Threatened at the Corner Store: the Men and the Milk

Ten minutes. I was hitting the ten minute mark of just standing in front of the freezers, seemingly debating whether to buy a quart or a gallon of milk. Or perhaps unsure of which kind I wanted. Skim or whole? Maybe 2%? I had a pensive look on my face.

It’s the look I get when I’m frozen inside. Generally from shock. Often from fear. Almost always after a harrowing experience that’s left me momentarily paralyzed.

My allergies had been just horrific, but I’d decided to brave the run across the street to the little bodega anyway because I’d been out of dishwasher soap and milk and coffee filters for three days. As I walked up the steps to the entrance, two men walked out. Because I’m a woman who’s been trained by society not to look strange men in the eye when its dark out and they look potentially threatening, I didn’t. But they stopped in the doorway and came up close to me, speaking far louder than was necessary. “Whoa mama, look at those tits.” “Daaaaamn. Naw like really dog, daaaaaaamn.” One started masturbating and pushed up close to my face as I stared at the ground, trying to navigate around them. He rubbed himself and licked his lips as he undressed me with his eyes and loudly proclaimed what he’d do to me.

“Guys, stop it.” I said in my tired, exasperated and slightly pissed off voice.

Hollaring back is something I’ve been doing lately, but only from afar. To those men who – in broad daylight – yell at me as I pass by on the sidewalk. From a fairly safe distance I might add. When others are around.

corner store at nightNever before have I fought back – even verbally – to men (plural) who’ve gotten up in my face and harassed me so loudly so late at night in utter isolation.

They were pissed. One pushed me into the doorframe as I tried to pass. Both started screaming at me – “You f—ing ugly a– b—-!!” “Who the f— you think you are?!” “You’ll take it and like it!!”

I got into the store as I heard them trample down the stairs, still yelling obscenities at me. Nonchalantly, I went straight for second aisle, grabbed the soap, and moved to the next aisle.

Where I froze up completely.

And where I now found myself with a slightly pensive, mostly blank expression on my face, just staring. It wasn’t that I couldn’t decide between a quart and a gallon, or whole or skim.  It was that I couldn’t remember what I was looking for. It was that I was paralyzed with fear. After a minute the thoughts flowed, and they only made me more petrified.

They had screamed awfully loudly at me. What if they were waiting for me outside? What if they jumped me from behind the stairs as I came down? I’m carrying my house keys and my wallet – my wallet with my ID, which clearly says I live exactly across the street. What if they simply walked up behind me with a knife or a gun and forced me to open my front door for them? What then?

I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t call or text anyone. The store owner had gone to the back room and wasn’t someone I’d have sought help from anyway. Minutes ticked by and still I stood and stared at the fridge. What was I doing there? Why had I come to the store in the first place? How long should I stay?

More minutes passed. I started to sneeze again, and to sweat.  Finally I looked around and thought: I have to get home. I grabbed the milk, hurried to the front, paid for my purchases, and left.

Crossing the street, my eyes were like daggers as I took in all the potential warning signs, jumping at every leaf that crackled behind me.

A minute later, I bolted my gate and locked the front door. Tightly clutching my keys, I took a deep breath, slid to the floor, and wept.

The ironic thing is that I had just returned from a happy hour, celebrating women’s rights and choices and power and freedom with friends and allies. After which I’d given a friend a ride home. We chatted the whole way back about street harassment. About how our male friends – allies though they were – just didn’t understand. It wasn’t just about how often it happened. It was about how often we had to think about it, and how bad it was when it did happen.

Street harassment is about power. It’s about making women feel unsafe and unwelcome in public spaces. It’s an extension of rape culture that results in making women feel frozen in fear of the “what if.” That fear is what has chained us for so long, its iron grip  invading our minds and making us feel like we’re crazy as we stare and stare at the freezer, waiting for the waves of panic to pass.

Street harassment isn’t an annoyance. It isn’t a bother and it isn’t an inconvenience. Street  harassment is a threat. It’s a threat to a woman’s safety and well-being.  It’s a man’s decision to engage with a woman’s body without her consent- without permission, without her equal contribution to the tranaction. It’s an expression of dominance and of power. After all, if you’re going to dare to be in a public space – which is automatically a man’s space – then you will have no rights, no freedoms, no security. no respect, and no privacy. And you don’t complain about it; you’ll be expected to just take it. And to like it. Because being in public space means your body is public property, and men will engage with it when and where and how they see fit.

An hour later, feeling calmer and more grounded, I look back and wonder why and how it was so bad. Because few such encounters are so bad when you look back on them instead of as you experience them. And now, with the very minor distance of time, I can’t help but wonder about so many women for whom home is not a safe haven. Who wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. Who didn’t have a sister to call immediately afterwards, or a front door to bolt and lock. For most women in the world, their home is the most unsafe place for them to be.

I’m very lucky. I know that. But I’m still angry. I’m still hurt. And I admit it – I’m still even a little scared. I’ve looked out my window more than a few times in the last hour, because knowing you’re being irrationally paranoid about such a thing doesn’t actually prevent you from being that way.

Another 20 minutes later, and I realize I’ve forgotten the coffee filters.

But I’m not going back out again tonight.

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From Afar, How to Use Twitter Effectively During a Crisis

We are saddened by the news out of Boston that at least two explosions occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon late this afternoon. Over 100 people have been injured and the scene is one of chaos and fear as emergency responders and investigators rushed to the scene.

Image via ABCNews

Image via ABCNews

In times like this, people turn to their social networks – especially twitter – for information, assurances, and resources.  Those of us not near the scene of the incident especially want to know what’s going on and to be helpful.

Below are the three most important ways – from afar – to use Twitter during a crisis or emergency.

1) Listen First – 40% of users on Twitter never send a single tweet. They are there to listen and to learn, and especially during a crisis, it’s important to take a page from their book. This means taking just a few minutes to set up your own “listening platform.” Whether you’re an active twitter user or not, it’s worth creating or updating a quick twitter list so that you can keep track of whose twitter feeds you want to be paying especially close attention to.  This list could have as few as 10 twitter handles on it, but choose wisely. The point is to have a single list where you can read unfiltered information without being overwhelmed. Depending on the type of crisis it is, government accounts and emergency services should be included – some examples include @CDCEmergency, @RedCross, @FEMA, and @NOAA. You may also want to include your favorite news anchors or handles, such as @CNNBrk or @NBCNews.

2. Share the Right Information – After all, this is why you – and so many others – have come to twitter. Especially when a crisis is breaking, it’s important to amplify networks by retweeting and sharing information so that it can continue to spread. The caveat here, of course, is to only spread good information. The best way to avoid this is to stick to validating news reports, government officials, or respectable organizations. Being armed with information isn’t just good for those who are in the midst of the crisis – it can also be valuable for those outside the impacted area who are looking for updates or ways to help.

For example – during a tragedy like the one Boston experienced today, the tendency is to immediately RT users calling for blood donations to the Red Cross nearest the incident. However, a quick glance at the official Red Cross Twitter account (@RedCross) would tell any well-meaning supporters that blood isn’t needed (in Massachusetts anyway).

