Votes for Women!

Yesterday was the 88th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment (giving women in the United States the right to elective franchise). Aside from making my usual recommendation that everyone watch (and tear up over) Iron Jawed Angels, I offer a couple of blog posts that came across my RSS feed.

Jessica, at Feministing, opened a comment thread yesterday for readers to share the stories of the first time they voted. Lots of fun -- and occasionally painful -- reminiscences there!

Amanda Marcotte, over at Pandagon, covers the appearance of anti-choice protesters who turned up at a rally to celebrate women's suffrage. "I mean," she writes, "if you can buy that not getting pregnant in the first place is actually an abortion, then why not expand the definition even further to start chipping away at other feminist gains and ideas?":
  • Votes for women are totally abortion. Look, the only reason that abortion is legal is because women became a voting bloc whose opinions mattered politically. There’s exactly no way we’d have Roe v Wade if we didn’t have the 19th amendment.
  • Equal pay for equal work? Abortion. If women have more money, they’re just going to buy abortions. It’s like giving a kid a bigger allowance---they’ll just buy more candy with it. Except for abortions.
  • Title IX? Of course it’s abortion. All that running and jumping around that female athletes do makes the womb inhospitable, which is abortion. Also, Title IX ensures equal funding for academics. Girls who think hard have less uterine lining. I read that somewhere, probably an 19th century “medical” textbook. Anyway, we know that teenage girls who participate in sports have a lower pregnancy rate. If a teenage womb goes empty, that’s abortion.
Check out the rest of the post, and then go curl up and watch Alice Paul & company stick it to the man. Or, if you're in a literary frame of mind, read journalist Doris Stevens' Jailed for Freedom, which is the first-person account of the latter years of the suffrage campaign on which the film drew heavily.

*and the photograph above is of my friend Edith, dressed as Alice Paul, at the 85th anniversary celebrations in Crawfordsville, Indiana (2005).


Twilight (Take Two)

As an addendum to my earlier post about the Twilight saga, in the wake of the publication of Breaking Dawn -- the fourth novel in the series --here are two more feminist perspectives on the series' messages about sexuality, both brought to you by the RhRealityCheck site.

Sarah Seltzer provides a nice summary of some of the troubling aspects of the series, particularly as they surface in the final novel (spoiler warning for those who care!), and links to a lot of other commentary -- only a few of which I've had a chance to peruse.
Meyers has tapped into a serious artery of the teen female psyche. Adding to the dynamic is the fact that Bella is a cipher whose only strong impulses are self-sacrifice and vampire lust. She has a glancing appreciation of classic novels and her family, but is easily projected upon by readers, who can imagine themselves in her place and be vicariously wooed by sexy succubi.

In Vampires And Anti-Choice Ghouls, her latest podcast, Amanda Marcotte gives her own take on the phenomenon (audio; partial transcript also provided).
God, you don't even get close dancing or closed mouth kisses? Well, of course not. The point of this exercise is to set the standards so high that pretty much every girl is bound to fail and then hate herself for being a dirty girl. . . The important thing is that women learn that their bodies don't belong to them, but should always be subjugated to the needs of the patriarchy.

Happy reading!


The View from Childhood?

Yesterday, I ran across an atrocious opinion piece in the New York City Journal, written by physician Theodore Dalrymple about a UNICEF report published last year on the well-being of children in industrialised nations. Britain came in twenty-first in the rankings (just behind the United States at twenty. (The Netherlands topped the list as the best country to be a child, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Spain). With my own strong criticisms of attitudes toward children in the United States, and my more limited exposure to the educational system in the U.K., I am definitely willing to entertain the idea that British and American societies are toxic for children and their families. I haven't read the UNICEF report in full, but the researchers looked at a broad spectrum of indicators, including
  • Material well-being
  • Family and peer relationships
  • Health and safety
  • Behaviour and risks
  • Own sense of well-being
The BBC report (linked above) and their related page of comments from British children about their lives contains a lot worth considering when it comes to assessing how children experience life in the modern world, even in countries that are materially rich and politically stable.

However, Mr Dalrymple does the UNICEF report a profound disservice by using it to support his socially conservative views about the British social welfare state and what he sees as "a culture of undiscriminating materialism, where the main freedom is freedom from legal, financial, ethical, or social consequences." He relates a series of tabloid-style anecdotes about neglectful parenting and although he explicitly denies he is doing so, implies that women who have children with multiple partners and outside of marriage are unfit parents.

