Category Archives: Politics

“American” dreams really do come true?

Owning your own home was a trend perpetuated by Nixon during his time in office, around the ‘white flight’ and ‘urban sprawl’ era around the 1950s and ’60s. This dream of homeownership was something to be proud of, and has encouraged further enchantment of the purchase, so much as to set a status quo of bigger and shinier as ‘better’. In reality, this may not be the case. Buying a bigger home comes with more household cleaning and maintenance or repair tasks, as well as higher property taxes and insurance rates.

Though, the greatest form of generational wealth in the US comes from real estate; while a high effect of generational poverty also correlates with the status of ‘renter’. After WWII, soldiers were given GI Bills, and thus allowed to put that towards houses, many of which may still be passed down in the family today. But, these policies were not as great as they seemed, for only white soldiers were given the GI Bills; this racial inequality persists today.

Renting may not be all bad though, because it means you have the freedom to move, and live a nomadic life, if you please. Our generation, X, has actually been called the nomadic generation, because many of us do not recognize or fulfill this ‘dream’ any longer. Rather, in our globalized society we have traveled and learned of other cultures. We dream of building new lives elsewhere. Often, those of us who can afford a ‘higher’ education end up falling into more perilous financial situations at future times when paying back our student debt. In the end though, we recognize the benefits of habitual freedom. Growing up our generation witnessed the crash of an entire, obviously unstable, economic system where, in the past decade, many families lost their homes; income inequality growing deeper and deeper. We were witnesses of this forced migration into a nomadic culture immersed in a very idealized, static society.

What does this mean then…”American” dreams really do come true? I’ll sit this one out…
Advertisements
Tagged ,

October 11th, “Day of the Girl”

banner-one3-e1392334376566

 

“In recognition of the importance of investing in and empowering girls during adolescence and preventing and eliminating the various forms of violence they experience, the theme of International Day of the Girl Child for 2014 is Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence.” -United Nations

(Full text: http://www.un.org/en/events/girlchild/)

download png


“In every community across the globe, girls and women should have the opportunity to learn, grow, and achieve their full potential. All nations have a responsibility to protect the basic human rights of all people, and when they do — when girls and women are fully valued as equal participants in a country’s politics and economy — societies are more likely to succeed.” 

“We cannot allow violence to snuff out the aspirations of young women in America, and we must not accept it anywhere in the world. Today, we resolve to do more than simply shine a light on inequality.” -Barack Obama

(Full text: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/10/10/presidential-proclamation-international-day-girl-2014)


Related site links:


Rethinking My Own History

InstagramCapture_3bd84569-bb99-4977-bcd1-4f6758d0dfce

“Power is the combined force of a multitude of voices joined together…”

 

Junior year in my high school US History class we held a presidential-election-tournament-deal, where everyone represented at least one US president whom has ever existed. I drew Ronald Reagan.

That was five years ago now, so the exact details are fuzzy, but when it was my turn to debate with the quieter, more reserved student portraying Franklin D. Roosevelt, I won. Method of victory: slander.

Years of viewing politics from only  an outsiders’ perspective, it seemed to be the correct way. Louder, more boisterous and arguably funnier than my opponent, I barraged  him with unfavorable facts about FDR; facts that were totally irrelevant to the true meaning of politics, but would nonetheless allow me to win (as many actual presidents before me) in a landslide.

At the time, my teacher was completely shocked that I, Reagan, had won the class vote—especially over FDR. While we were learning the politics of campaign work, we were not learning how to ‘do’ effective politics.

It was not until four years later when I decided to take part in the Inequality in America off-campus study program here in the Twin Cities that I truly learned what ‘doing politics’ meant. I was interning as a community organizer for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, while in the class was learning about organizing people to create social change. Not only did my course delve into community organizing through labor movements, but we also learned how to lobby for policies, and what that entails. This was a very transformative and empowering experience because I had never been told that my voice as a citizen and community member could create change—that my voice could, should and would be heard.

In Ken Burns PBS series Wynton Marsalis likens democracy to jazz, “In American life, you have all these different agendas. You have conflict. And we’re attempting to achieve harmony through conflict…that’s what jazz music is. It’s exactly like democracy… The real power of jazz is that a group of people can come together and improvise…negotiate their agendas with each other” (Boyte 2001).

