Women’s Equality Day: What Is Suffrage, Anyway?
I think most of us who grew up in the United States in the late 20th century have a limited understanding of what the right to vote actually means. As we celebrate 90 years of women’s suffrage this year, it’s interesting to look back to the founding of the US and consider what voting, and democracy, meant to early Americans.
I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States this week, and its chapters do a great job of putting democracy in perspective. The Founders, lauded in our classrooms as almost omnipotent men, benevolent providers of justice and equality, were actually concerned at the founding of our country about making the Constitution too democratic. The Founders didn’t want to risk the United States becoming a nation where rich and poor people alike had a share in the workings of state, and they certainly didn’t see blacks, women, Indians, or recent immigrants getting involved. Property qualifications varied from state to state, but everywhere the voting population was a definite minority of the general populous.
Now, of course, people can vote without owning any property. Blacks, women, naturalized citizens, American Indians, and the poor make up a large part of the total voting population. But capitalism is still firmly entrenched in our ideas of government and society. Children still sneer at “commies,” and those in power are ingenious at turning different groups against one another and stigmatizing any desire for socialism or communal living. Our system of property ownership, our “rags to riches myth,” the institution of marriage–all these things perpetuate a capitalist ideal that focuses on the individual, not the group. And who’s in power? Well, the business interests still aren’t doing too badly. Rich white men may be joined by women and people of color in the corridors of power, but classism in the United States is alive and well, along with racism and sexism.
So let’s continue fighting for equality, rather than resting on our laurels. Let’s take this occasion to reflect on how we can use our activism, our writing, our entrepreneurship, our leadership, our coalitions, and yes, our vote, creatively to increase access to political life and economic well-being for more and more people in the United States. And let’s think about how we define “well-being,” exactly, and consider how our hallowed institutions do and don’t meet our needs as individuals and a community.
International Women’s Day
I don’t actually have much to say specifically this year for International Women’s Day, but here are some suggestions of easy things you can do to advance the rights of women.
- Arm yourself with information. Read a book about a group of women you’re not familiar with, or about a particular area of women’s rights, or read up on an activist organization working to advance the rights of women.
- Volunteer with a local organization. Planned Parenthood often does phonebanking or needs volunteers to serve as escorts. Women’s shelters are always looking for folks to serve food, clean up, or serve in more long-term capacities. If you have some extra time, consider a long-term volunteer gig or unpaid internship where you can develop skills and contribute simultaneously.
- Get creative with activism. Identify an a cause you can get behind at school, at your workplace, or in your community. Maybe it’s raising money to get clean birthing kits for refugees through the Marie Stopes Foundation. Maybe it’s lobbying for unisex bathrooms to support transgendered individuals at work or on campus. Maybe it’s distributing information about safe sex.
- Talk to your family. Speak up about women’s rights issues with your loved ones. If someone says something sexist and doesn’t know, call them on it. If you’re a parent, teach your children (male and female) about consent and sexuality. Defeating rape culture starts at home.
Equating Confidence with Sexy Clothing
I recently read Ariel Levy’s fabulous Female Chauvinist Pigs for the first time, and highly recommend it. One point that really stuck out for me is that women often subtly put down other women for not dressing in a sexy, revealing manner and in doing so cite lack of self-confidence. Some women who show a lot of skin for whatever reason feel that this not only makes them feel confident or is a product of their confidence, but that others who don’t dress the same way must not be confident, or must be disparaging of their looks. I have no problem with women feeling sexy when they put on a short skirt or a low-cut top, but I do think something’s going on when a woman’s assumption is that this is the only way to show self-confidence. Levy does a great job at pointing out how this kind of argument can be used to draw women towards everything from Girls Gone Wild cameos to unwanted sexual experiences.
Surely, women can hide behind baggy or “unattractive” clothing. I did that a lot as a kid and as a teenager, and in fact I was not self confident. One of the ways I showed my self-confidence and comfort with boys, in turn, was to start dressing “sexier,” to start showing off my breasts and legs. But I eventually found that for me, that clothing actually didn’t really make me feel sexy. It did in a way, but at the same time I was often self-conscious, because I kept having to tug at a strapless bra or make sure my skirt was covering my rear. Those clothes required a lot of effort, and they weren’t comfortable. Now the clothes that make me feel sexy vary – one of my “sexier” outfits is a pair of cargo pants and a very butch black muscle top, while another is a thin v-neck yellow and brown artsy tank with wide straps and a pair of stretchy black gaucho pants. I feel sexy when I’m put together, when my clothes fit well and feel good, and I’m smiling. Sure, other girls may feel the same in clothes that made me uncomfortable, but if anyone pities me and tells me that I need to get some self confidence and dress the part, I’ll laugh. I invite you to join me.
Construction of the Female Body in Gynecology
I attended an interesting talk today at the CRT at 20 conference on the topic of medical education and cultural competency, focusing especially on women of color’s experiences with gynecology. I started thinking about a tangential topic that I think is sometimes overlooked in LGBT studies: lesbians’ experience with sexual and reproductive health care services.
