Rolling Stone, UVA, and a Series of Missed Opportunities

•December 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

TW: Sexual Assault

Let me start by saying this: I did not read the original Rolling Stone article about Jackie.  I did not read it, not because I did not believe it to be important, which of course it was and is, and not because I did not think there was a conversation to be had, because I of course believe this is a problem, but because to be honest, I was told that reading the article could well be triggering for me.

That’s my first problem with the Rolling Stone article.  Stories about surviving sexual violence don’t actually need to be grounded in such detail that they present a problem for those who may be close to the issue, such that they feel they cannot even engage.  There’s a related problem with the inclusion of these details, however, that I will get to in a moment, because the real problem with this article is not that it’s graphic; it’s that since its initial publication, Rolling Stone has horribly mismanaged the conversation.

I haven’t said much-~-or anything, really-~-about this issue until now, in large part because I am not sure I can say it better than others already have. But I think that there are important conversations that could be had, that should have been had, and Rolling Stone’s mismanagement of this case means that we lost out on those opportunities; and I wanted to take a minute to at least pull together some of the great commentary that has already been made on this subject, and to remind everyone of a few important things about sexual assault.

First off, false rape accusations are not incredibly common, as some would have you believe.  Data from the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women shows that false claims account for between 2-8% of reported assaults, on par with other violent crimes.  Let me pre-empt anyone who is about to say that if all those people are going to jail, that is still a tragedy-~-it would be, if that were happening, but the reality is that only about 25% of reported rapes even lead to an arrest, and only 80% of those are actually prosecuted; an even smaller number are convicted.

Second, as much as I want to talk about the issue of sexual assault here, I think we need to take a moment to realize that Rolling Stone essentially threw their source under the bus.  Instead of making their article about a campus-wide, and indeed, nationwide problem, they made it about one particular student, and named her alleged attackers such that there was an incentive for the fraternity in question to mobilize the necessary resources to tear apart her story.  If the Washington Post is to be believed, Jackie asked that her specific account be removed before the story was published; whether or not that is true, Rolling Stone nevertheless failed to protect their source, and in fact, probably hurt any potential case she might have been able to build regarding her alleged attackers.

These journalistic issues matter, though, because campus rape is a massive problem in the United States, and Rolling Stone‘s handling of this issue makes it less likely that the next survivor who wants to tell his or her story will feel able to come forward.  Authors Jessica Valenti and Roxane Gay have already made public statements to this effect, expressing their concerns over how the handling of this story will impact the way survivors feel they can interact with the media.  The Daily Dot gives a great overview of how Rolling Stone erred here, from their failure to provide a solid enough story to protect their source, to the ways in which their retraction undermined her narrative and has resulted in her being threatened and targeted.

Third, I want to say this about Jackie, and about survivors of sexual violence more generally: just because there are discrepancies in her story does not mean that she is lying.  Better, more respected sources than the Radical Idea have already put forth statements on this, but they’re worth echoing here, because the reality is that many survivors of sexual assault have trouble remembering exact details; their accounts may be incoherent or inconsistent, as their brains struggle to make sense of what happened, or struggle between needing to remember and needing to forget.  What the Daily Dot‘s article highlights is the fact that, since PTSD can impact survivors’ memories, details may be jumbled or incorrect, particularly at first-~-but even if Jackie mis-remembered how long her assault lasted, which is likely since recollections of time are among the memories most distorted by trauma, or incorrectly identified which fraternity she was at, that still does not mean she is lying about having been assaulted.

Amanda Taube, writing for Vox on her experiences as a lawyer working with refugees and trauma survivors, notes that problems in remembering traumatic events are common, and that “the problem…was not that people were making up stories, but that the details that seemed important to me were not what mattered to them.”  Her article delves into the ways in which trauma can make it difficult to recall memories that may simply be too painful, and the subsequent problems journalists face when trying to report on traumatic events.

Rolling Stone could have used this as an opportunity to talk about these issues-~-to give America a chance to have a meaningful conversation on how trauma impacts survivors, on what that means for journalism and how we interact with those who have been victimized.  They also could have used it to talk about how our common narratives about rape do not fit the realities of the violence occurring in this country.  What people wanted from Jackie-~-what they seem to want from survivors generally-~-is some kind of perfect story.  Writing for BuzzFeed, Jade Reindl explains that:

There’s so much pressure put onto victims to present our story in the “correct” way. Your account shouldn’t make someone feel uncomfortable. It shouldn’t alienate them. What if someone were to feel, I don’t know, guilt after hearing it? What if they realized they were an active participant in rape culture themselves?