I like this definition of politics. It represents how  as a democracy our collective voices are heard and harmonize to create effective policies. Unfortunately, in our day and age I feel that this view of our democracy has been lost. The only voices heard, are those loud enough to speak over others, usually with their dollars.

In high school I perpetuated this skewed political paradigm and took on the role of the only voice heard by trampling over my quieter opponent. If anything this victory could be likened to the victory of Reagan himself; a rich television actor who “fit” the role of president to a tee. How could he not win? His voice was extremely loud as a wealthy celebrity. But did his popular voice mean he was politically experienced and knowledgeable? Not exactly. Did it mean he knew what the people of this country wanted or needed? I’m not sold. But like in my high school, the silent masses simply went with my overpowering singular voice.

Having learned more of the political and everyday context around Reagan over time, I now see why my teacher was so shocked that I beat FDR. Personally, I am ashamed of my own pride in winning this debate. Looking back on this experience, I wonder how my teacher could have ever let that happen.

Now, don’t think that it was my history teachers fault that I was not an active citizen at that time—it was a variety of aspects made up by my entire environment growing up. If anything, I would consider this teacher one of the most influential women I had met up until that point in my life. She was my first glimpse at feminism and the level of inequality in our political system. Every day my actions and beliefs are shaped by the classes I took with her in high school. At that time though, my 16-year-old self could not grasp the ubiquitous concept of ‘isms’ because I was too wrapped up in my sports, volunteer work, school work, and student clubs to fully confront my own perceptions of inequality in our world.

This Rethink History project is important to me because I believe everyone should be empowered to use their voice in creation of a more equitable world. Especially in our world today where wealth influences our government and major power structures in place, not all voices are heard. Youth are taught not to value our place in this democracy as much we are pushed to get the best test scores. There is no way around the conflict of interest in our political world today, but at least through a rise of cohesive improvisation of all ideas brought to the table we can create a more inclusive view of our countries history and present tense.

 

Boyte, H. (2001). A tale of two playgrounds: Young people and politics. Retrieved from http://inside.augsburg.edu/publicachievement/files/2012/12/A-tale-of-two-playgrounds.pdf

Tagged , , , , ,

Restaurant Justice is a Women’s Rights Issue

I (along with RLA founder Sarah BS) have been working quite a bit this past fall on spreading the word about the Minimum Wage Act and Paid Sick Days Act in Washington, DC that is still under consideration by the DC City Council. The DC minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.77/hr, which simply isn’t enough, given the potential variation in customer tips. Here’s a bit of background on the work, and why I as a female restaurant worker am in support of the Minimum Wage Act and Paid Sick Days Act, and why these bills are women’s rights issues.

Specific information about the state of these bills can be read about here.

Since I have lived in DC, I have had the opportunity to work at several restaurants. I am currently working at two restaurants, one of which strongly prioritize the needs of their workers and their worker’s health. However, I have come to realize that this is exceptional in the restaurant industry.

I have not had the pleasure or responsibility of children yet, but I have witnessed first hand the struggles and the compromises female co-workers with children go through to make ends meet. Even yesterday, I asked a co-worker if she could cover for my shift, she hesitated. She told me she wanted to celebrate her son’s birthday and initially told me she could not cover my shift. Then she said, she was strapped on cash, and could skip out on the event after all. At this restaurant, the most I have made in a shift in the past month has been $50 for around 5 hours of work. My co-worker with the son works at the restaurant every day, often doing double shifts from early in the morning until late at night. She is also a student. I struggle to support my own expenses and bills on this wage. And I see that female restaurant workers have to make difficult sacrifices in order to support their families. Some of them work when they are very pregnant, many of them miss the opportunity to raise their children themselves due to long work hours. This is not to mention, wage inequity based on gender and a history of sexual harassment in the industry that many female workers endure in silence because they are afraid to lose their jobs. I’m certainly included in the last, I’ve had countless instances of male co-workers or managers demanding that I touch them, asking me on dates, or harassing me when I was in the kitchen prepping a dish.

I work with an organization called the Restaurant Opportunities Center where I aim to educate others and push policy to reflect the needs of restaurant workers. In restaurants, many of us earn little more than $8.25 an hour on good weeks and less than minimum wage on bad weeks. Tips are unsteady, particularly for busboys, food runners, and bar backs, who only receive a small share of the tips waiters receive, and for waiters at less expensive restaurants.

There were instances that I’ve earned as little as $30 in tips after working at ten hour shift. Often, my $2.77/hr paycheck went to taxes, leaving me with blank checks. Much of my money went to rent, which is fixed, and I was unable to buy healthy foods, or have much, if any, expendable income. In addition to being burdensome, this low pay makes me and others, particularly those who choose restaurant service as a career, feel disrespected professionally. I can’t imagine how much more difficult this would be if I had children, or couldn’t get paid sick days for either a personal health issue or my children’s health.

That is why I support the raising the minimum wage, which would help ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work, and are able to provide for their families, as they work so hard to do.

This Upworthy has important and easy to understand information about hard statistics that industry workers face, and why restaurant work brings issues of race, class, and gender together in policy and organizing.

If you are interested in the issue, I would also suggest taking a look at this website:

http://www.raisetheminimumwage.com/pages/qanda or to get involved with ROC.

And if you live in DC, I strong urge you Tweet at @VincentOrangeDC and @marionbarryjr to stay firm on their support of #paidsickdays with no amendments.

This article was written by Anna Hovland. Her bio can be found on RLA’s “About” page: https://reallifeathena.wordpress.com/about/

Tagged , , ,

Rewriting our Story: The Struggle to Empower Women

Women in the Media

The illustration above showcases some of the recent organizations, writings, studies and statistics that have come to the front page of main stream news. Many previous authors have have written about how the internet has accelerated and in some ways, revived feminist organizations, movements and collaborations. I agree, with the access to knowledge and information we see the global widespread discrimination, violence, misogyny against women, as well as the successes, educational attainment, military inclusion, and role of women in the workplace.

With nearly 70% of women experiencing violence (physical or sexual) in their lifetime – this astounding and overwhelming UN Report demonstrates the need to rewrite our story.  A majority of women, girls, mothers, wives, sisters, cousins and friends encountering violence more than likely at the hands of men. This stat makes the violence experience seem inevitable. As a result, our culture incorporates “empowering” choices to help keep women safe. For example, think back, at what age did you receive or have you given the following advice:

  • Don’t go into dark alleyways or streets alone at night
  • Don’t walk alone at night, anywhere, even in your own neighborhood
  • Park under the street light or in the parking ramp closest to the exit
  • Take a taxi from a bar instead of public transportation
  • Bring friends with you if you use public transportation
  • What time are you coming or going?
  • Are friends going with you?
  • Call me when you arrive.
  • How well do you know him?

All of these seemingly helpful hints or advice are simultaneously disadvantageous to the feminist movement – because they target young women. The “advice” tells women that we can make the right choices and bad things will not happen. For some that is true, but for many of us, the choice may not be in our hands.

For many of us, it is men who make conscious, manipulative, unhealthy and violent choices that shape our lives forever.

Where are the efforts and campaigns to change men? Sure, we have heard about them, but unlike these mainstream efforts highlighted in the illustration, we are still “empowering” women. (NOTE: I am not advocating we do not have safe plans or take caution and I agree there are “sensible” things anyone can do.)

So; where are the questions to men about why would you chase a women alone? Why is intimidating her rewarding? How drunk was she — that doesn’t seem cool? Why are women the sole or primary providers in families — is this really evidence of women’s advancement in the workplace or is it because so many men walk out on women and families?

What do these organizations and statistics have in common (referenced in the illustration)? It seems that the effort of modern day feminism – to support equal rights, safety and empowerment for women – is increasingly becoming part of daily news, charitable contribution and donation efforts.

This is an applauded effort but, unfortunately, the men who rape, beat, humiliate, harass women in the world are not the strange scary psychos that we can spot, fear and lockup. They may not be the weirdos, or creepy men, the stereotypical men we avoid. They are less likely to be strangers, and most likely to be our current, former partner, acquaintance or in all simple form – a man we know.

These men are brothers, gay friends, cousins, fathers, husbands, friends, uncles, god fathers. They know us and we know them. They make conscious choices, manipulative choices, choices out of misogyny, privilege and wealth. We as a society have to recognize that with astounding numbers like 1 in 3 military women will be sexually assaulted and 1 in 5 civilian women, that there is an epidemic, a conscious epidemic, that enables men, for centuries to repeatedly abuse, manipulate, hurt and walk out on women.

Until men can identify, understand and change their choices, actions and language that routinely negatively impact women on a daily basis, and therefore, the family, the stats will remain a reality.

What does it mean? It means we have to rewrite the story. We have to think, talk, live, play and work differently with the men in our lives. It means we have to hold men accountable, at every stage – at the small jokes that seem harmless, at the movies they watch and quote, no matter how seemingly funny or “normal.” It means we cannot be embarrassed or protect the ego and the “system.” It means we must have the uncomfortable conversation with the male friends we have known for years, and even those we may admire most, like our fathers and brothers.

To rewrite our story, we need men to engage in choices, decisions and opportunities that empower women.

What are your thoughts? Check out the movements and reports in the illustration by selecting the links below.

Chime for Change

College Enrollment by Gender

Domestic Violence Hotline

2013 US State Department Report on Human Trafficking

An Open Letter to Facebook: Take a Stand on Gender Violence & Hate

The Pixel Project

One Billion Rising

Reproductive Rights for Women

Why Society Still Needs Feminism

Women in Combat: Sexual Violence

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

This pain is not new

trayvon martin

(Art by Ricardo Levins Morales)

 

 

What has happened in the past two weeks isn’t new. It’s not new but it’s unbelievably scary. An innocent 17 year-old black boy, Trayvon Martin, was murdered by someone who deemed him suspicious because of the color of his skin, let’s not pretend it is any way not related to race. If you believe race was not a factor in both the murder and the verdict, you are kidding yourself. On the night of Saturday, July 13 Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman walked away a free man with a verdict of not guilty. I was outraged, disgusted and ashamed. I attended a rally later that evening beginning at midnight where around 200 people gathered to demonstrate support for the Martin family and utter disgust in our failed “justice” system. The evening ended with a gathering where individuals had a chance to share their feelings, calls to action and a general open platform for sharing. One theme across the speeches were that this is not new, black bodies have historically been devalued in our country and as one woman at the rally put it, “seen as disposable.” Every 28 hours a black male in this country is killed by the police or a vigilante, yet Trayvon Martin is one of few cases that have been at the center of media attention. We have normalized the death and criminalization of black men. This history carries over since Africans were forced into this country as slaves and the history of white supremacy is drenched in all walks of this country.

Something else not new, men trying to control women’s bodies. Texas Senator Wendy Davis delivered an incredibly brave 11-hour long filibuster to stop an anti-abortion bill in the State of Texas. Thousands of people in the state of Texas gathered to tell politicians to STOP attacking women’s bodies. A few weeks later, Gov. Rick Perry signs this atrocious bill into law and now there has been an introduction to a 6-week abortion ban in Texas. A six-week abortion ban is de-facto banning abortion as many women will not know they are pregnant before six weeks. This all comes down to an attempt to control women’s bodies, something that has occurred for centuries. It is difficult to create change when we are constantly fighting just to keep the basic right to choose when to have a child. When we have to fight to just keep clinics that provide abortions open we are wasting so much time not working on other problems in our country. I go back and forth if for some individuals their feelings against abortion are truly because they see it as murder. I honestly think this might be true for some but it is difficult for me to believe that this is the agenda of male politicians pushing anti-abortion measures. The United States has the largest income inequality in the world and yet our politicians are talking time and time again about abortion, this is a way to intimidate and control women.

What was most depressing these past few weeks is that given the set up of our democratic system, our voices are still not heard. Thousands and thousands of people took to the Texas Capital, took to their social media accounts and raised their voices in support of the work of Wendy Davis and still this law passed after 13 hours of Wendy Davis standing, not going to the bathroom, not eating, nothing. Voices were dismissed and those with seemingly more power won, patriarchy won. White supremacy won in the case of Trayvon Martin and left a blood stain on our nation. I’ve found it difficult to feel much hope these past few weeks. I’ve found hope in anger though. I’ve found hope in the questioning. I’m hoping that this anger means something new, not more of the repeated history of oppression.

This article is the most powerful thing I have read on the topic of Trayvon Martinm, I highly recommend reading it: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/07/questlove-trayvon-martin-and-i-aint-shit.html

Male Birth Control: Is this actually going anywhere??

Image
Male birth control seems to be one of the most elusive topics out there. Every now and then I hear snippets about how there is a supposed “safe and effective” new option for men, but there are never concrete details. I have been in conversations about the benefits of birth control for men and it always comes down to a general lack of information about what is out there, rather than unwillingness to try them.
I won’t go into detail about why it is so problematic that birth control is a designated women’s issue or the all-around benefits of having prevention come from both sexes (*at least between opposite sex couples 😉 shout out to anti-heteronormativity). My intention is to 1) find out what is even available, and 2) why doesn’t this idea seem to be going anywhere.
Planned Parenthood has a pretty hilarious and disappointing list I have to include here:

Men have five birth control options:

  • abstinence
  • condoms
  • outercourse
  • vasectomy
  • withdrawal

Outercourse is a great alternative, thanks PP! ha

One article in particular really laid it out well. Basically the problem is that most of the proposed new methods either failed (hormones), sound questionable (testical heating and cooling), or are still in clinical trials (Vasalgel). I can see why these would not have been widely publicized, especially since this is a socially controversial topic. Good news is that Vasalgel has almost made it through intensive clinical trials and just may be the best invention ever.

Quick Vasalgel rave – it has been created in India over the past 30 years and has been 100% effective without any pregnancies or adverse reactions. That’s more than almost any product can say. It’s a gel that is inserted into the vas deferens lasting up to 15 years, but can be removed by a doctor at any time – sounds much better than the pill to me!
The thing is there is bad news too. It may never make it to the market in the US because it is not backed by one of the major pharmaceutical companies [Source: http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/male-bc-pill4.htm].They have gradually stopped funding these projects because most procedures are a one-time profit unlike the ridiculously expensive, monthly supplied female birth control. Damn the pharmaceutical monopoly.
If you want this to be available in the US, take a minute to sign a petition and/or spread the word. I came across a great organization called  that raises awareness (I think they could do better in that department), advocates for research and is a resource for those who want to do the same. The pharms need to be convinced that there is a demand for male birth control so that their profit-driven agenda can be a benefit to the rest of us.
Tagged ,

Silence

Habitat #7: Silence

I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a woman. I cannot deny that being a female has certain impacts on the relationship I have with people around me, and on how I was perceived by society. I was taught since I was a young girl that the most honorable thing a woman can do is to become the perfect wife. The wife who goes to bed after her husband to makes sure all the chores are finished, and the wife who wakes up before her husband to make sure that everything he needs is ready for him. The wife who behaves well, who brings honor to the family. The wife who is excellent at all crafting, cooking, and cleaning jobs, but also great at out-of-the-house jobs (to help with income.) The wife who listens to her husband and does not speak of anything that may bother him or any other man. The wife who trusts him with all the decisions and does not question his action.

…the wife that I decided not to be.

Working in the field of architecture makes the issues of women’s expectations and how society sees us even more apparent. Denying it all you want, but architecture is just like many science fields, it is still white-male dominant.  I was a leader of an architecture student group; students selected me because they know that I qualified. However, the validity of my knowledge always comes into question when I meet with clients. I found that people sometimes ignored my input, but then they would listen to another student even though that person was simply repeating my answer. Maybe it is just in my head, maybe I am crazy, maybe I am too young for the job, maybe it is the way I dress, it might also be my race, or gender, or all of the above. I can never know.

Similar issues have been happening worldwide from the scale of a household to the world political stage and it makes me wonder why women’s voices are not heard. Is it because we speak too low?  Is it because we were too nice when speaking? Is it because we don’t know how to speak? Is it because they did not let us speak? Or is it because they choose to ignore us?

Personally, I think the biggest problem is when they choose to ignore us. The receiver has the most power. No matter how much you try to send out the message, if the other person refuses to take it, they would never get it.

This “Habitat#7: Silence” painting was part of the Habitat painting series that I created in 2012. All the paintings in the series were influenced by my involvement with humanitarian architecture. This painting was also published in the 2013 IVORY TOWER magazine.

by Beau Sinchai

I Cry: Women in War

In this piece I would like to refocus on women in war. After writing my previous post, I have found myself disgusted by the lack of attention paid to the history of women in the conflict that has gripped my people and my country for the last 70 years. My hope for my role in this blog is to share the stories I have collected during my own research in the region, as well as, my reaction to poems, prose, histories and novels written about these incredibly brave women who’ve lost their face and story to his-story.  I wish to be but a mouthpiece for their stories, I hope to bring the joys and sufferings of both Palestinian and Israeli women to the world. Perhaps here our peoples can find a common ground…

Women are so often forgotten when we write of wars and conflicts. As if the most interesting aspects of battle are the recycled stories of men’s brute. The most remarkable stories of war are not of striking blades and bombs, but of the individuals left behind in their villages, crouched down in the shadows of their homes as they await the impeding armies. It is the stories of solidarity that develop as people must pull their resources as they forge for food, heat and shelter. The stories of the greatest of charity, as the desolate give to the desolate. It is the stories of endurance of unarmed individuals struggle to rebuild from the rubbles of their previous lives.

So often it is the women who are left to deal with the shattered spirits of children as they march the long journey towards exile. It is the women who face soldiers unarmed protecting what remains of their families, homes and hope. These are the stories that should fascinate the admirers of history. These are the memories that should be preserved from war, not the stories of how men are defeated, but the humanity that is preserved through the chaos of our savagery.

On Poems and Prose:

I recently read a short novel written by S. Yizhar about the expulsion of Palestinians from the village of Khirbet Khizeh. The images flooded me with emotions as I connected my own families history to the stories of these faceless peasants as they marched towards their fate, towards their exile. Leaving me slightly broken, I applauded the authors focus on the margins of war. The realities non-combatants face as their lives, their futures are fought over on the battlefields of national aspirations. As the main character finally comes to, it seems much easier to fight, to hold a gun and shoot your enemies, than face the women, children and elderly as the depths of their misfortune glare back at you.

From his memories, the story of one woman stands etched in my thoughts. A proud woman, holding the small hand of a child relative walking bravely towards the trucks that will take her away from everything she has ever known to an uncertain reality. With admiration, the author recalls her strides, as she passes the young soldiers without a glance of recognition. Accepting all that has been given to her, she continues with pride. Yet she is so human, she is only human, as single tears are released from each eye, rolling down the curvature of her cheeks, she makes her way across the puddle, towards her exile.

Towards exile, this is the theme that is carried. Exile. It is in one word the destruction of family, community and connection to ourselves. Exile, so often the fate of widowed and abandoned women, left with the charge to care for the children and elderly. Yet the eyes of that proud women remains, as she continues towards her fate.

The face of this woman reminded me of an amazing poem written by a Palestinian woman living out her exile in Canada. It is an anthem to the mothers of our exiles, who carry us as we wonder the world, teaching us to always walk forward with one eye looking back towards our homeland.

Cry by Rafeef Ziadah

I just can’t see you cry, I just can’t see you cry curled up in a ball
next to a man who loved his revolution more than he ever loved you
I just can’t see you cry, I just can’t see you cry curled up in a ball
next to a man who loved his revolution more than he ever loved you

Not knowing that you are a walking talking breathing Palestine
Carrying her on your back and in your womb for 61 years
Waiting for liberation

You are the one who sat on the cold bare cement floor of an immigration detention cell and gave birth to your first girl
Carried the memories of those maimed and tortured throughout airports and luggage
that would be checked and double checked because you had the wrong last name
and you carried their memories
you carried their memories through luggage that would be checked and double checked
because you had the wrong last name

And they say
just take a pill and all the voices in your head will disappear
just take a pill and all the voices in your head will disappear
numb all your thoughts of suicide and erase years of dispossession

And your brothers, your brothers lined up against the wall
your brothers lined up against the wall
as you pressed their dead bodies into your chest
and let their blood soak your dress

But they want you to take a pill to erase your history
our history, stateless and refugees
they want you to take a pill
to erase our history, your history
stateless and refugees

Between your body and their reality
lie uprooted olive trees
orange groves and Palestine
between your body and their reality
lie uprooted olive trees

orange groves and Palestine

And I, I just can’t see you cry
I can’t, I really really just can’t see you cry
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stop talking about Michelle Obama’s manners

The day after Inauguration, I heard a co-worker talking about the day’s events on the phone with her friend. Her end of the conversation went something like this:

“I know, but did you see how Michelle Obama rolled her eyes at John Boehner? Can you believe that? …Well yeah, but she should have known there would be cameras on her. Or maybe she knew and just didn’t care.”

Overhearing this conversation, it took quite a bit of self-restraint not to roll my own eyes. Why, on the day after a presidential inauguration—one, mind you, filled with plenty of charged rhetoric and quite a few political surprises—did my co-worker (along with a fair portion of the media) have nothing better to gossip about than Michelle Obama’s eye-rolls? Not to mention her new haircut, her choice of a J Crew belt, her walk in stilettos along Pennsylvania Avenue…you get the idea. Why is it so scandalous when a woman dares to be a little standoffish to a man she probably happens not to like very much? (And in front of a camera too…what was she thinking?!) Why is it that First Ladies are expected to always be flawless and neutral hostesses, never betraying oh, I don’t know, actual opinions?

Now before I go any further I must admit: I love Michelle Obama. I love her so much that in the 2008 election I ditched my long-distance boyfriend who was in town just to visit me to go hear her speak. I, too, think she has a great sense of style and some super hot arms. I, too, love how protective she is of her children, how genuinely in love she seems to be with her husband, how dedicated she is to the cause of child obesity. I toured the White House gardens a few months back and had a mini freak out when I reached Mrs. Obama’s vegetable garden—So many delicious, local veggies! So healthy! So green! Go Michelle!

Which is all to say: I get it. First Ladies have long been the subject of fascination in American culture. Michelle Obama follows in the footsteps of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and many others who have won the hearts of Americans everywhere. Michelle is an amazing, passionate, intelligent, and sophisticated woman. And the public sees it too—73% of Americans approve of the way she is handling her job, according to a recent CNN poll.

When it comes down to it, I suppose what frustrates me is not the way Michelle Obama is handling her job, but rather the parameters of the job itself. Michelle Obama does important work, but above all else it is neutral work. Who doesn’t believe children ought to be healthy? Who doesn’t think military families deserve support? In fact, First Ladies have almost always pursued politically-neutral campaigns in office. One notable exception is Hillary Clinton, who was a vocal advocate for health care reform during her husband’s presidency. However, Hillary paid a high price for her outspokenness—the media deemed her power-hungry and meddling, routinely criticizing her performance in office.

To me, there is a clear connection between the gendered nature of the First Lady position and the expectation of its objectivity. The fact remains that some of the most pressing issues our society faces—the environment, international intervention policies, and the American wealth/class divide, to name just a few—are not neutral. They are issues that are controversial and divisive. But despite their contentious status (or perhaps because of it), these issues warrant our attention and discussion. If Hillary had won the Democratic Primary instead of Barack, do you think Bill Clinton would be shying away from such discussions?

Now, of course the answer isn’t that simple. A recent article in the Washington Post illustrates the feminist divide over the self-proclaimed “Mom-in-chief”’s job performance, particularly among white feminists and feminists of color. As many minority women have articulated, and rightfully so, there’s nothing wrong with being a champion of families and motherhood, particularly in a society where black women have often been stereotyped as lacking femininity and because of class barriers have been denied the privilege of choosing to stay at home with their children. Essentially, Michelle Obama’s feminist identity does not exist in a vacuum. It would be wrong to critique her choices as First Lady without first acknowledging the other identities and oppressions in her life.

Still, I take issue less with the way Michelle Obama chooses to handle with her position as I do with the way the media chooses to portray and limit her agency. I’m tired of a country where First Ladies can only tackle problems that are politically convenient. I’m tired of a media force where slideshows of Mrs. Obama’s fashion tastes take precedence over stories about her actual accomplishments (of which there are many). And mostly, I’m tired of a society where women are criticized for rolling their eyes at men who most likely deserve it.

Written by Sarah Mintz

Tagged , , ,
%d bloggers like this: