Applying the past to 2020

While it has been flying under the radar a bit in this cataclysmic year, 2020 is the centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, recognizing women’s right to vote.

B, T, and I recently watched a four-hour documentary on PBS, entitled The Vote. (At the moment, you can stream it for free by following the link.) It was a reminder to me of the long struggle to secure the vote for all women in the US and how interwoven it was with issues of religion, abolition, temperance, racism, property rights, wealth, war, and social mores. The derisive and/or violent reaction to the nearly always peaceful demonstrations that the women undertook seems frighteningly current.

T and I also saw Gloria: A Life, a docu-play based on the life of Gloria Steinem. The performance was filmed with the audience there, the first act as a play and the second act a discussion with the audience featuring Gloria Steinem herself. Like Steinem and Betty Friedan, I am an alumna of Smith College; while there I had taken an early women’s studies course, before the formation of an academic department of women/gender studies. By the time I was a teen, the Second Wave of feminism was well underway, so I recognized many of the names of Steinem’s feminist activist-colleagues. Early on in the play, there is a tribute to the many women of color who were leaders in the movement. One of the strange phenomenon that happened was that, even early on, the press would disproportionately cover and feature Steinem, marginalizing other leaders, especially those of color. This has led to the enduring false impression that Second Wave feminism was a white middle-class movement, when it was in reality what would now be termed “intersectional.” It drew together women’s rights with issues of race, immigration, sexual orientation, gender expression, union/labor rights, violence, medical care, and more.

This was particularly striking at this time when we see activists who had been working on issues in isolation now drawing together in this time of pandemic and outcry for social and racial justice. We see them supporting each other and crafting policy proposals to address the common good. I am so encouraged to see the #BuildBackBetter movement put forward plans that take into account historic racism, marginalization, discrimination, oppression, environmental degradation, unfair wages, etc. and take steps to redress the wrongs and put in place an equitable, fair, safe, and comprehensive system.

2020 has been immeasurably difficult, but we all have the opportunity to make a better future. Let’s go! The United States needs to live up to its highest ideals and join with the world community to heal the planet and all its inhabitants.

One-Liner Wednesday: listening

“There’s nothing more radical than listening.”
~~ Gloria Steinem

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My first MOOC

I am a proud alumna of Smith College, one of the oldest women’s colleges in the United States. I am committed to the liberal arts tradition of pursuing education in both breadth and depth and am eager to learn new things.

So, when Smith announced that it was offering its first ever MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), entitled Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World, I jumped at the chance to sign up, ultimately joining over 5,000 participants from 140 countries.

The seven-week course, taught by Professor Lauren Duncan, was scheduled to begin March 21. In the weeks prior, I had carefully planned for the three to five hours a week that the course was projected to take.

Within the first twenty-four hours that the course was available online, my mother-in-law died after suffering a heart attack.

I wasn’t sure whether or not I would still be able to do all the course activities as I had planned. In one of our first assignments, we had to state our learning goals. I honestly said that I didn’t know how well I would be able to keep up, but that I intended to try.

Back in the day, I was a very good student – and hyper-conscientous. Those instincts reasserted themselves and, even though I was exhausted and overwhelmed, I kept up with the coursework, which often took longer than five hours for me to complete, until the last week. We were to write a five to ten page paper and critique another student’s paper – and I just did not have the time/brain power/concentration to do it. It was some comfort that, because I had completed all the other work, I had enough points to pass the course, had I actually been taking it for credit, which I wasn’t…

Despite my less than optimal participation, I was very pleased to have taken this course and learned a lot from it. I have admired many activists and it was interesting to gain insights into their personal makeup and motivations. Given that I have been involved in  activism myself in several different areas, including feminism, social justice, and environmentalism, I was also able to see some of what I learned alive in me.

The course used the lives of eight activists to help teach various theories of the psychology underlying group identity and activism. Our first step was to choose one of the eight women to study in depth by reading her oral history transcript from the Smith College Archives. Our choice divided us into study groups facilitated by Professor Duncan’s on-campus student assistants.

I chose Katsi Cook, who is a member of the Mohawk nation and an activist for feminism and indigenous rights, combining in her work as a midwife/educator utilizing medical knowledge in a culturally appropriate practice, and for environmental justice. Since my New England childhood, where we lived in an area that had once been home to the Mohawk nation, I have been interested in the indigenous peoples of North America, so I loved reading about Katsi’s experiences as a Mohawk, particularly the storytelling aspect. I was also drawn to Katsi as I have a long-standing interest in women’s health issues and in environmental issues.

Even though we each chose one activist to study in depth, we learned about all the others, who were active in racial issues, gender issues, and civil rights, through their timelines and other course references. Each week, we also learned about Smith alum and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. There was even a special discussion board for Gloria Steinem’s segment of the course, which gave us a forum for addressing our own experiences with activism.

After an introductory week in which we chose the activist to study in depth and read her oral history, we used the next five weeks to study a relevant psychological theory, beginning with earlier work and progressing through to more recent developments in the field. We read scholarly articles and viewed Professor Duncan’s lectures on them, along with relevant applications to our group of activists.

I found the earlier weeks, which  involved older theories, to be insufficient to explain Katsi Cook’s or Gloria Steinem’s or my own experiences, although I certainly gained some insights. One of the most important for me was learning about Politicized Racial and Feminist Identity Theory. There is a stage in this theory called immersion in politicized racial identity and embeddedness in feminist identity in which the individual ties themselves so closely to their racial or gender group that they exclude those who don’t belong to their group. In this phase, attitudes toward people outside the group can be very rigid and negative. For the vast majority of people, this phase leads to an emersion/emanation phase, in which the individual develops a more open and nuanced way of relating to people from other identity groups.

Learning about this theory made sense of a situation that bothers me. Many people have a negative connotation of feminism because they think that feminists hate men and feel superior to them, a viewpoint that may be held by women feminists in the embeddedness phase but that is not held by most feminists. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has led many feminists of all ages and genders to be reluctant to use the word feminist to describe themselves. I appreciate and participate in the current efforts to reclaim the accurate use of the words feminism and feminist, but it can be difficult to educate people. It was helpful for me to be able to apply insights from this theory to this current problem.

In the later weeks of the course, we learned more about some more recent developments in psychological theory. One of the most helpful for me in describing what I saw in Katsi Cook’s life and my own was the concept of intersectionality. The theory takes into account that we each have multiple identities which interact and determine our thoughts and actions. For example, I am a woman, a Catholic, a person with roots in the rural Northeast United States, a parent, a college graduate, and an Irish-Italian-American. Those aspects of my identity, along with others, impact my thoughts, actions, and reactions. Causes in which I am active, such as the movement toward women’s ordination in the Catholic church and the climate justice movement, relate in various ways to several aspects of my identity, not just one.

Another concept that struck me in particular in the later weeks was that of generativity. In examining what personality traits and life experiences lead to activism, we examined the impetus to change things for the better for current and future generations and to pass on knowledge and wisdom. All of the activists we studied showed this trait and it is something that I am acutely aware of in my own life. So much of the work of activism is about making change possible for the future, even when you know you are unlikely to see the final results of your work. Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not live to see women gain the federal right to vote in the United States, but her activism helped to make it possible. Many civil rights activists died before seeing Barack Obama elected president, but their witness was vital in moving the country forward. I myself am aware of the generativity aspect of my own activism. I may not see women ordained in the Catholic church but perhaps my daughters will. I won’t know how much impact my work against fossil fuels and for renewable energy and efficiency will have on the extent of global warming, but I feel obligated to future generations to try.

I truly appreciated this course and all I learned from it. The second offering of this course will begin on September 12, just a few days from now. If you are interested you can register here: https://www.edx.org/course/psychology-political-activism-women-smithx-psy374x-0. Professor Duncan has wisely added an audit option for the course, so people can choose to view the course materials and participate in the discussion boards without having to worry about papers, quizzes, and grades.

When things settle down here, I may be on the lookout for another MOOC. There is always so much more to learn.

One-Liner Wednesday: Gloria Steinem quote

“Imagine we are linked, not ranked.”
~~ Gloria Steinem

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Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, and I

A friend posted a link to this article:  http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/19/gloria-steinem-hillary-clinton-white-house?CMP=share_btn_fb on Facebook a few days ago. Gloria Steinem writes about her reactions to Hillary Clinton as she ran for New York Senator and for the Democratic nomination for president and about some other women’s reactions which were not as positive as hers. Her article inspired me to add my own viewpoint.