In my opinion, the most appalling argument appears about two-thirds of the way through the article, when he really starts to editorialize on report's implications. He highlights the fact that many children do not experience regular family or group meal-times, and then writes:
Let me speculate briefly on the implications of these startling facts. They mean that children never learn, from a sense of social obligation, to eat when not hungry, or not to eat when they are. Appetite is all they need consult in deciding whether to eat—a purely egotistical outlook. Hence anything that interferes with the satisfaction of appetite will seem oppressive.
I invite you to consider for a minute, apart from whether you believe in the value of shared meals, the view of young people -- and of people in general -- that Dalrymple betrays here. "Children never learn . . . to eat when not hungry, or not to eat when they are." What: we should be teaching children to ignore the messages their bodies give them about hunger? There are profound consequences in championing this concept of healthy socialization, when it comes to our experience of embodiment, for example. We should be instructing children to put conforming to social convention above attending to their own intuition? I was struck by how many children put the problem of bullying at the top of their list of worries when asked by the BBC what would make their lives better. Being taught to discount their own hungers (more broadly speaking, their own needs and desires) in the interest of social obligation would only exacerbate this problem.

Children deserve protected, nurturing space to be children -- and I agree with Dalrymple that even in the most privileged of nations they don't often have it, or have it for long enough. The solution, however, is not to cut them off from their own intuitive selves, but rather to give them the tools to care for themselves and for others around them in responsible ways. The fatal misperception in Mr Dalrymple's essay is the belief that social obligation and self-care are mutually exclusive activities, when in fact I would argue they are mutually dependent -- we thrive as individuals best when in a web of supportive relationships, and our relationships with fellow human beings are at their strongest when we know and attend to who we are as individuals -- as well as attending to those around us. Unlike many material resources, emotional and social resources are not in limited supply, but endlessly renewable.


New Sarah Vowell coming soon!

I (sadly! sadly!) wasn't at work the day Sarah Vowell came to do research at the MHS last year, but we just recieved an advance review copy of the forthcoming book, The Wordy Shipmates, which is due out in October. My friend and colleague Jeremy makes a brief appearance.


"Best" Books?

While I'm unashamed of my love of lists, I'm always skeptical of lists that attempt to assign the status of "best of . . ." in any genre, whether it's a vacation destination, restaurant, or the artistic value of a movie or book. For example, take a look at this Unified List of the Best 100 Novels (via), which merges the "top" lists from the UK, US, Australia and Canada. In a personal sense, I'm happy to see that personal favorites Possession (#59), A Passage to India (#55), Anne of Green Gables (#38), and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (#14) made it on to the list . . . but find myself slightly irritated that, for example, my favorite Austen novel (Persuasion) only squeaked on at #94). "Why did they pick X over Y?" I find myself thinking impatiently. I would argue that in the end such lists are intimately subjective, and I wish they would acknowledge that ("favorite" rather than "best" anyone?). Yet at the same time they're compulsively readable, and the bookworm in me can't help noticing how many I can or cannot check off as already read . . .


Summer Reading

As I'm on vacation this week (yay!), I thought it would be a good time to highlight a few of the books I've been enjoying lately.

After Hanna passed along her copy of The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar, I couldn't resist his latest novel Lonely Werewolf Girl which -- in the simplest sense -- tells the story of a lonely, laudanum-addicted teenage werewolf named Kalix who runs away from the family castle in Scotland and finds herself living with two uni students, Daniel and Moonglow, in a London flat. There are also fashion designers, fire elementals, bloody family feuds, a punk band called Yum Yum Sugary Snacks, and various other entertaining elements. I'm you're a fan of long, wandering crazy-ass plots and snappy dialog, it's an entertaining read. I recommend trying Good Fairies first since it's the tighter of the two and gives you a good taste of Millar's style.
Moonglow picked up a packet from the floor. She read the label. "You take diazepam?"
Kalix became angry. "Stop looking at everything!"
"Well it's just a bit weird you know," said Moonglow. "Werewolf anti-depressants"
"Aren't you focussing on the wrong thing here?" said Daniel. "Remember the terrible violence."
In keeping with the science-fiction/fantasy theme of the summer -- which seems to be where my brain seems to have taken refuge at the end of term -- I am finally getting around to reading Terry Pratchett's novels about the fictitious universe of Discworld. Having taken advice from Hanna, I began with Wee Free Men and his other YA novels about the young witch Tiffany Aching. For the airplane flight to Michigan, I packed Wyrd Sisters, which is about adult witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat, along with a king, a fool, a ghost, and a group of traveling players.
Magrat sat down at the other end of the log.
"There's other witches," she said. "There's lots of witches further up the Ramtops. Maybe they can help."
The other two looked at her in pained surprise.
"I don't think we need to go that far," sniffed Granny. "Asking for help."
"Very bad practice," nodded Nanny Ogg.
"But you asked a demon to help you," said Magrat.
"No we didn't," said Granny.
"Right. We didn't."
"We ordered it to assist."
For the book-on-tape (or rather book-on-mp3) selection, I have the recently-released sequel to Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, which continues the tale of the Penderwick sisters Rosalind, Jane, Skye, and Batty and their plans to rescue their father from their aunt's firm nudging into the dating realm. Most importantly, how could I resist a book that made mention of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Five Children and It, Half Magic, Swallows and Amazons, and last but not least Scuppers the Sailor Dog in the first half-dozen chapters?

