting around my apartment instead of racing around the city at top speed, since Monday. It's nice to be able to relax and reflect a bit; I have so much to process and think about. So for the next few days, Colleen and I will be working on short summaries of the week's events and the Feminist Winter Term moments that stuck out the most. Hopefully we'll do the week some justice and get to fill in the gaps for whoever will read this and for each other - it was really hard to blog when we were both so busy during the week. Colleen and I also had very different weeks ourselves, so we'll be blogging for each other as much as we'll be blogging for everyone else.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Feminist Winter Term: Reproductive Justice

I knew I had to blog about this, but it's hard starting out. This is going to include some depressing and upsetting stuff--just a warning.

This morning we split up into six small groups to visit different reproductive health organizations around New York. Some people went to abortion clinics and women's health centers, others to adoption agencies.

I went with Lela, Naomi, and Mackenzie to Choices Women's Medical Center in Queens. Choices, founded by activist Merle Hoffman (pictured above), provides gynecological and prenatal care to women, often with the help of Medicaid. Their services include care by a midwife, gynecological exams, birth control and emergency contraceptives, sterilization (Essure), pregnancy testing, Gardasil, and abortions up to 24 weeks. Their staff speak many languages, though the languages most in demand in the area are Spanish, Bengali, and Creole French.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I came to Choices. We first met one protester outside, an older woman who handed us some "pro-life" pamphlets. Earlier in the week we'd seen Jennifer's film "I Had An Abortion" which included footage of huge protests outside clinics, complete with protesters holding up pictures of babies and screaming at women entering Planned Parenthoods and other providers. I didn't expect to see a crowd of people, but I wasn't exactly surprised when the single protester (who Merle later identified as Dorothy) handed me the pamphlet. She wasn't shouting or holding up signs, just wordlessly handing these out.

Most of the people inside Choices were minorities, and most of them looked sad. Which isn't a surprise...yet it is very stunning to look at the people in the waiting room and realize that many of them were about to have an abortion. You can usually walk into any other medical waiting room and not know what people are there for--it could be a checkup or a big procedure. Choices does offer a lot of other services, but they also perform 40-60 abortions each day...you know that's what some of the women in the waiting room are waiting for. It feels incredibly intrusive and humbling to be there not as a fellow patient, but as an observer.

We've discussed abortion a lot this week, and one point that keeps coming up is that an aborted fetus is not really just a bunch of cells. It's easy for pro-choice activists to make this argument to counter the anti-choice argument that a fetus is a life or a human being. But our discussions this week have illuminated, at least for me, that it's not so easy to distinguish. When we met with Merle, she emphasized that if a pregnant individual chooses not to terminate a pregnancy...it does become a life. A baby. "This is the only area where women make the decision of life and death," she told us, "And that's why it's so opposed." She was not afraid to say that abortion is killing.

At first, that seems like a harsh way to think about it. No one wants to kill. As a feminist who supports abortion because I believe that a woman should have autonomy over her own body, it's hard (but not impossible) to reconcile that with the reality of taking a life, even if it exists within that body. But, as Merle said, "You can't put a diaphragm on your brain or your heart." You have to consider all this, thoughtfully and carefully and lovingly.

Abortion isn't supposed to be an easy choice. It is a maternal one, and it may be an obvious choice, or a necessary one, and for most women it is a choice without regret, but one thing we have learned is that it is difficult. Merle noted that a pregnancy is a possibility...terminating a pregnancy, even if it's the right thing to do, is the end of a possibility.

We spoke to a doctor who has worked at Choices for decades. The story he shared with us was, I think, the hardest for us to hear, and the hardest for me to share here. He told us that second-trimester pregnancies involve a fetus with recognizable body parts, though they are not yet fully formed or connected. Doctors have to extract all of these parts from the uterus, and ensure that they are all extracted. He told us that many women want to see what has been taken out of them. He told us that one patient, even though he told her that the body parts were disconnected, wanted some piece of her aborted fetus to hold. He--a doctor who has done thousands of abortions--began to cry (and so did we) as he told us that he placed a hand in hers.

That's an image you don't soon forget.

Feminist Winter Term: Literature, Inclusion, and Privilege

Sorry, readers! Blogger's been acting up, but we can post now!

In which Molly and Colleen blog via Gchat a la Sexist Beatdown...even though they are sitting next to each other. (And listening to Destiny's Child.)

Colleen: So yesterday at Feminist Winter Term, we headed to the Feminist Press, where we heard from the publishers and interns who work there. They publish obscure or out-of-print works and current work relating to women's issues. One question they asked us was, "What do you read?" I think we were both feeling like we had to respond with a bunch of feminist titles, and a lot of Winter Termers did.

Molly: Talking about the literature I love with other feminists is always scary for me. I'm painfully aware of the fact that I enjoy and value a lot of literature that does not necessarily enjoy or value female characters. When one of the Feminist Press staff members asked what we were currently reading, I stopped myself before I told the group my current "affair" (one of the staffers made the brilliant observation that beginning a new book is like starting a new love affair). Bright Lights, Big City is an exceptionally written book featuring dynamic, complex male characters and exceptionally flat, one-dimensional women. Not too many feminist nutrients in this one.

Colleen: I do recall you saying that you were into the Beats and that you could be frustrated with their misogyny but still really like them. And yeah, I totally wrote a similar blog a few posts ago, but we had a really fabulous conversation following this discussion at Feminist Press.

Also I'm so glad we're listening to Destiny's Child right now.

Molly: The clothes I'm wearing? I bought 'em. No really, I did. But seriously, the intersection of the WGS department and the English department this past semester forced me to acknowledge the fact that I read a lot of literature written by the very dead white guys I get angry at in the political part of my brain. Yes, I have relegated politics and fiction (including poetry) to separate areas of my brain. An act of force and desperation. Not to be dramatic.

Colleen: No, it makes sense. And it's entirely possible, as I said before, to critically engage with something that is politically troubling and still find it very wonderful literature. And all of that is in more detail in the older post, and in even better detail on Tiger Beatdown. But I think what we were talking about before, and what we oughta be talking about now, is what we're expected, if that's the right word, to be reading.

Molly: all my independent women throw your hands up at me

Colleen: Hands up. And anyway, like when they asked us what we were reading, everyone was like, "THIS SUPER RADICAL FEMINIST BOOK BY A SUPER RADICAL QUEER THEORIST" which is totally fine, but I was like, um, well, right now I'm reading Pride and Prejudice, but after that I'm going to read The Corrections. And probably some more books by men. OOPS.

Molly: I've read a lot of feminist literature as of late, including both the pop-feminism type books that Jessica Valenti and Courtney Martin write, and some more heady, academic stuff. And I think what I struggle most with is reconciling what I believe I "should" be reading with what I really crave. Sometimes it's just not as fun for me to read books that upset me or make me think long and hard about things that need to be change; I'd rather get wrapped up in a great story, and carried away from everything for a while. Which is not to say that literature doesn't have political and social implications - it totally does! Everyone knows it does! But sometimes it's really hard for me to balance reading books that I know are IMPORTANT to read with books that I think are delicious.

I also read a lot of feminist blogs every day, and I often feel like that's my "medicine" or my "required" feminist reading.

Even though I love reading them.

Colleen: SO true. And that is particularly relevant after our visit to Bust Magazine. I know some Winter Termers found that visit frustrating because, yeah, Bust doesn't exactly cover all issues, it can be heteronormative and doesn't really consider class and race all that much. For the most part, it seems like a magazine for young straight ladies. And sure, I can say, "That's not fully feminist, there are so many things they're not covering," and I do say that, I recognize it, but at the same time...I'm a young feminist lady who likes pop culture and crafts, and liking those things (and also boys) and reading a magazine that caters to those interests doesn't disqualify me from Feminism(s) at Large. And Bust has never claimed to be a magazine for Feminism(s) at Large...they simply saw a gap in the media and decided to fill it with things they thought were awesome. They started out by making things that they and their friends enjoyed. And they can still have an impact on media and how readers and advertisers think about the ladies without necessarily approaching it on a really broad, completely inclusive scale.

And there were Winter Termers who were like, "That was so weird when they were like, 'Ooh, yeah, there's more flirting when there are men in the office,'" and I can see why they felt iffy about that, but also maybe that is true and that is how they talk and I think there is a balance one may find between running around going FUCK THE KYRIARCHY and also going LET'S BE LIGHTHEARTED. 

And I do feel awkward saying that because I know so many people who go, "You have no sense of humor/fun" when I get mad at them for making jokes, so I feel like I'm doing the same thing when I defend Bust, but...yes.

Molly: I read Bust and love it and know exactly what you're talking about. But I still struggle with the fact that the magazine seems to appeal to a very very particular kind of feminist. Although, Amy said some really interesting things after our visit about how Bust was always this way and has never tried to be anything else. Which can be okay.

Colleen: Yeah! Like no one ever said fishing magazines really oughta be covering trapping and bow hunting too.

 Actually, I have no facts to support that...nor do I think that fishing holds some kind of privilege over trapping and bow hunting OH COLLEEN THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SIMPLE ANALOGY, SHUT UP

Molly: I think the theme here is that it's really easy to feel inadequate. Which sounds really whiney and privileged. Which makes me feel further inadequate. But I think that can be a reality in any sort of activist community - you're never critical enough of the culture, and you're always leaving someone out. Which is why I loved what Latoya Peterson said about how dangerous it is to think like or act like your feminism is the only feminism.

Or as Beyonce eloquently says, "I'm a survivor, keep on survivin"

"out of all the darkness and sadness, still comes happiness"

Colleen: Exactly! Like, engage in feminism, often in ways that are good for you, but constantly remind yourself that there is so much more to be done, and that people like us, who are privileged in every way except in our ladyness (i.e. we are white, hetero, cis, college-educated, etc, and yes, this is very much inspired by the Tiger Beatdown post "13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon" which remains one of my elementary feminist texts), are obligated to use our privilege to influence things beyond our white/hetero/etc sphere.

Molly: wow you are sure typing a lot

Colleen: But also, to get back to a point about literature that we started out on...whoa tangent whole blog post whoa...I don't think that being a feminist means that you must read explicitly feminist books all the damn time, which I think was the vibe we were getting sometimes. I was afraid that if I said to some of these folks that I read Philip Roth and John Updike and sometimes--gasp--I like their stuff, they'd be like "SHUN THE BAD FEMINIST." Of course I do not think this would actually have happened, like I'm sure all of these fine ladies and gentlemen read a variety of books, and the work done at Feminist Press to publish things that aren't by misogynist old white dudes (Great American Novelists to everyone else) is really important because it brings variety to the literary table. 

And today at Bluestockings, the radical bookstore where I did my internship, I thought about that a lot. Like, it's great that Bluestockings shelves really great books by ladies and about ladies and about queer theory and sex and social movements that wouldn't be so highlighted elsewhere, and also that Bluestockings provides a space for feminist people to come in and talk about feminist issues and anarchy and menstruation. But if I only read the books at Bluestockings I'd feel like my reading was one-sided. So what I'm trying to say is, it's a great place, but it shouldn't be your only source--and to expand that, feminism is awesome, and it should color everything that you do, but it shouldn't take over everything that you do, if that makes sense. Unless you want it to, in which case that's great. But for now I'll keep bell hooks next to John Updike if I want to.


Email: Colleen to Molly, 12:58 am:

Also a lot of things I thought about in the shower that I want to add in:

I don't think I can confidently say that I know a lot of things about literature, but if there is one thing I know for sure it is that we all have something to learn from each other. And I think that is probably also true of humanity. This made me think especially about debates in educational circles about what to teach the kiddies.

There are a lot of people saying that canonical works aren't exactly relevant to, say, black students at impoverished schools. And there are the people who say that many canonical works, even if they're by dead white men, are still about the human condition and can be quite universal--they say this especially about Shakespeare, and I agree. But basically this argument comes down to, "The dead white men, well, they're fine for those kids in the suburbs, but what do we teach poor kids in urban schools?" And I'm like...who says dead white men are fine for the kids in the suburbs? We should ALL be reading works by a variety of authors.

