Tag Archives: gender

Maternal Health and the Status of Women

Both globally and domestically, maternal health and the standing of women are inextricably linked. If women do not have the means and access to give birth safely, with trained and educated midwives, physicians and nurses, with appropriate prenatal education and care, it is often indicative of the standing of women in their communities and countries overall. Women’s inequality is also linked to the soaring population growth in developing countries, which will pose a range of new challenges for the next few generations.

Some may point to the United States as an anomaly, citing women’s increasing economic and financial independence, education, and leadership roles in America, while in terms of maternal health rankings, we remain pathetically far down the line for our resources (49 other countries are safer places to give birth than the U.S. – despite us spending more money on healthcare than anywhere else). Of course, the recent and incessant attacks on allowing women to access credible, accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and services makes this statistic not entirely…surprising, shall we say.

So, I found the incredibly detailed and visually impressive infographic by the National Post, pulled from spectacular data and research done by Save the Children to be particularly fascinating. What they did was combine information on the health, economic, and education status of women to create overall rankings of the best and worst countries for women, splitting the countries into categories of more developed, less developed, and least developed, and the countries were ranked in relation to the other countries in their category (the divisions were based on the 2008 United Nations Population Division’s World Population Prospects, which most recently no longer classified based on development standing). While these divisions and the rankings can certainly be contentious and may incite some disagreement (nothing unusual there, these kind of rankings usually are), I thought the results were interesting. Some highlights – Norway is first, Somalia is last. The United States was 19th, and Canada was 17th (Estonia fell in between us and the Great White North) in the most developed. Israel is first in the less developed category, and Bhutan is first in the least developed category. The full report with data from Save the Children is also available, if you want to learn more about the information combined to make this image. Take a look:

A Woman’s Place – Courtesy of the National Post

One thing that I thought was particularly great was that the researchers combined women’s health and children’s heath data to create rankings specific to being a mother, when that category is sometimes only assessed based on access to reproductive care.The specific rankings of maternal health highlights largely mimics the overall standing of women, as seen here – Norway is number one, again, and Niger falls into last place:

Mother’s Index, Courtesy of Save the Children

I think these images and graphs are particularly moving given one of the top health stories coming out of the New York Times today, which showed that a recent Johns Hopkins study indicated meeting the contraception needs of women in developing countries could reduce maternal mortality (and thereby increase the standing of women in many of the nations doing poorly in the above ranking) globally by a third. When looking at the countries in the infographic that have low rates of using modern contraception and the correlation between that and their ranking in terms of status of women, it’s not surprising what the JH researchers found. Many of the countries farther down in the rankings have rates below 50%, and for those countries filling the bottom 25 slots, none of them even reach a rate that is a third of the population in terms of contraceptive use – which of course in most cases has to do with availability, not choice. Wonderfully, the Gates Foundation yesterday announced that they would be donating $1 billion to increase the access to contraceptives in developing countries.

Also of note, and in relation to maternal and newborn health, is a new study recently published by Mailman researchers that showed PEPFAR funded programs in sub-Saharan Africa increased access to healthcare facilities for women (particularly important for this region, as 50% of maternal deaths occur there), thereby increasing the number of births occurring in these facilities – reducing the avoidable (and sometimes inevitable) complications from labor and delivery, decreasing the chance of infection and increasing treatment if contracted. This has clear implications for children as well (and why I think this study relates to the National Post infographic and the NY Times article), since newborns are also able to be assessed by trained healthcare workers and potentially life-threatening conditions averted – including HIV, if the newborns have HIV+ mothers and need early anti-retroviral treatment and a relationship with a healthcare worker and system. And it goes without saying that if a new mother is struggling with post-delivery healthcare issues, including abscesses and fistulas, or was dealing with a high-risk pre-labor condition like preeclampsia, the child will have an increasingly difficult early life, perhaps even a motherless one.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Health Education, International, Politics, Public Health, Reproductive and Sexual Health, Women's Health

The Changing Face of Development in the Fight for Gender Justice

As International Women’s Day approached, I was thrilled to attend a panel at the United Nations, “Youth Approaches to Funding Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights,” with the Executive Director of an organization I am very excited to be a part of, Spark, as one of the speakers. Shannon Farley was joined by Mia Herndon from the Third Wave Foundation and Amina Doherty from the Young Feminist Fund. These dynamic leaders provided what turned out to be unique though complementary perspectives on engaging youth in development strategies, and I came away feeling revitalized and encouraged that Spark’s work is at the forefront of essential evolution in philanthropy and development.

While powerhouse young women lead each of these organizations, their differences should be noted. Spark, at 7 years old, is the middle child of the organizations, and the only one that operates within a member-driven framework, allowing those active members to vote on grantees and possible themes. Granting more than $1 million since its inception, a great feat since most gifts are seed money of the couple thousand dollar range, Spark’s offering of extensive pro-bono services to granting organizations also sets us apart – that and statistic of having nearly 50% male members. FRIDA is the new baby in the gender equality, women’s rights development world, and they interestingly refer to themselves as a “learning fund,” as each organization that applies for funding does some fairly in-depth research on other groups with whom they are competing for funds. Of the more than 1,000 applications from over 120 countries this year, FRIDA selected 125 ‘short-listed’ groups who then voted for a group in their region other than themselves who they felt deserved the grant based on their work and application. Lastly, the Third Wave Foundation, which has been around for 15 years, funds work that benefits 15 – 30 year-old women and transgender youth. They emphasize leadership development and advocacy, and given their size, are also able to offer multi-year ‘arc’ grants, supporting groups as they get off the ground, giving them a big financial push during subsequent cycles, and tapering off as the group begins to grow.

Despite these differences in age, funding history, and model of grant making, one can see the overlaps. My favorite element of the panel was discovering throughout the presentation how similar the roots of the missions of these groups are – interactivity, democratic funding policies, involvement of the grantees and groups for whom they are advocating, and leadership that represents the interests of the grantees. Each of these groups – and this is what I think draws many to Spark in the first place – emphasizes the input of passionate members or supporters who are emotionally and mentally invested in working for justice, and who may have previously been rebuffed in other volunteer development efforts. Equally important, they value the participation of those on the ground seeking to be funded. Panelists actually articulated how important the flow of communication was in the funding process, not only to ensure that the funding organizations were really sound in their understanding of the grantees, but also so the beneficiaries feel as though they are being heard and understood throughout the process. This is actually fairly empowering. This kind of communication between funding agencies and grantees used to be unheard of – grant applications would be filled out on one side, and grant-making decisions would be made on the other side, often with grantees not feeling as though they were making meaningful connections with funding organizations that would enable them to better articulate their needs.

These newer models can bring up questions of validity for some, and this query was posed by an audience member who asked the panel about issues of monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and how that was considered within these newer frameworks. This garnered perhaps my favorite answer, which was that one of the ways M&E can be handled is by changing the definition of what a successful program or initiative looks like. One of the ways these newer development organizations does this is by defining at the outset what success looks like to the grantees and how that will be measured, and emphasizing those goals in the evaluation process as opposed to adhering to strict, traditional methods that may not be appropriate measures for many of the newer, innovative groups that are seeking funding.

Piggybacking on this part of the conversation, panelists were asked about what they saw as the primary benefits and drawbacks of not working within the more traditional development models. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, these leaders focused mainly on the positive. Working within newer models allows them to take risks; to explore relationships with new groups and leaders that older, more established organizations may not have the time or framework to take on; and to nurture long term relationships with groups that can use the leadership guidance and seed money granted by organizations like Spark to get off the ground and be ready to present themselves to progressively larger funds. Essentially, these groups – Spark, the Third Wave, and FRIDA – are building a foundation to get a foot into the door of the local and global conversations about eradicating injustice for groups that may have been historically overlooked.

As the landscape for women’s rights and gender disparities shifts, this kind of risk-taking is essential in assisting burgeoning efforts of organizations that may have been traditionally ignored.

While each of these organizations emphasized the need for young women’s leadership and articulated how their models centered on the unique and essential perspectives of young leaders, the speakers also championed the importance of inter-generational work. When concern was raised by an audience member over being dismissive of the work of older activists and development organizations, panelists were adamant about the fact that their communities were grateful for the work that had come before them, and the wisdom that is often culled from creating partnerships with leaders who have been involved in gender equality development work for years.  The experience of these more senior leaders is not only valuable in gaining insight into what isn’t working and why within traditional giving pathways, but collaborating with them often leads to grant-making opportunities for these newer funding organizations. Shannon’s remarks specifically about how larger, older funds had passed on applications to Spark that are more suitable for our funding model than theirs was met with nods of appreciation from many in the audience – an audience that was in and of itself diverse in age and funding experience. And of course, having big voices in the field champion the work of newer organizations for their innovation certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to increase our donor circles.

I encourage my readers to check out Spark, and consider becoming a member. It’s an incredible organization that offers great opportunities for young leaders to get involved. In light of International Women’s Day, I’d also encourage you to check out these other fantastic on-the-ground groups doing fantastic work for gender equality and justice (some of them Spark grantees!):

The Komera Project: Education for girls in Rwanda, financial and mentoring assistance, started by Margaret Butler.

CAMFED: Investing in girls’ education in Africa

She’s the First: Education investment in the developing world

Plan International: Children’s rights and development around the globe

No coincidence that these organizations tend to focus on education access! Have organizations that you’re passionate about and want me to include in this list? Send ‘em my way!

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Filed under Defining Gender, Education, Feminism, International, Politics

How Are Gen Y Women Faring in the Workplace? (A Mini-Exploration)

I came across this intereting post via Mashable courtesy of Accenture, detailing how Gen Y women are faring in the workforce. Some interesting points:

I thought the statistic that 30% of women said work-life balance is the most important career factor was interesting. Regardless of whether or not children are desired by a woman, I would think that work-life balance remains a pressing concern – particularly given what we know about work-related stress and its impact on our health.

What I found most fascinating, however, was that nearly half of women surveyed said that they felt their career was being held back because of lack of a defined path or lack of opportunities, and a third of them felt that their career path was stagnant. I’d love to delve deeper into that, given how many factors are likely at play – fewer people retiring at age 65 means less opportunity to rise within organizations, job uncertainty makes even attempts at lateral moves to different companies or organizations a risk, lack of mentorship and weak relationships with supervisors are often also culprits. It makes me wonder how this may make women ambivalent about leaving their jobs when they do have families – if they feel no connection or support within the work system, the impetus to return may be low.

Statistics about advocating for themselves in regards to pay raises and clear conversations about career growth are nothing new – studies for many years now have shown that women are less likely to do these things as well as less likely to negotiate salaries during hiring processes as well. But when women are given tips for broaching this subject and outlines for structuring conversations about career growth, they take them – and they are often successful. So how do we make these conversations more natural for everyone to have? How can we incorporate the development of these skills into education for women as well?

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know on Twitter.

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Fox News: No.

I had no idea that Fox News had decided to not only tackle the issue of feminism, but that in doing so, they would categorize it as a “Health” topic. (This is the same site that recently posted an article by a psychiatrist saying our biggest concern were Newt Gingrich to become President would be another country “falling in love with him” and begging him to come lead them instead of the United States. So, you know, keep that in mind.) I personally think the adoption of a feminist mindset can improve one’s mental health, but unsurprisingly, this was not Fox News’ intent in presenting the article I’m about to address (again, brought to my attention by Stephanie). The article was posted two years ago and they seem to have cross-posted this from AskMen.com, a site whose history of misogyny and degradation has been documented by a fellow About-Face contributor.

5 Feminist Demands She Wants You to Ignore hits the viewer with a most beguiling shot of a woman with obviously…supplemented breasts, ostensibly begging you to ignore any “demands” she makes for equality and respect. The first “demand” to ignore, while not articulated, given the intense cosmetic restructuring of her chest, may be “confirm the beauty of my natural self and do not reward silicone implantation.” (I will soon in the future write a post about how the claim “they’re for me” in regards to a woman getting breast implants is not a sustainable argument since one does not gaze for hours in distaste at their own breasts and determine they fall short of beauty unless they have been conditioned to think that their breasts, for whatever reason, do not fall within the confines of socially determined acceptability and attractiveness.)

Moving on. When you’re a man out on the prowl, you’re going to encounter some “independent ladies,” the article warns. (Independent ladies is put in quotes to make sure you understand, as the male reader, that independence is tenuous at best, for show, a joke, an adjective easily swept aside by a proper man.) Sexy feminists aren’t “entirely false” (thank you, Fox, and AskMen, for validating our sexuality), but you still must tread carefully – because as women, we never “ask for what we really want.” An entire gender rooted in the goal of misguided and cloaked communication. What to do?

Number one demand feminist want you to ignore: “I can carry my own bag.” Little to be said here because I have never heard a woman actually say this, but also because being polite and helping someone if they’re carrying quite a burden is not actually an issue that needs to gendered. Feminists never did gender this, the claim of “I can carry my own bag” was picked up as a mocking of women who wanted recognition of the fact that they weren’t helpless.

Number two: “Don’t objectify me!” This goes hand in hand with my opener. Of course, this has been misappropriated over and over again by anti-feminists, or those who want to warp the message. Paying someone a compliment is not objectification, which is how this ‘article’ is defining it – objectification is equating the person’s worth with what you see. If the compliment of her looking great in her dress means that looking great in a dress is all she does/is, then that’s a problem. Also, straight up calling women liars if they aren’t impressed by compliments about their appearance is a great way to puff up one’s ego, but trust me – there are plenty of women who really don’t care what your thoughts are about their looks.

Number three: “I’ll pay my share.” Misses the point entirely – first, a woman’s vested interest in keeping a relationship financially balanced is different than treating your girlfriend to an expensive dinner sometimes. Especially because they insist that if she doesn’t return the favor by treating you sometimes (ahem…sort of like splitting the cost? In essence…paying her share?), then you should withhold such a generous gift (and I guess have her pay her share?). Playa’.

Number four: “I can think for myself.” This one is great. Even “high-powered women want men to take the reins sometimes,” which to the authors means…thinking ahead about dinner plans? I love that taking the reins means making sure you know what you want to have for dinner. Not even making dinner. Just…knowing what you want to eat. If this is what it means to wrest control from women who are thinking for themselves, I encourage women everywhere to resist.

Number five: “I won’t be shackled into a marriage.” The authors admit that there are apparently “exceptions” to the steadfast rule that women want to be married and instead of acknowledging that both men and women may have changing and evolving priorities, they encourage readers to merely brush off a woman’s thoughts on this matter if they initially refute the general equation of ring/house/baby that will ultimately overcome these ladies.

It goes without saying that this is a heteronormative perspective, not only strictly defining what is ‘female’ and what is ‘male,’ but also emphasizing that women are feminine and men are masculine, and, you know, case closed. Interestingly, they claim at the end that “gender roles evolve everyday.” Which would make one think that the entire preceding article was, indeed, unnecessary at best. Of course, they then close with: “women are a complete contradiction in terms and that’s one thing they’re likely to never evolve out of – like men and leaving the toilet seat up. We all have our crosses to bear.” There you have it! Women can’t make up their mind and never know what they mean, and men are just disgusting. Why resist nature? Thanks for clearing this all up, Fox News. I can always count on you.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Media, Mental Health, Sexism

Ready for 2012?

I certainly am! In case you’re interested, here are some interesting stats for INTY for 2011:

Top Five Posts of the Year:

Good Riddance, Paterno

Duke Nukem – Seriously?

Beyonce – A Word

Yes, Summer’s Eve Has Bad Marketing. Oh, and the Product is Not Good for You

I Still Don’t Think Yoplait Gets It

An interesting mix, indeed! Check them out if you missed them. And for kicks, my favorite Google searches that brought people to my blog:

* “does summer’s eve cause yeast infections”

* “disney feather duster” (which brought them to the Billy Bush post)

* “self-image”

* “i think i’m a feminist” (yay!)

* “consent”

* “abortion”

* “feminism does not necessarily mean hating men”

* “equinox advertisements jealous” (which brought them here)

* “eating disorders”

* “miss usa”

* “eroticization of girls”

* “sexualization of girls”

* “sexualized advertising”

* “advertising desensitization”

* “advertising and behavior”

* “real housewives ignorant” (the RHOBH post did get a lot of comments)

* “gay stereotypes in reality television” (Zel’s guest post)

* “gender identity”

* “adolescent/human development”

* “mitch albom accept who you are and revel in it” (which took them here…showing Albom not reveling in it)

And some creepy and disturbing searches that hopefully led searchers to this blog and perhaps taught them something:

* “how to get any woman to drop her panties”

* “how do young girls get hotter”

* “funny rape jokes”

* “sexy women lying on train tracks”

* “in duke do you need to use the vibrator on the woman”

* “how to take a feminist down a peg”

* “how to take a woman down a peg”

Well, that about sums it up! Looking forward to many more conversations in the upcoming year!

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Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Education, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Health Education, Media, Politics, Pop Culture, Public Health, Rape and Sexual Assault, Sexism, Violence, Violence Against Women

Happy Thanksgiving!

This holiday card is courtesy of my friend Zel McCarthy. I’ll let it marinate for a bit.

This most obvious example of equating women to objects of consumption tries to downplay the offense by making the image as absurd as possible, and by utilizing the tag lines popular culture women’s magazines to give the viewer a chuckle. By sexualizing the meat, and by sexualizing it in a distinctly feminine way, both women and animals get to be conquered and devoured! Women are downgraded to turkeys, and turkeys are eaten. What I think is particularly interesting about the decision to put the feminized turkey on the cover of the magazine is how the image then also gets to denigrate the element of women that our culture has deemed most important – trying to stay “hot and moist” [shudder], the best ways to look “delicious” [you want to look so attractive that others just can't resist gnawing on you], the “must have” items of the moment [because consumerism is such a female issue?] and of course, most vitally, the breasts – the most important part of a woman AND a turkey.

Of course, the emphasis on looks is something that I often disparage about “women’s” magazines, and obviously consider to be dangerous and harmful. However. This turkey ad is mocking these headlines not because they are offensive or denigrating to women, which they are – they are mocking them simply because they are female, because they have taken the spotlight as the primary female concerns of our culture, and the ad gets to make it look like women are both ridiculous for buying into these themes, while also promoting them by creating an object of appeal based on these themes. It’s as though they’re saying “women are so silly for promoting themselves sexually, for focusing on hotness and perkiness and the need to appear deliciously irresistible” while also saying “look at how hot and sexy and perky this lady turkey is – so hot and sexy and perky that she’s simply irresistible.”

Generally, we separate the meat we’re eating from its former ‘self’, the animal, otherwise there would be more difficulty in consuming meat with such regularity and frequency. Interestingly, when the meat anthropomorphized into the form of a woman, it remains marketable – women are routinely objectified, and also are separated from their self and human identity in doing so. Combining two beings, a turkey and a woman, that are both customarily presented as being without a meaningful character and for the viewer or eater’s pleasure, makes this card seem totally acceptable for raking in some holiday profits (apparently).

If you’re interested in reading more about the connection between the treatment of animals and feminism, and the real foundation for the point I just made, I recommend the work of Carol Adams. Her books, The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat are great works, and even if you aren’t interested in animal rights or vegetarianism and how one might relate them to feminism, the books do a great job of dissecting the overlap of social and political issues around the processing of meat for consumption, the treatment of women, and the advertising of both.

For real: Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you all have a great holiday!

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Filed under Advertising, Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Sexism

Thanks, KMart

…for making sure I didn’t actually take a few days off this holiday week!

What a charming little undergarment you were planning on selling to the masses this Black Friday:

Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald

Every 7 year-old girl needs a thong (like, I could end the sentence there!), an article of clothing designed for the sole purpose of sexually exciting others, that also broadcasts to the world that they’re diggin’ for gold before they’re even old enough to have a checking account of their own.

The perfect holiday gift for your first grader. The message that baring their buns will be rewarded with a wealthy partner. Cheers! And happy holidaze.

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Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Feminism, Sexism

Feminism in Zambia: Finding an Unexpected Champion

Our last guest post this month is by Stephanie Reinhardt. Stephanie is a Program Officer with Jhpiego and is currently working to support HIV/AIDS and maternal health programs in east and southern Africa. Growing up in San Francisco and joining forces with Larkin Callaghan at the age of 4 has left her overly opinionated and easily distracted by all the exciting things around her. Hey look – a baboon just walked by my office window! When she’s not bouncing around the globe, she’s very busy procrastinating.

Gabriel, a Zambian taxi driver who works outside an overpriced hotel in the capital Lusaka, drove me to a township on the outside of town last week. We started with the usual conversation.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I responded, “though I’m starting to feel like Zambia is my second home”.

I’ve been to Zambia six times in the past four years supporting public health programs run through Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins. After some discussion about various locations in the US he had learned about from other passengers, he jumped into his favorite story about American history to see if I knew it as well.

After slowing his taxi to traverse a particularly rough patch of potholes, Gabriel looks at me and said, “Well, you know about the Gremich sisters?” (Upon further research, I learned the correct spelling of Grimké sisters). I shook my head no, which gave Gabriel the green light to dive into his story:

“During the time of slavery in America (perhaps in California, or Texas or wherever), there were two sisters who wanted to put an end to slavery.”

I jumped in to briefly describe (with my best recollections from high school) the divisions between the north and the south that eventually led to the civil war, which I explained, for future reference was on the east coast of America, so I would guess that the Grimké sisters were probably from a state like New York. (Turns out they were from South Carolina, but later joined abolitionist circles in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.)

Gabriel gave me a polite nod, but the civil war was clearly not his target conversation. With the eagerness of a school kid sitting in the front row, he continued his story, which he credited to a book he had read called, No Fear of Trying. Gabriel’s eyes grew large as he told the story of these sisters’ amazing bravery to publicly speak out against slavery. He looked at me and repeatedly tapped the top of the steering wheel with his palm to emphasize the profundity of this story. “These were the first women to speak at a podium…to men. Women did not do that at that time.” He described the message of equality and freedom that they took all the way to the US government. “People thought that women should not give public speeches to men. Lots of people threatened them and told them to stop, but these women were so brave, ” he continued. I was nodding in agreement, but apparently not giving the reaction he wanted.  “Isn’t that amazing?” he exclaimed. “It’s great!” I responded.

Despite a few factual inaccuracies (that the Gimké sisters final speech ended slavey, and this all took place in the 1950s), Gabriel’s story is pretty spot on. The Grimké sisters grew up in South Carolina with all the advantages of a privileged class awaiting them.  Unlike many other northern born abolitionists, the Grimké sisters had seen slavery first hand and felt compelled to not only put an end to the practice, but to put an end to racial and gender discrimination – an idea radically progressive for their time. They promoted extremely advanced messages for both racial and gender equality. Angelina Grimké letters demanded “educational reform, equal wages and an end to other forms of discrimination against women.”

What fascinated me most about Gabriel’s story was not that I was previously unaware of this significant historical biography (I am never shocked by the amount of information I don’t know or frankly, don’t remember). Rather, I was completely taken aback by his emotional response to this story. He loved these women for their bravery to stand up to men and wanted to share it with anyone who got in his cab.

Zambia is not a country known for its progressive gender relations. Women unfortunately still live very much as the mercy of their husbands, cultural laws and the State. As explained in a 2002 OMCT report on violence against women in Zambia:

Women in Zambia currently face many obstacles to the realisation of their human rights including high rates of violence against women in the family, in the community and by the State, discrimination in the application of customary laws relating to family and inheritance rights, low levels of representation in political and other decision-making structures, a lack of access to education and employment opportunities, poor health care services and the limited availability of affordable contraception.

The 2007 Zambian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) included an assessment of women’s empowerment by asking questions on employment and decision-making.  While great variations exist with regard to education level and location, overall 37 percent of men think that decisions about how to spend the wife’s cash earnings (if she has employment outside of the home) should be made mainly by the husband.  These views extend to a woman’s body as well – 46 percent of men think that the husband alone should make the decision on the number of children to have.  Only 64.8 percent of currently married women responded that they are the primary decision makers or make joint decisions with their husbands regarding their own health care.

So, given this context, I was baffled. I wondered if I had stumbled into the cab of an outspoken Zambian male feminist. As Gabriel’s taxi approached our destination, I probed him on his thoughts on women’s rights in Zambia. “Oh,” he responded, “we have learned a lot from Americans. Everyone is equal here.” Then he dropped the famous development buzz word “gender” and it was all over. “Yes, we have learned gender is important, so now we are all equal.” Ack.

I was hugely disappointed. My image of this Zambian male taxi driver in a superhero outfit championing women’s rights quickly vanished. I thanked him for the ride and started to get out of the car. As I was about to depart, he pulled out a small piece of paper and said, “You work in health? Can I ask you a question?” I nodded, and he continued: “My wife has decided that we should only have three kids, and so we want to stop now that we have three. Can you look at this list and tell me what you would recommend?” On the piece of paper was a list of family planning methods that they had received from their local clinic. I sat with him and explained the differences between some of the short term methods and the long term methods. I also described the vasectomy process should he be interested in the procedure. I explained that if his wife wants no more kids, a long term method, such as an IUD might be best, as it offers protection for 5-7 years. He smiled and responded, “Great, thank you. I will tell my wife this information and see what she wants to do.”

Maybe we have our champion after all.

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Filed under Feminism, Health Education, International, Public Health

Candace Bushnell: A Word.

A few months ago, I was hitting stride on a treadmill when I heard those pumped up intro beats, knowing what came next was “Camera One…Stand by Billy, Camera Two…Stand by, Kit.” Access Hollywood, providing me with a constant stream of fodder, was starting. Kit would be interviewing Candace Bushnell, well known as, obviously, the writer of Sex and the City. I had forgotten about this interview, which took place in April, until I heard a phrase yesterday that mimicked something Bushnell said on the show. In this interview, while describing her beloved characters, she said that Miranda “was, you know, this feminist, and had decided that she hated men…”

Whoa, whoa, whoa: Ok. Hold the phone. This woman created a global business empire based on the story of four women who, despite ostensibly having careers that allowed them to maintain very comfortable lives in the most expensive city in the U.S., seemed to spend precious little time doing things other than obsessing over the men, or potential men, in their lives. Should we give her props for her business acumen? I’m not sure, because I’m less certain it has to do with her business savvy as much as it has to do with capitalizing on women’s socialized insecurities by creating characters who are constantly in the pursuit of the elusive perfect partner, and riddled with anxiety about whether or not they’ll find him.

But this post isn’t about Sex and the City – it’s about what feminism actually means. Perhaps Bushnell misspoke; regardless, the idea that feminism means hating the XYs is still out there.

So, I feel an obligation here to clear some things up. Feminism does not mean hating men. Feminism advocates the equal opportunity, accessibility, treatment of and rights of men and women. Equal access to quality education. Equal pay for the same jobs, equal access to mentors of both sexes. The same consideration for jobs without being discounted out of fear that they may be too ‘emotional’ or because they may one day have children. Health care and insurance that doesn’t consider being a woman in and of itself to be a pre-existing condition. The respect and assurance that women who decide they cannot carry a baby to term have legitimate reasons for making this decision and did not come to the conclusion lightly. It’s about being judged for your competency and skill set and not for the size of your breasts or the size of your waist or the symmetry of your face. It’s about understanding the importance of positively brilliant, incisive female leaders to inspire young girls the same way brilliant, incisive male leaders inspire young boys – and how each gender can inspire and educate children of opposite genders, and that it is important to do so.

Most importantly, feminism is about eliminating gender stereotypes for both men and women – ensuring that both sexes are not limited by archaic expectations to which their biology previously would have held them predisposed, and encouraging the individuality that flourished regardless of their reproductive organs. It was about not assigning specific behaviors to people based on these organs, and instead proclaiming that while differences in that regard allow us to procreate, they are not responsible for determining or limiting our capabilities. That’s what feminism has always been, first, second, or third wave; despite many attempts that have been made to brand it otherwise. Not all feminists are women – plenty of men are, too. Breaking down the gender stereotypes that have penned in both sexes for decades is important for everyone. The historical patriarchy created a supposed male ideal that was painfully constricting and costly for men as well, forcing them into binding roles of hyper-masculinity that emphasized sexual, financial, political, and social power positions – roles that shouldn’t be monopolized by a gender for moral and practical reasons. I can be a feminist and have what are deemed “feminine” characteristics. But as a feminist, I also think that a man can have “feminine” characteristics. I can also be a feminist and have “masculine” characteristics. What’s important is that characteristics don’t need to be coded as exclusively feminine or exclusively masculine, that they don’t need to dictate people to act accordingly, and that the characteristics or behaviors don’t exist for the purpose of ostensibly “improving” one’s natural self. It’s about not defining oneself in relation to another, but in relation to oneself. Not about figuring out how you should present yourself to a potential partner based on their ideals, but about teaching everyone the importance  of breaking down ideals that were constructed based on assumptions of what each sex should represent. The point of feminism was to point out that objectification negated the true personhood of women, reduced them to commodities of pleasure while not acknowledging and celebrating their self, identity, what made them an individual, what made them unique, what them capable and brilliant. And that equality didn’t mean reducing men to that objectification as well or instead, but rather meant raising the bar of expectation and respect for women. Not hating men. Feminism is for everyone!

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

Don’t Pull Me Into Your Crazy

I occasionally (absurdly) wonder if I will run out of things to write about on this blog. And then, I walk out my front door and New York City is able to assuage those concerns by presenting me with something like this:

Courtesy of NBC

Oh, Whitney Cummings. Your brand of comedy has never really been my style (to each her own), but don’t try to drag me into your twisted, coded, gendered division of communication styling.

Many women I know are ninjas in the sense that they juggle multiple responsibilities at work and home – many men as well – successfully and admirably. But by claiming that half the population lacks the communication and conversation skills to express their anger and frustration and instead chooses to plaintively claim calmness while plotting a violent attack against their partner as opposed to saying “actually, I’m not fine, we need to chat about something,” really seems to hammer home that stereotype of women being unpredictable shrill harpies who have no control over their emotions. I smell a setup.

I know this is an ad for her comedy show, but I actually don’t think she’s joking and that’s why I’m a bit troubled. First off, I’m not someone who thinks that just because a woman tells a sexist joke it automatically isn’t actually sexist. I see women who promote negative associations of women, even in what is presented as a comic format, more as trying to utilize and manipulate a standard-fare misogynistic framework – one that’s already firmly in place and is pretty hard to change thanks to years of socialization – for their benefit. Slamming their gender seems like a crass way to get ahead. Not to mention it’s totally unwarranted. Why not challenge these claims with humor instead?

Making jokes about women’s supposedly untameable roller-coaster emotional lives is nothing new – comedians have been doing it for years. But what’s interesting to look at is how these jokes are then translated into real criticism of women – particularly ambitious women. Look at Hillary Clinton. Throughout the course of her campaign for Presidency, she was lambasted constantly for being “too emotional” or not emotional enough, supposedly indicating an inability to not be swayed by a hormonal response or showing a disconnect from the people. These claims were used to call into question her ability to lead the country. These irrelevant and sexist charged assessments and provocations, remarkably, took center stage of her coverage and entirely overlooked her phenomenal qualifications and understanding of both domestic and foreign policy. Even after being appointed to a position of such eminence as Secretary of State, some critics just can’t stop. The photo of the Cabinet in the Situation Room during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound was seen as another snapshot of Clinton supposedly having an emotional reaction to a situation that the men ostensibly handled “stoically.”

I’m inclined, because of this, to not so much see the ‘Whitney’ ads as funny or new but as pulling out some tired insults used against women and packaging them as funny and new because a woman herself is making the jab. Whitney’s presentation as one of the gang, going in on the old-boy jokes, actually makes it seem as though these old stereotypes are nothing, that they don’t really mean anything, that women agree we’re so hard to get along with, and unpredictable, and might burst into tears or bite your head off at any given moment! When in fact we know that isn’t the case, and that these adjectives and descriptions have and can cause women to be seen as inferior, less capable, and unable to manage. Reiterating them in a comedic setup doesn’t actually challenge but reinforces them. Perhaps her show will be different than what the ad suggests, only time will tell. I’m sure good comedians can find other things to joke about than women’s emotional lives.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism