“I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage. I don’t think there’s a mother or father sitting around the kitchen table tonight in America saying, ‘You know, honey, if our son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, all of our dreams would be realized.'”New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R)
It’s no one’s dream to make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, nor even the Democrat’s proposed $10.10 an hour. minimum-wage workers aren’t kids. Most are over 25 and they’re major breadwinners for their families. Christie may be tired of hearing about the minimum wage, but I’m tired of hearing about hungry children and families, workers that put in 40 hours a week with incomes below the federal poverty level and from people like him who are living off the fat of the land at the people’s expense.
As a radical feminist and social justice advocate, I have been thinking about my values and where I want to put my energy during the last quarter of my life. I have narrowed it down to six priorities.
Ending income, education and health inequalities across race, class and gender lines on an individual, institutional and cultural level
Promoting equality for women and people of color in all aspects of their public and private lives
Ending racism in all it’s manifestations from hate speech, to stopping white supremacist organizations, to police and individual acts of violence, to the mass incarceration of Black men and women.
Ending violence against women in all of its forms from sexual harassment to rape and domestic violence, to prostitution and pornography.
Protecting the environment by taking individual responsibility for my consumption to supporting environmental protection organizations and laws
Protecting animal rights by reducing my consumption of animals products to supporting animal to ending the use of animals for human entertainment or display in zoos to ending big game trophy hunting.
I’m creating an action agenda to hold myself accountable for being part of the change I want to see in our world and will be blogging about it and my progress. I know that this is not something an individual can carry out in solitude. It requires both divesting ourselves of privilege and taking action with constituent-led organizations. My action plan will include both strategies.
What is important to you and what will you do promote social justice?
Prostitution is akin to the Bonsai Master’s deliberate hand
cutting away at the roots of a woman’s soul,
pruning back the branches of her desires,
trapping her in a tiny vessel in which she cannot grow,
until her stunted gnarled form acquiesces
and her dwarfed, deformed spirit
is pronounced a thing of beauty to men’s eyes
I’ve imagined, reimagined and planned my retirement for years. Now it’s here and I am ready. Oh I won’t be driving around the country in an RV or taking a cruise twice a year. No snow birding in Arizona each winter and certainly no lakeside cabin to retreat to in the late spring. Single by choice and childless by fate, there is no husband to look after or grandchildren to sit.
So what have I been dreaming of all these years? The sheer joy of reinventing my life one last time. I’ve opened a small consulting firm to fill the need for nonprofit capacity building services in our small rural County of about 35,000 people. My professional services include grant writing, developing and implementing evaluation protocols, as well as training and coaching for new Executives and their Boards of Directors. After years of community work, I’ve been able to capitalize on my reputation to secure a few contracts which will meet my modest economic needs over the next year and afford me the time to build the business.
But that’s only one piece of the dream. The piece of retirement I’ve eagerly been awaiting is the sheer luxury of time. Time that belongs just to me. Boundless hours that I can use to read and reflect and write. Hours and days and weeks stretching ahead that I can spend with my friends and family, reconnecting, enriching our relationships. Long walks with the dogs instead of quick potty breaks. A class I can take that is no longer tied to my career but learning for the sheer pleasure of it. Retirement will be made up of mornings quietly knitting and afternoons engrossed in quilting and months of gardening and all the things I never had enough time to do because my career stole every weekday and seeped into my evenings and carried over into weekends and even vacations.
I never really understood people who are bored with retirement or miss going to work everyday. Or those who believe to have a happy retirement you needed obscene amounts of money to buy a second home in a sunshine state or support a vacation lifestyle cruising here and there. Having been raised in New York City, and having lived in different parts of the country when I was young woman, retiring in my little town of 2,000 people in my 1928 farmhouse with all the time in the world to indulge in all the small pleasures my simple life affords me is everything I need to have a long and happy retirement.
What do you call a woman whose entire identity is wrapped around twenty-five years of radical feminist activism? A women who woke up one normal morning and taped up plastic bags filled with her collection of T-shirts and banners from every protest and Take Back the Night rally she ever marched in. A woman who sealed up boxes of pictures and press clippings and old video tapes that documented a quarter century of work. A woman who assigned all the symbols of her life’s work along with an armful of books she contributed to a dank corner of the basement, climbed back up the steps empty-handed and said, “I’m done.”
For over fifteen years I still called myself a radical feminist. Why not? My beliefs haven’t changed. But recent debate questioning what feminism is and who is or isn’t a feminist have given me cause to reexamine my identity. Feminism is a social movement led by women to advance women’s rights in a male dominated culture. This definition covers a broad agenda that isn’t limited to gender equality in the workplace or greater representation of women in government. It includes women having full control of their health care decisions including access to birth control and abortion. It includes ending domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault. It includes ending the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children used in prostitution and pornography. Put succinctly, feminism is nothing less than a social movement organized to end the social, sexual and economic subordination under patriarchy.
From that perspective, a feminist is a woman who is actively engaged in advancing women’s rights as delineated above. The operative words being activelyengaged. Not just believing in it. Not just reading about it. Not just talking about it. Being a feminist is doingsomething about it. And when I held myself up to that standard, I realized that I am no longer a feminist, let alone a radical feminist.
My life has changed considerably since I left the movement. My work now focuses on collaborative efforts to create opportunities that empower the poor and build bridges across race and class divides. But by no stretch of the imagination am I a feminist by definition and I don’t get to claim so by resting on my laurels. If anything, I’ve evolved into a social change advocate in the broadest sense of the word. I no longer write theory, organize the masses or give orations at national conferences that poor and marginalized women couldn’t afford to attend anyway. Instead I raise funds for eager activists who are on the front lines and tireless advocates who are doing triage in the background. And it has demonstrated to me that feminism isn’t the only, or the most important work that needs to be done to build a just society. Working for the common good will enhance women’s lives as well – just not exclusively.
I took a preemptive strike at staving off aging in my early forties by getting an upper eyelid blepharoplasty, commonly known as an “eye lift.” This is one of the cosmetic surgeries Renee Zellweger supposedly had according to the recent media frenzy, that made her “completely unrecognizable.” I was dating a younger man when I had the procedure and was very conscious of our age difference. Looking back at old pictures of myself from the vantage point of the 65-year old woman I am today, I shake my head in wonder. How was it that I could not see myself except through the critical eye of a culture that demanded I look forever twenty-five?
If I were to be totally honest, the only thing that probably saved me from going under the knife again – or having some sort of poison injected into my face – is that it was simply not in the budget. Eternal youth belonged to women of privilege who can afford to keep up the illusion. I wasn’t one of them. However, lack of funds didn’t stop me from closely scrutinizing my face, watching for signs of the inevitable. I was changing. Aging.
As fifty came and went, the lines in my face deepened. That’s when I learned the smile lines around my mouth that never caused me distress were actually called “marionette lines” by plastic surgeons. Great. From that point forward, I couldn’t look in the mirror without seeing Madame, that hideous caricature of an old woman created by Wayland Flowers, cackling back at me. Next to go was my finely chiseled jaw line which began to droop into – horror of horrors – jowls! The final insult to injury blossomed around sixty – the dreaded turkey waddle under my chin. Although I tried to laugh it off, calling it my “gobble,” I was horrified by the old woman who looked back at me from the mirror.
Fear and loathing of aging was my secret shame. As a young radical feminist I had raged against the beauty industry that set unattainable standards for women’s appearance. Did I mention I leaned toward the chubby side as well? Well into the third quarter of my life, I had to come to terms with my internalized ageism once and for all. I mean it’s not like I didn’t understand the cultural underpinnings of my discontent. But emotionally, I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago.
To make matters worse, a close friend – who is ten years my junior and always was “the pretty one” had a face-lift. For the first time in our 25 year friendship we had a conversation about a critical juncture in our lives where the personal meets the political that was completely disingenuous. Actually she was quite honest, admitting that she simply wanted to “buy herself a little more time.” Me? Not so much. After the obligatory compliments about how young and natural she looked, I hid my envy (yes, I admit I was envious) and shared that I’d decided to take a different path and embrace the aging process. She closed the loop on the lie by assuring me how beautifully I was aging and didn’t need “any work” done. We then changed the subject.
Then my life took a short detour on the way to sixty-five. I found a small hard lump under my jaw. A trip to the doctor revealed a tumor on my parotid gland. I needed surgery. The tricky part however is that major nerves in your face run through the parotid gland. Even if I was lucky and the tumor was benign, I ran the risk of full paralysis on the left side of my face. I scoured the Internet for photographs. It wasn’t a pretty sight. But even worse than the disfigurement were the disabilities that accompanied a severed facial nerve: incomplete closure of the effected eye, sweating and flushing of the face when eating, an inability to smile or close the lips, constant drooling, and worst of all to me, an inability to speak coherently. As it turned out, the tumor was benign and aside from a fine scar that runs along the side of my face, down my neck and loops around behind my ear, when the swelling subsided, I had the same face that I started with when they rolled me into the operating room.
I would have liked to have ended this blog by saying I had a feminist epiphany that forever “cured” me of my internalized ageism but that just simply isn’t true. It was the threat of severe disfigurement and disability that allowed me to look at my reflection with acceptance instead of loathing. However, the surgery also challenged myself to reevaluate the internalized ageism that colored my my self-image for over twenty-five years.
Feminist or not, I was not immune from the constant cultural messages that demand women appear young long after their youth has past. Multibillion dollar industries drive this message home to women every day. Entire marketing campaigns target middle-aged women with photos of slim, youthful women sitting at a candle lit table across from some silver haired fox gazing lovingly at her., “Sixty is the New Fifty,” the caption reads. No it’s not!” I yell back at the ad for – pick one – a miracle anti-aging serum, Botox shots, “Lifestyle Lifts” or some new youth defying cosmetic. Still the ad whispers back seductively, “but it could be, if you just bought our product, inject a few syringes of filler in those groves around your moth, had a little nip and tuck, trowel some of this plaster of Paris over your face. .
The point of remaining forever youthful is to to be attractive to men. No matter our intellectual prowess, no matter a lifetime of professional accomplishments, no matter of a life devoted to our children or our community, at the end of the day women are still judged by unattainable standards of beauty and in our culture beauty is defined by youth.
Having reminded myself myself once again that youth and beauty are false standards by which to measure a woman’s value, I’ve come to terms with my personal struggle with aging. When I think of my youth, I no longer yearn to be that fresh-faced girl I see in old photographs. Instead focusing on her beauty, I focus on her optimism and courage as she leads a “Take Back the Night March.” I see her nervous excitement as she gives her first presentation at a national feminist conference. I see her pride the first time her work was published in a feminist anthology. I see me. And behind this head of grey hair and this lined face I still have the same value I had when I committed myself to feminism all those years ago.
I just read an excellent article, So You Want to Be a Male Feminist? Here Are 11 Simple Rules to Follow: A Beginners Guide for Men, by Derrick Clifton on mic.com/identities. Clifton is a Staff writer covering identity, culture and politics
Briefly reflecting on the many male celebrities who have “come out” as feminists on the heels the new #HeForShe and #ItsOnUs campaigns, Clifton acknowledges that there is a place for male allies in the movement for gender equality. However, he reminds all men that they should educate themselves about the history of the women’s movement; listen to and respect the authority of women’s experience in setting an action agenda for change; take responsibility for educating other men about gender equality; and to step back and learn to follow women’s leadership.
I encourage men and women alike to read this article to grasp the full, nuanced agenda that Clifton puts forth, instead of my brief synopsis. I introduced readers to his piece to add a few more simple rules that men who wish to be feminist allies can incorporate into their everyday personal lives and encourage other men to follow as well.
1. Stop playing video of games that justify violence and sexual assault against women. We can’t have gender equality and at the same time pretend to rape, beat and murder women as a form of entertainment.
2. Stop singing along with, dancing to and buying music and music videos that glorify the sexual objectification of women, glamorize pimps and refer us as “bitches” and “ho’s.” We can’t have gender equality and at the same time denigrate and dehumanize women in music.
3. Stop economically supporting the commercial sexual exploitation of women. Here’s what that looks like: Stop going to strip clubs. Stop buying pornography. Stop buying women for sex. Each of these multibillion dollar businesses are driven by economic social and economic inequality between men and women. Each is compounded by racism and sexism. Each is the result of exploitation, coercion and outright violence. We cannot have gender equality if women are reduced to objects in the market place to be bought and sold for sex.
One more thing: stop making excuses for yourself and other men who undermine gender equality by availing themselves of male privilege by engaging in these behaviors.
Today’s news reported that a 25-year old St. Paul man was charged with trafficking at least three teenage girls over the last 18 months. Stories like this lead the public to believe that we’re winning the war against the sexual exploitation of children. Except we’re not.
The typical prostituted girl is coerced into submitting to sex with an average of five adult men a day. All old enough to be their fathers and grandfathers. When you do the math, a horrifying picture of massive child sexual abuse emerges: 18 months captivity x 30 days a month x 3 girls (that we know of) x 5 men (“customers”) per day. During the eighteen months Dontre Henry kept the teens under his control, over 1,800 adult men raped these children. Then walked away scott free. Free to sexually assault other girls under the control of other traffickers.
The average age of recruitment into prostitution is between twelve and fourteen, although girls as young as nine have been rescued from Traffickers. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that there are 100,000 children coerced into prostitution in the United States. A recent study, estimates that 15-20% of American men have bought sex from a prostitute at least once (National Institute of Justice, 2008). Although there are no reliable statistics on the number of men using children trapped in the sex industry, simple math suggests that there are as many half a million men from every walk of life who are buying children for sex.
Although these three girls were rescued from their pimp and another Trafficker has been taken off the streets, current trafficking statutes are inadequate to stem the flow of children being bought and sold for sex. Prostitution is a demand driven market. Unless and until, enforcement efforts are fully implemented against the customer, men will continue to sexually assault and rape children with impunity and traffickers will happily provide them for a price.
During my thirties, I embraced the bold identity of Radical Feminist. Feminism, as I understood it and lived it was serious struggle for liberation. The women I organized with were an uncompromising bunch. We were hell-bent on changing the power imbalance in our society that economically disadvantaged women as a class, severely limited our civic participation, commodified our sexuality and made us targets of violence. You may remember us. We were the oft maligned Second Wave.
By the end of the end of the twentieth century, feminism succumbed to apathy and declared dead as we entered a new year in a new century. Across the nation young women, proudly rejected a feminist identity of any kind. To some, the war against women had been won. Others questioned if there had ever even been a war. Wasn’t it all just a propaganda campaign spread by “Feminazis“ designed to recruit battalions of women into our man-hating lesbian brigades as the liberal Left proclaimed?
Those were dark days for those of us who worked so hard for the little bit of ground we gained. Gains we knew would be quickly lost without a unified feminist front. And lose we have over the last decade. Spectacularly. Women’s health was the first to fall. While no one was watching, reproductive rights have been quietly eroded state by state. Poor women bore the brunt of this loss.
Violence against women was next. Rape continued unabated despite desperate social and legal campaigns ranging from “No Means No” to “Yes Means Yes” as if all women had to do is be clear about their consent – or lack there of – and rapists would say “Oh! Never mind,” and walk away. The arming of America orchestrated by the NRA increased the number of fatal domestic assaults. Between 2001 and 2012 more women were shot to death by an intimate partner than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. Women’s lives took a back seat to Second Amendment Rights. That shouldn’t have been a big surprise. First Amendment Rights had already taken precedence over the harm done to women used in pornography.
As for income equality, the rising tide of people living in poverty are women. The majority dependent on the pittance our government has the audacity to call “food support” are single mothers with children. They just cant pay the rent and put food on the table working a minimum wage job. And it doesn’t get better as women age. Without a well-paying job history, older women remain trapped in poverty. Living on a small social security check month to month, they are often forced to choose between groceries and much-needed medication. A few swallow their pride and make a monthly trip to the food shelf . You may see a few more greeting you at Wal-Mart earning the same low wages that got them trapped in a lifetime of poverty in the first place.
Recently there has been a feminist revival of sorts. It bears little resemblance to the national movement that I was a part a part of in the seventies and eighties. The new feminism is quintessentially American. It has been commercialized and packaged to meet the individualized needs of women and men so we can all don this new trendy “feminist” label. When we have a young, white, privileged actress representing the Feminist Movement at the United Nations and the crux of her speech is not the new feminist agenda but promoting a Madison Avenue Campaign whose main premise is that sexism hurts us all and we need male “feminists” (whatever that means) to help us win the fight for women’s equality – the movement is in trouble. When we hold up Beyoncé as a feminist role model as she twerks on the stage near naked and hasn’t demonstrated any significant efforts to advance women’s equality – the movement is in trouble. When feminist activism is reduced to tweeting and posting on Facebook and blogging and signing online petitions – the movement is in trouble. Without a cohesive national feminist platform that names women’s second class status and develops strategies to win full equality, and an end poverty, violence and the buying and selling of women’s bodies for sex – the movement is in trouble.
In my view, our best hope for women’s liberation is to regroup, to create a national collaboration of existing feminist and social justice groups that are working in isolation and build a membership that is diverse, respectful, and promotes the leadership of women across race, class and gender identification lines. Together we can develop and implement a truly inclusive feminist agenda for change.