Red Cross Tweet

Everybody wants to be helpful during and after a crisis, but you may inadvertently send people to the wrong places, which can overwhelm services and end up causing more harm than good.

Some other helpful tweets that were passed around today were links to Google’s “Person Finder” and the phone number for the National Distress Hotline, for those who may have been experiencing triggers as a result of the explosion.

Additionally, be on the look out for anything that looks suspicious.  Another example is the @_BostonMarathon twitter account, which was set up just this morning (first flag) and immediately started tweeting out requests for RTs, which it promised would lead to donations. See below.

Fake Boston Marathon Twitter Account

It should be noted that Twitter shut down the account shortly after it was created, once users cried foul. It’s especially important to check out the legitimacy of accounts that are asking you for money.

3) Contribute – Taking information in and spitting it back out to a wider audience is helpful for sure, but if you’re not at the scene, you may have something even better to offer. With the luxury of both time and internet access, see if you can’t curate content, compile lists of resources, and provide something of increased value to those who are listening. For example, did you just create a twitter list of the people/accounts with the most up-to-date and accurate information about a local crisis? Make it public and tweet about it so others can follow it too. Maybe gather content you see on the web so that it’s easily accessible to journalists or others, the way @RebelMouse did in this Storify recap of the tragedy.  Maybe tweet to your followers to let you know if they have supplies or housing they can offer, and you’ll collect the information in a google doc to crowd source with friends.

The most important thing to remember about tweeting from afar is to be helpful and to be truthful. When in doubt about a source, it’s best not to tweet it. If you see a tweet asking for help or directions or information, take a minute to research it and see if you can’t find an answer.

Twitter is known for its facilitation of information and conversation between not just friends, but strangers as well. And in times like these, there are no strangers. In times like these – times of insecurity and fear, chaos and doubt – we shouldn’t hesitate to use every tool and every resource at our disposal to aid each other in not just surviving catastrophes, but in picking up the pieces as well.

For those still trying to locate loved ones, find housing in the area, or otherwise assist in the efforts, check out this valuable list of links and resources. For advice on how best to communicate during a crisis, check out today’s New Organizing Institute’s Tip of the Day. And lastly, take a 1:49 to watch the below footage of the marathon shot by my friend Jason from before the explosion. Just because it’ll inspire you.

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Gubernatorial Candidate Ken Cuccinelli Makes His Mark as VA Board of Health Votes for Increased Abortion Clinic Restrictions

The Virginia State Board of Health voted just this morning to adopt stricter building regulations for abortion clinics. These new regulations are designed to – you guessed it – force the clinics to close as it is virtually impossible to comply with the new standards in the time frame allowed.

This is the new front of the abortion battles – anti choice lawmakers pushing through legislation with absurd building requirements so as to force abortion clinics to close when they can’t comply. It’s not just in Virginia, either. Three days ago, Alabama’s Governor Robert Bentley signed a TRAP bill (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) requiring these clinics to have such things as wider hallways and bigger parking lots, as well as be staffed only by doctors who have admitting privileges at local hospitals. (For what it’s worth, these restrictions are so severe that even most hospitals would not be able to obey the regulations.)  Mississippi is another state whose TRAP law makes such strict requirements.

But back to Virginia.  Where do all these laws come from? In Virginia’s case (which as I mentioned is just the latest state to pull this trick), it can be traced to Ken Cuccinelli.  If you’re not familiar with him, if his name doesn’t roll off your tongue (as you sport a look of total disgust of course), practice saying it a few times. Because if you don’t start paying close attention to him, he’s going to be Virginia’s next Governor. And he’s going to bring the 1950s back with him.

This is pretty much what we mean when we talk about “extreme” – extreme abortion restrictions and extreme politicians.  “Extreme” should really be Ken Cuccinelli’s middle name as far as the pro-choice advocacy community should be concerned. Because it goes much farther than his recent efforts to overturn a court’s decision deeming the Virginia’s anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional.

Let’s just take a quick look at some of his choiciest anti-choice sentiments:

Here’s a sample of what he thinks about women’s decision-making capabilities when it comes to their own bodies:

Ken Cuccinelli on Abortion Access

Here he is bragging about trying to deny women access to basic health services:

Ken Cuccinelli on Abortions

And my ultimate favorite: here he is comparing the fight to combat abortion with the fight to end slavery.

Ken Cuccinelli on Abortion as Slavery

Yes you read that right -SLAVERY.

And so we see where we are – a man who thinks the Catholic church is too dependent on government, who thinks there’s no such as thing as safe homosexual sex, and who is proud of his efforts to deny medical procedures to women in need. And make no mistake, he’s been making his mark on Virginia.

The majority of the members on the 15 person VA Board of Health were appointed by Governor Bob McDonnell, another gem in the anti-choice movement’s roster of politicians who just want to “protect women.” However, even these members thought the call for new restrictions was too much, and they tried to amend the regulations by grandfathering existing clinics from the new building requirements.  Here’s what the Richmond Times Dispatch reports happened next:

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli refused to certify the regulations saying the board lacked the authority to make a change that in the attorney general’s view was inconsistent with the original law. The memo from Cuccinelli’s office also suggested that board members might not qualify for representation from the office if they deviated from the legal advice that had been offered.

I’ll give you one guess as to whether the Board members stood their ground (hint: the answer is no). Luckily, there was at least one Virginia government official who took a stand here – Karen Remley, the Health Commissioner (in case you’re wondering, appointed by pro choice advocate Tim Kaine, current VA Senator and former VA Governor).  For Commissioner Remley however, it wasn’t just about standing up for women. She ended up resigning her position over the issue, declaring that the regulations had “created an environment in which [my] ability to fulfill [my] duties is compromised.”

Duties such as promoting the public interest? Protecting the public’s health? Yes, I agree, Ken Cuccinelli’s involvement does seem to bring about an inability to do that job.

Now that the Board of Health has voted to adopt the regulations, they will again return to Ken Cuccinelli and Governor Bob McDonnell for final review. And we can add yet another state to the list.

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Why Aren’t Feminists More Calm and Rational? Calling Out Sexism and the Courage of Adria Richards

As the firestorm over the Adria Richards story has only increased, a poem from one of my favorite artists – Alix Olson - keeps reverberating in my head.

Still we’ve tried being patient,
collected, calm, nice
trying praying, tried laying you
paying the price,
we’ve learned to scream
until our throats throbbed
what else do you do
while your cunt’s being robbed …

And I hear you saying
“subtle, sister,
less bite, more bark
you can make your point without leaving such a mark.
subtle, sister,
stop your seething,
I think we got it, I think we’re even:”

It’s a poem about feminism and anger, about why women are so abrasive and so loud and so obnoxious. And its meaning is never more relevant than when we examine the public’s response to Adria Richards.

For those just catching up, Adria Richards is a woman of color who was exhaustified by being surrounded by straight while males in the world of technology who didn’t see any need to recognize that they weren’t in a locker room. These are the kinds of men who like to make jokes about big dongles and forking, consistently going out of their way to make women feel alienated and unwelcome and unsafe in what they perceive to be their space (I’ve just linked to it, but seriously, if you haven’t read A Woman Walks Into a Tech Conference, do it right now.)

Adria turned around and tweeted a photo of the two men at this particular conference, calling them out for their sexist behavior, which also happened to be a violation of the conference’s code of conduct.  One of the men was later fired, and the internet turned against Adria.

dongle

You may be wondering what this means. This means Adria Richards has been subjected to the online trolling masses – the ones who feel that when a woman steps out of her place – a woman of color no less – it’s time to put her back. By force. This means death threats. This means rape threats. This means the most vile, hate-filled, misogynistic material you couldn’t imagine even if tracking it was part of your daily life. Richards has been “called practically every name under the sun. Some Twitter commenters demanded she kill herself.” One posted this photo of Richards tied up and gagged with the caption “Adria Richards when I’m done with her.”

Adria Richards has since been fired by her company and the internet has exploded once again.

Would I have done what Adria did?

Too many people have been phrasing their support for Adria with sentences along these lines: “I wouldn’t have done what Adria did, but she doesn’t deserve death threats.” Or “there are better ways Adria could have handled that, but I still support her.” Or “It would have been more professional for Adria to confront these men and politely ask them to stop, but she shouldn’t have been fired for her actions.” (Deanna Zandt has a great piece over at Forbes about why asking what Adria could have done differently is the wrong question because it focuses on victim-blaming in the same way as critiquing a rape victim’s clothing).

I admit it – at first, I was one of them. I’m fairly certain some of my first comments about the incident were like that. Why?

When I finally realized it, I was ashamed of myself.

The reason we are couching our support for Adria in those terms is because we want to send a message to our listeners. That message is this: “I’m a rational and reasonable person, so I totally understand where you are coming from and why you think she was wrong. But rape threats are still wrong.”

We want you to buy into us, to believe that we aren’t one of those “crazy women” who are burning our bras and marching around with signs that say Death to the Patriarchy! all day, instead of having rational and calm and informed discussion. We want men to take us seriously. We think “maybe if they realize how rational I am, they will hear me better. Maybe if they realize I respect them and I’m being polite, they will listen to what I have to say and actually try to understand.”

Let’s be clear – this method doesn’t work.

Women who stand up for themselves are constantly being told that we’re crazy. That we’re overly emotional and we’re too loud and we’re too obnoxious about our fight for equality. And it’s because of how we approach our fight for equality that we’re constantly being overpowered and shouted down and threatened and assaulted.

And yet the average person still wants to know: why can’t we just tone it down? Why are feminists so angry?

Why aren’t we softer? Why aren’t we calmer? Why aren’t we more subtle?

Simple.

We’re living in a world that hates women. And there is nothing soft, calm, or subtle about it.

A world in which rappers brag about drugging and raping women, magazines feature women solely as ornamental objects, 18 year old boys rape 13 year old girls, 28% of women on U.S. campuses are assaulted, female children are brutally killed to preserve a family’s honor13 year old girls are forced into prostitution, 3 woman a day are murdered in the US by husbands or boyfriends, 33% of women in the military have been sexually assaulted, rape is a weapon of war, 1 in 3 US adolescents is a victim of dating abuse, fashion outlets glamorize sexual violence, women who suggest men not rape receive rape threats . . . oh this list could go on and on and on.

I wouldn’t have done with Adria did. Not because it was the wrong way to handle it, not because her anger wasn’t deserved, not because there were more “effective” ways of handling it.

I wouldn’t have publicly called out these two men for their behavior simply because I would not have had the courage that she did.

Adria Richards

Do People Really Respond Rationally?

I know. You think of yourself as calm and reasonable and rational. We all do. And we often wonder to ourselves, why aren’t more people like us?

But the truth is that people aren’t calm and cool and collected and gracious and polite and reasonable all the time.  And I’ll tell you who especially isn’t like that - men who are confronted with their own sexist behavior.

I know. You think you are like that. You think your friends are like that.  You think your coworkers are like that.

But none of us is as we imagine. William Halaten writes in his New York Times review of the book, The Righteous Mind,

the problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. The problem is that their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.”

Even our personal life experiences tell us this. People do not like to be wrong. We prize rationality and reason (not coincidentally, I think, traits normally associated more with men than women), and scorn emotions and gut feelings and instinctive reaction.  And so even when we do things because of our emotions or our feelings, we convince ourselves that we are being rational. We convince ourselves that if someone interacting with us had done something a little bit differently, we would have reacted entirely differently, too.

Except life isn’t like that. I’ve even written blog posts in the past about how to calmly and rationally approach well-intentioned men about their sexism (yes, I’m kind of embarrassed about that now). But it doesn’t work.  We see this a lot in the judgement of rape victims – people who say “if she had just said “no” more clearly or more politely, I’m sure he would have stopped.” The men who were called out by Adria make the same claim – “if only she had nicely asked us to stop, we would have!”

Oh please.  Just like the rest of us, men don’t like to be wrong. Men don’t like to be denied their place of power and privilege. Don’t tell me that these two men who made Adria Richards feel unwelcome and unsafe in a public space deserve to have been spoken to politely, or asked nicely. The idea that they would have politely smiled and apologized and gone about their way is a fantasy.

It’s fiction. It’s the same people who tell me that I don’t need to hollaback! at street harassers. If I just approach them and ask them nicely not to do that, they’ll stop.

Know what? They don’t. I’ve tried. We all have. It’s not working. Men who are making jokes like that do  not deserve the courtesy of respectful, polite discourse. Men who violate women’s space do not deserve the courtesy of respectful, polite discourse. Men who try to control what happens to my body do not deserve the courtesy of respectful, polite discourse.

Not every man who makes a mistake is a sexist misogynistic jerk who deserves to be publicly called out. But please don’t call yourself a feminist or an ally if you don’t want to trust women to know the difference.

We do. We know the difference between a man who compliments us on the street and a man who is sexually harassing us. We know the difference between a man who uses a word that unintentionally offends us and a man who is embracing his privilege and actively making the world an unsafe place for women.

If Adria Richards says she knew she had to speak up because these men were clearly hiding behind deindividualization in order to make their jokes, then I trust her. If Adria Richards says she thought about it and gut-checked it and considered the code of conduct in place at this conference, then I trust her. If Adria Richards says she was going to let the whole thing go on because she was just too weary to deal with it, but that a photo of a young girl who had participated in the Young Coders workshop inspired her to take action, then I trust her. If Adria Richards says the best way to have addressed this issue was to call out their behavior, then I trust her.

So should you.

If these two men just made an honest mistake, if they really didn’t mean anything by it and truly are “good hearted” people who meant no harm and want to learn from their mistakes, then help me out here. WHERE ARE THEY?

Where is their outrage at the way Adria has been treated? Where is their public statement saying “as we’ve said, we wish she’d brought this to our attention first, but the most unfortunate thing is that she didn’t feel safe doing so. Adria didn’t feel comfortable doing so. And now it’s clear why. Adria would have had no way of knowing that we would have been accepting of her critique or request. She would have had no way of knowing that we aren’t like everyone else who has treated her with such hate and disrespect.  The fact that she didn’t feel safe is explained entirely just by seeing the vicious attacks on her, and we publicly condemn those who are attacking her.”

Where’s that statement from these poor victimized guys who totally are good people???

Adria Richards didn’t do what any of us would have done. Instead, she did what needed to be done.

Alix Olson’s poem ends by bringing to mind what is obvious to everyone who is fighting for gender equality. To everyone who has ever tried to combat rampant sexism and blatant misogyny with courtesy or respect. Anyone who has ever been told it would be better to just be more . . . subtle.

Subtle like a penis pounding its target?
Subtle like your hissing from across the street?

Subtle like the binding on my sisters’ feet?
Subtle like her belly raped with his semen,
draped in his fuck, funny,
doesn’t seem even.

See, sometimes anger’s subtle, stocked in metaphor
full of finesse and dressed in allure
Yes, sometimes anger’s subtle, less rage than sad
leaking slow through spigots you didn’t know you had.
and sometimes it’s just

fuck you.
fuck you.
you see, and to me,

That’s poetry too.

Patriarchy isn’t subtle.

Unsafe spaces for women isn’t subtle.

Misogyny and sexism aren’t subtle.

This time, Adria Richards decided that she wasn’t going to be subtle either.

*Addendum: For those who are concerned about her health and well-being, I have it confirmed that Adria is safe. She released a public statement yesterday, which you can read here. I know that you’ll be as impressed with her courage and grace as I am.

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What Everyone Doesn’t Seem to Understand About My Lack of Work/Life Balance – From a 20-something.

In 2007, New York Times magazine wrote: “Everyone in D.C. is here for a purpose.  You don’t come to D.C. because you want to relax. You only relax after you have exhausted yourself lobbying a senator to get behind your pet cause or protesting for immigration reform on the Mall.”

You can always tell someone who is new to D.C., because quite frankly, they don’t get it.  And by “it”, what I really mean is the question, “what do you do?”  They don’t understand this question, so they constantly feel the need to turn their noses up at it, to complain about how people here only care about what they do instead of who they are.  “I am NOT my job,” they proudly proclaim to no one.

This is because they don’t get it.  Those of us who are being targeted by all the articles on work/life balance, and achieving career success without losing your soul, and how to network effectively . . . well, the thing is, we love our work.  We are our work.

Over the course of the six years that I’ve been in this city – including quick stints in Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and North Carolina – I’ve had the privilege of doing almost exclusively cause-driven work.  This means frequent long hours, grueling work for little pay, and what many would call an appalling lack of work/life balance.

Because I’m a political campaigner and an activist and an organizer and well, that’s what we do.

531104_725879734135_674730307_n

Sure, I have friends in other jobs in other cities who like their jobs, but don’t talk about them constantly.  They have what people would refer to as this magical work/life balance. They certainly don’t live and breathe their jobs the way my friends and I do. And they seem to do just fine in life too.

But my work is my life.  At least a huge, huge part of it.  And why shouldn’t it be? I spend anywhere from 8-14 hours a day at work, just like a lot of employed people.  For that much time, I’d better be getting a heck of a lot out of it.

And so my friends and I wake up each day and go to bed each night thinking about reproductive justice and marriage equality and government transparency and environmental protection, among so many others things.  We fight battles together.  We contribute blood, sweat, and tears to our jobs, to these causes we believe in, and we form friendships and relationships and bonds as we do it.

And what’s wrong with that exactly? I’ve been fortunate enough to have jobs that have stimulated me and challenged me and rewarded me.  I’m developing a career that allows me to feel that I have purpose in the world, that I am contributing to my society and helping make my country and the planet a better place.  I’m growing as a person and learning skills and developing as not just an employee, but as a person.

I’ve noticed that older people like to tell me to slow down. To stop and smell the roses.  To go on more dates.  That one day, I’ll regret the time I spent at work instead of, I don’t know, going to the park with my girlfriends.

And yet, I can’t imagine it would ever be so.

How could I ever regret those days I spent registering voters in Pennsylvania?  Why would I have wanted to be doing anything other than marching with my fellow activists at the Roe v. Wade anniversary rally?  How would I ever forget driving from one poll to another at midnight in Orlando, Florida on Election night in 2012, passing out bottled water and snacks as my friends and I encouraged voters to stay in line so they could make their voices heard?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some other good times.  Competitive karaoke is up there. And church choir.  And watching Downton Abbey with my fellow Seven-Sister-College-Alums when I could squeeze it in.

But at the end of the day, what makes my life literally worth living, is the work I do as a citizen and a member of a community.  Lobbying a senator to get behind your pet cause or protesting for immigration reform on the Mall, the New York Times called it.

This is what I do and who I am.  Please stop trying to tell me I’ll regret it.  Please stop trying to get me to slow down.  Please stop telling me my life has less value because I choose to love where I spend most of my day.

When you love your job, when your coworkers are your friends, and when you are so invested that you can truly learn from your failures and celebrate your successes, well, somehow through it all, you start to realize that maybe – just maybe – it’s ok for your work to be your life.

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An Open Letter to Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey

Sybil's Death

**Spoiler Alert**

Dear Sybil:

First of all, you aren’t alone.  Now in 2012, in July of 1920 when you died, and all the years before that, you weren’t then and aren’t now, alone.

Because even today, every 90 seconds a woman in the world dies from childbirth.   As has been written in other blog posts, of the estimated 210 million women who become pregnant each year, 20 million will experience life-threatening complications.  And 50% of maternal deaths take place in the 48 hours after delivery - just like yours.

You may be wondering what, exactly, killed you. It’s a condition know as eclampsia.  First, you had preeclampsia, evidenced by high blood pressure accompanied by a high level of protein in the urine. Untreated, preeclampsia becomes eclampsia, which is the final and most severe phase, often leading to seizures, coma, and death. We don’t know – even now – exactly what causes it.  Only that being diagnosed early with preeclampsia and being treated for it lessens your chance of it developing. As one of your doctors noted: “once the seizures begin, there’s nothing to be done.”

Here in the United States, pregnancy is still a huge risk to both mother and child.  The U.S. is ranked 50th in the world for maternal death rates, and that’s just because we’ve been steadily declining (death rates nearly doubled  between 1990 and 2008. Compare that to the fact that worldwide, maternal death rates were nearly cut in half during approximately that same period). Every year there are 6 million pregnancies, which basically means every year almost 6 million women are exposed to an enormous number of life-threatening conditions. In recent years, an average of 875,000 women have experienced one or more pregnancy complications in the United States. It’s just one reason why we are so incredulous every time another law passes permitting abortions only in the case of a “threat to the life and health of the mother.”

All pregnancies – as you’ve discovered – potentially threaten the life and health of the mother. Pregnancy is incredibly dangerous for a woman.

But back to you.  The strange thing is that you were living just on the cusp of a revolution in maternal health care. Maternal death rates began to drop dramatically and uniformly in developed countries around the 1930s, mostly due to better training for doctors (trained and experienced midwives had performed the deliveries in the past), and the introduction of a drug which effectively attacked a strain of fever that had been one of the leading causes of maternal death. Both sadly and ironically, conditions such as yours went from being the 3rd leading cause of death in developed nations to the first.

My friends had strong reactions to your death, and not just because we’re invested in your family and in your lives.  But because you were the one who got away. My smart, strong, independent, politically active and feminist friends had barely a chance to get to know you well before you were off to rallies for women’s rights and then to Ireland, having shrugged off your upper class upbringing and married the chauffeur whom you had always loved.

Now it’s true that a lot of us have since become interested in Edith – poor Edith – who is not quite as beautiful as you or Mary and has struggled as the middle child to find her place in the world. When she’s offered a position as a writer for a newspaper column shortly after your death, all we could think was “because that’s what unattractive women without husbands do – get jobs.”

But even so, you were the one who ultimately suffered the greatest punishment of all. You weren’t to be allowed your freedom and your happy life with your loving, working class husband. And truth be told, the pain and fear you went through touched a nerve for so many of my friends – even the middle class, healthy ones who are more likely to come through a pregnancy without complications.

I haven’t been through that stage of my life yet, but as a young woman in her late 20s, I am surrounded by friends who have. Becky has been trying to get pregnant for almost 4 years, and has suffered two miscarriages already. She didn’t see your death coming, and it impacted her deeply.  Jamie’s cousin had had placenta previa, a dangerous condition which left both mother and child fighting viciously for their lives. She, also, was struck silent and then deeply upset by your death.

Sybil's Death II

Jessica Valenti, a feminist author and activist, wrote a compelling article in a magazine called The Guardian about a year ago which has stayed with me. In it, she details her own unexpected battle with pre-eclampsia, and the war she and her newborn daughter each fought to survive.  And how mother and child had then later struggled to bond as naturally as she had been led to believe they would.

On the fringes of such stories, I can hardly imagine such fear and pain for my life.

The risks are many, even almost 100 years after your death.  Today, three of the “Four Horsemen of Maternal Mortality” as they are called, are severe bleeding, infections post childbirth, and high blood pressure (preeclampsia and eclampsia, as you experienced).

The fourth is, of course, unsafe abortions. Every year, 42 million women seek abortions to terminate unwanted and unplanned pregnancies.  Half of those procedures are deemed unsafe, and 68,000 women die as a result each year, accounting for 13% of the global maternal mortality rate.  Of those who undergo an unsafe abortion and manage to survive, 5 million of them suffer serious, long-term health complications. Where you live in the United Kingdom, abortion wasn’t legal until 1967 – and even then, the law didn’t extend to Ireland.  It is only recently, after the death of a woman named Savita Praveen Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion at an Irish hospital and later died from pregnancy-related complications, that the country is considering altering their strict laws regarding abortion.

Of the hundreds of thousands of women who died last year due to complications from pregnancy, most of them suffered deaths that could have been fairly easily avoided. 35% of babies around the world are still delivered without the aid of a nurse, midwife, or doctor, significantly increasing the chances that mother or child or both will die.  Too many are delivering children with no prenatal care, no electricity, and in locations prone to infections and disease.

One of your doctors insisted that all was well, and both you and your baby would be fine. The other appropriately diagnosed you and claimed that your life would be at risk unless you were rushed to the hospital and the baby immediately delivered. As it turns out, the latter was right.

Better information, increased access to health care facilities, and the attention of competent health care professionals all dramatically increase the chances of survival and dramatically decrease the chances for complications and health problems for both mother and child. And some studies show that increased access to contraception and family planning could decrease maternal mortality rates by almost 1/3.

It’s too late to save you.  And I don’t know how my friends and I will feel as we wait for next week’s episode to show us how it is possible for a family to come through such a tragedy – even though hundreds of thousands of families do, every year, all over the world.

But what we can do is press on.  We can continue our work to end maternal mortality, which we’ve had quite a lot of success at over the past decade especially.  True, we have a long way to go before we are able to say that we have reduced these deaths by 75% from 1990 to 2015, as the United Nations Millenium Development Goals declare. But 13% of countries are on track to meet that goal and since 1980, there’s been a 35% decrease in maternal deaths globally.  This is progress.  Although it’s slow, we are at least heading in the right direction, increasing access to contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place, expanding health care services to the most vulnerable (poor, rural women in developing countries), and training health care professionals in maternal care.

We’re better off now than we were at the time of your death. But the truth is that your death could have easily happened in the world we live in today as well.  And saving the lives of the 210 million women who will get pregnant this year needs to remain one of the highest and most urgent priorities of the global community.

We’ll miss you, Sybil.

- Abigail, a fan.

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Is it the End of Courtship? Or the End of Unequal, Unhealthy, Unfulfilling Relationships?

The bizarre plethora of articles that has been published lately regarding young, single “millennials” and our dating/sex lives is mind-boggling. The Atlantic (not surprisingly) tops it out I think with recent pieces such as “A Million First Dates,” “Forget Online Dating: Here’s Something That Might Really Hurt Monogamy,” and “The High Price of Being Single in America.” Bloomberg presented us with “Intellectual Meat Market’ Makes Washington Long Odds for Single Women.” The Wall Street Journal recently published “Hacking the Hyperlinked Heart.” And of course, The New York Times just released “The End of Courtship,” an obituary to traditional dating and a cry for help for millennials who just don’t know how to navigate this new, tricky, casual, and tech-infused world of dating.

There has already been lots of criticism launched at The New York Times’ most recent attempts to use a few anecdotes as evidence of some sort of trend, and they’re spot on. So we’ll skip over for now the hetero-normative, cherry-picked, and unscientific aspects of this article and address the real concern: Does the new way of dating prevent the building of healthy relationships?

The End of Courtship and The Expansion of Women’s Rights

Courtship has traditionally been the period in which a male suitor pursued a female with the intent of marriage. A suitor’s family, wealth, and social standing were all major factors in whether the courtship would be encouraged by the woman’s family, leading to a prosperous marriage, or not. A woman of certain standing would be presented as ready to accept suitors at a “coming out ball,” and men dance with her and commence calling on her.

But our society is way, way beyond that now. Because of economics, technology, and of course expanded rights for women, we’re no longer even remotely close to that format of relationship-building. Times have changed.

Even as recently as a half century ago, women were no longer sold to the highest bidder, but we were still trapped in a system that prevented women from being fully engaged actors in the courtship ritual. I’m not saying a woman could never refuse a suitor, but we were hardly as free to pursue the relationships we wanted.

We were not permitted to act on our interest in a man, afraid we’d be considered “bold.” Contraceptives were not available to married women nationwide until the Griswold v. Connecticut case in 1965, and unmarried women until the Eisenstadt v. Baird case in 1972—meaning women didn’t have control over their reproductive cycles and were unable to fully explore their sexuality.

