Tag Archives: Feminism

Pregnant Body, Public Property

In many ways a woman’s body is never her own. From the time she’s a little girl it’s open season for public commentary, mostly under the guise of compliments like “oh she’s so pretty/cute/precious.” And sure, little boy’s bodies are a commented on also to the tune of “strong” and “handsome” or they are creepily sexualized as being “flirts” when they are still in diapers. But for the most part boys escape the unsolicited commentary on their bodies for much of their lives. But for girls it’s just beginning.

Put aside the unavoidable messages about what our bodies should look like and what products we should buy to manufacture that look. Even if you opt out of conventional beauty tropes, as a woman your body will still be open season for catcalls from strangers and unsolicited advice and assumptions from nearly everyone. It is something that I like many young women experienced for many years from early adolescence through my teens, 20s and 30s. But after nearly a decade in a committed relationship and as I settled into my 30s I slowly started getting street harassed slightly less.

Some women feel bad when this inevitability happens, because fading into the invisibility of being a middle aged woman can make you feel like you have less worth when you’ve lived your whole life within a world that defines you by your desirability. But for many (like me) it comes as a relief. It’s not like I have “given up” on wanting to look and feel beautiful but I feel secure enough that I don’t need that outside validation. Plus, it’s a relief to walk down the street without strangers shouting things about my physical attributes or what I am or should do with them.

Then I got pregnant. More so than most others, it’s a life event that you wear very publicly. Many parts of being pregnant are incredibly joyous for me. I have wanted this for a long time and had a hard road to get here. And because of that and how painful it was for me in the years before I got here I am very reluctant to complain about almost any element of it. But being pregnant has reminded me again that when you are a woman your body is never truly just yours. As soon as I started showing my body and I were open season for public commentary. Some if it is lovely (being offered a seat on the subway, the happiness from other moms), some of it less so (the gender stereotypes thrust on my fetus, the unsolicited advice and judgement).

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But almost always there is some comment about my body often in very intimate or critical ways. The street harassment is back in an almost aggressively cheerful way: Men (and only men) now shout at me as I walk by, usually something along the lines of “congratulations mommy!” which on the surface is nice and I will certainly take over being commanded to smile or some or having something sexually explicit yelled at me. But still it’s generally jarring to be walking down the street and have things shouted at you. It’s like these men feel contractually obligated to shout a running commentary on the bodies of all women that pass by.

The most glaring way that my body has become public property is the way in which (mostly women) feel the need to critique it. Perhaps this is something that some women do silently to themselves all the time anyways, but a visibly pregnant body makes it fair game for them to share their inner commentary with me. Here is a short list of the questions and comments that I receive several times a week:

  • You’ve gained how much weight? It looks like a lot more.
  • Are you sure you’re not having twins?
  • How much longer do you have? I can’t image that you can get any bigger/you look ready to pop!
  • I only gained (some arbitrary number) pounds when I was pregnant

For the record these are not the only comments I get, I’ve also had a fair share of compliments:

  • that I’m “glowing” (I still have no clue what that means)
  • that I’m carrying the weight well (I’m also unclear how you can make a value judgement on the way in which their body stores extra weight)
  • that I don’t look as far along as I am or earlier in my pregnancy that I didn’t even look pregnant (which again I know were intended as compliments but for someone who desperately wanted to be pregnant these compliments felt either like my pregnancy didn’t yet “count” or that it was a laudable goal to try to look “thin” while growing an entire human being inside your body).

Just to get it out of the way, I started my pregnancy healthy and have taken good care of myself and have gained the amount of weight that is exactly within the medical guidelines for a healthy pregnancy. But I shouldn’t have to say that. Because just like non-pregnant people my body, what I do with it, and how it looks is only my business. And yet because I am obviously pregnant, the size, shape, progress of change and what I consume is now free game for everyone from those closest to me to complete strangers.

For the most part I’ve been able to let the constant stream on commentary roll off my back by reminding myself that even though it may feel like it someone else’s views on what my body looks like doesn’t define what my body actually is or how well I’m taking care of myself or my baby.

But having these few months in this different body have reminded me all the ways when you are the owner of a woman shaped body in public it’s never really just yours.

 

An Open Letter To Gloria Steinem

You have done so much for women, for the past three generations, and many women my age and younger probably don’t even realize how much we have to thank you for. And of course you are unaccustomed to backlash for speaking your mind of defending your convictions. But the backlash you are facing now is different, and it’s deserved.

Gloria, you have remained an outspoken activist for six decades, starting when you were in your 20s. So it’s perplexing that you don’t have faith in young activists and feminists now. You are famous for saying “Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age,” but how can you honestly believe that’s true? Your ideals about a woman’s right to choose, to forgo marriage and pursue a career and to not face sexual harassment and discrimination at work were extremely radical in the 1970s. On the other hand, your current belief that millennial women are supporting Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton because they want to meet boys isn’t only insulting and wrong, it’s old-school sexist. And while you may not have chided Bill Maher if he had said the same thing, I would have, and so would any other modern feminist.

