Policing policers by policing

As I’ve become more involved in activism, both as a participant and an observer, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable with the policing of each other that activists engage in. In my corner of the internet, body positive activism, I’m seeing more and more of the “10 Ways to Be an Ally” and “20 Ways We Do it Wrong” articles. I’m seeing a lot of women telling other women that they’re not allowed to talk about feeling fat if they’re not fat (by some nebulous standard that sounds a lot like the same one that goes with being skinny or healthy), or that they’re not being inclusive enough, or that they’re getting activism wrong. This worries me. In my current dissertationy frame of mind, it sounds like defensiveness, not inclusion.

I think it’s incredibly powerful to stand up and say, “No! I do not like how you talk to me. I do not like how you treat me. I do not accept this. I will not disappear.” I am so down with this. But constantly telling other people how they’re doing activism wrong, or doing advocacy wrong is so freaking counterproductive. It’s globalizing an individual experience, and turning it into a set of rules.

It’s like the difference between saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me. I am here, and I want you to know how I feel.” and saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me or anyone like me, ever, or you are a shit activist.” From a psychological point of view, the globalizing that goes with the “10 Things” lists seems like a defense. Don’t get near me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t engage with me. Don’t ever fuck up and say the wrong thing. Maybe if I write enough lists of things people shouldn’t do, I won’t ever get hurt.

Human relationships are a series of fuck ups. The taboos that allow us to marginalize and harm others are ways that we protect ourselves from our own capacity to do harm. So it seems like creating a whole new set of taboos, instead of just getting down and talking about the harm, is just more of the same shit.

The problem with this is we all fuck up. We all get hurt. We can’t renegotiate the social norms that hurt us without getting messy, fucking up, and letting other people get messy and fuck up. I like the articles that tell individual people’s stories and experiences, letting the reader relate to them as another human. I’m so sick of the ones that tell everyone how to act and how to not fuck up. This one got to me the other day so I ranted on Facebook:

http://www.bustle.com/articles/109422-17-shame-y-comments-plus-size-people-are-tired-of-hearing-from-other-plus-size-people

This article brings up ways that fat stigma is hard to shed, even for those of us who are part of the movement. However, I don’t love that it’s framed as a list of do-nots. We all struggle to accept ourselves as we are, and that means we are not perfect activists at all times. I don’t think I even want to be a perfect activist. I just want to grow in compassion and awareness of myself and others, as I continue to deconstruct the social norms that keep me from being fully at peace with myself. It’s up to each of us to speak our truths to each other and connect as humans. I don’t think the plethora of do-not lists bring us together. I think they freeze us up. I’d rather fall down and learn than stay frozen for fear of breaking a new rule.

Is the author trying to show ways in which we are all still struggling to undo the harm done to us by bullshit corporate/patriarchal norms? Or is she/he saying, “You’d better not do this…” If it had been written as interviews or a first person story, I would be so down with it. Yes! We all still judge ourselves and others in ways that are harsh and unfair. Let’s talk about it! But that’s not how it’s written. It’s written as a warning about how you, too, might be a secret douchebag. And that doesn’t make me want to talk, or share my experiences, or learn, or expand.

I think that’s what it comes down to. Do we want to expand or contract? Do we want to live fuller, more expansive lives (wherein we are likely to fuck up, fall down, get up, and make amends) or stick ourselves in a new little box with a new set of rules guaranteed to keep us from every connecting with another person? The box may seem like it will keep us safe, but we should know by now that it will not. This is often the major difference I see between second-wave feminists in the academy and third and fourth wave feminists online. We’re constantly negotiating boundaries and norms – second-wavers often (not always) see the rules as set. And you get called a gender traitor if you violate them (Hilary vs. Bernie, anyone?).’

This is not an argument that political correctness is evil and unfettered personal expression is good. What gets labeled political correctness is just new emerging norms that take marginalized people into consideration. Considering other people’s feelings and talking about them and taking personal responsibility when we hurt or get hurt is good.

When you were little, did your parents ever tell you that you should have known better? Well, it turns out, most of the time,  you couldn’t have. A lot of the stuff we learn to do as adults — empathize, abstract, predict — kids can’t do that stuff. Their brains grow those capacities in the teen years. So we learn to feel retroactive shame for being human kids, instead of being gradually introduced to concepts that will one day make sense to us. That’s what some of this stuff feels like to me. I hate seeing the BOPO movement eat itself, but I’m afraid of the direction it’s headed in. So many other beautiful movements have dissolved into infighting and chaos. Can we find another way? Can we inquire instead of judge?

As a culture, we are just starting to deconstruct a whole lot of harmful nonsense around gender, bodies, and race. THIS IS MESSY. If it’s not messy, we’re not actually doing it. Can I tell you how many times I’ve tripped over my own privilege as a teacher? So. Many. Times. Face-planting is part of the job. All I can do is try to make amends and do better next time. I can’t avoid the next landmine because I don’t know where it is. But it’s still my responsibility to clean up the mess when I do something unintentionally insensitive.

What if we lived in a culture where we took responsibility for speaking our own hurt and anger and drawing our own boundaries? What if we were allies to those who need help without becoming caricatures of the very ideas that we’re trying to change? What if we just rolled up our sleeves and talked and listened and yelled and cried and hugged? What if we got messy instead of militaristic? Messy is scary, but that’s where the growth is.

Instead of saying, “You’re not inclusive enough!” What about saying, “I feel invisible when you ignore my body type/color/gender expression, and it hurts.” And what if I said, “Holy crap, I’m so sorry! What can I do to help?”

Procrastination or Germination?

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I have had a crazy semester. I’m taking three classes, teaching two, being a mom, trying to cook occasionally, and now the end of the semester is upon me. In between now and Dec. 15 I have to grade 15 papers, submit 22 grades, write a lengthy position paper that’s supposed to be publishable quality (help me! I haven’t done this in years!), survive Thanksgiving, remember to celebrate my anniversary, and not drown in dirty clothes.

At this moment, I’m dealing with the manic ups and downs of the steroid shot I got on Friday to ward off impending bronchitis and the accompanying asthma. It’s worked so far, but sleep and focus are both hard to come by. So here I sit, blogging, in the hopes that it will help me get focused for this paper.

Learning wise, this has been a mind-blowing semester. I took Human Development, Social Justice, and Feminist Theories. All life changing topics, but I think HD really shifted my perspective the most. The first part was grueling; we had to read a really dense, jargon-laden, example-free overview of the field to get the basic frameworks through which human development is viewed. The reading got progressively more interesting and exciting. Each week, we had to write a paper on the theory/theories we had read about and explore a certain aspect. I was terrified at first; the professor for the class is known as being the Writing Ninja and I was sure I was in for some hard, necessary criticism. She was actually pretty easy on me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

My writing is not perfect; far from it. I’m pretty obsessive about editing, so that helps. I self-edit, I always have at least one other reader, either my mom or my husband (both of whom write for a living), and I try to do at least one out-loud read-through, which also catches the worst of my errors. I’m good at critical thinking, mostly because I don’t automatically negate my own reactions and opinions, no matter how renowned the author. There’s this constant internal-external process I go through where I take note of what interests, offends, excites, or otherwise entices me to reflect in the reading, and then compare it to my own experiences, previous studies, and general beliefs. I think I picked up this process in grad school, and it is serving me well so far in my new program. So I shift in and out of analysis and personal reflection, and it seems to work for me. I think it has the advantage of taking an idea and really knocking it home; so much academic writing is entirely abstract. And BORING. Some of the best ideas are hidden by some of the worst writing! It boggles the mind. I have this wacky idea that I can write academic quality papers that are still reflective, interesting, and specific.

However, I’ve never taken this approach in a formal paper. The two I’ve published academically were not personal, and I want this paper to be personal as well as rigorous.

I’ve had a harder time in my Social Justice and Feminism classes. It’s been confusing and difficult. I love many of the readings despite how heartbreaking it is to read the stories of people who have been disenfranchised, or whose cultures and histories have been misinterpreted and rewritten by those in power. These stories help me see where we are different, and where we are the same. Where I can help, and where I should just listen. But the language of Social Justice is totally different from my language, and I often feel lost, misinterpreted, and mostly just really trivial. From my standpoint as a white, educated, affluent woman, I feel like I’m not supposed to express my opinions or try to share or relate with people who are different. I don’t get this message from my fellow students, but it’s the impression I’m getting from the field of study itself, I guess. Or at least some of it. Some of the authors and editors clarify and seem to invite me into their experience, others seem to be saying, Stay Out! I started this program because of my specific interest in aspects of feminism and human behavior, but I’m having a hard time getting the twain to meet.

So I guess I want to take the writing style that was so successful in my HD class, and use it for this SJ type of paper. Wish me luck. And thanks for reading my rambling. I’ll be posting my final HD paper shortly. It’s all about my love of Kegan.

The 5 Stages of Feminism

For my Feminist Theory class, I’ve been reflecting on my journey from being somewhat uncomfortable and rejecting of the label and or movement of feminism to where I am now.This is my (pretend) stage theory, which is the stages of mourning in reverse:

  1. Acceptance
    I don’t question my discomfort with feminism; I just have some vague notion that feminists are bossy, loud, judgmental, don’t shave, and their ideas are irrelevant in the modern world. Abortion is legal and I can go to college. Stop dwelling on the past!
  2. Depression
    Whoops! Sexism is alive and well. I am publicly sexually harassed at work and no one notices. I am discriminated against based on my appearance. But women in other countries have to deal with sex-based human rights atrocities (yes, I realize this is an uninformed assumption; that’s the point). However, our military has a huge rape problem. My view of the world has started to shift.
  3. Bargaining
    Okay, I might be kind of a feminist. But I don’t want to be identified with my parents’ generation, so I’m a 3rd wave feminist. Or a post-modern feminist. Or something. I still have a vague sense of alienation from the 2nd wave movement.  I’m beyond the patriarchy (even though I’m not sure exactly what that is). Still, there are news stories about women being denied access to birth control. I might need to read some books about feminism to see what I actually agree and disagree with.
  4. Anger (this is me right now, btw)
    The Republican legislature in Texas removes access to affordable health care, birth control, and safe abortion to women in my state (amid massive protests and demonstrations), thus violating the constitution. After reading mainstream feminist literature from different eras (The Feminine Mystique, The Beauty Myth, Lean In, The Chalice and the Blade) and the selections for this and previous classes, I realize I’ve been had. Much of what I’ve constructed my identity on as a woman, particularly the negative messages I’ve internalized about myself, are bullshit. The portrayal of first and second wave feminists as anti-mother, anti-wife, and anti-child is right-wing, patriarchal propaganda.

    Current society, media, and legislation is wired to marginalize women, minorities, and people whose gender identity doesn’t easily fit into one of two categories. The admonition that “we have it so good” compared to other women, present and past, is an effective way to keep us quiet and inactive. I am incredibly pissed off.

  5. Denial and Isolation
    This is where my metaphor breaks down; or maybe not. I believe  our embedded power systems have effectively curbed public awareness of the feminist movement over the last two centuries. In fact (as we discussed yesterday) when Feminism is painted as a movement of exclusion rather than inclusion, women themselves often lead the charge to dismantle it. I would argue that I have spent most of my adult life in a place of denial and isolation from other women through both internalized and external misogyny. In fact, I believe we enforce the rules of the patriarchy as much as men in many situations.