If we're going to put every writer into categories of race/sex/gender/class/sexual orientation, let's face it, every writer is going to be in a particular subset. Obviously no one is going to transcend them, everyone's going to be in some kind of permutation of categories. And to suggest that a person in one permutation can't be relevant to a reader who fits into another permutation is rather absurd. To suggest that Shakespeare and Twain can't be relevant to someone who is, unlike them, nonwhite or queer is ridiculous, and to suggest that, say, Toni Morrison isn't relevant to me just because I'm white is also ridiculous.

I know that there's a different dynamic of privilege there, but my point is that writers are generally trying to talk to everybody. I think we all recognize that despite differences in circumstance, people DO share some universal emotions and experiences, and that means that writers of all circumstances have universal experiences, stemming out of particular circumstances, to talk about with everybody else.


More Feminist Winter Term: The Education of Feminist Winter Termers

As a young, excited, and (probably ignorantly) idealistic feminist, being able to sit down with Shelby Knox and chat informally about comprehensive sex education, reproductive justice, Christianity, and making change as a fourth wave (!) activist was nothing short of heavenly. Shelby Knox is a young, idealistic activist herself, who is most well known for her campaign to procure actual sex education (with real pictures of anatomy and everything!), as opposed to the abstinence-only, dirty-toothbrush-vs.-clean-toothbrush-as-an-acceptable-analogy-to-a-woman-pre-and-post-coitus-out-of-wedlock bullshit that she and her peers received in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. You can watch a preview of the 2005 documentary that tells her story here. Shelby is so young, dynamic, and passionate; she has already taken so much incredible action, and made so much incredible change. And she is only 24.

It wasn't just that Shelby has a remarkable success story to tell. It is that she's exactly the kind of young person I want to be. She leveled herself with the group immediately by sitting with us at the big table at the Ms. Foundation instead of standing in the front of the room and lecturing. She was so warm and engaging that I almost felt like I was talking to an old friend. And she said some really amazing things about the importance of the movement and the direction in which she sees the movement heading. I hope I'm not making any giant assumptions here, but I think that her words can resonate with many many women with different experiences, different feminisms, different oppressors, and different experiences with oppresssion.

Something Shelby said that really struck me was that the moment she realized she was a feminist was the moment she realized that feminism is hearing your pain or experience in another woman's voice and realizing that: there's nothing wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with her. But there's something wrong with the world that makes us think there is. This seemed like such a perfect way to articulate the moment that many of us (myself included) came to feminism, but have been unable to put into words, or perhaps to fully comprehend so far. Many winter-termers described taking a gender studies class and feeling like everything "just made sense," or of having what one participant described as "latent feminism" throughout life, only brought to the forefront at a pivotal moment of emotional connection of the sort that Shelby referred to. I've recognized my own experience in the stories of so many people (not just the voices of straight cis women, but those of trans women, trans men, queer women, queer men, etc., all struggling with constraining gender constructs and our society's limited binaries, dichotomies, and stereotypes), and I owe these connections to feminism.

Although I think that any social justice movement can bring people together in an exceptionally beautiful way, I love that our generation of feminists is so inclusive and so wide-reaching. Shelby referred to us as the "fourth wave" of feminism, which terrifies and thrills me at the same time; it also confirms a lot of my thoughts about the way in which my peers and I differ from feminists just a bit older than us. I think that the proliferation of media and technology is changing feminism more rapidly than our feminist mothers ever thought possible - it's becoming more intersectional and more wide-reaching with every single tweet and every blog post. As Shelby said, you no longer have to be able to afford college to take a gender studies course, because it's all on the interwebs. I'm still pretty confused (and I think I'll continue to be confused) about where to draw a distinction between the third wave and the fourth wave, or if there is even a real distinction to be made. But it was cool to hear someone I really look up to make the distinction so eloquently and fearlessly. Aaaanyway.

