Speaking of Women's Rights: 06/10

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's the Advertising, Stupid!

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone of voice, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

An admirable point of view, in some ways, though possibly leading to confusion on occasion (especially for poor Alice when she went through the Looking Glass). As someone who, if told she could have only two books on a desert island, would likely choose a Thesaurus as one of them, I embrace linguistic versatility. Nonetheless, successful communication requires that there be some agreement about what words mean.

Words matter. They matter a great deal.

Advocates for women’s rights, or for any social justice issue, routinely encounter co-opting of words by the opposition. The most egregious example is Ward Connerly’s “American Civil Rights Institute, ” which works ceaselessly to eliminate affirmative action and to halt redress of past discrimination. You also have to love (NOT) the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-choice group that asserts our feminist foremother was a rabid anti-abortion activist and polemicist – at least an overstatement, and arguably just plain wrong, according to some Anthony scholars.

As frustrating as this is in political discourse, though, it is somehow even more frightening when it happens in the commercial and popular culture contexts, where it’s often more subtle. And after all, at this point we expect it in politics, unfortunately. We all, and young people in particular, are inundated with images, words, songs, advertising campaigns, and other media messages that twist the meaning of words and concepts, with far-reaching and diabolical consequences. Whether warping girls’ and women’s body images, or celebrating alcohol consumption or drunken partying, we seem to be at the mercy of advertisers.

Which is why my appreciation for language change and growth suffered a shock when I saw a recent ad campaign by apparel company Diesel. It appears that ‘stupid’ no longer means ‘dull-witted, slow of mind, unintelligent.’ Now ‘stupid’ means ‘risk-taking, creative, brave,’ compared to ‘smart’ as ‘dull, staid, lacking spontaneity.’

I’m all for creativity and living a full, rich life, and I bet you are too. But we need our young people to celebrate learning, and strive to acquire critical thinking skills, and embrace their own growth and development. Equating stupidity with brilliance, promising the reward of “a hell of a hangover” if you’re brave enough to ‘be stupid’ --- that’s not stretching the meaning of words, it’s not expanding our understanding of language, it’s not even promoting innovative thinking. It’s just . . . well . . . stupid.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gen Y 4 Change

What does British pop artist Imogen Heap have to do with social change? Quite a lot, actually. At her recent Seattle show Imogen wrote an impromptu song onstage, using participation from the audience, and made it available for purchase on her website. All proceeds from the sale of the song will benefit a local charity. Seattle-area Imogen fans were afforded the opportunity to vote on a beneficiary, resoundingly selecting the P-Patch Trust.

Though Immi, like myself, sits more squarely on the tail end of Gen X, she’s found a way to speak the language of the younger generation, tailoring each city’s set-list via online fan voting, and tweeting the latest tour news. I would venture to guess that it’s because of these opportunities for interaction that her fans are of the more die-hard variety (though her musical genius doesn’t hurt her any either).

It comes down to this: Make people feel party to what you’re doing, create a feeling of ownership, and these feelings of inclusion will translate to action; in Imogen’s case, long door lines outside of sold-out venues and increased revenue for some great causes.

Gen Y’ers (or Millennials, or Generation Nexters…) have gotten a bad rap for being “lazy” or “apathetic.” They’re accused of taking their rights for granted and caring more about American Idol than the politics of vital issues. I myself have been skeptical of virtual movements in the past, but have to admit that I've noticed some real success in recent technology-driven campaigns.

The presidential campaign of Barack Obama comes to mind. How many concerts for change, Obama Mobile Message campaigns, and form emails did we see, that not only raised money for the campaign, but also motivated the younger generation out to the polls in record-breaking numbers?

