Saturday, September 29, 2012

Some Tips on Balancing

Everyone told me that becoming a full-time faculty member would be a huge change in my time management, but I had also been working an 8-5, so I thought I was well-prepared.

I was both right and wrong. Since I was already used to getting up, I scheduled myself for 8am every day. Many of my colleagues balk at such an early routine, but I was already used to it, so it's been an easy transition. Starting the day early also means that I have flexibility in my afternoons.

And flexibility is good because I was wrong about how easily I would adapt. Sure, I was already working full-time before, but this is different. The little things pile up quickly and my days are less predictable. Before, I had set times to catch up, but now that time may be taken up by a student who needs to talk or a last-minute meeting. Also, having to be at a desk for eight hours a day often drove me crazy, but it gave me a lot of time focused on a single task.

Overall, though,  I'm managing the balance fairly well. I'm teaching a full-time course load, raising a very active toddler, taking a graduate-level Spanish translation class, working on my PhD exam, writing this blog, and still finding time to do things like hang out with my family and friends.

New Mexico 2 019

People sometimes ask me how I do "it all." My initial answer is "I don't." I think that the message that we have to do it all is a damaging one. There's a lot of "all" out there. I'm satisfied with picking out the pieces that feel important and ignoring the rest. And sometimes even those pieces are an absolute mess because we are more than a snapshot of our lives at any given moment. Our lives and the circumstances surrounding them change, and we change with them. Doing it all is a myth.

But I do think there are some very practical ways to make balancing multiple roles a little easier. Here are the ones that are most important to me.


Create Separate Spaces for Different Realms . . .  I move back and forth between my home, the campus I work on, and the campus where I'm a student. At first, I thought I could just stay in my faculty office. I realized quickly that wasn't the case. Instead, I set aside time each week where I  go to the other campus and sit in the library to do work for my PhD. When I tried to do that work in my office, I was still focused primarily on my role as teacher, and there's always something for a teacher to do. I couldn't pull myself out of the teacher role long enough to get into the student role.

Similarly, I have different parts of my home that I mentally associate with work. The dining room table is the place where I grade papers or do homework. It provides the most functional surface and it gets me away from the living room (where the TV lives) and the kitchen (where the dirty dishes taunt me like middle school bullies).

alex in wonderland 8
"Your mama's so ugly she can't even finish her Spanish translation."
Finally, I joined a YMCA that's located halfway between my house and work. It makes it (relatively) easy to fit in a workout without drastically changing the rest of my schedule.

. . . But Keep them Flexible.

 Even though I have separate spaces for separate occasions, it can become easy to fall into a trap of rigidity. If I convince myself  I can only study in the grad school library, for instance, then it's not all going to get done. There are days when I won't be able to make it to library. My daughter might get sick. My husband might go out of town. Things are bound to go wrong. So I have spaces where I prefer to do certain things, but I also make sure to keep enough of the stuff I need for any given role on hand that I can do the most important things from anywhere. And if that means that I run outside one afternoon because the route home isn't taking me by the gym or if I end up closing my office door when my office hours end and forcing myself to read some Cicero, then that's what happens.

And that brings me to . . .

Have Separate Bags for Each Role. . . I am a bag lady. I have a work bag that contains my laptop, notebooks, and pens. I have a tote that contains the books I need for the classes I teach and the papers I have to grade. I have a gym bag that contains my gym clothes and toiletries. I have a lunch bag that contains, appropriately enough, lunch.

20110806 - yard sale booty - The Beatles - Yellow Submarine - metal box - 2 - side - IMG_3427
My lunch box is not nearly so cool.
It can be a pain to get out of the house with all these bags, but separating the stuff out lets me know that I'll have the right thing in the right place. I can leave my gym bag in the car while I'm at work, and I have my laptop in a sleeve so I can slip it into the gym bag and lock it up (I live in a city, and I really don't want to have my laptop stolen). If I don't need the books to go home with me, I can leave them in my office and fold up the tote bag. Having all of these different bags may make me look unhinged when I'm walking out of the door, but they make my day much easier.

. . . But Have a Stable One, Too. 
All that said, I was having a problem. I was moving my daily necessities--wallet, keys, phone--from bag to bag throughout the day. Finally, I got a little purse to keep these things in and it goes with me no matter what activity I'm going to. If I'm going to the gym, it can fit in the gym bag. If I'm going to work, it fits in my desk drawer. If I'm in the library, it fits in my work bag. And if I have to run to the store, I can take it by itself.

The other form of stable storage: electronic. I know it's not completely stable. The internet can break. Files get lost. But having things saved in Google Drive or on my flashdrive (which also stays in that go-everywhere purse) means that I have a lot of information and work on hand no matter where I go. (And I've already written a post on what other pieces of technology help me out the most.)

Allow Yourself More Time than You Think you Need . . . 
Early on, I was underestimating the time it would take to get things done. Two hours would be plenty to grade those papers, I thought. If I have thirty minutes, I can finish that Spanish homework. I would schedule myself back to back to back and then when something ran over it would throw everything off. So I started overestimating the time it would take to do things. Sure, my daily plan looks less impressive, but it's much less likely to send me into a tailspin by dinnertime.

21-06-10 Cause I'd Rather Pretend I'll Still Be There At The End ~ Explored #1

. . . But Don't Forget the Value of a Few Minutes. 
But then I found I was doing the opposite. I would schedule myself an hour to do my Spanish homework, and then it would only take 45 minutes. I'd look at the clock and say to myself, "Oh, 15 minutes. That's not enough time to do anything." And then I'd zone out and play Triple Town or something (don't play Triple Town. It's addictive.) Now, I'm not saying that you should never zone out and do nothing or something less "valuable." Everyone needs to look at a celebrity slide show on Huffington Post or kill some zombies with anthropomorphic plants now and then (don't play Plants vs. Zombies. It's even more addicting.) But when that happens three or four times a day, you end up eating up a lot of time that you could have used to get something else checked off your list. And I prefer to have very busy days so that I can have more relaxed evenings. By six or seven, I want to be done to spend some time with my family and check Facebook or whatever. That doesn't happen every day, but it wouldn't happen at all if I didn't take advantage of that "extra" time during the day.

Sure, 15 minutes isn't enough time to grade a stack of 25 papers, but it is enough time to grade a few of them. If I do that a couple times over the course of the day, I've made a real dent in it. The trick (for me) is to identify a set of tasks that can happen with interruption. This is particularly important when I have time between student meetings because students notoriously show up late or not at all. If I constantly put off starting any task because I was waiting for a student, I might end up doing that for an entire hour without anyone ever coming by. Grading short papers, checking email, reading for class, short lesson planning are all things that I can start and stop without a lot of trouble.

Separate Out the Different Parts of Your Day by Role . . . 
So, I have separate spaces and bags and tasks based on what role I'm playing. It's pretty clear that I spend a lot of time separating my day out into different roles. I alternate between focusing on being a teacher, mother, wife, friend, student, daughter, etc. throughout the day. Separating the goals and ways to reach each of these things in my mind is sometimes really important.

