Tag Archives: Erin Riordan

Got 99 problems and one-percent feminism is all of them

24 Apr

This post originally appeared in the Georgetown Voice.

by Erin Riordan

On April 12, Georgetown University’s Women in Leadership hosted their inaugural Own It Summit. Tickets for the event sold out within 24 hours, hundreds of students and community members attended and a host of impressive speakers participated in panels and workshops. Despite these remarkable achievements, I would not call the Own It Summit a complete success. While this event certainly did empower female leaders, it also left out a significant number of voices in promoting a narrow view of what kind of woman we talk about when we discuss female leadership and success.

It needs to be acknowledged that this event had several barriers to entry that prevented the summit from being accessible to everyone. The $20 entry fee was an economic barrier for many lower-income students and women, and while there were scholarships offered, it is still likely that this fee was a deterrent for some. The entry fee also sent the message, whether intentional or otherwise, that this was an event for women with the means to pay an entrance fee.

The racial makeup of both the event organizers and panelists was also strongly biased towards the perspectives of white women. While women of color did participate, eight of the ten student organizers were white, and 17 out of the 24 panelists were white. It is possible that the event planners made a conscious effort to include a diverse array of voices, but when a space is so dominated by the perspectives of white women, it reinforces the larger structural dynamic that white voices matter more than voices of color.

These dynamics of race and class impacted the perception of the event, as well as those who felt comfortable attending and participating. I spoke with many friends who decided not to attend the summit because they felt their voices and perspectives would not be adequately represented. One friend, who did attend, left after the first hour, saying, “I didn’t feel that a lot of the topics I engage with when I talk about feminism, like class struggles that affect women, labor rights, and race in particular, were being addressed at all.” She went on to say, ”I sensed that the conference would be talking about your more typical ‘Lean In’ and one-percent feminism, which in my opinion is inherently oppressive and exclusive of the large percentage of women who really do need to be talked about when we talk about gender discrimination.” “One-percent feminism” is generally defined as feminism that focuses mainly on the needs of white, socioeconomically privileged women pursuing more traditional kinds of success.

Any event on campus that aims to further women’s leadership and empowerment needs to better represent the voices of all women. While I am a white woman, racism and racial politics in the workplace matter to me because dismantling racism and supporting my fellow women matters to me. An optional session during the summit on “Women of Color” is not sufficient because everyone should hear the voices of women of color, not just the few who choose to listen.

Similarly, focusing on traditional ideas of high-powered success is not sufficient, as it does not include or acknowledge the realities and struggles of working class and poor women. In the fight for gender justice we cannot just be concerned with the struggles of women who occupy space within mainstream, socioeconomically privileged feminism. Fighting for a national living wage and fair conditions in the workplace is as important to me as fighting for my own fair pay, and that should be reflected in all feminist spaces.

Transwomen also need to be engaged in these conversations, as they face unique struggles in the workplace that should be of concern to every person who claims to support the empowerment of women. Any event that supports women’s leadership needs to include the varied perspectives of women of color, poor and working class women, transwomen, and all the other women whose voices were not heard or adequately represented by the Own It Summit. Without these voices, our movement will only support women who are already privileged in many other areas of their lives. To achieve true justice and support all women, we need to engage and listen to voices that the GUWIL Own It Summit did not represent.

Shut Down Georgetown Confessions

4 Oct

by Erin Riordan

I have a lot of friends who have defended Georgetown Confessions. Even as they recognize all the blatant racism, classism, misogyny, etc., they see it as a tool for education and awareness. There are good reasons why they feel this way, and I would love if Georgetown Confessions were a tool for education around social justice issues. But it’s not. It’s a tool of oppression and harassment, and it only further harms those already affected by racism, classism, misogyny, etc. while allowing those who make these comments to feel all the more entitled and powerful.

Comments have disparaged people of color, women, LGBTQ-identifying individuals, people from working class and poor backgrounds, to name only a few of the groups attacked via Confessions. All of these comments have consequences. In our world there are systematic structures of oppression formed around race, class, gender identity, sexuality, ability, immigration status, and more. You need only look to the racial make-up of our prison system, the violence and stigmatization facing black youth and especially young black men, recent cuts to SNAP (the food stamps program), rates of sexual assault on college campuses, rampant transphobia, and the current immigration system to see the most obvious ways this oppression impacts tens of millions of people. Georgetown, as a community that purports to care about its members and especially as a Jesuit university, should do everything in its power to challenge this oppression. Our community should work to dismantle oppression and challenge the privilege of those (including those at Georgetown) who benefit from the systematic disenfranchisement and oppression of others. At the very least, Georgetown should be a place where every community member, whether they be a student, worker, professor, or administrator, feels safe and welcome, and feels safe living out any and all of their identities.