MSNBC’s Irin Carmon also addresses this myth of the “perfect victim”: the girl who wasn’t dressed provocatively, who doesn’t sleep around, who didn’t/doesn’t drink, who goes on actual dates or has a boyfriend; the “perfect victim’s” attackers are strangers, or already-problematic men who morph from people to monsters.  We are more accepting of this narrative, less likely to victim-blame, because all of the behaviors that people want to say they do not do and that will therefore result in them staying safe, are no longer present.

But this narrative is a part of rape culture, a part of the idea that it is on victims not to get raped, or that if you engage in certain behaviors, it is okay for someone to violate your boundaries, or to claim they “didn’t know’.  Rape isn’t just committed by raucous frat boys or a stranger in the bushes; about 75% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and about a quarter are committed by intimate partners.  And it doesn’t matter if someone has had sex with a string of previous partners, or drinks, or wears short skirts-~-those things are not illegal, they do not violate the rights of other people.  Rape is, and does.

Like I said, Rolling Stone had an opportunity to address this, to make the story about how we react to and treat survivors, to give America a chance to perhaps have a desperately-needed conversation about victim-blaming, trusting victims, and facilitating justice.  But they passed on this opportunity as well, instead backtracking desperately to cover the fact that they failed to follow basic journalistic ethics for reporting on sexual violence.

No one wins in this case: not Jackie, who may lose out on a chance to really pursue justice now; not Rolling Stone, now the subject of many critiques; and not survivors of sexual assault, whose stories will continue to come under fire, and who may now have to compete with renewed claims that “women lie” as society seeks to discredit them.  There were conversations we needed to have, and at the moment, the best I am hoping for is that Jackie is able to get justice for what has happened, and that the journalism community is taking this time to meaningfully consider their obligations when reporting on sexual violence.  Here’s hoping this never happens again.

Liquidity, Asset Difference, and the Problem of Economic Opportunity

•December 4, 2014 • Leave a Comment

There are any number of things I have not get gotten around to discussing on this blog, and I realized that somehow, the gender asset gap has made that list.

Why the gender asset gap?  A lot of focus on economic differences between men and women focuses on the gender income gap, or on women’s labor force participation, but these are not the only indicators of women’s economic power or well-being.  The gender asset gap has a significant impact on the gender wealth gap, and can also play in the divide between individual and household welfare, particularly with regards to women’s welfare in developing countries.  One of the reasons there has been so much less work done on the gender asset gap is that there are multiple assets to measure, and there is often little data on said assets.  For example, the censuses in many countries failed to use “sex” or “gender” as a variable when collecting data about who the principle landowner was for their property, which makes it rather difficult to say what kind of gap might exist.

That does not mean that no data exists, only that it is hard to come by sometimes.  A 2003 study of the land ownership gap in Latin America utilized data from throughout the latter half of the twentieth century to highlight some gender wealth differences in several Latin American countries; for example, in 1991, only about 9% of farms were principally owned by women in Peru.  Some more recent data illustrated that by 2001, that number had only climbed to about 12%.  The data utilized by that study revealed that, of the countries included, Mexico had the lowest gender gap in land ownership, with 27% of rural land being owned by women-~-that is still a huge difference in land ownership.  And this is not specific to Latin America: see, for example, this study from South Africa, which reveals that, in the two study sites selected, women owned between 20-30% of the land at all, and only 15-20% of land was owned solely by women.  Other studies indicate that in the early 2000s, women owned approximately 5% of land in Kenya, and 10% of land in Ghana.

What the South Africa study further reveals, however, is a disjoint between reported ownership of land, and legally documented ownership, a problem that actually exists between both men and women, likely due to bureaucratic difficulties.  But of 76% of female-headed households in KwaDube that said the woman owned the land, either jointly or by herself, only 20% actually had the legal documentation to back that claim up.  The same problem persists not just with land ownership, but with home ownership.  This speaks to one of the underlying issues at play, that of land rights: in many countries, it may be difficult for women to own land or to defend their legal claim to their land, meaning that they may not have secure access to this kind of property.  Human Rights Watch has looked into violations of women’s property rights around the world, with some particular information focused on sub-Saharan Africa, noting the ways that marriage laws and property laws interact to deprive women of control over their property, and the ways in which property laws interact with the HIV/AIDS epidemic to further disadvantage women.  Their fact sheet on Kenya highlights that women are often unable to fully inherit property from their husbands, and inherit disproportionately from their parents, meaning they have less access to property in the first place.  These inheritance patterns are also found elsewhere in the world, contributing to the broader gender asset gap.

All of that is certainly problematic, but it’s not the only part of the gender asset gap that should seem troubling.  If women do not own land, or are not the principle owners of land, in most parts of the world, then what do women own?  The answer to that is generally smaller assets: family heirlooms, jewelry, etc.  These assets may play a particularly important role in women’s financial security and social safety, as the income gap and labor force participation differences mean that women are less likely to be able to earn more and develop savings; in addition, because of differential labor force participation, women are less likely to have access to social security benefits, though some countries are beginning to move in the direction of offering protections for women who perform household labor throughout their lives, such that they will not be left stranded in their old age.  But the assets that women own in these more extreme circumstances, where they lack savings and their primary assets are things like jewelry or livestock, means that women’s assets are often worth less, on balance, than those of their male counterparts.  It also means that their assets are more liquid,

On face, liquidity seems like it should be a good thing, as it means that if a woman did need to leave her marriage, for example, she should be able to easily sell these possessions in exchange for cash, and utilize that money to execute her exit plan.  That’s in theory.  In reality, what it means is that these assets are harder to track, because they are not likely to require documentation of ownership, and that women are more likely to be pressured into selling these assets in times of economic trouble.  In fact, women bear the brunt of the economic burden on families during times of economic recession (though where the article we used to discuss this in my econ class went, I do not know. I’ll post it when I find it).  This means that when the family needs to sell something in order to make ends meet, it’s likely to be the woman’s jewelry, not the man’s car.  The woman’s dowry becomes a safety net for the family, instead of for her, meaning if things get progressively worse, her assets no longer constitute an escape route. Instead, they are often long gone, leaving only the assets to which she likely has no legal claim.

That is obviously a relatively simplified, condensed explanation of the gender asset gap-~-a summary of a select portion of the literature, at best.  The gender asset gap is an area which we are still exploring, still trying to understand and make progress on.  While researchers continue to look for data to help us see what, exactly, is happening with regards to asset ownership, it is important to keep in mind that the asset gap does play a role in overall gender inequality, and in turn, in the ways in which social development can happen and is happening in certain parts of the world.  This is a subject on which there is much more to learn, and much more to be done, before equality will be achieved.

Where Feminism Meets Disability Rights Pt 1: A Look at Mental Illness

•November 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Mental illness, and the stigma which exists against the mentally ill, are huge problems in the United States, and indeed, in many places.  Mental illness crosses racial and class lines; it exits around the world, and is treated differently in different communities, but at the end of the day, it is as commonplace as it is treated shameful.  Though it may be obvious why mental illness is an important issue, it may not necessarily be clear why it is a feminist issue.

But I, of course, am here to make a case for why it is.

Let’s start with prevalence: unipolar depression is estimated to be about twice as common in women as it is in men.  If that doesn’t seem problematic, the World Health Organization explains that unipolar depression is the world’s second leading cause of global disability burden.  Women are also twice as likely as men to experience generalized anxiety disorder or specific phobias that impact their lives.  The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs reports that approximately 5 in 10 women-~or half the female population-~-experiences trauma at some point in their lives, and may manifest symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   25% of college-aged women in the U.S. report using bingeing and purging and a weight maintenance technique, an estimated 85-95% of people with anorexia are women.  Women also predominate when it comes to having multiple mental illnesses, meaning that women often suffer greater lifetime disability burdens as a result.

Those statistics alone make a decent case for why feminism should care about mental health, as one would imagine the movement should care about things which disproportionately impact women in general.  But the reality is that there is more to it than that, and my concern comes from some of the reasons why women tend to be disproportionately impacted by some of these mental health issues.

The World Health Organization notes that gender-related risk factors for mental illness include gender-based violence, unremitting care of others, low socioeconomic status, socioeconomic disadvantage, and low or subordinate social rank.  In short, that’s a list of things feminists already care about.  Gender-based violence seems like an obvious tie-in to risk for mental illness, as it often feeds into depression, anxiety, and/or PTSD.  What about the others?  Women are more likely to live in poverty than men in the United States, and are less likely to be able to leave problematic or abusive relationships, subjecting them to additional risks regarding intimate partner violence.  Low or subordinate social rank may leave women feeling like they are unable to meaningfully advocate for themselves, feeding into problems like depression or anxiety as well.

On top of that, I find it interesting that the WHO includes “unremitting care of others” as a risk factor for mental illness.  Women are the primary caregivers in most countries around the world; time use surveys reveal that women spend more time taking care of the house and their family members than their male counterparts, even when said women work full-time.  Care ethicists like Sandra Lee Bartky argue that when individuals engage in care labor are forced to pretend emotions that they do not necessarily feel, such that they engage in emotional labor; she further argues that this creates a risk for these individuals to lose the ability to differentiate between their real emotions and the ones they are faking, which can have further consequences.  While this might seem relatively harmless inside the home, where emotional labor might not be constant, women are also more likely to work in care professions such as nursing or teaching, where their emotions need to be more carefully regulated, creating the additional burden of near-constant emotional labor, and contributing to these disparities in mental illness.

But let’s take a look at how mental illness manifests in men too, because I think it also fits my argument that this is an issue that can and perhaps should be tackled from a feminist standpoint.  While men may be less likely to experience unipolar depression and equally likely to manifest bipolar disorder, they are more likely than women to develop alcohol dependency.  And while fewer men develop eating disorders, they are also much less likely to seek treatment than their female counterparts.

Part of this has to do with disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.  Psychologists are more likely to diagnose women with unipolar depression even when men show the same indicators, in part because of gendered ideas about depression and control.  Similarly, men are more likely to disclose problems with alcohol usage, and to seek treatment for said problems.

Some of these patterns, however, have to do with-~-and subsequently reinforce-~-gendered ideas within society.  The culture surrounding drinking and masculinity may well have to do with alcohol abuse among men, and the kinds of pressures men are under regarding professional success and personal obligations may be contributing factors to that abuse as well.  In addition, many men fail to seek treatment for eating disorders or other mental illnesses because they are painted as “women’s diseases”, which is counterproductive, or because we stigmatize mental illness such that it cannot fit with the current dominant narrative of masculinity.  On top of that, the idea that women are particularly prone to emotional problems is one that has created a strange and problematic feedback loop within mental health, wherein women are seen as more emotional and are therefore more likely to be diagnosed, and the fact that more women appear to suffer from conditions such as depression further reinforces the idea that women are emotional or unstable in the first place.  That’s a cycle that needs to end if we are ever going to make progress with regards to mental health.

I’ll say this, before we part: mental illness can have a huge impact on the lives of individuals who are living with it.  Mental illness may make it difficult or impossible to finish college, to hold a stable job or perform well in one, or to maintain healthy relationships. It is also a key risk factor regarding homelessness (as is domestic violence, for that matter).  If women are disproportionately living with mental illness, they are likely disproportionately living with the consequences of their disabilities as well.  If feminism wants to be truly intersectional, and wants to meaningfully work towards improving the lives of all women, then mental illness has to be an issue on our agenda.

Giving, Thanksgiving, and Wanting to Help

•November 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Of all the days of the year, Thanksgiving is when the most people seem to want to volunteer in the United States.

It’s tempting.  In addition to rampant consumerism, we are told that the holidays are about giving back the spirit of man, and spreading goodwill.  It’s a wonderful sentiment, and one that’s well worth pursuing (though, honestly, it’s well worth pursuing all year round), but on Thanksgiving, organizations tend to get swamped with volunteers, more so than they could possibly need.  So, if you have not yet committed to volunteering on Thanksgiving, maybe there are other ways you can give back this holiday season.

First off, you can commit to volunteering after Thanksgiving, through Christmas, through New Years, heck, maybe for several months.  There are LOTS of worthy organizations in need of volunteers all the time, from food kitchens and homeless shelters to domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers. You also don’t have to focus on homelessness during the holidays (though it is nice): organizations like the Red Cross still need volunteers, and local religious organizations often need people to help out with social action projects like food drives, coat drives, and fundraisers.  If you are looking for places to try to volunteer, please consider checking out our Opportunities for Activism page, which includes several paths for volunteering, or websites like Idealist or VolunteerMatch, which can help you locate opportunities that fit your needs, skills, and interests.

You can also organize or donate to holiday drives, to help out those who are less fortunate.  Probably the most fun of these (though the seemingly silliest) are toy drives, but if you’re hesitant, remember that toy drives aim to give hope, happiness and a sense of inclusion to sick and low-income kids.  Imagine being the only one who didn’t get presents for Christmas?  The most famous of these is Toys for Tots, but you can also look into donating directly to your local hospital, or see if anyone around you is organizing a toy drive-~-a church, a synagogue, a school, a Harry Potter Alliance chapter (side note: that is, in fact, the link for my chapter’s toy drive).  You can also obviously organize or donate to a food drive, but if you’re considering donating to a food pantry or other food drive this holiday season (or ever), please consider donating the following:

  • Spices: food pantries never ask for these, but a lot of cheap food is also plain food.  And, you can buy these (at least basic spices like pepper, oregano, cinnamon) at the dollar store, if you want to donate some.
  • Toiletries: soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, these things make a difference and they aren’t usually the go-to for donations
  • Canned meat: lots of people think to donate canned vegetables, but some (not all) food pantries struggle to provide enough protein.  Spam, canned chili, tuna, or canned chicken can all help people, as can things like jerky.
  • Baby supplies: diapers, baby wipes, baby food, formula-~-again, these things make a difference for families in need
  • Sanitary products: imagine not being able to afford these?
  • Soup packets: an article I read pointed out that once someone has all that rice and canned beans, it can help to have what it takes to turn it all into soup, and these are a small way to help with that

Other donation items (canned fruit and vegetables, canned soup, peanut butter) may feel somewhat obvious, but the ones I just listed turn up on many online lists of things that food pantries need, but generally don’t ask for.

Looking for another way to give back that may not readily spring to mind?  Donate blood.  You can go through the Red Cross or a local organization, but blood banks always need donations, and winter often comes with a lot of accidents.

These are obviously just a few ways that individuals can give back during the holidays, and there are many, many more.  This is not a blog that is specifically about charitable giving, but I think the reality of the situation is that many people do want to give back, and the holidays inspire this in us, which is a great thing.  And while this may not seem very Thanksgiving-specific, I think for many people, giving back is a way of showing how thankful we are to have what we have.  In the spirit of recognizing our privilege and realizing that some of us may never need to worry about being able to afford tampons or needing to rely on the kindness of those who run shelters, it is nice to set aside what we can in order to help those who are less fortunate, and I hope that many of us who get inspired during the holidays will keep our causes in mind as we move into a new year.

If the things I have already said so far have not yet resonated with you, I’ll just end this post with a link to one of last year’s posts on giving back.  This post outlines several avenues for activism, volunteering, or donating-~-whatever it is you think best fulfills your need to give back, if you feel such a need.  Included in this post are ways to address homelessness (through more than just donating to food banks or clothing drives), ways to help survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence, and ways to stand with LGBT youth.  These are far from the only great places to donate your time or money, and I would never claim to be perfect at vetting organizations, or to have any sort of comprehensive view of the options available-~-in fact, because my blog is LA and DC focused, if you don’t live in that area, only national organizations discussed on this site may seem like options to you.  Just remember: there are hundreds, thousands really, of organizations that work to help other people, and you can find them in your community, if you just start looking.

Let’s get ready for a great holiday season.

Happy Women’s Entrepreneurship Day!

•November 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Today is November 19th, which means…today is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day!

If you haven’t heard much about it, don’t worry: this is the inaugural WED for the United States, so unless you were following pre-press, or working at an organization that does work related to WED, there’s a good chance you might not have realized Women’s Entrepreneurship Day was coming, or that it even was a day on the calendar.

I think it’s a worthwhile one, though, because-~-as the organization at the day’s core states on their website-~-women around the world have access to only 58-70% of the economic opportunities of their male partners.  Women are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to have to give up their assets in times of economic hardship (in large part because their assets are more likely to be liquid), less likely to complete their educations, less likely to access job training, and more likely to have to lean back in their careers even if they do pursue them.  Despite this, women have made many important contributions to fields across the spectrum, from science and medicine to economics and philosophy, and Women’s Entrepreneurship Day seeks to highlight those women who have done so in the past, and those who are currently doing so now, to try to inspire young women to see what they can achieve.

One of the reasons we fail to recognize female inventors and entrepreneurs is simply that history failed to give them their due credit.  Rosalind Franklin (whom you may have heard of in biology class, I hope) was the individual who actually discovered that DNA is shaped like a double helix, but it was Watson and Crick who went on to win the Nobel Prize, and they bury any mention of her contribution in the footnotes of their article.  Lize Meitner, the physicist who actually discovered nuclear fission, did so while living in exile during World War II (she was Jewish), and the Nobel Committee originally credited Otto Hahn with the discovery, awarding him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  (As an aside, Meitner also discovered the Auger Effect a year before Pierre Victor Auger did so, though the discovery is named for him).  Candace Pert, while studying at Johns Hopkins University, played a key role in the discovery of the opioid receptor, though her professor, Dr. Solomon Snyder, received all the credit.

In truth, this happens more often than we would like to admit.  Many successful male academics are helped by their wives, who serve as “research assistants” or “help type things up”, making often significant contributions to work that ultimately is published solely under their husbands’ names.  This is harder to give good examples of, because so few of these cases are as clear as those where female inventors were snubbed by the Nobel Committee, but it is something that will likely become more well-discussed in time.

So, instead, let’s take a moment to honor some of the women who did make incredible contributions, and who did get the credit they deserved.  Some of these discoveries and inventions may seem mundane, some may seem obscure, but all of them have been, in their own way, significant:

  • Kevlar–invented by DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek
  • Disposable diapers–invented by Marian Donovan
  • Dishwasher–invented by Josephine Cochrane in 1886, though she never used it herself
  • The Apgar Test–created by obstetric anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar (it’s a test of vitality for newborns)
  • Circular Saw–invented by Tabitha Babbitt, who didn’t file a patent due to her religious beliefs
  • Windshield wipers–first invented by Mary Anderson in 1903
  • Car Heater–invented by Margaret A. Wilcox in 1893
  • The Fire Escape–invented by Anna Connelly in 1887
  • Life Rafts–invented by Maria Beasley in 1882
  • Modern Medical Syringe–invented by Letitia Greer in 1899
  • Central Heating–invented by Alice Park in 1919

Today, unsurprisingly, women are still playing key roles in any number of fields-~-running major companies, discovering medical breakthroughs, advocating for political change.  Here are a few of the amazing women currently working to change the world:

  • Ruzena Bajcsy: Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley, currently developing smart, low-power sensors that could revolutionize several ways we use technology
  • Elizabeth Dearborn Davis: Co-Founder and CEO of the Akilah Institute for Women, which has designed and now promotes business education and career development opportunities for women on campuses across sub-Saharan Africa
  • Sylvia Earle: Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, who has dedicated years to advocating for the protection of oceanic ecosystems
  • Ingrid Munro: Founder and Managing Trustee at Jamii Bora Trust, an organization based in Nairobi which has helped lift over 150,000 people out of extreme poverty and empowers them to change their lives
  • Julielynn Wong: social entrepreneur, physician, and educator, she built Flu Near You, the world’s largest crowd-sourced flu-tracker, and has designed 3D printing blueprints for surgical instruments that can be used in space
  • Elinor Ostrom: 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences and advocate of ecosystem preservation
  • Monica Dodi: Managing Director and Co-Founder, Women’s Venture Capital Fund
  • Elizabeth Warren: U.S. Senator, outspoken advocate for women’s rights and access to education
  • Claire McCaskill: U.S. Senator, outspoken advocate for veterans’ rights and health services for military personnel

If WED is a platform to talk about the contributions women have made, and are making, to fields like science and business, I suppose the best way to end this post is by talking about some of the organizations working to help get women into these fields in the first place.  Perhaps consider this a long overdue list of possible causes of the month, though a few may have been mentioned previously on this site.

Girls, Inc. has programs to teach young women about financial literacy, including savings, investment, and philanthropic giving, and has opportunities for them to organize and lead social action projects, win scholarships, and engage in athletic activities.  The organization also has a program promoting young women’s interest in STEM fields.

Girl Scouts focus on leadership development among young women, and they ALSO have a program to engage girls in STEM fields.

Running Start is a national program designed to get young women involved in politics early; the organization hosts retreats for high school girls, brings a select group to DC to learn about politics firsthand, promotes women running for student government on college campuses, and helps their alumni network within politics.

Engineer Girl is a product of the National Academy of Engineering designed to help young women connect with engineering in a more personal way; it also sponsors essay contests, and has resources to help young women find opportunities to engage with engineering

Girls Who Code provides computer science education to girls through a summer immersion program and school-based clubs that aim to make coding accessible to girls in the 6th-12th grades

Young Female Entrepreneurs links women in their 20’s and 30’s who aim to start their own ventures with seasoned professionals to give them advice and provide support.

Girl Start works to bring young women into STEM fields through school-based programs, professional development for teachers, STEM career fairs and expos, and community STEM education.

Girl Up is a program run by the United Nations Foundation to facilitate leadership development among young women in its chapters in the United States, who, through the program, work to improve access to healthcare and education, financial literacy, and safety for girls living in developing countries.

Girl for a Change promotes social entrepreneurship and civic engagement among young women by providing an annual summit and free after school programs that help girls identify and tackle problems in their communities.

On Writing Different Stories

•November 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Writing is a subject that comes up on my blog from time to time, because it is something I care very much about, and as it is currently National Novel Writing Month, I thought I would revisit it now.

My previous two posts on the subject have focused on how we write women: how to make female characters more well-rounded, and why that matters.  But this post needs to be about something else, something I think is under-discussed with regards to writing diverse characters and stories, and that’s this: we need different stories too.

We need stories that are willing and able to begin to grapple with some of the things society does not necessarily want us to talk about.  I know it is a risk, because there is a good chance that your book will end up banned by schools and/or libraries in numerous towns and/or states, but take the risk.  After all, Harry Potter was banned in lots of places because it “dealt with the occult” and “encouraged unnaturalness”, meaning the whole genre of fantasy writing is basically a gamble if you want young people to access it.  Write the stories anyway, especially if you write YA literature.  I know that no demographic-oriented literature is looked at quite like YA literature, but give teenagers some credit.  Adolescents in the United States have a lot to deal with, between the pressure to do well in a school system increasingly obsessed with testing, particularly standardized testing, external pressures to look well which can undermine a person’s healthy exploration of their own sexuality, and high rates of mental illness including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.  These individuals are not just the carriers of Bieber Fever (is this still a thing?), they are growing into well-rounded young adult selves, and they deserve real stories to grapple with.

Perhaps even more importantly, many young people need stories to grapple with, stories that tell them it’s okay to be who they are, that they can get through it, that they are not alone.  We already do this in literature with issues such as divorce, breakups, and being unpopular in school,  We are making progress, I think, with issues like when a person is ready to lose their virginity, and what it means to struggle with weight issues.  We are getting more stories which feature LGB characters, which is incredibly important.  But we need more; we need stories about surviving abuse, not just violent physical abuse, but other kinds of abuse as well; we need stories about surviving sexual assault, which one in four women in the United States will experience.  0% of the population will get to play with dragons, but that’s already a more common literary element than sexual assault, something a significant portion of the population will engage with?  We need stories about recovering from mental illness, stories that tell people it is possible to wake up one day and start to feel better.  We definitely need more stories about trans people, and gender non-conforming people, to tell readers that these identities are normal, and to tell readers who may be struggling with their gender identity that it is okay.

One of the things that makes literature so magical, so great, is that literature allows us to see ourselves in a completely different context.  It gives us a mirror through which we can begin to grapple with some of the difficult truths of our reality.  This is one of the reasons that Harry Potter has had such a lasting impact: it provided a lens through which readers could examine issues related to racism, genocide, modern slavery, and the nature of evil.  Books give people something to identify with, to see that there are other stories out there that resemble their own, and that is incredibly valuable.

Instead of simply  going on about this, I am going to include what I think are good examples of novels dealing with some of these issues.  This is obviously nowhere near an exhaustive list, and I obviously haven’t read all the literature in the world, but here are a few select examples:

  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: Anderson has publicly noted that while this book does deal with sexual assault, its biggest impact has been on readers struggling with depression.  Both matter, and she is one of the few authors I have encountered who has really directly dealt with the aftermath of sexual assault in a young protagonist.
  • The Earth, My Butt and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler: Mackler does an amazing job depicting a plus-size young woman struggling with body image, societal expectations, the exploration of her sexuality, and depression, all at once in this novel.
    • See also: Vegan, Virgin, Valentine by Carolyn Mackler, which deals even more explicitly with young women exploring their sexuality
  • North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley: In this, Headley successfully discusses not only what it’s like to feel different as a young adult, but what it means to survive in an emotionally abusive household.  It has all the trappings that make it a fun YA read: romance, adventure, the end of high school…but underneath that are even bigger themes about finding who you are and what it means to survive, and to thrive.
    • See also: Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley, which touches on sexual coercion and depression
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithanwhile I’ve never personally read this novel, the book has received acclaim for being a heart-warming story focused on the same-sex relationship between two young men, both named Will Grayson.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket: if this seems an unconventional choice, revisit the first book.  Snicket’s series provides the story of three children who are abused by a person who is widely respected beyond their home, such that no one believes them…something any number of young people across the U.S. may be able to identify with.
  • The Wish List by Eoin Colfer: like Snicket’s books, this book features a protagonist who is a survivor of childhood abuse; again, these are stories we need told, if only to tell others that they’re not crazy, they are not alone, and they can survive
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher(SPOILER) this book deserves a handful of trigger warnings for suicide, sexual assault, and bullying…but for all those reasons, it tells a valuable story about the impact of our interactions towards others, and how easy it is to shape another person’s story

It is obvious, looking at this list, and at others, that books like the ones I am describing do exist.  But I stand by what I said: we can always use more.  Stories which don’t even necessarily fixate on these issues, but simply include them-~-stories where characters simply are gay, or are survivors, where these facets of their backgrounds shape who they are but are not necessarily the central conflict for the story.  We need more stories like this which cross genres-~-science fiction, fantasy, cheesy romance novels, that include different elements besides simply “hero slays dragon” or “girl meets boy”.  We can do better-~-we already are.

But if you are writing this November, or you’re thinking about writing at all, consider not just what kinds of stories might be easy to write, or funny to read, but what kinds of stories you or those you love needed most when you were younger.  Let’s write more of those stories, too.

For more stories featuring LGBTQ protagonists (not overly featured in this post), please click here.

The Midterms, Amendment 1, and Some Small Victories

•November 5, 2014 • Leave a Comment

If you have access to any sort of news source, or anyone who cares about the news, you know that last night, the Republicans took control of the Senate.

Some are absolutely panicking.  Republican control of the Senate could mean that several sub-cabinet positions, such as Surgeon General, aren’t filled for another two years.  It may well mean that federal benches lack judges, who can’t get confirmed by the new Senate, which will cause case backlog and important cases may go undecided for years as well.  In this blogger’s opinion, those are probably the two worst possible outcomes of this election, because the president can still veto any legislation that swings too far to the right, providing an important check on the actual lawmaking powers of Congress.  I don’t mean to downplay the problems inherent in Republicans being able to block the confirmations of important appointees, but in all fairness, they were already doing so to some extent (see, for example, our lack of a surgeon general).  That said, it could happen more, and in the event that any of the Supreme Court justices has to step down or otherwise be replaced, this could be a serious legal crisis for the United States.

But I digress.  There’s another side to this analysis, which I actually think has presented well, and that’s this: Republican control of the Senate is not indefinite, and these may not be the Republicans liberals are utterly terrified of.  Slate‘s William Saletan argues that many (not all) of the Republicans who gained seats yesterday did so not by running to the right, but by embracing ideas that have been championed by the left.  From reducing minority incarceration rates to targeting real unemployment and underemployment as issues, we are seeing more of what should have been Democratic talking points coming out of Republican campaigns this year, and that’s comforting, though I am sure we’d all like to see those pretty words turned to action.  It’s one thing to campaign saying that cuts to Medicare are unjust, and another to actually go to Congress and figure out what to do about the budget so that people can access healthcare.  Regardless, I am cautiously optimistic that this means that more moderate Republicans are rising to prominence again, and that the core of the party will shift back towards the center and away from the extremes that have caused so much gridlock and inaction in Congress.

The thing I’m not sold on is the protection of my rights as a woman in this country (or, for that matter, as a person who has the capacity to become pregnant), given that this seems to remain a contentious issue.  While Colorado (thankfully) voted down the proposed “personhood” initiative in their state, Tennessee voters approved Amendment 1 yesterday, a measure that essentially says there is no right to an abortion in Tennessee, no positive right, no negative right.  This is the state’s response to Planned Parenthood v Sundquist (2002), a Supreme Court case that said state legislatures only have the right to pass laws that explicitly protect the health of the pregnant person.  This measure would allow the legislature to have greater power in creating laws to regulate access to abortion, reducing access across the state.

Technically, Tennessee can’t outright ban abortion in the state, which would fly in the face of federal law…but this amendment would allow the state to enact, or re-enact, measures that have been previously struck down by the Supreme Court, including a 48-hour waiting period for individuals seeking abortions, and allowing the state to more heavily dictate the information that doctors provide, which is concerning to pro-choice groups that worry Tennessee will provide inaccurate or untrue information for doctors to pass along to patients.  The amendment also seeks to reduce the number of pregnant people who come from out of state to receive abortions.  Overall, this measure aims to make it much harder for pregnant people to access abortion in Tennessee, and risks the integrity of medical professionals whom pregnant people need to be able to trust.

It’s also not the only state working towards such measures.  While, as previously stated, Colorado’s proposed measure failed, as I am writing this it is not yet clear what will happen in North Dakota, the third state with a personhood measure on the ballot.  Only time will tell if this is indicative of a wider trend regarding access to abortion, and proponents of pregnant people’s right to choose will need to find ways to combat these measures if we are going to successfully preserve a right to bodily autonomy.

All that said, I’ll end this post with a few happier notes.  As of this election, 100 women will be serving in Congress, the most to have ever served concurrently in United States history.  As organizations like EMILY’s List, the WISH List, and others have fought to increase female representation in politics, this represents a major victory, despite the fact that many female candidates backed by these organizations were not necessarily able to pull out a win themselves.  The first Black southern representative since Reconstruction was elected last night, along with the first Black female Republican representative, and the youngest woman to be elected to Congress to date.  Those are some promising achievements as well, as more individuals from under-represented groups may take a leaf from their books and look into running for office.  Three states approved minimum wage increases, and in Washington state, voters approved a measure to expand background checks for the purchase of firearms.  Massachusetts voters also approved a measure to allow workers to accrue more sick leave, which means workers will be able to make better decisions about their own health.

And even if all of that doesn’t comfort you as much as you’d like, don’t forget: there’s always 2016.  The Senate race for 2016 will likely look a bit different than this year’s, with different states up for grabs as we move through the next election cycle.  And with a new presidential candidate, and a new presidential cycle, the Democrats (if you support them) may be able to whip up more support and more enthusiasm among their base, which traditionally has higher turnout in presidential election years than during the midterms anyway.  In addition, with a new presidential election cycle looming, those in Congress who may have their sights set on the Executive Branch may have different incentives regarding their jobs.  Only time will tell–but for now, celebrate the victories, keep your eye on DC, and remember, only constitutional amendments are permanent, and we don’t have nearly enough consensus in the US to pass one of those.



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