As Los Angeles Times reporter Robin Abcarian pointed out in her recent column,what you said this weekend was just a 2016 version of something you’ve been saying for decades. It’s a relic of a wave of feminism that has long past, a wave that you helped make irrelevant. You have often said that young women refuse to call themselves feminists because they don’t want to compromise their ability to get a date, but you know that’s no longer true. Beyoncé is one of the most desirable women in the world and she’s dancing in front of a 10-foot neon “feminist” sign. Further, because so many women in your generation paved the way for women at work, Millennial men are more likely than older generations to express pride in their mother’s career choices and credit her work-outside-the-home status with their expectations of equality in their relationships.

But I’m most surprised in your pessimism about young activists because I know you’ve seen and spoken to them yourself. When I went to see your conversation with Roberta Kaplan this summer at the New York Public Library, the crowd spanned three generations – a testament to your relevance. But the majority of the people who asked questions were young men and women: some in college and several in high school. These were 17-25 year olds who were just as (or more so) politically conscious and active than generations before. Not only were they unafraid to call themselves feminists (and to pay $25 to listen to a lawyer and 81 year old activist talk), they were thinking critically about changing the world. Because as far as we’ve come, thanks in large part to your work, as you know we still have a long way to go reach gender equality.

Which brings me to Hilary Clinton. I understand why you want her to be elected, and I don’t diminish what a historic and symbolic moment it would be to swear in the nation’s first woman president. It would be a huge symbol to have a woman in the most powerful leadership role in the country (and arguably the world), but we know that just as having a black man as president didn’t eliminate racism (it may have in fact emboldened more racists), a woman in the White House won’t fix institutional bias.

And we know that more equal representation means a healthier economy a happier world. But you of all people should be against telling women what that have to do. There are many valid reasons to vote for or against Hilary Clinton, and none of them have to do with her gender. Implying that someone should vote for Clinton just because she’s a woman (or that if they don’t vote for her they are a trader to their gender as Madeleine Albright implied) does the decades of political work she’s done a disservice.

Further, criticizing a woman for not voting for Clinton because she’s a woman contradicts the feminism that you have spent your life working for. Feminism is about trusting that women are fully formed human beings capable of making their own choices: about their work, their money, their bodies, and their vote. Even when they make decisions that you don’t agree with.

Happy New Year: It’s Issue #6 of Katastrophic Thoughts!

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A new year, a whole new issue! Here’s what to expect from the Winter 2016 (Issue #6):

  • Retrospective: A Moment in Feminist History
    The day that nearly every woman in Iceland went on strike and changed history.
  • World Changing Ways
    When getting your period means dropping out of school and the people working to change that.
  • Your New Feminist BFF
    The sisters who gave up everything to fight for people who had nothing.
  • Yes,And
    On Feminism’s problem with Intersectionality (and a solution).
  • Welcome Home
    A short story about loss.
  • Required Reading
    (and watching and listening)

Issues will go out to subscribers early next week. If you are not on the list but want to get on it email me for details: kathleenerindavis at gmail dot com

Think Of The Children! Analyzing Our Problem With Women’s Breasts

You could blame the slow summer news cycle for the reason why this week’s local headlines in New York City have been dominated by the proliferation of topless women in Times Square. But the real reason why everyone is clutching their pearls about this “problem” has a lot more to do with American culture’s hypocritical and puritanical attitudes about women’s bodies.

This week, both the mayor and the governor have vocalized their disdain for predatory panhandling in Times Square and promised to do something about it, from a proposed bill to limit the hours and locations that anyone can solicit tips, to completely shutting down the pedestrian walkway.CM8ThFzXAAMWKjF

But why this week? Costumed characters have harassed tourists for photos and tips in Times Square for years, and there have even been stories of altercations with angry Cookie Monsters and Spider-Men, yet the ranks of costumed characters have been growing unchecked. In fact, the Times Square Alliance counted
more than 120 costumed characters
one week in late June this year. But it’s the other hawkers they counted, a much smaller group of 11 “painted ladies” that have turned the tide for both the public and the media from viewing it as an annoying but harmless part of the New York tourist trade to something that must be at least regulated and at most stopped.

Here’s where I should point out, as many have this week, that it is 100% legal for a woman in New York City to be completely topless in public. In fact local ordinances vary, but it’s legal to some degree for women to be topless in the same locations that men can be topless—parks, beaches, public streets – in all but three states. Of course many police (including the police commissioner who suggested turning the area into a park to get rid of the topless women) and even more citizens don’t seem to know this and there are countless stories of topless women getting harassed. (Case in point: Just last week I observed a topless woman on the beach get yelled at by a woman there with two teenagers, direct quote: “put that shit away, I have kids here!”)

(The green colored states are those where it's legal for women to be topless. The orange colored ones have amibiguous state laws on the matter. The red colored ones are where the mere showing of the female breast in public is illegal according to state law. via. GoTopless.org)

(The green colored states are those where it’s legal for women to be topless.
The orange colored ones have amibiguous state laws on the matter.
The red colored ones are where the mere showing of the female breast in public is illegal according to state law.
via. GoTopless.org)

(The green colored states are those where it’s legal for women to be topless.
The orange colored ones have ambiguous state laws on the matter.
The red colored ones are  where the mere showing of the female breast in public is illegal according to state law.
via. GoTopless.org)

It’s been noted in some reports that the women, who pose in underwear bottoms with patriotic symbols painted across their bare chests, are exploited by their male “managers” who paint their bodies, presumably watch out for their safety, and take 40% of their profits. If that’s true, it’s a battle worth fighting, but it’s irrelevant to the issue of the public and governmental moral policing of women’s bodies.

Personally I wish that these women didn’t feel like the best way for them to make money was to stand in the street topless and solicit photos with bros, but you can’t regulate your moral choices on others and the lack of lucrative career options for young immigrant women won’t be solved my banning photos with painted topless women. Besides, even if it could as long as it’s not hurting anyone, government shouldn’t dictate what is an acceptable of means of making a living.

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But that’s exactly what many would have. The flurry of coverage this week has included plenty of horrified reactions from tourists whom you would think have never watched a show on HBO or needed to breastfeed away from home. From the New York Daily News:

“It’s disgusting. It should be illegal,” Jackie Castillo, 46, of Pennsylvania said. “It’s not a good example for the kids here.”

Yes, “think of the children!” is the common refrain, and that knee jerk belief that seeing a woman’s body is corrupting is exactly at what is at the heart of the real problem. Outrage over an exposed woman’s body teaches children that women are sexual objects – little boys can’t see it because they’ll get ideas of doing dirty things and little girls shouldn’t see it because they’ll think it’s OK to be “improper” and “impure.”

Things sorts of notions are absurd for 2015 and perpetuate notions like:

  1. Sex is dirty and shameful and we must pretend it doesn’t exist.
  2. Men and boys can’t control themselves.
  3. Women should cover their bodies for their safety, and because it’s “lady like.”
  4. Women’s bare chests are inherently sexual, and inappropriate for children to see, while men’s bare chests are neutral and acceptable. (It should be noted that the topless underwear-clad “naked cowboy” has been harassing tourists for over a decade and is so accepted that he’s received endorsement deals)

If you follow this logic through, it’s a short walk to the Missouri capitol where earlier this week lawmakers came up with a solution to the scandal in which two (male) lawmakers resigned over allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct toward (female) interns. Their solution? Mandate a “conservative” dress code to avoid tempting legislators into improper behavior.

It shouldn’t be surprising that government officials see telling women to cover up as a solution to their misconduct. Numerous schools across the country have long been in the business of policing girls’ bodies and clothing because boys simply can’t control themselves. Schools in states ranging from Illinois, Oklahoma, California, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have banned yoga pants, saying they “distract” boys who should be paying attention in class. These arguments are all just another side of the “what was she wearing/she was asking for it” rape defense.

But it’s not just on the streets, beaches, and parks of cities and states where going topless for both genders is completely legal, or women’s clothing at their schools and jobs. Women’s bodies are censored in the name of purity on social media: both Instagram and Facebook ban images of topless women but not topless men, even when women are using their breasts for their biological purpose (to feed their offspring). It should be noted however that images of guns and violence go pretty much unchecked pretty much everywhere, and when we see those images (which we all do countless times a day), where are all the concerned parents and lawmakers saying “we need to take action and stop this, here’s what we are putting in place”? We have somehow come to accept near constant gun violence, and monthly mass shootings, but a woman’s boobs? Think of the children!

My Month Without Makeup

Note: A version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Summer Issue of the print zine version of Katastrophic Thoughts (due out in mid July). But this should hold you over for now 🙂  

In late April Amy Schumer did a perfect spoof of a One Direction ballad titled “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” which instantly became a trending hashtag on Twitter.

It was perfect and struck such a cord with viewers for several reasons (it was hilarious and infectious). But the biggest reason, I think, is that it highlighted the crazy beauty expectations and extreme hypocrisy that women deal with: the virtues of “natural” beauty are constantly preached, from Beyonce’s “I woke up like this (only if she went to sleep with perfectly arched eyebrows, hair extensions and a full face of makeup) to boy band ballads like the one Schumer spoofed, to Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign.

But all of that positive messaging rings false in the face of the constant bombardment of messages about ALL OF THE FLAWS we need to discretely hide. It seems we shouldn’t actually leave the house with the face that we wake up with, but should instead camouflage ourselves to look as if we processes flawless alien DNA. Sure, the overly “made-up” look might be falling out of fashion, but it’s been replaced with a pressure to somehow sculpt a “natural” look that involves an ever increasing amount of time, products, and of course money.

Speaking of money, the U.S. cosmetics industry brought in over $55 billion in 2014 alone – that’s not counting other “beauty and grooming products, that’s just makeup.

I had been thinking about makeup long before Schumer’s sketch. I’ve worn makeup most every day of my life since early middle school (that’s well over 20 years). Like most women, I learned about makeup from my mom. But my mother, like her mother isn’t a particularly “done up” woman, so like my mother I learned how to apply makeup in the most rudimentary way – basically a cover your zits and dark circles and try to make yourself look presentable sort of method.

