Friday, August 22, 2014

Fast Cars and Broken Hearts: What Makes a Feminist Marriage?

Over the summer, I was teaching a class about success, and one of the paper prompts involved choosing a song and analyzing it through that lens of success. While I was looking for songs to share with the class as possible choices, I ended up listening to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car."



Halfway through, I burst into tears. 

This was not the first time I'd heard this song, of course. In fact, I've heard it dozens of times. I wasn't in a particularly mopey mood (I was working, going through many songs that night). What was it that made me so suddenly overtaken with emotion?

I mean, sure, it's a sad song. Here's this woman who saw a relationship as her chance to escape a cycle of poverty and working to take care of her alcoholic father only to end up circling back around to repeat the same cycle with the man she thought would save her. 

I think the simple feminist analysis of this song would end with an admonishment of a woman depending on a partner to save her in the first place, a reading of "Fast Car" as cautionary tale that demonstrates a woman's right and perhaps even responsibility to make it on her own. You know, the whole "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" message.


But it's not that simple, and that's certainly not why I had surprisingly burst into tears.
 
The speaker in that song wasn't asking to be saved. She wasn't a damsel in distress standing in a tower hoping the prince would some day rescue her. She was working her ass off, planned to continue working her ass off, and had recognized that she would be much more effective if she could escape the dead weight of a father who didn't help her and instead depend on the partnership of someone who would.
Maybe we make a deal/Maybe together we can get somewhere . . . Starting from zero got nothing to lose   
And you know what? She's right. It is easier to climb out of poverty if you have someone climbing with you. If you find the right partner, you can make a difficult feat a little less challenging.  

The woman in this song pins everything on her romantic partnership, and she recognizes that it is a gamble--a gamble she ultimately lost.

She holds on through imperfections and dashed expectations, continuing to work and trust and believe in the beauty of a true partnership that will give her access to a world she couldn't see herself reaching alone.

But she got in the wrong car.

By the end of the song, she hasn't just given up on the relationship; she's given up on herself.
I'd always hoped for better/Thought maybe together you and me find it/I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
The fact that you can lose yourself through the course of a relationship is the flip side of a more optimistic truth: you can find yourself there, too.

 
I recently told a friend that marrying a feminist was the most important decision I've made; it has impacted every aspect of my life.

But it's not that simple. I didn't know my husband was a feminist early in our relationship because I didn't know that I was a feminist yet. I didn't know what questions to ask that would turn out to be so crucial later in our life together.
 
I didn't know to ask if he would get out of bed to bring our infant daughter to me so I could nurse her and still get some rest (I didn't even know if I wanted children). I didn't know to ask if he would  juggle his work schedule with mine so that we could both still pursue our hobbies (I had no idea I would want to play roller derby or do yoga some day). I didn't know to ask if we would split the housework (we were in a dorm; the housework was scarce). I didn't know to ask how we'd afford to live while the two of us (both first-generation college students) went to graduate school and law school.
 
There was so much that I didn't know. Just like the narrator of "Fast Car," choosing to pin my life to my husband's was a gamble. It was a calculated gamble thread with love, respect, and joy, but it was still a gamble because the intertwining of two lives is not simply a matter of finding someone compatible with who you are today (a feat in itself) but of finding someone whose future self will meld with your future self. It's an act of inevitable instability, one that necessarily requires a leap of faith into the unknown.

So when I ask what makes a marriage feminist, I am not simply asking if you need to marry a feminist. I'm asking how you make the decisions--tiny and huge, day in and day out--that build a relationship based on trust, equality, and respect.

I don't think you have to call yourself a feminist to be a good spouse, but I do think you need to value one another as autonomous people. I don't think you have to split all the bills and all the housework directly down the middle, but I do think that those decisions have to be made with fairness, respect, and acknowledgement of individual abilities and desires. My recognition of myself as a feminist came only through the relationship of mutual respect and autonomy built in my marriage.

I know as a "good feminist" I'm supposed to believe that I don't need a man, but I'd be lying if I said that. I may not need a man, but I need this man to be who I am today. Every decision that we made from the moment we decided we were building a life together shaped and pruned and nourished different parts of me. Without my husband, I would be a very different person, and I think recognizing that co-dependency that drops down into my very identity left me feeling vulnerable and incredibly, incredibly lucky.

I got in the right car.

