International Women’s Day, 2011

Happy International Women’s Day everyone!

This year marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD).  I can hear the groan growing among some readers, mostly male, but some women too, who think the day a sexist celebration of all things women.

When’s International Men’s Day? I came across this question in my reading this past week.  Of course.  It’s such an original comeback.  There are days named in honour of male historical figures:  George Washington, Martin Luther King, and Louis Riel come to mind.  Labour day was largely won by male unionists (who do not have a history of welcoming women into their working midst).  And then there’s Christmas and Easter.  Need I say more?

So yeah, International Women’s Day, founded when women couldn’t vote and had limited access to education and employment.  Yet despite such restrictions, we still found something to celebrate and much more for which to be hopeful.

It’s difficult for many women in the western world to comprehend the restrictions that once ruled our lives not because of what we could or couldn’t do, but just because we were women.  We just have to look around the world to other locales to see how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go.

And we have much, much further to go.

For many women around the world, equality is a word that holds little meaning in their lives.  The birth of a boy baby is still an occasion of celebration while a baby girl requires an apology.  The over-supply of men in China is a direct result of the privilege that boy babies enjoy.  Not so much fun when those babies grow into men and they want a woman to create a family with and there’s not enough women to go around.  That’s one way, I suppose, of increasing the value of women, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening.  Instead, women are being brought in from other asian cultures, and racism is added to sexism as Korean or Vietnamese women are accorded secondary status as non-Chinese in a Chinese world.

We in the western world enjoy the highest rates of survival in terms of childbirth.  Having a baby in Canada is a relatively safe procedure.  We have midwives and ob/gyns as well as family docs as part of the health care team.  In many parts of the world, women still suffer in childbirth, with death and crippling morbidity the result of unsanitary conditions, poor prenatal care, and being miles and miles away from the nearest medical facility.  Obstetric fistula is endemic in some African countries, Yemen, Sudan etc. These women become pariahs their communities, shunned as outcasts.  And of course, sadly, thousands of women continue to die giving life.

I’m not going to go into the multiple and various ways in which women, everywhere, still experience discrimination and violence.  Just pick up a newspaper – or follow my Facebook wall.  Lest we forget.

But.  This is supposed to be a day of celebration of how far we’ve come.  Maybe it’s hardwired or environmentally sparked, but we women know how to throw a party.  There are educational events, movie screenings, breakfast, lunch and dinner parties, and some dancing even!  All week long.

Celebrations for IWD are organized for the whole week.  The events in Hamilton can be found here.  The IWD website has an event finder that shows events around the world.  The UK has the highest number of IWD events registered (452), of the UK, Canada, the US and Australia.  India has 59.  Just a demonstration of how popular the day has become and to illustrate the international solidarity that women share.

So – get out there and celebrate the day, everyday.

Cheers!

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A Day Not to Forget

December 6 marks the day that changed the lives of many people in Canada and an important day in the sisterhood.

On that day, a man stormed an engineering classroom at l’Ecole Polytechnique and singled out the female students for execution.  In late-2oth century Canada.  It was, and remains to be, a chilling reminder that despite the advances women have made in gaining access to education and increasing their participation in the workplace, it is surprisingly easy for some men to nurture a hatred for women in our civilized, westernized, Canadian culture.

The Montreal Massacre prompted a reexamination of who we are; it was so horrific no one could excuse it away except by extreme mental distress, but we all came face-to-face with the elephant in the room, the misogynist monster who picked up on enough societal cues that condoned his hatred.  His letter said it all.

A few years after the Massacre, I was teaching in a women’s studies class when the vulnerability of who we are (women) and what we’re doing (learning) really hit home.  And I’m a white, educated woman who lives in a civilized society with laws that protect my public participation and a judiciary that will uphold those laws and a police force to enforce them.  But that didn’t seem to provide much comfort, really.

