Category Archives: Current Events

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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The Humanity of People

“When we said we wanted more women in Science this is not what we meant.” The author of this tweet was reacting to Science magazine’s most recent cover, designed for an issue on AIDS and HIV prevention, which featured a picture of sex workers in short, tight dresses and heels, cutting their heads out of the picture and thus objectifying and dehumanizing them.

The response of Jim Austin, one of the editors of the magazine was, “You realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?” to which the rejoinder was, “It’s not clear from the cover image. I don’t think it’s ok to sexually objectify transwomen, either.” Later on in the conversation, Mr. Austin responded to the comment “To me it’s just another dehumanizing male gazey image.“ by writing, “Interesting to consider how those gazey males will feel when they find out.” He also wrote, “Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?” to which the response came, “If you were, the world would be a much better place.”

Indeed it would.

To the partial credit of the Science editorial staff, they did eventually realize and make some attempt to apologize for their mistake, with Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt tweeting, “From us at Science, we apologize to those offended by recent cover. Intent was to highlight solutions to HIV, and it badly missed the mark.” and making a longer, unfortunately more ambiguous and less, how do I put this, apologetic statement on her blog. Mr. Austin, however, rather than personally apologizing for his own outrageous statements, merely retweeted Ms. McNutt’s own “apology.” Speaking of badly missing the mark.

Science notwithstanding, transgender people are increasingly visible in our society and in an increasingly positive way. The recent TIME magazine cover and article on Laverne Cox is a great example, and Katy Steinmetz’s interview was both insightful and humane. She asked Ms. Cox what she thought people should know about being transgender, and Ms. Cox’s reply was: “There’s not just one trans story. There’s not just one trans experience. And I think what they need to understand is that not everybody who is born feels that their gender identity is in alignment with what they’re assigned at birth, based on their genitalia. If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is okay, and they should not be denied healthcare. They should not be bullied. They don’t deserve to be victims of violence. … That’s what people need to understand, that it’s okay and that if you are uncomfortable with it, then you need to look at yourself.”

Perhaps it’s the communities where I hang out, but I do see progress toward the vision Ms. Cox laid out so eloquently. Jazz Jennings, whom we first met at age seven in a 20/20 report with Barbara Walters and who, at age eleven, filmed a follow-up show (part one here) as well as a message to President Obama, has co-written a children’s book entitled I am Jazz and maintains a Facebook page called “Jazz A Corner for Transgender Kids.” Coy Mathis’s parents supported her and successfully fought for her right to use the girls’ bathroom in her public school. Just as many young people today, unlike in the past, were raised in families where parents understood and respected the possibility that they might be any of a variety of sexualities and made it clear they would support their children no matter what, you’re increasingly seeing families raising their children to resist gender boxes and adopt the gender expression of their choice, respecting the possibility that their kids might in fact not actually be the gender assigned to them at birth. The community Inês Almeida has built at Toward the Stars is one shining example.

There’s no question we have a ways to go. Transgender people are still disproportionately subjected to prejudice, objectification, bullying, and violence, especially transwomen of colour. Still, with all that, Ms. Cox has also said, “I do believe in the humanity of people and in people’s capacity to love and to change.”

Me too.

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Village

In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you.
– Ann Friedman

As you may have heard, Jill Abramson, the first-ever female executive editor of The New York Times has been fired. There’s no speculation on that point – the paper has been clear, and she has made no effort that I know of to deny it. What’s much harder to figure out is why, even with excellent analyses like “Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired” (Ann Friedman in New York magazine) and “Why Jill Abramson Got Fired” (Ken Auletta in The New Yorker).

If you haven’t already, please note in passing the extreme contrast between those two titles, and ask yourself to what extent the genders (as perceived by their names, anyway) of the authors may be a factor. Not because of who those actual people are. Because of patriarchy.

In his article, Mr. Auletta notes that Ms. Abramson recently found out that her pay and pension benefits were significantly less than her predecessor, who was male. “‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.” (Auletta) (For the record, you may count me in that “for many” group.) Differences of opinion over editorial policy and personnel decisions may also have been contributing factors. Mr. Auletta concludes, “Even though she thought she was politely asking about the pay discrepancy and about the role of the business side, and that she had a green light from management to hire a deputy to Baquet, the decision to terminate her was made.” Emerging from the objective tone of Mr. Auletta’s article, that analysis points to the likelihood of the kind of gut-level decision which is exactly at the center of Ms. Friedman’s piece.