When Bill Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination for the first time, he was in trouble for reports of him having affairs.  Bill and Hillary appeared for a joint interview on 60 Minutes. I remember thinking that the wrong person was running for president. While Bill is undoubtedly the more charismatic, Hillary struck me as being the more intelligent of the two. Being first lady of Arkansas and then of the United States didn’t really give her the opportunities to reach her full capacity in service and in leadership.

I appreciated that when she ran for Senate in New York she did a lot of listening and I was proud to be able to vote for her. She did a good job as Senator and gained valuable experience. When she ran for the presidential nomination in 2008, I felt she was the stronger candidate than Barack Obama because she had more experience, as Steinem notes in her piece. Because I am an independent and New York has a closed primary system, I wasn’t allowed to vote, though.

The experience Hillary gained as Secretary of State in the Obama administration makes her even more experienced as a candidate now. I do have a problem, though. Because she had to spend so much of her time in the public eye supporting someone else’s vision and having to play the game that women often have to play to prove that they are “tough” enough to participate in predominantly male environments, it is hard to pin down what policies she believes in herself, as opposed to positions she had to take on for other reasons.

While I am excited by the prospect of a woman president and believe that Hillary will gain the Democratic nomination and the presidency, at the moment I am supporting fellow independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Bernie’s progressive views most closely match my own and he has been amazingly consistent in his vision over the decades. I believe his candidacy has been good for Hillary, helping her to articulate her own progressive views that had gotten buried in the years of having to follow the lead of her husband, her party leadership, and President Obama as a member of his Cabinet.

I do deplore the amount of snark – and worse – that women candidates have to endure. As Steinem points out, some of the disapproval comes from other women, where it is often a reflection of dissatisfaction with a woman’s own life rather than an actual disagreement with the candidate. Further, Clinton has to contend with actual hatred directed at her by some partisans. No Congressional committee would have questioned Sec. Colin Powell for eleven hours as the House Benghazi committee did this past week with Clinton. I agree with Steinem that, had I faced the choice to run for Senate that Hillary did, I would have said no. Running for president – twice – is even more punishing.

It feels odd, as a feminist, not to be on Hillary’s bandwagon yet. I am again faced with the situation that I don’t have a vote until the general election, when I fully expect that I will be casting my vote for Hillary Clinton and her running mate. Meanwhile, I will back the candidate whose positions I share most closely, Bernie Sanders.

One-Liner Wednesday: teaching and learning

“We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.”
– Gloria Steinem
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My (Feminist) Story – Chapter 1

I was a feminist before I even knew the word. I grew up in a tiny New England (NE USA) town with two sisters in a house without nearby neighbors. Our school had four grades per room and it happened that my sisters’ grades and mine spent the bulk of our years there with only other girls as classmates. There were boys in the room, of course, but not in our grades. When we went to a high school of about 1200 students in a city twenty miles away, about 80% of the students graduating with honors were girls. I was used to the company of girls, especially academically  and artistically oriented ones, and I took it for granted that women of my generation were intelligent, capable, and would succeed in any field in which we had potential. Despite the lack of a federal Equal Rights Amendment, we were too isolated from the wider situation in the country to realize what we would encounter as adults.

I chose to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, one of the oldest liberal arts colleges for women in the country. I had first visited at the recommendation of my piano/organ teacher and had changed my application to early decision after attending a day on campus that included lunch with current students. The discussion at lunch was so lively and fascinating that I knew I wanted to live and learn in the company of such people. It wasn’t until later in my life that I understood the impact that those people being predominantly women would have on my decisions and worldview.

I was on campus from fall of 1978 through spring of 1982. The student body was reveling in finally having a woman president, Jill Ker Conway, after a century of male presidents. Two pivotal figures in the Second Wave of feminism are Smith alums, Betty Friedan ’42 and Gloria Steinem ’56. Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was based on a questionnaire to her Smith classmates at their 15th reunion. Steinem, at that time, was still an editor and contributor to Ms. Magazine, which she had co-founded. Feminism on campus was mainstream, not radicalized or shouting from the fringe. It was a surprise to all of us on campus when the Harper’s Bazaar article was published. (Sorry, but I couldn’t find the article archived.) Harper’s was somehow shocked to find out that there were lesbians on campus and asserted that they were very influential as a group. This puzzled those of us on campus because, while there was a student organization called the Lesbian Alliance, they chose to retain a degree of anonymity, even blurring their faces in their group’s yearbook photo. While I had friends who were of lesbian or bisexual orientation, it was not a major issue between us. Most women at Smith were then, and are now, heterosexual in orientation, although generally accepting of the full range of gender expression.

The field of women’s/gender studies was just beginning to coalesce during my years on campus. Because I wanted to participate in this emerging field of study at Smith, I chose to take a course called Women and Philosophy, which became one of the most influential and useful courses to me in later life. We studied some of the classic writings of feminist literature and thought- The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the aforementioned Feminine Mystique, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – along with more recent writings, which explored the differing perspectives and predominant issues among subgroups of women in the United States, such as rural women, Latina women, African-American women, lesbians, and women from lower socioeconomic levels.  Depending on the circumstances in which women found themselves, they expressed feminism in different ways, giving different issues greater or lesser emphasis.

There are core beliefs of feminism: that girls and women should have equal opportunities for education and jobs; that equal work deserves equal pay and benefits; that laws should be established which prohibit sex discrimination and that those laws should be enforced; that every person deserves to be respected as an individual and that each person should be free to make choices that work best for their own life; that there is no tolerance for sexual violence or any form of abuse; that society needs to be structured to support personal/family life so that children, elders, the sick, and the disabled have their needs met and so that people can have time for each other and for creative/leisure pursuits. Obviously, many men also hold these views. Some will call themselves feminist. Others won’t. Some people prefer to call themselves humanist because they find feminism to be a scary word or won’t use either feminist or humanist because, in the United States, just about any word ending in -ism is misconstrued as extreme.

That some are afraid to be called feminist because they feel it has a negative connotation is a problem. While I define feminism by the mainstream views in the preceding paragraph, too many people tie the word feminism to the most extreme fringes of the movement. Are there feminists who hate men and say society would be better off without them? Yes, but very, very few. The vast majority of feminists love men, as fathers, spouses, brothers, co-workers, neighbors, sons, etc. Some feminists are also lesbians; this does not mean that all feminists become lesbians. I find it laughable that some people think that going to a women’s college will “turn you into a lesbian.” Seriously, people, it does not work that way. Others think that feminism means that signs of respect are outlawed. If a man holds a door open for me, I will smile and thank him. I will also hold the door open for others, regardless of their gender. I will not, however, stand aside waiting for a man to come along and open the door for me when I can jolly well do it myself. The days of that kind of stifling social etiquette are gone.

Which leads me to my final point: at its base, feminism is about the freedom to live out who you are as an individual without being confined by a preconceived notion of who you are, what you can do, and what you should be doing. It’s about individual people, whatever their gender, following their own heart and mind, developing and using their own abilities without being held back by gender stereotypes. It’s realizing that old expectations/stereotypes don’t apply. Women AND men can be strong, nurturing, tech-savvy, caring, intelligent, intuitive, athletic, contemplative, etc. Aside from a few anatomically based things -sorry, guys, but no nursing of babies for you – it doesn’t make sense to make sweeping statements about how men are this way and women that way. We are all existing along a human continuum where different degrees of different qualities exist in unique combinations and change and develop over time. Unfortunately, in the United States, corporate profits have become such an overwhelmingly important goal, that work only counts as meaningful if it is paid and companies view workers as expenses rather than as assets, so are paying as little as possible, but that could be a whole other post, or series of posts. This situation does, though, highlight to me why we need feminism as much today as we did during the First Wave when women fought for many decades to achieve the right to vote. I don’t believe we can move forward as a civilization without recognizing the importance of and utilizing all the gifts and talents of each person, regardless of their race, spiritual beliefs, gender, ethnicity, or any other factor that has been used to divide or limit people’s potential in the past.

So, I am a feminist, for my own sake, for my mother and sisters and daughters, for my father and husband and nephews, for my friends, and for our society as a whole. I join with many others who believe in the definition of feminism I discuss, whether they call themselves feminist or not. I hope that people will think twice before making sweeping statements against feminism or any belief/philosophy. Don’t discount or vilify the mainstream because of shouting from the fringe.

About this post:  There has been a lot of posting/discussion about feminism on OM’s HarsH ReaLiTy blog and he had put out a call for related posts. The impetus to write this post started there, but I realized I couldn’t say everything I needed or wanted to in one post, so I called this Chapter One. Maybe, some day or other, I’ll write more about post-college life and current issues. After fiddling with this post for weeks, I’ve decided to publish it today, despite its imperfectly expressing everything I want to say.