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Archive for January, 2013

Midwinter Resolution: Fair Trade Baking

Posted in Food and Drinks, Green Product Reviews on January 31st, 2013

Something that “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” reminded me of was that chocolate is frequently farmed with slave labor, and that farmers are exploited by the large manufacturing companies who produce and distribute it. I don’t keep a lot of candy in my house, but I do buy chocolate chips and cocoa powder to use when baking fairly regularly.

I like to give Divine fair trade chocolate as a gift, but last week at the supermarket I thought about the fact that the chips in my cookies might be made by slaves too. I knew that there were human rights problems with Nestle and Hershey (although the latter has said they will only be using slave labor for a few more years) I reached for Ghirardelli, which I honestly think is better quality than those other brands, albeit slightly more expensive. Although they claim they do not use slave labor, Ghirardelli is not fair trade certified.

For Christmas, Adam and I received some Dagoba drinking chocolate which is organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified. It’s also the best hot chocolate I have ever had.

The second best hot chocolate I have ever had was made with Guittard Cococa Rouge, which to my happy surprise is both Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certified! (They should put that on the label!)

So I do have some ideas on which brands of fair trade cocoa powder I will like to use in baking. But, what about chocolate chips? I could buy some fair trade chocolate bars and break them up, but looking around online there are several different companies that do sell fair trade chocolate chips.

The previously mentioned Divine, Dagoba and Guittard sell chips or drops. As do Sunspire and Sweet Earth. I have not yet tried any of these, and I hope I am equal to the task! Let me know if you have any recommendations.

The Toolbox of Justice

Posted in Editorials on January 29th, 2013

This post is modified from a talk I gave at my UU Congregation. I have been thinking about this idea for a long time, but it was most recently influenced by “Dear Liberal Allies” by Trung Nyugen.

What I mean when I talk about the toolbox of justice is that social justice movements, like civil rights and anti-racism, feminism and the women’s movement, the GLBT rights movement, the movement for the rights of the poor and disabled are both political and social movements to create change in people’s every day lives, but also tools to understand how we interact with each other and how society works on a personal and on an institutional level.

For example, in 2010, an anthology was published called “Click: When we knew we were feminists” edited by Courtney Martin and J Courtney Sullivan. The book is an anthology of the “click moments” that women of all ages and backgrounds have had that made them realize they were feminists. These moments weren’t always about sweeping political or social change, like fair pay, but rather when they realized that their experiences made more sense through a feminist lens than without it. In my own toolbox of justice, feminism is like a pair of glasses through which so much becomes clear. I remember watching the winter Olympics with a group of friends and one woman asked, “Why are the women’s costumes so much skimpier than the mens?” “Because women’s bodies are decorations!” I blurted out. I could only see that through my feminist glasses.

Men can wear the feminist glasses too. In 2008, my brother remarked, during Hillary Clinton’s concession speech to Barack Obama, “It must be very strange for you. None of the presidents have been women. Does that make you feel weird, or excluded?”

There are all kinds of glasses and goggles and prisms and magnifying glasses in the Toolbox of Justice. And as Trung Nyugen reminds us, they work differently depending on whether or not we are using them to understand our own oppression or our own privilege.

There are hearing aids and decoder rings and Rosetta Stone like primers inside the toolbox of justice as well. These help us understand the sometimes hidden or invisible ways others are excluded, oppressed or discriminated against.

After sparring for years with her atheist son-in-law, my mother walked away from a Memorial Day commemoration wondering aloud why the Catholic priest giving the invocation spoke so specifically about his beliefs Jesus and the trinity. “When you talk in public like that, the prayer is for everyone,” she said. “Who knows if anyone in the audience is Jewish or atheist? “

When I was knocking doors for a political campaign I was volunteering for, I went out one day with an acquaintance from my local Democratic Club – a tall, African American man. He asked me, “Would you please go back to those two houses for me?” I knew he was asking because he had the feeling that the people who lived there might open the door for a white woman, even though they hadn’t for a black man.

The toolbox allows us to hear the bigotry sometimes referred to as “racist dog whistles” like when politicians immediately decide that their top priority is immigration once they know their opponent will be Latino, or to understand why well meaning organizers sometimes ask my brother or my father or I how they can “get all the Hispanics to help them.”

The toolbox helps us to understand seemingly nonsensical news stories – like why the University of Notre Dame has spent more resources talking about their reaction to Manti Teo’s imaginary girlfriend than the suicide of Lizzy Seeberg, a 19 year old student who alleged that she was raped by a member of the Notre Dame Football Team.

The toolbox of justice is what connected Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall in President Obama’s inauguration speech.

Sometimes you find tools you didn’t know were there. A friend of mine from graduate school has Cerebral Palsy and she has done a lot of research on accessibility for people with disabilities in public parks or historical sites. I nodded along with moderate interest until last summer. My mother was suffering from tendonitis in her foot after a knee replacement surgery and I was spending Fourth of July weekend pushing her wheelchair around Atlantic City. It will be no problem at all! I thought. Lots of older people vacation there who have trouble with mobility, and after all the Americans with Disabilities Act was over 20 years ago! For the most part I was right. But when we were trying to get into a theater to see a show we had bought tickets for that was starting in 5 minutes, and the elevator wasn’t working, and the phone number on the elevator just lead to a busy signal, I felt totally helpless and angry, and I wasn’t even the person in the wheelchair. Luckily a security guard came to help us – there was another elevator just a little of the way down the hall. We thanked him profusely and I asked him to add a sign to the elevator explaining how people could access the theater. I enjoyed the show, but when I reflect on that experience I find myself thinking about all of the people for whom this type of frustration is a daily occurrence. We might see a wheelchair ramp at the entrance of a building and think everything is okay. But if we think that one ramp is enough – we are not using all of our tools.

The toolbox of Justice is a way that we can live our principles.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Privilege is, in part, not having to notice the attacks on the dignity or the injustices done of others who are not like us. But if the toolbox allows us to recognize them, then we can take steps to support our brothers and sisters in fighting them

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

It’s important to hear the lived experiences of people who are different than we are. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why someone feels excluded or hurt but we must make an effort not to be defensive or to make assumptions – we do this by listening with open hearts.

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The toolbox of Justice allows us to see the truth of others lives.

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

The toolbox of justice is one of the ways in which we can build that world.

Revelation is Not Sealed Redux

Posted in Editorials on January 24th, 2013

In April of 2012, I published a blog post called “Revelation is Not Sealed.” In July 2012, I led a service at my UU Congregation that expanded on this post. Here is the sermon I gave in full:

As the years go by and my identity as a Unitarian Universalist solidifies, I feel my appreciation of my new tradition deepening all the time. At first I was drawn to a place where I could be spiritual with others who accepted me. And this congregation is a community where I can share common values, but also where disagreements do not mean fear of expulsion.

But something I have been thinking about recently is the UU doctrine that “Revelation is not sealed.” What this means is that while there might be some good lessons in the holy books of other religions, people can still learn truths about morality, human nature and the world in a multitude of ways. As Mark Christian, from the UU Church of Las Cruces said, “we must be open to new and higher truths.”
What this also means is that Unitarian Universalist Ministers are not limited to a single volume, written in the past during a different time and place to find the words to inspire and guide their congregations.

I think of the scene in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line where Jack says

Look, J.R., if I’m going to be a preacher one day, I gotta know the bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.

To a young boy of strong Christian faith, this makes perfect sense. But in my mind, his earnestness is immediately contrasted with Julia Sweeney’s remarks in her monologue Letting Go of God about the priests who have to live this reality of trying to tell people who need their help the right story. She says,

[L]ike a big ocean wave, the force of all that I hated about this Church welled up in me; all the pompous, numbing masses, the unabated monotony of the rituals, all the desperate priests trying to tease out something meaningful from a very flawed ancient text.

I first thought about this problem after a Sunday service here about Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in stopping the Second Liberian Civil War.

I wondered how a Catholic priest could talk about Leymah Gbowee if he wanted to. There was a priest in the parish my family belonged to when I was in high school, who loved to talk about “the power of prayer.” Sometimes he quoted guests on Larry King Live or something he read in Reader’s Digest to make his point. But, as a Catholic priest, he was limited in when and how he could broach this subject – or any subject. The Catholic Church has selected Bible readings for every Sunday of the year – This lectionary is the same all over the world – on a three year cycle. So any priest only really needs three years worth of homilies for his entire life. If he wants to write more than that he can – but the readings never change. Unlike Jack, who was a protestant, Catholic priests do not even have the entire Bible at their disposal to refer to during Mass.

Current events did come up in homilies on occasion. The Catholic chaplain at my university campus often spent Sundays relating that week’s gospel to the unjustness of the Iraq War. And I will always remember the Christmas Eve Mass I attended in 2001, where the priest spoke of the Olympic Torch in Rockefeller Center, on its way to Salt Lake City, as a light of hope – we should see it as symbolic of the light of Christ – and a symbol that we would heal from the horrors of September 11. Several members of our community had been killed in the attack, and many people were comforted by his words. But they were his own words, and had little to do with the story of the Nativity he had just read.

That homily was not the norm. Most of the homilies I heard as a Catholic were much more generic. I understand perfectly what Sweeney is talking about when she refers to the “desperate priests trying to tease out something meaningful from a very flawed ancient text.”

When a priest wants to speak about an issue facing his community he faces several hurdles. First, how to relate that issue to the week’s Bible passages prescribed by the Vatican. Second, there is the possibility that the topic he wants to explore is not relatable to any of that years readings or the entire three year cycle of readings at all. Aside from a few Christmas and Easter services, I cannot remember which Gospel readings went with any of the Catholic homilies that have stayed with me through the years. The purpose of the homily is for the priest to relate the message of that week’s Bible passages to the community. But the two types of homilies I remember hearing most often were either interpretations which were exceedingly vague platitudes about being a good and forgiving person, or insightful discussions which only tangentially relate to that week’s Bible reading. It was very rare that a homily was both inspiring and clearly related to the text.

Unitarian Universalist ministers do not have this problem. I have heard UU ministers read from the Bible, or from another holy book. But more often than not they read a passage of poetry, prose, philosophy, or history that speaks to them. Sometimes these readings are written by other UU’s – and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes a reading during a UU service is not a piece of text, but music or a work of art. In this way, a congregation can address its needs, and is not frozen in time. When we believe that revelation is not sealed, we are open to learning about the world and about ourselves from every source around us. In not limiting ourselves, we can continue to grow unrestrained, and search for truth.

