work left to do: feminism and civil rights

I’ve been in stunned silence since leaving for an idyllic Spring break with my older brother and his family over a month ago. So much has transpired in both the public and private sphere that my head has been a-whirl with inexpressible thoughts.

But now I find I must leap into the void. Forgive my blunt and awkward self-expression: it pours out of a mouth agape and a heart splintered into shards whenever I pause from daily duties and shed my “coping mode” in order to feel.

My father went to the hospital with a life-threatening condition while I frolicked in warm seas among indescribably colored fish — the contrast of the burden his suffering with the light escapism of vacation was surreal.

A week later I chaperoned four students to a conference that highlighted the inequities in our society that reinforces racism, classism, gender biases, and systems of white male privilege — despite our best intentions.

Upon my return two bombs exploded our sense of public safety and forever changed the lives of hundreds of people and their families, as well as those who watched horrified from afar.

Last week I heard from a friend that her partner (and my friend) was recently diagnosed with a fatal autoimmune disease, which they are researching and battling on multiple fronts.

Monday three students — whom I have taught for half their high school career — made an ignorant choice in the public eye, which shook the foundation of sexual politics at our school and threw me into self-doubt about my efficacy as an educator and feminist.

How do these events interconnect? The threads that join the tragedies of our lives are twisted and difficult to unravel. I feel I must package those I cannot change and focus my attentions where I can have the greatest effect: supporting my family, speaking the realities of injustice, and educating the youth that will inherit this lovely mess we have woven.

I say “lovely” because the sun has shone warmly on my often fog-filled world this past week. The beauty of the tropical paradise that lifted my spirits a month a go is still fresh in my mind’s eye. My father breathes more freely each day, unaided by constantly beeping machinery. Yesterday a group of people stood in a public space of consumer gluttony handing out free hugs. (Of course I partook.) Life is precious and each moment a gift, a well-worn truth that has never been more real to me.

I say “mess” because we have so much work left to do. The snarl of the healthcare system — controlled by for-profit insurance companies who hold the financial reins and thus dictate the diagnostic choices that doctors can make — will require generations to untangle. The economic inequities of our social and political structures continue to widen, and greater numbers of families fall into the gaping maw of poverty. The aftermath of the Boston bombings fueled our fear and hatred of the “Other” — the immigrant, the Muslim — and justified our gun-toting culture that recently shot down reasonable gun-control legislation in Congress. The misogyny prevalent in our popular media — particular what is marketed toward young people — creates generations of clueless, blameless promoters of sexist messages and blind acceptance of oppression and violence against women. We have a lot of work to do.

This week I saw teenagers (and some adults) who couldn’t understand why their appropriation and public performance of popular music with vulgar, explicit, and sexist lyrics could offend a huge portion of our community. I listened to a feminist student’s frustration at the lack of clear messages from the leaders in our school, whose well-intentioned response was diluted with shades of grey that teenagers aren’t capable of analyzing yet. I witnessed a sit-in where girls were weeping and boys angry at their peers because of repeated behaviors throughout four years by a group of privileged white male students who are blind to their own power and how inequitably they wield it.

I can’t control the Islamophobia that was fueled by the Chechen brothers’ atrocious attack on innocent Americans. Yet as much as I abhor their actions, I can speak out for their Constitutional rights as U.S. citizens to due process, with faith that justice would have been served even if the surviving brother has been fairly treated under the law. At the risk of receiving hateful responses, I urge you to read about the Miranda abuses of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Emily Bazelon’s blog here. Were other American Terrorists treated more fairly? See the case history of white Timothy McVeigh, for example.

I’m guessing that the post-911 climate of xenophobia and fear of Muslims in particular contributes to the difference in treatment received by McVeigh and Tsarnaev. Authorities revel in the fact that the Boston bombing suspect talked for 16 hours before being read his rights, giving up information they may not have gotten otherwise. Did this make us safer, considering that both brothers had been effectively neutralized by that point? Most would argue that Miranda rights exist even if they are not read by an arresting officer, so no suspect is required to speak against himself, and all can invoke this right. Foreign-born citizens may not be aware of all the rights guaranteed to them when they become citizens. If police officers take advantage of that, and we are not allowed equal protection under the law, where is the freedom we say we are fighting for? Do we have so little faith in our own judicial system that we have to skirt around civil rights protections to ensure justice is served? Is this not a slippery slope? I feel powerless to defend those rights, as many would think these terror suspects have no rights. Who am I to defend people who’ve done unspeakable crimes?

What I can do something about is my response — as a teacher, a women, and a mother — to the misogyny I see around me in popular culture: from the defense of rapists and accusations toward victims of rape to the negative portrayal of women in media of all kinds. This week three boys at my school “innocently” repeated lyrics that objectify and subjugate women, blithely unaware of their privileged position in the power structure and ignorant of the effect of these words on others. How should they know if we don’t educate them?

Women are ridiculed in mainstream media for being too strong-minded (Hillary Clinton) or not fitting a Barbie-doll physical stereotype (Kate Upton or the supposedly “chunky” NBA cheerleader Kelsey Williams, both of whom are gorgeous women). Even moments of supposed female empowerment often have women behaving like savage versions of the men who dominate our world view. Ann Coulter is a good example: female cattiness and hatred given a soapbox. These images tear us down and pit us against one another: man against woman, woman against woman. Where is the critique of this vicious dynamic? How will we ever be able to live with each other with this level of divisiveness driving us apart?

Last night I saw a trailer for a film about three women who go back to an island they had visited often as young girls. Apparently one of them is sexually assaulted by a man (one of three) whom they meet on the island, and she kills him, presumably in self-defense. This sparks a Hunger Games–type hunt of female against male, where the woman are portrayed in fiercely sexy disarray, breasts heaving against tight tank tops, hair tousled in boudoir ringlets that fall across glinting, vengeful eyes.

I must admit that I am not a fan of vigilante stories in general; I feel squeamish about justifying violence, even when it could be justified. I have no doubt about my own ability to commit such crimes were my daughter threatened, for example, but only as a last resort, and I would not be proud of it or want to hold it up as model behavior. For these and other reasons, the story I saw glimpses of last night made my blood boil: it pits man against woman and turns both into beasts, yet the woman remain desirable sexual objects throughout. When I’m in the wilderness for even 24 hours without a shower, my hair doesn’t dangle enticingly, it lies matted with oil and sweat to my skull, artfully hidden by hat or bandana. If I were running for my life in densely wooded areas and crawling through underbrush, I’d sure as hell wear protective clothing that hid my fleshy parts. Verisimilitude aside (not Hollywood’s strong suit, nor should it necessarily be), the premise is revolting. Why turn men into raping monsters and women into animals bent on revenge if not to further decay the delicate and strained relationship between the sexes? These people aren’t real: they are caricatures that degrade both men and women and feed into stereotypes that should be critiqued rather than propagated. I hissed at the end of the trailer, but I don’t think anyone in the audience understood why.

I am proud to be a feminist, and my goal is to recruit others — men and women, boys and girls — to be proud of this identifier instead of hiding it away in shame as if they were some throwback to bra-burning, men-hating women libbers, which is — I might add — a vicious stereotype that few feminists deserve. Education is a key to our future: let each individual take this responsibility seriously. Teach our young people to question what they see, to analyze their position in our community, and to think about the ripples created by their actions, ripples that can turn into tidal waves and go way beyond their intended goal.


Maxim magazine’s “Cure a Feminist” article, well commented here.

P.S. The blogger who criticized Kelsey Williams’ physique was Anna-Megan Raley, and was fired shortly thereafter from her position as a blogger in Houston. There is some justice in the media — and perhaps some sour grapes: the same blogger had posted a clip from her (one can assume unsuccessful) audition to be a professional cheerleader. Cattiness abounds.


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