Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Pain and Intimacy: a few Valentine's Day thoughts

I really have no strong feelings about Valentine’s Day. I’ve very rarely been in a relationship on Valentine’s Day, so I don’t really have any special memories associated with this holiday. On the other hand, Valentine’s Day never really made me bitter that I always seemed to be in a perpetually single state. And I get mildly annoyed over the whole commercial manipulation of the holiday, but I would say I have stronger feelings about the commercialization of Christmas (which is actually a holiday that I love). So, as I ponder what to write in a feminist Valentine’s Day post, I find myself thinking more about love and relationships in a general sense rather than phenomena associated with the day itself.

One of the things that has been on my mind recently is the pain that inevitably accompanies love and intimacy. When you open your heart to someone and allow yourself to be vulnerable within a relationship, you are opening yourself to hurt and sorrow, no matter how kind and generous the other person. Today, in Slate, Robert Pinsky focused his article on love poetry on the pain associated with love, and I would like to add one more poem to the list of poems he outlines: "Undressing" by Rumi (and translated by Coleman Barks).


Learn the alchemy true human beings
know: the moment you accept

what troubles you’ve been given, the door
will open. Welcome difficulty

as a familiar comrade. Joke with
torment brought by the Friend.

Sorrows are the rags of old clothes
and jackets that serve to cover,

then are taken off. That undressing,
and the naked body underneath, is

the sweetness that comes after grief.

What I love about this poem is the way that it presents sorrow and pain not only as natural occurrences, but also as things to be embraced. At the end of the poem, he seems to indicate that accepting (and eventually letting go of) sorrow can be an erotic experience. On a broader level, this reminds me that physical and emotional closeness are intrinsically connected, and our experiences with one will affect the other (and vice versa). What I think about most when I read this poem, however, are experiences in my own life that have proven to me that the process of accepting, working through, and letting go of the sorrow and pain that inevitably come from intimacy is an immensely powerful and freeing experience.

So, this Valentine's Day, my feminist resolve is to "welcome difficulty" and recognize it's a necessary (and postentially freeing) part of close, meaningful relationships.

(I pulled my copy of this poem from a book called The Glance: Songs of Soul Meeting, published by Penguin in 1999.)

Entry for the Feminist Valentine Blog Awards

Read more

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Busy life temporarily taking over

I have a bunch of ideas for blog posts floating around in my head, but I can't write them until I get my dissertation prospectus done (I have my meeting with my committee this Wednesday) and my grading finished (I just got the second set of papers from my students, and I haven't even looked at the first set). So, if there's anyone out there reading this, I'll be around only sporadically within the next week. When I'm somewhat caught up with everything I'll come back and finish my thoughts on choice and work (I already have those posts partially composed), and some new posts I've been pondering on feminism, emotion, the body, pedagogy, and more.

Read more

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Eighth Carnival of Feminists

Here's the Eighth Carnival of Feminists. Thanks much to Gendergeek for all their hard work putting it together. Go and read all the fabulous posts!

Read more

Monday, February 06, 2006

Betty Friedan tribute

NYT article: Betty Friedan dies at age 85

A lot of the gender battles I deal with in my life center around problems outlined by Friedan, and she's really given me a language to talk to other men and women about my own life goals and dissatisfactions.

Her most well-known work centers around issues of the home, family, and work; she gave women who were told that complete joy in life came from being a mother and housewife a language to talk about the ways in which they were unhappy with their lives. She helped these women find one another and start talking about the other desires they had for their lives. She got women thinking about an issue that is still central to feminism, and that I find central to my own feminist values and endeavors: fulfillment.

The attitude that women can be completely fulfilled in the home is an attitude that is still prevalent in my own religious community (Mormon), and I find it difficult to explain to others my joy in academia and the way in which the fulfillment I can find as a wife or mother cannot replace the fulfillment that I find in academic settings (I need both to feel completely fulfilled). So much of the talk about women and work centers around women working for selfish reasons (wanting a bigger house, more cars, etc). Because Friedan got women talking about their lives in terms of avenues of fulfillment, I find I have an easier (if not easy) time talking about my own desires for fulfillment that fall outside the traditional marriage/children paradigm.

Admittedly, I haven't had a chance to experience the wife/mother aspects of my life yet, but I hope to be able to continue to pursue my academic goals and keep on teaching college students when I do enter into those stages of my life. I have a difficult time envisioning myself happy without the fulfillment I find from engaging with my colleagues in literary discussions, talking to students about feminism, etc.

Yes, Friedan's vision was limited: she mainly addressed the lives of middle to upper-class white women, and she had a hard time accepting women of alternate sexualities, especially when she was the president of NOW. But she's given me and other women a way to talk about what we want in our lives beyond the traditional roles that were allowed to women in the past. And for that I thank her.

Read more

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Chocolate Cake Is Not a Tool of the Patriarchy

Reading Hugo Schwyzer’s repost on feminism and food this past week dislodged some thoughts I’ve had in my brain lately about feminism and fashion. He writes,
I am a great believer that one of the most important narratives in feminist history is that of women’s struggle to gain the right to pleasure. Broadly speaking, patriarchal culture tells women that their only source of permissible pleasure and happiness is centered on others….This is what feminists call the ‘doctrine of contingent happiness’—the old fancy that virtuous women only derive real, enduring joy solely through sharing with others.
In his post he applies his belief in the importance of affirming pleasure to the issue of food, which he argues is one of the dominant realms where women’s pleasure is couched in moral terms (if you eat the chocolate cake, then you’re "bad," you’re doing something "sinful," etc.). He argues that this is a problem.

I think another arena where women find pleasure and that is slightly trickier to navigate than the issue of food is that of fashion (chocolate cake is not even marginally a tool of the patriarchy). One of the biggest trends in feminism in the last decade and a half has been to analyze the beauty and fashion industries and detail the harmful effects they have on women (see, for example, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth). Trends such as the fashion industry’s celebration of thinness, the objectification of women’s bodies in advertising, and society’s emphasis on beauty as a means to social power have had numerous deleterious effects on women’s body-images, eating behaviors, sense of self-worth, ability to wield real social power, etc.

While I agree that the beauty and fashion industries are highly destructive to women, at the same time, I want to figure out how to validate women’s pleasure in fashion, clothing, etc. This is partly a selfish motivation, but I find that it’s important for feminism to take account of the real things that women take pleasure in, even if we want to critique these practices on certain levels.

Because women have been allowed so little pleasure in their own lives (as Hugo pointed out, women have been told throughout history that their pleasure should reside solely in serving others), I think we need to be careful about how we approach the arenas in life where women truly are allowed pleasure. While I think the approach that Hugo takes is important—he wants to look at arenas where women are criticized for exhibiting pleasure and reclaim those arenas—I think we also need to rethink the arenas where women currently are allowed to exhibit pleasure. Ideally, I think we need to figure out how to reclaim those spaces as feminist spaces without destroying the pleasure women find there.

Women finding pleasure in clothing and fashion is definitely part of our cultural discourse, and it’s generally more acceptable for women to find pleasure here than in other arenas. While I think we need to critique the ways in which the beauty and fashion industries can subvert this pleasure into behaviors and practices that further sexism and oppression, I think the answer to thinking about women’s pleasure in fashion is not to say "because the beauty industry is so harmful, you should avoid all manifestations of it in our culture." No matter how far women stay away from the beauty industry, their choices about clothing and fashion take place in a patriarchal culture where all the choices that women make about fashion are going to be used to oppress them.

In general, the issue of women’s pleasure in patriarchal culture is a tricky one. Women’s desires can always be co-opted and used against them, but the answer is to try to reclaim one’s pleasure not eliminate it. I think that women can also think about how to combine their pleasure for fashion and clothing (the women who do find pleasure in these things, since I know many women who could care less) with their political and social choices.

One choice is to think about how "pleasure is political". While I don’t think this means we should say "if women take pleasure in it, it’s okay and there are no problems," we should acknowledge and validate women’s pleasure while simultaneously asking them to think about where that pleasure comes from. When it comes to fashion, are women taking pleasure in the aesthetics of form and line? Are they taking pleasure in the texture of clothing? Are they taking pleasure in something that is theirs alone? (I am reminded here of the story "A Pair of Silk Stockings" by Kate Chopin.) Are they taking pleasure in conforming to societal beauty ideals? Are they taking pleasure in the societal status having brand-name clothing brings them? If we can more clearly identify the sources of women’s pleasures, we can more easily critique those we find problematic while figuring out how to affirm the pleasure in things such as the form and texture of clothing.

We also need to combine our pleasure with other political choices. When thinking about clothing and fashion, it is important for middle-class women in America to realize that the majority of their clothing is made by women working in horrible conditions in third-world countries for little to no money. We (and I’m speaking to myself here) need to be more aware of how our choices as consumers in the fashion and beauty markets are political choices with global implications.

Fashion is a social and political practice. Even if you stay as far away from the fashion and beauty industries as possible, you are still making decisions about your clothing and appearance every day. Fashion doesn’t only include the designers in the magazines—it includes people who choose to dress in certain ways to make political or social statements. People often use fashion to define themselves as being part of or in antagonism to certain communities. Here’s the question I end up with that I’m still figuring out how to answer: how might feminists (and women in general) think about taking pleasure in things such as clothing and fashion while simultaneously using their fashion choices in conscious ways to reflect and comment on their political and social communities? Is the only way to do this to run as far away from the fashion industry as possible, or might one imagine how to “reclaim fashion” in ways that resist patriarchal structures and conventions? I’m still trying to think out how, but I’d like to think the latter is possible.

Read more

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Choice, Judgment, Responsibility, and Accountability

As evidenced by a number of my posts in the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the issue of "choice" and how that relates to the choices women make, especially in terms of family and career. I decided I wanted to do some further writing on the issue, and this is the first resulting post. I have ideas for at least two other posts which I’ll try to write in the upcoming week or two, and then I guess I’ll see where that leaves me.

As I thought about this issue this past week, I went back and reread an article by Linda Hirshman published in American Prospect a few months ago. There was a lot of uproar in both conservative and liberal circles to Hirshman’s article (see this article for a critique, and this article for an overview of some of the critiques).

In this article, Hirshman defines "choice feminism," which is a variety of feminism that purports "A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as 'feminism' as long as she chose it." She argues that "choice feminism" has failed because while it has opened doors for women within societal institutions, it hasn’t addressed the fact that women still believe their place is in the home. She argues that there is a problem when women justify their acceptance of traditional gender roles with the declaration that it’s their choice, and that feminism needs to go beyond affirming the choices of women:
Conservatives content that the dropouts prove that feminism "failed" because it was too radical, because women didn’t want what feminism had to offer. In fact, if half or more of feminism’s heirs…are not working seriously, it’s because feminism wasn’t radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn’t change men, and, more importantly, it didn’t fundamentally change how women related to men.”
According to Hirshman, since "choice feminism" didn’t go far enough, we need to reintroduce the practice of "judgment" to feminism.

Despite my general wariness of judgment (see my previous post on this subject, especially the conclusion) I can’t dismiss Hirshman’s conclusion. Feminism is a worldview that is profoundly about making judgments—judgments about society, judgments about the way men and women interact, etc. In my book, things such as violence against women and eating disorders are "bad choices," and I want to use my feminism to make this kind of judgment about these issues. At the same time, there is a problematic "culture of judgment" that surrounds the choices that women do make, and women often feel guilty for the good choices that they make because we as a society feel like it is our duty to judge women’s choices, especially when it comes to how their choose to negotiate family and work demands.

So, how do we negotiate this morass of "choice" and "judgment"? To what extent does feminism ask us to make judgments of other women’s choices? In my mind, I think it’s a delicate balancing act. We need to try to figure out how to respect and trust women’s autonomy and ability to make good choices about their own lives (because women have not gotten enough recognition of this kind), while still recognizing that their choices and beliefs are influenced and dictated by culture and society.

I love jedmunds from Pandagon’s thoughts on the issue. She writes in response to Hirshman,
What Hirshman seems to want to believe is that the answer to the nauseating "choice" feminism, which isn’t really a brand of feminism so much as a backlash phenemenon anyway, is to find the "right" choices and guilt women into making them. I wish it was that easy, I do, but I quarrel with the idea that there is a "right" choice in a male-dominated society. But every "choice" women make has a built-in punishment to it, something she has to give up that men with the same goals and desires don’t have to sacrifice....My point is there is middle ground between this silly "all choices are feminist" crap and a more nuanced understanding that all choices women make are in response to oppressive forces and have to be understood as essentially surviving choices.
In my previous post, one of my central points was that women don’t have the freedom of choice that they think they have--their choices (and really, the choices of everyone) are constrained by societal norms, institutions, etc.

I think the answer in how to balance the dilemmas of "choice" and "judgment" often lies not in dictating the "right" choices but 1) getting women to recognize how their choices are constrained in a male-dominated society and 2) change societal norms and structures so that women aren’t forced to make "essentially surviving choices." It requires us to look at the causes and motivations behind the choices that women make and try to keep the majority of judgments in that realm.

I think the issues here are responsibility and accountability, words that often go hand in hand with "choice." The question is: who or what is responsible for the choices that women make, and who is responsible for holding those who are responsible accountable?

In answer to the first part of the question, I think we need to recognize a dual responsibility. Women should be held responsible for their own decisions (I think a recognition of this goes hand in hand with affirming women’s autonomy and abilities), but I think we also need to recognize the ways that society shapes, influences, and limits women’s choices. When society presents a woman with two equally bad choices, is she fully responsible for making a "bad" choice? I would argue "no."

My answer to the second part of the question goes back to how I think we need to approach the issue of judgment and women’s choices. Because it is difficult to fully understand and appreciate the reasons behind individual women’s choices, and because a multitude of individual women’s choices typically do not have direct impact on our daily lives, I think we (as individuals) need to be wary about holding individual women accountable. For instance, my friend Dolly’s decision to go back to work when she has an infant doesn’t directly impact me, and therefore, she is not accountable to me, which means that I need to reserve judgment. At the same time, I think that society and its institutions are accountable to its members in ways that individual members of society often aren't; we can make judgments about society and the ways it shapes women’s beliefs and decisions in problematic ways and hold society "accountable" by critiquing these problems trying to make changes. I think that we need to focus our attention on society and the way it sets up "choice" for women in problematic ways before we can truly address the "right" or "wrong"-ness of the choices that women make.

Read more

Emotional Connectedness

Last night I had my first studio class with my voice teacher and some of his other students, and I came out of it emotionally renewed in a way I hadn't been in months.

I find music (especially singing) in general to be emotionally uplifting, but my emotional response to last night’s class was not merely because I and the other students were performing beautiful songs. In our feedback on each others’ performances, we really focused in on discussing how each of us could strengthen our emotional connection with the audience, and by the end of the night, each of us had practiced really emotionally connecting with each other through the pieces we were performing.

While the music was beautiful and touching, I think what I valued most was the emotional connectedness I felt when each of us was willing to be emotionally open and vulnerable through our performances. I haven’t felt that way in awhile, and when that’s missing from my life, I forget how it feels, how much I miss it, and how much peace it brings me.

So, after studio class, not only was I thinking about how to improve my singing, I was thinking about ways to increase the occurrences of emotional connectedness in my life. I haven’t had any brilliant revelations on how to do this, but it’s mulling around in the back of my head.

Read more

On Academic Freedom

Check out this post by Michael Berube on academic freedom. He not only defines the term and talks about its importance, but he talks about the ways in which the right (especially people like Horowitz) has been trying to redefine the term in order to accomplish their agenda (which includes undermining and eliminating academic freedom). It's long, but it's well worth the read.

Read more

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Third gender wage gap post

Here's Echidne of the Snake's third (and final, I believe) post on the gender wage gap. In this post, she addresses the wingnuts who seem to have difficulties understanding economic theory and data. The post has some more good discussion on women and "choice" when it comes to work issues.

Read more

Monday, January 23, 2006

Some great links

Here's part 2 of Echidne of the Snake's posts on the gender wage gap. In this post she talks about actual empirical evidence that surround the various theories she outlined last week.

A movie rule that really illustrates the ways in which representations of women in the media (in this case, film) are limited.

Read more

"Radical Heterosexuality": Do We Want Equality?

I get frustrated by the disconnect I see in my life between how I act in relationships with others (especially those of the male-female variety) and how I ideally see myself acting in my head. Maybe that’s why the article “Radical Heterosexuality” by Naomi Wolf that my Women’s Studies’ students read this past semester (and that I hadn’t read before) struck such a chord for me.

Admittedly, it’s a dated article; it speaks to some debates in feminism that aren’t dominant issues anymore. For example, once of Wolf’s central questions is whether or not you can simultaneously love men and be a feminist. She answers “yes” (and then writes about how one goes about doing that in the rest of the article), but I think that most feminists these days would not disagree with her on this issue. We’ve moved from painting men as the enemy to recognizing that both men and women are caught up in societal institutions that create inequalities and shape our behavior and choices.

The parts of Wolf’s article I did find compelling were the moments where she detailed how feminists should act in their relationships with men. Instead of merely critiquing men for the ways in which they end up dominating relationships, she points her fingers at feminists and critiques them for the ways in which they allow their own behavior to be dictated by socialization and gendered expectations.

At one point in the article, she humorously narrates how she often will stand by while her partner “wrestles with a stuck window, an intractable computer printer, maps, or locks” because “people are lazy—at least I am—and it’s easy to rationalize that the person with the penis is the one who should get out of a warm bed to fix the snow on the TV screen.” One issue she spends a particular amount of time on is the way in which feminists have been socialized with an “antifeminist erotic template” (i.e. knights on white horses with damsels in distress), and that we need to acknowledge that this socialization exists and do our best to unpack and understand it, and afterwards, strive for equality in our relationships.

The past few months, I’ve been thinking about my own struggles with this issue. I think I worry about this more on a communicative and interactive than on a practical skills level (I’m not good with computers and fixing things, and if the person I’m with is much better than I am at it, I think he should do it by virtue that it’s going to take him about 1/10 of the time that it will take me). However, there are areas of my relationships where my ideals of equality don’t match the reality.

For instance, to what extent do the ways in which I demand emotional sensitivity and empathy from others produce these desirable characteristics, and to what extent do they place me in a protective emotional bubble where everyone around me has to step carefully lest I get upset? The latter puts me in a position where it 1) becomes increasingly difficult for me to take responsibility for my own emotional reactions and 2) doesn’t enable me to participate as a full equal in a messy-yet-hopefully-joyous emotional relationship.

To what extent is my tendency to look at things from multiple perspectives and validate the perspectives of others a good quality, and to what extent do I take this too far and allow my own visions, thoughts, and opinions to be subsumed into the thoughts and opinions of others? The latter puts me in a position where my unique perspective is not equally heard and valued in my daily environments and interactions.

I find the whole issue immensely tricky. My socialized/innate (it’s some of both) behaviors don’t fit the ideal in my head, and it’s difficult to change. Also, sometimes you want to take advantage of the benefits of inequality because you don’t get the benefits of equality; you’d rather have the latter, but if you can’t, the former is better than no benefits at all. But then you end up reinforcing dynamics of inequality that are making you unhappy.

I do think women are repeatedly silenced, demeaned, and oppressed in subtle ways that are often difficult to pinpoint. I think it’s important to look at how institutions and socialization reinforce these tendencies. However, I think each woman needs to look at the ways in which she allows herself to be silenced. We need to look at the ways we take advantage of unequal gendered positions rather than demanding equality in all its beauty and difficulty.

(I took the quotes from Wolf’s article from the anthology “Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives,” edited by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, and published by McGraw-Hill in 2004).

Read more

Friday, January 20, 2006

My Brain Is Not Working Properly

I’m not really up to posting any thoughts today because my brain is not working properly. It’s been a long week and I slept horribly last night (I had a bunch of stressful dreams, and I couldn’t stay asleep). So, I’ll refer you to some other interesting reading. First, I thought I’d include an Emily Dickinson poem that describes my state of mind today (Dickinson is always apt in situations such as these):

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind --
As if my Brain had split --
I tried to match it -- Seam by Seam --
But could not make it fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before --
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls -- upon a Floor.

Second, if you want something dense and interesting and intellectual to read, follow this link to Echidne of the Snake’s first in a series of posts on the gender wage gap. It’s a post about different theories behind why the gender wage gap exists, and on Monday, she’s going to start referencing empirical evidence. It’s long, but it’s good. She’s an economist and knows what she’s talking about, but it’s still understandable for the non-economist (i.e. me). Also, she has a bunch of stuff in her post about choice and its implications for gender and work, which is my current favorite topic.

For those of you who are eagerly awaiting my next eloquent post (yes, that’s sarcasm), I’ve got a lot of thoughts swirling through my mind, and I’ll try to see if I can’t achieve more coherency on them later this weekend.

Read more

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Humor, Fear, and Civil Liberties: Ariel Dorfman after the MLA

At MLA last month one of my favorite bits was Ariel Dorfman's talk on what it means to be a public intellectual. He engagingly narrated a story about losing the only copy of his original address because he was interrogated in an airport on his way to the MLA (during which interrogation the interrogators confiscated his speech). The story was a fabrication, and here's an essay on why he gave the speech he did as well as his thoughts about what happened afterwards:

Tomgram: Ariel Dorfman on How Bush Makes Fiction of Us All

I love the the layered nature of both his original talk as well as the essay above. They illustrate a keen sense of humor and intellectual play, a willingness to not take oneself too seriously, while simultaneously containing a deeper subtext on the fears of not only academics but many Americans who see our civil rights being increasingly eroded in the name of safety and freedom. Highly recommended reading.

Read more

Blog Name Change

I was thinking about the posts I've made my to blog this past week and the focus that seems to be emerging from them, and I decided a name change was in order. The new name of my blog is taken from H.D.'s Notes on Thought and Vision, and it refers to a higher level of consciousness she experienced while pregnant with her child. The image she gives is of a big jellyfish sitting on her head with feelers extending into the world (isn't that a fabulous image?). I love the image because

1) it signifies H.D.'s connection to the world around her (the image seems congruent with the repeated phrase in her novel HERmione "Things are in people. People are in things.")

2) it was a way of perceiving the world that was an attempt to unify her mind with her embodied experiences

3) it emerges from her experiences as a woman--she writes that this "jelly-fish consciousness" emerges not only from her mind, but also from her womb

I chose this name for my blog because for me it describes a way of perceiving and connecting with the world that stems from both the intellect as well as gendered, embodied experiences.

Read more

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Visit the Carnival of the Feminists

I just discovered the Carnival of the Feminists, and I'd thought I'd link to the most recent one, which is on Feminism and Pop Culture. A few of my favorite posts from this Carnival:

The Happy Feminist's Loooong Post on How Rape Victims Themselves Often Fail to Grasp That They Have the Right to Be Free of Forced Sex. A thought-provoking and revealing post about an important subject.

Literary Mama's response to Darla Shine. It's a really fabulous post about motherhood and working mothers that speaks to a lot of things I've been thinking about the past few days (see my last post).

Philoillogica's post on representations of women's bodies in Gunther Von Hagens' art exhibit "Body Worlds." It's a long, dense, thoughtful post on art, science, and the differences between representations of men's bodies and women's bodies.

A post at Philobiblon about some cool quotes from pamphlets published by the government during World War II. I wish the government would post stuff like this now. And, yes, I know it's another post about parenthood and work--but it's cool.

Read more

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Feminism and Choice (no, this is not a post about abortion)

It was slightly strange reading Rebecca Traister’s interview with Kate O’Beirne in Salon this afternoon after having a tension-filled conversation about women, work, and family (among other things) earlier today. In feminist blogger circles, Rebecca Traister is being criticized for not offering stronger critiques of O’Beirne’s comments, and O’Beirne’s logic is being critiqued because she can 1) only recognize her own experience and 2) she’s creating a "strawfeminist" rather than taking on the complexities of feminist thought (see Jill’s post at Feministe for an excellent critique of the article).

I completely agree with the critiques of the article, but I struggle a little formulating my own critique, primarily because I typically want to be gentler than Jill is (though if I were talking to someone like O’Beirne, I’m not sure if I would have the same qualms). I regularly find myself in conversations with women saying what O’Beirne says (especially regarding motherhood and work), but because I am friends with these women and because the women typically don’t have O’Beirne’s forceful and uncompromising attitude, I struggle with how to explain my disagreement with their opinions without sounding judgmental, invalidating, etc.

A similar issue often emerges in my Women’s Studies classes. In these classes I am always surprised how emotional the issues of work and motherhood are for my students. I expect strong emotion when we talk about eating disorders and violence against women, but the first time I had students nearly up in arms about motherhood and work, it surprised me. I spent some time thinking about it, and I realized that these students were reacting to societal trends (and comments from other men and women in their lives) that judge all women for the choices they make.

I find that my students who had stay-at-home mothers (or who want to make that choice themselves) feel defensive because they believe (and sometimes rightly so) that other women will question their decision, ask them why they don’t have their own goals, tell them that they’re buying into patriarchy, etc. I find that my students who had mothers that worked (or who want to make a similar choice) feel defensive because they believe (and sometimes rightly so) that other women will judge them for being bad mothers because they worked rather than staying home to take care of their children. What I’ve tried to do is get my students to see how there’s a culture of judgment that surrounds women’s choices, and that’s what we need to be primarily critical of as feminists (rather than the individual decisions that women choose to make).

I also ask my students to critique other factors that limit women’s ability to make good and right choices in her life. One thing that bothered me about the interview was O'Beirne's refusal to see how her class, race, and historical placement enabled her to have certain choices, choices that other women are routinely denied. I find that most of the students in my in my Women's Studies class who don't identify as feminists reject feminism because they say that now that they can be anything they want to be, we don't need feminism anymore.

One of the things we try to do in the class is get students to recognize that just because they have those choices doesn't mean other women don't. As Jill says in her critique of O’Beirne,
Something was really getting under my skin about this interview, and it finally hit me with this quote: O’Beirne seems to be operating under the idea that all women are white, middle or upper class, working in career-track jobs, and making choices completely freely out of selfishness or individual desire as opposed to basic necessity. I would be fully in favor of subsidizing stay-at-home parenthood, but why not also subsidize childcare and maternity leave so that women actually have choices — and to give a little help to the many women who must work to financially support their families? And if we’re looking at “the choices that women make,” the fact is that most women work.

It’s important to get students (which at the university where I teach, are typically white, middle-to-upper-class students) to recognize that they are privileged because they have the choice to attend a good university and pursue their career of choice (or to marry a man who can pursue his career of choice so that they can stay home with their children). I usually try to do more than this, though, in my classes. I often find that the class makes the most sense to my students when we are able to get them to see this phenomenon in their own life: to recognize how while they are being told they have complete freedom of choice, there are real societal pressures and forces that are saying the opposite.

This is typically what I struggle with when I talk to other women (especially those I associate with at church) about the issues outlined above. While the LDS church teaches that choices have consequences and that some choices are better than others (a teaching that I agree with and think most feminists would subscribe to, though there may be differences of opinion about what constitutes a “good” choice), it is difficult for some to see my choice to pursue academic and career goals as a good and worthwhile choice. Or, they see it as a good choice, but one that will interfere with the better choice of being a mother and raising a family. It is ingrained into women so forcefully that the only worthwhile choice is to be a mother and raise a family, that women who pursue other goals (even those who become mothers and are good mothers) are often portrayed as selfish and making bad choices. I hope that someday we can get to a point where we recognize that you can make multiple good choices simultaneously, and where we can recognize the ways in which the only choices some women have are between an equal number of bad choices. Also, I hope that we can learn that because of our lack of knowledge about other women’s lives, we need to be cautious about making judgments about any of their choices. We should stick to making decisions about our own; in my opinion, that’s hard enough.

Read more

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Political Cycling

I think I'm entering one of my political down cycles again. A bit of background: in my life, I'll get really intensely interested in something and then I'll get tired or frustrated with it (I notice this pattern with food a lot--I'll eat something every day for 3 weeks or so, and then I won't eat it again for months and months). However, I notice that my interest in politics tends to be motivated by an excitement/depression cycle rather than a I like it/I'm bored of it cycle. Right around when the Iraq war started I got really despondent every time I listened to political news; every time I tried to tune in to what was going on, I would end up in a bad emotional place. Then when the elections rolled around I started reading political blogs and reading the news every day; I even started watching C-Span for fun this past year.

In the past month, however, my enthusiasm has started to wane. I'm not sure yet if it's just that I need a break to get back into things, or if I'm going to end up where I was a few years ago. I think my frustration stems from the fact that despite the administration's abuses of power, they just keep trying (and succeeding for the most part) to get away with more and more. And then I watch the Democrats and the way they can't seem to deal with the Republicans very effectively a lot of the time as well as their abandonment of progressivism, and I get even more frustrated. Maybe as the elections approach this fall, I'll get inspired again. I guess I'll just have to wait and see where this cycle takes me.

Read more

Friday, January 13, 2006

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich essay

There's a really good Laurel Thatcher Ulrich essay up on the Exponent II blog, which I hadn't read before. It resonates with my own tendency to think about the Priesthood in the LDS church pretty exclusively in terms of "the power of God." I typically avoid thinking about the gendered dynamics and implications of the priesthood because I just end up getting angry and frustrated. I appreciate her argument about the ways in which using the word "priesthood" to refer to the men's organizations in the church creates problems in our understanding of its meaning and importance (thinking about the priesthood as the power of God is no small thing). The double-reference is also another example of the problematic discursive space surrounding the roles and importance of women in the LDS church.

I know that I'm just going to have to be patient until I (or the church) can resolve this issue to my satisfaction. In the meantime, I appreciate essays such as this. While I think Ulrich's thoughts and cautions can be used to implement changes on a pragmatic (primarily discursive) level, it's also nice to hear someone else express more cogently my own emotional gut reactions.

Read more

On the Limits of Empathy and Emotional Distance (with some poetry thrown in for good measure)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the issues of emotions and empathy the past week, mostly because my life has been pretty emotionally crazy and I’m feeling distant from most of the people around me. I was reading through one of my favorite poetry books, And Her Soul Out of Nothing by Olena Kalytiak Davis (U of Wisconsin P, 1997), and came across the poem “Against Devotion.” In this poem Davis tries to negotiate the difficulties of having emotions and empathizing with others. She starts with representations of empty sympathy/empathy:

It’s just the same old raging
condolence. The same old wild sympathy
pulled up to prove you’re not
without a heart. The fevered understanding
offered from the barstool, from this side
of the confessional’s grate. The ardent
I’m-so-sorry, the willing I-hear-you,
as the gentle samaritan you are
inconspicuously leans away from the crazed
whisper: My life’s so fucked up.
It’s just someone else’s violent
dying. It’s just your childhood friends stuck
in an oversized world. The crippled
talking. The exhausting
confiding. The not really

She then goes on to talk about how she finds comfort in the non-human world—the shape of inanimate objects, the presence of natural objects, etc:

It’s the simple fact that
what’s most touching
is the angle at which some roof leans
against the sky. The shockingly thin
trees, the stunning mosaic
of light. The way the stars keep
arranging themselves
into constellations. The way the moon’s
always somewhere
in the sky.

Then she concludes the poem with thoughts about her own and others’ emotional states, ending on the image of a “heart” opening like a flower and bursting (“dissilent”):

What’s most heartbreaking
is this rib piercing this lung. That I’m
as breathless as this
over nothing. Wanting everything
bending, layered and resilient: the parquetry,
the click of heels like the stove
setting itself on fire: My friends,
its our hearts, we should be
walking around grabbing our hearts,
for what could be more burdened,
more efflorescent? Tell me, what’s
as unfolding, as spiked and as shooted
as this, our dissilient heart.

I’m not quite sure what to do with the end of the poem. Despite the inadequacies of humans trying to understand and console one another and what she sees as the comforting presence of natural objects, she returns to images of people and seems to indicate that we should be focused on our aching and bursting hearts; yet, she doesn’t directly contradict her thoughts on the limitations of consolation at the start of the poem. It’s a message that seems to point to an emptiness in human communication while refusing to let people be completely satisfied with finding consolation elsewhere. Additionally, she ends with the phrase “our dissilent heart,” an image that connects the speaker and listener. It tells them that they have the same heart (note, it’s “heart” and not “hearts”). She ends with an image that connects people, while most of the poem talks about the ways in which people are consumed with their own hearts, try to connect, but can’t.

While I believe in the importance of humans reaching out to one another in order to find some kind of emotional comfort, I’ve been thinking recently about how difficult that is to achieve sometimes. We get too consumed with our own emotional states, we don’t really listen to others, we say phrases that are meant to be comforting while emotionally backing off. Also, there are times when you are really putting in emotional energy to understand someone else, yet it just doesn’t seem to be adequate. I agree with Davis that sometimes it can be comforting to remove yourself and find peace in other things, objects that are just present and beautiful. At the same time, I keep returning to what she returns to—my “dissilent heart” and the fact that it’s not just mine—it’s “ours.”

I cycle from wanting emotionally intense and connected relationships to being emotionally removed from others because of the inadequacies of relationships, and I’m left confused about what to do. I know I will continue to cycle from the joy and pain of interaction to the solace of distance, yet I think I grow increasingly convinced that the solace of distance is accompanied by its own version of pain. You can’t remove yourself from your own heart and the hearts of others without eventually feeling a certain kind of emptiness. The “stunning mosaic of light” is “touching,” but it’s not adequate.

Read more

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?