And despite the fact that summers are for frittering, I've managed to sneak in a few politically-minded and possibly historically relevant reads, the latest being historian of sexuality Dagmar Herzog's Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics. It was a quick read, and disappointingly superficial in its survey of the Religious Right's political manipulation of cultural messages about sexuality in the past twenty years. She suggests in an early chapter, for example, that the "new revolution" in American sexuality since the early 1990s -- particularly the increased focus successful sexual performance -- can be attributed to the development and marketing of Viagra and the availability of internet pornography, which seems like a bizarrely narrow focus. I was much happier when she dropped this line of argument later on and turned to on the more diffuse anxieties about heterosexuality that the Religious Right and self-help industry have fostered. In this new sexual paradigm, in which sex outside of heterosexual marriage is seen as fraught with danger and all sexual relationships are under pressure to be the best (and anything less-than blamed on the participants), "experience is no longer seen as a resource," but as a physically damaging, soul-sapping threat from which individuals must protect themselves by retreating into the purity of virginity or celibacy (outside of marriage) or a highly scripted heterosexual marriage relationship. Herzog is at her strongest when she turns away from trying to document recent American history (her own academic field being twentieth-century European history) and toward an impassioned call for Americans to reclaim human sexuality as a pleasurable, healthy part of life for all people:
What remains missing from the general mix [in American political discourse] is a defense of sexual rights that does not privilege those who match the norm over those who do not, that does not lie about the complexities of human desire, that does not need to pretend that sex is perfect every time (if only you follow the rules and/or buy this product), and that does not root sexual rights only in the negative imperative to reject sexual victimization but also affirms humans' rights to sexual expression, sexual pleasure, and the freely chosen formation of intimate relationships.
I'm not sure what's going to be next on the menu, in the few short weeks before the fall semester beings (September 3rd); I have more Terry Pratchett for the return flight to Boston, and Hanna has promised me a history of the Mitford family, if I'm so inclined to a bit of English aristocratic history. If I want some true fluff of an irritating sort, I can pick up the latest Twilight novel (Breaking Dawn), and there's always the backlog of books purchased and waiting to be read (I still have a few--oh, the shame!--left from Christmas break . . .).


Teeth: A couple of thoughts

I finally got around to watching Teeth, last year's campy horror flick about a teenage girl who discovers during a sexual assault that she has an unusual genital mutation: a toothed vagina ("vagina dentata") that doesn't hesitate to defend her by dismembering her attacker. There has been a lot of comment about this film on the feminist blogs I read, and discussion about the movie's messages about female sexuality, teenage sexuality, and abstinence.

There were some priceless moments. My own favorite scene was Dawn, the main character's, first pelvic exam, which she schedules after her impulsive break with chastity goes horribly wrong. The (male) gynecologist is bumblingly patronising and when he fails to respond to Dawn's nervous cues in a respectful manner things get bloody. Dawn is a teen spokesperson for an abstinence program called modeled after such programs as The Silver Ring Thing which allows the film to highlight the hypocrisy of "education" programs that spread ignorance and simplistic fantasies about sexuality. And given its plot, the film makes some particularly well-pitched points about our cultural ignorance about teen and female sexuality.

But overall, I was not impressed. One of the most striking things, to me, was the film's overall lack of positive male characters, and boys or men who act in a positive way toward Dawn as a sexual being. Her stepfather is kind, but peripheral. All the other boys and men in the story are violent, duplicitous or otherwise creepy. Okay, I know it's a horror story, but it struck me as particularly unfair that while the film wrestled in a serious way with an (apparently straight) teenage girl's sexuality, it failed to offer any possibility of non-combative sexual relationships for its main character.

I'm glad a saw it, but it's not on my list of top-ten feminist faves.