. . .But Don't Worry When They Bleed Together 
But I can't ever pretend like I'm not a mother while I'm teaching or that I'm not a teacher while I'm a student. Some of my roles are with me constantly, and that's okay. If I'm hanging out with friends and I see a news story about education that's important to my role as a teacher, I'm going to pay attention to it. If I'm teaching and I get a call from daycare that my daughter is sick and needs to be picked up, I'm going to go get her. The goal is not to break myself into a robot with modes that can be activated with the flip of a switch; the goal is to do the best job I can to balance these roles on any given day.

And that balance isn't the same every day. I think of it like the Sims (geez, I've mentioned like three completely addicting games in this post. I'm sorry.) In the Sims (or at least the last version I played, which was a few years ago) there were bars that measured your Sim's happiness broken into categories like "Hunger" and "Socializing" and "Hygiene" and "Bladder." They didn't all have to be full for your Sim to be happy. The Sim could be pretty hungry, but as long as those other things were taken care of, s/he would be okay. However, once any one of those bars dropped down to the danger zone, it didn't matter how well the other ones were taken care of. Basically, even if you're in a room full of great friends with good food, peeing your pants is still going to put you in a bad mood.

So, I can let some things slide as long as the overall balance on my different responsibilities is taken care of. I can put off grading a stack of reading responses for a day or two as long as my students have gotten the feedback on their major paper. I can wait to do that reading for my PhD exam as long as I've been keeping in touch with my advisor and feel on track. But as soon as something crashes, it needs all my attention, so I have to keep it up to a reasonable level.

And that brings me to:

Avoid Picking Apart Every Little Thing You Didn't Do . . . Sometimes things aren't going to work out. There are going to be days when nothing goes right. There are going to be days when the car breaks down and the daycare closes and your dinner burns and the computer crashes. There are going to be times when you feel like you're failing. Stop beating yourself up over it and get back on track for the next day. The longer you spend agonizing over every little thing that you could have, should have, would have done differently, the longer it will be until you can actually do anything differently.

. . . But Let the Meltdown Happen When it Comes.  
That said, sometimes you just have to break down. Sometimes trying to attack everything with a healthy dose of optimism and a can-do attitude is just damn exhausting. Grab a pitcher of margaritas (or whatever your equivalent is) and some friends and let it all out on the table. Then try again later.

A Pitcher of Margaritas

What would you add? How do you keep things together?

Photos: Michael R. Swigartindependentman, ClintJCL, Bethan, texascooking

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ms. Magazine's Feminist Education Bloggers

I am so excited to be featured over at Ms. Magazine's "Femisphere" series on feminist education bloggers today. I am also excited to see the other bloggers featured and get to read more of their work, so be sure to check out Feminist Teacher and Tressie McMillian Cottom

If you're here visiting from the Ms. link, welcome and thanks for reading! And if you're wondering why I was categorized as a "feminist education" blogger when all you see on the main page are posts about kids and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all I can say is that I wear many hats, and this blog is the only place where I get to wear them all at once. You can check out some of my education-specific posts here, though.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Thoughts on Jessica Valenti's Why Have Kids

I just finished Jessica Valenti's new book Why Have Kids? and I have to first say that I think it's a really interesting read that's doing important work. I recommend checking it out if you are interested in feminism, parenting, and the role of motherhood in the American mythos.

Admittedly, I was a little hesitant to read this book because I--having read some excerpts and commentary about it--was afraid it would devolve into another attack on "Attachment Parenting" and "choice feminism" in a way that dichotomizes real, lived experiences into labeled categories. These too often lead to assumptions and judgments that keep women at each other's throats in a way that allows systemic issues of inequality to thrive in the background. Perhaps I should have given Valenti more credit because I have enjoyed much of her work in the past and respect her ideas immensely. At the same time, though, my hesitations weren't without justification.

There is a lot to like in this book, but there's also some to question.

We Should Question Parenthood Myths

I really like that Valenti frames her book by separating it into two sections: "Lies" and "Truth." The lies focus on the myths of parenting and take a look at many of the issues that are central to feminist parenting discussions. I particularly agree with her discussion of how framing motherhood as the "hardest job in the world" is problematic. Some other "lies" she tackles are the ideas that women are the natural parents, that children make us happy, and that children need their parents.

While I don't always agree with her conclusions (for instance, she relies very heavily on measures of parents' "happiness," which--as I've written before--I think is a complicated and perhaps problematic gauge to use for measuring life outcomes), I do think that she's doing great work in laying out these problems in a smoothly connected, informative way. And I absolutely agree with her premise that these myths should be questioned. Too many stereotypes about parenting and the often gendered narratives that come with them are just generally accepted into the cultural tapestry without consideration of how they got there or if they should remain. Valenti does a great job of pulling out some of the threads and holding them up to the light.

Her "Truth" section is perhaps going to come across as a little radical to some people, as it includes the chapter titles "Smart Women Don't Have Kids," "Death of the Nuclear Family," and "Women Should Work."

The thread tying these truths together, though, is her rejection of "total motherhood," the idea that a woman's role as mother should subsume all others until she is recognizable as nothing else:
The expectation of total motherhood is bad enough, having to live it out every day is soul crushing. Everything that made us an individual, that made us unique, no longer matters. 
 She combines this with absolutely heart-breaking tales of women whose roles as anything other than mothers were forcefully denied them: a woman in full-blown labor who was forcibly removed from her house strapped to a stretcher because she refused a C-section (that she was forced to undergo, even though she could feel her baby's head crowning), a woman who was charged with manslaughter for crossing a street without an intersection--sentenced to more time than the drunk man who ran over and killed her son faced. She makes a very convincing argument--in case you needed one--that strict adherence to the myth of motherhood can drive us crazy as individuals obsessed with doing it all "right" while simultaneously creating a culture that stops seeing us as human beings.

Community and Child-Rearing

The parts of Valenti's book that I found the most interesting were the ones that talked about parenting and community. 

Valenti insists that we need to return to the "it takes a village" approach to childcare. She says that this more communal approach has been taken up by a rugged individualism that induces guilt in the instances where we can't be the sole provider of every thing our children need (and all those things they don't actually need as well):
The days of "it takes a village" are gone--because even if taking care of our children does require the help of other people, parents are likely to feel badly about it rather than seeing it as a natural part of raising a child as part of a community.
 It's great that in addition to discussing these larger issues of community and individualism wrapped up in parenting, Valenti also provides something of a map through the community surrounding feminist parenting. She frequently cites one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Andie Fox of blue milk, who does amazing work in questioning the way that parenting and feminism intersect. Valenti's work is also chock-full of quotes and references to other conversations ongoing in online communities of feminist mothers. In fact, reading through this book was a little like taking a visit to my own "feminist mother" Google Reader feed. I think this would be a great introduction to the topic and issues surrounding it for anyone who wants to get acquainted with that particular community.

The Personal Is Political--Unless it Stings, Then It's Just Personal

My one complaint is the thing that confirmed some of my initial misgivings about this book. Valenti seems to have a blind spot in her own philosophy when it comes to "natural" parenting or "Attachment Parenting."

In other sections of the book, she's quick to point to the political structures at play in individual decisions. She talks about the need for systemic change that examines our policies and cultural assumptions:
We need flexible work schedules, paid maternity leave (that lasts more than a few weeks or months), subsidized child care, and workplaces that are parent friendly. 
She goes on to say:
Supporting structural, rather than personal, change is one missing piece of the work/life balance puzzle.
I whole-heartedly and enthusiastically agree with her and think that the work of feminist parents needs to be moving away from individual arguments over the "right" way to parent (be it through breastmilk v. formula, stay-at-home v. working, "Attachment" v. "Free Range," "natural" birth v. C-section) and to join together to advocate for the equitable arrangements that improve those options for all. It takes a village, indeed.

But where she otherwise champions the harnessing of collective concerns on all sides of a debate to promote systemic changes in our culture, she falls completely flat when it comes to breastfeeding and the "natural" movement.

Valenti tells a heart-wrenching tale of watching her premature baby cling to life and overcoming her own struggles with the tumultuous start to her daughter's life. I am immensely sympathetic and can't even imagine what that must have been like. I also think it is brave of her to share such personal details in such a public sphere, and I appreciate it.

Her daughter's prematurity and health struggles also made it difficult for her to breastfeed. She pumped dutifully (and miserably) while her daughter was in the NICU and then had trouble producing enough milk. She eventually made the decision to formula feed.

She got some negative comments (sometimes from in-person strangers) about her decision and (rightfully) took offense.

But she seems unable to detach from that offense and recognize that the work that many feminists are trying to do in regards to breastfeeding is the same work that she's trying to do in this book: make systemic changes that allow all women to have access to choices.

She got in a public dispute about breastfeeding with The Feminist Breeder, another blogger whose work I respect and admire. And while I get that Valenti was wrongfully attacked by people who were completely out of line, I think it's wrong of her to dismiss breastfeeding advocacy so completely because--as I wrote at the time of the debate--breastfeeding most certainly is a feminist issue.

And, sure, that doesn't mean it has to be her feminist issue, but her railing against all things Attachment Parenting and "natural" doesn't fit with the rest of her book.

At one point, she says of AP that "this false 'return' to traditional parenting is just a more explicit and deliberate version of the often unnamed parenting gender divide" and goes on to say that "[p]utting a fancy name to the fact that we're still doing all the goddamn work doesn't make it any less sexist or unfair." But many of the APers or AP-influenced people that I know came to that philosophy through an exploration of equality and humanity, one that they also use to inform activist work advocating for gender equality.

As for breastfeeding in particular, Valenti's dismissal of its advocates is perhaps personally understandable after being attacked, but she didn't write a book about the personal, she wrote a book about the political. She completely ignores the fact that most "lactivists" are not trying to judge the choices of individual women. They are railing against work place policies that don't allow women the flexibility to feed their children. They are championing the right for women to parent in public spaces without shame and blame. They are questioning the corporate alliances with hospitals that turn vulnerable new mothers into cash cows. They are, in short, trying to reach the same goals that Valenti lays out in the book: creating a community of parents who enact systemic change for equality. When she dismisses the APers because their focus is different from hers, she falls back into the very traps that she so eloquently fights against in the rest of the book. It's a weird disconnect, and one that complicates her argument as a whole.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ethics and Secondhand Shopping

My new career has brought on a rather immediate need to update my wardrobe. I have some things to say about that--thinking through a college teacher's wardrobe is more complicated than I thought--but that's not the point today. The point today is that this need for an update took me on one of my least favorite tasks: shopping.

Closet #2
What my mind sees when I try to get dressed in the morning.

Having been inspired by posts (like this one at from two to one) that detail the sustainability considerations that should go into clothes purchases and the way that shopping consciously can be ethically driven both environmentally and as it relates to working conditions, I've been trying to be a little more conscious of how and where I buy.

So I went to visit a second-hand shop today.

I used to wear a lot of second-hand clothes. In fact, growing up I wore almost exclusively used clothing. I shopped at Goodwill and my mother was an avid (really, the better word might be rabid) garage saler. And I still like the idea of buying my clothes second-hand, it's just that the practice of it hasn't been working out so well. It's hard to find clothes that fit well that are also professional. And the places that do provide clothes that fit well and are also professional are usually prohibitively expensive. It's a challenge.

I didn't have much luck today. There were a ton of clothes that I would wear at this store, but it was all casual stuff: t-shirts, funky skirts, and jeans. I was shopping for professional wear. I did find a couple of dresses and a skirt to try on and headed for the dressing room.

The first dress didn't fit well. The skirt was too big. The second dress fit great and looked cute. It was a simple black dress with a flattering cut and a deep v-neck that had the potential to be worn over a myriad of colorful tops I already own, so it was versatile. The problem? As I was pulling it off, I noticed the label: American Apparel.

Let me be clear. I am under no impression that everything I purchase is of the utmost ethical caliber. I do my best to buy meat that's raised humanely, clothing that's created in acceptable working conditions, and products that are economically sustainable. But I don't research every single purchase I make, I am operating on something of a tight budget, and I know that making ethical purchasing decisions is a game of give-and-take and a process that happens over time. 

But I hate American Apparel.

Hate. I hate them. They have hands-down the most sexist, exploitative, and downright disturbing advertising strategy of any mainstream marketer I have ever seen. Here, let me illustrate:


American Apparel consistently portrays women as dissected body parts in a type of visual synecdoche that reduces them into something less than human. They also constantly portray women as sexual objects, and--while I have no problem with women's sexuality--I don't think there's anything "sexy" about being turned into a glorified blow-up doll. These women are not portrayed as human beings experiencing sexuality; they are portrayed as pieces of flesh for others to sexually use. (You can see more of their most disturbing ads here. You can read some commentary on them here or here.)

I hate them.

So, I put the dress back.

I was thinking about it as I left. Purchasing the dress wouldn't have actually benefited American Apparel because it was second-hand. But I still felt like I would be promoting them as something of a walking billboard for their product. Clothing is somewhat uniquely problematic in that we wear it with the intention of being seen, and when we make decisions about what we display on our bodies, we have to be a little more aware of what messages we're sending. I couldn't be comfortable sending a message that a company who profits from that kind of advertising is okay.

Photo: lonecellotheory

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The 5 Most Feminist Things About Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I have finally finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, as promised, having taken in the whole series I can now write about it. I mentioned in a previous post that I had some misgivings about some of the things in the series (most notably the absence of characters of color). Those misgivings still exist, and I'll probably write about them soon, but I have to say that on the whole I absolutely loved the show. I thought that it was intelligent, entertaining, and attention-grabbing. Unlike most shows where drama is the key driving force, I actually cared what happened to the characters. Sure, sometimes the action and drama were unbelievably over-the-top, but it was balanced with very realistic portrayals of emotion and human weakness. I was also surprisingly satisfied by the conclusion, which I had begun to doubt would be able to live up to the mounting pressure and tension the show was centered around in its final season.

Perhaps it's just because feminism is a lens I use to look at the world these days, but the most striking thing about the show was the feminist themes woven throughout it, in ways obvious and subtle. So here, without further ado, are the five things that I found the most feminist about Buffy. (Spoilers: I'm talking about the show in its entirety from this point forward.)

1- Romantic Relationships, Even Slightly Dysfunctional Ones, are Partnerships

No drama, especially a drama revolving around the lives of teens and young adults, would survive seven seasons without sexual tension and romantic plot lines. Buffy certainly has its fair share of love triangles and broken hearts. And while the show was certainly capable of layering on both passion and cheesiness, it always balanced out the partnerships in love.

Angel and Buffy are perhaps the most dramatic coupling throughout the series (an orgasm that ends with the loss of your soul is a little hard to beat, drama-wise), and Angel does have a tendency to swoop down at the optimum moment and rescue Buffy.

But Buffy is equally capable of swooping in and rescuing him. They both make tremendous sacrifices for the other. They demonstrate that while one individual in a couple may have more power than the other momentarily, that power shifts back and forth over time. At the end of the day, their relationship is balanced. They are both capable people, and needing the other's help from time to time never turns into a dependency. 

Spike and Buffy's relationship even operates to teach the same lesson. Spike feeds off of Buffy in a way that Angel never did (even though Angel did, literally, feed off of her). Spike turns Buffy into a representative of something beyond herself. When he promises to murder Drusilla if Buffy will just promise to try to love him, he demonstrates that Buffy has all of the power. Even though he is there to save her life and even though he tries to wield immense power over her when he attempts to rape her, she will always have the ultimate power in their relationship. And that's why she walks away. Even her very last "I love you" as Spike saves the world from destruction is insincere because their relationship could never be balanced. Spike finally realized that when he felt his soul within him. His ultimate recognition of that coincided with his recognition that he could have power of his own, a power he wielded by sacrificing himself to save the world. 

Almost all of the relationships in the show operate this way. Willow and Tara balance each other out. Even though Willow is much more powerful than Tara as a witch, Tara is a necessary part of keeping Willow grounded (and, later, Kennedy recognizes her role in the same way, telling Willow that she'll be her kite string). Xander and Anya's chemistry starts out of their dismissal of each other, not their dependency. Buffy teaches Finn to stop seeing women as things that need to be saved and to start seeing them as people who can provide a partnership, a lesson he learns so well that he marries a woman who is his professional equal, slopping through the sewers to kill demons by his side. 

While not all of these relationships have the happiest of endings, the relationships as a whole represent that love is best founded on respect and that a healthy partnership requires cooperation, not codependence. 

2- Seeing Strong Women in Violent Situations Makes Us More Confident

Jezebel recently reported on a study that showed strong female characters are good for us. Basically, even shows that depicted women in violent (and sexist) situations didn't reinforce sexist ideas as long as the female characters were portrayed as powerful and active. When women are portrayed as helpless, however, as they are in The Tudors, men who viewed the show answer questions with more sexism against women and women display higher levels of anxiety.

In other words, simply showing women in a negative situation does not reinforce a negative stereotype; it's the female character's reaction to that situation that makes a difference. Though most of the feminist analyses of Buffy I've looked at are very complex and nuanced, Buffy's relationship with Spike (which includes violent sex and an attempted rape) has been cited as an aspect that complicates the show's feminist message.

But the study suggests that it's not seeing Buffy attacked that reinforces sexist ideas like a rape culture and women who are ultimately punished for enjoying sex. Rather, it is her reaction that we should pay attention to, and her reaction is one of power and agency even when she's vulnerable.

And Buffy is not the only powerful woman in the show. Willow, Anya, Faith, and many of the villains in the show are women who are immensely capable and powerful. Even when they're constantly in violent situations, seeing their ability to handle themselves is good for the overall cultural milieu. 

3- The Women in the Show are Unbelievably Strong, but Not Perfect

In addition to giving us completely capable women who display agency and power even in the face of violence, Buffy balances this out by showing that none of these women is perfect. This is important because a perfect role model isn't very useful and can actually reinforce stereotypes. When the only female role models we see with power are women who are perfect in every way--from the cookies she bakes to the lingerie she buys to the kids she raises--then we might as well not see any role model at all. We can't live up these perfect expectations, and it's basically like saying that women can only be powerful agents of their own lives if they lose their humanity. (Which, come to think of it, Buffy also tackled by presenting a "perfect" woman in the form of a robot, and that didn't end so well.)

But the Buffy women are not perfect. Every single one of them is presented with flaws. Some of the flaws are small (Tara has to deal with a sometimes crippling timidness, exemplified when she can't stand up to her family) and some of them are quite large (Anya slaughters a frat house full of college guys; Willow tries to end the world). Then there's Buffy. Buffy is continuously fighting her internal demons along with the external ones. She has to deal with alienating her friends. She's frequently portrayed as struggling to overcome her emotions and handle all of her responsibilities. Sure, she saves the world no less than a dozen times, but she's not perfect while she does it.

4- Female-Fronted Bands Demonstrate Power in Non-Violent Ways

So we have all of these powerful but flawed women who spend their days demonstrating their strength through killing things: demons, vampires, giant worms, humans who shot their girlfriends. Violence is an excellent way to demonstrate strength clearly and directly, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for those of us who prefer to rock our girl power with a little more pacifism.

That's why I was really impressed to see so many powerful female-fronted bands playing at The Bronze. I didn't start paying attention to it early enough to guarantee that there are no other male-centered bands, but once I did start noting it, there were only a few times that male-fronted bands appeared, and even then most of those times had meaning of their own. Oz's band sometimes plays at The Bronze, but when they do it's usually part of the main plot points.

When the band's are demonstrated as part of the background of Buffy, they are almost always female. There are two notable exceptions.

One occurs in Season 6 when Willow is exploring the dangerous side of magic. She and Amy go to The Bronze for a night of fun and get a little carried away with changing their world through magical manipulation. At the beginning of that episode, the band playing at The Bronze is all-male.

But Willow works her magic and changes them into an all-female band instead. 

The only other time I noticed a male-fronted band in The Bronze was in one of the very final episodes. In this episode, Sunnydale has mostly emptied out as the town has become overrun by the evil that's "eating it from below." As the site of Hell's opening, it's not the most popular place to be. Houses have emptied out. In fact, this episode is called "Empty Places." And what band is playing at The Bronze?

Kennedy, one of the potential slayers, even comments, "What kind of band plays during an Apocalypse?" 

I don't think it's any accident that male-fronted bands only take the stage in the moments when everyone else has left. 

And I think it's really important to the overall feminist message of the show. See, the show is very consistent to point out that, even though the rest of the world has to live in this demon-filled existence, they tend to ignore it. Everyone is happy to let Buffy and her friends save the day again and again without thinking too hard about what she's saving the day from. In other words, the primary plot of Buffy operates parallel to the "real world." While Buffy is killing and defending the world, there are plenty of people in the background who are just living everyday lives--granted in extra-violent atmospheres. 

But that background is also where the bands exist. That means that powerful women are not solely relegated to the parallel reality that Buffy inhabits; they're present in the real-life interactions that everyone sees. 

The female-fronted bands give a subtle message of female empowerment that broadens and complements the overall message of the powerful women who take up the primary plot. 

5-  The Conclusion Provides a Metaphor for Women's Rights Progress
A commenter on that earlier post said that she thought the conclusion of the show was "maybe one of the best feminist finales in the history of all time,"so my hopes were high.

And I was not disappointed.

While Buffy's plan to have Willow grant the power of the Slayer to all potential slayers, thus immediately granting super-human power to hundreds or even thousands of young women and girls and the generations to come is perhaps a bit heavy-handed as a feminist message, it's also a powerful metaphor for the women's rights movement.

And it all depends on looking at Buffy and Faith.

There's a strong running theme that these two just cannot get along, and it's centered on the fact that each one of them has been called to be the Slayer, a role that's supposed to be flown solo. Buffy constantly feels like Faith is trying to steal her life (which she literally does when she switches bodies with Buffy), and Faith constantly feels like she was cheated out of her destiny by being called to be the Slayer when she had to share the title. It's a tension that's never fully resolved. Even in the face of the apocalypse, these two women are battling their pride and each other to keep it together when it comes to sharing their responsibility. 

And isn't that a great metaphor for women's rights? Don't we so often feel like we're the only ones doing it right and all those other women are wasting their and our time? It's at the center of the breastfeeding v. bottle-feeding debate, or the stay-at-home vs. working mom debate, or the second-wave vs. third-wave feminist debate, or a myriad of other ways that women drag each other down at the very moments when we would be strongest by coming together. 

And Buffy offers a solution. When Willow casts a spell that extends the power of the Slayer to all women who are potential Slayers, she relieves the pressure of any one single Slayer to save the world. By doing that, she puts the safety of the world into the hands of many, many women. And that means that each individual Slayer can also live her life. 

Sure, we all have the responsibility to do our part to save the world, but when we can share that responsibility without micro-managing the way that everyone else does it, it doesn't have to consume us until we have nothing left. We can be more than the causes we champion and we can stop feeling like we're constantly holding the gates of Hell closed. 

If we can manage to share the burden, we can save ourselves as well. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Aristotle's Happiness: Blogging to My PhD

As part of my effort to keep myself on track with the reading for my PhD exam, I've made a goal of completing a book a week and writing about it with some sort of pop culture/not specifically academic lens.

This post is a little later than I had intended it to be (I have lots of excuses, but they're the boring I got sick, my husband went out of town kind), but it's here nonetheless. First up was Aristotle's On Rhetoric.

Re-reading it first made me sigh in relief because I actually remember a lot more of it than I thought I did. Reading my notes in the margins from four years ago really brought a lot of details back to my mind. The part that I want to focus on is in Book 1, Chapter 5. Aristotle said "to all people generally there is one goal": happiness. Most interesting to me is Aristotle's definition of happiness, and I wanted to see how it held up to my own. He defines happiness as "success combined with virtue, or as self-sufficiency in life, or as the pleasantest life accompanied with security, or as abundance of possessions and bodies" (1.5.3). He goes on to say that happiness must be made up of necessary parts:
"good birth, numerous friendships, worthy friendships, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age, as well as the virtues of the body (such as health, beauty, strength, physical stature, athletic prowess), reputation, honor, good luck, virtue" 
These are the things, according to Aristotle, that people strive for in order to attain happiness.

I have some individual qualms about some of his claims. (I think I can be perfectly happy with my family if my daughter is an only child, for instance, and I know plenty of people who are happy without children. I also think that the "worthy friendships" is much more important than the "numerous friendships," though, I guess both would be great). On the whole, though, I think that these "parts" of happiness still hold true today, millenniums later.

And that got me thinking. People in 300 B.C. were seeking out the same basic things that we're seeking out in 2012. To me, that's a clear reminder that there is an underlying humanity binding us together that transcends the deep divisions we use to segregate ourselves and each other. That means that regardless of gender, race, class, religion, political affiliation, favorite sports team, parenting style, or eating habits, we share more in common than not.

So what role do those labels play? Why do we spend so much time trying to set ourselves apart?

Stand Out from The Crowd Unique Golf Tee Game September 19, 20119

Well, for one, labels help us find a sense of identity, and several of those ultimate goals for happiness that Aristotle mentions depend on a sense of identity. How else do we measure a thing like "reputation" or "honor" than to determine who we are and what we stand for? And finding our own identities in a collective sense certainly makes it easier to acquire "numerous friends."

So, to some extent, we divide ourselves in order to find ourselves. Aristotle claims that much of our happiness is centered in "self-sufficiency," but that means that we must first create a sense of self to be sufficient. Figuring out how we are different from the people around us is a key part in that development.

But labels aren't always applied with such good intentions. The labels that we use to self-identify are likewise applied by external influences, and--when that happens--they become divisive. And there are plenty of people waiting to benefit from that division.

Democrats & Republicans

Perhaps the place we see the benefits of division clearest of all is in politics. Think about it: we're really not that different. I--as a few quick glances through the "politics" label on this blog will attest--am a pretty staunch liberal. I reliably vote Democrat with a few local ballots cast for Green Party members or liberal-leaning Independents. One of my closest friends is extremely conservative and will cancel out my vote every single election cycle. If you drew the lines in just the right way, we would look like we have nothing in common. But that's absurd. We have almost everything in common. We both care about the health and safety of our families. We both like the small pleasures in life like a beautiful sunset or a good, hot bubble bath without a toddler banging on the door. We both appreciate a good meal. We both want stable jobs that we like going to every day. If you asked each of us individually what were the most important things to our individual lives, most of the things on the list are going to match up. 

But politicians can rarely work with a message like that. They have to convince us that we are completely separate species, each vying for the other's total demise. It's how they motivate us to get to the polls. It's how they get us to donate to their campaigns. Dividing the political world into "us" and "them" is a cornerstone to most political messages, regardless of party affiliation. 

Which is why the aftermath of Mitt Romney's recently leaked comments is so very, very interesting to me. By now, you've almost certainly heard about Romney's private fundraising event that someone secretly videotaped. (Full transcript here). Romney was speaking to a room full of very wealthy people, people who had donated $50,000 a piece just to get to the dinner. He clearly made some assumptions (right or wrong) about who his audience would consider the "us" and the "them" and that assumption led him to make the following, much-talked-about statement:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect.

Wow. So, usually, the trick to political divisiveness is to speak in veiled enough language that you let people always think they're an "us." You see, regardless of who is sitting in the room in front of you and regardless of who you'd like to imagine yourself interacting with, the job of a politician is to represent the people of the United States--and we're a diverse bunch. While divisive rhetoric is part of the game, the tricky part of it is making sure that you leave the "us" permeable enough to not alienate large sections of the electorate. Despite Romney's declaration that his "his job is not to worry about those people," his job--or at least the one he's campaigning for as President--is, in fact by definition, to worry about those people. All of them. 

Romney opened a floodgate with this comment in a way that some of his previous campaign gaffes--however out of touch they may have made him appear--did not. With this statement Romney very specifically and mathematically declared half of the population below his concern. The rub? A lot of that 47% vote Republican. A lot of that 47% thought they were an "us." 

And that decision has allowed the Obama campaign to capitalize on a message of unity that's rare to see in a political race. Since Mitt Romney has so specifically isolated so many voters, Obama's message is that he won't draw those lines. With the launch of a new website and hashtag, the FOR ALL campaign is in full swing. 

Of course Obama is capitalizing on an opportunity here, but he'd be crazy not to. Romney pulled the curtain away from the wizard of political rhetoric. While everyone is supposed to feel like there's a "them" out there, that "them" is never supposed to be so fixed and rigid that they can't reach across it. When Mitt Romney defined his "us" in such stark terms, he reminded many of us (the real, complete us, not the rhetorical tool "us") of our humanity. See, even if we're not in the 47%, chances are we know someone who is. Even if we don't get an income tax return each year, chances are we know someone who does. 

And do you know what else we know? Most of those people are just striving for those same things that Aristotle says we all want: friendships, families, and health. When Romney cut those people out of his equation, he cut too deep. 

Next up on Blogging to My PhD: Isocrates' Against the Sophists

Photo: stevendepolo,, The Message

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Feminazis are Coming!

Last year, I wrote about going back to my hometown for the annual wheat threshing festival and finding a flea market table full of racist knick knacks. This year, I found this gem for sale among a stack of used books:

Published in 1993, this book tells of the dangers lurking in America's women. The back cover explained more:
"They are unlike anything the world has ever experienced. They're ruthless, shrewd, and calculating--and they've got a stranglehold on the White House. Recruited and empowered by their boss, Hilary, these are the women who tell Bill Clinton what to do. Get ready, America, for the rise of the FemiNazis! 
Big Sister is Watching You unmasks the coven of brutally correct women who now rule over us. Hillary's regiment of hardened, militant feminists include lesbians, sex perverts, child molester advocates, Christian haters, and the most doctrinaire of communists. They possess awesome Gestapo powers. One heads the FBI, another the IRS. Five are members of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations--subversive organizations whose goal is to end American sovereignty and bring about a global Marxist paradise."
The Amazon reviews are kind of fun to read.

While I may publish my more shocking finds from these rural excursions, rest assured that the weekend was a peaceful and fun one. I don't go there for the racism or the misogyny, which I believe exist everywhere and are just more out in the open there. I go there for the goat's milk lotion, the joy of watching my daughter run around in the open air, the good conversations with great friends, and the beauty of my daughter riding a turn-of-the-century merry-go-round with her grandma.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Free Range" vs. Zoned Out: How Do You Keep From Going Crazy

I cut my daughters grapes in half. She is almost two, the age at which my friend who works in a preschool says her students are magically allowed to have whole grapes. I know that my daughter is a very active child who--despite my best efforts--is likely to run around the room leaping from the furniture at least once during dinner, so I cut her grapes.

I was at an outdoor picnic with some friends, though, and one of them freaked out when my daughter--sneaky thing that she is--grabbed a non-cut grape from the bunch and popped it in her mouth. My friend nearly leapt across the table trying to get it away from her. I told her it was okay, and she looked at me, incredulous. "She could choke." Well, yeah. I guess she could, but I somehow don't think that leaping on top of her and trying to fish the half-chewed grape out of her mouth is going to make that less likely.

I'm not heartless, and I'm not immune to fear. I'm not even immune to fear of grapes. Did you know grapes could be toxic to dogs? Did you know that I once spent an evening walking my dog in circles in the back yard after forcing vomit-inducing peroxide down his throat with a turkey baster because he ate a bag of raisin bagels? I digress, but the point is that you can be aware of dangers and do your best to avoid them, but they still happen. (The dog's fine, by the way. The turkey baster didn't make it, though.)

I consider myself fairly "Free Range." I read Lenore Skenazy's blog Free Range Kids and nod as she cites the statistics that crime is actually lower than its pretty much ever been and yet we keep talking about how "things today" make it impossible to let kids have freedom. She talks about schools that ban the use of balls because someone might get hit in the head or towns that arrest parents for sending their kids to the park alone. I think there's a lot to like about the "Free Range" movement, and I've written before about how I actually see it as philosophically similar to Attachment Parenting, in that both require you to know and trust your child. 

Which is why I was a little perturbed to see this (admittedly light-hearted) post on Motherlode. Written as a letter to the mom who won't stop following her child around the playground, this writer laments that the "helicopter parents" at the playground are killing her mood when all she wants to do is zone out on her iPhone while her kid plays:
See, I’m a mother, too, at the very same park with my 4-year-old, but I’m here to stop mothering. The playground has a gate, and the asphalt is covered with rubber mats. If I can’t turn on my iPhone and tune out here, I don’t want to live.
She gently mocks the mother for rushing to the sandbox every time her daughter cries, rummaging through her bag for a Whole Foods organic apple juice, and offering to send the writer a video of their kids playing together:

And it's funny, and it's obviously meant to be a joke, and I do get it. And trust me do I know the value of being able to get my child otherwise occupied for ten glorious minutes so that I can zone out on Facebook, the news, or just nothing at all.

But I also see some more dichotomizing of Free Range on one end and Attachment Parenting on the other that I just don't like. To me, being free range doesn't mean that you have to detach from your kid. It means that you have to draw more reasonable lines around "safety" and value the lessons a child can learn from doing things on their own.

I cut my kid's grapes, and I also follow her around the playground. I won't always follow her around the playground, but right now she is fearless. She climbs the rock walls and throws herself headfirst down the big slides. I follow her around to make sure that she doesn't also throw herself headfirst off the edge of open platforms or take off running toward the street. I let her explore and take risks and fall and get hurt and get up and try again. But I also give her the safety and commonsense guidance that her personality and age dictate. Being free range doesn't mean cutting her off from the help she needs or even the safety that just makes sense.

And, at the end of the day, I think that's what parenting should be all about. Do what makes sense. It doesn't need a fancy label. It doesn't need to come accompanied by official books and a team sweater. What makes sense today won't be what makes sense next month as she gains more ability and control. What makes sense might not always be easy, and sometimes it might be even easier than we thought.

But it's so hard to just do what makes sense in a world where every single parenting choice gets analyzed, categorized, and labeled. I get glared at for my reckless endangerment when my daughter, with perfect capability, chews a grape. Then I get side-eyed for following my child up the playground equipment for being too safe. If I spent my days trying to fit into some box of parenting perfection, I definitely wouldn't have time to zone out on my iPhone. 

Photo: niallkennedy

Saturday, September 15, 2012


I stepped out of the car to pick my daughter up from daycare and heard the flock of birds who had gathered in a nearby tree. Looking up, I was hit hard by the memory of my daughter, around a year ago, reaching up with her tiny little hand and pointing to the birds in that same tree (maybe the same birds--I don't know enough about migration). Eyes wide, she said "bird" for the first time. The birds continued gathering there through most of early fall, and she was prouder and prouder each time we left the building and she could correctly identify them.

Birds in a tree

That memory made me yearn deeply and completely for another baby. I imagined all those moments of nurturing a tiny life and getting to see all those amazing firsts unfold all over again. 

Later that night, I wrestled with my toddler for two hours to get her to go to bed, and I realized I had lost my damn mind. 

Photo: andrewmalone

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Trading Spines

It probably won't come to any surprise to you that I find myself in a lot of friendly debates. Part of this is because I really value hearing different perspectives and challenging my own views. Part of it is because I am incredibly opinionated and stubborn.

Anyway, while the internet has brought out the worst in antagonistic rhetoric by allowing people to throw profanity- and typo-laden comments at complete strangers under the cloak of anonymity, it has also allowed for much more productive exchanges. I have a couple of Facebook friends that I debate on a regular basis.

One of them, Mason Wirsig (that links to his Facebook fan site, which is primarily political), is almost comically my political opposite. Seriously. He posted his I Side With presidential preferences results, and they are almost the polar opposite of mine on every single issue. That's not to say that we never find any common ground, but we usually don't remain on it long.

But I will credit him with at least one great idea. He posted the following challenge on Facebook:

In exchange for reading Ron Paul's End the Fed, he agreed to read any book the reader required. 

While I am fully invested in head-to-head debates, I also really appreciate a debate that brings in the voices of their influences and support. While we often cite the people and statistics that influence us when we're arguing, in my experience it's rare that the other person actually reads those ideas for him/herself. 

Since most of our debates end up back on the fact that we aren't starting from the same primary concerns (his are primarily fiscal while mine are primarily social), I thought it would be good for me to experience one of his influences and see why that particular perspective is so important to him. In return, I struggled to find a book that summed up why issues of oppression and privilege are so important to every political debate I enter. I finally decided--for a myriad of complicated reasons--to go with Tim Wise's White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. I had a lot of books on the list as possibilities (bell hooks came to mind, some feminist essay anthologies, a critical race theory anthology, Ellison's Invisible Man), but I ultimately decided that the purpose of this exercise had to take into account the accessibility of my point of view as well, and I think that Tim Wise does a good job of laying out the principles of oppression and privilege in that way.

I've already completed my end of the bargain and finished End the Fed. While I agreed with some of the basic principles Paul starts with in the book, I mostly found it to be seriously lacking in practical application with glaring blind spots for social realities. Still, I'm glad I read it, and I think the project of expanding perspectives is a worthwhile one. We'll see what he thinks of my selection. 

If you had to pick a book that sums up your perspective on an issue that's important to you that would be accessible for someone who didn't see it your way at all, what would you pick?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

I'm Finishing My PhD! (And You're Going to Help Me)

I mentioned in a previous post that accepting a full-time faculty position at a community college made me revisit my educational plans. Quite simply, I have the job I would be looking for when I finish my PhD. I want to work in an open access higher educational setting; that's what I've been working toward for the past four or so years anyway. Even though it's only been a few weeks, getting into my new role has been an amazing experience, and I truly think I'm where I'm supposed to be. The work is sometimes exhausting and occasionally overwhelming, but I've already had so many inspiring moments with students. I really do love it.

So, for a while, I wondered if I would finish my PhD. I don't necessarily need it to do what I want to do, but I do like the depth of thought that comes along with research and writing. Not to mention I'm thisclose to being finished. I only need two more classes and exams to be ABD. So, I've made a decision. I'm finishing.


And you're going to help me. Okay. Maybe not you as an individual because you can choose what you read and don't read, but you as one of my very valued blog readers. I've had a tentative goal of reading one book a week from my exam list during the semester. That might not sound very ambitious, but I'm also taking Spanish for translation (and I've never had any Spanish before in my life), teaching full-time, and raising a toddler. I know that one book a week is doable, but I'm having a hard time getting the actual doing it part down. 

So here's the plan. Every week, I'm going to write about the book that I've read. Now, because I know that not everyone just loves them some Aristotle as much as I do (though really, what's wrong with you?), I'm going to put a little spin on it. Every week I will take whatever academic work I've been reading and apply it to some sort of pop culture: news stories, movies, songs, television shows, something. 

First up? Aristotle's On Rhetoric. Get excited. 


Are Parents Asking for Special Treatment?

Feministe recently had another thread about kids, parents, and public spaces. For the most part, it was just another version of the same old dichotomized fight between parents who think that their kids are the center of the universe and grumpy children-haters who hold the witch from Hansel and Gretel up as their highest role model. Of course, neither one of these is a fair way to portray people, and these online arguments over where kids belong just seem to bring out the most extreme, hyperbolized stereotypes.

I'm on record for saying that I have no problem with kid-free spaces. In fact, I wish places would be a little more up front about if they want kids there or not. I try really hard not to bring my daughter into places where she's going to be overly disruptive, and I have taken her to the car in the case of a meltdown. But I'm also on record for noting that kids are actually people. It's true! But so many of these "public spaces" debates seem to totally gloss over the fact that kids are human beings who deserve respect.

Which is why I found this quote from the original Feministe post so interesting:
But let’s be real about the “I don’t want special treatment” thing. Of course you do. I mean, if “kids are just small people” and you don’t want special treatment, then you buy your baby a seat on the plane, right? You understand why people are hostile toward a crying baby, the same way they would be with an adult who spent the entire plane ride screaming? No? Sometimes special or different treatment is ok, because babies and children are unique classes of people with unique needs. Their brains, social skill sets and communication abilities haven’t fully developed. And so any decent society should understand that they deserve a little extra leeway. That’s a good thing. But let’s not pretend that it’s not special or different treatment (of course, let’s not also pretend that society isn’t pretty shitty to parents, and to mothers in particular)
No Babies!

That statement made me realize that there might be a core disconnect between my view on the world and those who think that tolerating children in public spaces is "special treatment." See, I don't think that it's "special treatment" to tolerate an adult who spent the entire plane ride screaming if the circumstances surrounding that adult's behavior were understandable. (My husband was once on a bus ride with a woman who was traveling alone immediately after brain surgery and another woman received a phone call a few minutes into the ride alerting her that her mother had died. Neither behaved in the way we'd expect an ideal travel mate to act, but both behaved in ways that the other travelers tolerated because of their circumstances). We make allowances for behavior that we don't particularly enjoy all of the time, so much so that I don't think there's anything particularly "special" about it. 

So, there's a few things that I take into account anytime I'm in public around other people, regardless of if they are children:

With a few key exceptions, I have no right to the expectation of personal comfort in a public space. I have the right to expect that people do not intentionally invade my personal space. I have the right to not be groped or struck or cussed out in public. 

However, I don't have the right to expect no one to brush up against me in a crowded space. I don't have the right to expect that the sounds of other people's conversations won't interrupt my meal. I don't have the right to expect that people will stop talking about things I don't like. I don't have the right to expect the guy waiting for the bus to stop singing off-key. I don't have the right to expect the woman on her cell phone in the store to stop fighting with the person on the other end. I don't have the right to expect that the people next to me not order shrimp because the smell makes me sick. 

To me, recognizing that other people will behave in ways that I might not personally like is not "special treatment," it's just living. I also do not think that it is "special" treatment to alter my reactions to people who have physical or mental differences that make them interact with public spaces in ways different from me. If someone with a mental disorder is shouting out in the middle of a store or if someone with limited mobility is blocking my path, I don't think I'm treating them "special" by adapting my reactions based on those circumstances. I think I'm treating them like people. 

So, in short, if tolerating the behavior of children in public is granting them "special" privileges, so is basically every other interaction we have with human beings. People are not a monolithic group. We all have quirks and differences, and we constantly use a contextual reading of the situations we find ourselves in to judge what is tolerable in a public space. Reacting to children should be no different. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Day I Walked Out of Church: Are Feminism and Religion Incompatible?

I stood up and walked out of church.

It was against everything I had been taught about church, a sacred place where you are supposed to be respectful, reverent even. But I still did it. I stood up and walked—no, stormed, stomped, huffed—out of church.

It was the better choice. I would not have remained silent if I’d stayed in that seat. Boiling up within me was the rage that can only come from betrayal. 

It sounds dramatic, I know. And really, the catalyst wasn’t all that significant. I’m sure it happened in thousands of churches across the country on that very day, but it was enough for me. 

Newport, NS

See, I’ve had a quietly troubled past with churches. I attended a Baptist church sporadically as a child, but when I was young the energy seemed much more concentrated around the gossip I received on the front steps than the message I received in the pews. I wasn’t mature enough to process the real reasons for being there. Plus, the church was in a tiny town with dwindling attendance. Pastors came and went. Between their fluctuation and my own, church was never a particularly stable community. By the time I became old enough to actually feel intellectually engaged with theological questions and sought a spiritual community, I was jaded by the small-town nosiness and tired of overhearing people’s comments about my parents’ ugly divorce; that front-step gossip was much too risky now.

So, church was never really my thing, though I read the Bible, talked about God with my friends, and considered myself a Christian. These were facts that I became less and less vocal about as time moved on and being a Christian became more and more synonymous with being close-minded. In the media, Christians were portrayed as anti-science, anti-feminist, and anti-gay. The narratives focused so much on what Christians were against that I began to lose track of what we were supposed to be for. I still considered myself a Christian, but I didn’t talk about it much.

It wasn’t until I got married and moved to a new city where my husband and I began putting down roots that I felt the urge to find a church to call my own. I knew we’d want children soon and I yearned for a space where I could feel spiritually and culturally connected. I was a little afraid. It was very important to me that the congregation be diverse and that the church be open to people from all walks of life. I would not attend a church that preached against homosexuality or feminism.

So we found a church. It was a big church—huge, really. It had multiple services and rows of chairs instead of pews. It was modern and crisp with a young, charismatic preacher whose voice rose and fell with rhetorical flair. The music was contemporary and meaningful, and the people were friendly. We had been going several months.

It was the early fall of 2008. The entire country was heating up into a political frenzy, and I was as engrossed in the fray as anyone else, but I didn’t want that fray in my church. I’m a firm believer that there should be no politics from the pulpit. I do not want to be told how to vote or what God would do if he went into the polling booth. I believe omnipotence exempts God from such activities and that we've been blessed with the tools to figure out those questions for ourselves. I want to be left with my tools to figure it out.

So I was thrilled when that young, charismatic preacher spent much of one Sunday morning talking about his own stance on politics and the pulpit: he was against it. “It’s not my job,” he said, “to tell you how to vote.”

So imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, the service started with a handout from the Family Research Center: Value Voters Guide. (I found an archived version of it here). This guide contained all manner of biased, inflammatory language. It told me whether candidates would “protect the integrity” of abstinence-only programs and “protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” They also put the words “hate crime,” “gender identity,” and same sex “marriage” in scare quotes to de-legitimize these terms. This is clearly a biased document. How could the same pastor who just told me he would never tell me how to vote hand out these documents? Even worse, this document was accompanied by a local news outlet’s voter’s guide that literally told me how to vote. It had the boxes checked next to each of the upcoming local Propositions and told me to take it to polls with me so I wouldn’t get confused. 

I was furious. I sat there staring at the documents before me and I felt more and more betrayed. I waited to hear what the pastor would have to say. Maybe there was some explanation. As he took to his stage, I was all ears. I was starting to trust this place, and I was hopeful that there was some way to reconcile these pieces of paper with what he’d said before. The words that came out of his mouth pierced me. He repeated his pledge to never preach from the pulpit and to only provide us unbiased information so that we could make our own choices. He went on and on about the importance of being a fully informed voter. I had two choices. I could scream, or I could leave. So I left. I stood up and stormed out, scooting past the people seated around me who seemed unconcerned with this hypocrisy.

I wrote him a letter, and—to his credit—he called me and we had an hour-long talk. He used a lot of calming rhetoric and talked about how “other people” weren’t as “analytical” as me and needed help sorting through the "facts," but we came to no happy conclusions. I never went back.

I know now that my reaction was the first of several conflicts I would have to sort out on my road toward spiritual understanding. I know in my heart that my faith cannot be based on anything that cannot stand up to questioning. I question everything. I question the stability of the very ground I stand on. I analyze music videos and advertisements around me. I am a thinking being. I believe that there is a God, and—if I’m right—that God created me to be a thinking being. I cannot believe that salvation can only be found by denying that part of myself, a part that is rooted to my very soul.

As a thinking being, those voter’s guides insulted me. They cherry-picked a few narrow issues: gay rights, abortion, and sex education. My view on these issues was very different from the obviously biased view of the writers of this guide, and their cavalier manner of pretending to deliver “just the facts” denied the very existence of my carefully thought-out viewpoints. In addition, these were called “values” guides, but many of the issues that I consider core to my values were not even on the list. What about the treatment of the poor? What about equality and fairness? Are my values not valuable?

My values are key to who I am, and my values as a thinking being have led me to recognize the world around me as a place full of inequalities that I will continue to fight. If there’s no room for fighting against inequality in the organized religions around me, then there is no room for me in those spaces, either. While I do not believe that feminism and religion are inherently incompatible, I have found that compatibility to be something that works only in theory and I hold hope that I'll find a place where that theory takes hold, but I haven't seen it in practice.
This post was inspired by the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival on "Faith and Feminism" hosted by from two to one. Submissions for the carnival are open until September 25, so if you're interested in submitting a post on the topic, check out this post for more information.