Confessions is the opposite of this safe space. It allows people to make anonymous attacks that support and perpetuate oppression and pain already felt by so many, and when asked to take down derogatory comments the Confessions team has refused.  The comments made about race, gender, class, etc. are deeply problematic and hurtful, and make Georgetown an unsafe space for a countless number of our community members. The message being sent by the people making these comments is that if you have a certain gender identity, or racial identity, or come from a certain economic background, you are not welcome here and you do not belong here. That secretly, and openly, some of your fellow Hoyas do not want you here and will not accept you because they have grown up in a world that tells them not to accept you, and rather than pushing past that ignorance and intolerance they have chosen to reject you and perpetuate centuries of oppression with their words and actions.

I know some people think Confessions has done a good job of exposing underlying racial, gender, and class tensions on campus. I agree, and I do think it is vitally important that we recognize the realities of race, gender, and class in our community. I also know people who bravely challenge these comments and use them as an opportunity for education and awareness. Awareness and education are critical parts of combatting oppression, but we must have a better forum than this. If even one person feels unsafe or hurt by a racist, classist, misogynistic, transphobic, etc. comment that is reason enough in my book for Confessions to be shut down. While hate and ignorance exist at Georgetown, we do not need to foster them and give them a safe space. What we do need is a safe space to discuss our experiences of this campus, our differences, our varied and intersecting identities, and how to better support all of Georgetown’s community members.

Confessions does not even begin to encourage the development of this kind of safe space. Instead, it encourages students to feel entitled to their racism, classism, misogyny, etc. In making these comments anonymously no one has to answer to the consequences of their words or take responsibility for the impact they have on other people, and other people’s perception and experience of our community. The people making these comments likely have a lot of privilege (and have privilege by fact of attending Georgetown alone) and already feel entitled to a whole bunch of things in life. There is a decent chance they have this privilege and yet do not think about why they have it or what that means. Ideally, Georgetown would be a place for people to learn about their privilege, how to challenge it, and how to use it to fight oppression. Instead with Confessions people are being told that it’s okay they have a lot of unfair advantages in life, and not only that, it’s okay for them to harass and degrade those who don’t. It is not just the comments themselves that reinforce oppression; it is the system by which the comments are made that reinforces oppression too.

Georgetown Confessions adds nothing of merit to our campus community. It is an ugly space used to harass and degrade other people. Confessions reinforces a hierarchy that values certain people over others, and fosters a community of hatred and ignorance rather than understanding and love. As a step towards making campus a safer space for everyone, Confessions should be taken down. We should not tolerate this kind of latent hatred, and we have a responsibility to advocate for a better, more tolerant, and more loving campus environment. To quote some of the finest activists for justice in Georgetown’s history, “Our Georgetown is better than this.” 

De-gendering Our Language

24 Jul

by Kat Kelley, Erin Riordan, and Mark Joseph Stern

This is an edited transcript of a discussion between Kat, Erin, and Mark on the topic of how gender is used in our language. The conversation began after a Facebook debate about whether or not “you guys” could be used in a gender-neutral context. 

Erin:  ‪Let’s talk gender, shall we?

Mark:  Yes please! I live to talk gender. ‪If I recall correctly, this conversation was sparked by a Facebook status in which Kat addressed her Facebook friends as “guys,” but noted she meant it in a gender-neutral way. ‪I, being a jerk, commented that I was skeptical that “guys” is ever truly gender neutral. Several courteous comment clashes later, here we are. So Kat—what exactly is your position on this topic?

Kat:  ‪Honestly, I reached out to Erin and was interested in hearing more from you, because I realize that language both creates and is created by our culture, and I want to learn to use language that creates a better culture. I want to learn to use culture that doesn’t oppress people based on their gender identity, but I am wholly ignorant on the topic. My “position” would be that I’m ignorant. And I want to be able to change the way I speak, but at the same time, not speak in a way that alienates certain people from willingness to engage or listen.

Mark:  ‪An admirable goal! There are really two separate issues, I think, when it comes to the “you guys” issue, and they need to be considered independently. One, which isn’t really that fraught, is that our language lacks a second-person plural address—our vosotros, if you will. That leaves various dialects to pick up the slack, hence “y’all” and “you guys.” ‪But “guys” of course was traditionally used to describe men. Which leads to the second issue. How comfortable are we repurposing a word like “guys” in this manner? I’d posit that it’s unique from words like “actor” or “poet,” which were once gender-dichotomized but for which we now use the once-male form for everyone.

Erin:  ‪Yes. I think as much as guys is used in “gender-neutral” contexts, it is still a very gendered term and reasserts “male” and “men” as the gender dominant norm.

Mark:  ‪I would tend to agree.

Kat:  ‪That makes sense. And also it isn’t a title/position the way actor/poet is. It doesn’t tell us anything but the gender of the population. So the repurposing would be more transformative.

Mark:  ‪It’s worth asking at this point, though, why transforming a word like “guys” to mean “everybody” reinforces male norms. I have a gut feeling that it does, but I find it a little tricky to articulate.

Erin:  ‪It seems related to the idea of referring to people as “cis men” and “cis women” rather than “men” and “women.” Using cis de-centers gender norms and gender assumptions, and I think trying to transform “guys” to gender neutral still has issues with re-centering men and cis men as the gender norm.

Mark:  ‪Does our language need a gender norm?

Kat:  ‪I don’t believe it does, however I’m not sure how deep we’d have to go to remove a gender norm.

Erin:  ‪Our language should be more inclusive of all identities, which involves reexamining language and assumptions and norms reinforced by language.

Kat:  ‪I mean, we’d have to refashion the connotations of just ‪about everything. Although there are plenty of intermediary steps before we are achieving that. ‪I mean I think our entire society needs to be de-gendered. We think of everything in terms of gender. And that creates an inherent dichotomy, an inherent inequality between genders and sexes.

Erin:  ‪That said, I think there is a balance between de-gendering society and finding other solutions, because ultimately, gender, like race and class and anything else, exists.

Mark:  ‪Right. Even if the stereotypes we attribute to it are fabricated.

Erin:  ‪Pretending that we can de-gender or de-racialize society also invalidates the fact that these things are all parts of our identities and experiences.

Kat:  ‪However, there are lots of aspects of our lives when gender doesn’t need to be relevant. And yet it is present everywhere.

Erin:  ‪So that is what I struggle with actually. I think that gender is a huge part of our identities and to pretend it is just a social construct is also really problematic.

Mark:  ‪So is it okay to just start with the obvious, and work our way down?  ‪Or will effective change need to be more subtle and comprehensive?

Kat:  ‪Re: Mark- I think we need to do both. We need to have the “radical” side of it (I use radical in quotes because I don’t think that wanting things like equality should be considered radical) to ‪chip away at the underlying causes. But we also need to make ambitious immediate change, and that requires working our way down.

Mark:  ‪Kat, I agree, but I wonder if taking some relatively simple steps—gender-neutral pronouns, non-gendered normative nouns—might not be a more radical move than we realize. It seems to me that a lot of the language that ends up reinforcing gender norms (and more perniciously gender stereotypes) could be very easily screened out with a little awareness.

Kat:  ‪Sure seems pretty radical every time I try to speak English hah.

Mark:  ‪I’m a strong believer in the ground rule ‪that we shouldn’t specify gender unless it’s apposite to context. The example I use is, “My friends and I went to the bar,” vs. “My male friends don’t like Christine Quinn, probably because they’re sexist.” Unnecessary gendering is actually really common.

Erin:  ‪It is in almost every conversation and almost every part of our language.

Mark:  ‪Indeed. I think that after all the theory and abstractions we produce on this topic, we still need to have a rule, an ask, for the general population. And I think that ask should be that we only ever mention gender when it’s relevant to context.

Kat:  ‪Okay, so how can we, and ideally everyone, make the change? And how do we literally get people to care, and to be able to develop that awareness? I mean this is the most literal sense- like do we need fact sheets on examples of gendered language?

Erin: I think just using the appropriate language ourselves creates a fair amount of awareness, and challenging people in safe contexts when relevant.

Mark:  ‪I agree—the first and best thing you can do is change the way you yourself speak. If it’s a cause I believe in, I can also bring up the practice with friends and encourage them to do the same.

Erin: I think in the times when I make conscious efforts to change my language or to introduce myself and my preferred gender pronouns I usually explain myself afterwards since there is a fair amount of confusion. My own practice ends up leading to some level of raised awareness and education.

Mark:  ‪I think the conversation should be based around modeling your own de-gendered language. If someone asks you why you don’t say “you guys,” or request a preferred gender pronoun, explain away! It’s not pedantic. And if your friends don’t ask, explain anyway. They’re your friends. They signed up to hear your views.

Erin:  Yeah, most people who are my friends know what they’ve gotten into.

Mark:  ‪I try to explain from both a personal and a philosophical angle. In practice, it’s not toooo different from teaching people proper grammar. You use language a certain way, you encourage others to as well. This just happens to be infinitely more important than lay vs. lie.

Erin:  ‪And I think doing it in a way that isn’t blame-y, because a lot of people are sensitive to being told their language is oppressive.

Mark:  ‪It’s not something anybody likes to be told.

Kat:  ‪Yeah. I mean even if people are defensive, they are still learning. You are still planting seeds. But there is a lot of resistance.

Erin:  ‪And I think we too in examining gender and language need to be very ready and willing to be corrected and to reexamine our assumptions.

Kat:  ‪Admitting you fuck up, that it isn’t easy, that you are working on it. Not like “get on my level, oppressor.”

Erin:  Exactly. ‪I think it’s the response of acknowledging the mistake, apologizing, reflecting on it and making an effort to be more conscious in the future. And that we all fuck up both by nature of being human and by nature of the world we live in.

Mark:  ‪Agreed entirely. Okay, so have we reached a consensus?

Erin:  ‪I consent.

Mark:  ‪I consent, and hereby swear to reach out to my friends in an effort to further remove gender-reinforcing norms from my language. Kat?

Kat:  ‪I consent. Enthusiastically.

Mark:  ‪Excellent!

‘Brave’ Merida: Disney Redesign Of Character Ruins Film’s Message

19 Jun

by Erin Riordan

This article was originally published on Policy Mic as part of their Feminist Skillshare.

Recently Disney released a redesign of their most recent princess, Merida, from the filmBrave, which sexualized her image and placed her more in line with the Disney princesses who came before her.

Brenda Chapman, writer and co-director of the film, and a host of parents expressed their distaste with the re-design of Merida through aChange.org petition that garnered over 200,000 signatures. In response, Disney has removed the sexualized image from its website, and hopefully will pursue a more accurate representation of Brave’s heroine moving forward.

Disney princess have a history of representing thin, sexualized, and often white beauty (the first princess who was not white was Jasmine, introduced in 1992). The princesses both reflect and perpetuate standards of beauty in Western society, and have done so for decades. With expansions into more and more products, from dresses to dolls to lunchboxes and backpacks and plastic dishware, their influence only continues to grow and inform culture.

Growing up, Belle from Beauty and the Beast was my favorite Disney princess. I had two reasons for this: 1. She was the princess that looked the most like me, as we are both white and both have dark brown hair and dark brown eyes. 2. She loved books, and I too, loved books. As a child I desperately wished for her pretty yellow ball gown and her incredible library.

Disney’s princesses, through their films and aggressive merchandising campaigns following those films, become icons for many young children. The images of these princesses that Disney promotes impact and inform children’s understanding of themselves, their appearances, and their goals. Child psychologist Jennifer L. Hardstein theorizes that these films create a “princess syndrome”whereby young girls are taught that if they are pretty enough they will find happiness, love, and fulfillment.

Whether or not you agree with Hardstein, many of these films present harmful images that promote narrow ideals of beauty and happiness. Most of the images presented through these princesses are of women who are incredibly thin with large breasts, and for most princesses the storyline ends with marriage or other romantic fulfillment. While some princess have goals that extend beyond romance, Brave is the first of these films that does not show a happy ending replete with handsome prince and happily-ever-after. Merida similarly rejects girly dresses and other typical trappings of Disney princesses, and is depicted in a plainer, un-sexualized fashion.

This difference is, of course, intentional. Chapman writes of her character, “Merida was created to break that mould … To give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance.”

Merida is meant to exemplify bravery, athleticism, and other less-typical princess traits that create a substantive role model for children. In redesigning her, Disney has undone this work, and reinforces the idea that what ultimately matters is to be pretty, not smart or funny or kind or brave.

If we want to teach children that what matters in life is who they are as people, how they treat others, and other values of care and community, we need to support products that exemplify these values. It is excellent that Disney seems to be abandoning its redesign process, and I hope that as they move forward with what is sure to be a full line of Merida-themed merchandise they use the original images of Merida from the film, and promote all the excellent qualities Merida exemplifies so well.

Kim Kardashian Pregnant: So What If She’s Fat?

12 Jun

by Erin Riordan

This article was originally published on Policy Mic as part of their feminist skillshare. 

Comparing Kim Kardashian to a couch, as most of the internet did following her appearance several weeks ago at the Met Ball in a floral dress, is not OK. Judging women’s bodies, pregnant or otherwise, is never justified and perpetuates dangerous standards of beauty and physical perfection. While Kim Kardashian has made the choice to place herself in the public eye, the consequences of the media constantly fat-shaming her reverberate throughout our culture, and reinforce the message that being fat is just about the worst thing you can be.

Since Kardashian first announced her pregnancy, tabloid and celebrity blog coverage of her weight gain has been incessant and astoundingly cruel. Many magazines made claims that she now weighs 200 pounds and that Kanye West finds her body so repulsive he is considering leaving her. People have defended these attacks by arguing that she made the choice to live in the public eye, and now she is facing the consequences of that choice. Never mind that she is pregnant, and is growing another human life inside her body, one that is relying on her as a source of nutrition, food, and growth. This is seen as no excuse for her to gain weight and change the shape of her famous body; a body the public feels it has ownership of.

When media sources criticize Kardashian’s weight gain they send the message to all women that it is not OK to be fat or out of shape, even during pregnancy. This anti-fat messaging, perpetuated throughout our culture, reinforces the cultural value of thinness and normalizes fat-shaming.

Our cultural value of thinness is unhealthy and causes immense harm to women, and undermines concerns of health for concerns of beauty. Fat shaming and weight bias impact overweight and obese people by increasing their risk of depression and anxiety as well as encouraging low-self esteem and body image. Negative attitudes around weight also contribute to the prevalence of unhealthy eating behaviors and discourage overweight children and adults from engaging in physical activity.

Overweight individuals are less likely to be hired for a job due to their weight, and are more likely to face discrimination based on weight from their doctors. Recent research has also shown thatmale jurors are biased against obese women in court. Stereotypes of the laziness and unhealthiness of overweight people persist, and create a reality in which weight-based discrimination is a part of everyday life for overweight Americans.

While it may seem that Kim Kardashian is just a silly celebrity who should buck up and get over the weight gain backlash, this commentary has real impact on our culture and our images of overweight people. By consistently presenting fat as a negative quality and shaming the bodies of people we feel take up too much space, we create biases and double standards that cause real harm in our society. Anti-fat bias undermines access to healthcare, and inhibits the promotion of healthy relationships with food and nutrition. Rather than promoting health and well-being, fat-shaming and anti-fat bias perpetuate patterns of harm and contribute to, rather than alleviate, our country’s weight problems.

We Are Accountable

2 May

by Erin Riordan 

Over 400 people died when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh last week, with over 1,000 injured and several hundred more still missing. This is the most deadly event in the history of the garment industry. We are responsible for these deaths, and we are accountable to the workers and their families in Bangladesh, and every other place in the world where goods we consume are produced. Our demand for cheap, fast fashion has created a demand for even cheaper labor, a demand that is responsible for abominably low wages, unsafe workplace conditions, and death in Bangladesh and many other countries around the world. We have a duty to change our behavior and call upon companies to take responsibility for their workers and their conditions, wherever in the world those workers may be located.

Bangladesh is the world’s biggest source of cheap, low-wage labor, and is the second-largest exporter of apparel. Workers there are paid just 18 cents an hour and often work very long hours. Workplaces violate many safety and health standards, and workers routinely face unsafe conditions, as they did in the now collapsed Rana Plaza factory. Workers who attempt to organize or form a union face aggressive, harsh intimidation. Just last year Aminul Islam, a union organizer in Bangladesh, was brutally murdered just weeks after winning an incredible international victory for workers. The conditions in Bangladeshi factories are unconscionable, and it is ever-growing demand for cheap products made with cheap labor that allows this system to continue, unchecked.

Bangladesh regulates its factories and buildings, however political corruption allows men like Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza factory, to violate building codes and ignore health and safety standards. Workers in the factory noticed large cracks forming in some of the lower floors the day before the collapse, and while the factory was initially evacuated and ordered closed, the owners of the building and four factories within it ordered their workers back to work the next day, under threat of losing their employment. A system in which workers risk life and limb simply by their presence at work each day, and where they are paid poverty wages for their long hours worked, is a broken system, and it needs to be reevaluated and redesigned. Considerations of justice and human dignity must play into how we conduct our business not just here in the U.S. but wherever we are conducting business around the world.

The companies who subcontract out to these factories need to join Bangladeshi labor groups and the government in stepping up regulation and safety standards at factories there. Currently most companies do not allow or require independent monitoring of their factories. The distance and complexity of the supply chain means companies often do not recognize their responsibility to workers in overseas factories and often deny production or involvement at factories where tragic fires and collapses have happened, even when clothing bearing their label or order sheets their name are found. This must change. Earlier this year Wal-Mart, Gap, and H&M rejected a 2011 plan that would have established an independent group of inspectors to monitor factories with the power to shut down any unsafe factories. The companies claimed the collective $500,000 a year it would cost to maintain the program was too costly and thus rejected the proposal. This focus on the bottom line and profit over people must change, and consumers have a role to play in demanding that these companies be accountable to the people making their products.

We as consumers have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with the people who make our clothes. While people in Bangladesh take to the streets and demand reform, we must as consumers turn to companies like Wal-Mart and Sears and require them to take action to improve working conditions in factories where they subcontract. These companies need to agree to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement and work with groups like the Workers Rights Consortium to ensure that every effort is being made to reform a supply chain that exploits workers for cheap products at an extraordinary cost. Every worker has dignity. Every job has dignity. To ensure that justice is upheld and that the rights and lives of workers are respected, we must reassess how we conduct business and we must take real, responsible action.

Learning Self Care

24 Apr

by Erin Riordan

Being a feminist can be really hard. Being a part of any progressive social movement, any group campaigning for social justice, is exhausting and frustrating. As important and powerful as this work is, sometimes I forget how to take a step back and just breath. I have been reflecting for a while on the idea of self-care and how to balance this with a greater concern for activism and action. Recent events, both those involving my brilliant, beautiful friend Kat Kelley, and the experience of Adria Richards at a recent tech conference, have pushed me to begin figuring out this negotiation between concern for myself and concern for the movement at large.

Kat, one of the most passionate activists I know for women, sexual health, and sex positivity (and co-founder and co-coordinator of this blog), was attacked via social media for the incredible work she does to advance these causes. Adria Richards called out two men for making sexist jokes at a tech conference, was fired, and then received a barrage of criticism, including rape and death threats, in response.