Later I will probably post some comments on how lesbians experience sexual and reproductive health care generally and differently from heterosexual women. Just now, though, I had a thought about the construction of the female body and how badly this jives with feminism and with lesbianism.
There has been a lot of talk among feminists about how the female sexual organs are reduced to their reproductive function, and how women’s sexual pleasure can be effectively erased from a discussion about women’s anatomy. My thought is that the woman’s body is sexualized, but it is sexualized only with reference to the man/the male body.
When you think about this part of the body, it’s likely that one of your first thoughts concerns the vagina. My guess is that gynecologists and other health care professionals see the vagina in two ways: as a receptacle for the penis (focusing on sexual health, contraception, disease, etc.) or as a passageway for a child (focusing on pregnancy, fertility, etc.) I think this is also true of the culture in general.
One problem is that the vagina is, for many women, not the site of sexual pleasure (or not the sole site), and so there is a separation between health and pleasure. I would posit that it is difficult to celebrate and enjoy the experience of health and health care when it is separated in this way from sexual pleasure. I think most of us experience our body in vastly different ways in the bedroom and in the doctor’s office. Another problem is that it makes the healthcare experience irrelevant for lesbian women, especially lesbian women not interested in giving birth. Our concerns may be difficult to express because society and our health care experiences have not given us a language to express them. I know that I find the gynecologist fairly irrelevant to me – I get an annual pap smear and I get birth control for migraines, but that’s it. My doctor is not necessarily someone I trust, nor do I associate him with my overall health.
I think that this disconnect may also have something to do with why lesbian women often do not go in for services such as pap smears, mammograms, and STI tests. STIs are often conceived of as a penis-in-vagina consequence. Even if we know that STIs can be transferred through any fluid contact, the lesbian community tends to see barrier methods as weird. If not weird, they’re just a pain. I’d guess that many of us haven’t asked our health care provider for advice concerning sexual health. I’ve had experiences with a female gynecologist who told me I only needed pap smears if I were having sex with a man, and a female resident whom I asked about sexual health and she said she didn’t know anything about STI risks. I’ve also had a lot of frustrating experiences when I’m talking with a health care professional about PCOS and he or she tells me repeatedly about my fertility options and forces literature on me, even though I say that I am not interested in having children, ever. I was even once told “oh, you’ll change your mind.” I find this condescending, and the lack of agency makes me fearful of healthcare.
I’m not sure exactly how this could be fixed, but I do think that in anatomy courses and wherever else medical students learn about the female body, the woman should be construed as a whole person, and her experiences of her body considered fully. I want health care professionals to think of women’s sexuality in terms of her own body, and all of it – not in terms of a penis and a vagina, plus possible “alternatives.” I also think that healthcare professionals need to learn how to have effective dialogues that do not make assumptions about sexual practices or reproductive choices. I don’t know how we get there, but I hope it’s where we’re going.
A Room of One’s Own
I’ve been a great admirer of Virginia Woolf since high school, but this is my first time reading this particular work, and I’m quite struck by it. She has a way of communicating that is hard to match, and I would recommend A Room of One’s Own before any denser modern material in a basic women’s studies class. I think that in the time we live in, it’s very easy to get accustomed and complacent and forget just how monumental the steps are that have been made in recent years for equality. Women and men are not equal, that’s for sure, but it’s just amazing to think that I was so lucky as to be born in this shimmer of time where I can forget the long years of oppression and hopelessness for women and have not only a room of my own, but three, and on top of that not one degree but two, and one of those in law no less. I’m sure Woolf would be very pleased indeed to learn that such things would be possible so soon after she wrote. We haven’t conquered the realms of men, but we have entered them, and that’s saying a lot.
Like Tomboy, Like Lesbian?
I was just in the shower, thinking (like you do) about lesbian stereotypes. I think that there’s at least some assumption that if you’re a gay girl, you might have been a tomboy growing up, or you really get along with “the guys.” And for some lesbians, I know this is true, but I never fit into that mold. I didn’t have any really close guy friends as a kid – sure, I had a few male friends, but I never connected with them in any significant way. I had fairly “girly” interests, and I’ve always been touchy feely and liked long conversations. Not that there aren’t men like that, but not so many in elementary and middle school. My best friends were always girls, and I got along well with girls. But when I young and assumed that I was straight, and when I was a bit older and identified as bisexual, I always figured that once I was in a serious relationship with a guy, he would be my best friend. That was what I was looking for, and it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t just… happen.
Now I know there are exceptions, and there are plenty of lesbians who relate well with men but prefer women romantically, and plenty of straight women who don’t have any men friends but connect with their romantic partner. However, the example that comes to mind is my parents, who indeed were best friends throughout thirteen years of marriage and fifteen years and counting of divorce. My mom has always been heterosexual and she’s always had close male friends. It didn’t occur to me that the same wouldn’t happen for me, but in my only serious relationship with a man, it really was a “Men are from Mars” situation. We were just speaking different languages.