And while I did receive a well-meaning intervention from a gay male friend in college that got me to start plucking my eyebrows, my approach to makeup has remained pretty basic for decades (save from the few years in college that I wore white eyeliner because I read that it would make me look more “awake” – it instead made me look like I had a white line bizarrely drawn on my eyelid).

But even though I never became interested the endless makeup advertisements and tutorials proliferate so much of “women’s” media, and even though I still bought the cheapest drugstore makeup that my mother taught me with, I still felt like I had to wear makeup nearly every single day.

Of course no one had ever explicitly told me this, and I likely wouldn’t have admitted or realized that I felt like I was required to wear makeup. But still it had become ingrained in me in a much more insidious way. Wearing makeup was like showering or putting on pants – it was simply a way of making myself presentable. But why is a boy’s and a man’s face presentable on its own but from the time I was 11 years old, my face was not?

It’s kind of embarrassing that it took me this long to ask myself that question. When I started think about this several months ago and mentioned it to my husband, he acted like it was the most obvious thing in the world: “Of course you don’t need makeup, I love the way you look without it.” Many of my friends said that their husbands and boyfriends said the same thing. Of course we are are women in long term relationships, who all meant our partners while wearing makeup, so I take it with a little grain of salt.

Still, now seemed like as good of time as any to break what I never would have thought was an addiction to my decades-long routine.

So I decided to give up wearing makeup for the month of May.

As a frame of reference, here are photos I took of myself both with and without makeup on the last day of April, as well as the makeup I apply for a normal day of work (my “evening” look usually just involves darker eyeshadow and if I’m feeling really fancy, lipstick).

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(without makeup on the left and with makeup on the right)

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(my typical daily makeup)

Day 1:  Friday May 1st

I felt really self-conscious most of the day, like people would look at me and judge as unkempt.

Even though it only takes me about five minutes to put on makeup, I was surprised how short my morning routine felt without it, I took a longer walk the subway and enjoyed the beautiful spring morning to with the extra time.

Part way though the work day I realized I could touch my face as much as I wanted, which made me aware of how little I’ve been able to touch my face during the day for my entire adult life. It’s such a strange thing to realize. Of course, I rest my chin on my hand frequently and every adult woman has had the experience of crying your makeup into a disgusting mess. But after hours of staring at a computer screen I’ve at work, I’ve never been able to rub my eyes or put my hands over my face. It’s such a satisfying experience, you guys. Not being able to touch your own face for most of the waking hours of your life is pretty messed up.

Overall though, being at work without makeup felt unprofessional – I wouldn’t wear workout clothes to the office and having no make up felt similarly unprofessional – that’s kind of fucked up isn’t it? My face is unprofessional?

Days 2 & 3: Saturday & Sunday May 2nd and 3rd

It is much easier to go without makeup on the weekend because I frequently do. But when Mark took pictures at me at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden I purposely kept my sunglasses on to hide the dark circles that are always under my eyes no matter how much sleep I get.

On Sunday night Mark asked me how the experiment was going so far and when I told him about my insecurities he seemed surprised, and a little disappointed. When I asked him what he thought of it so far he said he loved it – it didn’t take me as long to get ready and he liked seeing my face, he commented that he liked that he could see my freckles, which are subtle and always get covered up with makeup.

When I pointed out the weird discoloration that surrounds my eyes making me look slightly unwell all the time he kind of shrugged “I never really noticed.” I’ve always been convinced this is my face’s biggest flaw.

First Full Work Week: Monday May 4th – Friday May 8th

I’m getting more used to my new morning routine which is only 5-10 minutes shorter, but since the weather has been so nice I used that time to walk to the next subway stop on the way to work, and get exercise and enjoy the weather.

It’s still on my mind when I talk to people at work that my face is bare and my flaws are out but no one has had any visible reaction – when I started this I half expected to get the “are you OK, you look tired (or sick)” (both I should say are comments I’ve received when I was wearing makeup). I had one meeting and one interview with a job candidate and while the “my face is unprofessional” feeling did come up, I was able to brush it off pretty easily.

Most of the time I forgot that there was anything different about my appearance. And while the first few days when I would catch my reflection I would be startled and a little repulsed, as the days went by I started to have my normal reaction: “eh, good enough.”

makeup

Week Two: Saturday May 9th – Friday May 15th

Not wearing makeup has become a natural part of my day and I’m finding myself forgetting that there’s anything different about the way I look…most of the time…

I forget my hang-ups and don’t leave sunglasses on for pictures, some of them still make me cringe and my eyes are quickly drawn to my flaws, but some are OK. It’s probably the same range as photos of me with makeup on.

At work I have several meetings and an interview and it does cross my mind the impression that I’m making, the thought is easy to pushed aside once I’m talking to people – no one treats me differently. It’s possible I’m given a “less professional” impression, but more likely people don’t pay as much attention to my face as I do.

But for all of that progress, old habits are hard to break: On Thursday I had a conference where I’d be meeting a lot of people followed by my first meeting with a new writing group. In short, I’d be making a lot of first impressions – with my bare and blemished face. Mark left before me in the morning and I spent an uncertain moment in the bathroom, my hand hovering over the makeup bag I hadn’t touched in 14 days.

