Gender-Based Violence (from Start to Finish)

(Cover of Edurne Portela’s 2017 novel, Mejor la ausencia)

I recently finished reading Edurne Portela’s gripping novel, Mejor la ausencia (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2017), which features a young protagonist, Amaia, whose life is marked by the violence present in 1980s and 90s Basque Spain and by the very real violence of the life inside her own home.  Amaia’s mother, grandmother, and three brothers constantly wonder if the father will come back into their lives at any moment, bringing with him a relentless brutality exercised upon his own family.  Five-year-old Amaia at the beginning of the novel takes refuge from her father’s violence, especially as manifested on her mother’s body, in her eldest brother Aníbal and her stuffed animal named Buni.  The surrender of Aníbal to heroin addiction and death, accompanied by Amaia’s frustrated destruction of Buni, demonstrates that the protagonist will have no people to count on and that, even as she develops into a strong young woman, she will surprise even herself with her own enactment of violence.

The title tells the reader that absence from “loved ones” can be safer and better than presence with them.  The violence that rips (not ripples) through the novel is mostly exercised by men—on other men in the spheres of politics and business, and on women in the domestic sphere.  In this sense, the novel communicates gender-based violence in its genesis (toxic masculinity) and its reception (men as business “partners”; women as domestic “partners”).  Amaia’s attack on her mother suggests that the protagonist scorns the weakness she perceives in her mother and that she has learned how to use the physicality of her own body to both defend and attack.  The novel moves quickly enough that the reader has to slow down to absorb how the protagonist has evolved according to the public and private contexts in which she lives.

While Portela’s El eco de los disparos (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2016) examines portrayals of late 20th-century Basque violence in literature and film, Mejor la ausencia offers a fictional first-person narration that drives home each of the astute observations of Portela’s abundant non-fiction corpus. I read the novel because its author is a friend and talented writer, not because I read violence well.  I finished the novel because Portela approached the topic in an honest, unflinching, compelling manner that made me grapple with the theme in bigger ways.

I have a privileged enough life that I can choose to protect myself from witnessing violence.  When I studied history as a child and young adult, I despised that it was basically always a history of violence of men against men, women, and individuals who did not identify as part of the gender binary.  History just seemed to move us from one war to the next, one aggression to the next, one genocide to the next, one dead person to the next. I strongly believed that we could unlearn this narration of violence and examine histories of peace, celebration of others’ accomplishments, and selfless leadership.  As an adult, I have had to temper this reticence in the face of harsh realities, but I have still consistently chosen in my private life not to watch television and film portrayals of violence, not to read works of fiction that celebrate violent modes, and not to allow my children to play violent video games.  (Full disclosure: I do teach an upper-level Spanish seminar course on the Spanish Civil War.  I get it.)  I know that I am naïve.  I have never been able to articulate clearly my lack of understanding of people’s desire to inflict violence on other people or animals.  I just don’t get it.  (Of course, I do understand how people can become violent and/or fans of violence.  As an adult, I just don’t get how all of this must feel.)

As I finished up Portela’s novel, I read these headlines in the Spanish newspaper El País: “Un hombre denunciado seis veces por maltratar a dos mujeres mata a su actual pareja” (“A Man Reported Six Times for Abuse of Two Women Kills His Current Partner”; 2-14-18),  “Cómo descubrir a un agresor reincidente” (“How to Uncover Recidivist Aggressors”; 2-14-18) and “Maltratadas mucho antes de cumplir los 18” (“Abused Long Before They Turn 18”; 2-18-18).  Despite all we know about gender-based discrimination and violence—via the international work done by  the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), now under the aegis of the United Nations, multiple police reports from country to country, data collection (e.g. in Spain and the United States), academic studies from a variety of disciplines—, newspaper headlines reveal that we still do not pay attention to all of the real acts and the warning signals that place people in danger.  We still seem to want to buy into the rhetoric of “he’s a good guy,” or “he’s a real professional,” or “it can’t be that bad.”  We know that ignoring early signs of violent tendencies is never good, and we do it all the time.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post about how violence is usually not hidden.)

This all brings me back to the man Donald Trump, Orrin Hatch, and a host of others protected through reports of gender-based violence, Rob Porter.  In this CNN piece (2-18-18), Orrin Hatch issues an apology to Porter’s two ex-wives for having jumped to Porter’s defense; Hatch is reported to have said, “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man.”  Even when Hatch walked back the defense and issued the apology, he had to maintain that his interactions with Porter were “professional” and “respectful.”  Hatch, CNN, and everyone else seem to forget that of course Porter knows to respect his higher-ups, who have infinitely more power than he does.  It is his treatment of those with less power than him that we have to worry about.  The fact that Hatch maintains, even in his apology, a half-defense of Porter as a good man tells us a lot about our boys-will-be-boys culture, our constant propping up of mediocre politicians and violent men, and our constant willingness to kind of, sort of not believe the victims.

