Moving Forward.

America is a broken and divided nation. Trump is a symptom of these conditions.

Today I feel a great deal of fear and anger. I recognize that this is a result of the fear and anger of a great many Americans who feel dissatisfied because our economy and government have caused much anxiety over the past several years. How do we, as humans, often discharge our feelings of discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety? By blaming others. By latching onto an oppressive system that lets you believe that there’s an easy solution to the deep complexities of contemporary life: “return” to simplicity; wall out the uncertain; retreat to the comfort of privilege; assign blame and relieve yourself of your fears.

So today, I will not blame. I will do my best to understand this environment and conditions, commit to my values, commit to a vision of an America where all people are full and equal participants in society, and commit to moving forward.

The current state of our society highlights the oppressive systems that are, and have been, thriving. It is all connected; all forms of oppression are connected. I believe that the political climate of this country will bring us dark times in the next few years. I am deeply, painfully concerned for the people I love, care about, and respect. It seems almost impossible to wake up, realize that everything you stand for, your values, your relationships, or your very existence, is under attack, and then to have to figure out a plan to fight back. But the political, social, and economic climate of our nation is not solely determined by one elected individual or elected body. We are not alone. We will not accept this as our fate, the fate of our nation, and the future for our children. We will not accept hatred and divisiveness as American values.

To my friends, family, students, and colleagues who feel lost, afraid, attacked, and dehumanized: I love, honor, and respect you. I encourage you to seek spaces of healing. And when you are ready, I invite you into dialogue and action. I am doing everything I can do to fan my own flame of hope and perseverance, and to not falter in the face of this environment. I am an active participant in shaping the future of this nation. We are all active participants in shaping each other’s lives and futures.

We must move forward in solidarity. We must discover new ways of being and connecting as communities to find paths of healing, resistance, and progress. The struggle continues.

#50DollarsNot50Shades: Boycott 50 Shades of Grey

http://www.wxyz.com/news/domestic-abuse-activists-say-boycott-50-shades-of-grey-with-twitter-campaign-50dollarsnot50shades

Today, I decided that I was going to write a feminist literary critique of the insidious 50 Shades of Grey. As a feminist and someone who spent four years being trained in literary criticism, this seemed like an ostensibly easy task. I would read said piece of “literature” and apply various lenses to it. I told myself that we all must suffer for our crafts. I told myself that you must truly know your enemy. I was committed to getting on the level of this book.

I got through a handful of chapters, having fully realized that it was written in the style of a 12 year old’s diary, which is not a literary style I have dabbled in much since about 2001, and at that point I had firmly received my confirmation that the character of Christian Grey is a violent, controlling stalker. Because, you know, he shows up at the workplace of a young woman who he has only met once in a business setting, and that’s not something that is terrifying and completely unacceptable or anything. And he makes her sign a contract that strips her of her free will. Normal stuff. Totally healthy. 

So at this point in the game, I feel perfectly justified in transitioning my literary critique to a social critique because I have better things to do with my life than subject myself to actually reading this book. You’ll have to forgive that I have interpreted some plot points from secondary sources. 

Dear Women;

Please don’t go see 50 Shades of Grey. Really. Please just don’t.

I get why people (10 million people) are obsessed with the books. Well, I mean, I think that the writing is complete rubbish, so I’m still really struggling with that part, but I understand that women are sexually oppressed, and being able to buy soft core porn at Barnes & Noble has really changed things. I’m not telling you to boycott 50 Shades because I’m a prude who doesn’t want you to get your jollies. I’m very sex-positive. I think that the world would be much better off if we didn’t act like sex was some big old secret and if we could actually have open, positive, productive conversations with partners and others about the topic.

But I think it’s insane to act like 50 Shades is a vehicle for sexual empowerment and enlightenment. These books are about an extremely abusive relationship. A relationship in which one person endeavors to do everything he can to control all aspects of the other person’s life. In which he guilts and shames the other person into believing that she has to save or fix him. A relationship in which a man stalks a woman. In which he controls her appearance, socialization, and other relationships. In which he isolates her from friends and family. In which consent is swapped for coercion. In which he pressures her into getting an abortion. This is what we call abuse. This is what we call sexual violence. This is what we call rape. 

50 Shades has filled an apparent void of sexual empowerment for millions of women. This void is a result of the continuous shaming and devaluation of women’s bodies and experiences in our society. It is harmful and pervasive. What is even more harmful and pervasive is to continue to spread abuse-positive, violence-positive, and rape-positive messages related to sexual and romantic relationships. These messages are part of the very reasons that women are sexually oppressed in the first place.

If any person I cared about were ever in a relationship like the one depicted between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, I would do everything I could to get her to one of the many thousands of organizations that support, empower, and protect women and children who are victims and survivors of violent, controlling, damaging domestic relationships every day.

Before you go see this film, realize the incredible influence that the media plays on our lives. Realize that watching this movie and reading these books causes us to internalize messages that abusive and controlling romantic relationships are desirable, exotic, and exciting. Realize the message that this sends to our children: that the only way women can achieve sexual satisfaction is to completely demean ourselves at the hands of men and sacrifice our own free will for their pleasure and control.

And perhaps, instead of spending your money on that movie ticket, you will think twice and donate those funds to one of the numerous agencies that work tirelessly to truly empower women and free them from the deadly constraints of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Love (real love, not the kind of love in which you control someone else),

Ashley

If you would like to donate, you can find a shelter or agency near you. Here are some suggestions that serve the communities I call home: 

Spruce Run Womancare Alliance (Maine)

Center for Family Justice (Connecticut)

RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence (Rhode Island)

On Chivalry (or as I like to call it, Sexist Microaggressions)

For the most part, I do not encounter active, conscious sexism on a regular basis. Most people will acquiesce that social equality is a pretty good idea. It’s rare for me to encounter folks (especially in my age group) who voice or act on obvious and explicit sexist attitudes.

But I still experience sexism all the damn time. Which means it’s the nasty, hidden, pervasive kind. The kind that perpetrators (and victims) usually don’t recognize, name, or give credence to. Now, I’m grateful that I don’t have people explicitly telling me that I’m intellectually inferior because of my womanness. The problem is that they unwittingly act out those attitudes, and when I point it out, I usually get treated like I’m irrational and hysterical. Note: Some people do actually REALLY get it and I tend to cling to those people like little life savers in the high seas of sexism.

I often have the experience of explaining that I am a feminist and  that social equity is very important to me. Men (particularly men who have some type of potential romantic interest in me), will frequently respond by affirming their approval of gender equity and then, IN THE SAME BREATH, will say something patently sexist.

It goes like this:

Me: “I’m a feminist and social justice advocate. Social equity is really important to me and social justice education is one of my passions.”

Man: “Yeah, that’s cool. Equality is great. I totally believe in that. As long as you’re okay with me holding doors for you/me paying for your dinner/taking a guy’s name when you get married/you shave your armpits/ you are not always talking about feminist stuff.”

What I hear: “I don’t know what feminism is. I’m going to tell you that it’s okay so I don’t look like an asshole, but I still expect you to submit to small acts of condescension and injustice in your daily life so I don’t have to be made uncomfortable with reckoning with you as my true social, economic, and intellectual equal and so I can feel like I’m a good guy.”

Many of these acts that annoy the living hell out of me are commonly referred to as “chivalry.” Some of you may be familiar with the concept because some men frequently like to proclaim that it is not dead. In my opinion, chivalry equates to microaggressions: small acts of condescension, steeped in implicit and explicit assumptions that women are delicate, incapable, and need to be tended to.

I consistently experience significant backlash when calling attention to the fact that I find these actions to be sexist. The common response is that men are “just trying to be nice.” I am all about acts of kindness, generosity, and goodwill. However, it is naive and, more importantly, privileged, to ignore the fact that insistence upon door holding, chair pulling-out, bill-paying, name-changing, asking for hands in marriage, and guiding women toward the inside of the sidewalk are all steeped in a socio-cultural history that is based in the idea that women are biologically, intellectually, socially, and economically inferior to men. A history in which women were treated as property. A history in which you asked to marry a woman because you were basically buying her. A history in which women couldn’t pay for things because we were not permitted to work outside of the home, hold bank accounts, or own property. A history in which women were seen as being physically and biologically inferior, in which our brains and bodies were believed to be less than those of men. A history in which my sisters chained themselves to the front gates of the White House and went on hunger strikes for the right to have their voices heard in the democratic process of this nation.

I am an independent, educated woman. Make no mistake that my success has been earned on the backs of women who came before me and fought for equality. My own grandmother was pulled out of school at age 13 to work in a thread factory, financially supporting a family in which the boys were encouraged to continue their education and earn college degrees. So you’ll have to excuse me when I insist on paying for my own panini on a first date. Because I do not take for granted for a single day that I am financially independent. You’ll have to excuse me when I exercise my rights as a citizen to openly talk about politics and social issues that are important and impact me, because it is not lost on me for a moment that I have the right to vote and still see far too few women in elected positions of leadership. And you’ll have to excuse me if I think I can open a door for myself or sit my dainty behind in a chair without having a fainting spell.

Men of the world, if you want to be nice, genuine, or kind, stop relying on outdated social conventions rooted in assumptions of women’s inferiority. If you want to be kind, talk to me, listen to what I have to say, take an interest in my interests, defend my opinions instead of my honor, and do your part to ensure that I and other women have access, opportunities, and equal treatment in our society.  When you hold a door, actively interrogate why you are holding that door and who you are holding it for. I’m not saying to start slamming doors in women’s faces, but kindness means taking an extra moment to go out of your way for everyone and anyone, in a way that does not suggest that you are exerting power or control over someone, that you are the keeper of the door. Men have decided for far too long which doors women get to have opened for us. We can open them ourselves.

Why Lean In is Worth Reading and Talking About

I recently finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which received much attention in the media up to its release, and has inspired a good deal of coverage of topics related to women and work in the past week or so. I actually preordered a Kindle copy so that I would be able to read it immediately upon its release last Monday (which is something I’ve never actually done before). I have to admit, because of the amount of attention it is getting, and my own enthusiasm, I was actually expecting to be totally let down by the book. I even thought that there was a good chance that I would be angered by it. But I wasn’t. I liked it, felt that it was an important addition to the conversation (or lack of conversation) on this topic, and it felt genuine and balanced. The book is often based in and inspired by her personal experiences, but there is a strong dose of research and statistics supporting her assertions. Not for nothing, but Gloria Steinem advised her while she was writing. So that deserves some credit.

Sandberg’s approach is careful not to go too far to advance any certain agenda of forcing women to do certain things with their careers, personal lives, or both. Many news stories have taken up the question of whether Sandberg is telling women to lean in too much to their careers, with an accusatory implication that she is trying to run others’ lives without acknowledging her privilege. I’m afraid that everyone involved in those stories might not have read the book or talked to Sandberg. She consistently repeats the message that every path is different, that no two relationships, careers, or lives are the same, nor should women be compared to each other or made to feel guilty or demeaned, especially by other women.

Sandberg advocates for change at the individual level; she acknowledges that the system and the individual pose a chicken and egg conundrum (women will fix things when we become leaders…but how are we supposed to create a critical mass of women leaders without things being fixed?) and chooses to push individuals to create change in their own lives. I take no issue with this stance, as it recognizes that we need to do both, that we can’t do one without the other, and that we definitely can’t do nothing.

What is most interesting about the discord over this book, and in general, over pushing for equity in our careers and in our homes between partners, is that the very systemic and social factors that drive the inequity are those which drive the negative feedback. This is hardly surprising for anyone who has studied privilege and oppression or critical feminist or race theory. Of course the system responds to dialogue that challenges the status quo by defending the status quo. Duh. That’s how the system works to keep oppressing. What can be confusing is that women are often the most vocal critics of suggestions like the ones Sandberg makes.

Again, this is not altogether surprising to those who have spent much time thinking about privilege and oppression. It’s a little thing called internalized oppression, and it’s one of the reasons that systems of privilege and oppression work so well. The oppressed are socialized to believe the same messages as the privileged. When a woman gets upset at another woman for dismantling the status quo, it’s because dismantling the status quo shakes things up for everyone, regardless of which side of the oppression you are on. So when women cry out against what Sandberg is saying, its incredibly ironic and also entrenched in the oppressive system. Firstly, they are trying to take down another woman, minimizing her credibility, attacking her success, and ostracizing her from the community of women. Secondly, they are coming from a place in which their own experiences are socialized to normalize the status quo of male hegemonic power that Sandberg is calling out. This is so harmful because mostly, people will say “Well these other women seem to see a problem with this, so they are probably right–now I can return to my comfort zone”. Everyone, of course, has the right to make whatever choices they like; the problem with that is that what we “like” is what we are socialized to like, want, feel, and do.

There is no essential part of any of us that indicates “I’m going to become a corporate lawyer” or “I’m going to become a Vice President of a university” or “I’m going to stay at home with my two kids”. There is also no biologically essential part that says “I can/can’t speak up in this meeting” or “I can/can’t seek a promotion”. This is not in our DNA. It’s biological essentialism and it just doesn’t hold up, because those messages are all socially constructed throughout our lives. We are a complete product of our environments with regard to social behavior. There are some things that are biologically true: women can give birth and men can’t; women can nurse a baby, which has some real health benefits. But we’re really past the point where that should be limiting women to only serving those roles. The reality is that these messages do real harm to women, limiting their earning power, limiting their sense of social freedom and fulfillment, leaving them in sometimes impossible situations if they get divorced or leave a partner, and consistently perpetuating a status quo in which women are less than–quantitatively less than in terms of salary and representation in leadership positions–than men.

What I truly appreciate about Sandberg is that she is targeting a mainstream audience. And not only does she want to do so in a theoretical sense with what she has written, but she has also worked to establish an accessible and intentional system of practice in everyday life through the Lean In Circles she promotes on leanin.org. She’s is not just talking the talk, she is walking the walk, and hoping to help others do the same. Sandberg is not writing for those who already have a strong understanding of feminist theory or the reasons women are held back in careers; but if you do understand and are passionate about this topic, it’s worth listening in and raising your voice up. Change is made when radical ideas become less radical and start to create the new normal.