Of Pussies, Pudenda, and Presidents

(Photos from 2017 Women’s March, Washington, DC. E. Mayock.)

After the #MeToo (begun by Tarana Burke in 2006) watershed in 2017, here we are.  Another pussy-grabbing moment.  Remember when, in January, 2017, at least five million (five MILLION) people across the globe donned pussy hats and protested the supposed election of a supposed president, whom we knew would mortgage United States democracy and encourage rupture and violence?  Do you remember that they wore PUSSY hats?  Do you care?  Are you so fed up with the swamp-filling, pussy-grabbing, immigrant-hating, African-American-shaming, family-separating, genius-stabilizing, golf-playing, crony-benefiting, twitter-baiting, salad-talking, disinfectant-curing, press secretary-firing-and-hiring, chaos-sowing, benefit-reaping sorry sack of shit of a man who sits in the Oval Office and drains time, money, and good will from the “American people?”  I am.

We have had enough for a whole host of reasons.  Mine are listed above in my mini-rant.  But I want to add, too, that many cis and trans women (and other people, of course) of all ages, races, religions, and classes have been filling in the gaps created by a resource-sucking president.  Our free labor—at food pantries, in courtrooms, at detention centers, in retirement homes, at schools—speaks to the complete dysfunction of our national government and to the ways in which women’s labor is often undervalued, or valued not at all.  I am mad about this, too.  I want my free labor to contribute to excellent government function, not to fill in gaps created by a pussy-groping president and his sycophantic GOP cronies.  We impeached Trump for his profoundly dishonest and damaging decisions about Ukraine; as a nation, we somehow never found it important enough to investigate the 20 “sexual misconduct” allegations against him.

So, of course, the obvious: Trump is not only not smart, not competent, not collaborative, not team-building, not trustworthy, not interested in the good of the American people, but he is also the greatest threat to U.S. and world security we have ever seen.  More of the obvious: he must not be re-elected in 2020.

Now, I turn my attention to the Democratic party. I find it necessary to support this group because, at the very least, the party believes in education for all, a working social safety net (for those who doubted the need for this, just look around you right now, here in pandemic-land), labor rights, and voters’ rights, among many other issues and policies I am fully on board with.  While Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat, he obviously still considers himself a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. I am not in favor of his candidacy. I am what I guess is now called a “Warren Democrat.”  Everything that Bernie has, Warren has.  Everything that Bernie is lacking (full rationale for economic policies; a nuanced sense of group identification and intersectionality; ability to support down-ticket Democrats; rhetoric that is inclusive rather than exclusive), Warren has, and more.

Once Warren dropped out, leaving Biden and Sanders to duke it out, it became clear the mediocre, aged, white, male candidate would win the day.  Despite Warren’s proven brilliance, careful planning, and clear generosity, Biden would get the nomination.  From the get-go, a Biden nomination seemed retrograde, and it seems even more so now.  As Rebecca Traister, Michelle Goldberg, and Alexandra Petri have stated in a variety of ways, a Biden nomination is at once unexciting and extremely fraught for feminists.  This was true well before the Tara Reade allegations were made public, and is now an acutely terrible fact.

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt penned the “Run, Joe, Run” piece in January, 2019.  At every turn, the piece lauded Biden for being the best possible Democratic presidential nominee for 2020.  Leonhardt has the privilege to ignore what so many of us already knew.  Biden, like so many powerful men, feels entitled to that which is not his. While preparing his presidential candidacy, Biden seemed to sense a pragmatic need to acknowledge and apologize for his aggressive treatment of Anita Hill in the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.  The most he could muster, however, was an “I’m sorry for what you endured.”  He tried the apology a few times, each time one step closer to acknowledging that he did, in effect, re-harass the already harassed, but he never quite got there, because getting there would surely have slowed the nomination train.  The apology-as-expediency was already a red flag for me, a sign that Biden did not understand that he was part-and-parcel of a national government male power network.  Even more, it meant that Biden would never lead the way in undoing #MeToo harassment and assault.

I also knew that Biden was referred to as “handsy.”  This was not good.  Men and women both love to create euphemisms for sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault, and “handsy” is a really good one.  It implies that men are supposed to touch women, that women are supposed to put up with unwanted touching, and that there is no harm, no foul.  It’s part of the system.  “Handsiness,” I guess, is supposed to be innocent, innocuous, boys-will-be-boys and girls-will-be-assaulted behavior.  It’s supposed to be enacted and accepted, time and time again, no matter the consciousness of the moment nor the constantly repeated trope of “me too,” “me too,” “me too.”  The #MeToo movement was supposed to make us take stock of gender power dynamics, the way the law reinforces these, and the ways in which we indulge them in every profession, through every age.  And, so, when I knew Biden was known to be “handsy,” I figured a real, and well-founded, allegation of more would be on its way.  And it was, and it is.

Having just watched both “Bombshell” and “Unorthodox,” I have clear visual images of the women who are supposed to undress and then assume the position (“Bombshell”) and the women who are supposed to be completely covered while men thrust their midsections towards the women’s faces (“Unorthodox”).  This is a pretty awful place to find United States politics in 2020. Even as I write this, I know several people who wish I wouldn’t speak out against Biden.  After all, he’s a good guy, an Obama acolyte, not nearly as bad as Trump.  But he is a terrible choice for president.  If I knew convention policies and procedures well enough, I would hope for an amazing person to overtake the Democratic nomination—one of the many extremely capable women being considered as possible VP picks and/or one of the presidential candidates we had already been considering.

So, here we are.  The incumbent for the GOP is the subject of 20 allegations of sexual misconduct/assault, and the presumptive nominee for the Democratic party is the non-repentant, unaware, “handsy” subject of a sexual assault allegation.  Here we are, United States.  We have distilled white, cis, heteropatriarchy into its essence:  our current choices for the U.S. president are the privileged, powerful, pussy-grabbing, and pudenda-fingering.

Big Girl

(Cover of Sara Ahmed’s 2014 Willful Subjects)

I had never been in better shape in my life.  There I was, for some reason playing intramural flag football with a team from my first-year dorm, sprinting around the field feeling lean and strong.  After about twenty minutes of play against a neighboring dorm, we had scored several touchdowns and smelled victory. As we lined up on the makeshift line of scrimmage, our quarterback planning to throw it to me long, I heard an opponent yell, “Get the big girl.  Cover the big girl!”  It wasn’t until after the touchdown that I registered the exhortation and realized that the opponent was referring to me.  I think it was at that very moment when lean, sinewy me decided to embrace the big girl.  I didn’t articulate it to myself (I wasn’t the most introspective back then), but I think I knew that, if my fit, active self was still “the big girl,” then so I would be her, fully her.  Not just big and muscular (and now fat, too), but also loud and hungry for life and full of opinions.

With each passing day, being the big girl became more and more entertaining, more and more natural—more and more, just me.  It is no accident that I’m listening to Lizzo’s “Feeling Good as Hell” as I write this. (Oh my God, I love the line in Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” of “That’s the sound of me not calling you back.”) In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I discuss having seen the film Julie and Julia and marveling at Julia Child’s taking ownership of how others perceived her—recognizing her height and stature and funneling that into her joie de vivre.  Many years ago, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I, both teachers, read Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. We joked that my book would be called Subduing Ophelia, but we also took very much to heart the ways in which adolescent girls learn to shrink.

If it were just us big girls here on earth, then I think we would remain big and hungry and laughing and experimenting—curious about the world and loving towards it.  Lamentably, though, even the biggest and loudest of the big girls can become invisible.  Although individual blame can surely be placed (no need to mention here Weinstein and Trump as metonymy for all the power-hungry rapists who disappear women), I find it most useful to understand invisibility as social structure and institutional habit. I write about this copiously, and from both theoretical and practical perspectives, in the Gender Shrapnel book.  In the book, invisibility is part of an intersectional paradigm of and with gender, and it plays against visibility (being invisible at all the wrong moments and then too visible, too scrutinized at other moments).

My sister and I, two girls of the seven children in our family, have laughed often about sitting in the stands, watching a brother play a sport, and hearing others talk about our family.  “Yeah, that number 12, that’s one of the Mayock boys.  They have seven kids, all boys.”  We told each other we looked fabulous and that we were the hottest of the seven Mayock boys.  When I made the All-District (or whatever they called it back then) basketball team, my brother, who was in the same year of high school as me, did as well.  We were delighted for each other.  I was too naïve to be concerned when the local paper wrote about my brother in the blurb about me and wrote about my brother in the blurb about him.  But I started to understand when one of my mother’s best friends wrote a letter to the editor complaining about it.  She didn’t use the term “invisibility,” but that was surely what she disliked—the erasure of an adolescent girl’s accomplishments and the double offering of an adolescent boy’s accomplishments.  None of the sexism from back then felt personally motivated or enacted.  It felt institutional, habitual, natural.

I am 54 now.  I started teaching when I was 21.  I have taught a lot of students in a lot of different classes in many different contexts.  I think you could call me a professional, someone who knows her stuff and cares about how she does her work.  I am bigger than I used to be—a “bigger girl” in some ways.  But I’m reminded each day that invisibility is still an institution, a habit.  Many of my students call me “Mrs.” or “Señora,” while they call my male colleagues “Professor” and “Doctor.”  Just the other day, I replied to an email from a colleague at a neighboring institution.  His email signature indicated he was a colonel, and so I addressed him as “Colonel So-and-So.”  I included my formal email signature.  In Colonel So-and-So’s reply, I was “ma’am.”  In meetings, I have found that I no longer even stick up for myself, cementing my own invisibility, because it’s exhausting and because it brings on the kind of visibility that I’m tired of attracting.

A colleague recently said I was being “willful” when I asked for more information about a decision our group was making.  Of course, the word transported me immediately to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant Willful Subjects (Duke UP, 2014).  In the introduction, Ahmed writes, “Willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given. (…) Willfulness involves persistence in the face of having been brought down.” She adds that, for women, “to be identified as willful is to become a problem” (3). For me, the big girl is the willful subject, whose very assertion of self is constantly scrutinized, criticized, and erased.  The repetition of removal affects the individual herself and all those who witness it, coming to understand the price of willfulness.

It is within this context that I think about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy to become the Democratic candidate for the President of the United States.  While the major woman candidate before her was “locked up,” again and again, institutional structures (Russia’s interest in U.S. elections; the Democratic party itself; Bernie Bros; traditional and social media; debates designed to have candidates go after each other; etc.) functioned for some crucial weeks to silence, or make invisible, Elizabeth Warren, whose big brain and detailed plans should make her perhaps the most visible of the remaining candidates.  Thomas Friedman, in his February 25th (2020) op-ed titled “Dems, You Can Defeat Trump in a Landslide,” made clear that either Sanders or Bloomberg will be the white male savior, and that everyone else should fall in line in their secondary roles.  Super Tuesday is this coming Tuesday, and I’m not yet ready to join the invisibility train for the person I believe to have the best of the best of what all candidates can offer.  (Of course, I will support and vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination.  That should go without saying.)

This big girl wants to see Elizabeth’s Warren big brain, huge heart, detailed plans, and willful ways occupy the White House.  Fingers crossed for a Super Tuesday.

Free Speech: For Whom is it Free?

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States…

Yesterday the so-called president of the United States had what should have been the pleasant task of honoring Navajo code talkers from World War II. As we all know by now, he did so at the White House, in front of a painting of Andrew Jackson, fetishized Native peoples, and then, for at least the twelfth time, referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”  Donald Trump’s and Elizabeth Warren’s workplace is the Unites States government, whose buildings include the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and media venues and publications.  This racist epithet, repeated now so many times, constitutes not only demonstrated racial harassment of Elizabeth Warren as employee in the national workplace, but also racial harassment of Native peoples in general.  This could be grounds for a Title VII lawsuit against the harasser-in-chief and should be added to the long list of discriminatory, harassing, and retaliatory actions taken by this individual.

Some of you out there might think, “Oh, come on.  This is no big deal.  These are just words.  Let’s move on.”  I would ask you, though, how often will we agree to move on?  The racist-in-chief already lowered the bar so far so as to not only allow, but actually encourage, the violence of Charlottesville, thus chilling and degenerating conversations about racial justice, extreme incarceration, and hate speech.  These highly public statements, made live, on the news, and impetuously, through Twitter, create a hostile work environment for the individuals targeted and for the groups the harasser-in-chief believes they represent.  I also wonder if those who do not belong to legally protected categories but who do experience harm from the hostile work environments that impinge on others’ freedoms have some sort of claim here to insist on improved environments for all.

In this piece from The New York Review of Books (9-28-17), National Legal Director of the ACLU David Cole asks these important questions: “Does the First Amendment need a rewrite in the era of Donald Trump? Should the rise of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups lead us to cut back the protection afforded to speech that expresses hatred and advocates violence, or otherwise undermines equality? If free speech exacerbates inequality, why doesn’t equality, also protected by the Constitution, take precedence?”  Cole examines the elasticity of the First Amendment, stating that fewer millennials have faith in free speech than did previous generations and that some European nations differ from the United States in the scope of prohibitions against racist speech.  While Cole acknowledges the importance of these points, as well as the significance of the 1993 collection of essays titled Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, he still insists: “If free speech is critical to democracy and to holding our representatives accountable—and it is—we cannot allow our representatives to suppress views they think are wrong, false, or disruptive.”  In a speech delivered in Lexington, Virginia, Virginia ACLU Board member Wornie Reed cogently and ardently defended free speech along the same lines, as he does in this piece about the Virginia ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville white supremacist rally leader Jason Kessler.

Ted Gup writes in “Free Speech, but Not for All?” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4-27-17): “Barring speakers or preventing hate speech does not safeguard the oppressed. It empowers the oppressors, and it suggests that their words are to be feared for a compelling, persuasive power that, absent the muzzle, might infect others.”  As Gup defends free speech in his critique of Ulrich Baer’s argument, he makes reference to “Baer and his ilk.”  He cites “abolitionists, gay and lesbian people, civil-rights activists, feminist, and others on the cutting edge of change” as groups who have benefited from unfettered free speech, but then uses Arthur Miller as the principal example of someone who was barred from speaking at the University of North Carolina.  Arthur Miller did not suffer for lack of visibility and invitations to share his work publicly, but many others from the groups cited by Gup certainly have.

Cole, Reed, and Gup make excellent arguments in favor of maintaining free speech laws.  These arguments have sound basis in constitutional law and knowledge of traditional touchstones for democracy.  Nevertheless, I find the arguments also to be steeped in a nostalgia for the United States as the cradle of democracy from centuries past, when founding fathers owned human beings and limited the rights of enslaved individuals and women.  Democratic freedoms played favorites back then, and they still do now.  When I think about the $17 million of taxpayer money used by members of Congress to hush cases of harassment against them, I think again about who gets to speak, who is silenced, and who pays for it all.

My question, then, is this: At what point have we indulged free speech so thoroughly and allowed free speech to become so married to Second Amendment rights that free speech can be said to limit the freedoms of others? If African-Americans and other people of color felt unsafe just existing in the streets of Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, then they were less free to navigate the public sphere during those days.  If Nazis and presidents continue to be given maximum public forums to expose hatred, they change the environment and the level of risk for the groups they hate (people of color, migrant peoples, women, non-Christians, LGBTQIA+ individuals, etc.).  Why must someone’s right to use the N-word or the C-word, both of which can constitute physical threats, supersede others’ rights to move through public spaces, which include workplaces, restaurants and stores, schools, and government office buildings?  If the Sessions Justice Department advocates for greater free speech, especially on college and university campuses, can we interpret this as providing a more ample forum for hate speech?  If so, then hateful speech acts will require more corporeal forms of resistance, thus upping the ante on conflict and the real risks and dangers it represents. (*See Tiya Miles’ piece, “Fighting Racism Is Not Just a War of Words,” in the 10-21-17 The New York Times.  See also Adam Harris’ free speech-hateful speech piece in the 10-25-17 The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

In her book License to Harass, Laura Beth Nielsen states: “Rather than seriously engaging in an analysis of the costs and benefits to society of rules that might limit such behavior [hate speech], American courts have treated such conduct as ‘speech,’ which can be regulated only if the state offers a compelling justification.  This doctrinal treatment in effect grants a license to harass.  The judicial protection of offensive public speech works to normalize and justify such behavior” (3). Nielsen then (on page 3, and later in Chapter 7) makes the point that the most legally restricted form of public/street speech is that of begging, a restriction which demonstrates a significant class bias.  We might consider swinging the pendulum away from granting power to practitioners of hate speech and violent speech and towards those who have already been afforded certain protections under the law (Title VII, Title IX) precisely because of their historically limited free access to public spaces and media outlets.

The harasser-in-chief has created the biggest hostile work environment possible—the United States of America.  We do not have to allow this to continue.