I can only imagine the level of danger that women face in places like Afghanistan (to pick an obvious example) and Yemen, or Sudan, where the control of woman and her behaviour is paramount to patriarchal rule.  We’ve heard of the acid attacks and the mass rapes that continue to subject women to violence just because she is a woman, of the barbaric punishment meted out to women who transgress rigid codes of sexual conduct.

Attitudes that underpin male control are still with us, everywhere, to greater or lesser degrees, despite legislation and numerous education campaigns across the country and around the world.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.  This year is the 21st.  We will continue to mark and remember each one as the years go by.  One day it may happen that the idea seems ludicrous to our children’s children, that a person would think such thoughts, thoughts fueled by misogyny and hatred that could drive the shooter to do what he did.

Not yet, though.

“Don’t be envious, get your own life”

The whole “other woman” thing has captured my attention lately.  I suppose it began with Tiger Woods and the revelations that surfaced concerning his long list of illicit lovers, unknown to his loving wife.  Then Jesse James ponied up the truth on his backroom dealings behind the back of Sandra Bullock, his devoted wife.  Such high profile cases of infidelity, so heartbreakingly private to the one betrayed, splashed on tabloid covers and talked about by late night hosts; I shake my head in wonder.

It’s not like these men can hide who they are; they are both public figures with lives reported on in the media.  It’s not like either of them could hide that they were married.  The women who Tiger and Jesse bedded knew of “the wife’, and either didn’t care or hoped to supplant her.  Competition at it’s very best.  Or is it its worst?

What gives?

While browsing in the bookstore a few weeks ago, I found Tripping the Prom Queen (2006) by Susan Shapiro Barash, who conducted extensive personal interviews of American women in order to uncover the “truth about women and rivalry”.

The women that Barash interviewed all came to the encounter with stories of betrayal and bad behaviour by other women.  I had to remind myself of that as she told tale after tale of women behaving badly to each other, due largely to unrecognized and out-of-control competition that coloured each and every activity undertaken by women, with women.  Being a wife, daughter, sister, mother, worker, boss; competing over husbands, children, family status, jobs, clothes, friends, whatever they can find to fight over.  It got to a point where I had to put it down for a couple of days.  The stories from childhood, I can understand, sort of.  I was picked on by older girls and my teen years were treacherous, so I believe these things happen.

But at some point it all stopped, or rather, slowed down, maybe went underground, I suppose.  For the most part the women I have worked with have been women I’ve been proud to call colleagues; women who don’t engage in malicious gossip, but who share information and pass along hard-earned advice.  Not everyone, of course.  But the women who have behaved badly in my adult life number maybe on one hand, and for the last 20 years, I’ve worked in a largely female work environment.  So that’s pretty good, eh?

I have lost close friends, those with whom I spent my formative teenage years.  That has been sad because judging by the comfort that I feel with those old friends I still see, I have lost dearly.

What I found interesting in the stories told by the women interviewed was how many of them that felt put upon because they were pretty.  I’m not sure if that was corroborated, that is, the fact that they were pretty; I only know they thought so.  So is it jealousy on the part of plain Jane, or arrogance on the part of conceited Cathy? (not you, Cathy). Isn’t that the classic comeback – oh, she’s jealous because you’re so pretty.  Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, the ad for shiny hair shampoo said.

It was the stories of bad behaviour coming from women in their 50s that were truly shocking and I wondered what a sheltered existence I must lead.  Thankfully.  But maybe there’s something else at work.

I thank the women’s movement for creating conversations that try to move us beyond the competition that has been dividing us for millennia.  Competition has carried over into the feminist arena also; after all, women are human, too.  You can see it in the competition for the term “feminist”: who gets to be one, who wants to be one, what it means.  However, the spirit of collaboration and cooperation among women is a difficult one to quell and there is value to be had in listening to the stories of others and learning from what they consider mistakes.