Back to Shelby's lovely words about seeing your pain in another person. I spend so much time examining flaws and disconnects within the movement; the more I think about it, much of my time spent being a feminist is time spent criticizing feminism. But Shelby's seemingly boundless excitement and tangible awe at the simple fact that feminism connects people and legitimizes their experiences made me remember what's undeniably amazing about being a feminist. Which is not to say that there aren't huge flaws to address, within both feminist spaces and the broader cultural context. If there weren't, we wouldn't have anything to fight for. And really, where's the fun in that?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Feminist Winter Term: Sex & Sex Work

Molly, Alicia, and I are currently in New York City at Feminist Winter Term, a program for college-age feminists run by Soapbox Inc. (Click the link for more info.) Today was our first day!

We're super-tired right now--it's been a long day running around New York. But here's a quick summary of what we did today! Molly will write in tomorrow about her afternoon; she was in a different group today.

First we all met with Jennifer and Amy, the founders of Soapbox, at Amy's apartment. We had delicious food (I didn't know orange juice could taste that good) and met all of the participants. There are young women (and one man) from around the United States and Canada. We all feel that it's wonderfully refreshing and fun to be around people with whom you instantly share the basic tenets of a political/social philosophy...though we may be different people, from different schools and different parts of the continent, we're all on the same feminist page. It's easy to get into discussions with people when you know you already have similar ideas about discrimination, abortion rights, sexuality, etc. I talked to a bunch of people on our many walks and subway rides, and I'm excited to get to know them all better!

After the meeting at the apartment, we headed to Babeland, a sex toy shop celebrating women's sexuality. The atmosphere is Bath-and-Body-Works-ish--warm, inviting, and clean (appearance- and hygiene-wise)--but instead of scented soaps, it's vibrators, dildos, and condoms. Do check out their website, it's awesome!

In the afternoon, we were split into two groups. Alicia and I were in group 1, which went first to the Sex Workers Project. We learned that the SWP approaches sex work as an occupation that individuals come to through choice, circumstance (financial hardship and no other options), or coercion. They believe that sex work should be de-criminalized, which, they said, would not lead to an increase in human trafficking. Using harm reduction strategies, they use therapy and legal action to support people who are or have been, legally or illegally, involved in sex work.

There was a lot of frustration at SWP, but also a lot of hope. It's scary yet awe-inspiring to see this kind of intense, feminist, hands-on approach to a problem. After this one meeting, I was reeling with ideas.

We then headed to the NoVo Foundation, which is dedicated to empowering women and girls worldwide. Where the Sex Workers Project was an organization working directly with individuals, NoVo is a foundation, funded by a single donation, which gives money to organizations working to further the goals of 1) social and emotional education, 2) empowerment of adolescent girls, and 3) ending violence against women and girls.

Unlike SWP, NoVo believes that legalizing prostitution (a term they used instead of "sex work"--more on this in a bit) will lead to an increase in human trafficking, and they support the "Swedish model" in which pimps and johns are prosecuted for buying sex, rather than a system in which women are prosecuted for selling it.

Of course, to say that SWP and NoVo are complete opposites is a misunderstanding; NoVo may acknowledge sex work/prostitution, but they also point out that the majority of people in the sex industry are not there by choice; they are forced by other people or by financial hardship to sell their bodies. SWP would, I think, agree with that, but their strategy is simply much more support-based; they are there to help people after trafficking has happened. NoVo is broader and more idealistic...they're working to attack trafficking at its roots, hoping to eventually stop it.

It was interesting to hear the differences in language between the two. Maybe as an English major, I'm particularly attuned to shifts in language, but the sudden substitution of "prostitution" for "sex work" was startling. "Sex work" certainly reflects SWP's belief that it can be a valid, legal field for a woman to enter if she truly chooses to enter it, whereas "prostitution" is an older, more traditional way to describe it, and makes selling sex a much more passive act.

Well, for now it's time to go to bed. My shoulders are aching (from carrying bags...and from looking up all the time at really tall buildings) and my brain hurts even more. Look forward to more posts as the week goes on!