Women weren’t given the opportunity to be financially independent and therefore were forced to consider a man’s ability to care for them and any future children. We weren’t afforded the rights to leave a relationship that had turned abusive, and it wasn’t until 1993 that spousal rape was criminalized in all 50 states. All of this means that the traditions of courtship as we’ve understood it over the centuries has become radically outdated in today’s world.

Frankly, I’m delighted that the idea of courtship is being upended. For sure, my parents and many other couples from that generation are happily married. Then again, many aren’t. But this myth of “the good old days” is one that has been paraded around for generations—you know for sure that our parents, growing up in the free-love sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, also heard about their damaging relationships from their own elders.

Proposal

This New York Times article isn’t about the end of courtship—it’s about how the end of courtship is ruining our lives and any chance at happiness. And that’s where it completely loses credibility. We are dating now via text message and websites, “hanging-out” and group activities. And it’s supposedly destroying us,“leaving a generation confused about how to land a boyfriend or girlfriend” because we don’t “know how to get out of hookup culture” and are fooled by “a false sense of intimacy.”

The conclusion is that somehow this leaves us all unfulfilled, confused about how to date, and ultimately completely screwing up the dating, and ergo the “marriage and relationships” thing. That the combination of hookup culture and technology has led to an inability of my generation (especially women) to form normal, healthy relationships.

But the truth is, as an intelligent and well-educated young woman, I’m just as concerned with avoiding an unfulfilling and unhealthy relationship as I am with finding a strong and healthy one.

Why has dating changed? Simple. Because marriage has. Relationships have. Our expectations for ourselves and our society have. And perhaps most importantly, for me and my girlfriends, our options have.

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40 (Un)Justifiable Reasons To Sexually Harass Me On the Street

  1. I’m wearing too much makeup
  2. I’m not wearing enough makeup
  3. It’s Sunday
  4. It’s Tuesday
  5. I’m walking too quickly
  6. I’m walking too slowly
  7. I’m too pretty to not let you enjoy a piece of it
  8. I’m not pretty enough to occupy the space marked “female”
  9. I’m wearing boots
  10. I’m wearing flip flops
  11. I haven’t let you have sex with me before
  12. I’m not letting you have sex with me right now
  13. I won’t be letting you have sex with me in the future
  14. I’m in a public place after dark
  15. I’m in a public place before dark
  16. I’m looking at you
  17. I’m not looking at you
  18. I’m with a friend
  19. I’m alone
  20. I’m talking on my phone
  21. I’m listening to my ipod
  22. I’m holding a green bag
  23. I’m holding a purple bag
  24. I’m in a new neighborhood
  25. I’m near my home
  26. I’m a virgin and you can tell
  27. I’m not a virgin and you can tell
  28. I’m dressed up
  29. I’m dressed down
  30. I’m wearing an engagement or wedding ring
  31. I’m not wearing an engagement or wedding ring
  32. I’ve seen you before
  33. I haven’t seen you before
  34. I’m smiling
  35. I’m not smiling
  36. I’m frowning
  37. I’m not frowning
  38. I’m feeling something that I’m not expressing on my face and you don’t have any way of knowing what it is
  39. I’m lost
  40. I’m not lost

Or more likely, you just believe that you own me.

That you are entitled to my attention. You believe that you have a right to my body. You believe that as a woman, I owe you whatever you want whenever you want it. You are insecure in this belief, and so you feel the need to assert it. To assert your power and privilege over me in a space that belongs to men and in which I have no right to be unless it is on your terms. You believe that you are superior to me, and that I do not have the right to choose when and where and how and on what terms we will engage.

Street Scene

You believe that you have little to no control over yourself and your body, and ergo any behavior in which you engage is the direct result of my manipulation of you. That if I want to maintain my privacy and my control over my own body and my own life, then it is up to me and me alone to defend it. Because I should expect to be bothered, interrupted, attacked, or violated.  It is not about me and whether or not I am a woman and whether or not a woman is a person, entitled to the rights of other people. It is about the world and how the world is – how you created it, for yourself and for your fellow mankind.  And since it is neither my space nor my place, I should expect no rights, no privacy, and no respect once I am in it.

And if, as a man, you find yourself uncomfortable or not in full agreement with any of the statements above, then mind your own business.  Do not ask me how I like that book, just to entrap me in a conversation with you. Do not leer at me, tell me to smile, ask me why my boyfriend doesn’t travel with me, or whistle honk and yell at me.

In short, leave me alone. I’m on my way somewhere, I’m thinking about something, I’m engaged in my own world and my own life.  And it has nothing – nothing – to do with you.

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“Special” Protections for “Special” Women: Why the Violence Against Women Act Expired

Nobody warned me.

When I started to “come out” as a feminist activist – not just talking with friends, but sharing articles on Facebook, writing extensively about women’s rights, and participating in advocacy movements – nobody warned me.

Nobody warned me that friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, and sometimes total strangers who’d come across my writing online, would come to me with their stories. With their problems.  With their worries.

And come they did.  First it was Susan, who had seemed in a perfectly happy and healthy relationship. Except that as it turns out, her boyfriend pressured her to have sex with him every night, and was aggressive when she refused.  She was petrified of him. Then it was Rachel, who read about the tweet chat Fem2.0 hosted a few months ago at #EndtheSilence, where survivors of domestic violence spoke out on twitter about their experiences using anonymous Twitter accounts.  Rachel wanted to learn how to use Twitter so she could share her story, too. Then it was Nick, an acquaintance who sent me a Facebook message because one of his best friends from high school never spoke about her husband, but kept showing up at the emergency room with suspicious bruises.  Another time it was Roxanne, who’d been to court twice already to get restraining orders against her former boyfriend who was by all definitions of the word, stalking her.

And then there were the rapes.  My friends will sometimes talk as openly about the second time they were raped as my male friends will about the second time they had sex.  My girlfriends post social media updates about the sexual harassment they face on a daily basis (often detailing the exact intersection where it happened so as to warn others), will caution one another about the violent and controlling tendencies of a particular guy they met online, or else ask each other about the safety of a new neighborhood – particularly for a woman living alone.

The truth is, violence against women is everywhere. And not just in India, Syria, SomaliaSri Lanka, or Ghana.   Here in America, it is a pervasive part of our society.  Even for those of us who believe our friends, our circles, are less susceptible to such violence than are others – still, it is everywhere.  When we open our eyes, when we are exposed to what is happening around us, in even the most seemingly unlikely of corners, we realize that none of us is immune to it.  Violence against women has come to be seen as almost inherent to the female experience.

And like the rest of society, the House of Representatives chose to not provide additional help and support to female survivors of violence for one reason – they don’t recognize it as a real problem.

VAWA Activists

I know what some of you are thinking – the House Republicans were just trying to derail President Obama’s agenda.  Or else they were using women as a political football, and it was all strategy.  These things aren’t false.  But the truth is that just as the establishment of the Republican Party doesn’t believe in government spending or in education for undocumented children or in investment in clean energy alternatives, they also don’t believe that women need and therefore deserve special protection or assistance.

The Violence Against Women Act

First, some quick background.  The Violence Against Women Act has been renewed with overwhelming bipartisan support since its inception in 1994.  This bill strengthens the criminal justice system and provides support to survivors of domestic violence.  Unfortunately, it also expired in October 2011, and with the 112th Congress officially finishing at the close of 2012, the Act is officially dead, requiring the 113th Congress to start from scratch.

VAWA is, quite literally, a life-saver for millions of women.  The bill has funded the training of 500,000 law enforcement officials in relevant issues, established the National Domestic Violence Hotline which receives 22,000 calls each month, and has led to a significant increase in not just the reporting of such violence, but also in the strengthening of legal protections and services for survivors.

This year, we wanted to do more.  The Senate version of the reauthorization bill included increased protections for LGBTQ, undocumented, and Native American women, all of whom are at significantly higher risk than other demographics. The reauthorized bill would have expanded protections to 30 million more women.

But the question of equality and human rights is what is really the issue here.  Because apparently these Republican Representatives who blocked the bill from coming to a vote believe that being gay, entering the country without a visa, or else living on a Native American reservation are all crimes that prohibit you from being entitled to protection and assistance in the event that you are assaulted.  Or maybe it’s just that the crime of being a woman simply means that there’s no such thing as a gender-based crime being committed against you, because your crime in existing means that frankly, you got what was coming to you.

Republicans did not want to extend special protections or resources to these special groups of women.  But the truth is that just as not all men are created equal, neither are all women created equal.

Does “Equality” Help or Hurt Our Cause?

In her 2006 book, Are Women Human?, feminist advocate and law professor Catherine MacKinnon explores the legal difficulties inherent in seeking “equality” for women. She writes:

Aristotle defined equality as treating likes alike and unlikes unalike. Treating those who are the same the same, first class equality in this approach, is termed gender neutrality for sex, colorblindness for race. Its secondary rule, accompanied by an aura of inferiority, treats diffrently those seen as different; it is typically termed “special benefits” or “special protection.”

So here we are with an understanding of the 14th Amendment, or more specifically the Equal Protection Clause, which states that the law cannot deny protection and rights to one person or group of people that is enjoyed by another person or group of people.  If you are alike, you must be treated alike.  If you are different, and you experience that difference in a way that is degrading or violent, it does not defy “equal protection” because you are experiencing that difference in a context of different.  MacKinnon explains further:

Sexual violence seems assimilated to the difference between the sexes, so a woman is not considered treated unequally when she is sexually victimized, just treated differently for her differences. Sexual assault is seen as inevitable. The fact that women are generally victimized and men generally perpetrate is not considered subject to equalization. When women are treated “differently” from men, from sexual objectification to sexual murder, the traditional equality rule is not seen as violated because the distinction made by the practice fits the empirical definition of the group. Women being defined as rapable, raping them doesn’t violate them; it merely treats them as women – unlikes unalike.

What does any of this have to do with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act? Quite a lot, actually.

When the House of Representatives put forth their own version of the VAWA, the provisions and protections for these additional groups – LGTBQ, undocumented, and Native American women – had been stripped.  When asked about it on NPR, Representative Sandy Adams (R-FL) responded as follows:

Let’s not look – let’s not have a solution in search of a problem … What we have to remember is you start listing the groups. Eventually, you’re going to get to a point where you’re excluding people. 

And that’s the real problem, isn’t it? That Republicans don’t want to acknowledge that women are different – and not “good” different.  Different in the fact that we face scenarios and life style requirements that they can never understand or appreciate.  And that even within that very broad definition of “women,” there are specific demographics of women who experience violence at higher rates and in different ways.

Republicans refuse to understand this.  These legislators – almost exclusively men – who control our government and our public policy.

Why were additional protections and assistance written into the law for these demographics of women? Because these demographics of women are facing higher risk of violence and lower rates of support than other demographics of women.  This is what the evidence shows.

While the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs estimates that the rate of domestic violence for homosexual couples is roughly the same as heterosexual couples, the former are significantly less likely to seek or receive help, and women are the overwhelming majority of the victims when such cases end in death. Native American women suffer from violent crime at some of the highest rates in the U.S., particularly at the hands of non-Native American men, because the tribes have no authority over such men.  And as I’ve written about before, immigrant women face unique challenges in seeking aid for domestic violence cases. Immigration status is just an additional tool used by abusive spouses or partners to control their victims and exert power over their lives.  If the abuser has legal status in the United States, he can use that status to his victim’s disadvantage, often by threatening to report her to authorities or refusing to file the petitions and paperwork that would give the victim legal status in the U.S.

But Republicans don’t want to acknowledge this.  In their view, women are either the same, equal to men, or they aren’t.  But we can’t have it both ways. They don’t support affirmative action because they don’t want to acknowledge or officially recognize that racism and poverty and class do, in fact, play a role in higher education admissions or in hiring practices.  Even though we all know they do.

So what’s really going on here?  As far as I can see it, Republicans who blocked the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act from coming to a vote simply do not see this as an urgent need.  Or as a problem at all really, it seems.

Maybe it’s because they secretly don’t really believe that women are really victims here.  Maybe, like the New Delhi police, they secretly believe that women who are the victims of rape really deserved it.  Maybe they are all like Democratic Congressman Jim Moran, who, after his son was arrested for beating up his girlfriend, released a statement calling it “an accident,” instead of a crime.

One way or another, these Republicans didn’t view the safety and lives of women as being worthy of protection or support.

The 113th Congress

Less than two weeks ago, with the 112th Congress coming rapidly to a close, the 12 Democratic women serving in the Senate sent a letter to all 25 Republican women serving in the House of Representatives.  “We are reaching out to you to ask for your help,” they wrote.  The letter urged the House Republican women to pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act, which included the increased protections and aid for the three additional groups of women. Because the truth is that despite differences, there exists a shared experience of being female in a male-dominated world.  A shared experience that women serving in government recognize.  And this extends beyond even just the officeholders – the Women’s Congressional Staff Association has over 100 members from both sides of the aisle, providing mentorship, guidance, support, and shared professional fellowship in their quest to support one another, regardless of party affiliation.

This morning, a record number of women were sworn in to serve as part of the 113th Congress: 20 in the Senate and 81 in the House of Representatives.  In fact, all kinds of gender-related records were broken in the 2012 Election cycle: women who filed for Senate races (36), women who won primaries for Senate seats (18), women who filed for House races (299), women who won primaries for House seats (166).

Women of the 113th Congress

And, as has been documented, the women from both sides seem to have a way of coming together civilly (not, for instance, screaming the F word at one another on the floor), to actually get things done.  Women in Congress have crossed party lines – happily – to pass legislation not just on issues relating to women specifically, but also on children’s safety, national security, public health, transportation, and recommendations for Supreme Court nominations.

Senator Patty Murray, a longtime advocate for the bill, has vowed to absolutely bring up the Violence Against Women Act in the 113th Congress. Will her new female colleagues – from both sides of the hill and the aisle – aid her in its passage?  This new Congress is the most diverse Congress in history – it includes 19 new people of color, the first Hindu Representative and the first Buddhist Senator, the first openly gay Congressman of color, and the first openly bisexual Congresswoman, that our federal government has ever see.

Perhaps this new diversity will bring about the change we wish to see in the world.  Perhaps this new, diverse Congress with more female members than ever before, will be able to move forward on protecting and providing for survivors in a way that the previous Congress refused to do.

Maybe we can stop saying that “gender issues have to take a back seat to other priorities… [because] there is no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project.”  Because after all, even with the fiscal cliff negotiations, Sandy relief funding, and other issues that faced the 112th Congress in its dusk, can we really continue to claim that the health and safety – the lives – of women, aren’t worth the effort it takes to protect them?

Every two minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.  Every 15 seconds, somewhere in America, a woman is battered, usually by an intimate partner.  But every day, we also have a chance to do more to support and protect women, uniquely at risk for unique types of violence.

I don’t mention here the costs associated with violence against women.  What it costs us – in billions of dollars a year, what the court costs add up to, what the lost economic productivity of battered women amounts to.  Is it important? I suppose.  But ending violence against women and prosecuting perpetrators and providing help to survivors isn’t about cost.  It’s not about capitalism and about making our country as financially robust as possible.

It’s about women being people and people being women.  It’s about women’s rights being human rights and human rights being women’s rights. It’s simply the right thing to do.  Because women shouldn’t need to be men to be considered human.  For their rights to be considered as worthwhile.

Women are different from men.  There’s no doubt about it.  But being different doesn’t mean being less human.  It doesn’t mean violations against our minds and bodies, the denial of our freedoms or our liberties, aren’t human rights violations just because they didn’t happen to men – that status quo of humanity.

The 112th Congress failed in its quest to represent the American people in its failure to pass the Violence Against Women Act.  Let’s make sure the new Congress does better.

Lives – human lives – depend on it.

Photo Credits: PolicyMic and EMILY’s List

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On Expecting Natives to Speak Your Language When in a Foreign Country

I’m sitting here at Mike’s Grill, a rather low-lit, unpretentious bar that caters to both locals and gringos here in Boquete, Panama.  A popular, but usually quiet place on a weeknight, where one can watch the football game of a Monday evening, or else hook up to the wi-fi and not be bothered much. And as I type this, the waitress, a petite woman who knows me (and my fondness for their sangria), is trying to take the order of a rowdy group of tourists who just walked in.  She’s smiling politely and cocking her head to show that she’s listening, but they’re not getting through.

Why? Because one of these tourists seems to be writing a companion Meg Ryan script in rapid English that I can barely follow.

“I want crackers – not cookies, CRACKERS. If you have saltine crackers, that’d be fine.  If you have soda crackers, that’d be even better.  And I don’t want Ritz crackers. I didn’t come all this way for Ritz crackers. So I want crackers.  And remember, not cookies, crackers. Soda crackers if you have it, saltines if for some inexplicable reason you don’t.”

The waitress smiles nervously and says, “I’m so sorry. A little more slowly, please?”

Now I don’t know where this man and his friends were raised, but clearly they believe “please slow down, your language is not my first language” is another way of saying, “I’m an idiot and I need you to speak to me like an idiot.  Like a child if you can.  Or like a moron if some inexplicable reason you can’t.  So say it again, not just slower, but also simpler.  One word at a time.  Because English not being my first language means I’m a f-ing moron.”

Hearing this message, the main complied. “IIIII WWAAAANNNNTTTT CRRRAACCKKEERRSS.  That’s CCCCC – RRRRR – AAAAA – CCCCCC – KKKKKK – EEEEEEE – RRRRRR – SSSSSS.  As I said, not cookies.  No cookies.  Crackers. Ya undertand me? Crackers.”

Let’s start with something up front, first and foremost.  In the Spanish language, there’s no real difference between cookies and crackers.  Galletas is the word for both cookies and crackers, so even if this man had that word up front, that and that alone would not have been much help to him.

But even beyond that, what I don’t understand is the expectation of Americans that everyone in the world either does or should speak fluent English.  And not just be conversational or proficient, but be 100% fluent enough to understand slang, muttering, and the ocasional guy who saunters into your bar to be a jerk and rant and rave about his need for crackers.

Children Playing

This sort of behavior seems to me nothing if not childish.  Children are not born with the inherent understanding that people are different from them.  That just because they like apple juice, doesn’t mean that their friend likes apple juice.  That just because they want to go to the park, doesn’t mean mommy or daddy wants to go to the park.  Learning – really learning – that other people can have different feelings, emotions, opinions, and experiences from those that you have is one of the key milestones to developing as a child.

And not just learning that other people aren’t the same as you, but recognizing that your wants/needs/experiences/desire/opinions are not necessarily any more or less valuable than anyone else’s.  Parading in to someone else’s space – their home and their world – and not just expecting, but demanding, that they mold themselves to your and your experiences and world isn’t just ethnocentric and self-centered.  It’s childish.

Mike’s is a fairly simple place – just one of the many reasons I like it.  True to its international claim, its menu is varied, albeit never-changing.  Falafel, orange chicken, pad thai, hamburgers, and fish and chips are the sorts of things it’s used to providing, along with a range of beers and liquors for the crowd that comes in of a night to watch a game of something or other, and maybe even forget about life for a while, as the song goes.

Mike's

And so maybe these tourists didn’t expect it here.  Maybe they expected to be able to be abrupt and caustic and obnoxious and still get the meals they wanted, exactly as they wanted them.  And yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this attitude.  This non-apologetic, ethnocentric, egotistical attitude that despite that fact that a newcomer is in a foreign country, the most important thing happening right now is the fact that this foreigner is now here, and ergo the world and everyone in it should revolve around him or her.  Tourists – even much of the retired population that has flocked here from the U.S. – seem to have little compunction about their presumption that everyone should speak their language, instead of the other way around.

I’m not in any way saying one needs to be fluent to retire in another country, or to travel.  But there’s something to be said for trying. For acknowledging that this is someone else’s – another peoples’ – space that you are entering into, and that you wouldn’t be here but for the generosity and grace of these, your hosts.  You are a guest.

Try.

Pick up a phrase book.  Attempt at the accent.  And if you really don’t speak a word, apologize first.  Or at least ask – “is there any chance you speak English? Any English?”  And if not, be apologetic in your demeanor if not just in your words.  It is not their responsibility to cater to you – to ensure you’re able to order the type of crackers or cookies you want.  It’s your job.  You’re here, in their space, and it’s up to you to mold yourself and be flexible.  You may even learn something.

Most of the people I meet while traveling impress me.  They’re intelligent and curious, open-minded and brave.  They want to learn about other cultures, they want to meet local people, they want to expand their horizons.  They know how terrible a place the world would be if everyone were exactly like them.

Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone has learned that lesson.  If you’re one of them, please, stay out of the sandbox.

Photo Credit: KordiAnn via Creative Commons

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