So Barash has a few suggestions to those who find themselves caught in the green-eyed grip of sisterly competition:

  • Acknowledge it – competition exists within us all.  Recognizing what it feels like is the first step in putting it in its place
  • Find an acceptable outlet
  • Recognize its many manifestations; experience jealously, don’t fear it, don’t blame yourself and get beyond it
  • Use it as motivation for yourself; “Don’t get envious, get your own life” said the bowling team captain.
  • Develop a realistic concept of friendship, one that allows you to cherish your friends’ diversities and similarities
  • Open communication is important

Despite the fact that at times I felt like I needed a shower while reading some of the more egregious tales of bad behaviour, I learned a lot about myself while I reflected on those episodes in my life where I may not have been the best of friends to someone who thinks I was.

Ah well, as Scarlet would say, tomorrow is another day.

Planned obsolescence.

So, as I mentioned in my last post on menrvaSOFIA, I’ve spent the past few weeks reading.  Not all day, everyday, I have a job, but most of my free time has been spent with a book or magazine in my hands and my eyes on the page these past few weeks.  With a break between courses, I’ve had time to catch up on reading that’s been waiting for my attention.  And what a rare treat it has been, too.

I am a magazine fiend, admittedly and with no shame.  This past pay day I had a few bucks left over to colour in some of my reading rainbow.  I bought a couple of magazines that had mostly pictures and a few more that had mostly words.  I learned something from each of them.  I visited a couple of my favourite bookstores and picked up a few more books for the library.

The Atlantic has a cool fold out cover this month that is nice to open up the first time, but it’s annoying when I’m reading the magazine. The lead letters addressed last month’s cover story, the end of men, which I commented on in an earlier post.  Feminist responses basically said, are you kidding??? While one father wrote in and gave his perspective of the stay-at-home dad and working mom. He sounded pretty happy to me although not without mentioning some grief from his wife.

I spent one Saturday afternoon on the sofa reading The Walrus while the fan blew a cool breeze through the room.  The dogs came to say hi from time to time and nudged me with their noses to scratch behind their ears.  Sundance slept on the floor next to the sofa.  The cover story, under the rubric Society, addressed the question: why parents can’t let go.

I expected a researched piece on the trend of helicopter parents and children who return to the parental home when they should be out on their own, living a life of self-determination and exercising their own will.  It was more a personal reflection, a memoir, of the author’s relationship with her son and her relationship with her parents.  And despite hiding behind the innocuous word “parents” it was really about a mother’s reflections on letting go.

Ms. Jackson’s about a decade older than me, by my reckoning through the stories she tells, but her son is younger than my eldest daughter and the path we took through parenthood was different, as are our perspectives on parenting.  I like to think that perhaps mine is more pragmatic, but that could just be ego.  Probably is.

My reasons for leaving home were similar to Ms. Jackson’s:  the need to live as i wanted, socializing with friends I wanted to, when and how I wanted to.  It’s amazing how small a house gets when it’s inhabitants grow into adulthood.  The fact that I shared a room with my little sister meant privacy was either bargained or bullied for.

Jackson touches on the point that parentage came late to her and that could be contributing to her (and others like her) inability to recognize her child as grown.  I came to parentage early, not as early as some but there was an unplanned element in its occurrence.  I wasn’t that far from completing childhood myself and my life experiences were limited.

We grew up in different worlds, my parents, myself and my children.  My parents faced war and depression, factors that certainly contribute to growing up quick, while their children and grandchildren grew up in a safe and stable world here in Canada.  We wanted to connect with our kids in ways our parents didn’t, we wanted to be cool parents, yummy mummies and milfs, and now we’re having a hard time letting go.

When my youngest left home, I was overwhelmed by my feeling of redundancy.  That was a huge shock to me; I had no idea how much I had identified as a mother.  I was looking forward to their growing up.  But now it seems that all I see are young mothers everywhere I look; every woman has young kids.  You know like when you’re pregnant and there’s pregnant women everywhere?

Our job as a parent, as a mother, is to provide our children with the skills they need to do without us.   When we do a good job, it’s like planned obsolescence.  Instead, we protect them from the unsavory aspects of life (everybody’s a winner mentality) and catch them before they even have a chance to fall down. I guess that’s how we know they still need us.

I get it.  It hurts to see our kids suffer, and it becomes work for us to deal with their challenges as well, but parents, mothers, need to grow a tougher skin and let their kids go out and be who they are.  Our parents did and we survived.

No Country for Any Men?

I picked up the summer issue of The Atlantic last week.  I couldn’t resist, the cover story by Hanna Rosin (The end of men.  How women are taking control – of everything) captured my attention.  As a woman I wondered, where had I gone wrong? To call on words familiar to all feminists, aren’t I a woman, too?  And I’m in control of …. what?

To rephrase Rosin: the emerging economies of the new western world may be more suited to capabilities inherently found in females, such as “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus”.  Those qualities typically ascribed to males, such as strength, stamina and aggression, are no longer in demand, due to the decline in manufacturing, construction and all other jobs that require superior physical abilities.

This decline in blue-collar employment opportunities is also reflected in the education sector, where boys and young men are being left behind as girls and young women continue to increase their representation in academic institutions.  The engineering and the hard sciences continue to lag behind, and it may be that remains the case (see NYT columnist John Tierney’s comments) for some time.

It’s an interesting thesis.  As a woman at mid-life, ok – maybe a few years past, I could see the path my life had taken written before me, a product of sixties feminist influences:  sexual freedom, young, married motherhood and then divorced, single parenthood.  All the while working full time.  I’m at the other end of parenthood now, in those years just before grandparenthood, and I’m relishing my newfound freedom from teenage demands.  Rosin provided me with lots to reflect on while I considered her evidence and compared it with my own experience.

I’ve worked with women all my life.  I’ve recounted the experience of my first job in this forum previously, so we won’t revisit that.  But my experience with women in the workplace is that we are all different and although we may be joined by a DNA chromosome that expressed itself “female” there can often be little to connect us as the influences of culture, class, colour and consciousness work against our common existence.

So it may be that women are entering into professions in numbers greater than men, but the behaviour of women to other women has not necessarily shown any progress, change or improvement.

There have long been women willing to stand up and fight for their rights and those of their sisters; this tradition continues in countless community organizations, whether feminist-identified or not.  Historically, it’s been women fighting for women’s rights, so the sisterhood has a long history.  But how common can we really say we are?

I’m reading a book right now by Phylis Chesler, Women’s Inhumanity to Women (2003).  She mentions, almost in passing, an interesting thesis (although not hers) that the patriarchy is grounded in women’s need for protection from other women, under the arm of a man.  I haven’t poked out that note yet, but I’ll pursue it further when I finish the book, and I’ll have something more to say then; it’s an interesting thesis.

More so in light of the fact that Rosin notes that instances of women behaving badly, to men and other women, are on the increase.

Women are still subject to intense competition with other women.  Whereas before such competition was commonly understood to be for the most eligible man; that will probably never disappear.  However, in the absence of eligible males, or when one is already in the picture, the competition is for those same things that men fought so tenaciously for: financial success, the corner office, the vice-president title, image, prestige, as well for those things that women have always fought amongst themselves for: the best dressed, popularity, the good mother.  This newfound increase in female power has not lessened the degree of rivalry between women, it has only opened up new avenues of expression.

Rosin marks 1978 as the peak year for women entering the workforce.  That was the year I got my first full-time job.  And I’ve been working ever since, through two pregnancies, a marriage breakup, and a return to school to complete an undergraduate degree, two diploma programs and almost finish a master’s.  The thought of not working, of being “dependent” on the earnings of another, of not having my own security net is, to me, dangerous, whether male or female.  I’ve carried that issue with me from my earliest reckoning about work.

Mothers of young women are more likely to push them towards establishing a career.  I know I did.  I pushed them both.  Hard.   Students in my women’s studies classes have cited their mothers as inspiration; many of them single mothers.  Several of the women in Rosin’s interviews express their mother’s influence in their choice of career.

Rosin argues that the workplace change that women influenced the most is the adoption of flex-time, a gender-neutral practice usually open to all employees of a company, whether male or female, mother or father.  Flex-time is a perfect example of the effects of women entering the workforce that has changed the environment for everybody.  Flex-time is what attracted me to work at McMaster University 23 years ago.  The other attraction was “free” education.  My reading of history has taught me that in the course of my (hopefully) long life, I will have to recreate myself in the employment market at least a few times before I place my head on the pillow of my eternal rest.

Rosin states that women are shifting their attention from men to children, that is, reproductive technology being what it is these days, a personal connection with a man is no longer required.  As the focus of women’s attention moves from men to children, the competition cranks up a notch, or two.  Witness the ongoing bickering between mothers who work vs mothers who stay at home.  An interesting phenomenon is happening in Sweden where the concept of “housewife” carries only contempt.

“Guys…are the new ball and chain” opines one college senior Rosin interviews.  I feel shock at her comments and remember that men use that term to describe wives.  Is that the difference women have to make?  None?  I would hope we could bring a new perspective to the debate, if only from the previously held position of “ball and chain”.

Another college student speaks of establishing a high-powered career while her husband stays home to take care of the kids and I wonder if that isn’t what is needed.  I know what it’s like to have somebody cook and clean, do laundry and look after the kids.  It was great!

If we look at the past and consider the way in which gender influences professions and the work environment, we can see multiple instances of what was once high-value occupations (school teacher, secretary, now doctor) where the movement of women into them resulted in a loss of prestige for that profession; the “feminization” of any profession is the kiss of death.  Will the “masculization” of motherhood, or rather, the redefinition of what is fatherhood, result in greater value being placed on the parenting relationship?  It’s an interesting concept.

And just where will this value come from?  Hopefully it will first come from the women who recognize the value in the work done in the home by their male partners.  They will appreciate the freedom from laundry, cooking, cleaning and childminding.  Or will they?  Despite the constant cry from women for, at the least, recognition of the value inherent in mothering, they are often the first to decry the boredom inherent in raising children.

I wonder what a world of children raised by men would look like?

Enough is enough….

The scientist who helped eradicate smallpox has issued a warning that the human race will be extinct in 100 years. He claims that overpopulation and the over consumption of resources will do us in.

If you ask me, population control has gotten a bad rap over the last 100 years.  The eugenics movement began in the last quarter of the 19th century and continued unabated until the horrors of Germany’s wartime medical experiments and white race-superiority arguments dealt population control proponents a death blow by the middle of the 20th century.  Now it just has bad connotations.  Maybe we should find a more acceptable euphemism.

Early feminists have fought for women’s right to reproductive choice – to self-determine the number of children they have.  Prominent among these women are Marie Stopes in England, Margaret Sanger in the United States, and Elizabeth Bagshaw, who advocated for, and witnessed the birth of, the first Planned Parenthood clinic on John Street in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  The work of all these women has been tarnished with the taint of the eugenics movement, from which they drew support.  Which is too bad, because the work they did was good work and the message they carried was one of freedom for women.

But despite our distaste for the word, eugenic arguments haven’t disappeared, they’ve simply taken on a more subtle nuance.  Building a better baby is now not limited to race supremacists.  Every parent is encouraged to take part; we continue to seek ways to influence the genetic make-up of our offspring.

Nowhere is this more evident in the desire for a baby boy.  Sex selection is illegal in the UK, but that hasn’t stopped people from traveling abroad to ensure that the baby they want is the baby they get.  In fact, gendercide, the killing of one sex, overwhelmingly girls, is on the rise with the combined technologies of sex selection and ultrasound screening.  The desire for boys is so great that families will spend tens of thousands of dollars, or pounds, on the guarantee that no girl will disgrace the family honour or that their “last chance child” will be of the sex they want.  Many women are travelling, to India in particular, for corrective surgery, that is, abortion, to rid themselves of unwanted female fetuses.

Genetic testing has been available for years that will identify certain genetic conditions (e.g.:  spina bifida, Downs Syndrome), which are “accepted” grounds for the abortion of children considered “not quite right”.  And as our knowledge about the human genome increases and we can identify more and more genetic markers for adult disease, it will be interesting to see how this will play out in decisions regarding who gets to live and who gets to die as we move forward in our medical knowledge, and maybe backwards in our ethical decision making.

Population control is a contentious issue.  As the New York Times pointed out back in February, “no rapid solution to the population problem is in sight”.  Why is this?  Why is it that policies, such as those that exist in China that limit families to one child, are considered abhorrent?  Admittedly, the one child limit is a bit drastic, and while two seems more humane, the abhorrence of it lies in the fact that the population has to be coerced and the law enforced.  The people don’t have a handle on the bigger picture.  This is evident when we see the results of the Chinese preference for sons combined with a one-child per family policy:  an oversupply of eligible but unmarriageable young men.

As Fred Pearce points out in The Prospect, no matter whether rich or poor, educated or not, most countries are currently experiencing a reproduction revolution, that is, most women have been having less and less children over the last 20 years.

Yet, in developing countries, over 200 million women still need or want contraception. This need is not simply tied to population control but, more importantly, to the quality of life for women, for whom childbirth is still a dangerous activity, and their children, who live under the threat of growing up orphans.  This has been the central argument for feminist birth control advocates from the beginning.

The Michelle Duggars of the world notwithstanding, most women, if given the choice, would want to limit the number of children they have.  That is already evident in the world I see around me and Pearce documents it in his book (so he says, I haven’t read it).

Pearce says over-consumption is the real threat.  I agree, but what, exactly, is over-consumption and who gets to define it?  The example over the last few millennium has been that the drive for more and more is what has pushed our world to where it is, beginning on ancient trade routes that carried tin and copper to markets far from their sites of origin.  We are hardwired, it would seem, to suck it all up.

But we are also given the capacity to reason and the way we reason, research is showing, can affect our hardwiring.  As I understand it, we could, conceivably, rethink our culture, one person at a time, laying down novel neural networks, to a different way of being, naturally.  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Interestingly, Fenner, the scientist who took on smallpox and won, doesn’t see his part in bolstering our ability to survive the assault of our natural enemies.  We have more people because the way people used to die naturally from disease don’t anymore.  And the better we get at preventing disease, the longer we get to live, this is particularly important for children, for whom immunization programs have done a world of good.  But we don’t have to have 5 children to ensure that 2 will survive through childhood.  Not anymore.  The greatest threat to our children today is misadventure through risk-taking and suicides.

What’s going to kill us, and kill us en masse, are the effects of diminishing resources upon a population that has come to depend upon the everflowing bounty of them.  Truly, I get scared when I think of the consequences tomorrow of our actions today.

It’s only simple logic, more people = more consumption, even if we come to miraculously manage to reduce our desire for more and more and come to appreciate the “simple things” in life, we’re at the point where even the “simple life” is much too much for our environments to withstand.  Many people would agree, we’re already past the tipping point.

I’m all for population control and I think women hold the key.  It is imperative, however, that we bring a clear head to the conversation, one unclouded by the smell of baby powder and newborn skin.  Children satisfy so many of our selfish needs – to replicate, to leave a legacy, to care for us when we age, to have to love us as some sort of parent-god, to fulfill god’s will.  Whatever.  So much of our identity as women is tied up in motherhood and our role as a mother.  Tough to give that up, tough to fly in the face of the cult of motherhood, where celebrity-moms make it all look so easy and free.

I would advocate the right of motherhood for any woman, but we all have to know when enough is enough.

National Briefing – Health – Doctors Reverse Stand on Circumcision – NYTimes.com

National Briefing – Health – Doctors Reverse Stand on Circumcision – NYTimes.com.

Common sense prevailed.  Enough said.