What should this next phase be? How can we find a way to agree on some common goals across race, sexual identity, religion, geography, and any other divisions I haven’t thought of? Do we organize? Protest? Turn off the television and stop reading women’s magazines? Boycott princess dolls for our daughters? What do you think?

 

Losing My Religion

I’ve belonged to a certain church my whole life without realizing it. It is the Church of Female Inadequacy. I’m quitting.

Some people grow up in strict, dogmatic, oppressive religions that make them feel sinful and toxic about themselves. Some eventually realize that they no longer accept the contradictions and rules that they were raised with and leave the church, or look for a more accepting community.

I’ve written about my epiphany on one of my other blogs, so I won’t recall it here, but in some ways gaining a connection to God was losing the religion of hyper rationalism and the assumption that experiencing the mystical meant accepting all the most strange, dogmatic, and often brutal aspects of organized religion. So in a sense, gaining God meant discarding the religion of Atheism, which can be pretty dogmatic and elitist.

This is a bloated way of segueing into my topic de jour: radical self-acceptance. I grew up in the 70s and 80s on the heels of the feminist movement. I knew that as a woman I could go to school and study what ever I wanted to. I could be an astronaut or a lawyer. I could be smart, political, well-read, and intellectual. What I couldn’t be was fat or ugly. I got this message EVERYWHERE–I grew up in Southern California. ‘Nuff said.

So while I didn’t grow up in the gilded cage of the Victorian girl, or the stunted expectations of women of my mother’s generation before the sexual revolution, I still occupied a tiny, painful, and ever shrinking cage. As my adolescent body grew and filled out, the bars got tighter and more painful. (The medical industry’s definition of a healthy weight also shrunk.) I absorbed the idea that my mind and my abilities were valuable, but my body was subject to valid and indisputable criticism by others. Any others. If anyone had a problem with how I looked, I was in trouble. I was defective.

I was a healthy, smart, talented teen. I wasn’t particularly fat or thin. I believed  I was grotesquely fat, and I fantasized about getting liposuction on my thighs and plastic surgery to make my neck thinner. I hated myself for eating and enjoying my food. I constantly badmouthed myself, and lived in constant fear of anyone else noticing my “flaws.” I hated my body.

I eventually “took control” by going on more and more extreme diets, until I was eating 800 calories a day or less. Weight Watchers had told me that I needed to weigh between 98 and 113 pounds, and I couldn’t make my body that thin, so I just ate less and less. By the time I got down to 117 lbs, I was getting dizzy and seeing spots. A few friends and teachers were concerned about my weight loss, but I mostly got positive feedback on how I looked. I went to the doctor without any idea that my lack of food intake was causing the problem.  At the doctor, after screening me for drugs, I was sent to a nutritionist who asked me about my food intake. She told me I had no fat left on my body. “But what about my thighs? Weight Watchers says I should weigh no more than 113 lbs.” The nutritionist told me I needed to start eating sandwiches for lunch instead of a lone apple after my diet shake breakfast.

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I had been flirting with anorexia, and that if I had continued to lose weight I would have died. So I gained weight. And more weight. Every time I had to go up a size, I hated myself more. I hated looking in the mirror (although not any more than when I was underweight). In the opera industry, my voice teachers felt free to tell me when they thought I needed to lose weight. I started to fight back. I eventually decided (after a crapload of therapy) that the nasty, self-annihilating little voice in my head who told me I was repugnantly obese was full of shit. So I left the little cage behind, and found a bigger one. A cage where it was okay to be “overweight”. Where I could accept that my fat put me at risk for myriad health problems (according to the lowest common denominator of the medical and diet industries) and  if I was smart, eclectic, confident, and accomplished enough I could still be loved and admired. I guess I traded orthodoxy for reform.