Whenever you are doing work that challenges oppression there are going to be people who hate what you are saying and doing and will challenge you on it. Not everyone is going to be thoughtful with their engagement. Some people will use slurs and ugly words and make threats and personal attacks. This can be disheartening and frustrating, sometimes it can be scary and, when one comment piles up on top of too many others, devastating.

As a writer on this blog, and a self-described radical feminist moving about in an occasionally hostile world, I certainly encounter my fair share of criticism and personal attacks, and am equally effected by attacks against my friends and feminist activists. I don’t always know how to respond to this. I am torn between a desire for retreat, not as an admission of defeat but as a break from all the hate and negativity, and a need to feel safe and supported again. The other half of me feels that I have a duty to stand up to all of this, to challenge every comment, poster, and article that is misogynistic (intentionally or not) and perpetuates the patriarchy. I don’t always know what to do or how to balance these two different instincts.

What I have taken away from the feminist community is that it is ok, and good, to take breaks. It is important that we take care of ourselves and take a timeout from engaging with all the negativity when we need to. Whether it is a particularly vicious commenter or a week spent reading and writing about sexual assault in Steubenville, it is ok to acknowledge that these things have an impact on us, that we are human and can be hurt and sometimes we need to focus on taking care of ourselves as a result. If this means taking a day or a week or a month, it is important that we do that, and not be so caught up in fighting misogyny or racism or classism or whatever else that we forget to give ourselves the time we need to heal, to reflect, to recover.

It is also important that we develop the resources we need to handle the emotional side of feminist and social justice work. This means developing strong communities of support- family, friends, fellow bloggers, and anyone else- who can offer love, support, hugs, and a little André when we need them.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that this sort of backlash is a reality of any work that seeks to challenge and change norms. As a mentor to the fantastic Chloe Angyal, of Feministing.com, said, “If you say things of consequence there will be consequences, but the alternative is to be inconsequential.” There can be empowerment found in the words that are meant to tear us down. It means that what we are doing is having an impact, that we are being heard. Even a person who responds with hatred or vitriol is engaging with us, and even if it seems like they are not taking anything productive away from the interaction, they have at least been exposed to ideas they might not otherwise be aware of. Ultimately what it means when we are attacked or harassed in our work is that we are challenging oppression, we are experiencing success in this challenge, and maybe, just maybe, leaving the world a better place.

Why I Struggle to Support Your Red Equality Sign

5 Apr

by Erin Riordan

Last week, as the Supreme Court began hearing cases on Prop 8 and DOMA, Facebook turned red. 2.8 million more users than average changed their profile pictures last Tuesday, to HRC’s image of a red quality sign. I began to have mixed feelings that day about the sea of red (some of which I will explain next week, in another post), and after reading many of the articles discussing the HRC and the campaign for marriage equality I have concerns about the HRC and about the fight for marriage equality as a whole.

First I am concerned with the Human Rights Campaign itself, and it’s selective method of social justice. The Human Rights Campaign is the largest organization working for LGBT rights. Their mission statement reads, “HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.” However, despite their inclusion of the “T” in LGBT, the HRC has a very strained, adversarial relationship with the trans community. Many people in the trans community have long felt that the HRC has thrown trans rights under the bus in their fight for marriage equality, and in the functioning of the HRC as a whole.

The most prominent case is the HRC’s support in 2007 for a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination ACT (ENDA) that didn’t include antidiscrimination protections for gender identity. Despite their promise three years earlier to not support any version of the ENDA that didn’t include gender identity protections, the HRC reneged on this promise when they grew concerned that they would not be able to pass the bill otherwise. In this instance, and in others, they chose to prioritize the rights of some members of the LBGTQ community over others. Many people feel this effectively sent the message to the trans community that their rights were less important than those of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.

The view that the HRC does not care about trans issues or the trans community was further enforced last Tuesday, when a trans person holding a transgender pride flag stood near the rally’s podium and was then asked by an HRC staff person three separate times to move to a less visible spot. The HRC contends that the incident did not transpire this way, yet Bilerico blogger Jerame Davis’s account supports the trans individual’s, and indicates that the statement from the HRC was misleading and misrepresentative of what occurred.

Beyond these individual incidents, there is a distinct lack of transgender voices within the HRC. The HRC has 100+ staffers, but no trans staffers. An organization meant to fight for the advancement of transgender rights, along with the rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals, does not have one employee who is actually a member of the trans community.

Others have brought up questions of economic and racial justice in the HRC’s work. People within the LGBTQ community argue that the HRC is not interested in the issues of poor LGBTQ individuals, and a Duke student wrote about the HRC’s problematic corporate affiliations. There is also evidence that the HRC has tried to quiet POC voices and organizations within the LGBTQ movement. These concerns matter, and they are worth listening to when talking about the HRC and it’s work.

A social justice movement, whatever it fights for, should not pick and choose which people and which voices and which issues matter most. By excluding the perspectives and priorities of trans people, people of color, and working class and poor people from the conversation, the HRC does itself a disservice, and does a disservice to the movement as a whole. It can be hard to adequately and equally represent all the voices that need to be at the table, and this is certainly an issue within feminism as well, but it is vitally important that these voices be heard and respected. When entire groups feel disconnected from a community, it is clear that something is wrong and that changes need to be made.

On a different, perhaps more strategic note, I am worried about all the focus that is being put on marriage equality by the LGBTQ community. I strongly support same-sex marriage, and believe that the legalization of same sex marriage will improve the lives of many people, and bring us closer to equality. However, I am concerned that other equally vital and important issues are being forgotten or abandoned in pursuit of this one goal. It is great that so many people support marriage equality, and that so many people feel safe and comfortable supporting this battle publically. But what about all the other issues that matter in the LGBTQ community?

The fight for LGBTQ rights needs to include addressing the issue of homelessness amongst LGBTQ youth. The fight needs to include combatting violence against LBGTQ individuals, and the right of gay men to donate blood. The fight for LGBTQ rights needs to include fighting for trans health rights, and legal protections against gender identity based discrimination. The fight needs to include fighting for queer undocumented immigrants.  The fight for LGBTQ rights needs to be informed by considerations of race, class, gender, and ability. The fight for marriage equality does not reflect these considerations, and I am concerned that after the fight for marriage equality is won, most of the general public and mainstream media will think the job is done and that they can walk away.

There are so many more important issues and battles that I do not have room to list here, and it is important that we value and consider each of them. I am concerned that there is not enough visibility around these issues, nor enough resources or energy dedicated to them. I am afraid that in the mainstream media the LGBTQ community has been painted as one that is only concerned with marriage equality. I am concerned that once the battle for marriage equality is won, there will not be enough momentum, political or otherwise, to seriously push forward any real change on other issues of the LGBTQ community.

There are many amazing groups doing great work organizing other elements of the LGBTQ community, and that are working to encompass everyone’s voices and issues. This radical and progressive LGBTQ movement needs a seat at the table, and needs to be heard when the conversation begins about where do we go from here.

What Are We Going To Do About Steubenville?

20 Mar

by Erin Riordan 

*Trigger Warning*

I am done with rape. I am done with men raping an unconscious girl at a high school party. I am done with videos and pictures of that rape being distributed on the Internet. I am done with men in Tahrir Square raping women, attempting to intimidate them from participating in the political process. I am done with gang rape. I am done with colleges and universities that refuse to take the experiences of their students seriously. I am done being angry and pissed off and hurt and hopeless and heartbroken and frustrated and scared. I am done with rape and rape culture and slut shaming and victim blaming. We need to be better than this. We are better than this.

We need to address why our society has a culture of violence against women, and what we can do to change it. We need to talk about why men rape, and address the root causes of violence that permeate our society. We need to stop holding women accountable for their experiences of sexual assault. We need to stop punishing women for their behavior, their drinking, and their dress, and instead acknowledge our responsibility to take real action against sexual assault and recognize the responsibility of those who perpetrate it.

(Note: I essentially exclusively address men as perpetrators of sexual violence in this piece. This does not mean that all men commit sexual violence, or that only men commit sexual violence. There are many men in the world who do not participate in violence against women, and many wonderful men who work to combat violence against women. That said, 99% of sexual assaults are committed by men, and our culture is one that inculcates violence in men in a variety of different ways, and thus I feel it is worth addressing.)

Teaching Consent

We need a universal definition of consent, and it needs to be taught in Sex Ed classes in schools, and reinforced throughout a person’s life. Kat and myself have both written about consent before more extensively, but ultimately what I think we should be teaching is a culture of active, participatory consent. When engaging in any sort of sexual activity, you must ask for consent. Consent should not be presumed, and the absence of a no is not a yes. Consent should not be coerced, and it cannot be given by when someone is underage, when someone is drunk or otherwise incapacitated, or when someone is unconscious.

If everyone were taught this definition of consent then there would be a basis of respect in more sexual encounters, and an understanding of active participation from all involved. A better understanding of consent would help to prevent sexual assault. It is also easier for friends or bystanders to intervene earlier on in an assault or altercation when everyone has the same understanding of consent. Beyond that, with a universal definition of consent it easier to hold those who commit sexual assault accountable. A universal definition of consent may also better empower survivors to speak up about their experiences, and if they choose, to prosecute their rapists.

Establishing Accountability

We need to establish accountability. Far too many men believe they can get away with sexual assault, and will face no consequences. The texts sent by Trent Mays indicate that he believed his coach had “taken care of it,” and did not expect to face any real consequences as a result of raping a 16-year-old girl. When a girl was raped by a Notre Dame football player and reported the assault, she received a text from the rapist’s teammate saying, “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” Only 46% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only 3% of rapists spend any time in jail at all. We need to stop letting athletes, fraternity brothers, and university students from committing rape and going unpunished. We need to stop giving free passes to men who are famous and successful, men like Chris Brown, Michael Fassbender, Christian Bale, Josh Brolin, and Dominique Strauss Kahn. We need to create a culture of accountability, where men realize that committing sexual assault is wrong, and that doing so will have real and lasting consequences, both for the men themselves and the survivors.

