Being Able

“It’s always something with you,” a friend said to me in an off-handed manner.  On this particular occasion, I had cornea problems that made it difficult for me to see and to be in bright light.  I responded to the light-hearted comment with a heavy heart.  Is it always something with me?  Is it always something with everyone, because that’s life?  Or is “it’s always something with you” the very definition of chronic illness?  I concluded that the answer to all of these questions was “yes.”

I am not a scholar of disability studies, but I have read astutely argued articles in this field, and I recognize the ways in which ability/disability intersects with gender and others of the legally “protected categories.”  I have appreciated the op-ed series that The New York Times has done on ability studies and, in particular, this beautiful piece written by Washington and Lee graduate Pasquale Toscano (6-14-17).  Toscano talks of the accident that changed his physical capacities and of the deep thinking he practiced afterwards.  He writes: “I also began to consider how best to convey the epistemologically enriching experience that learning to live with a disability can be. I discovered the work of people like the scholar David Bolt, whose article on “positive stereotyping” left a lasting impression. He argues that depicting disability as the source of supernatural capabilities troublingly obfuscates the accomplishments of impaired individuals who must navigate stressors and barriers unknown to others.”  I could not agree more.  When people ask you how you’re doing, they want to hear that you’re doing well, and you want actually to be doing well.  Feeling well and strong in mind, body, and spirit makes us quite fortunate.  Nevertheless, there is a wellness pressure, linked to United States culture of 24/7 happiness, that makes it difficult to have a tough day and to admit you’re having a tough day.  No one is supposed to be a “Debbie downer.”  If you admit that something is off, then you’re supposed to follow up with the narrative of overcoming; you have overcome the obstacles, vanquished them, and now you’re back to your happy, active self.  When this is true, great.  But sustaining a wellness narrative can also mask more profound issues of access and mobility.

My mother had a heart attack in 2009.  Both her parents had died of heart attacks, back when they seemed to happen like a lightning strike, from life to death in a flash.  Medical science and my mother’s physical and mental strength formed a dyad of recovery in a new age, and my mother lived quite well and continued to work full-time until she had a stroke in 2014.  The stroke took more of a toll, required longer-term physical, occupational, and speech therapy, and demanded a higher level of care and vigilance.  At some point, I started to notice more of what my mother couldn’t do, rather than marveling at the many things she still could do.  It wasn’t until this last stretch of illness that I learned how well she had navigated those barriers and stressors that Toscano mentions.  I started to think of my mother not as sick or disabled, but quite able to do the most with the faculties she had.

Although my chronic illness (primarily rheumatoid arthritis, with some complications tossed in) is different from heart disease, it does require that I navigate the world differently than I used to.  (A friend of mine in her 60’s remarked that we need to find a new form of exercise with each new decade.  I think she’s right.) For 25 years, I worked out most mornings at 5:30 or 6:00.  An arthritic body takes a while to unfold in the morning, to disarm the pain, to wake up and stretch out.  Therefore, mornings now demand a gentler approach—a slow rising from bed, a hot shower, and, if I’m lucky, 20 minutes of qigong movement and meditation.  This departs dramatically from the 2000 yards I used to swim or miles I used to run.  It feels like failure, and yet should be interpreted as an “accomplishment of an impaired person,” as Toscano poignantly declares.  Medications have side effects, too, and so traversing illness also means weighing the benefits and drawbacks of certain medications and then managing the new side effects.  I was on prednisone for seven months last year and gained 15 pounds.  This was (and is) not good for a person interested in staying in motion and feeling healthy.  But the prednisone reduced arthritis pain and immobility and allowed me to get the disease under control.  My heavier frame must look like a lumbering failure, but, until I can manage it otherwise, I need to interpret it as a temporary requirement for chronic pain management.

Wheelchairs, orthotics, dark glasses, arm braces, and hearing aids now appear empowering to me, the very objects that help us to move through a world made for the ambulating, lifting, seeing, and hearing.  This useful piece from The New York Times (11-1-13) outlines the state of disability studies in the United States and reminds us that the increase in chronic illness and higher numbers of aged persons indicate that we should be talking about “the temporarily able-bodied,” that many of us will go through periods of being more and less “able.”

When we band together to demand equal rights, we are saying that the world is constructed in a certain way that is advantageous to some and disadvantageous to others, and that there are remedies available to limit the disadvantage.  The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 became the key to ensure equal access and opportunity for persons with disabilities. (At the same time, let us not forget that our current “president” has demonstrated his insensitivity towards persons who are differently abled, thus underscoring the need for awareness and protection of civil rights laws whose content and enforcement seem increasingly precarious.)  In an article published in 1991, one year after the passage of the ADA, Robert L. Burgford, Jr., writes: “Broadly worded statements outlawing discrimination were the optimal approach to statutory draftsmanship in light of the controversial nature of the civil rights acts passed in the 1960s and 1970s.  The drafters of these statutes needed to draft language that would be palatable to a majority of the members of Congress while having a meaningful impact in proscribing discriminatory actions.  More detailed standards regarding the application of nondiscrimination principles were left to be developed by regulatory agencies and court decisions” (26 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 413 [1991] “The Americans with Disabilities Act: Analysis and Implications of a Second-Generation Civil Rights Statute”).  Indeed, we often have to count on businesses and corporations “doing the right thing,” or interpreting these broadly-worded statutes in a generous fashion, for the proverbial playing field to be leveled.

We know from many sources (e.g. UC-Berkely HR website; High Speed Training site; numerous articles listed on Google Scholar) that offering equal employment protections is not a zero-sum game.  In other words, when we limit disadvantage, we do it to the benefit of all.  We make the world a kinder place that is more easily navigated by more people.

The Stifling Status Quo

Name some things you take for granted.  For example, if you’re speeding down the highway and are stopped by a police officer, are you sure you’ll just be asked about your speeding?  Are you certain you won’t experience violence at the traffic stop?  Are you sure you won’t be killed?  Do you feel like you can automatically trust the officer to assess the situation and have everyone’s best interests at heart?  Another example: Can you walk down the street without someone yelling something about your body?  Can you walk down the street and not have to wonder if you or your children are safe?  Can you walk down the street and hold hands with whomever you like? A more minor example: If you’re in a meeting at work and you make an informed recommendation, are you sure you’ll get credit for it?  Will you be considered astute or arrogant to have made the suggestion?  Will anyone else make the suggestion after you and then get credit for it?  Another one:  If you bring up race or gender shrapnel, will you be perceived as overly dramatic or overly sensitive?  Do you even need to bring up race or gender shrapnel just to make it to the next day or moment?

If you don’t have to be wary of any of the situations listed above, from the most threatening to the least, you are pretty damned lucky.  You don’t ever have to think twice.  You walk through life feeling comfortable all the time.  Your presence is considered “normal.” You live what you think is everyone’s status quo because you have experienced this comfortable-all-the-time feeling every day of your life.  This is profound privilege, a word whose semantic weight matters now more than ever.  The privilege might come from your being white or being perceived as white.  It might come from your being a man or being perceived to be a man.  It might come from the perception that you are heterosexual.  It might come from perceived wealth or from physical stature.

You have the privilege of being annoyed by other people who call your attention to privilege.  You think other people are doing this all the time, but, really, other people are doing this about 1/16 of the time they could be doing it, up from 1/2000 from decades ago.  You think other people need to just get over themselves, that things can’t be that bad, that it’s impolite or uncivil to throw things like race, gender, and sexual orientation in your face.

The government and media messages after 9/11 made it difficult (unpatriotic) to criticize war and impossible to criticize soldiers (“I’m against the war, not the soldiers.”). The lives of black women and men are endangered in our public spheres, but somehow any critique of the situation or visible protest is turned into an anti-police or anti-blue lives message.  Those who are oppressed continue to be the ones who must seek remedies, rather than having all of us recognize and rectify wrongs.  The embrace of the status quo and the fear of loss of privilege convert legitimate, significant protests into marginalized complaints of marginalized peoples.  They reinforce our systems of oppression and ignore data, critical thinking, and a clear and consistent need for change.

Everything I’ve said here is obvious to many people I know.  Critical race theorists and gender studies experts have done excellent work on perceptions of the status quo and maintenance of privilege.  Critical Race Theory for years has made clear that the law, based on precedents handed down from case to case over centuries, bears its own biases and delivers its own blunt reinforcement of the status quo.  When my husband and I bought a house in a predominantly white and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood, on settlement day we were struck by two old-time elements of status quo.  The first was receiving the deed to our new house.  The deed stated, in no uncertain terms, that the house could not be sold to anyone not of the Caucasian race.  We were undone by this and could not sign the deed to the house.  We then had to consult with a lawyer, who said it would take tens of thousands of dollars to dig back through all the deeds and change the record.  We finally settled on drafting a new document that would always accompany the deed to undo the status quo that others had just left there.  This cost us extra money and time—just to undo a racist status quo of decades (maybe centuries, for the neighborhood in general).  The second was needing to pick up the mortgage check from my employer (from whom we had the good fortune of receiving a mortgage benefit).  The check was made out to my husband, who was not and is not an employee of the institution.  For all the paperwork and tax documentation to work out correctly, the check needed to be made out to an actual employee of the institution, who happened to be a woman married to a man.  We were delayed again in changing the institution’s understanding of status quo (the money goes to the man, even if his name is different from the actual employee who is to receive the benefit).

This is why I roll my eyes when I’m told that not everything is about race or gender (right—it isn’t if you have the luxury of not having to think about it), when I’m told that this pope is wonderful, even though he won’t even begin to address the question of women in church leadership, when Wimbledon finally pays women and men equally, but still gives men carte blanche to Centre Court, and when we’re told that only Fox News can take down the “president” (7-5-17 The New York Times op-ed).

The status quo is a lumbering tank, a heavy wagon, a toppled scale of justice.

For some of you, it is just the air you breathe and the water you swim in.

P.S. My daughter points out that, if “High School Musical” can question the status quo, then we all can!

Flags and Firecrackers

Here in my parents’ neighborhood, United States flags wave many days of the year, not just on Memorial Day, Flag Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Veterans’ Day, but more days of the year than not.  The flags fly from flagpoles at stores and on houses, and they’re also optimistically poked into the ground at what seems like every turn.  They signal a certain kind of patriotism, glowing with the certainty of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and crackling with a blithe ignorance about how many people over the centuries have been prohibited from exercising that very right.  It is worth listening to James Earl Jones read Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July speech, in which Douglass stated: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.”

The evolution of the symbolism of the U.S. flag reveals a reflexive patriotism that, as Lindy West so eloquently addresses in this The New York Times opinion piece (7-1-17), promotes freedom of expression for some, but certainly not for all.  In fact, West makes clear that those most fervently promoting freedom of expression are often the ones threatening (or in fact using) violence to silence others.  This post takes a look at United States culture and critiques how we let leaders choose themselves.

I am reminded of the Colin Kaepernick protest against the national anthem (“…gave proof, through the night, that our flag was still there…”).  It opened up a real conversation about what the flag means and for whom.  A quick search of Kaepernick news links reveals the degree to which some news outlets wanted to declare Kaepernick’s protest (and the player himself) a failure (e.g. New York Daily News; National Review; Chicago Tribune). I am reminded, too, of writing with a colleague about sexual assault and Title IX protections and then receiving a voice mail telling us “little ladies” to shut the hell up and what would happen if we didn’t.  Nevertheless, the kind of protest that opens up conversation about equal rights for all matters now more than ever.  Real patriotism might even have us agree that solid educational foundation, critical thinking skills, and welcome debate are the way forward.  History gives us many examples of the dangers of blind patriotism.

Today is the 4th of July and so I’m thinking about fraught founding fathers, fireworks, and the fine mess our nation is in.  I think about our nation’s leader running the government as if we were all contestants on “Survivor” or “The Apprentice” and as if North Korea were simply a little plastic piece on a Monopoly, Risk, or Stratego board.  Our “leader” is self-appointed and self-anointed, propped up by foreign dictatorships and a political party full of opportunistic, spineless slime. I know I’m supposed to use other rhetoric, and in many other posts I have been more measured and patient, but I don’t know how else to say that we have already put up with far too much from our current “leader.” In addition to the race and immigrant rights issues I have addressed in other posts, I will add here that the current leader’s Commerce Department has removed gender and sexual identity from their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement.  His Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights closed a Title IX investigation at Liberty University and then confirmed that Liberty University President Jerry L. Falwell, Jr., “would be a part of a task force …that will look at possible changes in higher-education regulations.”  This United States “leader” is moving us alarmingly backwards, and we’re letting him.

Over two decades ago, a man about five years my junior declared to me that he wanted to “become a leader in education administration.”  I raised my eyes slightly, struck by the person’s youth, self-confidence, and stark articulation of such a goal.  The man was Quaker, and his assertion broke a certain stereotype I had about collective and consensus-oriented forms of leadership in the Quaker tradition.  My instinct back then (and maybe a little bit now) was to distrust self-declared leaders.  It was a weird catechism–“And God said, ‘Let there be leaders in education administration,’ and there were leaders in education administration.”  Back then, I thought of leaders as people who just shut up about leading and led.  They got the job done, consistently well, and, in so doing, led the way.  They didn’t brag, didn’t claim positions that weren’t yet theirs, and didn’t establish unjust labor hierarchies.  They were in the trenches, understanding what that kind of work is, and appreciating it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in naming people to posts and having them do administrative or managerial jobs; it was just that I found it odd when the people themselves named themselves to those posts.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what a luxury it is for some both to view themselves as natural leaders and to be able to declare themselves such.  The young man with whom I had spoken was indeed a competent teacher and solid person, and so maybe his direction and ambition ensured that he would realize his ambition, and maybe (I don’t know) he became an outstanding leader in education administration.  (See this 6-24-17 The New York Times opinion piece to see more about gender and how it can affect our understanding of being right.)

Frank Bruni says of Trump and Christie: “Bold nonconformity can be the self-indulgent egotist’s drag” (The New York Times, 7-5-17).

Even the razor ad that serves as the thumbnail image on this blog post shows who the (self-)anointed ones were (in the portraits on the wall), are (the white man coming to bestow the new job on one candidate), and are about to be (the shaven-head white man who knows he’s the chosen one).  Our media are clearly not being very bold or innovative in their concept of leadership.

Two decades after my conversation with that young man, I am finally accustomed to the term ‘leader’ and to the existence of ‘leadership studies,’ primarily because both came into vogue in the early aughts and because I work in higher education (and because I just live in this world).  Is it not the case that, the more leaders we have, the more followers we need?  Do people need to learn to follow and to discern the moments when it’s best not to follow to be successful leaders?  Is there still merit to working the way up the ladder?  Can we even conceive of different metaphors for the workplace that aren’t so baldly vertical?  Can we set the ladder on its side and work left to right or right to left?  In this interview, Spanish graphic artist, writer, and cultural critic Miguel Brieva tells of his new book, La gran aventura humana, in which he underscores the concept of “the individualism of the masses,” a narcissistic banalization of our ambitions and behaviors, stemming in part from the lack of creative education in our schools.  Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century essay on United States democracy warns of such an end for a culture so focused on the individual and, as stated in this internet summary, so ironically freedom-loving while still waging genocide against Native Americans and enslaving human beings.

One of the themes I write about in Gender Shrapnel in the Workplace is the need for stronger leaders who are honest and generous, but Brieva’s work makes clear that “creative” should be on this list.  We need a new kind of leader in all realms—the arts, business, education, government, labor unions, law, medicine, politics, sports.  Honesty in leadership means setting an example of how you want the work to get done.  Honest leaders do not surrender to superficial branding (as we have seen at the national level and in so many of our colleges and universities), and they do acknowledge their own and the institution’s strengths and weaknesses.  Leaders who share institutional shortcomings and a plan to address them show they’re not afraid of a challenge, and they’re not afraid of the truth. They understand when others’ experiences and talents supersede their own. Generous leaders understand backgrounds and points beyond their own.  They open up opportunities to a greater cross-section of the workforce, share credit for good work, and recognize mistakes and apologize for them.  Creative leaders generate networks of people who discuss vision, collaborate, and think more concretely about the common good.  And they turn the ladders onto their sides.

Frederick Douglass concluded his 1852 Independence Day address with these stirring words, which still speak to us today: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”  Perhaps what we need is not the flag , but the firecracker, from the top on down, from the bottom to the top, and from side to side.

Bill Cosby’s Case

(http://www.torontosun.com/2017/06/12/defendants-say-the-darndest-things)

A Philadelphia native, I was weaned on Fat Albert cartoons and grew up watching The Cosby Show.  Bill Cosby’s face called out from billboards lining the Schuylkill Expressway and announced the greatness and accessibility of Temple University.  Bill Cosby’s long and varied career made him a local and national legend.  I’ve read with interest the reception his work has received, especially from different individuals and communities of African-Americans in the United States.  Professor Mark Anthony Neal’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (6-17-17) provides ample cultural context for what Bill Cosby did and did not achieve in terms of cultural representation of family life and, specifically of black family life, in the United States.  Neal declared that Cosby became largely irrelevant once The Cosby Show concluded in 1992 and the concurrent Rodney King decision made even more visible the criminalization and unjust adjudication of black men.  In 2015, journalist Roxanne Jones stated that Bill Cosby had “betrayed black community”.  Journalist Denise Clay takes Cosby to task in this June 18, 2017, piece in Philadelphia Magazine.  In a recent NPR piece, journalist Gene Demby writes: “That’s why it’s worth noting how much the very real political position Cosby himself occupied — the kindly cultural ambassador of Negritude — has become if not entirely outmoded, then at least viewed far more skeptically.”

It is not mine to speak for, against, or in neutral terms about Bill Cosby’s interactions with definitions and interpretations of being black in the United States.  No doubt, he already was a controversial figure in this regard in the 1990’s, and his recent increased visibility has heightened the controversy.  While it is impossible and not desirable to remove the question of race from Bill Cosby’s case, I am going to focus more on the elements of the Cosby case that emerge from power, especially television star power, and decades of obscene privilege gone unchecked.  These alleged actions (and some admitted to in the 2005 deposition; quotes from it at this link) are not unlike the alleged violence perpetrated by the likes of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and other Fox News power players accused of rape, sexual assault, violence, and subsequent cover-up that occurred over decades. (*See this related Gender Shrapnel Blog post from 9-19-16).  In fact, The New York Times’ and other newspapers’ editorial decisions to place much of the Cosby trial coverage in their “television” sections speak to the focus on entertainment and the media circus, rather than to the real-life possibility that a person seemed to have developed a pattern of administering powerful drugs to unwitting women and then doing to them whatever he pleased.  Editors of respected national dailies have made similar decisions with rape cases surrounding athletic superstars—placing the coverage of the case in the sports section, rather than in sections that typically cover criminal and civil lawsuits.  (*See this related Gender Shrapnel blog post from 1-2-17.)  The fame and fortune of these alleged criminals help their stories to be reported as more pulp fodder, more Kardashian-esque gossip, more sensationalized rise and fall, and less of an actual criminal case that reveals cruel and predatory patterns of the dehumanization of women over multiple decades.

When there is a single he said-she said account of a single incident, we experience great difficulty in believing the person who makes the accusation and finding against the accused.  This somewhat dated (2002) Department of Justice report, titled “Prosecutors’ Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases: A Multi-Site Study, Final Report,” reveals that decisions to charge sexual assault cases do still hinge on perceptions of the accused (more likely to be charged if the person is black) and of the accuser (more likely to succeed in going forward if the person fits the “ideal victim image”, i.e. “pure” or “innocent”), thus striking at the core of race and gender shrapnel.  This much more up-to-date 2016 report about prosecution of sexual assault cases in the District of Columbia demonstrates that police officers and prosecutors need better training on collection of evidence, language for interviewing people in sexual assault and rape cases, and shortened processing times and evaluation of so-called rape kits.  The system still favors letting sexual assault and rape cases go, appearing at least tacitly to reinforce that rape is just supposed to happen.  In this The New York Times piece from June 20, 2017, Susan Chira interviews Jeannie Suk Gersen, who says: “We chose to set up our system to be stacked in favor of the defendant in all cases,” she said. “So, in areas where most of the defendants are male, and most of the accusers are female, it’s a structural bias in favor of males. Even if we were to get rid of sexism, it would still be very hard to win these cases. I think this is what we have to live with on the criminal side, because we’ve made the calculation that this is the right balance of values.”

You would think, though, that if 50 or 60 people told their stories, each story with its own specific context and details, but each contributing to a composite indication of malicious intent to disable people and then to violate them, you might be able to believe the 50 or 60 people who were victims of a pattern of violence and privilege and to act on your belief that they are telling the truth.  The pattern was able to establish itself, in fact, because each of the victims over this long stretch believed it impossible to take on the legendary Bill Cosby.  A person rendered an object might believe herself less important and less able to tackle an enormously difficult task, that of confronting “America’s dad.”

Take a moment to review the accounts of the now 60 accusers (there were 50 back in 2015), outlined here by The Los Angeles Times (6-17-17).  The first woman on this long list must wonder if there would have been fewer (or no more) victims had she been able to go up against Cosby and his star power.  In Andrea Constand’s case against Bill Cosby, Cosby is reported (e.g. here) to have claimed to have given Constand an “herbal” pill and later to have told Constand and her mother that it was only Benadryl.  Lili Loofbourow in the same opinion piece from The Week, quotes Cosby’s version of the events: “’I don’t hear her say anything.  And I don’t feel her say anything,’ Cosby says of the sexual contact.  ‘So I continue, and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection.  I am not stopped.’”  What the hell?  You were never looking for either permission or rejection because you had drugged the person so that you could ensure her silence and temporary ignorance of her own situation.  Cosby here is trying to co-opt consent language to make the case seem more innocent, but instead confirms the worst—a decades-long pattern of administration of drugs, forceful incapacitation of women, and sexual assault and rape.

The power and privilege of Bill Cosby, television superstar and celebrated member of Temple University’s Board of Trustees, has protected him from the full freight of potential conviction and punishment.  Here I give two specific examples.  First, most individuals with multiple charges of sexual assault against them would quickly lose support from high-level institutions (although we have seen time and again that these individuals often do not lose the support of their wives and/or immediate family members).  Cosby’s 2005 statement about drugging women did not get him removed from Temple’s Board of Trustees.  It wasn’t until the multiple charges were issued ten years later that he “resigned” from the Board.  This 2015 Washington Post piece analyzes Temple’s troubled relationship with Cosby.  Cosby’s lawyer from 2015, Patrick J. O’Conner, is still the chair of Temple University’s board of trustees.  This must send a rather fraught message to the university community about Title IX protections, or lack thereof, for students, staff (of which Andrea Constand was a member back in 2004), and faculty in the university community.

The second example of Cosby’s astounding sense of privilege and protection is his plan to offer “a series of town hall meetings this summer to educate people, including young athletes and married men, on how to avoid accusations of sexual assault,” as reported here in a 6-22-17 piece from The New York Times.  (*See this related post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.) This plan absurdly ignores that the best way to avoid accusations of sexual assault is not to sexually assault.  This fake rehabilitative proposal is insulting, as is the statement by another Cosby employee that “anything at this point can be considered sexual assault” (same piece from The NYT).  As I write this, another Cosby spokesperson has announced that the time isn’t right for Cosby to undertake these town hall meetings.

This is a Trump world in which reality t.v. glitz and glamour override logic, decency, and even the law.

Women in the Resistance

(Sojourner Truth, Library of Congress image)

A friend of mine has expressed frustration that most people who “like” the Gender Shrapnel Blog posts on Facebook are women.  Another friend has counted up numbers of women and men at the many resistance events she has both organized and attended and has found that participants are at least 75% women (both cis and trans).  Another friend and I organized a workshop on women’s rights and gender justice.  Of the 166 people eligible to join the workshop, all of the ones who joined were women.  In my experience, working with women (cis, trans, African-American, Latina, white, living in poverty, and middle-class) on issues of gender justice is effective and rewarding.  At the same time, the roll-taking and roster-building become a frustrating exercise of organizing groups whose members are already fatigued from the daily struggle of losing lives, being threatened, earning less, and having less expected of them.  Sometimes, when the white men do get involved, they’re busy telling everyone else all the things they should have already done, or the ways they should have organized the group, or the strategic plan that should already have been put in place.  They tell you all of this, but then don’t roll up their sleeves to get any of the shit done.  This is tiresome, meddlesome, and ineffective.  We need both the less and the more powerful white men to step up and give a shit.

As more people absorb the realities of the loss of black lives and the lack of justice in the adjudication of these losses, more people understand that it is impossible for an oppressed group to effect change alone.  Nevertheless, in the seven months of active resistance I have practiced (and decades of academic-style resistance), I still don’t see enough cis, hetero, white men involved in social justice struggles. Oftentimes, too, resistance movements forget the embedded oppression of women within the movement itself.  When the Communists did their power play on the Socialists in the Spanish Civil War, they relegated the active fighting women to the gendered roles of nurses and cooks.  The patriarchal Communists decided that there should be second-class citizens, and woman was that name.

This interview by Kaavya Asoka with scholar and activist Marcia Chatelain points to the need across all movements, and specifically in the Black Lives Matter movement, to consider the experience of women.  Chatelain says: “I think any conversation about police brutality must include black women. Even if women are not the majority of the victims of homicide, the way they are profiled and targeted by police is incredibly gendered. There are now renewed conversations about how sexual violence and sexual intimidation are part of how black women experience racist policing. You don’t have to dig deep to see how police brutality is a women’s issue—whether it’s the terrifying way that Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw preyed on black women in low-income sections of the city, or the murder of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones inside her Detroit home. We know that girls and women of color are also dying. The question is: does anyone care?”

Ah, this poignant question—“Does anyone care?”—must be asked at every turn.  When we don’t ask, we don’t care, and women are forgotten.  I believe this has been the fundamental downfall of every justice movement, whether based on economy or social group or both.  I saw it in Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric, gestures, and actions.  The disastrous Democratic Party Unity Tour launched by Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders reinforced the ways in which women in the resistance are supposed to shut up about women’s rights.  I’ve seen it in local and state politicians who appeal to small groups of voters by assuming that women will sacrifice their own rights in the name of the Democratic party, or who assume that everyone in the room has experienced the life of the boy scout, just like they did.  They are perceptive on other social justice issues, just not the ones for and about women.

A coalition of amazing women, comprised of Linda Martín Alcoff, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, Nancy Fraser, Barbara Ransby, Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, Rasmea Yousef Odeh, and Angela Davis, composed an opinion piece about women’s resistance published in The Guardian in February (2-6-17).  In the piece, they state: “In embracing a feminism for the 99%, we take inspiration from the Argentinian coalition Ni Una Menos. Violence against women, as they define it, has many facets: it is domestic violence, but also the violence of the market, of debt, of capitalist property relations, and of the state; the violence of discriminatory policies against lesbian, trans and queer women; the violence of state criminalization of migratory movements; the violence of mass incarceration; and the institutional violence against women’s bodies through abortion bans and lack of access to free healthcare and free abortion.”  This platform sees women as part and parcel of the whole platform, not as an add-on to get votes and then not care. The Women’s March and the March 8th protests were worldwide and thus have signaled a generative force across the nations, a group of women and men who are willing to envision many types of equality that sometimes criss-cross and sometimes don’t.

(*See more coverage of International Women’s Day here and here. See also this interesting piece on Chinese-American women’s resistance from the 19th century and the ways in which women’s resistance is less visible than that of men.  This academic piece by Mary E. Triece provides a history of three centuries of resistance movements in the United States. It demonstrates the ways in which African-American men and women at times coincided with mostly middle- and upper-class white women’s movements and at times were marginalized from or necessarily separated themselves from such movements.  The piece is interesting and thorough and also addresses Latinx civil rights movements and environmental justice movements.  Sady Doyle’s April, 2017, piece in Talk Poverty provides statistics about women in the anti-Trump trenches in the United States.)

The activists who wrote the February piece for The Guardian have gracefully integrated the issues of the 99% with issues of women, who comprise a disproportionate number of the 99%, and even more disproportionate when you consider race or perception of race.  The less money you have, the less valuable your time appears to be, and the more people think your labor should be free.  Maybe that’s why black and brown women and men and white women do so much of the labor of resistance—a labor that is never-ending and is never remunerated.  We’re used to having to fight oppression and we’re used to doing it as part of the third or fourth segment of the work day.  Some Cuban women have called this “la tercera jornada” (third workday) because they hold a formal job in the labor sector, continue to do the work of the home, and complete the family’s required volunteer labor.

Here’s how to get involved when you’re not sure how:

  1. Just show up at a resistance event and look and listen. This is a solid start.
  2. Read up on the issues so that you can understand them from a variety of perspectives and speak about them in more fully representational ways. Ask questions of many people.
  3. Sign up to do a small task—invite a speaker, reserve a space, bring food, write a protest script, create a Facebook page.
  4. Support the people who are running events. Ask them how you can help.  Tell them you have 20 minutes a week (or an hour or five) to devote to this work.
  5. Have an opinion and express it well and often.
  6. Write to your representatives on a variety of issues. They don’t have to affect you personally.  They just have to matter to someone or to a group of someones.
  7. Understand different styles of leadership. Some leaders work from the trenches, and for free.
  8. Consider intersectional possibilities, realities, and challenges.

We’re in this for the long haul, so we may as well keep growing and moving.

Mi mamá me mima mucho

“Mi mamá me mima mucho”—a silly tongue twister that I use to have my students studying Spanish practice the five vowel sounds.  We practice it slowly, emphasizing the tight, precise pronunciation of the vowels; then we practice it with speed, attempting a fluidity we hope to capture over time.  We use this easy tongue twister at the beginning of class for the first week or so, and I tell the students that they can call me, stop by my office, or find me around campus to recite it perfectly for extra credit.  Like most tongue twisters, the emphasis is on the sound, not the meaning.  Nevertheless, the “my mother spoils/pampers me a lot” meaning of this tongue twister has kept entering my mind over the past few weeks.  While I am not entirely comfortable writing about my mother being sick or my feelings of gradual, and now imminent, loss, I also feel like I can’t write about anything else right now.  Not about terrible governance, unfettered violence, bad politics, or rife social injustice.  There will be no informative links today, no self-assured comments about everything I know I’m right about.  I mostly just need to keep raining, at least for a little while, even if this isn’t really the point of the Gender Shrapnel Blog.

Last week I dreamt of being chased by a large bear, whose cubs seemed underfoot the whole time I ran.  I ended up in a beautiful treehouse enclosed by glass, scrambling to an uppermost branch which appeared also to be a coffee table.  As I peered down from this perilously high perch, the cubs were playfully trying to join me, and the mother bear was nowhere in sight.  When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t shake the dream.  I kept mulling it over, ignoring the obvious signs of what the dream was trying to work out.  When I googled “dreaming of being chased by animals” and “dreams about bears,” the quick results managed to take me by surprise and bring a fresh well of tears to my eyes.  I was dreaming about my mother, worried about her cubs, one of which I was (or am).  I was dreaming about slow decline and hospice and loved ones and fear and loss.  I was dreaming about this end stage of life that is such a challenge for us and those around us.  I was dreaming about our perilous perches that barely hold us against the devastation and desperation of the biggest loss of our lives.  I suspect I was dreaming, too, about my own fear of death.

After I gathered myself and moved towards getting work done, images of the dream kept returning, and with them came some kind of odd release.  Suddenly I experienced memory after memory of my mother, who is still here with us, and I gloried in these memories.  My mother casing a thrift shop for great looks and bargains.  My mother as the matron of honor in her youngest sister’s wedding.  My mother with a knife in her hand, looking threatening as the dog took off with one of the 24 sandwiches made for that day’s lunches.  My mother pulling me into a hug after I had a tough day at school.  My mother dressing up for her first day back at work.  My mother in the laundry room on Fairhill Road, surrounded by racks of drying jock straps and baskets of freshly folded laundry.  My mother testing me on vocabulary words for school.  My mother’s ankles creaking as she walked up the steps to tell us all to get to bed, that she had had it.  My mother’s eyes narrowing dangerously as she heard someone mention “a dumb football player,” with her sharp words not far behind, wondering aloud why people don’t talk about dumb tuba players.  My mother going to Europe for the first time at the age of 70.  My mother at 72 climbing the Segovia tower and vowing to learn Spanish.  My mother serving another homemade birthday cake to another excited child.  My mother looking beautiful for a party.  My mother telling us we couldn’t watch t.v., and giving us a list of things we could do (“You may talk with your brothers and sisters.  You may do a puzzle.  You may bake a cake.  You may play a game.  You may knit a scarf.  You may read a book.  You may do an extra credit project for school.  But you may not watch t.v.”).  My mother giving my father a good morning kiss.  My mother saying that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all (we have had several debates about that one since).  My mother holding my husband’s and my firstborn and our second-born and helping us to figure out how to bathe them (we managed to forget in the time between their arrivals, but somehow she didn’t).  My mother creating a special jelly bean box for each of the 15 grandchildren and hiding the boxes just before the youngsters’ arrivals.  My mother laughing a big laugh, cracking a big joke, living a big life. The image of my mother from the time I met her when she was thirty to now, at 82, always small and beautiful and strong, always smart and funny and over-the-top kind, often stubborn as hell.  Thank goodness for that flood of memories, which carries more along with it.  Thank goodness for today’s new memories, too, and, well, thank goodness for my mother.

Isn’t it amazing to think about how one life touches so many others, not just in that one lifetime, but way beyond it?  I guess this is the theme of at least one-third of the literary canon.  In the last few weeks, I have shared stories with my mother (“Remember the time, Mom, when we hit a deer?”  “Remember when we went to see flamenco at midnight?”  “Remember when you and dad roadtripped with Pat’s parents to meet our son?” “Remember when I worked at the hospital with you and we drove that old bomber of a car every day?”). I’ve also shared stories about my mother.  I’ve had the pleasure of sharing memories and tears with some of my mother’s dearest friends, who are wondering about her and loving her as they approach the mourning process.  My brothers and sister and I have sat with our dad and told more stories, always with that multiperspectivist view—the cubist painting that is a family.

Of course, a life is the sum of these moments and of the unnarrated spaces between the moments.  How to tell the rest of the story about this beloved and loving person?  Well, it’s impossible.  The rest of the story resides in our laughter, tears, quivering hearts, and little personal memory boxes.

A month after a former colleague lost his mother, I asked him how he was doing.  He said, in his gentle, lilting, extrasyllabic Alabama accent, “Well, you know, it’s your mother.”  That about sums it up, doesn’t it?

One Administrative Assistant I Know and the Unrecognized Value of the Home and Office Resume

How many of you out there are or have been administrative assistants? How many of you work with an administrative assistant?  And how many think about the broad and deep work that administrative assistants do to keep organizations running?  Let’s face it, if an office lacks a capable office manager and/or administrative assistant, the office is not running well.  In this post, I address the role of the administrative assistant (AA), the preponderance of women in these roles, and the generally poor remuneration for and recognition of the importance of this job.  I also want to think about how many of the invisible tasks and responsibilities of the AA translate to other realms in which these jobs are undervalued.

When I was 10, my mother returned to work after having eight children in eight years and getting us all launched into school.  She became a part-time administrative assistant and had responsibilities in two different departments.  She soon moved to full-time work and from there became an “executive assistant.” Although I doubt my mother articulated this, I suspect her years raising children prepared her quite well for the spoken and unspoken tasks of the AA role.  She was expert at managing the lives of nine people.  This meant searching for and shopping for the best bargains at a discount bread store, a meat store, the regular supermarket, and even imperfect dough at a reduced price used for Friday night pizza. (I don’t remember my family ever having a pizza delivered until well into my college years.)  In office terms, she expertly operated the budget and did it better than most of us realized.

My mother was on top of nine schedules for nine very busy people at a time when there were no cell phones and when changes on the fly were difficult to effect.  She knew the logic of scheduling and the need to remind everyone to get us in the right directions.  She alone did the laundry of nine people and knew which uniforms for which events had to be ready on short notice for the next day.  My mother and father also parceled out the chores for all the children, which meant understanding how to do so equitably and efficiently.  My mother was already managing people—her own children’s work and her interactions with the doctor, dentist, teachers, band directors, and coaches of us all.  My mother was also a short- and long-order cook.  Her constant and varied grocery shops reflected the need to plan menus for a big group (again, on a tight budget).  Nine people multiplied by 21 meals a week for each equal 189 meals a week to be planned for, purchased, and prepared.  Two-thirds of those meals were prepared at 5:00 am, before the “official” work day began.

Imagine how easy going to the office must have seemed, compared to all the moving pieces at home.  I believe the underappreciated and usually unpaid (unless it’s outsourced, of course) labor of the home needs its own polished resume, one that reveals the high level of function and decision-making necessary and the great potential to move these skills from the home to the office workplace.  The updated resume should also make clear that these varied skills are essential in the office workplace and not always easy to come by.  Therefore, individuals who can claim these types of experience should be in improved positions to be hired and then to negotiate for higher and more appropriate salaries.

Administrative assistants’ jobs typically include managing the office’s operational budget, event planning, scheduling, communication (on an ever-increasing number of platforms), interactions with multiple people in the office and across the organization, planning meetings, tracking supplies, keeping records and reports, managing business travel, and responding to short- and long-term requests.  The personnel management piece must present deep challenges that many administrative assistants seem to overcome time and again with little fuss or fanfare.

According to this CNN article, as of 2011, 96% of administrative assistants and office managers were women.  (*See this link for more information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)  This convincing statistic means that the underpaid and undervalued work of the administrative assistant is by its very nature gendered.  Just as we are often unaware of what it takes to manage a home, we are also unaware of the broad and deep skills required to run an office or an organization.  Bleak statistics (e.g. from this 2015 US News report) on administrative assistant salaries confirm the ways in which we consistently undervalue this work.

Many of the skills and responsibilities I’ve listed above form a part of people’s workdays, no matter the profession.  As a teacher, adviser, committee chair, writer, and collaborator on research projects, I need and apply many of these skills every day.  The labor differential in my profession often falls along these same gender lines, as women pick up the invisible and undervalued chores of the workplace.  One male colleague labeled undesirable committee chair work as “mostly clerical, anyway.”  I translated this offhanded comment as: “I didn’t do the work because it’s beneath me”; “no one pays us for this work anyway”; “these skills are minor, so it doesn’t matter that I don’t have them”; “if I did have these skills, then of course the job would be important”; and “someone else will clean up this mess.”  He was right that we neither value nor compensate well the people—mostly women—who apply these skills in the home or formal workplace.