Do we still need feminism?

It took me a very long time to say "me too." on Facebook.

I have to explain this because many of my readers are old-school email junkies and don't frequent Facebook or Twitter much. So in case you were doing valuable non-screen-related things this week, this will get you up to speed. There is currently a movement on social media where women, and some men, post "me too," as their status if they are a survivor of sexual assault or harassment. 

It's a good idea. It comes as a response to revelations of celebrity rape and sexual harassment in the past few weeks, and it is meant to show that these are far from isolated incidents. Many, many women experience sexual harassment on a regular basis and far too many have been subjected to rape or assault. 

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Why didn't I quickly jump on the bandwagon then? 

First, I'm always skeptical of these social media campaigns, where you must change your profile picture to this or that or else be branded as a supporter of terrorism or some such. I decided long ago not to participate in those campaigns. It takes several minutes for me to change my profile picture, and being a working class mother of very demanding kids, I can't always guarantee that I'll be able to be on-line long enough to discover and abide by all such trends. I don't want my lack of response to some particular campaign to be taken as a statement. I also know many people with limited internet access for whom keeping up with these things is entirely impossible. If I refrain from all of them, we are all less likely to be blamed and labeled for neglecting one.

But posting "me too" is much easier and less permanent. It also isn't showing support for something but demonstrating a statistic in real-time. So, after some thought, I decided that this is a different situation.

But still I was hesitant. Most of the sexual harassment I've experienced is so mundane that it barely merits a mention and if one hundred percent of all women haven't experienced the same, it is only due to specific and fairly isolated social surroundings. I have been called fat in several inappropriate situations or had the same implied among professional colleagues. it has been many years since random men blocked my path and tried to force me into sexual conversation or made catcalls at me, which apparently means that I am no longer attractive. Either being catcalled or not is a sexual/social signal in a society where a woman's appearance and sexual allure is considered to be a large part of her worth.

I have been asked to clean up the kitchenette in an office where everyone else was a man and been GLAD to have a role because I felt otherwise left out, even though I had a specific professional job to do that had nothing to do with cleaning. Sometimes I don't know what is worse--that men buy into this culture that demeans women or that we do ourselves. 

And that made me hesitate to post "me too" because I do know that so many other women have suffered so much more and I have not been exactly exemplary in my resistance to the male dominated culture. Mostly I have been glad to stand on my mother's and grandmothers' shoulders and accept those benefits of feminism that my generation was lucky enough to inherit without doing much to free my own mind from the treadmill. 

And then there is the fact that I did face actual sexual assault twice and managed to escape, using specific techniques from self-defense classes. This made me perhaps most uncomfortable posting "me too." I did not want to imply by telling my story that women who did not have the good fortune to have the training or who did have the training and either couldn't fight back or simply failed to overpower an attacker are somehow to blame. There is far too much of that blame-the-victim going around as it is. 

I do want women and girls to know that self-defense training can work though. Let's just be clear. I was mostly just lucky.

In one case, I was at a large outdoor festival at night. I was sixteen and had never been on a real date. A man at the party treated me nicely and acted like he wanted to be my friend. I was attracted to him and excited by the prospect of a romantic involvement. But then he very quickly pulled me away from others into a dark field. He squeezed my breast and kissed me forcefully. I tried to back away but he gripped harder. I said "no" and he ignored me.

I had grown up in a culture that said that if I was attracted to him and initially went with him someplace, that I had given my consent. The fact that I was sixteen and quickly decided that the pace of things had gone way beyond what I wanted was irrelevant. Not only my friends, the media and society in general would have judged me to be an impulsive girl who got what she deserved, I thought so too.

I told myself, "That was really stupid. No one would or should help you." As a result, it didn't actually occur to me to scream for help. But I had recently had one of those one-day crash courses in self-defense that parents sometimes put their teenage daughters in, and one of the techniques we practiced was startling an attacker by yelling right next to his ear. I did not want to continue with the encounter and "no" wasn't working. So, I leaned in a bit, got right next to his ear and let loose a wild yell, that went unnoticed by the partiers all around. I have quite a loud voice and it no doubt hurt. His grip loosened and I ran, easily evading him once I reached a more crowded area. 

That night I crawled into my sleeping bag in a pup tent on the edge of the festival, still shivering and alone. As I was settling down one of the older teenage boys I had traveled to the festival with brushed his fingers along my tent and said out loud, "Such a shame. A pretty girl going to sleep alone." His friends laughed and they walked away, not knowing that I had just had to use a self-defense technique to escape a non-consensual encounter. And yet as I lay there I knew those guys weren't dangerous and that they meant the comment in fun. I was even somewhat glad they would call me a pretty girl, even in jest. I had been heavily ostracized and bullied at school for having a disability and being called "pretty" was a strong lure. 

Three years later, I had gained and lost my first serious boyfriend, had lack-luster sex and was started on a life of feeling uncomfortable about--and generally disinterested in--sexuality. I was still occasionally called pretty, but even at 19 that was fading. My first boyfriend and others had called me "fat" many times, though I was actually well within the most limited version of the "healthy" range and I'd love to be that physically fit again. Still I took them at their word. I never felt happy with my looks. I just wasn't that interested. I had more important things to do and I spent my time writing, studying at college and wriggling my way into as many foreign exchange programs as possible. 

One of these was in Siberia. My second brush with sexual assault occurred on that trip. I was studying in a mid-sized city in Siberia called Kurgan. This was 1995 and it was a lawless period. The streets were largely unlit and there were many abandoned buildings and open sewer holes. Organized crime ruled and gangs roamed the streets. Night also fell extremely early, because we were so far north. One evening, I was returning to the place I was staying around ten pm from a small party. Mostly people did not go out alone at night, but I was never particularly popular in social settings and I had not managed to form any close friendships during my stay. I either stayed in my room alone or I walked alone. Those were my choices. Being an adventurous risk-taker who loved learning about other cultures, I just did what I had to. 

So just as with my previous encounter, there are a great many people who might say I deserved to be assaulted. I was after all taking extreme risks. This was not a safe place and I knew it. But that is part of the problem that we are trying to address with the "me too" campaign. Neither iinitial interest nor risk-taking is a justification for assault.

I was walking under one of the few streetlights in town when a man came at me fast from the side. He stepped up and took my arm in a way that could have seemed friendly except that he gripped quite hard. He asked me in a falsely friendly tone how I was doing and where I was going. He told me I shouldn't be out alone at night. He then started to talk to me in a sexual manner that was apparently supposed to entice me. 

I was a naive risk-taker but still smart enough to know this was a very dangerous situation. There was no help anywhere nearby and I knew I couldn't best this larger man in a direct physical confrontation. So instead I used another technique learned in self-defense classes. I pretended (this time entirely falsely) to be interested in him. I joked and laughed and told him I was meeting my friends and my brother. I kept him talking for two blocks, until I was near enough to the building where I lived. The doorways of the apartment blocks were entirely dark as was most of the street. At that time desperate people stole everything, including any unguarded light bulb. Finally, the man's grip relaxed a little as he became more confident of my cooperation. Then I called out cheerfully as if greeting my brother in a dark doorway. His grip loosened further and I judged the second, kicked him hard and ran. Being visually impaired helped in this case. The stairwell I bolted up was pitch black and I could hear him stumbling around as he tried to catch me but I knew every crack in the uneven concrete steps and I reached a door I could lock behind me by memory and by feel. 

I was taught to be prey. Many men are taught that women will flee and the only way they can catch one is by force. I was simply taught to be smart prey, but even so the assumption I held and the assumption of my self-defense instructors was that I would be prey. 

This is why, even though I escaped, even though I am far luckier than many women, I want to support the "me too" campaign. We should not be prey. Sexuality should not be about fear and force and conquest. Being a woman should not be considered grounds for any particular assumptions. 

This is one reason why we still need feminism today. 

We needed it before we had a president who openly declares that a woman's worth is primarily in her sexual attractiveness and appearance. And we certainly need it now that we have such a president. A few months ago The Daily Beast reported that Republican Rep. Robert Fisher (R-NH) wrote under the username FredFredrickson,  “I’m going to say it—Rape isn’t an absolute bad, because the rapist I think probably likes it a lot. I think he’d say it’s quite good, really.”

This kind of attitude still exists today, even in places of power. Rape culture has not been successfully relegated to some small criminal element. Both women and men need to be on guard against it. Both women and men can be legitimate feminists. 

My generation has perhaps been living partly off of the achievements of past generations of women and there are so many other terrible problems in the world to fight against. It is hard to focus on the small, mundane assumptions or the hideous comments of politicians. The "me too" campaign shows how alive and well the scourge of assault and harassment is.

We still need feminism and we still need self-defense classes for our daughters.

Race traitors and the white supremacist attack on women

I wish I could believe that the proliferation of hate-filled social media posts is all hot air and no substance. For several months before the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville I had been researching one particular facet of the Alt Right---a virulent hatred against women and most especially against white women who don't reject all non-white men.

But I didn't post my research because I promised my readers soothing virtual cups of tea, not bitter drafts brewed from the sludge of the internet.

Then after the attack that killed Heather Heyer my google searches turned up cached pages on many mainstream media outlets and blogs in which comments by white supremacists had been deleted. The deleted comments called Heather Heyer a "race traitor" and expressed gladness at her death. These were deleted and rightly so. But we should also know that they were written by someone's hand. I found a dozen but then stopped looking. I can't catalog the whole internet without a research team.

Creative Commons image by Tim Pierce

Creative Commons image by Tim Pierce

The fact is that some white supremacists consider Heather Heyer to be a race traitor. Why? Because she stood among demonstrators who opposed the KKK and neo-Nazis? Because she helped people of color and others who got the brunt of injustice in her legal work? Because she stood up for social justice? If she is considered a race traitor by those criteria, then there are a lot of us.

We don't know how many white supremacists wrote these comments or how many support them, but those who write these things are still well accepted in Alt Right circles and my research showing widespread attacks against women and accusations against "race traitors" is overdue.

It is my sorrow that I can't be more comforting to readers. In times of sickness, sometimes the tea must be brewed with bitter herbs to fight invading parasites and disease. This is one of those times. 

The self-proclaimed Islamic State, one of the most deadly terrorist organizations ever conceived, was primarily built through social media and hateful internet posts. Many a western intelligence agent is now employed trying to uncover and combat the online spread of ISIS ideology. People are pulled into these extremist movements by years of hateful on-line posts, echoing back and forth and building rage and belief in their own superiority. 

The American Alt Right, like ISIS, grew in the haven of on-line anonymity, where despicable things could be said, agreed upon and ricocheted around with impunity. Now ISIS is one of the greatest security threats on the globe with a stated goal of fostering fear and hatred between moderate Muslims and Europeans.

White nationalists and the Alt Right in the United States now threaten safety and democracy as well. With large arsenals of military weapons, they say they'll do much more violence if their threats are not heeded. They could write the dictionary definition of terrorism.

Both groups also share a rabid hatred of women as well some vehement female supporters. 

Most people called "race traitors" by today's white supremacists are white women who had mixed-race relationships. But the labeling of Heather Heyes shows that it is primarily the stand against racism that earns that epithet. 

The largest and best-known white supremacist website Stormfront.org, which at last known count in 2015 had 300,000 registered users, makes for sickening reading. Supposedly the N-word is banned on the site because the focus is not specifically hatred against people of color or any particular group. But the site is riddled with the terms "race traitor" and "mudshark."

Creative Commons by  Pedro Ribeiro Simões 

Creative Commons by  Pedro Ribeiro Simões 

 "Would you help a race traitor if she was being beaten in front of you by her black partner?" one thread asks. The answers tell their own story.

User "Vigilante Bellator" writes: "I don't find race traitors to be white anymore. And as for non whites I really don't care what happens to them, being women or not. That woman is tainted and lost anyway, I might sound cruel but I wouldn't care."

User "CAPITOL Punisher" replies: "If it had to happen at a time when the rule of law has ceased to exist then I would shoot the kaffir (sic) and hang her by her neck in the nearest tree!"

User "Creationofadam" posts: "I wouldn't bat an eye or even bother to call the cops. They knew what they were getting into and they made the concious (sic) decision to turn their back on their race and flush millenias (sic) of evolution down the the toilet to become a race traitor."

When another on-line discussion mentioned Stormfront on an ign.com entertainment board a user called "Edgelord" logged in to defend the white supremacist cause. He alleged a "genocide" is in progress against the "white race," and used the claim of racially distinct genes to influence others, "Science shows that the races evolved independently and thus evolved different mental and physical features." He later specified what had become apparent to me on Stormfront, that the primary target of this propaganda is white women, "We don't have animosity for white men who racemix with Africans, just white women," Edgelord wrote.

On other forums the focus on women is even more evident. One discussion on the VNNForum, a site considered by some to be more extreme than Stormfront, discusses women as "the weakness of the white race." 

It begins with a post by a user tagged as "Devere" who complained that white men were not taking what is theirs: "Women are not equipped to lead, to protect the survival of their people. Men are. Women in positions of power and with independence from their men will make and have made and will continue to make White genocidal decisions... Generally, our women are the prize that goes to the victor. The non-white races are winning -- so they are taking our women. We are not even fighting back."

The posts get increasingly violent and graphic with experienced members "educating" newbies by recommending Mein Kampf and lamenting that they cannot kill people of color and white women who would have anything to do with people of color as a means of employment as Nazi guards once did in "those golden years," as well as predicting, "When will this end? When the race war starts and we ... hang every white woman that has ever screwed a non-white." Other threads discuss women in general as "sick little animals."

While this is not the public face most often seen in white supremacist marches of polished boots and uniform shirts, where smiling women often march together with a crowd of men, this is the ideological base and the on-line recruiting ground for such groups.

When public Alt Right figures ask us to be tolerant of white supremacists and to allow them to "express their views peacefully," it is worth remembering that this anti-women extremism is one (but far from the only) trait they share with terrorist groups like ISIS. If we cannot tolerate blatant hate speech by those who twist Islam to suit one fascist ideology, then we cannot tolerate the blatant hate speech of those who twist Christianity or racial identity for the same purpose.

"I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land." 

- Pete Seeger

In the spiral toward Fascism: White resentment and identity crisis

When Donald J. Trump spoke of "the forgotten men and the forgotten women" of America the morning after the election, I sensed instantly that he was dividing the country based on race. 

There was plenty in his campaign to lead both supporters and opponents to the conclusion that his message is intended to separate people along racial lines. He often protested that he has "a great relationship with the blacks" or that he loves Hispanics. Yet he made statements describing Mexican immigrants as a group of criminals and rapists and he depicted black neighborhoods as unending hells of crime and poverty. He argued that a Hispanic-American judge shouldn’t hear a case involving Trump businesses simply because of the judge’s background.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

A professor at the University of California Irvine by the name of Michael Tesler decided to take a statistical look at the racial trend of Trump's support in the summer of 2016. He compared the voting preferences of Republican primary voters in 2008, 2012 and 2016 with the voter's scores on a "racial resentment" survey. The study found that the more  resentment against people of color a voter expressed, the more likely that voter was to vote for Trump in the primary. Interestingly these same voters had mostly voted for failed Republican primary contestants in 2008 and 2012. They had simmered with resentment and frustration because even the Republican nominees who lost to Barack Obama were unsatisfactory to this group.

Despite his protestations that he is "the least racist person," the terms and focus of Trumps speeches make it clear that there is a norm, which is white and Christian. Trump's repetitions of the slogans "America first!" and "Make America great again" are placed so as to imply white America. 

It has become fashionable in intellectual circles to contend that support for Donald Trump stems primarily from economic, rather than racial, tension. Yet an analysis by USA Today's Brad Heath shows that Hilary Clinton lost most unexpectedly in counties where unemployment had fallen during the Obama administration. And now everything Trump actually does harms the working class and enriches a handful of the wealthiest.

If it was about class, Trump's appeal would be very thin indeed. His support comes primarily from the frustrations and identity crisis of a group that is defined both by race and by class--that is the white, mostly Christian core of small town and suburban America.

If we want to call this group "working class" we have to reassess the term. "Working class" tends to evoke images of coal miners and line operators, but that isn't the mainstay anymore. If you look at the income distribution graphs for the US, the "working class" could conceivably be considered everyone who is not in the bottom ten percent (the very poor) and not in the top ten percent (the extremely rich). 

That gives you 80 percent of the nation, a group of people in which the top 10 percent is only ten times wealthier than than their poorest group members. That may sound like a big internal difference for a group, but in the scheme of things--when compared to the astronomical wealth of those Americans who are too wealthy to be in the group--this middle 80 percent really is a class in itself and largely they are people who actually work in one form or another for a living--thus working class. 

And if you take that middle 80 percent and divide it by race, singling out the white Christian majority of it, you have the group targeted by Trump's message. They work, they struggle, they look at the boggling wealth of the wealthy and feel the fear and the siren's pull of the mostly non-white poor. They have been told in a myriad ways in recent years that they have no culture or that their culture is shallow and silly. They have been told that they once had a divine destiny, but that was deemed morally wrong and now they are not special, not ordained in any way. They live reasonably well but feel stifled and frustrated.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

I doubt Trump or even his speech writers looked much into the historical references of the "forgotten men and forgotten women" phrase, but I did. The first widely known figure to use "the forgotten man" gimmick was William Graham Summer in 1883. Summer was a social Darwinist, meaning that he promoted the idea that survival of the fittest should dictate which humans get to survive to adulthood in society. It was kind of a precursor to eugenics I suppose, the idea that they could breed "better" humans by letting the weak die of hunger and disease. 

In a speech titled "The Forgotton Man," Summer made a case that could easily have been a template for Trump's campaign strategy, claiming that hard-working people needed to be freed from the dead weight of useless poor people. 

Summer divided society into the hard-working "forgotten man" type and the "nasty, shiftless, criminal, whining, crawling, and good-for-nothing people." The second category was supposed to be that bottom ten percent that Trump degrades as well, but like Trump, Summer inflated it to appear much larger and more threatening without actually including his target audience in it.

Since Summer's day, several American presidents have played with the rhetorical concept that there is some group of Americans who do not complain, who work hard quietly and ask nothing of society, a mythical deserving class. Reagan's "silent majority" was one of the more blatant but that never reached the level of Trump's appeal to white people in small towns and suburbs to see themselves as the unsung victims in society. 

One world leader did go this far and built a fast-rising, brilliant and brutal regime based on exactly this concept. He started it with a book entitled in translation "My Struggle," which sought to teach his fellow white citizens to see themselves as wronged and to instill a righteous thirst for revolutionary vengeance.

That was, of course, Adolf Hitler. And while I'm sure,. you've probably seen Trump compared to Hitler so many times in the past few months that you find this predictable and even boring, I want to call your focused attention to something that is NOT merely a rhetorical comparison, using exaggerated connections. 

I have been watching the reactions of white Americans and others of similar Caucasian-Christian background around the world with growing unease. 

A year ago, it was a dull throbbing drumbeat, occasionally mentioned but generally ignored. Since the election it has been steadily ramping up. That is the modern concept of white people as silent social victims. And it is not limited to the United States.

Last year I might have seen a comment along the lines of, "You say 'prejudice' but you're just virtue signalling," once every week or so.  Now a day doesn't go by when I don't run across some version of the argument: "So called 'white privilege' is an quitter's excuse. When you get right down to it everyone has some sort of disadvantage. The only question is who tries harder." 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

The trend is easily observable both on-line and in the real world. Even my ESL students in a small Bohemian backwater have heard the arguments and some nod along with them and say that Trump has finally allowed people to say "what everyone was thinking all along."

On a few occasions, I joined one of these discussions and laid out the host of facts demonstrating that white privilege is alive and well. I cited statistics showing systematic disadvantages that still plague people of color. I gave my own personal experience as a white woman with a significant disability. I have experienced both sides of the privilege paradigm. I know what it is like to not have the privileges of others. And I have seen white privilege work even for me in many situations, including when I fervently wished it wouldn't.

I never see any indication that my reasoned arguments sway anyone who has already fallen under the spell of this rhetoric. And I rarely go to the mat over it anymore, though I do make a point of speaking up against it. The eventual exhausted silence of people who know better is one of the the things this kind of propaganda counts on. 

But the other thing it counts on is our lack of understanding for the identity crisis of the white working class. I am certainly not going to subscribe to a doctrine that says they are the victims of the past fifty years of domination by mythical "liberals" and people of color grabbing all the hard-earned spoils. But they do have grievances against the corporate-tilted economy which leave them vulnerable to scapegoating propaganda.

Across the board, that middle 80 percent of Americans have lost wealth and income in recent decades. Even the top bracket-the 80th to 90th percentile of the US economy, the people just poorer than the top ten percent of all Americans--has declined in wealth. Their financial strength has seeped toward the wealthiest ten percent.

To say this may seem like whining. The top half of this middle 80 percent is not suffering terribly in material terms. They have large homes, on average several vehicles, security, travel, health care, college education...

Why would they complain?

Because their fortunes are declining, not growing and the American ethos is all about growth and making sure one's children have it better and easier than the current generation. And for decades that has clearly been impossible for the middle 80 percent... especially for those who are white.

Why do I say "especially for those who were white?" Again, I'm not talking about the poor white victims.

The white people were in that middle 80 percent and they lost ground. But with the growth of populations of color as well as civil rights laws and expanded educational opportunities for two generations, some people of color have seen improvement in their circumstances over the past few decades. Not the majority of people of color, but a few.. It isn't improvement of their wealth bracket but rather that some individuals have climbed the ladder of wealth brackets to take their places along side those white members who were already there. 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

White people did not lose ground to people of color. The white middle 80 percent lost ground to the white top 10 percent. But if you're living in a suburb where you can't see the top 10 percent and you can see the newly well-off black people next door as well as your own slowly eroding security, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. 

Add to that several harsh generation gaps that have cut white Americans off from cultural roots and created a sense of empty identity. Pile on top the misinterpretation of integrated history to be a litany of white collective guilt. And there is a recipe for resentment, anger and frustration that we are now seeing rise like an unstoppable chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar.

Trump has been elected and some have taken his election as a sign that it is now more possible to vent racial resentments. But instead of releasing tension this has only intensified the tenor of the frustration. In the end, we may find that Trump is the least of our worries and that a much greater danger threatens the nation and the rest of the western world. 

In the study of ethnic conflicts around the world, it has becomeclear that violence between ordinary people stems most often from the resentment of a privileged portion of the society when it sees its monopoly on power slipping. According to a paper in World Politics in 2010, a statistical analysis of 157 cases of ethnic violence--including that in Chad, Lebanon and the Balkans in the 1990s--showed that the decline of privileged groups is highly correlated to extreme violence.

Most unfortunately Trump is only a symptom of a disease--one that has spread well beyond the borders of the United States. It is past time, we acknowledged this. Simple suppression of racial tension and resentment will likely result in a more explosive reaction. It will take much more to avert violence and strengthen our open, multi-racial society to meet the challenges of climate change and resource shift. 

It is time to listen to one another. It is time to seek allies across racial lines. If Trump and his ilk wish to divide us by race, that is the first thing we must resist. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Of Barbies and Guns: A mom in the crossfire of gender stereotypes

When my daughter was a baby, I swore we would have no pink. I never liked pink in the first place. It reminds me of overly sweet synthetic medicine and being sick as a child. 
And it promotes gender stereotypes. 

But then I was given baby clothes. My family lives on modest means and it’s against my religion to be wasteful. When you’re a new mother in a circle of friends at the lower end of the middle class, you're in the baby-clothes rotation system whether you like it or not. It’s silly to buy new when your friends are desperate to reclaim their closet space. 

Boys with pink baloons - my photo.jpg

The problem was that mostly I was given pink. Some boy clothes turned up but mostly I had garbage sacks full of tiny pink dresses.

When I—on rare occasions—actually bought baby clothes, they were never pink. And my daughter wore the non-pink clothes we acquired to rags. Every day I told her she was strong and smart. (And she was.) She was also very pretty and I tried not to tell her that too often. 

I had the dream that my children would grow up without the limitations of sexism and gender stereotypes. When I was a child my parents were firmly anti-establishment and I never had pink dresses. I owned only one doll before the age of seven and I played swords with my brothers. I am convinced that this played a positive role in my development. 
But my daughter had other ideas. 

My daughter adored pink from the beginning. Before she could talk, she would watch me pick out her clothes and she would reach down under the pretty blue and green dresses to the pink ones hidden at the bottom of the drawer. She’d howl any day that I insisted she where something not pink. Pink was the first color she learned to name. 

Let’s be clear. I was a “good” mother. I listened to the American Pediatric Association. My child never saw a lighted screen before the age of two, except in passing at someone else’s house. We don’t own a TV. Our storybooks were about nature, boys and very non-princess-like girls.  She didn’t get this infatuation with pink from the media. 

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When I was growing up, “feminists” were people (like my parents) who insisted that men and women are exactly the same on the inside. I simply couldn’t believe that a little girl could be inherently drawn to the color pink by something encoded in her DNA. 

But as much as I am a feminist, I’m not a controlling parent with an ideology to force down my child’s throat. So, I relented and let her wear pink. I even started buying pink clothes. I even allowed a few princess books to sneak into the house, even though I still buy the anti-princess books too. 

You see. I have these troubling memories from my own childhood. Yes, I grew up out in the sticks with two wild brothers and no TV. Yes, I enjoyed playing swords and army and building forts and Legos and sled racing. 

But deep down inside, I longed for dolls and dresses. I loved my first doll and still own her, ragged and bleached by time as she is. And I notice that when we drew pictures as children, my brothers drew pictures of complex military battles and underground hide-outs. I drew ladies with amazing princess dresses and little high heels. 

Where in the world had I even SEEN high heels at that point? (Seriously. I not only didn't have a TV,  was also legally blind.)

I remember the day my daughter saw high heels for the first time. My adult niece was living with us then and she was dressing up to go to a traditional European winter ball. So, she pulled out a pair of bright red heels from a deep closet and put them on under her dress. 

My two-year-old’s mouth dropped open and her eyes literally went as round as quarters. She reached out her little hands and nearly fell over in a swoon of ecstasy. And that was the beginning of a true obsession.

It only took seeing them once and my little girl was hopelessly enthralled. For the past five years, not a day has gone by without my hearing about high heeled shoes, who has them, what color they are, what they sound like, "when when when when" she will be allowed to destroy her feet with them. 

I may have drawn pictures of high heeled shoes as a toddler, but I grew out of the interest long before I was a teenager. I have never even been tempted to wear them. As a young adult I simply thought they were ugly, stupid and a plot by patriarchal men to slow women down. Now I really and truly hate them, but I have to admit that I haven’t been able to find a man who likes them either.

Over the years, I have given in inch by inch, because I AM NOT one of those controlling parents who doesn’t accept their child for who he or she really is, now am I? (Written with gritted teeth.) 

My daughter now owns more princess dresses than will fit in the jumbo dress-up box. We’ve spent a small fortune trying to lure her away from high heels with sparkly pink, shiny black, frilly white, red-hot and every other imaginable type of princess slipper. She owns a dozen very pretty dolls (very multicultural, mind you), a play kitchen and boxes upon boxes of ignored puzzles, legos, blocks, train sets and books. She even owns pretend make-up, real nail polish and many tubes of organic lip balm (organic because she likes to eat it rather than just wear it).

I eventually simply gave up on trying to raise a non-stereotypical girl. My hope lay in my son. 
I couldn’t very well dress him in dresses in the conservative Eastern European country where we live. But I did everything short of that. He had dolls before he could crawl. He wore diverse colors, including pink. He got stories about strong women and kind men (along with all the stories read to my daughter). And the first time he saw fictional violence on TV during a visit to someone else’s house, he ran to me crying that someone was hurt. 

The truth is that my son is very kind and sensitive. At age five, he is still confused about why some kids at preschool insist that boys can’t wear pink when he and his best friend really like pink along with lots of other colors. But he likes camouflage more. A lot more. Sigh.

And his initial reaction to toy cars was very similar to my daughter’s reaction to high heels. His first word was not “Mama” or even “Papa,” but “backhoe.”

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Having kids will always make you rethink your beliefs one way or another. And for me, it has meant the grudging conclusion that at least some boys and some girls do have hardwired stereotypical tendencies. 

If there was ever an environment that would have promoted a more balanced division of clothing and toys between children it was ours. Being an immigrant and unable to drive, I spent most of my children’s toddlerhood isolated from society as well as TV media. I was very careful in my approach to the issue, neither pressing one way or the other, providing many different toys and books.

But the preferences of my children were clear from an early age and stated in no uncertain terms. 

Today, my son is a camo-crazed truck and soldier enthusiast with a heart of gold, who wants to rescue the vulnerable and chase away bad guys without actually hurting them. He’s a quick reader and loves to draw things with wheels. He hordes dolls and stuffed animals but doesn’t actually play with them. My daughter is Elsa-obsessed and yearns to watch make-up videos on YouTube. She’s also reasonably good with numbers and puzzles, extraordinarily strong-willed and the more violent of the two. 

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Parents, you can’t win.

There are things I draw the line at--primarily toy guns and Barbies. Sometimes unwise friends or relatives gift the children such objects. I quietly discourage the adult offenders and grit my teeth through a few days of domestic disgust until these objects are carelessly left lying around and then they are disappeared. I have talked to my kids about both issues, quite openly. I don’t like toy guns that don’t shoot projectiles because they promote unrealistic ideas about firearms and play into a violence obsession in our society that I find extremely harmful. Barbies are ugly, difficult to dress and promote ideals of women being anorexic, clumsy, appearance-focused and brainless. 

My son gets to have bows and arrows and swords because these are not quite as poorly used by the entertainment media, but it’s a fine line. He also gets to have toy soldiers and tanks because they can be used to talk about history and real warfare. Hiding from the hard things in life will do us no good. But Mama has to draw the line somewhere.

As for my daughter, beyond clothes, shoes and make-up, she is sometimes interested in drawing and music. I promote these interests with great gusto, as somewhat more wholesome gender stereotypes. She does get lots of pretty stuff and lots of dolls. Just not Barbies. She gets to watch Disney princess movies but not Barbie or Lego Friends and other things that portray girls as cliquish and ditsy. She’ll get to wear high heels when she’s reached her full height. 

These are my lines and my husband’s lines, where we have been able to draw them. Every situation is different. Would I outlaw all military toys and pretend make-up until age twelve if I could? Probably. I’m not judgmental of other parents who are trying to find balance in other ways.

It isn’t easy trying to bring up well-balanced children in a media-saturated, fashion-aware world. If you come up with any nifty secret strategies, please let me know.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.