Women as People

We need a culture where women are consistently treated and recognized as people. We can’t live in a world that consistently objectifies women, showing exploitative images of women on TV, in ads, and in magazines. When we are overwhelmed with images that present women as objects rather than as people, with many ads literally just presenting various parts of a woman’s body or her headless figure, it is easier to view women as objects rather than as people. And it is far easier to commit violence against someone seen as an object rather than commit violence against someone recognized as a person (Jean Kilbourne explores this idea further in her excellent documentary Killing Us Softly 4). A culture where in 80-99% of women experience street harassment in their lifetime is one in which violence against women is normalized, and in which women are viewed as objects and not as people.

Rehabilitative Justice

We need a system of rehabilitative justice that will better address the culture of violence and what it does to individuals. We do not need a system that simply punishes and dehumanizes the men and women in prison. A system that offers educational opportunities, counseling, therapy, and other rehabilitative services will better address underlying causes of violence, and will be more likely to be effective in reducing the likelihood of violence caused by individuals in the prison system.

Support for Survivors

We need to offer better and more accessible support for survivors. We need to listen. We need to believe survivors and let them talk. We need to let survivors make their own choices of what actions they will or will not take- whether that is pressing charges or not, and if, when, and who they go to for help and support. We need safe spaces on campus for survivors to share their story if they choose to, and to find the resources and support they need. We need campus to be a safe place for survivors to live and live safely- physically, mentally, and emotionally. We need clear policies and laws regarding sexual assault, and clear, just processes to prosecute those who commit sexual assault. We need to challenge every instance of victim blaming, and not allow attitudes that hold the survivor responsible for their assault to exist in our communities. We need to be allies and advocates for those who are survivors of sexual assault.

These changes will take time and will not come without great effort, and they are by no means exhaustive, but they are key steps in a start to end violence against women.

If you found this post triggering, know that there are resources and support available. 

Living Wage is a Feminist Issue

14 Mar

by Erin Riordan

National dialogue has recently turned to a discussion around raising the minimum wage for the first time in over 20 years, with both President Obama and Senator Harkin submitting plans for an increase in the minimum wage. But what would it mean if we instead talked about encouraging businesses to pay all workers a living wage?

While minimum wage is only the lowest hourly, daily, or monthly wage employers are legally mandated to pay workers, living wage encompasses what it actually takes to live. A living wage is the minimum income necessary to cover a person’s basic needs- food, housing, healthcare, and childcare. Living wage is based around a 40-hour workweek, and a person earning a living wage should be able to make just that- a living.

Yet living wage is not legally mandated in the U.S., and 3.8 million hourly-paid workers are paid at or below the minimum wage. And according to the Economic Policy Institute roughly 28% of workers were paid poverty wages in 2010, a number that is expected to hold steady without improvement through 2020. Another study indicates that 1 in 4 private sector workers earns less than $10 an hour, well below the wage needed to stay out of poverty. Shamus Khan writes, “A minimum wage earner working 40 hours a week without ever taking a vacation will earn $15, 080 a year…Most minimum wage workers are adults, not teens, and most work for large corporations, not mom-and-pop stores,” indicating that for many people minimum wage is the standard of their adult life, and thus a life in poverty is experienced and expected both in the present and in the future.

The number of Americans living in poverty is not only unconscionable; it is also bad for the economy. Workers making a living wage will not only be less reliant on government programs they will also be spending more as consumers. Various studies have found that increasing minimum wage had no effect on employment, and in fact increased consumer spending as workers had more disposable income to pour back into the economy. Higher wages also reduce worker turnover, thus reducing costs to the employer. Raising the minimum wage makes jobs sustainable, and begins to chip away at poverty experienced by the working poor.

Living wage is a feminist issue. Feminists from the second wave on through present day have strived for the independence of women, and our right to choose our own lifestyles and careers, and to do so without being dependent on men. If we truly believe each woman should be able to live her life freely and as she chooses we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. When someone is not paid a living wage they cannot afford to pay for housing and food and childcare and healthcare. Instead they must make choices between all of these, prioritizing some over others. For a woman paid less than a living wage birth control is not a basic medical expense, it is a luxury. And without birth control it is harder to control the size and future of one’s family, something that dramatically impacts one’s economic reality. Healthcare decisions are harder, and for many people healthcare isn’t a reality at all. Childcare decisions are complicated, and women making minimum wage are more likely to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Women work 2/3 of minimum wage jobs. If we want women to have the freedom to live their lives as they choose and to do so independently, we need to pay women a living wage.