I actually caught myself thinking “If I just wear makeup today, no one will know.” I would have never classified myself as “addicted” to makeup, but that thought sounded seriously addictive, and to my credit I realized it, was embarrassed for having thought it, and carried on with my day and making my first impressions with my real face.

Also this week, I am offered a small bag of makeup on the street, but it wasn’t a reaction to my bare face – it was a promotion. “No thanks, I don’t wear makeup,” I responded, feeling ever so slightly emboldened. But then, a moment later I thought “hmm…I wonder if there is anything good in there.” Hey – free stuff.

Week Three: Saturday May 16 – Friday May22

Most of the week and the weekend was the new normal: not thinking much about my looks and shedding more of the self-consciousness when photos were being taken. But again when I was with people who knew me who I hadn’t seen in a while (extended family in one case and a group of friends in another case) it crossed my mind to tell them why I wasn’t wearing makeup—but I didn’t because that felt too close to apologizing, in the same way that you politely say to guests “I’m sorry it’s such a mess in here.”

makeup 2

This week however I did make an exception to my month without makeup rule. On Monday I was asked to be in a video at work, aside from not having material prepared, I panicked because I wasn’t wearing makeup – I couldn’t have a professional video recorded of my naked face and broadcast from a major publication to the entire world. Is that even allowed?! So I put it off until the next day and broke my rule and put makeup on.

There was a noticeable difference in the way I was treated throughout my makeup day –or at least I thought so, but it very well could have a bias I was inventing. I even received a direct complement from a coworker on my make up at which point I revealed that I hadn’t been wearing makeup all month. She said she hadn’t noticed. Does this prove that makeup is unnecessary or just that a naked face just fades into the background?

Week Four: Saturday May 23 – Sunday May 31

I was on vacation most of this week (in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon), so I feel like it almost didn’t count: I would normally not think to put makeup on for something like an early morning flight or a hike, so there were some no-brainer makeup free days.  On the other hand, I “broke the rules” and wore makeup twice when we got dressed up for a fancy dinner and a show for our anniversary, because makeup felt like an obvious part of getting dressed up.

Final Thoughts

Over the last month I have become more comfortable with my face, and while I don’t think I’ll quit makeup cold turkey for the rest of my life or even only reserve it for special occasions, I am moving to a place where I no longer think my face is “unprofessional” or where I’m startled or disgusted with my reflection.

So I guess that’s where I’m landing after my makeup-free month: makeup is like high heels, it’s not something I “need” and I’m not less of a woman without it, but it’s an option available when I want play dress-up (for work or leisure).

Still, these personal revelations don’t solve the bigger problem: the subconscious feeling that as women we aren’t good enough as we are. I’m not advocating that all women forgo makeup or that we move to some sort of androgynous version of appearance. No one should be made to feel shamed for wanting to get made up and dressed up (female or male) – it can be fun, and there are talented people who have made careers out of mastering it.

But I do think that more women should question it. Do you really want to wear makeup every day or do you just feel like you should or need to for vague, yet deep seated reasons? If more women were comfortable bringing their bare faces out in the world, would we no longer feel it was “unprofessional” to do so?

Happy Spring! Issue #3 Of Katastrophic Thoughts Now Available!

It’s my birthday and you get the present! The Spring 2015 issue (#3) of Katastrophic Thoughts (the analog zine version) is now available. It will go out to subscribers next week, and if you are in New York I’ll have all three issues at the Brooklyn Zine Fest on Sunday April 28th.

Otherwise send me an email to get your hand on a copy: kathleenerindavis at gmail dot com

Here’s a taste of what’s in this issue:

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What’s in this issue:

  • Words to the wise
    Screw up your courage to the sticking point
  • Retrospective: A Moment in Feminist History
    When over 1,000 women flew planes in WWII
  • World Changing Ways
    Honoring a beautiful spirit by helping others.
  • Your New Feminist BFF
    You know Rosa Parks, but do you know the other women behind the Montgomery bus boycott? Now you will.
  • I’m not sexist, but…
    Exploring the subtle ways unconscious bias creeps into our daily lives
  • Talkin’ Bout Revolution 
    How We Can Do More Than Just “Raise Awareness”
  • Beyond Ball Gowns and Place Settings
    Giving The First Ladies at The Smithsonian The Respect They Deserve
  • The Happy Feminist
    There is a lot to be angry about, but we should celebrate our wins as well.
  • Required Reading
    Books I’ve loved, books I hope to love and now comic and zine recommendations!

What’s In A Name?

Note: This essay is from the Winter Issue of the print version of Katastrophic Thoughts. Due to a mistake in pagination this article was printed and mailed to readers with two missing sentences. In the interest of getting the whole story, it is re-printed here in its entirety. Issues #1 and #2 are still available, please contact me at kathleenerindavis at gmail dot com if you are interested in a single issue or a subscription. 

