RSS Feed

Overdue #MeToo Movement

My latest article in Motif Magazine:

It’s fall 1991. I am a senior in college and feminist is a word I have been using for less than a year. My roommates and I rush home from class every day to witness the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings. An African-American woman, who use to work for him, has accused him of sexual harassment. The all-white panel of senators who grill her seem to believe she is guilty. My friends and I are confused. Guilty of what? She is the one accusing him of harassing her. It’s surreal, this moment. However, we are excited that maybe sexual harassment in the workplace will be made illegal.

While I was only 22 at the time, I had already been sexually harassed. While working at the Norfolk Yacht & Country Club as a waitress (we didn’t use the gender-neutral term “server” back then) two years prior, my assistant manager cornered me in the dark dining room between the lunch and the dinner shift and pointed to his leg to highlight where the outline of his penis was. I complained to my manager, a woman, who told me he didn’t mean anything by it.

I then spent the next two summers waiting tables in southeastern Massachusetts, experiencing more harassment from kitchen staff, almost as if it was normal. The owner of the last restaurant where I waited tables tried to kiss me. (A recent Washington Post story said that 12% of sexual harassment complaints filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are from the food and hotel industry.)

That Clarence Thomas moment, in fall 1991, was supposed to be the moment we are now in, 26 years later. But instead we are here, seeing men fall off the cliff in numbers, because rich white women stood up and said they had been harassed. When a not so rich black woman said the same thing about a Supreme Court justice nominee, she was not believed and he became a Supreme Court justice with a lifetime term.

Men, many of whom I know well, are looking back over their lives and examining and questioning their behavior. Were they flirting or harassing? Was the culture of the kitchen something they willingly bought into? Was their late night drunken behavior with “friends” inappropriate? Where is the fine line between friendly and harassing?

These are questions, as a woman, I cannot answer. But I can ask that men begin to acknowledge their past behavior or their complicity in that behavior. How many men stood next to other men who were harassing women? How many women, like my manager, took a man’s word over that of the woman who was being harassed?

My hope is that the new Times Up Now Legal Defense Fund, whose letter in The New York Times spoke directly to farm worker, domestic and service industry women, will help all women who have been victimized. And that there will be a real acknowledgement that putting women in leadership positions throughout all of these industries can change the culture. I hope.

I’ve included, below, a link to a recent Dartmouth Cable Television show on this same subject, sponsored by the Bristol County Commission on the Status of Women.

Voice of Women: Sexual Harassment

It’s about White Men, Not Terrorists

I haven’t written since March.  I think a lot about writing but often feel paralyzed by all of 45’s actions.  Every day another right of the people I care about seems to be under attack.  It’s easy to crawl under a rock and pretend this is all a dream or just to get involved in something that takes me away from the news.

But I’m, unfortunately, not able to take off the feminist lens I put on in 1993.  It’s glued on.  And thanks this past week, to Lester Holt, anchor of the NBC Nightly News, his comment about the Las Vegas shooter has inspired me to put my fingers on the keyboard.  I’m not going to quote his comment exactly, as I heard it in passing as I was leaving the house, but it was basically “Steven Paddock does not fit the profile of any mass shooter.”  Bullshit!  I call bullshit 100 times over.  Shall I list the names of all the white men and boys, Mr. Holt, who have killed people?  The Washington Post has a great overview of the past 50 years of mass shootings here.

I won’t re-write the Post article, but I will point out these facts.  Of the major mass killings, where more than 5 people are killed, the killers are white men or boys.  Jonesboro and Columbine were white boys.  And the majority of the 134 shooters, in fifty years of mass killings, were men.  Three were not.  So Lester Holt, there is a pattern.  Steven Paddock’s only unique quality as a mass killer was his age.  Most are between 20 and 49 years old.

We could expand this discussion, as well, to what pro-choice folks call anti-abortion terrorism and show that white men, in all those cases, are responsible for bombing clinics and killing innocent clinic workers who are merely trying to provide safe medical care to women in need.

Until this country takes a good look in the mirror, none of this will ever change.  Do we stop going to festivals?  Do we stop going to concerts?  To school?  To work?  Do we lobby for gun control, something that hasn’t appeared to work well at our federal level?  Do we lobby for gun control at the state level?  Do we lobby for better mental health treatment?

I don’t have any answers. None.  I only know that Steven Paddock was just like most of them.


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.
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.



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.”


my feminist praxis

critical reflections on my feminist praxis: activism, motherhood, and life

The Feminist Critic

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