Ms. Friedman notes that not “all women necessarily have a deep personal need to be liked by their colleagues” but that nonetheless “those colleagues’ gut-level opinions matter greatly when it comes to evaluating a woman’s job performance.” And early in the piece, she writes, “A muddled combination of complicated interpersonal stuff, not a single action or failure or incident, isn’t just an explanation for Abramson’s exit. It’s a reality for women in almost any workplace.” As she notes, while the confidence gap between men and women may not actually be all that great, the degree to and manner in which men and women are “allowed” by our culture to express that confidence does in fact vary widely. However hard one works to remain objective and free of restrictive gender norms, they exist and may be applied to us at a moment’s notice. Ms. Abramson, notes Ms. Friedman, recognized there may have been some legitimacy to various complaints aired earlier in her tenure. She also recognized a double standard may have been applied. And she also cried.

“But for most women, and anyone else who faces scrutiny as the ‘only one’ in the room, not caring is not an option.” (Friedman) Note that one doesn’t have to literally be the only one in the room for this to be true. And note also that that spotlight might be due to any number of factors including the full range of gender, sexuality, class, abledness, age, religion/spirituality, or other factors. The commonality is difference from what is commonly (whether consciously or not) considered the norm, along with the real and perceived pressures that result.

Because of patriarchy, institutionalized racism, and privilege in general, the only way to solve the problem is ultimately to dismantle the societal constructs that inevitably lead to it. Along the way, those of us with different kinds of intersecting privileges can scrutinize our own actions to see how they are affecting others, listen to historically oppressed groups, understand it is inevitable we will feel discomfort, and in general work to make sure “not caring is not an option” for us as well.

It takes a village, the saying goes.

Sign me up.

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Seriously? Seriously.

Maybe it’s because I was on vacation, but the news that “there’s even a gender wage gap in babysitting” (Maya) saddened me but didn’t outrage me. I suppose it’s also because it was simply too easy to assimilate it into my existing body of knowledge: how women right out of college earn less than men, how men earn more than women even in so-called “feminized” professions, how the gender wage gap exists not just at a national level but also within all racial groups (granting that white women earn more than men of some other racial groups), how… how? How? HOW?!

Today, at any rate, school is in session, and I was beyond outraged to learn there is a gender wage gap in allowances.

Yes, you read that right. Allowances.

As with many issues of social justice, what seems unfair on the surface – turns out to be unfair on multiple levels as well. Yes, the gender wage gap is now officially extended even further down into childhood, which is disturbing enough. Yes, it’s harder to blame society as a whole because individual parents are making these decisions (I know, all of us together make up society as a whole. But in general, parents of daughters tend to want the world to embrace them fully for who they are and not think of them as “less than” – you’d think they, if anyone, would be fair about this.). Beyond all that is the relationship of allowance to chores. Boys, it seems, are asked less often to do chores and see their allowances tied to those chores more often. And “asking girls to do more chores without paying them teaches both genders that women are meant to do unpaid work.” (Bryce Covert, quoted by Maya)

Gloria Steinem said that most social justice movements begin with consciousness-raising, and suggested that feminism has passed both that stage and the organizing stage and has arguably embarked on the final stage of transformation. However, it seems that a little additional consciousness-raising is in order.

Depressing as this news is, though, it is also an opportunity. Patriarchy operates in large part at a subconscious level, and when behaviors and attitudes such as these are made glaringly visible, one can consciously begin to work on them. Out of such work, we may hope, deeper and more permanent transformation will be possible.

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Revisiting Dress Codes

T-shirts that had seen better days. Heavily patched cutoff jean shorts. Sneakers or clogs. And a bandana. That’s how I dressed during high school, at least when the weather was warm. Luckily, my school had a pretty lax dress code, so no one ever stopped me – except for the day I was walking around barefoot, unaware until that point in time that the health code forbade it. Lindsay O’Brien of Ms. magazine was not quite so lucky; on the day she wore jeans with holes in the knees to school, she was made to cover the holes with duct tape and received her first detention ever. In her recent article “Are my pants lowering your test scores?” she terms the rule “ridiculous” and continues to detail a recent dress code conflict at a school in Illinois. (O’Brien)

Administrators at Haven Middle School in Evanston banned leggings, primarily worn by girls. The reason? They were seen as too distracting for boys. As Ms. O’Brien put it, “Instead of teaching boys, at a critical age, to treat women’s bodies with respect, they chose to eliminate the so-called distraction and place the blame on girls.” Sophie Hasty, a 13-year-old student at the school, understood this well, saying, “The reason was basically: ‘boys.’ It’s a lot like saying that if guys do something to harass us, it’s our fault for that. We’re the ones being punished for what guys do.” (quoted in O’Brien) Students swarmed the school wearing the banned item of clothing, and over 500 of them signed an online petition. The ensuing brouhaha made national headlines, and inspired a sort of “PointCounterpoint” debate in the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, as reported in the Daily Trojan, the principal sent a letter home to parents saying the school’s true goal was “an effort to maintain a respectful learning environment for all.” (quoted in Sayyah) Such situations, it may be added, play out far too often.

