A feminist killjoy’s Top Ten list

Top Ten lists are so hot right now. With David Letterman retiring and the school year ending, lists of reflections are all over the place. So I’m jumping on that band wagon.

Top Ten list of things I’m thinking about:

  1. Dress codes—This again? Really? Can we just all agree that it is not young women’s responsibility to hide their bodies from men and that perhaps the responsibility of not sexualizing girls lies on the rest of us, rather than her $#@%^& leggings?
  2. Indiana—I am proud of my Hoosier roots, but my home state is really on a roll lately, and not in a good way. First the discriminatory religious freedom law (which, spoiler alert, was really a way to legalize homophobia), then this. Please do better Hoosiers.
  3. Young women’s activism—My optimism for the future is constantly restored by young radvocates’ work to undo sexism, promote peace, and dismantle rape culture.
  4. Amy Schumer—She is on feminist fire right now. Sketches on birth control, sexism in Hollywood, and spoofs that point out double standards galore are warming this feminist killjoy’s heart.
  1. Weight-loss shows—Ugh. I recently saw an ad for some show that was probably called “Extreme ways to shame and stigmatize your body.” I’m so ready to stop body policing and celebrate health in a new way.
  2. PG-13 movies—This is really for my eight-year-old son who is sad that many of the movies that are aimed at kids contain so much graphic violence that even in our violence-tolerant culture they are rated PG-13. I’m looking at you Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers.
  3. Purity culture—Recent events have brought this one to light, but yuck, just yuck. How about we acknowledge that all of us are sexual beings and need tools and information to help us make the best decisions for ourselves.
  4. Police shootings—This one hits home. Olympia recently joined the many other cities in the country where unarmed black men were shot by a white police officer. There are still many unknowns, but the one thing we do know is that even if there was no malice, racism is part of the air we breathe and to deny that we all are impacted by it is disingenuous at least and dangerous at worst.
  5. Mattresses—Rape culture had a powerful opponent with the courageous Emma Sulkowicz. Cheers.
  6. Eleanor and Park—I love young adult lit and this book sparked so much joy and angst in me. If you want to remember what it is to be young and in love, read this book.

Futures Without Violence Leadership Award

Futures Without Violence recently presented me and the organization I work for the Futures Without Violence Leadership Award at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.  Futures Without Violence called out how our “efforts bridge the gap between advocates and health care providers, and create programs that have improved the lives and safety of countless victims of abuse.” What follows is the speech I gave when presented with this honor.

Leigh-award

I want to thank Futures Without Violence for this award. I also congratulate the other recipients and thank you for your transformative work.

It is humbling to receive this award and I share it with all of you. Each one of us works every day for women, children, and men to have the access and care they deserve.

We are a mighty group and I am so proud to be here with you.

After so many years of advocating for survivors of abuse and working for policies and practices that are shaped by their experiences, I find myself circling back to some of the most important foundations we have.

Self-determination, liberation, bodily-integrity, the freedom to do the things we want—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.

When I think about what it means to do advocacy, what comes immediately to mind are my twin daughters, Basha and Rebekah.

Four years ago, they were Bat Mitzvahed. And as part of the ceremony, they had to write and deliver speeches about the Torah passages that marked their day.  Reflecting on the teachings and finding contemporary meaning.

Two young women with two singular perspectives. Basha talked about Glee (which she watched obsessively at the time). What she took from the show was not just the drama, fabulous singing, and the outfits—what she took were lessons about bullying and homophobia and young people’s experiences both of injustice and of justice.

Rebekah wrestled with her understanding of living an ethical life. What she came to realize is the importance of having an integrity that allows you to be whole, and directs you to live—publically as you do privately.

I am grateful my daughters had this experience. To think seriously, to speak seriously, to have adults listen and take them seriously.

Fast forward to 17, Basha and Rebekah have helped to organize a Feminist Union at their high school. Every week 30 teens show up, 1/3 of them boys, to hang out and talk. They talk about street harassment, rape culture, healthy relationships, international feminism, and gender equality.

That my daughters have had these experiences is a remarkable gift. It is all we want for every girl and every boy. In my work, and our Coalition’s work, we see the power of partnerships that give women and girls, men and boys, the opportunity to exercise their choices, to write their own futures. And, have lives filled with dignity.

I am so very proud to be a part of this movement—and believe that all of us, together, are creating a world of health and happiness, and justice and hope.

Thank you.

So, you’re a feminist

What’s the deal with so-called male feminists? You know who I’m talking about. Men who say they support women, call for equal pay and wear Pro-Choice tees and then get caught for sexual harassment. Or the guy that’s shocked by the “obvious misinterpretation” of what he’s doing and is like “But I love women! Look at my t-shirt—solidarity, sister! We’re cool, right?” WRONG.

 

Here’s the thing. There are a lot of great dudes out there. Some who truly understand feminism and act on behalf of the rights of women. What does that dude look like? Here are my thoughts:

  • He makes space to amplify the voices of the women in the room. This means consciously not talking or offering his commentary on everything the women say, even if it’s supportive. We don’t need your constant approval, dude.
  • He refrains from making sexist jokes and remarks (which means he knows what would constitute a sexist joke or remark), and he lets other dudes know that it’s not cool when they do.
  • He makes space to include women in places where they are absent in ways that are not patronizing or disrespectful.
  • He offers support to women-centered organizations, asks how he can help, and does not take the lead.

I’d like to see more dude feminists step up. And being a feminist does not mean declaring it from the mountain top—actions speak much louder than words. When men support women to be heard and respected, abuse of women will have less and less space to exist. It won’t be tolerated. It will be stopped before it gets dangerous. There will be powerful social consequences for abusers. I’m looking forward to that.

Yes! No. Maybe?

Many people equate BDSM with abuse, but in fact that community can teach us a lot of great lessons about healthy relationships. You might be shaking your head in consternation right about now. But playing with power dynamics or intense bdsmphysical sensation is not the same as being abusive, violent, or controlling.

In one of my previous lives, I worked for several years as a sex educator for a feminist sex shop. While I was relatively open-minded, I had a lot to learn. Because even if I wasn’t particularly interested in something for myself, I had to be able to speak knowledgably and non-judgmentally with customers, many of whom were trusting me with vulnerable information. In any given week, I might help a 70-year-old woman who’d never had an orgasm or a 40-year-old man struggling to open up to his partner about his desires to explore role play.

I learned a lot, not just about sex but about communication and boundaries and consent and exploration and healthy relationships. All things that you need to engage successfully in BDSM.

Most people, especially when playing with a new partner, have a get-together where they chat about their yes/no/maybe list. The “yes” list is filled with all the activities you know you enjoy, the “no” list is all about the things you do not want under any circumstances. And the “maybe” list can include things you haven’t tried yet but might be interested in or things that might be okay in certain situations.

This list is one of my favorite tools, and anyone—any gender, any sexuality—can use it, regardless of what kinds of sex they like to have. It’s a great way to think about what your own desires are. And when you do it with a partner, you get to see where your interests overlap, where you might do some new exploration, and where the hard boundaries are. This is just one way to get to that “enthusiastic consent” that so many people are talking about right now.

Or you can do a yes/no/maybe list about other kinds of physical and emotional affection. “Holding hands in public—yes! Hand on my neck—nope. Deep kisses—maybe, but only if we’re in a private place.” For survivors of abuse, this can be a useful bridge to regaining ownership of their bodies and their desires. Being explicit about what is and isn’t okay can help avoid triggering incidents and make them feel safer.

Using the list might seem a little silly or even boring, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. If you find yourself tongue-tied when talking about what you want, it can be a great way to lay your cards on the table ahead of time, when you’re more able to think clearly. Give it a try!

News you can relate to

Some news stories that caught our eye this week:

Anita Sarkeesian critiques sexism in video games. Angry gamers have been responding with harassment and threats so vile that she was forced to flee her house for safety.

This week, everyone was talking about anti-rape nail polish. Sounds great, right? Well, beyond the fact that women are once again being held responsible for preventing rape, chemists are pointing out that it won’t even work.

Beyoncé was brilliant at the VMAs, making ‘feminist’ the word of the week in pop culture.

Frozen in time

Thanksgiving weekend I found myself in a long line at the movie theater, waiting to see the newest Disney princess flick, Frozen. So much of the movie buzz was about whether boys would watch a “princess movie.” Conventional marketing wisdom has been that girls will watch movies about boys, but boys won’t watch movies about girls. I saw it with a ready-made focus group—five boys ranging from preschool to pre-teen. Their reviews were glowing (“awesome!” “hilarious!” “the snowman said ‘butt’!”) and had nothing to do with the gender of the main characters. But let’s get real: on day 7 of a 10-day school break, none of us were that picky.

So what is it about “girl movies” that boys supposedly find so unappealing?

My guess? The girl protagonists we are used to being served up are just boring. It’s not their fault—they have been imprisoned in the towering failure of imagination that is the “princess movie” formula. It isn’t really a fair comparison. Boy characters (be they humans, cars, monsters, whatever) have their own story arc complete with character motivation, challenges to overcome, and quests to fulfill. Even in title roles, girls are more often objects than subjects, serving as the motivation, prop, or reward for someone else’s heroic deeds.

The question isn’t why don’t boys relate to these movies, but how can anyone?

It is amazing to me we are still having this conversation. That it is actual news when a girl character is a person instead of a prop. Girls as objects; boys as subjects. Snooze.

Another person who can’t believe we’re still talking about this is the namesake of the Bechdel Test, a set of three criteria for movies that have women characters who are more than mere objects. It first appeared in Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man. In case it isn’t obvious, this a low bar. It doesn’t make a movie feminist, or worth $8 at the matinee. It just means the women in it are people.

Although being famous for the rule doesn’t do Alison’s work justice, it is fitting. What made Dykes to Watch Out For revolutionary and revelatory in the 1980s is that its cast of characters are lesbians who are fully formed human beings. The relevance of the “test” shows just how little has changed. After a recent round of media attention, Alison pointed out that her critique is at least as old as Virginia Woolf. Frozen’s head animator pointed to the technical challenge of creating female characters who are expressive and individual, yet faithful to the “pretty” princess mold.

But Frozen promised to be different. So I watched the movie in actual suspense: Would the princess (once again) be rescued by the heroic prince? Or does she get to be the hero in her own story? Is happily ever after defined as romance and marriage? Or is there another story about happiness, friendship, and love? If two women share the same space, does one have to be evil?

Spoiler alert: The girls are people. Two sisters are the main characters; the boys are sidekicks. A major plot twist turns on the idea that fairy tale romance is a scam. The act of true love doesn’t climax in a shimmery wedding scene. And the snowman says “butt.”

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

Today is my birthday

Day one of my 60th swing around the sun. I’m pretty excited about it.

So I hope you will forgive me as I indulge in a brief feminist retrospective of my first six decades. I was thinking about it on my way to work today, specifically about:

SPORTS. Huge progress.

I missed Title IX by only a smidge. This is a great sadness to me. People often mistake me for a coordinated person (and a vegetarian). Sadly, I am neither, but I often think that I would have benefitted enormously from playing full court basketball, hanging in the outfield, diving headfirst, slaloming a steep course, running fast. I live vicariously through my friends’ daughters who joyfully play, experiencing the rough and tumble, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. This is no idle nostalgia or longing. Girls today are healthier, safer, and more self-possessed because they play sports. And it was not an accident. It was not an idea whose time had come. Women fought for and won the right to play.

JOBS. Pretty good progress.

Della Street, secretary, Perry Mason - Jessie Brewer, nurse to Dr. Hardy, General Hospital – Victoria Winters, vampire victim to Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows
Della Street, secretary, Perry Mason – Jessie Brewer, nurse to Dr. Hardy, General Hospital – Victoria Winters, vampire victim to Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows

In the 1960s, my dad encouraged me to be an oceanographer. I thought he was nuts. I knew my only real options were secretary, nurse, or vampire victim. An enduring love of office supply stores is all that remains of this particular personal legacy, because the women’s movement flung hundreds of doors wide open to us. It’s not all roses. We know that, but oh, what a difference half a century makes.

RAPE. Standing still.

I am sure people are going to disagree with me here, because we have so many laws on the books now about rape. Right? But functionally? How much have things really changed? When I was a young teen, my dad’s lone foray into sex ed was an off-hand warning—something like “once a man gets started, he can’t stop.” Start? Stop? What? I didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. But he was very much speaking from fear for his daughter, and the social norms of his day. These norms have not changed in significant enough ways. There may be more talk, but there is also a wider variety of fail. That we have made so little progress in ending rape is the biggest disappointment of my feminist career.

And finally PINK AND BLUE. Going backwards.

Come on now. This is ridiculous. This whole pink and blue genderfication thing is just plain wrong-headed. Two good books make this point. Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America and Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It. As gender becomes more nuanced, more complex, we get nervous and try to get all binary again. This is not good for girls and women. It’s not good for boys and men. It’s not good for intersex and trans people. It does not help us express our humanity as individuals and it’s not good for our relationships.

Perhaps if I live to be 70, or even 80, I’ll be able to shop for baby presents in all colors of the rainbow. Maybe all genders will give and get consent. Maybe there will be a Madame President. Maybe I’ll get my knees replaced and run a marathon (just kidding).

Men, you have the bridge

patrickstewartStar Trek: The Next Generation began when I was twelve; always a sucker for fantasy and sci-fi, I remember watching it, and the spin-offs, avidly. Twenty-five years later, the writing can often feel heavy-handed and stiff (not to mention sometimes downright offensive), but I still enjoy the shows—and Sir Patrick Stewart’s acting chops (especially as compared to most of his cast mates, bless ’em) as the fearless and capable Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

I’ve known for a few years now that Stewart identifies as a feminist, and that he has spoken out about issues of domestic violence, due in part to his own family history. I’ve written before about the role of men in ending domestic violence, and Stewart is an outstanding example of this. He is not just talking the talk, he is walking the walk. He uses his considerable celebrity in service to domestic violence organizations in his own country, and he doesn’t hold back when it comes to discussing the issues publicly whenever he can.

With this video, my sci-fi-world and my domestic-violence-movement-world collided, in the best way. At the Comicpalooza convention in May, an audience member commended him for his work on domestic violence and asked him what he was most proud of achieving, other than acting. In his response, he eloquently makes connections between his personal experiences, the need for safety for survivors of domestic violence, the role men must play in ending violence, and the lasting impacts of war and PTSD on soldiers. It’s well worth the seven minutes—if you’re anything like me, you may find there’s something in your eye, probably more than once. Sniff. And big kudos to the survivor who asked him the question and shared her story!

Out of the binder and into the fire

Photo courtesy of bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com

I do not think of myself as a competitive person. I mean, I don’t play games where I might win or lose.  Board games and sports are not my thing.

Yet, I’m obsessed with polls, the world-series, and Binders Full of Women.

This year, for the first time, I find myself watching the presidential debates simulcast with social media.  I wonder what my imaginary friends are thinking as we watch from our separate couches. I have two screens going.

Thus, the eruption of sites sporting Binders Full of Women DURING the debate—and the growth of one Facebook site from 32K likes in the middle of the debate to 348K at the time of this writing—leaves me scratching my head.

Clearly, the comments of (mostly) women on these sites express humor—I presume fueled by outrage. I experience the thrill, as a feminist, as I read these comments and get full belly laughs from the creativity and wonderful writing. The reviews of 3-ring binders on Amazon are even funnier than the reviews of Bic for Her.

But.

But! Is all this outpouring of creativity only serving to quell the outrage? Do women and men close up their computers and go out for a beer—slapping their hands together slap-slap “There! I told them.”?

Because if that is true, then putting all this creativity into humor alone is only as politically effective as say, putting butter on the third degree burns of women’s lived experiences.

We cannot simply feel all self-satisfied making snarky comments on social media about the things candidates say about women and thinking we are done. This does not get us women candidates and women in office. Does not get us allies pulling for our liberation. Does not get us reproductive justice. And my personal favorite (this being breast cancer awareness month) does not get us an environment where a whole bunch of us aren’t walking around traumatized by cancer. It does not.

BUT (and this is the last one) I am not calling for the end of snark. By all means, snark away. And then close up your computer and get out there!! Vote and mail your ballot, study the economy so you can tell the truth from a lie, volunteer for a women’s program. Do.

Get-out-WHICH-vote?

Photo by Fiona B.

Ilene told me, that her mother told her, that she has a friend who said her husband tells her how to vote.

I have no right to find that alarming. Because if it were legal for me to wed my girlfriend of 26 years and make her my wife, I too would be guilty of telling my wife how to vote.

Basically what I have going on here is a glorious mental gyration where I think a man who tells his wife how to vote will steer her wrong. But a lovely twist of internalized sexism gets me thinking “if he were, by some miracle, a feminist, it would be okay for him to tell her how to vote.” Meanwhile, if I, as a woman, tell my wife how to vote, I’d automatically be casting two votes in women’s interest.

Ha!

I got a total kick out of reading Erin Gloria Ryan today. She is one funny woman and if you have not had a good laugh recently read What the hell does ‘the women’s vote’ even mean?

Apparently what is true is true. Women vote all over the map. Men vote all over the map. And if anyone were to parse out the voters who identify as neither a woman nor a man, we’d find out this demographic votes all over the map.

If we plant those facts pretty squarely in our thinking, how would we proceed in the upcoming election to get-out-the-vote? Say we wanted to re-weave the safety net, work for nation-wide and world peace, bring respectful dialog back into civic life, and lots of other things that are good for women and children. How could we attract voters of like mind? And I mean voters who actually, you know, vote.

I would sure love to hear your opinion about that. Could you vote if you wanted to? Do you? Do you know people who care about women’s issues who could vote, but don’t? Shed some light on this.