And the search for truth is not an easy task. As some of you may know, my husband and I both write internet blogs. Recently, anyone who reads or writes about religion online was shocked when a well known atheist blogger, Leah Libresco announced her conversion to Catholicism. As I turned her words over in my head, I found myself with a lot of questions. What would be the ideal Unitarian Universalist response to this news? Leah seemed so joyful! Was I wrong to leave the Catholic Church? But her reasoning really didn’t make any sense to me. Should I reconsider my rejection of atheism? What is Unitarian Universalism, and am I doing it right? Could I be doing it wrong? Are there some truths I will never understand?

I felt like a cat chasing a laser pointer.

But all of this thinking and questioning lead to more reading and thinking and writing and questioning. And I felt comforted that unlike both the metaphorical cat and laser pointer I’d probably be able to figure something out, and unlike Leah, I had more than just the Bible to guide me.

One thing that I have found, while reading about Unitarian Universalism, is that some of us are fond of making jokes about our denomination. One of them seems particularly relevant here:

Each religion has its own Holy Books:
Judaism has the Torah,
Islam has the Koran,
Christianity has the Bible,
and Unitarian Universalism has Roberts’ Rules of Order.

Like most UU jokes, this pokes fun at our argumentativeness and our sometimes painful earnestness. But I like the truth hidden within this joke. Roberts Rules are used to moderate discussion and bring order and equity to a heated or chaotic argument. I like the idea of using guidelines for respectful discourse as a sacred text.

This joke gets at the heart of our belief that revelation is not sealed. It says that instead of an established holy book, what we revere is a process, a journey to discover what is true and to grow spiritually.

That revelation is not sealed is a truly radical and unique idea among the world’s faiths. It is anathema to almost every other religion.

The ancient Greeks told the story of Pandora, the first woman. She is given a gift by the gods, and told not to open it. Out of sheer inquisitiveness, she does. She is human after all. And she unintentionally releases evil into the world.

Similarly, in Abrahamic traditions, Eve is told not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but she does so anyway – the Devil himself igniting her curiosity. And this is the cause for humans expulsion from paradise, pain in childbirth, toil in farming, and original sin that will stain the souls of every person born thereafter – wanting to discover the truth.

Entire books could be, and have been, written about Pandora and Eve and how they have been used to demonize women specifically, but today, I am more interested in what these stories tell us about other traditions attitudes towards the quest for knowledge. The message is made explicitly clear by the Book of Proverbs, chapter 3, verse 5. It is written,

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.

My own understanding, the power I have to learn and understand new things is a source of great joy in my life, and has been at times a spiritual experience. I remember feeling a deep sense of reverence in my high school biology class when I learned for the first time how cells replicate their DNA. Cells multiply for any number of reasons, when a new animal or person is gestating inside an egg or their mother’s womb, to repair injuries or to replace older, dying cells, the process is called mitosis. And in part of this process, a complete copy of the entire DNA of the individual organism must be made for the new cell. Specialized enzymes “unzip” the DNA, copy it, and create two separate but identical double helixes. When I finally grasped the concept, I felt like I was looking into a treasure box, that some precious secret had been revealed. My own understanding made me feel close to God.

The opposite idea, that revelation has been sealed, has stunted humanity’s growth in countless ways both spiritual and material. Limits on the creation of “graven images” slowed the development of artistic techniques. Prohibitions of dissection impeded the progress of biology and life saving medicine. Today, Biblical literalists would curtail the rights of women and LGBT people throughout the world – all because of the command to lean not on our own understanding, but instead to trust that all we need to know is contained within a single volume.

By contrast, in Unitarian Universalism, we have the freedom to cherish these texts as holy if we choose, but we are also free to follow our conscience if they are teaching something that is not right. This is an awesome freedom, as the possibilities are endless, so it should be treated with respect.

As UU’s we have real power to use what we learn not only in our day to day lives, but in our congregations and in our denomination. Unlike those of other faiths bound by unchanging texts in a constantly changing world, we can change our ways in response to new understandings, and we have come to believe that there are times when we MUST change.

This is why UU’s were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, in the Feminist Movement, and why we were among the first denominations to marry same sex couples in the United States. This is why UU’s from across the country have protested Arizona’s unjust and dehumanizing immigration law. This is why we undertake extensive projects to learn how to unlearn all we have absorbed from our toxic culture of bigotry and hatred. Our ability to learn from past mistakes is what has inspired our campaign to stand on the side of love.

I am proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. And I am inspired by the idea that the universe contains truths that I have yet to learn. When we say that we believe that revelation is not sealed, we are saying that we are open to spiritual growth. When we say that we believe revelation is not sealed, we are saying that we know that we could be holding ideas that are wrong, and that we are open to changing them. When we say that we believe that revelation is not sealed, we are saying that we accept the awesome responsibility of our search for truth.

What’s Wrong With The Lingerie Football League?

Posted in Editorials on January 22nd, 2013

Last week, the entity previously known as the “Lingerie Football League” made an announcement. It will now be known as the “Legends Football League, and

-Performance wear replaces all lingerie aspects of uniform.
-New design of logos removing any sexy female figures.
-Redesign of shoulder pads to increase protection.
-Brand tagline shifts from ‘True Fantasy Football’ to ‘Women of the Gridrion

To be honest, I expect the new uniform to be just as revealing – the video accompanying the announcement shows women lifting weights in sports bras and short shorts instead of frilly bras and panties.

I don’t object to the idea of skimpy uniforms just because they are skimpy. There is nothing wrong with the idea of erotic performance in general. But I do object to the LFL on the grounds of workers rights and human rights (Hat Tip, Fit and Feminist):

1. LFL Players don’t get paid a salary. They get a percentage of the box office for each game, depending on whether or not they win, and this money rarely amounts to minimum wage.

2. Playing a full contact sport in a uniform designed for sex appeal rather than safety is extremely dangerous. LFL players frequently suffer rug burns from playing tackle football in their underwear, which can lead to nasty infections.

“We were sustaining really severe turf burns … because we had basically elbow pads and knee pads that you could just buy at the dollar store,” said Poles, who added that she got a staph infection from the burns after the league’s championship game last February.

Even more serious is the risk of head and neck injury. The players do not wear Football helmets that other leagues use, (even women’s leagues who wear traditional uniforms) and their shoulder pads have not been adequate for the game they are playing.

“We were given shoulder pads but no helmets, and were engaging in contact at practice,” one player told me. Players say they observed multiple injuries that they believed to be concussions during practices.

Even after helmets showed up, the head injury concerns didn’t abate. According to players, the league sent them helmets that were totally inappropriate for football and had them modify the helmets themselves in dangerous ways.

“Two weeks before the game, we were sent hockey helmets and were asked to drill and attach football chinstraps and visors ourselves,” one player said. “The coaches, of course, helped. This drilling compromised the integrity of the helmet.”

Players said the safety concerns went well beyond just the helmets, though.

“More extreme concerns arose when our shoulder pads arrived a month before the game, and they were boys’ pads with a maximum weight restriction of 120 pounds,” one player said. “The majority of girls on the team weigh more than that.”

Although the recent press release notes that the shoulder pads have been resdesigned, there is no mention of a change in helmets, and this is a matter of life or death.

3. Medical treatment for injuries sustained during games or team practices are not covered by the league.

A player’s primary insurance policy is used to cover any injuries resulting from a league-mandated practice or game, according to a 2010-11 Chicago Bliss contract obtained by the Star. If the player does not have a primary policy, she can opt to pay $250 (U.S.) for a league policy that covers injury up to $10,000.

“A $10,000 cap is not going to cover any type of severe injury,” Poles said. “There are a significant number of players that are no longer playing because their insurance didn’t cover injuries.”

Natasha Lindsey, a former quarterback and captain for the Seattle Mist from April 2009 to October 2010, is suing the league for $10,000 worth of unpaid medical bills. Lindsey tore ligaments in her knee last October during the Bliss’ season opener and said she spent $16,000 on surgery plus rehab costs.

“During my injury, I was not given any insurance information by the league to help pay for any bills, although the league kept my paycheque for the first game for the ($250) insurance deductible,” she said in an email. “It took the league three months to get me an MRI and another three months to contemplate even paying half of my surgery.”

4. The league opposes the creation of a players union. Most other professional sports leagues in the United States are unionized, even niche ones like the WNBA, MLS and professional lacrosse.


Until serious changes are made to the actual terms of employment and safety protection of the players, it doesn’t matter if the name has changed from “Lingerie” to “Legends,” or if the uniforms now cover a few more inches of skin. That no player has yet been killed or paralyzed during a game is a matter of sheer luck. It’s clear that LFL puts profit and fan enjoyment/titillation over the health and lives of the players, and this is unconscionable.

How To Be A Woman

Posted in Book Reviews on January 17th, 2013

I picked up Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman over the summer in London. It’s part memoir and part Feminism 101. In the beginning of the book, Moran describes herself as an awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on Chevy Chase. I settled in hoping for the best. But while Moran is good at naming sexism and patriarchy, she’s not very clear on blaming it.

Moran explains her two step test for spotting sexism:

Is this polite or not? And, are men doing it too?

This is excellent. It’s a very simple thing to understand and can be explained without the use of jargon or making anyone feel defensive.

But then Moran goes on to say that she thinks the cause of sexism in the world is just that men are used to being the people with the most power and resources. And men don’t like the idea of losing that special status. This is not an original observation, but instead of expecting men to reject patriarchy as a matter of justice and embrace equality rationally, we should understand their actions as logical. You see, the reason for sexist behavior from men is that,

A quiet voice inside – suppressed, but never wholly silenced – says, “If women are the true equals of men, where’s the proof?

For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female, citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies tribes and Cleopatra – can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the past 100,000 years. Come on – let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative on equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There just isn’t. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians, and icons could all fit, comfortably into one of the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Ghandi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.

Nearly everything so far has been the creation of men – and a liberal, right-on denial of it makes everything more awkward and difficult in the long run. Pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men, that the experiment of female liberation has already happened but floundered gives strength to the belief that women simply aren’t as good as men, full stop. That things should just carry on as they are – with the world shaped around and honouring, the priorities, needs, whims, and successes of men. Women are over without having been begun. When the truth is that women haven’t begun at all. Of course we haven’t. We’ll know it when we have.

There are several problems with this. First that “everything so far has been the creation of men” is just a flat out myth. There have been many brilliant women artists, architects, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians, and icons. We know the names of some, others have had their work stolen by men or posed as men when they were making their contributions. Moran is either severely uneducated in women’s history or is just plain disingenuous.

Secondly, when we celebrate women’s contributions to the world, we aren’t “pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men.” We are celebrating women that achieved in spite of the odds. We are saying, Look at what these women did, even though they everything about their culture or was telling them they could not! Isn’t that great?! Imagine what women could do if they didn’t have any of this bullshit to deal with all of the time!

And third, it’s a cop-out. Men are capable of understanding nuance just as easily as women are. If they really don’t know why there aren’t as many famous women as men in history, and because of this they don’t think that there’s a problem with the way women are treated, then they are a lost cause. And we should tell them so. Women taking their rightful place in society is not an act of aggression toward men. And there’s no reason to soothe men’s egos if they imagine this to be an insult.

Later in the book, Moran returns to this point and says that women are still trying to come to terms with not being chattel anymore, and with throwing off the psychological scars of oppression. She does this much more conversationally, but she also explains that this is why she thinks women haven’t caught up with men yet. I can agree with this, but again, there’s no reason not to celebrate the accomplishments of women in the past.

In a chapter about strip clubs, Moran writes,

Women have been shafted by the simple fact that men fancy them. We can see that men’s desire for women has, throughout history given way to unspeakable barbarity.

This idea that men cannot control themselves is one of the biggest myths of rape culture.

Moran goes on to say that strip clubs are the “light entertainment versions of the entire history of misogyny” and then compares them to minstrel shows. There’s several comparisons in the book of women’s oppression and racism. I think that this can be done sensitively, but the book draws the parallel in a very blunt way. Moran does say that she sees space for the erotic in our culture and praises the art of burlesque accordingly. But to blame sex workers and not the men who abuse and degrade them misses the mark completely.

Despite all this, How To Be A Woman might be worth the read just for the humor. Moran is extremely funny. But the analysis behind the jokes falls short. There is a lot of good stuff in this book which calls out sexism in pop culture, double standards and toxic messages women get about body image and motherhood. However I think there are some parts that could be confusing to someone just starting out with feminism who might not have a good grasp on intersectionality or the many different kinds of feminists that are out there.

The Happiness Myth: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy

Posted in Book Reviews on January 15th, 2013

Right now, we know more about our universe than ever before. But as we advance in knowledge, are we advancing in happiness? Jennifer Michael Hecht explores the idea of happiness from a historical and philosophical perspective in The Happiness Myth. The book challenges popular notions about what should make us happy.

Hecht explains about how ideas about happiness have changed over time, and how even though we might be living longer and having more material wealth than ever before people report that they are basically as happy as they were in 1950. After a basic overview on happiness advice throughout the ages, she explores ideas about drugs, money, our bodies, and celebrations and what they meant to different people in different times and places and explains how we might use this knowledge to make ourselves happier today. Often this is a matter of reconsidering notions that “everyone knows” to be true. For example, in the past, people spoke rapturously of how tea or coffee made them feel. Today, we value these beverages first and foremost for the way they increase our productivity. Or, that women used or wear restrictive corsets or girdles to achieve an hourglass figure. Now, women are expected to look just as shapely through diet and exercise alone. I was especially fascinated by the descriptions of the Greek Festivals and how they might compare to today’s parades and holidays.

One of the things I liked about this book was how it challenged a lot of assumptions I hold that I haven’t given much thought to. And every time it happened, I was more amused to consider why I thought what I thought instead of feeling defensive or sheepish.

The Happiness Myth drives home the point that “there is nothing new under the sun,” but instead of using it as an admonishment, it’s meant to provide comfort and guidance for the future.

Hecht encourages us to get out and see for ourselves if what our culture is telling us really true, or if people from the past might have had a better idea on how to be happy. The book isn’t an argument for a return to any bygone era but rather a critical examination of current assumptions with a little help from those who came before us.

The Incoherence of Anti-Choice Politics

Posted in Editorials on January 10th, 2013

The anti-choice movement in the United States is one that seeks to outlaw abortion. This is not only morally abhorrent in terms of denying women bodily autonomy, but also incredibly poorly crafted public policy. Very few of its proponents can explain how this prohibition would work. The pro-choice movement would do well to understand exactly how weak this position is from a practical standpoint.

There was a long period of American history when legal abortion was not available. Leslie J Regan’s book When Abortion Was Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867 – 1973 documents the history of the era well. Often, doctors would perform abortions in secret and with varying degrees of safety. Women died of infections, and were often refused medical treatment in hospitals unless they would reveal the name of their doctor. The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service by Laura Kaplan tells the story of the secret group of women who provided abortions in Chicago in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The book tells the stories of the women who took great personal risk to get the abortions they needed and of the women who organized the illegal abortions to make them as safe as possible. From these books and other historical documents we can see that even when abortion was illegal, women still sought them out. Even in the present, abortion rates are generally the same, regardless of the legality of the procedure.

Although it was only 41 years ago that these laws were in place, the anti-choice movement seems to have a very short term memory as to how the law used to be – and a surprising difficulty in articulating what exactly the law should say if they were in charge.

Anti-choice protesters can’t explain whether or not a woman who gets an abortion should go to jail and why.

Rick Berg (R-ND) won’t say whether or not a rape victim who gets an abortion should go to jail.

Even if we concede that anti-choicers would eventually decide on legal punishments for doctors and/or women involved in abortion, as they had done in this country in the past, it is also important to ask questions about how this law would be enforced. Would the tactics of the past be used? Would we codify that women admitted into emergency rooms for complications due to an illegal abortion be refused treatment unless they reveal the name of their doctor? Would a woman caught attempting to abort her pregnancy be placed in jail until she gives birth? Would we look to the models in place in other countries?

In communist Romania:

Monthly gynecological examinations for all women of childbearing age were instituted, even for pubescent girls, to identify pregnancies in the earliest stages and to monitor pregnant women to ensure that their pregnancies came to term.

This is a horrific violation of human rights. But it is robust public policy. This type of draconian enforcement is necessary to actually eradicate abortion, instead of just making it more difficult or more dangerous as was the case in America’s past.

In fact, this same policy is used in China to force women to get abortions in order to uphold their one child policy:

Every village has a family planning committee and in some, women of childbearing age are required to have pregnancy tests every three months.

In El Salvador, women who go to the hospital for miscarriages are investigated because they are suspected of procuring an abortion. Would American anti-choicers go this far? What would constitute probable cause that a woman had an abortion? A late period? A miscarriage? An infection? Who would keep track of all American womens’ bodies?

Whenever a person declares that abortion should be illegal in the United States, these are the facts we must present them. These are the questions we must ask. They must know the logical conclusion to the policy they are proposing. Even if they think they are speaking of religion or morality – they in fact suggesting a radical change to our laws and to our way of life. This must be made clear. That they have not thought it out this far suggests an ignorance as to how government works, and fantastical belief that simply declaring something to be wrong means that it will stop happening.


For further reading – How Would A Rape Exception Work?

The Angry Feminist, “TERFs,” Tone Arguments, and Punching Down

Posted in Editorials on January 8th, 2013

Last week, I had a comment of mine deleted from /r/feminisms by a moderator. Someone had posted a link to several blog posts by Natalie Reed of Freethought blogs about transfeminism. Several commenters showed up who appeared to be “TERFS” (Trans* Exclusionary Radical Feminists). They suggested the ridiculous and bigoted notion that trans* women are trying to usurp feminism.

The discussion also touched on the following tweets by Julia Serano:

Rather than seeing Serano as calling for inclusion, they saw her words as an attack on feminism itself. It strikes me as sadly ironic that they cannot see their vitriol toward trans* women as being comparable to the racism and homophobia of feminisms past.

In response to a comment that:

feminism at its core is about the oppression of women as a sexual class by men.

I responded:

That’s generally accepted to be the definition of radical feminism.

Colloquially, feminism is a movement for the equality of people regardless of sex or gender.

Reproductive justice is a concept that arises out of feminism, but it encompasses more than just access to abortion, and people other than cis women. It overlaps with movements for racial justice, workers rights and yes, trans* issues.

reproductive justice is a concept that links reproductive rights with social justice. The reproductive justice movement arose in the late 1980s as an attempt by these organizations to expand the rhetoric of reproductive rights that focused primarily on choice within the abortion debate and was seen to restrict the dialogue to those groups of women they felt could make such a choice in the first place. In addition to advocating as do traditional reproductive rights platforms for the access of women to birth control, reproductive justice provides a framework that focuses additional attention on the social, political, and economic inequalities among different communities that contribute to infringements of reproductive justice.

a social justice movement rooted in the belief that individuals and communities should have the resources and power to make sustainable and liberatory decisions about their bodies, genders, sexualities, and lives.

So go be an angry TERF and fade into obscurity. Or join the 21st century, and realize that while cis women are oppressed because some people think of us as incubators – that’s not the only way women are oppressed and it shouldn’t always be the center of feminist discussion at all times and places for ever and ever until the heat death of the universe.

She called me “disingenuous.” And then my comment was deleted. Because:

there is never a need to invoke the “angry feminist” derailment, and it’s extremely disappointing to see a self-avowed feminist use it.

I replied that I was extremely disappointed to see /r/feminisms so friendly with trans* exclusionary radicals.

Yellowmix, the moderator, said I was being “antifeminist.”

I contacted her in private message and offered to revise my comment to get rid of the part where I said the that other commenter was “angry” if she really cared that much about not having tone arguments. She replied that I would also have to remove the terms “TERF,” “fade into obscurity,” and “join the 21st century” because they were “marginalizing.”

In saying that the other commenter was an “angry TERF,” was I making a tone argument? I don’t think I was. My favorite definition of what a tone argument is comes from The Unapologetic Mexican but there are other good ones too. A tone argument is when you stick your fingers in your ears and saying “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU WHEN YOU ARE SO MAD. MAYBE IF YOU WERE NICE TO ME I’D GIVE YOU WHAT YOU WANT” to a person who is righteously angry about their own oppression. Generally, there’s also a power differential, and the person making the tone argument is privileged as to not experience the harms the less privileged person is speaking out about. That was not the case here. I was saying that if you want to be exclusionary, you will be passed by. Feminism is a big tent, and must be so. She could still keep her righteous anger at the patriarchy, at anti-choicers, at people or institutions standing between her and her rights. The problem is her misidentification of trans* women in general and Julia Serano specifically as being somehow responsible for her oppression as a woman. Serano said she felt alienated by the current discourse. That is in no way a threat to anyone’s rights.

There is also the matter of how to interpret people who are punching down instead of punching up. That is, whether or not the person you are attacking as more or less privilege than you do. It would be unreasonable for someone to say that referring a group of racists as “Angry White Men” is making a tone argument. When I made the comments I did, I wasn’t making a sexist claim that anger isn’t ever appropriate for women or denying that there are legitimate reasons for feminists to be angry. I was making an argument that her energies would be better spent elsewhere, and that her position that trans* women are a threat to feminism is blatantly false, complicit in the greater harms of transphobia, and has no place in the future of the movement.

Finally, I want to emphasize that the reason I wrote this post was because I want to draw attention to questionable moderating policies on /r/feminisms, and to explain the comments I made that were deleted. I’m thinking a lot about what Natalie Reed wrote about the difference between call-out culture and genuine discourse:

When someone says something transphobic or cissexist, that presents an opportunity for discussing that with the person, pointing out how/why what they said was messed up, and hopefully, slowly, gradually, helping steer that person (and those within earshot, and communities and cultures as a whole) towards greater trans awareness and sensitivity.
Rather than treating instances of transphobia and cissexism in your communities as an opportunity to show off what an ally you are, and exercise your internet smackdown skills, and hurt someone who “deserves” it, treat it as an opportunity to bring genuine trans discussion into the space, and strategically work towards improvement.

I think I fell short of this standard. I didn’t resort to name calling or slurs, and I wasn’t trying to show off. But I probably could have been more patient.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Posted in Book Reviews on January 3rd, 2013

Rachel Held Evans is an American Christian from Tennessee. Her book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” is an attempt to live by according to the rules Bible prescribes out for women.

Evans writing is very accessible, and she’s immediately likeable. I do wish that she would have explained exactly what her theology is though. I see that on her blog she has said she is not a fundamentalist, but that doesn’t offer much. What exactly does she believe about the Bible? Her faith in God and Jesus are apparent, but after that I don’t know much about her beliefs. And if I don’t know what she believes, it’s hard to know what she’s asking for when she calls for reform in the way Christians view women and the Bible.

Each month, Evans focuses on a different aspect of Biblical Womanhood – modesty, purity, obedience, etc. Some people would call this a cop-out. But I understand why she did it. One of the overarching themes of the book is that any one rule could be emotionally crippling or logistically impossible. To follow them all at once would lead to burnout and not as interesting of a narrative. She studies each topic in depth and applies what she learns to the next.

One thing I was reminded of is that the Bible contains misogynist ideas that are still with us today. That women are gossips, that they lie about being raped, that they are the other and require special rules to be constrained.

I think the most fascinating part of the book was when Evans and some of her friends held a mourning ceremony to remember women in the Bible who were killed or abused. She was inspired by the passage in the Bible that says “From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah.”

It’s easy to see why this book makes some Christians uncomfortable. She writes of Mary,

That a woman who managed to be both a virgin and a mother is often presented as God’s standard for womanhood and can be frustrating for those of us who have to work within the constraints of physical law.

She writes about her doubts, and her “pesky insecurities” in her faith, facing them head on.

Evans comes to the conclusion that there is “no such thing as Biblical womanhood.” There are too many contradictions, too many proscriptions and too many impossible demands for one woman to embody them all. It was gratifying for me to see her come to the conclusion she had been building all along. However, as a Unitarian Universalist, I am not limited to the Bible in my search for truth or in my spiritual practice. I am not bothered by the idea that it is possible to pick and choose what you need from the Bible. I think that Evans makes a strong case for this when she says that Christians should spend more time with the troubling parts of the Bible and not less. It’s important to understand why you believe what you believe and also why you reject what you do not believe.

Even if I’m not exactly sure how she defines it, Evans lives her faith and is not afraid to ask questions. This is a refreshing contribution to the discussion about the conflict between religion and feminism.

Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser

Posted in Book Reviews on January 1st, 2013

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist writer and activist. Her book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews with Hideous Men delves into pickup artist culture and examines it from a feminist perspective. But in doing so, Thorn takes us with her on a journey that’s equal parts exposé, personal memoir, social commentary and feminist critique.

This is a book about insecurity. Both the insecurities of the author and of the men she “chases.” I tried to keep an open mind, and while I don’t know if I can be persuaded that there is anything redeeming about pickup artist culture as it currently exists, I was very curious to see why a self-identified feminist thinks so.

Thorn writes about sex with a focus on BDSM from a feminist perspective. In the book, she spends a lot of time drawing a parallel between kinksters and the pickup artist community. She explains how people who engage in BDSM need strong communication and negotiation skills. This compares negatively with PUAs who think little of women’s consent. And yet, coming from a community where sexual negotiation is extremely specific, she is intrigued by the way some pickup artists are more ambiguous in their approach.

The book follows Thorn through her interviews with pickup artists, and also tells the story of her relationship with a man she met while writing the book. It’s very good, and I found myself wishing that the entire book was a novel singularly focused on this romance.

What I found irritating about this book is the lengths to which the author went to cover up for pickup artists, and the number of qualifiers she added to almost any criticism of their tactics.

Maybe there were some PUAs who talked about fatties and warpigs and hot bitches more because that was the subcultures social standard, and less because they thought that was a reasonable way to discuss actual people. But I couldn’t help it; I disliked them for it nonetheless.

Why would she apologize for disliking men who refer to women as pigs and bitches? She goes on to say (emphasis original):

There were a few guys in the PUA subculture who I liked – who I even trusted – who never used the worst PUA Language and never tripped my misogyny meter.

Perhaps they were self censoring? How could anyone who wasn’t a seething misogynist keep the company of those who were without absorbing some of it? The book describes how spending time with these men causes Thorn much turmoil. Why wouldn’t it have the same effect on anyone else?

Thorn writes about how much she wants the pickup artists to like her, even though it starts to take an emotional toll on her. The more time Thorn spends with them, the more confused, insecure and depressed she feels.

I never had the guts to ask PUA acquaintances to rate me on the number scale. Just thinking about it makes me feel queasy and anxious.

Perhaps because it’s supposed to? “Rating” women is a way for these men to feel more powerful than the women they are attracted to. If it was uplifting and life-affirming, it wouldn’t placate their fragile egos. They are taking advantage of your insecurities to feel better about their own.

Emphasis original:

I can’t deny that I wanted PUA’s approval.
I wanted to feel the judgement of men who spend all their time judging women’s fuckability.

What isn’t clear is if she wanted their approval from the start, or if it arose from spending so much time around men who work hard at getting women to crave their approval. The title of the book is about this dynamic – we are warned that this is a confession of someone seeking the approval of PUA’s. I’m not the only one who noticed this.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, wanting to be wanted, wanting to be hot and fuckable. But to want it from men who have such toxic attitudes about women can lead to nothing good. Thorn starts to analyze her own (meticulously negotiated) relationships by PUA metrics, and of course they fall short. She admits she is developing a bit of a fetish about pickup artists, but instead of thinking about the harm this can do to herself, she scolds herself all the more harshly:

I didn’t yet recognize that I was doing exactly what feminists complain PUAs do to women: viewing these guys primarily as objects.

Despite all of this, Thorn does an excellent job of analyzing pickup artist methods and explaining what’s wrong with the coercive and manipulative techniques. She provides extensive appendices and even explains her own classification of the different types of men that get involved with this subculture. My biggest problem with her analysis though, is not just that she is very generous to pickup artists or how effusively she praises the ones who are not blatantly sexist or abusive but how her own words contradict her argument that there are some good things about pickup artistry.

Emphasis added:

Hypothetically, PUA advice could fill the gaps left by S&M and polyamorous advice. But generally speaking, typical PUA writings emphasize manipulation and objectification and unspoken communication whereas typical S&M and polyamory writings emphasize straightforwardness and mutuality and direct verbal communication.

There’s a lot of discussion in this book about what Thorn calls “strategic ambiguity” and how some people like to flirt and play around without being explicit about their intentions, and how that is a part of the fun. That’s all well and good, but there’s a difference between being coy and being manipulative. This is an important distinction that someone as thoughtful as Thorn must understand and appreciate. Yet somehow, a body of work that typically “emphasize[s] manipulation and objectification” has many redeeming qualities? This frustrated me to no end.

It gets worse when Thorn dives in to the most vile PUAs who encourage each other to rape. When a woman says no to sex when she has been making out with a PUA, or when they are in a place where they might have sex, this is called “Last Minute Resistance.” And there are a number of “tactics” PUAs are supposed to use when they encounter this to try to get to have sex anyway, instead of just taking no for an answer. Some of them called “freeze outs” are about being passive aggressive and pouting, while other PUAs advise to just keep going and ignore what she says, until she says no at least three times, or “unless she really says NO!

Thorn explains in detail why these approaches will most likely lead to sexual assault. But this is somehow not enough to turn her away from the entire community.

There’s even more slime to be uncovered (emphasis original):

[I]t’s hard to avoid thinking that PUAs don’t care about how women actually feel, just how women act. It makes it sound like the priority is not a partner who feels okay; rather the priority is an object that provides an orgasm.

These are Thorn’s own words, her own analysis. And it contrasts harshly with the flirtations she has with pickup artists throughout the book. Many of the men see her as a challenge and hit on her unabashedly. She doesn’t go along as a ploy to get more information or view the advances as evidence that these men don’t take her writing seriously. These sexually charged interactions are savored and recounted almost pruriently. I think we are meant to swoon, although I found myself gagging and rolling my eyes instead.

Thorn is not unaware of how problematic her titillation with the subculture is. In addition to writing a feminist analysis of pickup artist culture, Thorn writes extensively about how all of this makes her feel.

Emphasis original:

There was something so hot about the idea of pickup…but at the same time, so many PUAs are so focused on using women, and I heard so much self-justification for ideas that made my skin crawl. I felt such satisfaction in “turning tables on that bullshit, I occasionally lost sight of the fact that PUAs are real people. Presumably, that’s how misogynist PUA’s feel about women.

Gotta love those adversarial gender roles.

There’s a lot to unpack there. And as distasteful as I find her argument that her intrigue was on par with our culture’s routine objectification of women, I have to admire her brutal honesty and self assessment. An entire book could have been written about Thorn’s conflicting feelings of attraction and disgust at PUA culture, and how this conflict led to a meta analysis that filled her with doubt. Asking for more seems almost like too personal and to demanding of a request. But this underlying conflict fueled most of the narrative. It’s impossible to separate Thorn’s analysis from her visceral attraction to the idea of pickup and by association to the men who engage in it. She is self aware enough to be reliable. And this should not be ignored by anyone who reads the book.

In an interview with Neil Strauss, Thorn called wading through the pickup artist community “panning for gold in a sewer.” I think that would have made a perfect subtitle for her book. Pickup Artists frequently say that men who are a part of their community have “gone down the rabbit hole.” Confessions is about a woman trying to climb out of it.