Since then, I’ve always thought that women are preferable as romantic partners because you can fall in love with your best friend. And I think there’s something to that – if your best friend is always a certain gender, and you’ve never been particularly close to the other gender, you’re probably at least somewhat unlikely to suddenly become best friends with someone of the other gender because you get into a romantic relationship with them. So maybe it’s not that unusual when a girly girl becomes a lesbian. After all, doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense?
Lesbian book club reminder: the poll is up now for round three and will be open until Sunday afternoon. Please vote! Also, feel free to start discussing for round two if you read the book.
It's all in the magazines
Forgive the radio silence over the past few days (and thank you all the new commenters for dropping by and saying hello!)
I’ve been thinking for a while of doing a post about butch and femme, but it turns out I have more to say than I thought on the subject, so I’d like to ruminate on that for a while.
Somewhat related, though, is a little sidebar about self-worth and appearance. Of course we all hear a lot about how the media portrays women as stick thin and gorgeous, how detrimental the narrowing of “acceptable” fashion is to young girls, etc. All completely true. But I think it’s interesting as someone who’s an adult and not a fashion follower by any stretch of the imagination to notice how societal norms affect my own body image.
I no longer have a problem with my weight, which is a minor miracle. Though I’ve always known intellectually that I was healthy and not overweight, I had a lot of trouble with it for a very long time. These days I find myself relatively happy with my figure, especially when I’m clothed, and at least not freaking out and crying or going on a diet immediately when I’m not. But then the old self-confidence zapper popped up where I least expected it.
I got a haircut yesterday. I actually am coming to terms with it, as I normally do after a day or so, and though I don’t love the style I’ll live with it until it grows out. But yesterday, it got worse and worse. Everytime I looked at the mirror, little doubts crept into my head, until I was imagining just how unattractive and undesireable I looked and had to push back tears. This is so strange to me, because I don’t value myself on how I look at all. It’s not that it’s androgynous – I like androgyny! I think it’s just that I left the realm of conventional beauty and some little inner me was saying “good job, loser. You’ll never get a date.”
Of course, that’s how society trains women to view themselves. Your self worth is measured by your ability to attract others. I’ve always felt good and better about myself when I felt like others were attracted to me. The silly thing, though, is that I’m not particularly wound up in love and sex right now. I’m not on the market for a relationship. If someone asked me out tomorrow, I might say yes, but if someone said “hey, let’s get serious right away!” I’d run in the other direction. So why on earth should my self-worth be tied to how likely my current appearance is to get me a date? Popular culture, really. I am not amused.
Identity continued: a discussion of essentialization
A month or two ago, I had a discussion with a friend on the bus about identity. We were talking about gay identity, and I was telling him about my seminar paper. He started telling me about how in the black community (he’s black and I *think* straight, though I hate to make assumptions) there are definitely gay men, but no one would ever talk about it, because of the certain image that the black man is supposed to fit into. He explained that a lot of people feel that your “Blackness” is supposed to be superior to all else, and presumably a certain narrow kind of blackness, so that being gay does not fit into that identity.
I’d heard about this phenomenon before, and it got me thinking about how we essentialize all sorts of identities. I definitely think it’s true of the queer community. I’ve noticed myself doing it a lot, not so much anymore, but when I first left the South, with my Southern identity (letting my accent get stronger, cooking a lot more Southern food than I ever cooked at home, exaggerating elements of my background). But where I see it happening a hell of a lot, and where it’s been bothering me a lot lately, is the essentialization of the female identity.
I think many of the problems I’ve been struggling to understand lately – legal, social, political – come from a refusal to accept the diversity that exists among women. Abortion and reproductive issues? Women aren’t supposed to have sex outside of marriage. They’re supposed to be good, pure, and chaste. Even the modern woman isn’t supposed to sleep with *too* many men. Maybe birth control is okay, but abortion? You’re not supposed to talk about it. The abominable state of rape laws and selective prosecution? Women are supposed to dress modestly and stay away from bars and wild parties. Homosexuality? Psh, don’t even get me started.
Here is what society has told me about being a woman: Career is great, but family still comes first. Getting married should be an ultimate goal. When in a group of other women, marriage and boyfriends are the most acceptable topic. Always shave your legs, underarms, and bikini area. Nice girls don’t have hair. Wear makeup, lotion, nail polish, etc. Dress provocatively, but not <i>too</i> provocatively. Wear jewellery and skirts. Short hair is only okay if it’s still “cute.” Women should be independent, but society should still protect them. Drink, but don’t drink excessively. Girly cocktails are the acceptable beverage of choice, by the way. Sexuality is something that can be gossipped about, but never discussed openly in mixed company, and certainly never with your sexual partner.
Of course, the list goes on. Anyway, I find that thinking about it this way makes it easier to understand my position on a lot of things. I don’t want society to dictate how I can be a woman. I don’t want it to say that I can only marry men, because that’s what women do, that I can’t take control of my own reproductive health choices, because I need to be protected, or that if I dress a certain way and get raped, it’s my own damned fault. I want society to celebrate diversity and allow women to be independent and free to choose who they are how they want to live their lives. I want attacks on diversity not to be tolerated, but I don’t want paternalistic “protection” that puts me in a box.