Category Archives: Feminism

A woman’s Place

A woman’s place is in the home.

We’ve all heard the phrase. What does it mean, really? Most of the time, people are using the phrase to speak of women’s place in a metaphorical sense – “place” means women’s roles, the tasks they are expected to perform, their characteristics, the type of work they do.

But of course, all these tasks don’t take place in an abstract etheric realm. They take place in the physical, 3-D spaces in which we move around. This is something that I wish more activists and philosophers would take into account. My belief in atheism and naturalism tells me that the 3-D world is the place that matters, because that’s where people live their lives.

So that’s why I’m interested in geography and municipal planning. The assumptions about the respective roles of men and women manifest in the physical world in specific ways. We take the built environment that forms the majority of our experience with the physical world for granted most of the time. We should keep in mind that we are moving through the physical manifestations of the thoughts of planners and builders who lived generations before us. Mostly, in the USA (I live there and am most familiar with the history of planning there), these planners and builders were white men. Bet you never saw that one coming.

Planning is a relatively young profession – it only got started about 100 – 120 years ago, and it really came into its own as an academic and professional discipline right in the middle of the 20th century, just as the mythology of the nuclear Leave-It-To-Beaver 2.5 kids and a picket fence was reaching its ascendency. It is not a coincidence that this era can also be considered the zenith of America’s love affair with the automobile. This was an era when Christianity, heterosexuality, and strict gender roles were strictly enforced and questioned only in small radical pockets of nascent resistance to the status quo. A woman’s place was, quite literally, in the home. A man’s place was in the public world, in government, in academia, in medicine, science, etc. These strict divisions of labor were reflected in the designs chosen by the planners of the time: the suburb. Residential areas were strictly separated from offices or industrial parks. Streets were planned and built with one purpose in mind: to quickly move large numbers of automobiles from homes to workplaces and back. Sidewalks were an afterthought.

While this design was convenient for the men who had to traverse physical space only twice a day, when going to and from work, it was less so for the women and caretakers who had to find ways to physically transport their children to and from school, fetch groceries, perhaps care for elderly relatives, and so on. The physical separation of suburban housing from centers of civic power, workplaces, retail, and other outlets for communal activities was in fact a driving force behind the housewife’s malaise that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique.

Today, the assumption of rigidly divided roles between male/public and female/private are being eroded. And while governments have passed laws outlawing gender discrimination in the workplace, and private companies have undertaken measures to make it easier for their employees to balance the demands of career and parenting, all measures which contribute to women’s equality by giving them more opportunity to participate in public life, the physical layout of our cities and towns is a significant obstacle to achieving those goals. The intensification of sprawl since the postwar era has brought a drastic increase in commuting times, which translates into increased difficulty for the people who are charged with caring for and transporting children and elderly relatives to and from school, extracurricular activities, and doctors’ appointments – tasks which still disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women.

Feminist critique of urban planning is one contributing factor to the dramatic shifts that have taken place in the discipline of urban planning during the past few decades. This critique dovetails a lot of the time with critiques offered by environmentalists, environmental justice advocates, and sustainability advocates. Today, the urban planner is no longer a visionary in his ivory tower, passing down inspired visions to be stamped upon the landscape – rather, the planner is a communicator, a facilitator, bringing together various stakeholders in the community, listening to their needs, and trying to find a balance among all of them. The strict division between private and public life is no longer taken as a given – planners, city officials, and architects are seeing the value of “mixed-use” communities, that is, communities where housing, retail, office space, schools, nursing homes, and, to a certain extent, manufacturing are in relatively close proximity to each other. This sort of spatial design clears the path to participation in public life by women, the elderly, and children – all groups whose needs were severely neglected by the previous generations of planners.

I do not believe any movement for social change can succeed without changing the physical layout of the communities in which they are trying to create change – fortunately, influencing policy on the municipal level is far easier than influencing policy on the national or even state level. I urge any activist who wants to create real change to consider how their ideas can be implemented at the municipal, town, or village level, because it’s at that scale that small actions, such as painting an intersection can have big impacts, like decreasing traffic fatalities and fighting urban blight.