Photo: anarrestidream, Tim Green

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Feminist Marriages/Partners Blog Hop

I was talking to a friend about relationships and I found myself saying something I didn't realize was so true until it came out of my mouth. "Marrying a feminist has been one of the most important decisions I've ever made," I told her. "That's at the core of everything I've built in my adult life."

My husband unabashedly identifies as a feminist, and that belief manifests itself throughout the partnership of our lives together: home, finances, parenting, personal interactions. We've built a strong relationship that has weathered some rocky storms, and I think that feminism is a big part of that strength.



With that in mind, I've partnered up with K. M. O'Sullivan to host a blog hop reflecting on feminist marriages and partnerships. If you would like to participate, write a post that reflects on the role your partner's status as a feminist (or not) impacts your relationship. Then follow these rules to get them all linked up and easy to share.
  • The blog hop will run until Sunday, August 31. Plan to make your post go live and share it any time before then.
  • Once you've posted the post on your own blog, come back to this post and scroll to the bottom. Click on the blue button to add your link.
  • Please be sure to check out some of the other posts and comment. 



Photo: Thomas Favre-Bulle (Creative Commons)

Monday, August 11, 2014

These Books Don't Close

My heart hurts.

My head, eyes, and back also hurt. The latter are from staying up most of the night watching footage of the riots in Ferguson, MO unfold as I listened to sirens blaze past my windows heading toward the damage. At one point, I had a trifecta of data: a medical scanner application open and playing on my phone, an array of Twitter feeds spread across my computer screen, and the local news stations flickering across my television.

Mostly, though, my heart hurts.

My heart has hurt every time I've heard of an unarmed black man killed by authorities, and surges of that pain resurfaced as I clicked through each story in this article from the Root collecting many of them. I read the names: Ervin Jefferson, Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell. The list goes on, and now we add to them Michael Brown.

I think about how any sons I have will face that level of scrutiny and that history of pain, and I shudder.

I also think about my friends who are police officers, called to stand shoulder to shoulder in riot gear on what became an increasingly violent and terrifying night. I think about their families, worrying if they will make it home safely. I think about the quick decisions they will have to make, the stress they must be under.

I think about my city, some of it literally in flames.


I think about all of the people, miles and borders away saying, "That's St. Louis for you." Dismissing the pain, the anger, and the fear with a shrug and a quiet nod at making the right choice to live somewhere else.

I think about my neighbors barricaded in their houses out of fear, wondering if it will be safe to send their children to school in the morning--wondering what they'll tell them when they ask what's going on.

I think about the family of Michael Brown and how difficult it must be to even process what's going on around them through their grief.

Mostly, though, I think about the one thing that I've been trained to think about: the story.

That's all I know to do. Read. I've been doing it all my life, a task formalized by degrees but at heart just a part of human nature. I want to read the story. I want to find the characters, the setting, the themes, and I want to read through the ups and downs until there is a conclusion.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch published a great piece about the history of St. Louis, context that is crucial to understanding what you're seeing in the news if you're not from here.

It talks about people like my dad, who was a teenager when his family fled the city for rural Missouri in the 1970's in the midst of other violent, racially-charged upheavals, making them just one of the many participants in "white flight" that left the region economically and philosophically shaken.

It talks about a racial distribution of power that gives some background for reports like the one that surfaced in the aftermath to show the racial profiling data of Ferguson.

Mostly, though, it reminds us that the story is not simple:
It's a false dichotomy, a lazy narrative, to see this region as divided among racists whites and angry blacks. That's not reality in many neighborhoods and families here. But it's the loudest, most visible part of the discourse. Like much of America, St. Louis has an undeniable problem talking about or dealing with issues involving race.
A lazy narrative. That, out of all of this pain and hurt and anger, is something I can understand.

It's also something that I have seen over and over and over again this weekend. The number of false dichotomies keeps piling up:
  • Protester vs. Looter
  • Urban vs. Ruler
  • Cop Hater vs. Racist Apologist
  • Peace vs. War
  • Black vs. White
  • Urban vs. Rural
But nothing is that simple. We aren't reading a book where the themes have been neatly laid out before us as we prance to the moral at the end.

There can be both protesters and looters; the latter presence of destruction does not negate the initial presence of peace.

You can love, trust, and support individual officers while still recognizing systemic issues in a troubled justice system.

You can want peace but find yourself fighting a war.

It's easy to sit back and fill our minds with the story. We have plenty of content. I was doing it when I sat in my bedroom perched over Twitter feeds with the TV and medical scanner playing. I was reading voraciously, eager to find some meaning, place the characters, and get to a conclusion.

But this is not a story. This is an ongoing struggle that reaches far beyond any one character perspective, far beyond any one incident on any one day.

We want to be readers and find the simple spots on the ground to stake our claims. There is comfort in that, and that comfort looks all the more appealing in the face of the pain and the fear. But this isn't a book. We can't close it, and nothing is simple.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thank You! (And Some Book Reviews)

A while back, I installed CentUp on my blog after a friend recommended it to me. It's a program where people can give a few cents to content that they like on the internet (blog posts, videos, music, etc.) Half of the money goes to the creator, and half goes to a charity. At the time, I wrote a post about my thoughts on money, blogging, and internet content.

Blogging is not a job for me, something that I reflected on a lot as I attended this year's BlogHer and heard talk about "monetization" and "ROI" and "SEO" bantered about. This is a work of passion, and the primary rewards are a platform for community and conversation and the chance to work out my own thoughts for other projects in my life.

It was nice, though, to get a check from my CentUp account right before I went on vacation, and with your support, I purchased two beach reads (which really meant plane reads because my daughter was much too active for me to read on the beach).

I got Cheryl Strayed's Wild and Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half.


So, first of all, an immense and heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read something I've written and responded with comments, sharing, or pushing that CentUp button at the bottom. You are what makes writing this blog an interactive and rewarding endeavor. Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Secondly, I thought I would take a few minutes to reflect on these two books, which ended up having a lot in common in very strange ways. 

Wild is the autobiographical account of Cheryl Strayed's hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, an endeavor she embarked on alone in her mid-twenties in the aftermath of drug addiction, her divorce, and her mother's quickly lost battle with cancer. She faces her inner demons along with bears, snow covered mountains, scorching and waterless miles of trail, and the utter disbelief that she's doing it as a woman on her own. 

Wild is set to become a film starring Reese Witherspoon, and the trailer was released last month:


Hyperbole and a Half is the book version of Allie Brosh's blog of the same name, and it is hilarious. Through simple but poignant illustrations and a writing style that leaves you laughing too hard to realize you should be crying, Brosh catalogues her own life stories of depression, childhood memories, and social anxiety. 

The styles of these two books could not be more different. Just watch the trailer for Wild and then go look at any random post on Brosh's blog. They are at opposite ends of the rhetorical spectrum. What Brosh attacks with sarcasm and a shrug of the shoulders, Strayed attacks with earnest and sometimes brutal honesty (there's a scene about Strayed's horse that had tears rolling down my cheeks in public). 

While the method of delivery may be very, very different, though, these two books share a lot. They are both autobiographical slices of particular moments as an attempt to make sense of the whole, and they both do that sharing with honesty, vulnerability, and sincerity. When Brosh writes that she is trying to win adult responsibility like a trophy she can display, she echoes the very same concerns that Strayed voices when she discusses not getting her BA because she failed to turn in one five-page essay that would have let her complete her degree. When Strayed discusses how the weight of her backpack digging into her hips and shoulders has left her incapable of reflecting on the life lessons she thinks she should be worried about, she echoes the same issues Brosh tackles when she imagines her identity as a do-gooder as a cloak that keeps her from admitting she's an asshole. 

Both women give authentic and personal voice to nearly ubiquitous concerns of life and loss, of pain and joy. Reading them back to back was a rewarding endeavor that made me think about how we might get to choose the methods we use for tackling life's most difficult spots, but we don't get to avoid them. 

Those Stupid Kids Today! (Stop Romanticizing the Education of the Past)


I saw this today and it struck a nerve. As a teacher of those remedial college courses and someone who spends a lot of time reading about educational history, I feel the need to point out a few facts that this image doesn't quite capture. 

Yes, 100 years ago the high school curriculum looked a lot different from today's, but curriculum wasn't the only crucial difference. 

In 1900, only about 1/3 of the population received a high school diploma. Those rates are now around 90%. 

In 1900, more than 10% of the United States population was illiterate. By 1979, that rate had been reduced to less than 1%. Even more important is looking at those stats based on who was allowed access to education. Taking those same years, we can see that in 1900, 44.5% of black people in America were illiterate; by 1979, that had been reduced to 1.6%.

When someone laments the state of contemporary education by nostalgically looking back at some long ago golden era of learning in America, what they're really saying--whether they are aware of it or not--is that they want to go back to a time when education was limited to an elite few, the few who were guaranteed to pass the standards of acceptability because those standards had been specifically designed with their class and race's cultural norms in mind. 

If you want to go back 100 years in education, we're talking about erasing desegregation efforts, eliminating career options for women, denying children of poor families a shot at high school, and generally ignoring the role of equal opportunity in educational spaces. 

As I recently wrote about at length, the history of expanding education to those who were once denied it can be traced through philosophical differences in the history of Harvard and Yale. When Harvard made the then-radical decision to allow access based on entrance exams rather than on family status, they allowed a trickle through what would later become a floodgate. It was a move toward making educational opportunities more meritorious and less aristocratic, and it would lay the groundwork for the educational equality movements of the 1960's and 1970's. In many ways, it informs the discussions we're having about education today, right at this moment. 

When we talk about "remedial" English classes, we must remember that English 101 (what we now consider "standard") was once remedial as well. Every time that we have opened up education to a group of people who were previously excluded, we lament the "dumbing down" of our standards. What we're really looking at is a threat to the carefully maintained borders of a hegemonic playing field. 

The standards of 100 years ago were standards based in exclusion and elitism, the residual effects of which still linger in our classrooms today. We have made great strides toward making education a democratic process, but we still have many strides to make. Romanticizing the exclusionary past in a fog of nostalgia clouds our ability to make those moves. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Roulette Stage of Parenting

Have you ever played roulette? It's a lot like parenting a three year old. (No. Not Russian roulette. This isn't that dark. I promise.)


See, roulette lulls you into a sense of certainty in that, most of the time, you have a 50/50 shot of doubling your bet if you bet on either red or black. It's just about a coin toss. 

Similarly, I'm at the stage in this parenting gig where my three-year-old daughter's behavior in public is about as predictable. There's a good chance that she will act reasonably and acceptably. She will probably be fidgety and not really want to sit still. She will also likely talk at a voice two notches louder than I'd like, but she won't be shouting or crying or screaming, and it will all be okay. She'll say hi to every stranger we pass and ask for candy 153 times before we get out of the store, but she won't throw a fit when they don't talk back or she doesn't get a pack of Skittles. All-in-all, it's predictable, good behavior. We'll call that landing on black. 

The other half of the time. She will be pretty terrible. I'll try to walk with her holding my hand, and she will go limp like a passive resistance protester so that I look like a monster dragging her along behind me. She will knock bottles of shampoo to the floor and run from me until I corral her and try to put her in the seat of the cart. At this point, she will lock her knees into boards and shriek until everyone in the store is staring at us. If I'm alone, I'll grab ten of the thirty-five things on my list and hope it is enough to get through the next few days. If my husband and I are together, one of us will take her to the car where she'll either fall asleep or scream until she runs out of breath. We'll call that landing on red. 

While there are some telltale signs that can help you figure out which way the day might go, most of the time I really do feel like I'm taking a gamble just as much as I would be at the roulette table. Sure, if she hasn't napped, red is looking more likely. If she got to run around at the park and burn off some energy, we may be looking at a black kind of day. But the predictability is very limited, and these might just be the talismanic habits of a gambler, like a woman I once saw who filled her BINGO table up with stuffed animals and ritualistically tapped each one on the head as the numbers were being called. We all want to control the fates, but usually we just get what we're given. 

Roulette, though, is not actually a 50/50 game. It's not all red and black. There are two wildcards that throw off the odds. You could also land on the green 0 or 00. 


These are not safe bets. They are rare, making up only a tiny portion of the possible outcomes on the board, but they can wreak havoc on your preparations or reward you with riches. 

See, you can split up your bets on roulette, putting a good chunk of chips on black, a handful on individual numbers, and--sometimes--one or two on the 0 and 00, just in case. 

Much like the green roulette squares, the 0 and 00 of parenting a three-year-old is not something that you rely on. It is something that you prepare for just in case. See, every once in a while, my daughter does not have a predictable, manageable tantrum. Instead, she has a full-out, red-faced, scratching, kicking, drag down, battle royale style meltdown. There is no preparing for this. It's like when you put all of your chips on black and it bounces out of the black one and into the green. Game over. 

On the flip side, sometimes you've thrown a few chips down there on green just in case and you are pleasantly surprised. You go into the store and she quietly and politely holds your hand, not touching anything she isn't allowed to touch and speaking to strangers gently and kindly. You weren't expecting this kind of payout, but it was nice to have the chips there when the wheel turned. 

I had the chance to watch the wheel turn and turn and turn this week as I took my daughter on vacation. It was a whirlwind of back-to-back-to-back trips that included five flights over seven days (including layovers). There were beaches and hotel rooms and delayed flights and dropped candy and security lines and staying up past bedtime and time zone changes and meeting new people and cartoons and a whole barrage of experiences that spun that roulette wheel around and around. 

I never knew what I was going to get. There were times when I was completely prepared for a meltdown and she sat perfectly quiet and still, coloring a book for almost the entire flight and staring out the window for the rest. There were times when I thought we were in the clear, and then she started kicking the seat in front of her until I had to physically hold her legs together across my lap to get her to stop. 

I tried to hedge my bets by filling up the carry-on luggage with books and movies and candy for bribing. Sometimes they weren't even needed. Sometimes they worked perfectly. Sometimes they didn't even make a dent in the crisis. 

My hope is that these ups and downs are signs of a leveling off. There was a time when I knew I would get a meltdown no matter what, so I didn't dare get on a plane. But now we're in a true gamble. Sometimes we hit the jackpot, and sometimes we go home busted. 


Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Don't Need (Pointless Declarations Against) Feminism

I wasn't going to wade into the Women Against Feminism tumblr and subsequent conversation, but I wrote a quick post about it on my Facebook page, and the discussion in the comments prompted me to give a little more reflection.


My entire point in posting this was that I think there's something more insidious about posting "I don't need feminism because ______" and then filling in the blank with something that basically suggests (or outright states) gender inequality or a patriarchal societal structure does not exist.

If you actually believe there is no gender inequality or a patriarchal structure, then why would you need to criticize it in this way? It would be like me making an entire tumblr to say that #IDontNeedUnicornCatchers.

That sounds ridiculous, though, right? Perhaps a more poignant analogy would be taking an actual post I saw on the tumblr that said "I don't need feminism because my boyfriend treats me right." It would be like me posting a picture of myself that says "I don't need veganism because I had a great chicken sandwich for lunch."

There are a lot of movements and affiliations that I "don't need." There are plenty of communities based in an ethical core principle (like feminism) with which I do not identify: veganism, Rastafarianism, Catholicism, Buddhism. There are also plenty of communities based in the work of the movement (also like feminism) with which I do not personally identify: engineers, psychologists, tarot card readers, optometrists, chiropractors.

In some cases, I see value and use the work that those communities produce. In some cases, I do not. In no cases do I feel the need to create a movement trying to tear down their beliefs. It would be like going around taking people's umbrellas from them because it's not raining at my house.

"I said you don't need this!"

In the responses to my Facebook post, one commenter responded that she doesn't need feminism because she doesn't "agree with the idea that women are equal." 

If that's what the women in this tumblr project wrote on their signs, it would be a valid movement. I would completely, vehemently disagree with their perspective, but it would be a valid reason to be against feminism and those claims would be honest and productive to that particular cause. Tearing down feminism because you disagree with gender equality makes sense. 

And that's the way that I have attacked communities when I have criticized them. I have criticized affiliation with certain political parties for this reason. I disagree with their core principles, so I am attacking those on their own merit. 

Another valid criticism of feminism that I've heard in this discussion is that feminism has a class and race problem. Much of the portrayal of mainstream feminism is too focused on rich white women. It leaves little room for the experiences of poor women, women of color, and trans* women. Those, too, are completely valid criticisms. If those women were holding up signs saying "I don't need feminism because it hasn't left a place for me and silences my views," that, too, would be a productive way to criticize and maybe even deconstruct a community (as the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen (started by Mikki Kendall) and #FeminismIsForMothersToo (sparked by Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner) social media moves both did).

There is plenty to criticize within the feminist movement, but saying that you don't need it because the patriarchy doesn't exist is a bait and switch. That's a way to shore up the power of the very patriarchal structure that ostensibly doesn't exist. It's dishonest and unproductive.

Not everyone is going to be a feminist. Even many people who believe in the principles of feminism aren't going to identify that way. I'm not going to go knocking door to door to try to sign people up. You're free to identify and not identify however makes sense to you and your experiences.

That doesn't mean you need to go tear down someone else's house.

Photo: Ian Iott