Just as Edurne Portela reveals in Mejor la ausencia and in El eco de los disparos, the signs of violence are there, from start to finish, in public and in private.

Threats and Trolls

(President Troll’s tweet from February 10, 2018)

Almost two weeks ago (2-11-18), The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece titled “For Scholars of Women’s Studies, It’s Been a Dangerous Year.”  The article provides examples of increased criticism and threats issued to professors and scholars of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.  Middlebury College Professor Carly Thomsen appropriately responded to the criticism of all-activism, no-scholarship by saying: “It’s the issue of the relationship between theory and practice, between scholarship and activism.  The assumption that women’s studies equals a kind of uncritical support for contemporary movements is wrong.”  In fact, I would add that this area of study has examined contemporary realities and movements in profound and broad ways and has contributed to careful critical thinking on the operation of gender and its intersections in our world. I was wholly unsurprised by the content of the article, from reporting on the frequent undercutting of women’s studies as a viable field of study (those who launch the criticisms often have not actually read the syllabi to which they refer), to offering examples of derogatory language leveled at professors, to issuing actual threats of rape and death.

Professor Heidi Lockwood of Southern Connecticut State University is also quoted in the article.  She says, “If anything, controversies about feminism and movements like #metoo and the entertainment industry’s Time’s Up are precisely why women’s-studies programs are necessary, Rose said. “Now we are being looked to as programs and as scholars to have the conversations people haven’t had before,” she said. “We are the one program on campus that is equipped intellectually and politically to actually do and care for the kind of work that needs to be done.”  Lockwood rightly asserts the existence of and increased need for a critical apparatus on gender issues that addresses contemporary issues of gender, race, religion, and national origin.

Before I got the opportunity to share the article with colleagues, I was pleased to see that our dean had already shared it with the core and affiliate professors of our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program.  While the generalized notion and acceptance of threats against women is troubling in and of itself, at least we know people are recognizing the threats and understanding the need for increased awareness on campus.

The Gender Shrapnel Blog certainly makes me a more visible person in these realms.  What I most notice are the increased Facebook “friend” requests coming from men dressed in camouflage, often bearing arms, sometimes sharing photographs of barely-dressed young girls, and not infrequently giving loving cuddles to dogs and puppies.  While I always mark these daily requests as spam, I also always wonder why I am receiving them.  Is it the blog, my work on our WGSS Program, my scholarship, general hatred of women who speak?  Of course, it must be some twisted combination of all of the above, and I don’t usually give this more thought than what I’ve just done here.  At the same time, our current political regime protects Second Amendment rights over First Amendment rights and over protections offered by Titles VII and IX, and that’s enough to have anyone think twice about her public voice.  The Weinstein/Cosby/Trump era certainly drives home who has the power to assault and silence others.  (*See many Gender Shrapnel Blog posts that treat these issues more specifically.)

Several years ago, a colleague and I wrote a series of letters to then-Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell protesting the lack of awareness and action surrounding campus sexual assault.  We also wrote letters to the editor of Ms. Blog, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Wall Street Journal.  At the same time, we were writing protest poetry and one-act plays that demonstrated activism on Title IX and Title VII issues.  The result was a violent voice mail message that told “us little missies” what we could do with our activism.  The speaker made sure we knew that he knew where we lived and worked.  We reported the incident to our campus police and administrations and left it at that.

This trolling of us from years ago of course has been replicated in many contexts, in more dire circumstances for more visible people and more copiously through increased social media access.  Many famous women, including actor Leslie Jones and writer Mary Beard, have had to deal openly with the violent verbal attacks on their persons and beliefs and the very specific, gender-based threats made over and over again.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Mary Beard and this one that looks at “civility” in the case of Leslie Jones and others.)  These are threats not unlike what we have heard from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (who has ordered women rebels to be shot in the vagina) and United States President Donald Trump (who has openly and repeatedly trolled Rosie O’Donnell).  Of course, “trolled” ends up being too light a term, for it does not convey the intensely implied physical threat behind the tweets, soundbites, and mockeries, nor does it communicate often delusional sentiments and desires of the trolls.  For example, Glamour had to point out that Trump trolled the January 18, 2018, Women’s March by pretending that the anniversary march—an anniversary of the all-important, seven-continent Women’s March of 2017—was in celebration of his first year in office.

Don’t even get me started on the international, illegal, world-changing trolling of Hillary Clinton to promote fraud, ensure her election loss (despite the historic number of votes she won), and put President Troll, dangerous dupe, stupid stooge, and vulnerable villain of the Putin regime, into office.  Even the famously anti-Trump Washington Post recently called the trolling of Hillary Clinton “both comical and sinister”: “The indictments allege the Russians communicated with unwitting members of Trump’s campaign in local communities. They sought to organize rallies. They put out false information. They paid for a demonstrator ‘to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform’ and wired money to someone in the United States ‘to build a cage large enough to hold an actress portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.’ It is both comical and sinister.”  I actually would love to hear Washington Post Chief Correspondent and author of this article explain these comments without re-legitimizing the “Lock Her Up” trope that became so vicious and violent.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post and this one on this topic.)  Like so many others, Dan Balz succeeds in normalizing the supposed criminality of women who dare to step into the public arena.  There is nothing comical about this.

Guns

The United States loves its guns.  The country loves its guns so much that it is willing to sacrifice seven children and teens on an average day, 96 United States citizens a day, and 13,000 lives a year. (*See this Everytown site for more statistics, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  See this 2016 article from The New York Times.  See also this site for up-to-the-minute reporting on gun deaths in the U.S.).  The data tell us, too, that 50 women a month are shot to death by intimate partners and that black men are 13 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than white men.

Is gun violence a disease?  Which other organizations are tasked with stemming the tide of violent crime, and especially violent crime committed in our schools?  Why do we now think it is normal or acceptable for our children and their school teachers and staff to experience violence in schools and to have to prepare themselves for violence through repeated lockdown drills?  What the hell is wrong with us?  Why are we such cannibals? (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, especially Act 5, about the shame of it all.)

None of what I am writing today is news.  We all know it, and we all know it to be true.  We are catering every day to the hypermasculinist NRA lobby, which has infiltrated every level of government and affected the safety and/or sense of safety in every one of our schools.  We know it.

I was going to write this week’s post about gender-based violence on the national and international stages, and I still am.  This is because what is becoming a type of gun genocide in the United States stems from an ever-more-dangerous toxic masculinity fomented through our government representatives, television shows and movies, commercials, and video games.  This inculcation of violence influences mass shootings and supposedly behind-closed-doors incidents of domestic violence.  It tells men to reject all attributes and feelings coded as “feminine” and to embrace ultra-power and dominance.  (*See this 2013 summary of an article about print images in advertisements that promote hyper-masculinity.)  Time Magazine in 2014 reported that 98% of mass murderers are male, attributing the statistics to many phenomena along the age-old gender binary: cultivation of men as hunters and warriors; men’s protection of their status in a group; influence of violent media; etcetera.  It is no accident that we use the metaphor of “guns” for highly developed muscles.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) adds to this toxic mix by encouraging gun sales, discouraging anything that impedes gun sales, and thereby openly motivating gun violence.  I was reluctant to visit the NRA website and give it any more traffic than it already gets, but it behooves us to know what this billion-dollar lobbying organization is up to.  The website informs us that NRA-TV is alive and well, promoting television shows about guns and gun violence.  Trending on its blog right now is the proud announcement that the AR-15 is the most popular gun being sold right now.  Remember that this is the gun purchased and used to kill dozens of people in recent mass shootings in the United States.  The website also lets you know (to me, menacingly) that, “The NRA is closer than you think,” as it provides maps and directions to local stores and shooting ranges.  It features the story of an “armed citizen [who] protects his family,” making me wonder if the armed citizen’s children ever go to school and if they are protected there.  A photograph of two beautiful lions invites “American hunters” to shoot them.  And don’t miss the pitch to young people: “The NRA has been actively involved in promoting the shooting sports to youth since 1903. We wish to ensure the future of the shooting sports by providing proper tools and resources to America’s young people.”  In other words, “we hope to promote gun sales to kids as young as five or six who can accidentally shoot each other.  If they survive that, then they can shoot others when they get a little older.  Don’t miss out!”

I just visited the NRA online store and am feeling more than sick to my stomach.  It’s all about “protecting freedoms,” “not being tread on,” and weapons, weapons, weapons.  What is this war?  It is Wayne Lapierre’s fear of himself, of not being enough.  It is Wayne Lapierre’s followers agreeing that not being enough can be compensated by owning a gun.  It is the United States afraid to confront its own deeply-rooted, ever-growing pornographic affair with its guns.  You don’t have to be a literary critic to understand what the gun compensates for, and you don’t have to dig too deep to worry about how we cater to this.

Guns have no other purpose than to kill.  Let’s remember that.