Ms. O’Brien praised the girls for their actions, concluding, “If Sophie Hasty and the girls at Haven Middle School are the future leaders of the feminist movement, we’ll be glad to share our torch.”

They might end up sharing that torch with my students, who recently had a discussion of their own as Student Council prepares to take a look at our current dress code. I asked them why a business or other organization might or might not want a dress code, and then narrowed the questions specifically to focus on schools. Their take on the issues was, as always, wise and insightful. They felt that dress codes relate to first impressions and a desire to be taken seriously by looking appropriate, classy, mature, and official. They felt that students in particular might show up feeling ready to learn in a school with a dress code. They also recognized, though, that culture and purpose play a role – that dress codes might and probably should be different if you are in fashion, sports, retail, construction, equestrian sports, dance, fast food, or fitness, if your organization just has a more casual culture, or even if you have a job where you don’t interact with people. Furthermore, they realized that trust is an important factor in instituting dress codes, pointing out that an organization might choose not to have one if they felt people know what’s respectable and appropriate, and explicitly saying a school might choose to have a dress code if they don’t trust students and not to have one if they felt kids know what they should wear and wanted to establish that trust. Finally, they felt that comfort, too, was a factor.

Morgan is the 7th grade representative to Student Council, and when they take up a discussion of our current dress code later this month, she will be able to carry this wealth of wisdom and insight to the meeting with her. I know, too, that some of the members of StuCo are strong feminists, and perhaps will have their own ideas on how our school might meet its mission by developing what might be called a feminist dress code. It will be interesting to see what the students come up with. In the end, though, discussions about our school’s mission and who we are as a community will be the most important part. Any dress code that reflects our common values will be a dress code that will work.

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To ban or not to ban: “Bossy”

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’” So begins the website at http://banbossy.com/, a new organization co-founded by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In Foundation and the Girl Scouts of America. The website points out that girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boy’s from elementary to high school, that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry about being called “bossy,” and girls are still called on less and interrupted more in class. (Ban Bossy) There’s no question that we need to do something about that, and there’s no question we know some of the things that work.

On the Girl Scouts’ website, for example, they share the results of a study done in 2008 that showed the following (Girl Scouts):

  • Girls, even at a very young age, have definite ideas about what it means and takes to be a leader.
  • Promoting leadership in girls is primarily a matter of fostering their self-confidence and providing supportive environments in which to acquire leadership experience.
  • To be relevant to and successful with girls, a leadership program must address their aspirational or preferred definition of leadership, their need for emotional safety, and their desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls have a range of “leadership identities,” from strong aspiration to outright rejection of the leadership role.

Of course, girls schools and other girl-positive organizations epitomize supportive environments. However, these environments need not necessarily be all girls organizations (to whatever extent one can ever say with confidence that one’s organization is in fact “all girls”), though that does facilitate the process. In helping create supportive environments, these principles suggest that we need to – following principles of best practice – engage with the individual girls in front of us, helping them figure out how they now view leadership, how they came to hold that view, where they see themselves going, and ultimately how they see themselves able to help move a given group of people forward (the goal behind all good leadership and all good membership).

In that context, the “Ban Bossy” campaign can be, and is, seen by different people as anywhere from an essential component of doing this good work to a needless distraction. A recent chat on the Feministing website brought out several important points:

  • Rather than bringing attention to women’s exclusion from leadership, [it] distracts from these realities by making the issue semantic and easily dismissed. (Jos Truitt)
  • Also I honestly don’t feel like “banning” words like this ever really works, and I actually find it a lot more effective to find power in that word vs. a bland attempt to get rid of it. (Jos Truitt)
  • I do appreciate the goal of starting a conversation about the negative feedback we give to girls who show leadership qualities and how that particular double-standard has real consequences for how kids are socialized. (Maya Dusenbery)
  • This campaign exists without analysis of how “bossiness” is perceived when women and girls of color are bossy, which I think is a really important point. (Verónica Bayetti Flores)

One of the people in my Twitter family is a member of the Tea Party, and she certainly had a vehement and visceral reaction to the campaign and what she saw as thought police. As we discussed the issue, it developed that we agreed that the conditions that led to girls with leadership qualities being more likely to be called “bossy” are something we as a society absolutely must discuss but that we both were uneasy about outright “banning” use of some words. Also, I do believe that gender activism in general and feminism in particular strongly need to continually listen to the full range of voices in the movements, work on intersectionality, and strive to bring out nuance in service to the greater goal of true equality for all humanity. Towards that end…

When posting a link to the “Ban Bossy” campaign in its earliest days, my Twitter and Facebook friend Kenzo Shibata added a comment that caused me to respond, “Like to the power of like.” He said, “I got a better idea. How about we teach children of all gender identities to be collaborative and stop making authoritarianism the ideal?” (Kenzo Shibata)

That, I can absolutely support. Anyone else with us?

