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Why I Strike on the Day Without Women

This event is a struggle for many.  We want to support the ongoing resistance connected to the March for women in January, but taking a day out of work, with or without pay, is difficult for many women.  I felt it was important for the Center for Women, Gender & Sexuality, at the very least, to sponsor an event for that day; to provide opportunities for people to participate whether they were coming to work or not, whether they were skipping classes or not.  We decided to make buttons, IMG_5750

to hold a walk/run, organized by a professor who runs marathons, and to screen Hidden Figures for anyone who wanted to take a long lunch as a partial strike.

Of the 123 million women age 16 years and over in the U.S., 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were labor force participants—working or looking for work. The median weekly earnings of women who were full-time wage and salary workers were $669, or 81 percent of men’s $824. When comparing the median weekly earnings of persons aged 16 to 24, young women earned 95 percent of what young men earned ($422 and $443, respectively).(Women’s Bureau)

I have the privilege to strike, just as the Suffragettes had the privilege to push the President and the Congress for the right to vote.  Privilege must be used in the service for good.  I strike for women who cannot.  I strike for immigrants.  I strike for the bodies of women continually up for grabs by unchecked sexual violence and limited by their access to reproductive choices.  I strike for union protection, which I have.  I strike because black lives matter and the six trans women murdered this year already, who were all women of color.

I know this type of activism and organizing is messy.  Having privilege and carrying deeply about social justice will always be messy.  The struggle will continue whether anyone cares that I am at work or not.  This New Yorker article explores this mess.

I emailed the head of our Human Resources Department, to let her know, we were promoting the strike as our International Women’s Day event.  She offered to “get out ahead of it” and encourage folks to allow their woman identified staff to take a personal or vacation day.  That act alone was a brave step for my institution.

In typical female fashion I have my day already planned out.  I will go to my woman owned gym and work out.  I will meet my best friend for mani’s/pedi’s and lunch.  I will go to my woman owned hair salon for a color and a cut (this was already on my schedule).  Then I will come home and help my husband prepare dinner.

But throughout the day, I will talk to people about what I am doing and why.  I will wear my red t-shirt that says “Stop the War on Women.”  I will not shop.  I will spend time thanking the women who have come before me, who have guided me, who have mentored me, and who have been my friends.

Happy International Women’s Day!  #beboldforchange

Helplessly Hoping for Change

In light of the Orlando shootings, I’m at a loss of what to say.  I think back to the first time I wrote about mass shootings.  It goes all the way back to Jonesboro in 1998.  At the time, I wrote about how young men are responsible for these killings.  In that case, and many that have followed, women were the target of these young men.  Misogyny runs deep in this country and it is fueled by hate speech.

Now here we are 18 years later and not much has changed, except that more innocent victims are dead.  Schools, churches, movie theaters, a Bertucci’s and now night clubs are no longer places where someone could feel safe.

Yesterday I heard comments from many in the media that we shouldn’t be talking about gun control but about mental health.  I don’t think it’s that simple.  We need to be talking about both mental health and gun control.  Access to military type weapons is a problem.  A huge problem that no one seems to want to address.

And then there is good old hate.  How can we be a country that is so full of hate?  I can’t wrap my brain around hate.  I can’t understand how someone’s expression of who they are, can cause so much anxiety for someone else.

But clearly there are numerous young men who feel this way.  Just look at this list:

Mass Shootings

What can we do as educators to 1) recognize the signs of troubling behavior and 2) teach young people the value of human life?  This is a daunting task.  And one that may not even be possible in a world where even a person running for President of the United States can single out a group of people and declare them all bad.

I can only helplessly hope.

 

 

Fare thee well, 2015 or Suck it.

As a recent lackadaisical blogger, I’ve become obsessed with saying goodbye in some regard to 2015.  All in all, I would say it was a rough year.  And much of the reason I haven’t written is due in part to issues facing our country and our world.  I feel paralyzed and silenced by gun violence and police brutality.  I don’t know what else there is to say on the subject that other brilliant thought leaders haven’t said.  And just when I’m about to start moving again or coming up with words on the subject, I hear that Tamir Rice’s killers will not be indicted.

I’ve also been mostly silence, in public, on the race for the Democratic nomination.  There are a few reasons for my silence (which is now being broken, I suppose).  I was in Hillary’s camp during her first run for President and was stunned when this young Senator showed up to beat her in the primary.  I cried when I checked her name that day in 2008.  And I’m struggling because she is a front runner who, each time, is being challenged by a more progressive man.  And don’t misunderstand me, I am much more progressive than Hillary, but I am also a woman who believes it is well past our time to have a woman lead our country.  I’m also frustrated by the treatment of Bernie supporters who tell me that Hillary is part of the establishment.  He has been in office since 1990.  How is that not part of the “establishment”?  I’ve decided, on this issue, this time, my choice will be personal until after the primary.

I’m also paralyzed by the Islamophobia in our country and in our leaders (uh, Trump?).

I said goodbye to my bluetick coonhound Mabel this year.  It was unexpected.  It was the hardest and longest grief experience I have had with an animal so far in my life and I’ve said goodbye to a few:  Clinker, Candy, Muffin, Timmy, Cornelius, Arthur, Nushka, Joey.  Jeff’s turtle Humphrey escaped this summer.  We hope he made it to the pond behind our house, but it was a hot day.

Our Chancellor “left service” in a fairly disruptive and uncomfortable fashion on all fronts this past month.  It leaves one with an unsettled feeling at work, as in “who’s in charge?” or “who will be in charge?”  and “when?”  As a woman leader, it seems as if the whole departure was too messy.  And was she to blame for the mess or her boss?  I think they both share some responsibility, but it left the rest of us feeling sad and worried about her as a person and our campus as an institution.

But I can’t end the year on a downer, that’s not my style.  I continue to feel hopeful by the goodness and love and laughter that surrounds our life.  While many of our favorite people live hours away, we were able to spend our first Thanksgiving in the Finger Lakes, and facetime over the holidays, bringing their faces a bit closer for a short time.  Jeff made delicious food and I baked cookies and pies to share with family and friends.  We brought the loving and sweet George with us on our travels, where he settles in with ease.

Maybe for 2016, instead of being the feminist critic in the negative sense of the word, I will strive to bring hope and humor to my blog, to write about the moments when life surprises us with joy, with laughter and with justice.  That will be a challenge for me to do and will maybe bring joy to you to read.

 

 

 

 

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

I got up this morning to write about the racism and Islamophobia all over social media.  I wanted to write about how hard it is to even log into Facebook and decide whether to unfriend people so I don’t have to see their hatred and disgust for other human beings.  I wanted to write about how sad it is to see groups of people lumped together because of a few bad eggs and what a horrible practice that is.  I wanted to write about how the Republican candidates are encouraging this kind of hatred, from Ben Carson suggesting that student protests about racism are “infantile” to Marco Rubio correlating Islam with Nazism.

I wanted to write about how institutional sexism and internalized sexism has been recently present and painful in my work life, a place I often think is a “safe” place for an open exchange of ideas and for social justice work.

But before writing all that, I checked my email and found this letter from the former Chairs of the Women’s Center Committee of the National Women’s Studies Association on my listserve.  I post it because I was on the forefront of the battle in the 90s to locate a space for Women’s Centers to be heard and to have a professional home.  University Women’s Centers have long struggled to find a professional home.  Some of us come out of Student Affairs graduate programs and feel connected to organizations like NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) and ACPA (American College Personnel Association).  These organizations, however, are broad in scope, and while they can be committed to social justice, they are not necessarily feminist professional organizations.  Many Women’s Center directors were connected to NAWE (National Association of Women Educators).  Some of us, like me, came out of Master’s programs in Women’s Studies and wanted to take theory into practice, but wanted to stay connected to our academic feminist roots by being connected to an organization like NWSA.

When NAWE folded, the Women’s Center Caucus at NWSA was growing and we were holding a vibrant and engaging pre-conference that allowed for a space for us to spend a day together sharing our work.  Then we out grew our space and started to demand more.  The battle to get to the table was difficult and painful.  That Women’s Studies faculty would be so reluctant to have feminist activists and professionals supporting their work seemed ludicrous.  But with political savvy we were able to garner enough support from faculty on the Governing Council who understood the power in a relationship between Women’s Studies and Women’s Centers.  The Women’s Center committee was at the forefront of doing work to dismantle racism and challenge white privilege early on in the organization.   But apparently there is something else at work within NWSA.  Somehow the powers that be are threatened by the voices of the women who run campus Women’s Centers.  This I wonder about as I see institutions dismantling Women’s Centers one by one.  For example, the UMaine Women’s Center Director position has not been filled since the founding director, Sharon Barker, retired last July.

The two co-chairs of the Women’s Center Committee have resigned today with this letter to the Governing Council.  It makes me sad for all the hard work we did in the late 90s/early 2000’s and disappointed for the so-called feminist organization NWSA in a time when we need to be coming together to dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism and transphobia.  What is Women’s Studies if not the one discipline on the fringes and borders asking questions of the institution?

To the Governing Council of the National Women’s Studies Association,
We, Gina Helfrich and Adale Sholock, co-chairs of the NWSA Women’s Centers Committee, hereby resign from our position, effective immediately. We do so with heavy hearts and after years of good faith engagement and efforts to help the NWSA Governing Council leadership hear the concerns and needs of the Women’s Centers Community. 
With the recent GC vote to remove all formal representation of Women’s Centers professionals from the NWSA Governing Council, we believe that NWSA leadership has clearly exhibited a failure to fully grapple with the issues of classism inherent in the organization. The loss of the GC seat is a symbolic culmination of years of marginalization of Women’s Centers professionals by the executive and board leadership of NWSA. 
While NWSA brands itself as home for all practitioners of feminism and women’s studies scholars and activists, years of neglect of the Women’s Centers professional community’s needs and ongoing marginalization of Women’s Centers professionals within the organization show that NWSA is in truth primarily devoted to the professional development of women’s and gender studies faculty and graduate students, having little time for—or interest in—sustaining and supporting on-the-ground practitioners like Women’s Centers professionals.
NWSA has failed to center the work of Women’s Centers professionals, the front line practitioners of feminism in the academy and so often those who carry the burden of translating women’s and gender theory into action for and alongside students. Instead of providing a welcoming and sustaining home for Women’s Centers professionals, NWSA has repeatedly marginalized Women’s Centers professionals, their research, their work, and their needs. 
Women’s Centers professionals were not consulted in the Strategic Planning process undertaken by NWSA in 2015. The fact that at the June GC meeting we were not notified that the Strategic Plan included removal of Women’s Centers seats on the Governing Council until less than 30 minutes prior to the conclusion of the meeting was both instructive and symptomatic. The both of us experienced an unwelcoming climate in Governing Council meetings, where we felt strongly that our voices were typically perceived as taking up too much space with complaints. No Women’s Centers professionals have been asked by the President to participate in the main conference planning committee for many years. Any time concerns have been raised about these ongoing issues, NWSA leadership has exhorted Women’s Centers professionals to “submit more proposals” to the main conference. NWSA leadership holds up the Pre-Conference as the definitive exhibit of support given to Women’s Centers professionals by NWSA as an organization despite constant annual reminders that the Women’s Centers Pre-Conference does not pay for itself and the Women’s Centers community needs to get more Women’s Center staff to pay the cost of NWSA membership, the Pre-Conference registration fee, and typically the main conference registration fee, as well.
The Women’s Centers professional community currently faces a host of pressing issues, such as the nationwide crisis of sexual assault on college campuses, the high turnover of Women’s Center professionals leading to a constant leadership vacuum, and the targeting of administrators and staff on college campuses who lack the protections of tenure or the social capital of faculty positions. Despite these many opportunities for NWSA to display leadership and to center these crucial feminist concerns in the organization, NWSA frequently and consistently fails to center Women’s Center professionals in its rhetoric, in the narrative it tells of the organization, in its internal initiatives, and in its planning and goal-setting processes. The irony of this failure in the midst of organizing an NWSA conference themed around “Precarity” is not lost on us.
Three of the past four NWSA Women’s Centers Committee co-chairs have left the profession while holding their position, including the both of us. One of the two WCC Pre-Conference co-chairs for 2015 also left the profession, and the other was fired from her job for taking a stand to support her students who were protesting the whitewashing of a campus mural. The Women’s Centers professional community has many urgent needs to be addressed, and a continued uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of NWSA leadership only adds to their significant burdens.
We hope that our resignation will serve as a wake-up call to this organization and prompt a re-examination of what it means to truly live out feminist principles within a feminist organization.
Signed,
Gina Helfrich, Ph.D. and Adale Sholock, Ph.D.
I stand with my sisters on this issue while struggling to understand if NWSA is even a place for someone like me anymore.  Maybe it is time we re-visit inventing our own organization or finding a home that accepts who we are as feminist activists and administrators in our own precarious place.

 

 

A Halloween Nightmare: Menopause

When I was young I was given two books, Where Do I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me by Peter Mayle.

where-did-i-come-from-

51ybotaE06L._SX490_BO1,204,203,200_

My parents were liberal about teaching me through books, and answering some questions, but these books only covered reproduction and puberty, in all fairness. No sex, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases or –god forbid—oral sex was introduced in these books. Nor did my high school teach anything except for how you got pregnant. Taught, of course, by the most awkward male science teacher on the planet.

Last spring, we partnered with Health Education & Promotion to develop programming around sexual empowerment and sex positivity. We wanted to teach students about sexual empowerment and sex positivity but also include the ways in which empowerment can lead to consent as intertwined and important.

At the same time I was jumping head first into a female change of life. And thinking back to what I learned about my “body” growing up, I realized that in all those books I read, they never mentioned there would be this “other” female experience I might be lucky enough to experience if I made it to my late 40s. No wise woman in my life, and I’ve known many of them, handed me a book like my parents did when I was 10 and said “read this, honey.”

I’m sure many women felt uninformed when they started their periods and realized how awful they were. I was lucky on that end with fairly mild cramps and mild bleeding my whole life. And yes I’ve heard the “stories” about the women having hot flashes and mood swings, but only witnessed a woman going through them when I was in a play in 2006. We had to embrace on stage and she was covered in perspiration. After our scene, back stage, I said, “wow, the lights must be really hot out there.” She whispered, “I think I was having a hot flash.” So many other older women in my life must have or do hide it well.

Before starting an over the counter CVS “menopause support” vitamin, suggested to me by a wise woman in my life, I was waking up at least 3-4x a night that I know of. I wake, and for a second wonder why I have woken up, then, almost as swiftly as the thought arrives in my mind, I feel as if someone has thrown a water balloon in my face and my face is drenched. Some nights I wake and I’m just sweating underneath my breasts and between my legs. The other night after I woke, I went to the bathroom and when I climbed back into bed, I noticed the sheets were damp.

I also seem to be dreaming a lot about sex, as if the desire for sex is gone in my waking time, but still exists in my dreams. I am beginning to understand the laissez-faire attitude older women have toward sex and their sexuality. This information would have been helpful, as well. The only book I know that addresses the changes women go through as they age is Ourselves Growing Older by The Boston Women’s Health Collective.

I’ve asked my birthmother about her menopause experience and she only says “my doctor told me there is not such thing as peri-menopause.” And I always ask, “then how do you describe the symptoms of irregular periods, hot flashes and night sweats?” She just shrugs.

What we teach women—and men—about their life experiences around their health is paltry. The numbers of students I work with who have never touched themselves is astonishing. I wonder why school systems stay static in their health educations and don’t even recognize that teaching people about their long-term health experiences would not only be helpful but possibly life changing.

NPR is doing a series called The Changing Lives of Women and yesterday’s story focused on older women and their invisibility. As an add-on they launched the hash tag #GrownLadyCrush and asked listeners to post pictures of their favorite older women, like I did here, of my mentor, bosslady and friend Cynthia Cummings.

This all harkens back to the need for women to have a voice, at every decade of their lives. The silence surrounding the experiences of older women leads women, like me, to enter into their late 40s astonished by our body’s behavior, unsure and confused.

This summer I decided to head back to my favorite community acupuncture clinic to see if they could help with my flashes. I’ve gone almost ever week since. Acupuncture has been the solution so far. But whenever I’m fanning myself from a hot flash, people still look astonished. “How old are you? You’re too young for that!” And I look back at them and say, “Apparently I’m not.”

hot-flashes-capture

My “This I Believe” Contribution

Instead of a first year book for the incoming students, we had them write “This I Believe” essays and asked them to read others on the “This I Believe” website.  Faculty and staff were asked to participate.  This is my contribution.

I believe in justice. I believe in love. I believe that we are all called to do our part to end injustice in the world. This is often hard for people, to speak out. I believe I have been given a gift of speech, to communicate why injustice is wrong and to model how to speak out against it. I believe my love for people, animals and the world is the path to justice.

When I was a little girl, my parents taught me that all people deserved equal treatment in this world. I internalized this but did not realize how it would play out in my life until I was much older. When I was 20 and was living far away from home, I began to see racism in ways I had never seen it in my sheltered Maine upbringing. I began to question why it existed, or still existed, as my father had taught me about MLK and Malcolm X and the civil rights movement through his lens as a Baptist and then a United Methodist minister.

When I took Women’s Studies my Junior year of college, my world opened up. I began to understand how privilege and oppression play out in our world. I understood how I had been privileged in my whiteness, in my lower middle class upbringing, yet how I had been oppressed by my gender, how I had fallen victim to domestic violence and to suppressing my voice.

I went on to get a master’s in Women’s Studies as a way to work for justice. In that program, I began to explore how sexuality plays out in my world. I began questioning the injustice of the women in my life whom I loved, women who identified as lesbians. I shed tears at stories I heard of injustice and oppression against gays and lesbians. I struggled with how I could speak to this injustice, how I could be an ally and eventually how I could come to terms with my own sexuality, that of a bisexual woman.

I believe that we are all meant to bring something to our world. I believe we can fight justice with love. We can model calling out injustice in loving and caring ways. I believe we can be models for our students. I believe the next generation can bring love and hope into this Age of Aquarius. I believe we can heal our world with gentle kindness and light and hope and peace. I believe people can learn to have the courage to speak up. I believe in me. I believe in you.

The Horror of Rape Culture: The “Sorrowful Sisterhood”

I began reading the NY Magazine article ‘I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen yesterday afternoon.  I had to stop.  I want to read all these women’s stories, and I plan to, but it was too much all at once.

First of all, to Noreen Malone, the writer who gave these women a voice, thank you.  Almost 50 women have come forward to say that Bill Cosby drugged and assaulted them.  Thirty five of them tell their stories in this article.  Their stories are blatantly similar and redundant.  They shine as a perfect example of a predatory rapist.

I have been on the job market since completing my doctorate in 2006 to no avail.  When I am fortunate enough to get an interview, I am often asked why I want to do something else.  I often tell them that doing sexual violence work is exhausting.  It is.  Hearing young women’s stories of sexual assault for the past 23 years can burn you out.  Like this article, the stories are always redundant.  There is nothing original or creative about alcohol facilitated sexual assault or using roofies to drug a woman.  It’s the same old misogynist story where the man runs the world and the women are silenced by oppression.

As someone who leans toward optimism, I am hopeful that this notion of “speaking out” about rape and sexual assault will begin to chip away at rape culture.  The old misogynist threat of “don’t tell anyone or . . .” seems to be slipping away, in some cases.  But until the power differential between women and men changes, this threat can still exist.  These women were afraid to lose their careers.  And many of my students are afraid to speak out and lose their circle of friends.

I want to believe young women, and now these brave women of the “sorrowful sisterhood” (Joan Tarshis) are starting to rip apart the seams that hold rape culture together.  We showed the film The Hunting Ground on campus this past spring.  The two “stars” of the film founded End Rape on Campus. There is also the student activist group Know Your IX , which has done radical and empowering work to raise awareness and provide resources for college undergraduates.

However, even The Hunting Ground can leave you despondent.  Jameis Winston, the number one NFL pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is featured in the movie as a young athlete protected by the Division One football culture that exists throughout our country.  That institution, which reinforces and supports rape culture, as spoofed in Amy Schumer’s Football Town Nightsis supported by not only rich donors but also the fans for whom college football is their sport of choice.  (Trust me, I went to grad school at The University of Alabama).

No matter how frustrating or sad confronting rape culture is, Noreen Malone has given voice to women who needed to speak their truths.  I hope this opportunity to speak their truth can bring these women some comfort and some peace.

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Providing weekly critiques of theatre, film, books, politics and pop culture from a feminist perspective.