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)

Talking through the Generations

(Our new family member)

For two reasons, this week’s post is neither weighty nor timely: (1) Election Day is Tuesday, and I’m extremely nervous about it. Many of us Virginians are working hard to see this fine slate of Democratic candidates elected (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and local representatives and court of clerk).  We understand this election to be something of a referendum on the “president.” I, for one, need some small or big reassurance that people are understanding him to be the sociopathic, selfish, inexperienced lout (for lack of a stronger and still acceptable word in pleasant company) that he is; and (2) yesterday we brought home a bundle of puppy love.  Her name is Nimbus, and she has charmed the socks off even the most reluctant among us, including our grumpy and adorable eight-year-old dog.  I would like to be an adult and say that the first reason overrides the second, but I’d say they’re running neck and neck at this moment. In this lighter and less urgent post, I ruminate about getting older and how aging can change how we communicate with other generations.

This past summer, my father, siblings, and I navigated hospice and loss.  I am the sixth of seven (but really the seventh of eight) children, and so most of my siblings are my elders.  Through this time, I feel I’ve learned better when to offer an opinion, when to quiet one, when to step in, and when to step back; or at least I learned this in the very specific context in which we found ourselves.

One evening at my parents’ house, my dad and I had helped my mom to bed.  I then went back to the kitchen to do the dishes.  I did them thoroughly but as quickly as possible so that I could join my dad in watching the Phillies on television.  This past summer was the first in a long time that I learned the entire Phillies line-up and knew when to cheer and when to despair (and when to call the players mean names, like any good Philadelphia fan).  After watching a few innings with me and celebrating the feats of a new rookie outfielder, my dad went to get something in the kitchen.  I heard him call my name.  “Ellen,” he called, in a stern, dad-voice of decades past, “can you please come to the kitchen?”  Unconcerned and mildly amused, I went into the kitchen, where my dad awaited me by the silverware drawer.  The kitchen was spotless.  What could possibly be the problem, o-Type-A-like-me dad-of-mine?  “Ellen, your mother and I keep the spatula here,” he said, opening the regular silverware drawer and pointing to a specific spot in it.  “Right here.”  For a millisecond, I thought he was kidding, but I quickly realized the stakes.  I had no need to place the spatula in the drawer with the whisks, lemon squeezers, serving spoons, and other spatulas.  When your wife is struggling, the Phillies are losing, and your house has been invaded by your opinionated grown-up children, you get to tell people to put the spatula wherever the hell you please.  I observed my dad’s serious and somewhat stern face and said, “You’ve got it, Dad.  Thanks for letting me know.”  Then I wondered, what is the spatula in my own life?  What little things am I insisting on that don’t matter to anyone but me?  How can I be more flexible about the spatula?  Also, when is it time to tell people to stick the spatula where you say?

The spatula lesson can be applied to my siblings, who were truly a joy to grow up with and continue to be an interesting, funny, and loving collection of human beings.  When you grow up in a big crowd, you learn to love your opinions, which you fight to express, while at the same time competing for seconds at the dinner table.  Loving your own opinions means that you believe you’re always right, you undervalue (“menospreciar” in Spanish—sounds better to me) opinions different from your own, and become vociferous in the expression of these always-right opinions.  I am partly grateful for loving my own opinions because I don’t think I’d write a blog (or much else) if I didn’t.  Nevertheless, applying the spatula rule (“You’ve got it, Dad”) helps me to make room for more voices at my own real and metaphorical dinner tables.  (I didn’t realize I would spend so much time in the kitchen for this post.)

So far, I’ve claimed to improve communications with my parents’ generation and to be working on doing the same with my own generation.  As for generations younger than mine, I often forget that I’m 52 and that 52 is kind of old.  Except for some physical ailments, I feel like my spirit is the same as when I was 42, 32, maybe even 22 on a particularly lively day.  Sometimes I catch an unexpected glimpse of myself and am reminded of my age.  Sometimes I watch a younger person react to me in a certain way—maybe expecting to see shock when I feel none or assuming my children are older than they are–, and I’m reminded that she or he sees me as older.  This gives me increased sympathy for people older than me, who must experience this some or most of the time.

For any of you reading who are from a generation or two younger than me, please bear with the following comments and offer opinions and suggestion about what you’ll read next.  I want to understand which are the spatula moments (accept and move on) and which are not.

I have been teaching for over 30 years, and I love this profession.  Sharing ideas and subjects you love with young learners, helping them to develop skills, watching their own ideas develop, and then seeing them as friends and peers is a gift.  I treasured this gift at 22 when I started, and I still do to this day.  I continue to feel nourished by the students’ youth, energy, and humor, along with the books, films, and conversations that fill my classroom, life, and home.  Wow, how lucky I am.

And here is my older-lady preoccupation of the last several years:  When I meet with students, which I do all the time, I am so impressed by their keen sense of time and organization.  They arrive with laptops, they flip them open before I even notice they’ve done so, the meeting starts without any official nod, and we’re off to the races.  These days, I am absolutely the only person in the room without a laptop open.  I have a pad and pen and am ready to listen, offer ideas, and jot down tasks I’ve agreed to take on.  Now, always, early in the meeting, I notice that all the people around the table are completing the tasks they’ve just been assigned.  They are not listening to the meeting, which is no longer a meeting, because it has simply become a co-working site.  This transition is difficult for me, as I plan to complete my tasks after the meeting so that I’m focused on the meeting at hand.  But no one else is perturbed by this dynamic, and now no one is running the meeting.  My sense is that we end up not exactly knowing where we stand at the end of the meeting, but most of the attendees believe their work is done.  We have spent 30 or 60 minutes together in a congenial environment.  When we conclude the meeting, a moment which to me never seems official or real, the students have completed their tasks, and I’m adding mine to my to-do list.

I like their no-nonsense way of getting things done together, but my generation hasn’t grown up with devices separating us or dictating the flow of our conversations and meetings.  What the students are doing seems inherently rude to me, but I can tell that they don’t see this style as rude, but rather smart and effective.  I try to understand this, I do.  Nevertheless, I observe this meeting-no meeting phenomenon even in one-on-one meetings with students.  It’s almost as if I say to them, “You have great qualifications to apply for X grant.  I really think you should,” and the student immediately starts applying for that grant while I sit there.  They think I’m okay with just witnessing their work, and they type happily on.

I learn a lot from these very capable young individuals.  What should I accept from their ways and understand to be a necessary change, and what should I call out as unacceptable for any generation?  Do you have any advice or words of wisdom?  I’m all ears!  (Big, floppy, golden ones, that is.)

 (Our sweet older fellow.)

Breaking Fast

(The News-Gazette, Lexington, Virginia, September 6, 2017)

Buena Vista (pronounced “Byuna Vista”), Virginia, hosts a big breakfast, parade, and speeches each year on Labor Day.  The Democrats and Republicans break their fast separately, and then join together for the parade and speeches.  Buena Vista’s residents are mostly Republicans; many of the very few Democrats in attendance at the parade drive six miles on Route 60 East from the neighboring town of Lexington.  You know Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Well, the Labor Day parade is a tale of two towns, one red, one blue.

My husband and I drove separately to the Democratic Party breakfast because we had to head in different directions afterwards.  As I made the short drive, I listened to radio news about the impending death of DACA.  Gender shrapnel news and events of the past week pierced my thoughts.  A nurse in Utah was handcuffed by a policeman when she wouldn’t violate patient protections and draw blood from an unconscious patient.  A 2014 report on sexual violence was removed from the White House website.  Statistics about the enormous gender pay gap at the White House resurfaced for the Labor Day moment.  Head of the Office of Civil Rights Candice Jackson boasted on her resume that she had fiercely attacked Hillary Clinton.  In my own little town’s lovely pie festival, 99% of the young volunteers were girls, being trained to do free labor for their community while the boys did whatever the hell they wanted.  Some major items, a few minor ones—together they made for gender shrapnel stew.  And when I’m stewing, and the weather’s beautiful, and you’re supposed to just eat barbeque and enjoy, it can be rough going.  The people who usually kindly listen to you or patiently analyze with you or fervently fume like you have had enough.  People experience shrapnel overdoses and a need to disconnect, but I was still stewing and fuming. Breaking fast with the Dems didn’t help a whole lot.

When my husband and I got to the breakfast, we picked up our name tags from the front desk.  Two women were working there, and they seemed to be the owners of the handsome cursive writing on the tags.  My husband’s tag included the title “Dr.,” while mine just had my first and last name.  Men gave each other hearty handshakes and then introduced their “better halves” to each other.  We sat up front with some nice people who seemed to be regulars at the event.  They welcomed us warmly, and we all made small talk.

There in the high school atrium, cinder block walls with “Go Blue” written in big letters, and a vague smell of ham on bun and creamed corn from high school lunches past, we were four feet from the slate of Democratic candidates.  Candidate for lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax and local candidate John Winfrey sat in between the master of ceremonies and the minister.  On the other side of the dais sat Ralph Northam, Tim Kaine, Mark Herring, and Creigh Deeds, well known Democratic candidates and elected officials.

Each did the job he had to do, and each spoke quite well.  The minister gave a prayer and blessed the meal.  For an atheist who believes fiercely in the separation of church and state, the blessings and prayers made me roll my eyes, think impure thoughts, and glance around at everyone in a more curious way than I normally would.  The MC spoke eloquently and graciously and thanked all the right people.  John Winfrey spoke briefly to make room in the packed schedule for those who had a helicopter waiting to whisk them away.  Justin Fairfax spoke with great warmth and charisma.  Creigh Deeds demonstrated his decades of political knowledge in Virginia.  Mark Herring spoke in concrete terms about the four years of work he has done as attorney general and the plans he has for the next term.  Ralph Northam, clearly avoiding any talk of the pipeline or Dominion, hewed to the topic he knows best, healthcare.  I had to remind myself to pay good attention to him because he looks and sounds so much like a former boyfriend that it was distracting.  Tim Kaine thanked Democrats for their activism since 2016, talked about how Democrats need to make opportunities for all, and inspired the crowd to work hard on behalf of the party until November 7th.  For the most part, the speakers were well-prepared and interesting.

I watched and noticed the rhetorical requirements of political speakers in this kind of event—an ability to modulate the voice in order to gently whip up the crowd, a certain false language of self-deprecation as the speakers listed their many accomplishments, a buddy-buddy network demonstrated through the personal stories the men told about each other, and an insistence on talking about the abnegating women who indulge the husbands’ “call” to public service and still feel hot and romantic towards them, all these years later, in a kind of Al and Tipper French kiss thrall.

Have you noticed where I’m breaking fast?  Six Democratic candidates, all men.  One of them black, five white.  An older white man as MC and an older white man as minister.  To use the overly popular new term, the optics aren’t good.  At the same time, I really think I was the only person of the 200 or so at the breakfast who gave a shit about gender in that moment, who noticed how the men ran the public show and the women ran the private one, who wondered if there is a real place in any political party for 51% of the population.  To use Danielle Allen’s words, is there a way for women in any party to be “democratic authors”—to make themselves trustworthy, to participate in tough public policy debates, and to foment conversations that include all the people?  Is the big failed Hillary experiment a signal to the Democrats that they’re to blow off all women because women just aren’t the face of the party?  These were big Democratic players on a small-town stage, and they made clear that they don’t even have to pretend to include women—not as emcees, not as pastors or ministers, not as small-town candidates, not as big state party candidates or officials.

I’ve made my political and ethical home in this party because the other one is abhorrent, and inhumane tides must be stemmed. But the utter lack of gender awareness within the Democratic Party means that we are as far from full gender representation as we’ve ever been.  This is a big, hypocritical, sorry-ass mess.

So, yes, I’m still stewing and fuming and I’m thinking a lot about when I met with Lidia Falcón, famous lawyer, author, and founder of Spain’s Feminist Party (founded in 1979, just four years after the death of the Generalísimo).  When I asked Falcón where on the political spectrum she saw feminism, she replied, “Well, it’s the overcoming of communism and the perfection of all the parties.  It’s true equality.”  A very Second Wave response, it’s now making me think that it’s about as avant-garde as we’re going to get, ever.

Is there a political party that is really ready to nominate, support, showcase, and elect women to run municipalities, congressional districts, states, and the country?  I believe the answer right now is “no,” and I believe this means that this is no country for old women, or middle-aged ones, for that matter.  The ridiculous bifurcation of public service for men and private service for women, of speeches, parades, and pavilions for men and booths, nametags, and phonebanks for women, of skateboarding and loafing for boys and serving up barbeque and pie for girls has got to stop.  We are not your helpmates, men.  We are your running mates.

A photo of blue town starts this post.  A photo of red town ends it.

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.