Today I’m a bigger girl. I love food, I love to cook, and I limit my sugar intake to fight the weight I started to put on when I turned 40. I run, do yoga, walk, and belly dance. I feel pretty comfortable in my skin, as long as I stay in about a 20 lb range. I’m married, have a fantastic daughter, am happy, and accomplished. It’s a comfortable, livable cage. I don’t watch commercials or read women’s magazines (besides the occasional Oprah). I’m in a profession that does not subject me constant physical scrutiny as opera did. I’ve found some balance between compensating for my inadequacies and rejecting social norms. Still, if my jeans get tight, or I’m having a bad day, or someone takes an unflattering picture of me, all that shit from my adolescence comes right back up, and I feel once again like miserable, dimorphic teenager.

What if this whole religion of self-denial, self-hatred, and voluntary discrimination was total and utter bullshit? What if it was predicated on a biased and corrupt social system that spawned a medical industry that makes billions of dollars on teaching women we’re innately flawed?

Hi, I just finished reading The Beauty Myth, and I am well and truly pissed off.

The book was written in 1992, and the social phenomena it documents and interprets were what I grew up during my childhood and teenage years. Until recently, I was woefully ignorant of the history of feminism. For the past year I’ve been glutting myself on the more populist feminist literature, while studying sociology for my PhD. These books are not what my school would consider “source material” but they reflect what was going on at the time they were written. And where The Feminine Mystique taught me what my mother’s generation faced, The Beauty Myth describes my life and inner world in technicolor. Most importantly, it puts my experience in historical context of earlier practices that advocated various forms of self-inflicted or condoned violence against women. Read it.

I grew up down the street from a vibrant, brilliant woman who was a kindergarten teacher. She was large, and her weight made it hard for her to work because of the strain on her knees. She eventually enrolled in a medical weight loss program. It was an all liquid, incredibly low calorie diet. She lost weight, hair, and her teeth started to come loose. But it was medical, so it must be healthy and ethical, right? Losing her hair and teeth was better than being fat, right? The book says that the Beauty Myth requires that women “live hungry, die young, and leave a pretty corpse”. This certainly seemed to be the goal of this medically-supervised weight loss program. When my ex-boyfriend’s mother was dying of cancer, radiation caused her to lose most of her body fat.  Ruth had beautiful skin and a good wig. Her friends told her she looked more beautiful than she ever had before. Thin does not invariably equal healthy. I promise.

When I was a young woman and someone told me I was too fat, or I needed to watch my weight or face dire social (not health) consequences,  (This happened many times. Can I tell you what I would do if someone said that to my daughter? Hell. Would. Rain. Down.)  I would fight back. I would say that I was fine the way I was. But I eventually internalized every message and every paranoid fantasy that I was being  fairly and impartially judged by the world at large as flawed and unworthy.  I would fail in my profession, and never by loved by a worthy and worthwhile man. I was and would be an outcast.

My story is not unique. A girl who bullied me in elementary school died of anorexia at 23. A friend’s student died from gastric bypass. I have a friend who is a high school counselor who watches girls slowly kill themselves with eating disorders.

Let me break it down for you. The diet industry makes money by teaching women that they are mentally defective, which in turn makes them physically defective. This is not science, this is a sales strategy. The health industry uses science that is sometimes credible, sometimes biased, and sometimes false. We are not educated on how to evaluate the credibility of a scientific claim. What type of methodology was used? What were the variables? Have the conclusions been tested? What have subsequent studies shown?

The food industry sells diet products riddled with chemicals and additives that are far worse for our bodies than fresh food cooked in organic butter.

The cosmetic and beauty industries also play on our collective insecurities, most of which they created. Don’t even get me started on the ethics of advertisers using psychological research to manipulate people with no ethical safeguards. I’ll save that post for another day.

So, I’ve decided to leave the Church of Female Inadequacy. I will love my body, love eating, love moving, and love being me. I will not compensate for the things I was taught were ugly or shameful about myself. I will not teach my daughter to accept the subjective judgements of others as her mirror. I will love my fat, my curves, my big round butt, my strong calves, my baby stretch marks, and my frown and smile lines.

The scariest part is thinking about letting go of my cage. I’m really comfortable in my cage. In my cage, bigger jeans=BAD! same jeans=okay, smaller jeans=Awesome! Cutting sugar out of my diet is a way to stay in my cage. It’s not a bad thing; sugar is pretty clearly at best extraneous and at worst toxic for our bodies in large amounts. But I refrain partly because I fear getting too big for my cage. And when I get too big (i.e. bigger jeans), all the old fears come back. I’m not loveable, not valued, not worthy.

I’m going to work really, really hard on learning to listen to my body instead of the dogma I absorbed in my early life. I believe my body wants me to be healthy. I don’t exercise just to control my weight; I exercise because it makes me feel fantastic. Because running through the nature paths in my neighborhood and counting frogs and rabbits and deer makes me feel delight and lights up my daughter’s face when I come back and give her my critter count. Because shaking my butt and belly to music with a bunch of other beautiful, juicy women is joyful and liberating. Because walking outside and looking up into the huge Texas sky makes me feel loved by God. Also, my back hurts less.

I’m going to work on making decisions for my body and soul, instead of to keep the demons at bay. The demons are made of nothing but the collective weight of a culture that can’t stop oppressing itself.

Join me! Leave the Church. Choose a different spiritual path that honors and upholds everything that makes us women, at every age. And let me know how it goes.

I Get it Now: Part 1

A lot has been going down in Texas this week. I stayed up past midnight watching the Republicans in the Texas legislature make a mockery of the legislative process, belittle the filibustering Democrat, Wendy Davis, and then take a vote illegally after midnight and change the time stamp. I also watched many friends  post on Facebook as they headed to the Capitol to witness and protest. And I felt shame. Shame that I wasn’t there. Shame that I’d buried my head in the sand for so long. Shame that I had taken all that my mother’s generation and her grandmother’s generation had fought for for granted.

Gen-X women tend to have a complicated relationship with feminism. Many of us grew up with feminist mothers, aunts, teachers, and therapists. You could probably hear me rolling my eyes every time one of them talked about “The Patriarchy.” My parents were a bit of an amalgam – unlike some of my peers, I was never told that having babies was selling out my gender; I was taught that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up, including a mother. Many of my friends received harsher and more confusing messages. They were told by their mothers that motherhood was a cop-out, or signified failure. A bit of a mind-fuck, don’t you think? I’m going to talk more about this in a future post, but in general, I think we’ve distanced ourselves from the 2nd wave feminists for a variety of rational and unconscious reasons, many of which I’m beginning to seriously question. Stay tuned for part 2.

It never occurred to me that I might lose the right to decide whether or not to have a baby. Even when some states, including mine, were passing more and more restrictive bills, I didn’t pay much attention. I got married in my mid 30s and got pregnant, for the first time in my life, at 37. I knew when I met my husband, long before we got married, that if we got pregnant I would want to have a baby with him.

I also came of age in San Francisco in the 90s at the height and epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. We were all so concerned with not dying from sex, that pregnancy was waaaay down the list. I never had unprotected (and by this I mean condom-less) sex other than a brief stint on the pill during a long-term relationship in my 20s, until my pre-husband and I became monogamous.

The women and men who grew up before or after or too far away from the AIDS epidemic to carry the epic paranoia I did about unprotected sex had a different experience. I remember briefly being courted by a man in Austin in my 30s, and when he said he didn’t wear condoms, I was like, “Uh, nice knowing you?” But my peers were having unprotected casual sex pretty regularly.

A young friend of mine, barely out of her teens, recently confided in me that she had gotten pregnant. She was not promiscuous, it was with her first (now ex) boyfriend. They had just neglected to use condoms one night, and it had happened. She felt ashamed and stigmatized; she felt horribly conflicted, and terribly scared. She was lucky to have a supportive and loving mom to help her through the emotional turmoil of making the decision to have an abortion. She’s a good kid, and she made one poor decision. The not so funny part is so did her boyfriend, but he didn’t have to go through any of the physical discomfort,  mental torture, and emotional turmoil that she did.

She lives in Texas, and we have all sorts of fucked-up laws that basically humiliate and dehumanize women who choose to have abortions. She had to have a transvaginal ultrasound. She had to listen as the doctor was forced to tell her lots fun facts about the fetus. She had to listen to the heartbeat (but was allowed to block the sound with headphones if she wished – gah!). And then she took a pill, went home, and cramped and bled by herself in her apartment for two days.

I have to say that her story simultaneously freaked me out and broke my heart. She did not deserve to be criminalized for not wanting to be a mother at 20. She did not deserve to be essentially raped and abused by a doctor on behalf of the state government. I thought about how happy, yet terrified I was when I got pregnant on purpose, and how hard it must have been for her to make the decision to end hers. And it was hard. She had to work through a lot of guilt and sadness about her decision, and it still haunts her. I realized for the first time that this was something lots of women went through, and like my friend, they did not deserve to be criminalized.

I think I stayed away from the abortion debate for a number of reasons. It’s not black and white. To me, there is an ethical issue, and a psychological cost to any abortion. But I get it now. It’s between me, and my God/ess, and my doctor (and most likely my shrink). AND NO ONE ELSE. Pro-Choice does not mean pro-abortion. It does not mean anti-baby.

This bill, SB5, will outlaw abortions after 20 weeks, including in cases of rape and incest, and effectively close all but 5 abortion clinics in Texas. The socio-economic ramifications are staggering. Rural women without transportation will not have access to abortions.

The mostly, but not entirely male group of people who are pushing this travesty through claim to care for women’s health and safety, and the sanctity of life. Maybe a few really believe that’s what this bill is doing. But it is fairly clear to me that they want to shore up their ultra-conservative base before the next round of elections, and the cost to women’s lives and health is a non-consideration.

So I bought me an orange shirt, and I’m heading to the Capitol to protest on Monday. For the first time in about 25 years.

To hear why this is so crucial, please read this testimony by Amy Hagstrom-Miller, CEO of Whole Women’s Health. I have the honor of knowing Amy, and am intensely grateful for the work she does for women in my community, and the fight she’s been leading against this bill.

If you live in Texas, or you care about the women who do, please consider doing something to help us in this effort.

My Manifesto (sort of)

redflowerThis is an excerpted version of my personal essay for my application to my PhD program. It pretty much sums up what I’ve been pondering since I had a kid and everything seemed to change. So here is Version 1 of my manifesto. I hope you find it thought-provoking, and feel free to comment.

When I taught my first college class, I had an experience that significantly influenced both my professional trajectory and academic area of interest.

I taught Leadership Theory and Group Performance in the spring semester of 2011.  I teach in an adult undergraduate program. At the time, I was also a new mother; my daughter was nine months old.  I had stayed home to care for my daughter, but teaching was a major professional goal, so I agreed to take the class on short notice when the professor took an unexpected sabbatical.

I would usually arrive early to my (evening) class to gather my thoughts and materials, and often students would also come early and we would have informal conversations.  I had one student, for example, who was recently out of the military service and was a father of four.  We would talk about babies and parenting, among other things.  It was pleasant to relate to my students in an informal manner and helped ease some of my anxiety about being a new teacher. The course went well, and my students showed commitment and promise.

When I received my anonymous student feedback after the end of the course, there was one comment that struck me.  A student had said that I should not have “complained of being ‘mama-tired’” and that it was unprofessional.  At first, I felt shame and consternation.  Had I unknowingly crossed a social boundary?  Had I come across as unprofessional or unsuitable as a professor?  I mentally reviewed my behavior.  Had I complained about fatigue during class?  No – but I probably did say something when I was chatting with students before class, if asked.  Perhaps a student asked me how I was at the beginning of class and I said I was tired.  Anyone with children knows how grueling those first sleepless months are.  My child was certainly on my mind – I had anxiety about leaving her for the entire evening, especially since I was still nursing.  The juxtaposition of changing out of wrinkled yoga clothes into a business suit to teach class, while cramming my bra with pads to avoid embarrassing milk stains was somewhat surreal.  The cerebral sterility and of the academic setting versus the visceral messiness of being a mother to a young child was challenging to reconcile, but I felt that I had made the transition fairly well.  Moreover, I felt that the transformational fire of motherhood made me a better teacher – more compassionate, nurturing, self-possessed, humble, tougher and stronger in spirit.

Over time, several questions emerged.  Why did I feel shame in the professional setting about my new role as a mother? Why did the (presumably female) student find it inappropriate?  If I had said I was tired from traveling for my job, would she have made the same comment? I also considered how many of my professional female friends felt they had to somehow disguise or justify the time spent at home when they returned to work after having children, as if the experience of motherhood had no relevance or value to organizations.

During my graduate work in leadership and ethics, I had become interested in the trend in leadership theory towards aspects of the feminine principle.  Late 20th century leadership theories such as Transformational Leadership, Servant Leadership, and Emotional Intelligence espouse a more intuitive, emotional, and holistic style than earlier theories such as Path-Goal and Contingency theories that focus on the hierarchical aspects of leadership functions.  I was interested in what influences or events precipitated this change of focus, and more importantly, why these feminine styles and theories were created, espoused, and largely practiced by men. What are the persistent barriers to women in leadership?

As I continued to synthesize my graduate learning with my professional and personal experiences, I began to wonder if some basic assumptions still exist that create barriers to women, particularly mothers, in the professional setting.  More specifically, how do women self-limit or limit each other’s opportunities for success?  What are the underlying assumptions that perpetuate this behavior?  I began to see parallels between how women interact in families, relationships, and across generations in the personal sphere with how they behave in the professional world.  Women did not have the right to vote a few short generations ago; now we have the same legal rights as men.  Do we, like other oppressed cultures, carry with us artifacts of this earlier time that we unknowingly inflict on each other and pass on to our daughters?  Does our tendency to shy away from our innate human aggression and competition cause us to act out in ways that are self or other limiting?

After reading Bolen’s work on Greek goddesses and other writing on Jungian female archetypes, it seems to me that the dominant archetypes for women in the work world tend to be maiden goddesses like Athena (a warrior and scholar), or the Wise Woman – a woman past child-bearing who possesses knowledge and the wisdom of age.  The Mother archetype seems conspicuously absent.  Why is the Mother not welcome in our places of work, and does that have any bearing on the less than hospitable environment for mothers returning to work after having children – the so called “mommy trap”?  I considered how Hilary Clinton was famously lambasted for saying she did not need to “stay home and bake cookies” when she was involved with creating policy in her husband’s administration.  Now that she is past childbearing age, she has run for president and been Secretary of State.

These questions intrigue me and drive me to continue my research in the areas of leadership theory, organizational behavior, and women’s studies.  I believe there is a conversation yet to be had that could diminish the remaining misogyny that still limits women in our society – because I suspect women perpetuate it more actively than men do.  Until we can openly and frankly discuss our unconscious aggressive behavior as a potential source of artifacts of the patriarchy, and until we can fully integrate uncomfortable impulses and emotions that we continue to disown or project, we will not be able to become fully self-realized contributors to our society, and to the world our daughters inherit from us.

That one student comment, and my own reaction to it, has led me to look much more closely at my relationship to work, motherhood, and other women. I have learned to question my own assumptions about the divide between motherhood and career, and have broadened my areas of research and literature review to include anthropology, sociology, and feminism.  I believe that as women we have yet to make our most significant contributions to the organizational world, and by dismantling and addressing some of our hidden beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, we may be able to help create a more holistic, integrated approach to business and leadership.