The physical dimensions of justice and injustice are too rarely discussed in most activist circles, but knowledge of the physical layout of your community is absolutely essential to succeeding in any activist or political campaign. And challenging the status quo often entails taking control and altering physical spaces, as we saw with the Occupy movement last year. If society fully adopts the feminist belief that a woman’s place is anywhere in the world, then our streets, public squares, government buildings, homes, and workplaces will eventually look very different from what we are accustomed to. Feminism will physically, literally transform the world.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Architecture, Feminism, geography

Lies Told By Anti-Feminists

If I had known that this particular malicious lie would hang on for well over a year, I would have gotten screen shots.

A bit of background – as a great deal of you already know, I’m a regular commenter at FreeThoughtBlogs (FTB). And FTB has a dedicated website for FTB haters, they call it the Slymepit. I call the people who post there slimers. Most of their hatred of FTB is grounded in their hatred of the concept of having to do something about social justice, rather than mouthing empty platitudes and feeling smug and superior because “we” don’t throw acid in “our” women’s faces, not like those brown barbarians in far-off lands. They’ve constructed a narrative that sexism is basically over in the Western industrialized world; therefore, since they assume that sexism is done, women in the USA or Britain or wherever who complain about sexism are lying hysterical bitches who are trying to smear some innocent man’s good name. Or something. And, since I’m a vocal feminist, and an active commenter at FTB, I sometimes attract the attention of the slimers. Here is the story of my notoriety among the anti-feminists, and why I’m totally capitalizing on the lies they tell about me to persuade you to donate a small amount to my travel fund for the American Atheists’ conference.

Once upon a time, during, or, actually, just after Thunderfoot’s brief misadventures as a blogger at FreeThoughtBlogs.com, I went over to Thunderfoot’s own website to speak my mind. Okay, so far so good. Thing is, while I was there, some anonymous poster threatened to “track you down and rape you.” All right, that sucks. I pointed it out, and emailed Thunderfoot at the email address listed on his site. No response. And pretty much immediately, some of the other commenters there began to claim that it was actually me. Like, I logged out as SallyStrange and then logged in as anonymous to post a rape threat against myself.

Right. As if dudes who hate feminists are ever shy about issuing rape threats on the internet. A couple of years ago, I helped organize my local SlutWalk, and accidentally let my real name get publicly associated with the SlutWalk Facebook page. For this, I got about a dozen Facebook messages from complete strangers, mostly degrading and sexualized comments, several of which were explicit rape threats. So getting a rape threat from an anti-feminist on Thunderfoot’s site wasn’t overly shocking. What was shocking was the utter lack of response from Thunderfoot on the subject. It’s ironic, since as I recall, part of his objection to anti-harassment policies at conferences stemmed from his claim that actual harassment (“legitimate” harassment?) is against the law, and thus any instances of harassment could be dealt with by law enforcement–no need for conference organizers to step in. Yet, when a blatantly illegal threat was made on his own site, he took zero action to counteract it. Not only that, but he’s the only one who has the information to determine whether it’s me or the slimers who are lying. As far as I know, he’s offered nothing one way or the other.

All I know is that it wasn’t me who posted that illegal threat on Thunderfoot’s website. But the lie that I had faked a rape threat against myself quickly gained traction among the Slimers. But that was a year ago, or maybe longer, and the rumor won’t die! Just yesterday, on a post by Ben Radford of the Center For Inquiry, a slimer showed up with the following comment:

Comment #17 by the Devil’s TowelBoy (link goes to my discussion about it on Pharyngula):

Same old faces as always. So who’s going to be first to post a threat to themselves and then demonise Ben for encouraging this “rape culture”? Sally, if it’s you, at least use another browser and wait half an hour between the posts.

So, the narrative goes, there is no rape culture, and it’s only lying bitches like me who talk about it, and naturally we have to make things up and lie about being harassed, getting rape threats, etc., because there is no rape culture. It’s only logical!

So now you see the kind of bullshit that women in the atheist/skeptic movement have to put up with.

Ben Radford’s self-centered and incoherent rant about how feminists are using numbers wrong and doing activism wrong is here, if you want to read the whole thing. Too bad he didn’t just stick to criticizing Eve Ensler’s use of statistics, then perhaps he wouldn’t have come off as either an anti-feminist or a person who’s so gullible that he thinks that anti-feminists don’t lie through their teeth whenever it suits them (as opposed to using outdated rape statistics, or lumping “homicide, intimate partner abuse, psychological abuse, dating violence, same-sex violence, elder abuse, sexual assault, date rape, acquaintance rape, marital rape, stranger rape and economic abuse” into “raped and beaten” or “raped, beaten, or otherwise abused,” which is pretty much the only salient criticism he offers). Then there was that old chestnut, “Why are you dancing in the streets when you could be working in a battered women’s shelter?” No matter what form of activism we choose to bring our concerns to a wider audience, it will be criticized. Slutwalk was too confrontational; One Billion Rising is too pandering. SlutWalk alienated men with its in-your-face rejection of victim-blaming; One Billion Rising doesn’t do enough to point the finger at patriarchal values and toxic masculinity and what men can be doing to combat those problems. We can literally never win.

The thing is, from my experience of actually being out on the streets for a protest, a LOT of the people you meet there are already doing all kinds of activism behind the scenes, whether it’s organizing ESL classes or cooking for Occupy or tree-sitting (that should date me, and you too, if you know what the heck I’m talking about) or volunteering for a rape crisis hotline, they are the people on the streets. There’s a large contingent of people who only have time for the occasional protest too, and that’s fine–everybody has different time demands and finite amounts of energy. I listened to the critiques of SlutWalk, and the critiques of One Billion Rising, and some of them were spot on. The thing is, the critiques from people who actually supported women’s equality never framed their criticism as, “Well you ought to be doing this other thing instead of this fake activism.” Or “slacktivism,” as Radford cutely calls it. Getting people to come out into the streets IS activism, and it’s really fucking hard to do–I know because I’ve tried to do it, and failed, and also tried and succeeded. Getting people out into the streets is not slacktivism. “Slacktivism” applies much better to what Ben Radford was doing with that dumbass piece of his. Sitting at home, offering inaccurate critiques of activists and telling them that raising awareness isn’t real activism but activities that don’t involve getting media attention are–that’s slacktivism.

The Center For Inquiry need to get their house in order. First, they need to figure out if feminism and women’s equality are issues worth getting right–in which case they need to stop Ben Radford from writing on the subject any further. As I have said elsewhere, when it comes to scientific topics, there’s a healthy respect for expertise and the time it takes to become knowledgeable about a complex subject in the atheist/skeptic movement. But when it comes to topics having to do with sociology and the scientific study of human behavior and biases, suddenly the field is wide open and any schmuck with an opinion can spout off and expect to have his opinion treated seriously. Radford’s most telling moment was when he inveighed against feminists who think that all men are rapists. The genesis of this quote is in a 1977 novel by Marilyn French. The line is voiced by a fictional character. The fact that Radford repeats this false trope uncritically shows that he’s not bothering to do his due diligence as a public communicator and a representative of an organization that is supposed to promote critical thinking.

The only way this is going to change is if more women get involved in the movement. And for whatever fucked-up reason, I’m willing to do that. Despite the fuckheads and misogynists in the community, I’m still passionate about the benefits that skepticism, empiricism, and secular ethics can bring to the world. I’ve been developing my skills as a public communicator and community organizer and I think I have a lot to offer. Misogynists like the Devil’s Towel Boy act like they want to exclude me and people like me entirely from the movement. For a while I gave into the sense of intimidation and fatalism this inspired in me, but not anymore. And this is why you should donate a few bucks to the travel fund to get me to the American Atheist Convention in Austin, TX! Plus, it will really piss off the haters. If I raise more than necessary, I’ll donate the excess to more travel grants for people going to Women in Secularism–or maybe I’ll buy myself a new pair of shoes. 😉

Thanks for all the support I’ve already gotten. This community has some seriously awesome people in it. Which is why I’m still here.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Atheism, blogging, commenting, Feminism, internet culture, Personal, rants

What’s your name, little girl? (I wouldn’t tell anyone who called me “little girl.”)

There’s power in names. There’s power in labels, in groupings, in language.

That’s why we fight so fiercely about the terms we use to refer to ourselves and each other.

Right now I’m struggling with my own name. I dig the Sally Strange moniker. Its scansion is the same as my real name, which is pretty unusual. I used to go by Valkyrie607. Put those two facts together, do a google search on both my online handles, and you could figure out who I am fairly easily, I reckon. And I don’t particularly mind people knowing, but I prefer to keep a digital divide, mostly for purposes of googling. My work involves outreach and communication. Political and religious opinions–upstate New York is plenty religious. Home of Mormonism’s most impossible happenings, and we got our own Catholic saint last year, a Native woman named Kateri Tekakwitha. Religion is an important thing here, like many places–more so than it was in Vermont. Vermont is very atheist-friendly–Vermont is actually the least religious state in the union. More than a third of Vermonters have no faith. It’s nice.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I was talking about my name. Like I said, I prefer to have that separation between my real name and my online persona of Sally Strange. I hear people talking about how it’s anonymity that’s ruining the caliber of discourse on the internet, but I don’t think that’s it. It is really names that make the difference? Part of the reason I’m not using my real name right now is that I wish to avoid harassment, of myself, and of my friends and family. This is such a common occurrence, and it’s obvious that writing about feminist stuff, as I am wont to do, triggers a larger risk of harassment materializing than writing about less controversial subject. Then also, there’s the fact that my current work contract is temporary, and in 11 months’ time I’ll be looking for work again. Coming off like a political agitator/opinionated blogger with a (however tiny) media platform–ehh, maybe not such a great idea when applying for professional office type jobs.

I’d like to use my real name someday. I can envision a life path in which I could do that without risk to potential employment in five years or so. If that’s something that’s sewn up, then I feel like I can handle the rest of it. I can deal with comments and spam email and whatnot. I know when to invoke law enforcement and when not to.

All of this, because I’m starting up my blog again and contemplating going to a convention. Amazing.

This is why Jerry Coyne is wrong: whether it’s cowardice or not, taking negative social repercussions of holding an unpopular view into account is rational. Pseudonymity allows us to hear voices that would get shut out of the conversation by a “real name rule.” Mine, for example, for a few years anyway. You would only get to hear from older Sally, not present day Sally. And you wouldn’t get to hear from Natalie Reed. And there are thousands more like us out there, disproportionately black and brown, and disproportionately female, disproportionately genderqueer and mentally ill and disabled. Because those are all the same factors that confound our ability to access education, to get good jobs, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that it’s just not accurate to say that using real names increases civility. Think about a bar or a club. You own the facility. People come there to drink and party and get frisky with each other. You don’t want fights and you don’t want harassment. What do you do?

a.) Make everybody get a name tag when they pay the cover charge and show their ID. Use the ID to verify their real name. Better yet, make them write their phone number on the name tags too. This will ensure that everyone is accountable and so nobody will be rude or start a fight.

b.) Employ bouncers to keep an eye on the crowd and occasionally eject those who can’t or won’t follow the rules of civility.

I don’t think that real names would be any more effective in a club than it is online. Certainly being on Facebook or Twitter under their real names has not deterred thousands of people from tweeting blatantly offensive bigoted nonsense of all stripes. The “Not Racist But” blog documents this phenomenon with regards to race.

I hope that pseudonymity continues as long as there is a need for it. Right now I need it, more’s the pity. Building a more economically secure, environmentally just world will increase the number of people able to take the risks and responsibility of revealing their real names online. Oops! Hey, wait a minute–it’s almost like everything we do has political influences and consequences. Everyone’s a partisan somehow. Claiming the alleged (not documented) benefit of increased civility is a worthwhile trade-off for decreased participation by people who are likely to already be marginalized in some way is a political statement, and it’s one that seems at odds with the rest of Jerry Coyne’s beliefs to me. I hope he and those who agree with him have really given serious thoughts to what perspectives they might be missing out on. Son of Baldwin, for example. And countless others. Rather than requiring everyone to use real names, and accusing those who don’t of cowardice, let’s work together to create a world where sharing one’s real name online inspires less fear.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Anti-racism, Atheism, Feminism, Personal, Religion

PHMT: Patriarchy Hurts Men Too

There’s a well-known saying in feminist circles. It’s so common that it has garnered its own acronym: PHMT. Patriarchy hurts men too. On balance, it hurts men somewhat less than it hurts women, but the harm is still there.

There’s another truism: patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. (Actually, that’s my invention, but the concept has been repeated often enough that it deserves its own pithy phrase.) In other words, just because a woman is doing it, doesn’t mean it isn’t patriarchy in action. Men can be and are feminists.

Another trope in the community of people who struggle to diminish the influence of bigotry of various sorts is, “Intent is not magic.” In other words, if you repeat sexist, racist, or homophobic ideas, the fact that you were not aware of the bigoted undertones of your ideas does not lessen the harm caused by them.

This brings me to the subject of this post. I’m a big fan of FreeThoughtBlogs.com (henceforth referred to as FTB) and of international feminism and activism. FTB has made the wonderful decision to bring Taslima Nasreen, the writer, doctor, and activist for women’s rights and freedom from religion, on board. She has had her books banned in several countries and been threatened by more fatwas than Salman Rushdie for her writings. She is courageous, intelligent, fierce, uncompromising–all qualities I admire and aspire to emulate. And, on the subject of sexuality and consent, she is quite wrong. Some of her first posts on FTB have involved her making some dubious assertions on the nature of prostitution and pornography. She believes that both are inherently exploitative and oppressive, and that no woman truly consents to either. Other bloggers, particularly Greta Christina and Natalie Reed, have pointed out the weaknesses in Taslima’s arguments. Had she simply included the caveat that some women choose prostitution, and made a case for why they should not be allowed to, I think there would not be as many objections to her positions. However, she seems to genuinely be struggling with the concept of consent. Further evidence for this hypothesis was provided the other day as I was reading my Twitter feed. 

The link in her tweet turned out to be a news story from Denmark about a couple in their 40s. They met and went to the woman’s house and had sex there several times. However…

“When the 47-year-old wanted even more, her partner said no.”

The man then tried to leave the apartment but the woman prevented him from escaping and demanded he have sex with her again.

“Because the 43-year-old saw no other alternative, he complied with the woman’s wishes another few times so he could finally leave the apartment,” the spokesman said.

“But when she continued to refuse and demanded even more sex from him, he fled to the balcony and alerted the police.”

Now, I appreciate that women in their 40s may indeed be having wonderful sex. But it seems to me that if you have to coerce or force someone into having sex with you, it can’t be that good. The woman in question is, rightfully in my mind, being charged with sexual assault and illegal restraint. The article does not go into much detail about what measures she took to restrain him, nor his response to the experience.

But Taslima Nasreen, who famously fights against patriarchal restrictions and for sexual liberation, does not see that there is a problem here. Her response seems in line with those who commented on the story at the newspaper website:

Arrest her? They should give her a medal. I wish my wife had this woman’s sex drive.

What a tragedy. What did you say her address was?

We should all be so lucky! 🙂
The editors of the story seem to be of a similar mind, judging by the photo they chose to accompany the story:

If it were the story of a woman reporting a similar encounter, it would be pretty clear-cut: preventing someone from leaving in order to coerce or force them to have sex with you when they do not want to is sexual assault. It is sexual assault because there is no consent. It is a terrible thing to do to another person. It should not be excused when either a man or a woman does it.

With responses like this, is it any wonder than men who are raped hesitate to report their experiences? This is why consent and autonomy are central values for atheist humanists like myself. Yes, we should fight against sexual exploitation and objectification, but why? We should end human trafficking and sex slavery, but why? For me, these questions are answered by the axiom that all humans should, ideally, have the ability to control their own bodies. This right exists, of course, within the network of social obligations all humans have to each other to varying extent, and is subject to restriction if it can be shown to cause harm to other people. But this assumption provides a useful framework through which to interpret other people’s actions on an ethical basis. It’s not ethical to imprison, or try to imprison someone to coerce them into sex with you. It’s a violation of that person’s autonomy and his or her bodily integrity. But because our patriarchal culture teaches us that women possess sex, and men must try to take it from them, and women don’t actually like sex itself but only agree to it in order to exchange it for something else of greater value–a Mercedes Benz, a house, children, emotional intimacy–the actions of a woman who is violating another person’s autonomy are seen in a jolly, joking light. The idea of a woman wanting sex more than a man is quite literally laughable.

And so Taslima, despite being opposed to the patriarchy, perpetuated it by enforcing patriarchal expectations onto this man and woman. I do not doubt for one second that she did not intend to do so–her writings on feminism and women’s sexual empowerment are more than enough evidence to convince me that she would not knowingly support patriarchy. Thus, Taslima demonstrates that intent is not magic, and patriarchy is a system, not a group of people. And perhaps because gender inequality in Taslima’s cultural background is so much more pronounced than it is in American or European culture, she was blinded to the fact that in this instance, it was a man who was the victim of the patriarchy.

Who knows how this man experienced it–maybe it was traumatic or maybe not. But if it was, you can be certain that there will be pressure from the entire culture to keep his trauma to himself or risk mockery, derision, questioning of his masculinity, and so on, thanks to the patriarchal idea that men can’t be raped (by women, anyway) and women never want sex, and if they do, it’s absurd and hilarious. This viewpoint is not supported by data, it is a lazy form of stereotypical thinking. It conceals the guilt of those perpetrating sexual assault, either men or women (though the vast, vast majority of rapists are actually men) and it conceals the pain of their victims. It makes me sad that Taslima has this blind spot, but I plan to continue reading her blog.  I recognize that I owe my ability to choose these beliefs in part to race, class, and educational privilege, and I’m open to hearing arguments that may change my mind.

Update: This post has been edited slightly, mostly to add paragraph breaks in the last section of the piece. This is what happens when I publish things at 4 am. Seems I got some odd formatting up in the mix.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Feminism, Religion

How to be a Feminist Ally in Three Simple Steps

Here’s my simple recipe for increasing your effectiveness in fighting against misogyny. Replace “misogyny” with racism or any other form of bigotry (there are so many!) and it should still work.

1. Admit that misogynists exist. There are probably more than you think there are.

2. Observe these people who genuinely feel hostility or contempt towards women just because they are women. Pay attention to how they speak and act. If it helps, you can start with the more obvious examples.

3. Avoid speaking and acting similarly to how misogynists act. Even if it’s something that you don’t necessarily perceive as being connected to misogyny, by avoiding that behavior/joke/epithet, by avoiding it, you will decrease the amount of cover currently enjoyed by those who sincerely and actively hate women. And you will make it easier for women to tell you apart from them.

Pretty simple, yes? Except that unless you’ve been both subjected to misogyny yourself and also have deliberately tried to understand it, you’re likely to be inept at detecting it. That’s because sexism and misogyny are not always obvious, especially when they’re not aimed at you. If they were obvious, don’t you think we’d have solved the whole gender equality thing already? So, if you’re in doubt, take a cue from those who have, not by any choice of their own, but because of circumstances forced upon them by society, been able to collect data about how misogynists behave: women. And feminists–misogynists really hate feminists and often reserve the worst of their abuse for them. Please note: not all feminists are women, and not all misogynists are men.

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Filed under Anti-bigotry, Feminism