Gender Grinch

I’m writing this week about a gender problem that becomes particularly acute during holiday seasons.  As I write this, I recognize the socioeconomic privilege inherent in complaining about holidays.  The problem is that women still do way more of all the work it takes to run a household than do men, and this has profound consequences in terms of fairness, physical and mental health, and the messages we are sending to the next generation about who does what and why.  This interview with feminist Silvia Federici speaks more profoundly to the question of women’s unpaid work, as does this post from the Gender Shrapnel blog.  This week’s post, though, is a little more superficial in its privileged grinchiness.  (We just re-watched “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” and it turns out the Grinch is 53 years old.  I do think this age, especially in the era of trumpocracy, might dictate some Grinch-like feelings.)

Have you ever been at a dinner party and watched all the women do the dishes?  Have you ever been at a dinner party and been one of the people doing all the dishes?  These two questions often (not always) cut along gender lines.  We’ve inherited some of those old gender scripts that tell us that the women do the housework while the men smoke cigars and solve the important problems of the world.  This scenario is a little exaggerated at this point, but I have watched a lot of people replay these roles time and again.  You might say, well, the man cooked the dinner, so the woman should do the dishes.  Quite right, but what was the woman doing while dinner was being cooked?  That work—salaried work outside of the home, and/or grocery shopping, taking care of the children, feeding them dinner, cleaning the bathrooms before the guests arrive—is often more hidden and less glorious than cooking dinner, and so women and men end up thinking that women “owe” more work.  Then many of the women at the dinner party see the woman host doing all the dishes, and they feel obliged (whether they admit this or not) to help.  Sure, we can couch this in terms of extra time to chat and catch up, but it is actually extra labor.

I’ve spent the past eight or so weeks doing holiday preparations for my family.  We are atheists but come from families who celebrate Christmas.  These are big families whom we really like to see.  Nevertheless, the Christmas wrappings and trappings obligate us in many ways—gift-giving, thanksgiving, visits, trees, lists, wrapping paper and bows, lunches and dinners.  I like the gatherings of friends and family, but I want out of the insane list-making, gift preparation, and gift-giving.  This year’s presidential election has further shifted my priorities.  I am spending more money donating to organizations I believe in and more time trying to be a responsible, activist citizen.  And this is on top of the “day job.”  It’s also on top of the regular running-around family stuff I do, like making doctors’ appointments for the kids and getting them to them, taking care of birthday celebrations, finding clothes in their sizes, helping with homework, ferrying children around, etc.  These are chores and responsibilities of parents and guardians, and I am not complaining about them.  I do these regular, run-of-the-mill chores pretty much happily.

But I want out of the crazy holiday-making in part because we are four people in my little family, and one of those four people executes 99.5% of the holiday preparations.  I’m guessing the same is true in many families across the globe, no matter the traditions and the preparations the traditions seem to demand.  In my case, these preparations include:  making travel plans to see the families; calling family members and creating the specific itinerary; making sure all family members are taken care of; arranging for the pets; buying (I do not want to admit how many) gifts, purchasing tins, wrapping paper, tape, tags, and bows, plus baking supplies; wrapping the (I do not want to admit how many) gifts, boxing the (I do not want to admit how many) gifts, returning the gifts that ended up sucking; baking; delivering the baked goods; creating and sending out a new year’s card; and trying to freaking enjoy the holidays.  This is all on top of my normal job, which is also, well, demanding.

I do want to add that my 99.5% contribution to holiday preparations is definitely enriched by my partner’s being a jolly person and accomplished mixmaster.

Not only is there pressure—from society, media, families, self—for us women to take care of these niceties, but there is also pressure for us to do so with a cheerful smile and maybe even a perky holiday apron on.  We’re not supposed to complain that we are sick of spending money we don’t have, of shopping and wrapping.  We can’t admit that our back hurts, that we need to sit quietly and just look at the tree we spent a while decorating.  Our kids aren’t to catch a whiff of our disenchantment because everybody is supposed to believe that this is our natural role, that we were born to play it, and that we love every second of it.  We are Mrs. Claus and all the little elves, and no one likes a skinny Santa (or something like that).  And we have to make sure not to mention any writing deadlines, or other work, we have.  That is not Christmas-y or sexy or motherly.  We’re supposed to get our Christmas on and make sure everyone else does, too.  And we’d better believe it will be our fault when someone doesn’t like the gift we bought.

I always wonder especially how otherwise feminist women and men allow women to do all of this work.  Why doesn’t one person step back and the other step up?  Why do we accept and repeat this extremely unequal distribution of unpaid work?  We could eliminate some of the ridiculous chores and then create an explicit plan to share the rest—50/50.  This would give women more time to devote to their paid jobs, if they have them, mental and physical health, and other creative or just enjoyable endeavors.

Nothing like moving towards equality to allow us all to whistle while we work—and don’t.

Sporting Fellows

November 4, 2016: “Harvard Men’s Soccer Team is Sidelined for Vulgar ‘Scouting Report’” (The New York Times)

November 14, 2016: “Columbia Suspends Wrestling Season Over Lewd and Racist Text Messages”  (The New York Times)

December 13, 2016: “’We are the Sport of Jackie Robinson, and We Need to Lead by Example”  (The New York Times)

December 16, 2016: “Princeton Suspends Men’s Swim Team Over ‘Misogynistic and Racist’ Email”  (The Chronicle of Higher Education); (The New York Times piece on this [Dec. 15, 2016])


It’s the proverbial ninth inning, fourth quarter, heavyweight match, or 400-yard freestyle relay. That is to say, it’s pretty darned late in the game to take a stand—finally—on racist and sexist behaviors among our men’s sports teams.  But games are won and lost in final innings and quarters and such, and taking a stand, late or not, makes a difference.  To see administrators from Harvard, then Columbia and then Princeton, say “enough is enough” to their successful male athletes, no matter the negative press and potential alumni blowback, is rather heartening at this moment in higher education history, not to mention at this moment of dangerously runaway twitter accounts of presidents-elect.

The first reports out of Harvard about the men’s soccer team’s “scouting report” of the women’s soccer team included many of the sexist details of their “report.” It might be interesting to note, at least in terms of journalism ethics, that there were no specifics provided about the sexist and racist content of the Columbia wrestling team’s text messages or of the Princeton men’s swim team’s e-mails.  I don’t think any of us is so naïve that we can’t guess at or even write mock text for the information not shared because we have heard it well beyond the so-called “locker room talk” that extends to our streets, campuses, parties, workplaces, and traditional and social media outlets.

The article about Major League Baseball’s decision to crack down on hazing rituals that require rookies to dress like women (cheerleaders, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Gale, cast members from “A League of Their Own”) reveals the extent to which some players feel real affection or affinity for these rituals and others are quite ready to discard them. The fact that MLB has an “ambassador for inclusion” (Billy Bean) tells us something about this sport that, as The New York Times article title drives home, struggled to figure out how to welcome black players, tried to launch a women’s league, and has been graced by the incredible skills of many Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean players for many years.

Let’s break it down. Fraternal-style institutions, such as fraternities themselves, sports teams, and the military, have long-standing traditions that exploit the very bedrocks of what we in the gender biz call hegemonic masculinity—brotherhood, manhood, bonding, group affiliation, dominance, power, victory.  (In the MLB article, for example, Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson frowns upon these rituals, which he has observed both in baseball and in the Marines.)  This means that you have to submit to belong, and then you have to force others to submit in order to continue the traditions.  The belonging is based on being a man, which means very definitely not a woman.  In some cases, it means asserting and reinforcing the power of white men, which means very definitely not of black or Latino men.  “Being a man” really starts to feel like not being so many other things, which is never a healthy source for identity construction.

Colleges and universities, and the MLB, are full of young people who might still be immature and have some lessons to learn. These places, and these times in young people’s lives, are the right location for education and change.  We haven’t heard yet about women’s sports teams who have been shut down for racist or sexist behaviors.  This makes me think that our education efforts and expectations can rightly focus more on the men’s teams (and fraternities and armies, etc.).

These sports realms are often steeped in hypocrisy and contradiction. For example, the NCAA does remarkable, sometimes groundbreaking, work in the areas of diversity and inclusion.  Nevertheless, its member institutions still struggle with the culture of “boys will be boys” and girls will be mere objects.  Television contracts influence college sports in all the ways in which media influence us.  We see mostly male teams competing against male teams on television.  These male teams have teams of mostly-female cheerleaders, who follow almost laughably old-fashioned gender norms in dress and behavior (although I want to add that they also work many hours to increase strength and agility).  Frequent commercial breaks advertise to what the ad agencies must believe is an overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual audience as they show white guys all of the objects they can consume.  These objects include razors and shaving cream, beer, and women.  If you are not white, male, or heterosexual, or if you are those things but don’t appreciate this barrage of images, then it can actually be quite hard to watch sports that you otherwise used to enjoy playing and/or watching.

This constant appeal to heterosexual men through the objectification of women is a daily, pounding lesson for us all, one that is hard to undo but that we must teach ourselves to question more frequently and more astutely. Again, our presidential politics will require even more awareness and education, as the president-elect’s Secretary of Labor pick, Andy Pudzer, says of the ads for his fast-food restaurants:  “I like our ads.  I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis.  I think it’s very American” (quoted in this article from December 8, 2016).  “Very American”—for whom, Mr. Pudzer?  For which Americans?

I believe these hazing-style behaviors and media messages to be stepping stones towards more virulent and violent sexism and racism, and so we need to nip them in the bud.

Therefore, while it is heartening to see university administrations and Major League Baseball say that enough is enough, we need to educate more broadly and to younger groups, to continue to call out these damaging behaviors, and to ensure that there are real consequences for offenders. These small actions on behalf of some very visible institutions look like positive steps toward real change.

Zadie Smith’s “On Optimism and Despair”

Last week I wrote about George Will’s nostalgia for an education focused purely on founding fathers and supposedly enduring civil rights.  In the meantime, Zadie Smith’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Welt Literature Prize lends great nuance to these questions of tradition, politics, and civil rights.

Smith writes: “Meanwhile the dream of time travel—for new presidents, literary journalists, and writers alike—is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done—or more to the point, what would have been done to me—in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.

But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history. We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride. I took pride in my neighborhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possible—and is still experienced as possible by millions—is now denied as if it never did and never could exist.”

Smith’s speech examines the spaces between optimism and despair, especially in this post-election period.  Several weeks ago I wrote a poem in Spanish with one particular line that says, “¿Cómo sonreír un optimismo todavía no sentido?” (“How to smile an optimism not yet felt?”).  The question itself should reveal both despair (in Spanish, “desesperación”; the undoing of hope) and some distant certainty that smiles and optimism will—must—return.  I see in these emotional spaces the fraught question of civility, a code that tells us how to be good winners and losers, or who is supposed to be quiet now, or even who should timidly accept tyranny.  To paraphrase Smith, this code tells us to ignore the possible and deny that it ever existed.  Over this past month my mind and heart have walked these spaces of despair, with their craggy outcrops of impositions of civility, wondering not only how we as a nation can climb up and out, but also how we as individuals and small groups can do so.

A few weeks back another professor from my town and I sat together at a sports event.  I respect this person’s work and work ethic and was enjoying our conversation about rather mundane topics—sports, the weather, work responsibilities.  The conversation took a sudden turn when she commented that we probably shouldn’t talk politics.  We hadn’t been even close to talking politics, and so I was taken aback by this prophylactic measure.  I replied, “Sure, that’s fine,” and then my interlocutor proceeded to detail all the political reasons for which we shouldn’t discuss politics.  This seemed to me to be “talking politics,” and so I wondered if maybe just I wasn’t supposed to talk politics.  I listened, got quietly (but maybe noticeably) steamed, and then said, somewhat huffily, “I think you’re right; let’s not talk politics.”  At the next day’s sporting event, we did not speak.  Our exchange from the first day and the silence of the next day seemed awkward, maybe even shameful, somehow.  There was no meeting halfway, no optimism, just a barely polite exchange.

As I thought back on our conversation, I tried to figure out which elements of it contributed to the next day’s silence and came up with three (recognizing that the person with whom I was speaking would have her own reasons for this):  (1)  I sensed that my conversation partner had already prepared herself for an antagonistic conversation and would therefore find one, no matter how I participated; (2) I felt silenced by this code of “not talking politics” while actually talking politics; and (3) my conversation partner declared herself to be a “one-issue voter,” which also meant that little could be added to any debate that might have ensued.  These three issues will challenge many of us as we attempt to understand our friends, colleagues, and neighbors over the next few years, I believe.

Nicholas Kristof has talked about the University as a liberal “echo chamber” whose professors don’t know or talk to people who voted for Trump.  This has not been my experience at all.  Most professors I know have friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues who voted for Trump, and more than a few professors I know voted for Trump.  Most professors I know read voraciously and variously.  If there is an element of truth to the echo chamber thesis, though, might it not counterbalance the many professions and work contexts that are “conservative echo chambers” (e.g. the proposed cabinet of the president-elect)?

Two university professors, much of whose pedagogical work is guiding discussions, were unable to have this conversation two weeks after the election.  I see my own role in this as tinged with the despair mapped by Zadie Smith.  In a way, it feels like having a hopeful conversation about the future of the United States over the next four years (and well beyond, given where we’ll end up) at this moment is traitorous.  It gives the president-elect undeserved credit and support.  It makes me meek and says I won’t fight for what’s right.  What is the opposite of feeling optimistic or feeling hopeful in this political context?  I believe it is oppression, and oppression must challenge conversations based on being polite and “well-behaved.”

“Hysteria” in Higher Ed? I Don’t Buy It.

The title of George Will’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (11-18-2016) is “Higher education is awash with hysteria.  That might have helped elect Trump.”  Hmm, hyperbole (“awash with hysteria”) and baseless half-claims (“might have helped elect Trump”) have become the cornerstone of half-baked, fully baited journalism.  The charged word “hysteria” already imbues the title with a Fox-flavored misogyny that the rest of the piece bears out.  Will goes on to accuse higher education of “childishness and condescension” and links these behaviors to the election of Trump.

George Will takes issue with the safe spaces established on university campuses after the election, but he doesn’t deign to question exactly why safe spaces might be necessary.  If he were to read The Chronicle of Higher Education’s daily round-up of violent anti-black, anti-brown, anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, and anti-transgender incidents on our campuses or to follow the list of violent incidents recorded by the American Civil Liberties Union or the Southern Poverty Law Center, then maybe he would understand why many people who study and work at colleges and universities seek to protect (through safe spaces, staffed counseling offices, etc.) and to educate (a rich curriculum that doesn’t just teach about the wars of domination waged by white men of the Western hemisphere).  In this op-ed, Will also criticizes academics’ writing styles and course topics.

It is not time to feel sorry for racists, but it certainly is time to recognize the clear and present danger they represent (*See this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on white supremacist Richard Spencer’s “Danger Tour”.).  Recognizing this danger is not “hysterical,” but rather practical and humane.  Schools need to be a place where young children and young adults can feel safe.  What do we mean by “safe” or a “safe space?”  We mean that students and employees won’t be singled out for bullying or other forms of punishment for belonging, or just appearing to belong, to a specific category and that they’ll receive equal treatment in terms of resources, etc.  Basically, it means that schools will respect Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and Title IX (1972).  But it means more than that.  Schools are supposed to be places where critical thinking is taught—where we learn about, synthesize, and analyze the history, cultural legacies, politics, accomplishments, and challenges of the Earth and a variety of groups of people.  Students should understand the school and its people as a space of open inquiry and dialogue.  When schools close themselves off from such practices, they decrease our ability to learn, be open to others, and ask the big questions.  They increase the likelihood of real abuse.

I live in a small town visited somewhat often by an active group of white supremacists.  We have groups that counter the supremacy messages, but their presence doesn’t exactly allay the fear of oppression and violence evoked by traditional symbols of white supremacy.  The schools should be one of the places to work against these messages.  My husband has taught for many years at the public high school in our town.  This past summer, a week or two before the first day of school, he saw graffiti in the boys’/men’s bathroom etched onto the walls of the bathroom stall and the metal of the toilet-paper holder.  While the graffiti exhibited sexism, it also included the line “Whites only” and “Kill a ‘N-word’.”  When my husband alerted the administration, they agreed to take care of the problem, a problem my husband thought acute enough to require immediate action.  When nothing was done for days, my husband put tape over the stall door with a sign that said “out of order” (literally and figuratively, really).  The day before 9th-grade orientation, my husband went and bought sandpaper and sanded off the sexist and racist messages.  Mr. Will, is it coddling to ensure that students of color not feel like the violence against black lives that they have seen repeatedly since Ferguson (and well before, of course, given our colonial legacies and mass incarceration) not be replicated in their own schools?

In just over a month, a group in my town will sponsor a parade for Martin Luther King Day.  The idea is to have different groups join in the parade to celebrate what they do (bands, sports teams, dance groups, knitting clubs) as the whole parade line celebrates the life and accomplishments of the United States’ nationally recognized civil rights leader.  Our city and county public schools do support our Christmas-themed holiday parade (remember the good ol’ separation of church and state?) but are not supporting the MLK (remember the federal holiday for this important figure’s January 15th birthday?) parade.  This is another instance in which the education system is sending implicit and explicit messages about what and who matters.

Let’s keep in mind that George Will has been working for Fox News since 2013.  When he gave the commencement address at Michigan State University in December, 2014, some students and audience members staged a protest, especially denouncing Will’s dismissal of the problem of sexual assault on United States campuses and his belief that those who report sexual assault enjoy “privilege” on campus.

It seems that George Will believes the only people who need to be “coddled” on the campuses of our schools are the ones who think like him—those who believe that race is invisible, those who think sexual assault doesn’t exist, those who seek curricula that focus only on the overly repeated narrative of the white male hero, and those who write in a hoity-toity way (e.g. “Institutions of supposedly higher education are awash with hysteria, authoritarianism, obscurantism, philistinism and charlatanry”) but criticize other academics for using the word “interrogated.”  The hypocrisy of it all is almost, but just not quite, hysterical.

Will is awash in his own privilege but cannot acknowledge it.  The Washington Post has employed this successful writer since 1974.  Might it be time to retire his jersey?