Category Archives: Women

On the Definition of Feminism

Woman_suffrage_headquarters_ClevelandRecently a friend posed the following question on her  Facebook page: “What is your definition of ‘feminism’?”

I read several of the responses listed in her comments section and then added my own reply, which is my personal interpretation of the definition found in Webster’s Dictionary: “To me, it (feminism) means that women should have the same education and career opportunities as men. Period.”

While most of the respondents wrote similar definitions to mine, I must admit that I was a bit surprised that some women still find themselves hesitant to identify with the term, feminism, due to perceived negative connotations that continue to accompany a word that strives to promote gender equality.

In order to more thoroughly understand why feminism carries such a vast array of definitions, we must first look at the history of feminism as a doctrine and examine its political impact throughout history. Feminism, by its very definition, requires action. Those who work to create a society that protects gender equality must look at the current state of a government’s policies and address the fairness of any laws and practices that result from such guidelines.  Additionally, throughout history the politics surrounding gender equality have been closely related to religion in that many traditional patriarchal religious beliefs often dictated the distribution of power between the sexes. Thus, when women suffragists in the United States confronted the political status quo, not only were they criticized for disrupting the country’s existing customs and beliefs, but they were also viewed as challenging church doctrine. Keeping this in mind, as well as the fact that even among the suffragists there was often great dissension over the direction in which the movement should proceed, it is no wonder that modern feminism also carries mixed feelings when discussed.

The introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960’s brought about a new wave of feminism, closely linking the movement to reproductive rights and sexuality as women more openly discussed the notion that the ability to plan for pregnancy (and the newfound freedom to plan against pregnancy) provided them the same opportunities for employment and economic advancement as men. And, as the Supreme Court delivered its opinion in the historic Roe v. Wade case, abortion rights also got added to the mix when discussing reproductive rights.

Suddenly feminism became a fight of “us against them”.

However, in my opinion, feminism is not a case of, “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” Instead, feminism is simply the notion that women, as human beings, deserve the right to pursue whatever interests they desire. They should be allowed to follow their dreams, whatever those dreams may be. Just like not all men will study to be lawyers or doctors, not all women aspire to the traditionally female roles of wives or mothers or teachers or nurses. We should support one another no matter what our individual personal goals might be. Working mother, stay-at-home mom, corporate CEO, English teacher, politician, single, married, gay – these differences are not things to argue over. They are experiences that we can share with each other in an effort to educate one another on the variety of lifestyle choices that create a healthy, industrious, and enlightened civilization. All of us, male and female, possess various individual talents that enable us to contribute to society as a whole. Without the opportunity to study or work toward our goals we become unproductive citizens, unable to add value to the world around us.

And that, to me, would be a waste of humanity.

Just as the term, “love”, can be used in a variety of contexts, so, too can the term, “feminism”. And it is important to remember that we all reserve the right to use either term in the manner which we choose. All too often, in an attempt to maintain their own identity when discussing a term that has become a label, women apologize for their belief in gender equality.

It’s time we stop apologizing for our belief that women deserve the same rights as men.

On Learning About Feminism

Antioch College, in Yellow  Springs, OH, was the first college in the country to admit both non-whites and women with equal status to white men (Wikipedia)

Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, OH, was the first college in the country to admit both non-whites and women with equal status to white men (Wikipedia)

In January of 1985 I embarked on my second semester of my freshman year in college. As I scheduled my classes for the upcoming spring, I determined that this semester would be different from the last semester: I resolved to earn an ‘A’ in at least one class this go-around.

Since I tested out of English Comp 101, the university allowed me to enroll directly into Comp 102, which suited me just fine because I fancied myself a budding writer looking for the tools I needed to pursue my personal goal of writing the next Great American Novel, and to do so I needed to get the boring preliminary classes out of the way as quickly as possible.  Time was of the essence here, you know.

Imagine my surprise and displeasure when my PhD candidate-grad assistant-professor informed me after grading my first essay that I would not, under any circumstances, make an ‘A’ in her class.

I withdrew from her office, holding my butchered-with-red-ink, ‘C’ graded, pathetic composition at arm’s length from my body as I trudged back to my dorm, ready to cry and change my major to the much less subjective field of Computer Science (the major my dad recommended I study in the first place. Hooray for STEM-minded dads!).

Through some miraculous feat of determination (and the lack of anything better to do during the hour-and-a-half allotted to my schedule for Comp 102), I managed to continue attending her class and scraped out a ‘B+’ for my final semester grade. And, in the process, this remarkable professor taught me two things that stayed with me for the rest of my life: avoid using ‘to be’ verbs as much as possible in my writing, and – despite my personal upbringing where my family placed my brother and me on equal footing with regard to education and career choices – women continue to struggle to achieve the respect they need for their professional and personal success.

My professor focused her PhD thesis on pop culture and its effects on women in social situations. She theorized that there was a direct correlation between the prolific distribution of porn and the increase in date-rape crimes on college campuses. I participated in a focus group she hosted (for extra credit, of course – how else do you think I managed to obtain the highest grade possible in her class?) that discussed the use of pornographic images in music videos, magazine ads, and movies and how these images turned women into one-dimensional sex objects instead of living, breathing human beings capable of making their own decisions – especially in regard to what happens to their bodies. In short, due to the portrayal of men as dominant over women, pop culture reiterated the idea that boys reserved the right to treat girls as possessions instead of equal human beings capable of making their own decisions about their sexuality, career pursuits, family planning, and so on.

My participation in this focus group awakened me to the idea that not everyone looked at women as intellectually equal to men. Two years later, as I sat in my business classes populated by a disproportionate amount of male to female students, I further recognized the prevalence of sexist attitudes in Corporate America when a male professor pointed out that, at the time, only a minority of Fortune 500 companies boasted female executives (God bless him for even discussing the topic in class.) My burgeoning feminist beliefs reached full maturation when, as an assistant manager with Wal-Mart in 1989, I learned that my district manager took it upon himself (as in, without my permission) to inform the Home Office that no, I would not be interested in entering their newly designed buyer trainee program, despite the fact that they had called to personally invite me to join the program. After a brief deliberation, I decided that I would, indeed, like to relocate to the Home Office in Bentonville, AR. Unfortunately, my district manager’s assertion that I stay put caused the director of the program to withdraw his earlier invitation – a fact I didn’t learn about until two months later. Which is when I began the search for a new job.

Among some groups (most specifically, of course, intimidated men), the term “feminism” carries negative connotations. “Men haters”, “bra burners”, “radicals”, “feminazis” are just a few of the many derogatory terms used to describe those of us who believe that gender should have no bearing on a person’s ability to earn a living or pursue his or her educational interests. At times, even I have shuddered at the label, “feminism”.  And then I read the actual definition of the term:

Feminism: “The doctrine which declares that social, political, and economic rights for women be the same as those for men.” – Webster’s Dictionary

This definition does not state that feminism advocates for women to become men (or stop being feminine), nor does it declare that women are superior to men. It simply states that women – as human beings – deserve the opportunity to enjoy the same rights as men. Period. And that is a doctrine that both men and women can subscribe to with a very clear conscience. Equal educational and economic opportunities for myself and my daughters. For my friends and their daughters. For women both at home and abroad. Because, how can we expect to overcome poverty, hunger, and war if only half of the population is educated and/or employed?

How about you? When did you first identify with feminism? Did you ever experience discrimination and, if so, how did you handle the situation? Were you ever encouraged to not pursue an interest or job opportunity due to your gender? If so, tell me about it in the comments section below – I love to hear your stories!

On the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby, and Women’s Rights

Supreme Court JusticesThere is a lot of buzz around the Internet today as individuals and media outlets weigh in with their personal thoughts and opinions regarding the Supreme Court’s narrow support in favor of Hobby Lobby’s assertion that providing insurance coverage that pays for certain  birth control methods for employees violates their religious freedom. While I feel it is a dangerous position to start protesting Supreme Court decisions (they, after all, DO possess a much greater understanding about the constitution than I), I can’t help but wonder what on earth they were thinking in this instance.

As I often do when I feel inundated with editorials and public verdicts regarding controversial subjects, I turned to the Brookings Institution for guidance and clearer understanding. Fortunately, I found the following piece that offers educated insight on the recent SCOTUS ruling:

http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/fixgov/posts/2014/06/30-hobby-lobby-religious-freedom-rauch

I encourage all of you to head over and read this post, as it explains some nuances that most of the general public won’t understand (although, it also points out the dangers of allowing corporations to disregard government regulations on the basis of religious freedom). Most importantly, the article explains the difference in a constitutional ruling versus an interpretation of a statute.

Unfortunately, though, this ruling does have implications regarding the public’s regard and treatment of women, which are very succinctly outlined in my daughter’s Facebook post today:

“I cannot say this better than my UChicago classmate, so I’m copy/pasting her statement:

‘Upon learning that I’ve spent time in India and care deeply about engaging with the region’s culture, people often point to stories in Western media regarding the status of women in Indian society (mainly focusing on stories of rape), posing in many ways questions that essentially ask, “How can you reconcile with the way women are treated over there? How can you handle it?”
Many of these people – my friends, family, classmates – seem to lose sight of the fact that they, too, live in a society that marginalizes women and limits opportunities for more than half the population every day.
Of course, there are varying degrees of aggression. I don’t mean to equate atrocities such as the – now infamous – rape in Delhi on a public bus in December 2012 with this less (overtly; physically) violent court decision, but I feel it incredibly important to think critically and be aware of the systemic and institutionalized nature of gender inequality that acts similarly and is perpetuated in each case.
This post could be about many things – neo-colonialism, capitalism, media sensationalism and how we consider our own learned cultural norms. But it all boils down to this: next time you think about the way that women are treated “over there,” check your American exceptionalism (however subconcious it may be), and take a second to consider how your mothers, sisters, daughters, friends – how YOU – are treated as lesser and other within the ostensible structure of freedom on which we pride ourselves so greatly. How can you handle it?'”

So, I suppose the question for the Supreme Court now is this, “What, if any, implications do you see developing as a result of this ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby? Does this ruling then open up a new case for the constitutionality of such denials by corporations? And how will such a ruling affect similar medical procedures for men – most specifically, medications and procedures associated with erectile dysfunction or vasectomy?”

Any thoughts?

On Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou recites her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at the 1993 presidential inauguration

Maya Angelou recites her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, at the 1993 presidential inauguration

I stood in the kitchen with my back leaned up against the counter by the stove, and scrolled through my phone apps while I waited for the painters to arrive (I can write and sell stuff, Hubs can practice law, but neither of us is handy with a hammer. Or a paintbrush. Oh, well.) As I scanned my Facebook page and read about my friends’ various activities during the past twenty-four hours, I spied one particular post that made my breath catch in my throat for a brief second.

Maya Angelou Dies – American Poet Laureate Dead at 86

It’s not like I wasn’t expecting it. I knew she was ill – after all, I’d read it on Facebook a few days ago (and, let’s face it: these days Facebook is more reliable than Fox or MSNBC, and sometimes even CNN). I also surmised that the illness must have been serious since she cancelled her plans to attend the civil rights game hosted by Major League Baseball, where she was to be honored with the Beacon of Life Award. But, Maya Angelou? Dead? The reality hit me like a swift punch to the stomach. No more words of inspiration from this woman who overcame the insurmountable obstacles of poverty, racism, sexism, and an unplanned pregnancy only to emerge as one of the most notable American literary figures of the twentieth century. No more listening to that sultry, melodious voice as she relays stories of her life in Arkansas or New York or St. Louis or Europe. No more lessons learned from a woman who gained copious amounts of wisdom from a life lived with gusto and passion.

No more Maya.

I remember the first time I was introduced to Dr. Angelou. It wasn’t, as one might suspect, when I was in college, not even during the two years I studied as an English Lit major. Instead, I learned about the likes of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Sylvia Plath during those years. My first encounter with the great poet and orator was when I watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony in 1993. I was pregnant with my first child – just pregnant enough to no longer possess a flat stomach – enjoying a day off from work, nursing the constant nausea that accompanied my first trimester of pregnancy, and listening to the details of the inauguration emanating from the television as I worked around the house. I remember I heard an introduction of some poet and an explanation regarding the historic significance of her presence that day because the last president to have a poet at an inauguration was President Kennedy, some thirty years earlier. And then she spoke. That voice, that beautiful, rich, sensuous, articulate, commanding voice that immediately beckoned me away from the stack of laundry I was folding and over to the couch situated in front of the TV just to catch a glimpse of the women who claimed that voice as her own. I was intrigued. Shortly after, I visited the local library and checked out I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And then I knew. I knew why the president invited her to his inauguration. I knew why her voice was so resonant. I understood her careful articulation of the words she spoke. And I understood what her presence on that stage meant. And I fell in love all over again.

Amid all the press, comments, and expressions of sorrow yesterday, I read a quote that described my feelings about Maya Angelou so precisely I wrote it down to put on my desk for daily remembrance:

To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has.” Gary Younge, writer for The Guardian, 2009

Her first autobiography is so expertly written that it transports the reader back in time and places her right smack in the middle of a completely foreign culture: the Black Deep South.  Together with Maya I witnessed the same horrors, love, confusion, and intimidation that she did. And I learned about a way of life that, up until that moment, I had very little understanding and appreciation for. Because to live in the south is one thing, but to live in the south as a Black girl in the middle of the twentieth century is another thing, altogether.

Her experiences as a child and young adult were enough to wear most of us out and cause us to just be happy to make it from one day to the next. But, to overcome all those obstacles and then stand on stage at a presidential inauguration, read a piece of poetry she wrote and then turn around and have the President of the United States embrace her with sincere exuberance and appreciation? Well, I don’t know how she did it.

Over the past few years I have followed her Facebook page and marveled at the wisdom and honesty of her posts, much as I did that first day I heard her speak. Her comments of encouragement and hope still move me every time I read one of her quotes. And, now, as I contemplate what her life and work mean to me, I wonder if I can ever measure up to that person she admonished all of us to become whenever she spoke. Will any of us be what she hoped we would be?

The best we can do to honor her memory is to try to do just that: Be the best we can be, in spite of our circumstances and background, and remember that, while life is hard, it is worth living to its fullest.

Please feel free to take a minute and share your thoughts on Maya Angelou’s passing in the comments section below.