OpenSecrets.org shares information about NRA contributions to candidates, elected officials, and party committees. (*Here are the statistics from 2016.)  As far as I can tell from the list, all of these candidates, government officials, and political parties are Republican.  Every last one.  This is not at all surprising, but it should allow us to become more draconian in our condemnation of the GOP.  For those of us living in Virginia, let’s remember that Ben Cline, who has declared his intention to run for Bob Goodlatte’s House of Representatives seat for the 6th District, has an A+ rating from the NRA.  Ben declares this proudly on his “pro-life” website.  (*See Gender Shrapnel Blog posts on Ben Cline here and here.)  As Voluble blogger Robin Alperstein has said, GOP candidates want to get re-elected and therefore respond to vociferous voters, many of whom promote the gun lobby.  The best way to defeat them is to increase contact with our representatives to encourage smart gun regulations.  Gabby Giffords’ Law Center is an excellent place to get information for this kind of massive effort, so necessary for 2018 midterm elections.

I promised I would talk about gender-based violence, and I already have, in part.  Gun violence is gender-based violence from the start.  Gun violence requires that we understand toxic masculinity and reverse it, just as it requires deep change in public policy surrounding the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. (*See related Gender Shrapnel blog posts here [free speech], here [Charlottesville], and here [stop-and-frisk].)

The GOP’s massive and perverse power has placed our own country at war with itself.  This civil war relates in no small part to our Groping Old President, whose decades-long anti-women actions and comments extend to his support for other violent misogynists who wield great power.  Let us not forget that the White House delayed a full week in condemning multiple reports of Rob Porter’s violent acts against not one, but two, wives.  (*See Dana Milbank’s take-down in The Washington Post of the all-too-conveniently evolving White House stance on domestic violence.)  The Groping Old President (assaulter-in-chief) also “boasts of a great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose most recent recommendation to shut down female rebels was to “shoot them in the vagina.”

State-imposed misogyny and state-indulged gun violence are not news.  None of this is.  We have got to get on this now, yesterday, 30 years ago.

Title IX Moments

At my university last week we celebrated the 45th anniversary of Title IX.  Programming included screenings of a film (“The Battle of the Sexes”) and a documentary (NCAA’s “Sporting Chance”), a poetry reading, a basketball game, a Title IX expert panel, and a visit and talk by Mia Hamm.  The anniversary week was sponsored in large part by the Department of Physical Education, Athletics, and Recreation, as well as by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the student-run Contact Committee.  As a child of Title IX, I was delighted to hear stories about heroes like Bernice Sandler, Edith Green, Birch Bayh, and Billie Jean King.  As a scholar who works with Title IX issues, I was gratified to learn more about how the legislation came about and how it has survived repeated challenges.  Thank you again to all the organizers.

My mother was famous in our little hometown circle for making an unassisted triple play in a softball game.  We kids haven’t been able to piece together each element of her feat, but we are not at all surprised she was capable of it.  The story goes that her little sister made a hook shot from half court in one of her basketball games.  These were the women who had no Title IX, who effected their athletic feats through the sex-segregated Catholic school system that had softball fields and basketball courts for the girls.  Girls of their age at public school were assured no teams, coaches, fields, or equipment to play their sports, and certainly none of these girls and young women could imagine themselves as scholarship student-athletes at the college level.  As we all know now, this separation of resources for boys and girls and men and women has implications not only for athletics, but for life itself—opportunities to challenge ourselves, compete, understand teamwork, be coached and mentored and opportunities to be treated equally in school, be encouraged to study all the subjects, have women and men teachers, be recognized in the media, see an open horizon.

Title IX tells us that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

This short text is a really big deal.  We have seen the changes this legislation has brought for men and women in educational settings and specifically in athletics.  Of course, the legislation has been appropriately elastic in its recognition of other limiting factors for women and transgender individuals in the education context.  Title IX is supposed to offer protection against sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and against sexual violence and abuse for all individuals (all students, staff, faculty in the education workplace).  The extent to which it is allowed to offer these protections can vary from state to state and from United States President to United States President.  (*See this 2017 NPR piece about the North Carolina “bathroom bill” and this 2017 Gender Shrapnel Blog post about the current “president’s” pullback on Title IX protections.)  These protections might also be more precarious depending on gender identity, race, religion, and immigration status, which is why Title IX must work in conjunction with Title VI (protects against discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in federally financed programs) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, national origin).  In other words, as we celebrate the many triumphs of this 1972 legislation, we also have to be wary of the many ways in which interpretation and application of the law can be diminished.

Of course, no laws are enacted or enforced in a cultural vacuum.  Jim Crow laws were both a symptom of and the reinforcement of racial apartheid in the post-Civil War era, while current stop-and-frisk laws demonstrate a greater targeting of people of color.  The expanded Title IX guidance and enforcement under President Obama contrast sharply with the law’s shrinking applications under the current administration, a clear signal that the Groping Old President wishes to roll back protections for women and transgender individuals.

For these reasons and many more, the Title IX anniversary events at my institution both celebrated the advances made since 1972 and advocated for an awareness surrounding the legislation.  I learned a lot last week.  I learned that federal law (not state-by-state) protects against pregnancy discrimination.  I learned from one young man’s significant question to Mia Hamm, when he asked her, “What has been the role of men in fighting for equal pay in women’s sports?”, and when she answered with several examples of men’s sports individuals and teams that have gone to bat on this issue.  I learned that we need more young men asking this same question in all areas of Title VII and Title IX protections.  Legal and cultural change cannot happen without more support from more of the populace.  I learned that Mia Hamm’s accomplishments, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and generosity make her a true champion, a real inspiration.  When asked who her women athlete heroes were, Hamm said that the only women’s sports regularly on television were tennis and, every four years, women’s track and field.  Her two heroes?  Eighteen-time Grand Slam Champion Chris Everett Lloyd in tennis and USA Track and Field Hall of Famer Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  I should say!

In addition, several concepts were reinforced for me.  Our flagging soccer program for girls in our area, commented upon several times last week, is likely a result of the state of Virginia placing girls’ soccer and lacrosse in the same season—the spring—thereby forcing girls’ sports to compete for players.  The same is true, actually, for boys’ soccer and lacrosse, both offered in the spring.  The Title IX issue enters when we account for this crowding of the spring season: might it be because fields are limited, and the football field is protected from having to share with soccer or lacrosse in the fall?  It certainly seems the case that girls have fewer sports opportunities in the fall than they do in the spring and fewer in the fall than the boys do.  Nevertheless, the Virginia Department of Education has scant information on athletics offerings, which also needs to be rectified.  I also believe that LGBTQIA+ individuals at our local schools are under a greater threat of bullying than their straight peers—also a Title IX consideration.

As I’ve said elsewhere in the Gender Shrapnel Blog, the status quo is a mighty force, and we must be wary of its power.

“Reasonable” People

(Yes, you might need to blink and look again at these headlines.  They’re from The New York Times, not The Onion or McSweeney’s.)

It’s like a terrible joke.  How many movie stars does it take for someone to believe they were sexually harassed and assaulted?  Or, maybe, how many USA gymnasts does it take?  We all know the possible answers:  All of them.  Way too many.  Or, don’t worry they will only be believed for a second until the pendulum swings back to establishing their attacker(s) as credible, measured, reasonable.

Just imagine how many unknown women of far fewer means it takes to be believed.  I don’t think mathematics has yet created the beyond-infinity number (right?), but this question might point us all in that direction.

Over these past few weeks, I have been thinking about an article I wrote a couple of years ago that cited Donna Haraway (*see this 1988 article, for example) and Evelyn Fox-Keller (*really interesting 2014 interview here) on the Enlightenment-generated image of the scientist—that 18th-century white man, in a white coat, working in a white lab with other white-coated assistants, doing white experiments and coming to white conclusions.  This scientist—the quintessence of light, illustration, illumination, reason—would become almost invisible as the reasoned results of his lab were disseminated and taken as true, as objectively generated and disseminated.  Haraway and Fox-Keller talk about women entering the lab as a “germ,” the other.  Their results would be marked by their otherness and thus doubted, disbelieved, considered contaminated.  The privilege of being seen as objective and reasonable, practically invisible in the extreme objectivity of it all, contrasts sharply with the constant existence as the one who is supposed to assimilate, or just can’t assimilate, or won’t assimilate, or who didn’t assimilate well enough—a lifelong germ invading the space of the supposedly “reasonable.”

The Society for Human Resource Management website tell us: “In workplace harassment situations, the perspective of a “reasonable person” is one aspect of the criteria used to determine whether a work environment is hostile. The reasonable person standard aims to avoid the potential for parties to claim they suffered harassment when most people would not find such instances offensive if they themselves were the subject of such acts.”  As I have stated throughout the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here), the law and its applications build on precedent and, therefore, decades, even centuries, can pass before we undo implicit and explicit racism and sexism embedded in our laws.  The “reasonable person” standard established in Equal Employment Opportunity law still has not been examined thoroughly enough to measure how much harassment white male legislators over the centuries have deemed is “reasonable” for someone to accept.

In a talk at Washington and Lee last week, Devon Carbado brilliantly linked the “reasonable person” standard to vulnerability to police violence.  This 2016 article by Carbado treats thoroughly the “Reasonableness Doctrine” as it applies to the Fourth Amendment, “reasonable search and seizure,” and escalating interactions with the police imposed on African Americans.  Carbado provides a type of flow chart, with detailed examples, of how “traffic stops function as gateways to more intrusive searches and seizures” (151). Carbado takes issue with the term “reasonable” to demonstrate that it is imbued with the racism and sexism that our laws and law enforcement systems have inherited through the centuries.  He cites Crenshaw on the “say her name” campaign to understand police violence specifically against black women. This “reasonable person” standard for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation is embedded in Title VII and Title IX law.  In a nutshell, the more often the “reasonable” standard is invoked against people of color and women, the more it naturalizes the stop-and-frisk phenomenon, which I see as both literal (actual police stops of African Americans, in incredibly disproportionate numbers) and metaphorical (allusion to real touching—sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault in all types of workplaces, including the education workplace).  Let’s not forget, Republican candidate from Missouri Courtland Sykes just a few days ago said that radical feminism has “a crazed definition of modern womanhood,” and he added that, “They made it up to suit their own nasty, snake-filled heads.”  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, “Mary Beard’s Manifesto,” to understand more about retrograde obsession with the head of Medusa.)  We have to improve our ability to question and name these unreasonable candidates so easily masquerading these days as reasonable.  (Don’t make me bring up Roy Moore to re-make this point.)

160 women testified that Larry Nassar sexually assaulted them.  Some of the women were as young as six years old when Nassar committed such felonies.  These assaults happened over decades, permeating just about every corner of USA Gymnastics and, quite apparently, Michigan State University.  The world is ready to believe in the integrity of a single male doctor before it is prepared to believe hundreds of women and girls with an entirely credible claim.  Nassar’s non-apology statement and self-defensive testimony combine to re-harass and re-assault the 160 women who had already, miraculously, survived his abuse.  Nassar’s most salient statement, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  It is just a complete nightmare,” serves to do what so many non-apology defenses have done in so many others of these recent cases—to deny wrongdoing, cast doubt on those who have filed suit, assert some kind of moral high ground, and minimize the gravity of the actual crimes committed.  Nassar believes himself to be the objective white man in the white coat in the white laboratory.

The New York Times reported on January 20, 2018, that Pennsylvania Republican Representative Patrick Meehan had settled his own sexual misconduct case using taxpayer money.  Ah, yes, the highly reasonable Meehan was even a member of the House Ethics Committee, which has been seeking solutions to what the article rightly calls “secretive congressional processes for handling such complaints, which advocates say are slanted to favor abusers, allowing them to use the vast resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate, and silence their victims.”  The fact that it took Meehan five more days to realize the jig was up—that the woman whom he insisted was his “complete partner” did not see the situation in the same light and that he would not be a viable candidate for re-election—speaks to the extent to which he, and probably many people around him for decades, still bought into his “reasonable,” objective, rational character.  United States culture reveals a tendency to bend over backwards to forgive felonious men and a leaning forward to blame victims.  One glance at the second headline in the image above reinforces that it’s not just the United States.  The person considered the most progressive leader of one of the most powerful religions in the world practices the same “reasonable” person standard: defend the criminal and blame the victim.  This is as tiresome as it is dangerous.

(A book available at a local pub.  Yes, please.)

Mary Beard’s Manifesto

This past week, I had a little talk with myself about work and play.  I told myself that I needed to impose real playtime on the weekend, to be more deliberate about not using few and precious free hours simply to do more work.  This is the kind of stern talking-to we all practice from time to time.  For me, the results are variable at best.

In the free hour I had last Saturday afternoon, I marched myself to my little comfy office in our house, sat down as a big gesture into the comfy chair, sipped luxuriously at a late cup of coffee, and opened a novel, one that I thought would be light but not too light, enjoyable for a little afternoon literary siesta.  With many friends and colleagues at women’s marches around the world, I second-guessed my decision to have a much-needed day at home after the previous week’s inaugurations and parades, but I tried to stick to this deliberate approach to free time.

Well, it seems I don’t read “light” too well anymore.  Sure, I can still watch a soap opera and other junk on television and Netflix.  I can even re-watch this stuff.  But the reading I do seems almost sacred these days—you know, so much to read, so little time—that I allow myself to move on quickly if “light” means “fluffy and annoying, treacly and a waste of time.”  When our son was little, he could sit in our laps being read to for stretches of two hours or more.  He could never get enough of hearing the stories, seeing the illustrations, and putting it all together.  Our daughter at that age would sit in our laps, listen to one or two books for a few minutes, make a quick judgment, snap the book shut herself, and announce abruptly, “The End.”  During my first 50 years I was more the two-hour (really, much more) stretch type, but now I’m noticing a healthy dose of “The End” creeping in.  I read three chapters of the novel, closed it with one heavy-handed palm, and reached instead for Mary Beard’s recently published Women & Power. A Manifesto (Liveright, 2017).

I had bought the book for myself back in December, and my husband had also given a copy to me as a gift. I had to read at least one of the copies, didn’t I?  The next hour or two in the comfy chair ticked by very quickly as I absorbed Beard’s brilliant tome—part Greco-Roman cultural history of gender, part UK and USA current events steeped in race and gender, part let’s-stop-putting-up-with-bullshit manifesto.  Based on two different London Review of Books lecture series offered by Beard, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017, Women & Power has two sections: “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power.”  Beard’s style is at once erudite and colloquial, dazzling with her deep knowledge while inviting in readers who might be less educated on gender and its intersections.  She acknowledges how and when her feminism is intersectional and is clear on when it is not.

Here’s a sample of Beard’s deep knowledge as it erupts in broad manifesto:  “An enormous amount of modern feminist energy has been wasted on trying to prove that these Amazons did once exist, with all the seductive possibilities of a historical society that really was ruled by and for women.  Dream on.  The hard truth is that the Amazons were a Greek male myth.  The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one, or—to go back to awful Terry—one that had been mastered, in the bedroom.  The underlying point was that it was the duty of men to save civilisation from the rule of women” (62).  Basically, as many of us felt after seeing the newest “Wonder Woman” movie, powerful women are still often created through the male gaze, and they’re still somehow hell-bent on war and destruction.  I highly recommend this blog post by Edurne Portela for an examination of #MeToo, women’s physical power, and the mockery of demonstrations of women’s physical power that is supposed to serve to put the woman out of place (physically defending herself; lashing out; jumping into the fray to help a friend) back in her place.

A few pages after Beard’s analysis of the Greek myth of the Amazon women, the author establishes Medusa as “one of the most potent ancient symbols of male mastery over the destructive dangers that the very possibility of female power represented.  It is no accident that we find her decapitated—her head proudly paraded as an accessory by this decidedly un-female female deity” (71).  Beard here is speaking of Athena, who wore the image of Medusa on her breastplate.  The illustrations Beard includes (77) of three world leaders depicted and decapitated in the head of Medusa are powerful.  Who are these world leaders?  Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Angela Merkel (Germany), and Hillary Clinton (USA).  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the very real trope of “Lock Her Up,” applied to several world leaders.)  The message?  Take heed, women out there who might consider running for office.  There is a price to pay, and that is your own head.

Beard’s manifesto is the whole work, of course, but several important lessons to be learned include (1) we need to know and understand our raced and gendered history and culture; (2) without changing actual structures of power, people of color and women will continue to be accused and decapitated; (3) we need to “decouple power from public prestige,” thinking of it as “an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession” (87); (4) we must recognize everyone’s “ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually” (87).  Beard concludes the section by reminding us that the innovative founders of Black Lives Matter are all women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

I have also just read Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America, by Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati.  My university’s Mudd Center for Ethics is sponsoring a visit by Professor Carbado this week.  The book’s focus on cultural history of race in the United States and the resultant ways in which individuals and groups can feel they have to perform a certain perception of race is much-needed and very compelling.  What the authors call “Working Identity” (the performance impositions of our everyday lives) is a key concept, and the authors assert that such performance requires “time, effort, and energy” (3).  Indeed.  For individuals and groups in and on the intersections of race and gender, race and gender identity, and race and other “performable” categories, the time, effort, and energy required consistently drain the body, mind, and soul.

It appears I have again converted leisure into work, but what a privilege to be able to do so.  Consider reading Beard, Portela, and Carbado & Gulati!  They will make for a fine weekend.

(Tune in next week for an examination of a Pennsylvania congressman who used taxpayer funds to settle his own sexual harassment case and a Vatican Pope who again doubts the veracity of claims made by people who have been sexually abused by priests and bishops.)

Inauguration in Virginia—A Bit Gender-Deaf, but I Think I’m Supposed to Be Quiet about That

(Photos taken on January 13, 2018, before the inauguration of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, State Capitol, Richmond, VA)

This past week in Virginia brought not one, but two, parades on the streets of Lexington.  The first, on Saturday, was sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  The second, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, was sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE).  My family and I eschewed the first parade in favor of going to Richmond to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, and we joyfully marched, sang, and quoted Martin Luther King in the CARE parade, alongside over 700 friends and neighbors.  In this blog post, I offer a few observations about the inauguration in Richmond.

Twenty years ago, I would never have gone to an inauguration unless I had been invited to the inaugural ball as well, which I wouldn’t have been.  The antics of my more youthful days kept me away from gown-worthy, gala-sparkled, gorgeous-people events, where most people don’t match high-top Chucks with their most comfortable dress and most women don’t drink beer out of the bottle.  Let’s just say I’ve grown up a bit over these decades, but that my sartorial and libation styles have not evolved much at all.

My husband, our son, and I loaded our tired selves into a car late last Friday evening to drive two hours and some change on a soggy road to Richmond in order to join a good friend for dinner and get to the inauguration grandstand on Capitol Square by the designated time on Saturday.  Our thirteen-year-old daughter made the wise young adolescent choice to have a sleepover with friends instead of hearing “boring political speeches” in Richmond.  Our seventeen-year-old son reads a lot of books, follows national and international politics, and digs Model United Nations, so he was definitely in from the start.  His knowledge and youthful spirit gave my husband and me much-needed energy for the road trip.  In fact, we surprised ourselves in our commitment to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, and Mark Herring.  Virginia’s newly elected triumvirate works close enough to the nation’s capital to make me believe that they can counteract a tiny portion of the evil taking place in Washington, D.C.

Saturday morning was drier than Friday evening, but the temperatures had dropped by about 35 degrees.  The inauguration tickets encouraged us to get to the grandstand by 9:30.  Nevertheless, we lingered over coffee and one of the best breakfasts we have ever had and then hauled chilly ass down Grace Street to get to Capitol Square by about 10:45.  Streets were cleared, and security was tight.  We stopped at the entrance to hear, and then chant along with, a group of people wearing fluorescent orange caps and insisting on a clean Dream Act.  We ran into a few people from the western side of the state, chatted, and then decided to hit the port-a-potties before the ceremony began.  The port-a-potties were in garden next to Capitol Square.  Our path to the port-a-johns brought us by The Virginia Women’s Monument (see photograph below), which honors the contributions of all Virginia Women.  This reminds me a bit of my poem titled “West Virginia Bridges,” which laments the lack of named women—real live women who accomplished namable things—in the 116 named bridges across the state.  Here are the last two stanzas from that poem:

There is one bridge dedicated to Nurse Veterans.

No specific names because West Virginia has no particular women. 

West Virginia needs one hundred and fifteen bridges for men.

 

Steel stringer and pre-cast concrete bridges

require manly names, like Robert and Don

and Stonewall. No Robertas or Donnas allowed.

When I saw the monument with my husband and son, I stated indelicately that Monument Avenue in Richmond has a statue for every man who ever crapped on a battlefield, but here we have the Virginia Women’s Monument, designed to honor a nameless collective of 400 years of women for their nameless feats.  You would have to work pretty hard to get more token than this.

But I digress.  That’s what happens when you leave an event to go to the bathroom!

The inaugural ceremonies themselves had me paying sharp attention.  I was fascinated by it all.  Seeing judges, lawmakers, and staff muckety-mucks behind the podium, observing the fabulous array of hats and tuxes and corsages, watching former governors greet friends and colleagues, hearing political conversations on our less-important side—all of it was fascinating and somehow finely distilled in the cold January air.  At one point, impossibly marshmallowed giant snowflakes fell to make the scene stand out even more.  People in our area of the stands were welcoming, chatty, funny.

If you can see the photo above well enough, you’ll see the listing of speakers and performers at the inauguration.  These included a volunteer choir from Richmond with a beautiful rendition of “America the Beautiful” and another singer piercing the cold with his interpretation of “Star Spangled Banner.”  The program demonstrates an effort to include people of all races, religions, and creeds.  The All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center Boys and Girls Scouts recited the pledge of allegiance, two Baptist churches were represented, and a rabbi from a Richmond temple gave the benediction.  Representatives of Virginia’s Indian tribes blessed the ground.  As I think was the purpose, the inauguration organizers communicated an overarching message of inclusion and celebration.  I was surprised, though, not to hear any women’s voices in the core program.  (There were two women singing as people streamed out of the stands in the time between the formal ceremonies and the parade, but that was it.)  If you read the Gender Shrapnel Blog regularly, you know I notice these things, but how can you not?  51% of Virginians are women, but 0% of the speakers were.  The judges who swore in Northam, Fairfax, and Herring were also all men.  How are we not noticing these gender-deaf moves? (*See this September, 2017, post on this issue.)

Of the three officials who took the oath of office last Saturday, only one gave an inaugural address.  That, of course, was Ralph Northam.  He stuck mostly to what he knows best—healthcare, and I very much like what he had to say on that count.  He mostly ignored what he does least, which is care for the environment.  In one part of Northam’s speech, shaped around the campaign slogan “The Way Ahead” and concomitant metaphors about paths and compasses, the new governor told a story about a medical diagnosis he had given and how he learned years later that he could have delivered the news in a far more effective way.  I was struck by this simple story and heartened by hearing an elected official admit to committing a mistake and learning from it.  Then I wondered how low I’ve learned to set the bar, through a year of Trump and the trumpholes, when I consider this common act of learning from a mistake a heroic feat.  In any case, Northam’s inauguration speech was better than I was prepared for and slightly less gender-deaf than the rest of the inaugural ceremonies.

See you next week!

(The Virginia Women’s Monument, Richmond, VA / Photo taken January 13, 2018)