For those of you who are avid consumers of NPR , you may have recently heard the voice of Ira Glass urging you to text the word “LIFE” to a particular number in order to contribute $5 to the show’s operating costs (“perhaps from the very device you’re currently listening to the show on,” he points out). The show doubled its number of donations using this tactic. Our own Seattle Theater Group recently tried the same thing for their “Sign of the Times” campaign by asking show-goers to text the word “sign”, automatically donating $5 to the cause. They managed to raise $3500 this way. It seems that people are having a good deal of luck utilizing text messaging as a means to raise funds for their causes.

The internet has created - as researcher Kirk Snyder calls it – an “Age of Awareness” among the younger set. It’s made the world a smaller place and brought concepts that were previously off most young people’s radar, to the forefront of their minds. And though the information age may create a sense of overwhelm, or rewire our brains in detrimental ways, it also creates an opportunity to mobilize and educate in a big, big way. I’m not suggesting that web 2.0, and other forms of technology are the be-all end-all of social activism, but they are an important tool in our toolbox, as a means to get people out to marches, and to disseminate information with a wider net.

Perhaps one of the most telling statements in some recent Pew Research Center findings on characteristics of 19 to 29-year-olds is this statement: “They embrace multiple modes of self-expression.” They also happen to list use of technology and music/pop culture as the top two defining characteristics of their generation. So let me suggest this: Millennials are not lazy; they are different. So instead of admonishing them for not embracing their parents’ means of creating social change, how about we come to them on their terms, using the language of text message, interactive web, and social media.

Photo Credit: Dana Pleasant Photography

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights: A Step in the Right Direction

by guest blogger Robin Runge

The majority of low-wage workers in the U.S. are women, many of whom are breadwinners, caregivers, bill payers, bail payers, food stamp appliers, rent payers, and all around super women. The limited federal employment protections available to workers in the U.S. almost entirely fail to address their needs, but newly passed state statutes provide some hope for change.

A large percentage of low income women work for businesses that are too small for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to require that their employers provide unpaid, job guaranteed leave to heal from serious health conditions, including pregnancy. Importantly, even if the FMLA did cover their employers, many of the reasons these low-income working women need job guaranteed leave from work aren’t included in the FMLA. Also, the requirement that a worker must work for 12 months before she can qualify to take the leave makes it inaccessible to many low wage working women who struggle to maintain a job with the same employer for that long because they are fired for missing one day of work for any reason. This is in large part because there is no federal law that requires employers to provide any paid sick time to their employees. Although some employers voluntarily provide these luxuries to their employees, not surprisingly, 57% of women workers in the ten largest low-wage occupations for women are without paid sick days.

In addition, many of these low-wage working women’s jobs are exempted from most wage and hour laws requiring that employers pay minimum wage, overtime, and provide breaks. However, there is a glimmer of hope.

Last week, the New York State Legislature passed a bill that would create a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and sent it to Governor Patterson for his signature. This bill is remarkable for many reasons, including the fact that it provides protections and rights for a group of low-wage workers who are almost entirely women. It also acknowledges that domestic workers are actually a viable group of workers who deserve respect, and, shockingly, paid holidays, paid vacations, and overtime. This legislative success is a result of amazing efforts that include the voices of the workers themselves, creating a set of protections that is accessible to the majority of them and reflective of the actual needs of these workers: it will require employers provide one rest day every calendar work week, paid at the overtime rate; require employers to provide up to seven paid sick days and five paid vacation days each year for full-time workers, and four paid sick days and three paid vacation days for part-time workers and; require that domestic workers and their employers are covered by the New York Human Rights Law, meaning that domestic workers are protected by New York State’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment in the workplace laws. The focus on paid time off from work is worth noting. Low wage working women need paid time off from work for a wide variety of reasons that may or may not include caring for a sick child, or parent. It may involve bailing out a brother or traveling to a foreign country to visit family. It may include attending a custody hearing in which she is seeking custody of her child after discovering that her boyfriend was sexually abusing her.

In addition to this remarkable piece of legislation, several states have adopted laws that provide unpaid leave from work for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and/or stalking to heal from injuries caused by the abuse, to attend court proceedings related to the violence, or to seek counseling or other assistance from community based organizations with expertise working with victims. Connecticut is the most recent state to pass such legislation signed by the Governor just last week, also prohibiting an employer from discriminating against on employee for taking the leave or just because she is a victim of one of these heinous crimes, of which women are the most frequent targets.

The broader, national discussion of family-friendly workplaces and flexible workplaces needs to include the voices of not only middle-class women, but also low income, low wage workers, who, if we’re honest, are the women and workers who need protections the most. They are the most vulnerable to job loss because their employers do not voluntarily provide the policies and protections that most of us are accustomed to. As a middle class white woman with two post-high school degrees, I’ve been fortunate to have every employer I’ve worked for (as an adult) provide me with at least two weeks of vacation, and a week of paid sick days. And, I’ve also had the income to carry me if I needed to take unpaid leave under the FMLA.

Job loss means more than the loss of an income temporarily to these women, it means slipping back into poverty, remaining in a violent home and possibly homelessness for themselves and all of those who depend on them. It means another black mark on their job record, making it harder for them to get another job, when during the next job interview they are asked why they were fired from their last job.

We may need to reconsider what the purposes are of employment rights and protections such as paid and unpaid leave from work, and anti-discrimination provisions. Are our goals to increase connectivity to the workforce for workers, specifically low-wage workers who experience job loss more frequently due to non-work related reasons, recognizing that increased connectivity to the workforce is directly related to getting raises, promotions and educational opportunities enabling workers to get out of poverty? If so, then we need to ask low wage workers (again, mostly women) what they need to do that and create protections and rights like those in the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that are responsive to them.

Robin Runge is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law where she co-teaches in the Housing and Employment Law Clinic. She directed the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence from 2003-2009.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

You Might As Well Hand Over Your Uterus

Why slacktivism shares fault for the slow erosion of women's rights

by guest blogger Maria Miranda

A recent Washington Post article highlighted the silent victories that anti-choice organizations are winning across country. They are chipping away at the iceberg of choice with ice picks of laws passed at the state level that create barrier after barrier for women seeking an abortion. These people are relentless. They are dedicated to making women's lives miserable. Their desire for a puritanical society in which women are simply voiceless vessels drives them to take whatever measures necessary to win. I recently compared this to killing someone by stabbing them once a day until they bleed to death.

Many choice activists are scratching their heads baffled as to why Roe is dying a slow death.

It's because thousands of women are looking the other way.

Slacktivism will be the death of us. If the days of confronting what oppresses you in person with the inherent threat of risk that comes with it, is replaced with joining a fan page or tweeting that the eradication of civil rights "sucks", then our progress towards equity is stalled. For those of us who were born into a world with integration, choice, careers and all the other liberties that we take for granted, we have grown painfully complacent. We have adopted a brand of feminism that accommodates us and doesn't force us to question our role in perpetuating the dominant culture. We think our desire to wear pink is a choice.

We are more concerned about what infringes on our individual preferences and desires than what impacts us a gendered class. We swim in a cesspool of identity politics that serves to see who can race to the bottom and determine who has more content in her backpack of privilege. We have eschewed the second wave politics that brought us our birth control pills, our seats in the lecture hall, our place in the cubicle and the freedom to make the decisions that will impact our lives. We look at women from this generation with disdain and sometimes we mock them for fighting a fight we think is won. We can't be any worse than the suffragists who thought that voting was the ultimate solution to a woman's inferior place in society.

Hell, we let Sarah Palin co-opt the feminist movement for her own political gain.

With the advent of this pop feminism comes the delusion that online petitions, postcards and catchy t-shirts are doing the work that our foremothers did. Nothing makes me feel better than clicking "OK" on a pre-populated form letter addressed to a representative I couldn't identify on the street that talks about why [insert issue here] is important to me. I mean, if it's important enough for me to click send, it must be a matter of life and death, right? In the comfort of our homes, we can "speak out" against injustices, but who should bother to listen? Just as easily as I click "send" on my online form letter, some intern on the other end can delete my email.

Moreover, it behooves us to be aware that the entities that own and operate digital media are run by people in power that do not have women's interest at heart. We are nothing more than tools. We are not their constituents; we are their product. We are what they sell to advertisers who also capitalize on the oppression of women in all its forms.

There is something to be said about the power of community and for centuries, women have been the architects and keepers of community. Online community is a soul-sucking thing. It fills us with a false sense of empowerment, alienates us, isolates us and diminishes the essence of our existence. Not a week goes by that I don't consider deleting every online account I have. We need to find a way to communicate and conscious-raise the old-fashioned way. No, really, I'm serious. There is power to speaking woman-to-woman, face-to-face about the issues that impact our lives. No corporation can own that. It can't be commodified for one person's gain.

Does it occur to those of us with technological privileges that we further lessen our impact by keeping the message of women's liberation all to ourselves? How exactly are we reaching marginalized women with our tweets? The other side of effect of lazy liberation movements is the fact that we can't even reach the masses that need our message so badly. Even here: are we not just preaching to the choir? If you read a blog about women's rights, I'm fairly certain you already "get it". What do we do as a collection of activists to bring advocacy in 2010 to the women who need it the most?

Now, this isn't to say that blogging, tweeting and online communities are without merit. This isn't to say that in certain countries, blogging, tweeting and social networking isn't a risk and way to actually mobilize critical masses. Perhaps I glorify the feminism of another era. Maybe I ignore the value added that the digital age brings to activism. There is power in raising awareness. People can't find a solution if they don't know what the problem is. However, once you know, what do you do then? There is value to assuming risk when demanding what is rightfully yours. In fact, it's actually invaluable. In order to address the paradigms that create invisible currents of oppression, we must get a little uncomfortable and be more brazen in our actions.

And this is where we are dropping the ball. Many of us have let down the organizations and individuals leading the charge. They need us: to march, to demonstrate, to paint signs, to write real paper letters, as well as, stuff envelopes, make phone calls and write checks. We can't do all of that with a wireless connection and a grande no-foam, soy, green tea latte at our sides. The movement will always need real, live bodies. We can't win this war with drones.

The system that impedes our basic freedoms works because we have let it work. Where is the anger and the outrage that fueled marches in the streets and confrontations with the powers-that-be? We have snarky columns and edgy feminist websites, but beyond harping about it, what are we doing these days to show the other side that we are not to be messed with? They tweet, they blog and they click petitions, yet they must be doing something else since they seem to be winning.

No Democratic majority is going to shield us from the onslaught of attacks. We can't get fired up only during election season. If we only deal with weather disasters when they occur, how will we ever be prepared for the next one? We can't get tired now. We most certainly can't get comfortable. We must remain vigilant and prepare for inevitable fights ahead. They don't sleep, so we can't sleep.

I know all of us aren't capable of doing everything for every issue, but what is the fight for true equity without a little sacrifice? What are you willing to do to protect your way of life? What are you willing to risk in order to further the status of women? If you can't readily answer this question, then you're most certainly ready to admit defeat.

Maria Miranda likes to choreograph one-woman dance performances in her room. She is also the founder of Whisper to a Scream: a feminist performance arts collective and a columnist for Spangle Magazine.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Word I Wish I Had Never Learned

There’s no doubt enormous strides have been made against gender-based violence over the last 30 years. From the days when we couldn’t even talk about domestic violence or sexual assault, through the “she asked for it” decades, to our current reality, with many organizations and movements working to prevent, respond to and legislate against violence targeting women, we can’t deny the progress.

That relative progress is one reason I was shocked today when I heard about the man in Hialeah, Florida, who shot and killed his wife at the restaurant where she worked, then methodically attacked other women, bypassing the men who were present. How can we wrap our minds around hatred that leaps from the individual to encompassing an entire sex? What kind of mind decides that many woman deserve to die because of how one woman responded to one man?

Not that it’s all that unusual, sadly. And it’s reflective of more than just the twisted mind of one man, or even several, who extrapolate to women as a group. From the man who killed 5 young Amish women (and injured 11) in 2006, the 'gym shooter' who blamed all women for problems with his sex life, killing 3 and wounding 9 more, to the murder of more than 500 women in Ciudad Juarez over the past fifteen years, we have to ask ourselves: what is it about our global society that permits and even encourages women to be slain? There’s even a term for it: “gendercide”, the killing of someone because of her sex. Or his: men, too, can be victims of gendercide, as we saw horrifically in Kosovo in the 1990’s. And let’s save for another day the horrors of female infanticide.

For today, let’s just start thinking about why a man would choose to take out his hatred (or fear, perhaps) of one woman by killing several, and why it’s so much more often a man who engages in that extrapolated hate than a woman. Women kill, no question, but we rarely see them engage in extensive gender-based killing when their grievance, whatever its cause, is against one man. If we knew why some men externalize their hatred to all women, could we stop it?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Gays
The Joint Strike Fighter,
The Family Research Council,
Good Ol’ Fashioned Ignorance.

I sat here this morning, mouth agape, reading about a “study” (really want to emphasize the air quotes there) that brought the Family Research Council to this conclusion: A repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy will lead to soldiers having unwanted gay sex.

The group throws out some figures about sexual assault that on face value seem pretty disconcerting. According to Peter Sprigg, Senior fellow at FRC "homosexuals in the military are about three times as likely to commit sexual assaults as heterosexuals are." (having committed 8.2% of sexual assaults in the military in 2009) Disconcerting, that is, until you really think about it. Let me ask you this, Mr. Sprigg: In an environment where a person is not allowed to discuss his or her sexual orientation, how would one expect to get an accurate count of how many service men and women are in fact gay or lesbian? (a number that would surely be necessary in order to factor out a statistic such as this).

And you know who commits nearly all of the other 91.8% of sexual assaults? Presumably-heterosexual men. You heard anyone talking about booting them out of the military? Yeah…didn’t think so.

Though both the house and the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee voted for a repeal of DADT (234-194 and 16-12, respectively), a full repeal is far from a done deal. The measure was tacked onto a $760 billion military spending bill, placing pro-military Republicans between a rock and a hard place.

The bill includes several items that could snag up passage of DADT, most predominately a little piece of equipment called the Joint Strike Fighter. Written into the military spending bill is a second engine for the fighter plane. There are differing opinions on exactly how necessary this spare part is, but President Obama has threatened to veto the entire spending bill over it. And while the president has said that the DADT repeal “will help make our armed forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity,” he has also said that he won’t support the bill if funding for the second fighter engine remains.

Even the folks who do agree, can’t agree on much. It seems that as usual, it’s all in the details. An ongoing study with a due date of December 1st is creating dissonance between two factions: A) Those who feel the repeal should happen now, but be contingent on the findings of the study, and B) those who want the legislation put on hold until after the study is concluded. The details of the study – the methods being used, who’s actually compiling the data and how, etc. – seem to be elusive at this point, the deadline being our only piece of concrete knowledge about a report that game-changing policy will hinge on.

Luckily we’ve got one unlikely advocate. This from the Fox News Blog (?!):

“Let’s see if we have this straight. A Democratic president, who’s presided over a staggering jump in federal spending over the past year, admonishing a Democratic Congress for not tightening its fiscal belt. And that’s to say nothing of infuriating gays and lesbians who supported the president in 2008.” (emphasis mine)

Gee, thanks Fox News. Clearly their disdain for the President has reached a new high, when they’ve begun to side with the gay community on an issue like DADT.

So where does all of this put gays and lesbians? On the defensive – I guess – waiting around, with that giant incline called “equality” still looming.