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage, Women in media

Circle of Uniqueness

The end does not actually justify the means; the means create the end.
– Gloria Steinem

If there isn’t trouble the day after a feminist speaks, they haven’t done their job. So noted Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, early on in her speech given at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as part of their Public Policy Lecture Series. As I thumbed a paraphrase of her words into my phone, I thought, “Well, perhaps it’s my job to help ensure there’s trouble.” And indeed, Ms. Steinem referred on multiple occasions to the accumulated power in the room, never mind the other auditorium where overflow was watching and listening via a video feed.

Her listed topic was, “Feminism: Where are we going?” It would appear that where we are going (as a gender activist, I strongly sympathize with and work alongside feminists) is both exciting and dangerous. Most social justice movements, she said, go through three distinct stages: raising consciousness, organizing, effecting transformation. The phase of consciousness-raising most pertinent to modern feminism may have reached its peak with the groups of the 1970’s I remember so well in my home town and at my college. Ms. Steinem would note later on, in response to a question, that if done right and through face-to-face communication, consciousness-raising groups can permit an easy, smooth, and seamless shift to organizing – part of the work is already done.

So at this point in time, Ms. Steinem argued, the organizing phase is also largely done. Attitudes have sharply shifted, and there are signs that the process of transformation has started. As Ms. Steinem put it, “Hierarchy is based on patriarchy and patriarchy isn’t based on anything any more.” However, to completely break free of gender boxes and open up the full range of human potential, it’s going to take a whole lot more transformation including men developing their full humanity as well. She also noted, both in response to a question about intersectionality and elsewhere in her talk, the intimate relationship of of feminism and anti-racism, affirming that “It’s not possible to be a feminist without being anti-racist.”

To break free of gender and other restricting boxes, we can think in terms of a circle of human qualities rather than a hierarchy. To further challenge and put an end to hierarchy, we can also work to understand individuals on their own terms rather than by identifying them as part of a group. This does not mean denying connections; quite the contrary. Ms. Steinem noted that “We are linked, we are not ranked,” and affirmed that hierarchies are a self-perpetuating lie that we increasingly disbelieve. Ultimately, the goal would be to ensure that “We are each completing our own circle of uniqueness.”

Ms. Steinem also talked about domestic violence, pointing out that countries with the highest rates of domestic violence also tend to have the highest rates of other kinds of violence. Normalizing violence in the home normalizes violence in the world. Furthermore, domestic violence is about control, and the most dangerous time for a potential victim of domestic violence is immediately before or after they escape that control.

As we work to free humanity from the control of patriarchy, the metaphor of escaping from domestic violence holds true. One questioner from the audience noted the strength of the backlash in the form of both various proposed pieces of legislation and rhetoric, expressing the fear that things were actually getting worse rather than better. Ms. Steinem acknowledged the strength and force of the backlash, noting that legislators, especially in state legislatures which fly somewhat more under the radar than Congress, disproportionately represent a minority view that seeks to restrict the rights of women, LGBT people, and people of colour. She pointed out that the majority, even when they are right, does not always win.

Among audience members asking questions were a student who had come down from Burlington, VT, a worker with a group fighting domestic violence in Cambridge, MA, and an alumna of MCLA who had heard Gloria Steinem before but had driven six hours from Philadelphia with a friend so the friend could see her as well. A number of questions were preceded with sometimes tearful statements that, “You are one of my heroes,” “You kept me sane,” and “You have no idea what you meant to me.” The speakers seemed to be expressing not only a longing for connection but also a longing for affirmation for their true selves in a world that does not always value them. Ms. Steinem noted the fundamental importance and power of networking, of creating spaces where people can talk about what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking, and of knowing wherever you go, you can find such a space. Such groups work best face to face; “A revolution doesn’t happen by pressing ‘Send’.”

I hope and pray that this school is one such space, and I know I work nonstop in the hope that it may be. I also work nonstop to spread the notion that people of all genders need to be freed of the roles and boxes and rankings that have hobbled them for hundreds of years. But, as Ms. Steinem noted, the period of human history dominated by patriarchy has been relatively short. We are in fact the majority. And if we want to go forth and cause a little trouble, so to speak, we are not alone. Therein lies hope. That circle of uniqueness need not just be each individual person; it can also be also all of us together. And all of us together are a force. All of us together can win.

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