In the last issue I wrote about your new feminist best friend (from the 1800s) Lucy Stone. She was an awesome woman who was both a suffragist and feminist as well as an abolitionist (which is more than can be said of many of the other more well known suffragists). One of the things that Lucy Stone was most known for keeping her own name when she married and fighting for other women’s right to do so. This woman was born nearly 200 years ago. Two Hundred.

Yet, as recently as 2011, according to an NBC poll, 50% of Americans believed that women should be legally required to change their last names to their husbands when they get married. That’s not 50% that believe that women should do it – there are no doubt even more than 50% of people ready to tell women what they should do – that’s 50% that believe there should be a law that requires women to change their names.

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This is, I hope we can all agree, completely preposterous. There are many things people should be legally required to do: not murder people, stop at red lights, refrain from robbing banks. Why anyone would care what someone else does with their own name is insane. People name their children after fruit and consumer goods or characters in tween vampire romance novels. I would think keeping the name that you have lived with for 20-40 years or more would be among one of the most benign things a person could do. But I would be wrong.

So since we can all agree that legally requiring women to change their names is crazy pants, let’s back up and get the origin of that other thing that many more people believe: That women (and only women) should do it.

The story of this tradition goes back to the bible, upon marrying Abraham, his new wife no longer existed as herself but as the “wife of Abraham.” This kind of shit went on for a really long time and has been used to justify some of the biggest battles that feminists have fought: one of the pieces of logic keeping women from getting the vote was that most women were married and they would just vote the way their husbands did anyways.

Women couldn’t own property because they weren’t real people, husbands could rape their wives because their wives where essentially their property, and even as recent as the 1970s a woman couldn’t get a credit card without her husband’s permission. Fast forward to 2015 and married women receive mail addressed to Mrs. Her Husband’s name, as if we’re all still just “wife of Abraham.”

If you think that a married woman is still a person, the logic behind why women should change their last names seems pretty flimsy.

The other reason for the existence of the tradition stems from having children (something we all know not all married couples do). The child was given the father’s name to prove that he was the rightful heir and not “a bastard”, this is the same logic I would assume that’s vaguely behind the propensity for unmarried women to give their children the father’s last name even when the father has no role in raising the child.

Just as we all agreed a few sentences ago that married women are in fact still human beings, can we now all agree that there is no such thing as an “illegitimate” child? No matter what’s going on in your parent’s life when you’re born or trendy thing they name you after you are still a person and still part of family.

So we can hopefully all agree that the tradition as a tradition is pretty ludicrous. But most traditions come from places that are irrelevant to our lives today. And this one is one that’s holding on. More than 90% of women change their name when they get married (statistics of men who change their name when they get married are so slim that their basically never reported on).

Now for the not-at-all-surprising news that I didn’t change my last name when I got married. It was a decision that I made when I was a little girl and one that I shared with my husband early on. He response was something like “Well, it’s your name.” I know there is part of him that would have liked me sharing his last name, but it was a pretty easy thing for him to get past. I am no less part of his family for having my own name, just as he is no less part of mine for keeping his.

A person’s name is the most fundamental marker of their identity and although the majority of women who change their names when they get married do not associate themselves with surrendering their identity to their husbands and certainly view themselves as individuals not property, that’s still what’s at the heart of altering your identity on the most basic level.

Once you start considering it there are so many reasons why a woman would want to keep her own name: in an age when women are getting married later in life and building careers, changing your name erases the most searchable marker to your past accomplishments, plus changing your name in the modern world is a pain in the ass (in fact there is so much paper work involved with getting a new version of everything that entire companies have been built around helping women navigate the process).

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All that said, I don’t think that women should keep their names or even that men should change their names. When it comes to personal choices that don’t hurt others I am all for freedom of choice. If you want to take your husband’s last name, who am I to tell you that you can’t? You can change your name to Scrimhorn Shacklebot for all I care. I just hope you have a good reason for doing so, one that you’ve come to on your own rather than just following what every one else made you believe you should do.

Changing your name when you get married and giving babies their father’s surname is so staggeringly unquestioned. And that’s all I’m really making an argument for – a little critical thinking about the most visible symbol of personal identity.

And that goes for men too. In the United States, only eight states have an official name change for a man as part of their marriage process, others may petition a court. So few men even let the issue of name change cross their minds. For a world of true equality to happen all couple would start at zero in the discussion – his name, her name, any combination there of, a new name all together – everything should be equally considered if everyone is truly equal.

There was an excellent article by Molly Caro May for The Hairpin a few months back titled “What Happened When We Gave Our Daughter My Last Name” (spoiler: people acted shocked but the world did in fact keep spinning). She says:

I would never advocate for all children having their mother’s last names. But imagine if 50% them did. Imagine the social impact on our collective unconscious. It would be a movement requiring no money, no lobbying, no elbow grease. It’s a choice anyone of any background can make—harder for some, I know. And our naming system would actually be diverse. No one gender would occupy it.

People might say these are small peanuts, but language is never small. Language shapes how we view things before we even know we are viewing them. How we name something determines how we value it. If women’s last names are consistently absent from history, never passed down, then where is their—our—value?

The Katastrophic Thoughts I’ve Had Lately

I’ve been writing a lot lately, just not here. So here’s a brief update on what sort of Katastrophic Thoughts I’ve been having lately:

Early in September I wrote an article for Fast Company about a study of the language differences in men and women’s performance reviews. It was really popular and I was asked to speak about it on a morning news show in Canada.

That same study led a woman to write a piece for the New York Times (a month later). Disappointingly she took the view that since women are criticized so unfairly, the solution is that they should learn how to take criticism better. I respectfully disagreed and wrote my first every Letter to the Editor. It wasn’t published, but you can read it here:

Tara Mohr’s article about women and criticism touched on some valid points about how women receive “overreactive, shaming and inappropriately personal criticism” disproportionally to men.

But her article – like many others about women in the workplace – drew a discouraging conclusion: that both blatant and unconscious sexism should be dealt with by telling women that they need to change the way they think or behave, rather than those who judge women discriminately and inappropriately.

She says that women need to retrain our minds to expect and accept that distinctive work and innovative thinking will draw critics.

Why not instead retrain people like those 71 managers who critique women’s character rather than their ideas?

Mohr acknowledges that the system is broken, but her solution that women should learn to roll with the punches rather than hold those with biased views accountable is disheartening.

Should both men and women learn to persevere with our great ideas even in the face of criticism? Absolutely. But women shouldn’t have to accept that our ideas won’t be heard because critics are too busy judging the tone of our voice.

Later in September I spoke on a panel about women in leadership in Chicago at the American Society of News Editor’s conference. After, I was interviewed by a grad student at my former college (Columbia College Chicago), here is the article she wrote about the panel. After that panel I was asked to be a member of the U.S. Speaker Program for the State Department, more info on that here.

Many people were inspired by Emma Watson’s speech on feminism at the UN in September, and while many of us have been saying the same things for a while now, it’s encouraging that these ideas are getting such a big platform. But I’ve been frustrated recently that so much that’s written about men and feminism is just about “raising awareness” without any concrete  actions while women are met with a barrage of “you need to act this way” rhetoric. So earlier this week I tired to help move the conversation forward by suggesting 5 Practical Things Men Can Do For Gender Equality At Work

I’m also working to start a live chat series around issues of inequality and diversity. Stay tuned for more on that soon.

Finally, since my fiction writing always seems to fall by the wayside I signed up for a 10-week Fiction writing class that started earlier this month. I am still planning Issue #2 of Katastrophic Thoughts (the print edition), but work on it has slowed in the name of short story writing in the last couple of weeks. (issue #1 is still available, btw. Email if you’d like a copy).

More soon. Here’s to a happy, productive and thought provoking fall!

 

Feminist Friday: Everything You Should Have Read This Week

This isn’t LadyNews, or SheNews, or Newsita. These are just good, interesting stories that happen to be about women.

Marvel Comics Writers Explain Why They’re Making Thor a Woman“If we can accept Thor as a frog and a horse-faced alien, we should be able to accept a woman.” Yes. Done. Seriously, calm the fuck down nerds.  While I have a loose connection to the comic industry, and therefore a tangential interest (My husband works at Marvel and we have approximately one gabillion comics in our apartment), I don’t pretend to know or have strong feelings about character history. Still, the swiftness of both subtle and overt sexism was enough to give even the casual observer whiplash. From the expected “Lady Thor” headlines (to which Marvel executive director Ryan Penagos responded perfectly):

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To the unsurprising but still disgusting comments like this gem from someone who calls himself  Werx Beasting: “this shit is stupid and sexist. stop fuckin wit the boys shit. we need our heroes too. not everything in america has to appeal to bitches.” The flurry of Internet outrage held people’s attention for a few hours on Tuesday they way the World Cup did last week.

 

The story that resonated with me most this week was What Happened When We Gave Our Daughter My Last Name by Molly Caro on Hairpin. I wrote very briefly about my decision to not change my last name on my wedding planning blog a few years ago. Keeping your own name after marriage is something that  I’ve always viewed it as not surprising or controversial or a big deal. But it’s a topic that I’ve been surprised has come up for me personally quite frequently in the short time I’ve been married and probably deserves further cultural discussion. Caro’s article hits on a lot of those points about the patriarchal norms that even open-mind people unquestionably subscribe to, as well as the real meaning and message of a person’s surname. For example:

Surnames are one of the unseen limbs of the old world. Giving a child the father’s last name is still a given. And that given preserves the man’s place of power, from the Supreme Court on down to the everyday Joe. How can that still be the case? Why, I wonder, are we so slow on this one? It seems lazy of us.

I would never advocate for all children having their mother’s last names. But imagine if 50% them did. Imagine the social impact on our collective unconscious. It would be a movement requiring no money, no lobbying, no elbow grease. It’s a choice anyone of any background can make—harder for some, I know. And our naming system would actually be diverse. No one gender would occupy it.

People might say these are small peanuts, but language is never small. Language shapes how we view things before we even know we are viewing them. How we name something determines how we value it. If women’s last names are consistently absent from history, never passed down, then where is their—our—value?

 

Nathan Rabin wrote the article “I’m sorry for coining the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” on Salon. He first used the term in an essay on Elizabethtown in 2007 and of course now it’s part of the cultural lexicon. The article is about how the phase has taken on a life of it’s own. He says:

  It’s an archetype that taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done.

I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliché that has been trotted out again and again in an infinite Internet feedback loop. Seven years after I typed that fateful phrase, I’d like to …call for the death of the “Patriarchal Lie” of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness.

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Other Feminist Must Reads This Week:

That last article inspired me to start up my own feminist zine (I had a very short-lived zine in high school read by just me, but I’m excited to re-boot an indie, analog idea as an adult with a lot more publishing experience). More on that to come.

What did I miss? If I missed any feminist must reads this week, please share! (You can also share must reads that aren’t inherently feminist)

A Feminist By Any Other Name…

Consider this a public service announcement.

One that honestly I naively didn’t think we needed in 2014. But it’s becoming increasingly evident that we do.

From Merriam – Webster: Feminism: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

That’s it. Simple. Clear.

Something that most civilized people wouldn’t openly admit to disagreeing with. And yet, every day it seems another misinformed voice gets the internet megaphone to broadcast why they aren’t a feminist because they “love men” (Shailene Woodley, who said: “[I’m not a feminist] because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”), or because” it’s not possible for men to be feminists” (Pharrell).

But it’s more than just ignorant celebrities that are frustratingly setting back a movement that has been going for hundreds of years (the word feminist, by the way, first appeared in print in 1895 describing a woman who “has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence.” — that turn of phrase “back to independence” is in itself quite telling, but I digress, the point is the seeds of  feminism have been being sewn for long enough that we should all be getting this shit right by now).

Just as all sorts of new language has cropped up to articulate the new phases of the movement towards women’s equality (Lean In, Mansplaining, and the countless hashtags: #YesAllWomen, #AllMenCan, #BanBossy, etc) So has the backlash. For every encouraging “I need feminism because” tumblr there is a sad, horribly misguided, “I don’t need feminism” counter movement.

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No sooner will I feel encouraged by a reading a 12-year-old girl succinctly articulate feminism as “It means that guys and girls are the same and shouldn’t be treated differently because they’re guys and girls”  then I’ll read about the terrible “men’s rights” groups that are trying to get feminists classified as terrorists.

(Just to be clear, another quick definition: terrorism: the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. While I read daily of countless acts of violence and intimidation used against women, I have yet to read about feminists violently fighting for equality.)

There is a temptation to say that the word itself isn’t what matters so long as we can all agree that men and women should just be treated the same without all the bullshit assumptions and built-in biases and ideas about gender roles (If only we could all just agree as the Muppets taught us 30 years ago that “peoples is peoples.”)

But the thing is words do matter. The amazing Rebecca Solnit articulated it perfectly in her recent article. She says that you win or lose a struggle in a large part through the language you use and that some of major wins of feminism have been in naming things like “sexism”, “misogyny” and “inequality” that previously didn’t have a name and were therefore not things that people were willing to address. She says:

Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.  If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let alone change it. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.

So identifying yourself publicly as a feminist does matter as does understanding what a feminist is. Even if Pharrell and Shailene Woodley and those misguided teens holding up signs have the best intentions , it matters what words they use.

It also matters what words people who do identify as feminists use. Even if your intentions are good or seemingly harmless, language has a way of reinforcing harmful assumptions. The double standards masquerading as empowerment are everywhere and are so rarely questioned. For example, I constantly receive pitches for stories about “momtrepreneurs” yet I’ve never once heard a businessman refer to himself or a peer as a “dadtrepreneur.”

Even the language of many women’s leadership movements uses dismissive or infantilizing language like “girls” and “ladies.” When these sorts of double standards in language slip by unnoticed, double standards in perception do too.

A woman’s gender becomes a qualifier to anything she does — Neko Case ceases to be a musician on par with other musicians and is a “woman in music,”. It might sound trivial but it’s part of a larger problem of the conception that whatever women do needs to be judged by a different standard, and worse that we should feel complimented by it — “pretty good for a girl,” “you’re as good as any woman.”  From there it is a slippery slope to other even more dangerous standards that keep women in a different category from men.

This kind of separation by use of language is the exactly the thing feminism aims to solve while unfortunately suffering from.

Rebecca Solnit again, this time in her 2013 essay “The Longest War”:

Women’s Liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together.

It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not us vs. them.

Men don’t “win” when their wives and daughters and sisters and moms and friends don’t make enough money, or aren’t listened to, or fear being sexually assaulted every time they leave their homes, or are dismissed or diminished. Women don’t “win” when men aren’t allowed or expected to be present and involved fathers or when they wall themselves off into a women-only echo chamber where they don’t compete on level with the rest of the other half of the world.

It shouldn’t still be a question, but yes, men can be feminists. And should be. Everyone should be. Women who love men. Men who love women, and people who give a damn about living in a better world.

Being a feminist doesn’t mean you think women should rule the world or that men are the enemy. It means you think people is people.

Just ask these high school boys: