On my Nightstand: Books, April 30*

Every Sunday I’ll be checking in with a book list of what I’m reading.

Larsson, Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, book
cover art, Random house

My before bed reading is the third book in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson. I love mysteries and thrillers for my fun reading, and I really dug the Swedish films based on this series. So I’m finally finishing it.

Kondo, spark joy, book
Cover art, Random House

In addition, I’m also reading Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy. Slowly. I never read her other book and it was out at the library when I popped in last week, so I picked up Joy instead. I haven’t read too far, and I’ll probably write a full post about Spark Joy once I finish. Her basic ethos suits me, even if I don’t entirely agree with it.

Classes end this week, so my only work reading is papers.

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase one of these books from Amazon, I get some cash to put towards hosting fees.

 

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Pitting Women Against Each Other

anti-feminism
photo credit charmaineyoest.com

In the last several years we’ve talked about a “War on Women,” and were told—repeatedly, endlessly, largely by men but also some women—that such a thing did not exist. And then we saw Hillary Clinton’s campaign (for all its foibles) eviscerated by the press, who refused to condemn the lies of the now-president while running huge headlines about Clinton’s email. And lo, we were then told not to worry so much, because you know, 45 wasn’t really a Republican. He totally believed at one point in abortion rights. Don’t mind his near-fundamentalist vice president. There is no war on women. Then yesterday, he appointed Charmaine Yoest to run the Health and Human Services (HHS) department.

This is some peak wiliness in the War on Women, which clearly still exists.

Yoest doesn’t believe in scientific research. She does believe, however, for reasons unexplained, that IUDs cause deaths. She refers to pro-choice people as the “Abortion Lobby.” She suggests the relationship between birth control availability and abortion is a false one, promoted as a media narrative but a “red herring” the “abortion lobby” uses somehow for nefarious reasons. Oh, and she says abortion causes breast cancer, but has no evidence.

Let’s parse out how all of this stuff works.

First, 45 can claim he is not anti-woman or participating in any kind of war on women because he named a woman to the post. They’ll chuckle at us for even asking. It’s a political tool but a point that many no doubt actually believe: that simply having women present is synonymous with working on behalf of women. While the two can indeed correlate, they do not always, and the correlation is more often than not a political ploy. You see, when we resist—when we call out the appointment of someone like Yoest—politicians can then tut-tut at us for failing to support our fellow women in office. Wily.

The role of the Health and Human Services Department is like an enormous version of the health department where you live, with far more clout. Its job is to maintain and promote the health of its citizens—all of its citizens. It’s also responsible for some service provision, as per the title. The National Institute for Health, a major player in science research, is part of the HHS.

When someone like Yoest—who questions scientific findings based on no rebutting science but on, evidently, her desires—runs the NIH, we have a problem, generally speaking.

Furthermore, her job is to assist all citizens.

Reproductive health care and easy access to contraception is a major part of women’s lives so that they might control their own fertility. Only by controlling one’s own fertility does a woman truly control her life’s potential paths. Charmaine Yoest does not believe in ready access to contraception, and her statements about the IUD suggest a deliberate scare tactic to keep women from long-form contraception. Yoest, it seems, is pro-pregnancy, but not pro-women.

When the government puts women like Yoest in charge of the HHS, it’s a form of gaslighting the rest of us, women who call out the government for its patriarchal chauvinism. Such a move implies (wait for it—it’s coming. No doubt it’s in article comments already) that when we critique her appointment, we are fighting against ourselves. The War on Women hits a new low with such moves, as we fear for both our bodily autonomy and control while also running the risk of descending into infighting over Yoest’s appointment. We will not be cowed.

J.

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“Retail Therapy”

Even though Hulu frontloaded 3 episodes of Handmaid’s Tale, I’m going to put off chatting about them to get started on another, recurring segment: Finance Fridays! Let’s talk about money.

By way of introduction to this segment, let’s talk about “retail therapy.”

Y’all know what that is, and I suspect most of you have done it at one point or another. Akin to “eating your feelings” (my preferred default for days when I’m frustrated—hello, m&ms), “retail therapy” is when we take to the mall to deal with our anger, frustration, a long week, a bad meeting, a rough paper, you name it. We buy ourselves a few things to ease that pain, and then many of us feel a different pain when the credit card bill comes in. Sound familiar?

“Retail therapy” is a phrase I’ve primarily heard women use, and this makes sense: we live in a culture in which women do a great deal of the shopping and have for decades. We also live in a culture in which we celebrate shopping as a women’s activity. Dealing with our feelings by spending money is, by logical extension, a feminized activity. Shopping aimlessly is a routine choice for women’s outings together–it’s also a cultural norm. As an aside, when I took students to a new state—a new city—for a conference recently, the first night they wanted to go to the mall. They were both broke. This shit is pervasive.

shopping lady, money
I mean, just look at this ridiculous stock photo.

Longer-term Repercussions

The consequence of this feminization of shopping—combined with other issues, like the pay gap, the generally lower pay in feminized industries in which women predominantly work, and women’s periodic departure from the work force in order to give birth, all despite their higher numbers in colleges and universities—is that women carry far more consumer debt than men. US News reported in 2015 that,

“63 percent of women ages 18 to 24 carried some credit card debt, but only 36 percent of men in that age category had any debt. Similarly, 66 percent of women ages 55 to 64 carried credit card debt, but only 33 percent of men in that age bracket had credit card debt.” (Abby Hayes, 6.25.15, http://bit.ly/1JoZLok)

Consumer debt is arguably far worse than other kinds, as the interest rates are much higher, meaning that what you owe increases dramatically over time. Needing to pay that debt off, particularly when combined with other bills such as student loans and the like, yields another troublesome picture. According to a 2014 Forbes article,

“A new LearnVest.com survey found that an American woman’s retirement nest egg totals approximately $150,000, on average, while a man’s comes in at roughly $235,000. That’s a 57% difference!” (Jane Bianchi, 2.12.14, http://bit.ly/2qen0k7)

All of this is gendered; make no mistake. We’ll come back to these various categories in the weeks to come, but for now, try to keep yourself out of the shops this weekend. The weather in much of the country is gorgeous this time of year, so get outside with your friends rather than head to the mall. I’ll leave the m&ms alone, too.

Next week, we’ll discuss budgeting: knowing where your cash is going so as to better give it direction.

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“Ordinary is What You’re Used To”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Episode 1

handmaid's tale frontispiece
photo credit: hulu.com

Rather than a review of the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve decided to take an element and talk about it in the context of our current political climate. I figure hot takes and warm takes and cold takes are all over the internet right now, so it doesn’t need another from me.

[In short, I felt the episode did much of what I remember the book doing: it pulls you into this terrifyingly plausible world by juxtaposing the Handmaids’ recent pre-revolution past with their horrific present, the change documented not just by the clothes worn, the greetings shared, and the wariness of all, but—subtly—by the growth in Offred’s hair. You get a sense of how much time has passed when you see it’s grown six inches.]

[Also: I’m assuming that you have a basic understanding of the story, but if not, here you go. Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is the main character, a woman who is a Handmaid in this post-revolutionary world, living in the Republic of Gilead. The revolution comes when birthrates fall precipitously and many women have become barren, a problem chalked up to the environmental crisis. Women here are entirely the property of men and fall into five categories—Wives, who are generally infertile and married to powerful men; Handmaids, who are fertile women compelled to be breeders; Marthas, women who for reasons I can’t recall are basically the cooks, housekeepers; Aunts, who are the strict, cruel teachers and enforcers of the Handmaids; and Un-women, women who don’t fall into these categories and were sent to have short, brutal lives serving in The Colonies, cleaning up toxic waste. Moira (Samira Wiley), dear friend of Offred, saw her wife sent there in a “dyke roundup.”]

That Said

For this post I’m taking a quote from one of the Aunts—Lydia, head Aunt—who presides over indoctrination at the Red Center, the place Handmaids are taken to be, essentially, broken: “Ordinary is what you are used to.” This phrase serves as her consolation to terrified women sitting in the Center. This concept forms the core of most dictatorships, large and small. People are remarkably adaptable. We can face tremendous, horrible, life-shattering events and find a way to navigate what’s replaces them. Over time, those events lose the sharpness of their edges and what remains simply become the way of things.

handmaid's tale
June, pre-revolution
Photo credit: hulu.com

At the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale, we see Offred trying to escape the revolution by fleeing through the woods of Maine, seeking the Canadian border. She’s on the run with her daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Luke. What had once been their normal has now become illegal; freedom of movement has been suspended, and women deprived of all citizenship and forced into their new roles. Men with machine guns are everywhere to keep them in line, and the Eyes—secret watchers who report infractions to the authorities—make even private conversations impossible. Offred—whose original name, June, is revealed in this episode, in contrast to the book’s silence on the topic—is hunted down by men in full military gear. The new regime forbids her independence, her clothes, her role as mother to her own child. And so they seize her.

It’s a meaningful shift: what was once normal is illegal. Ordinary life ceases. And then, in a fully ordinary way—albeit a deeply repressive one—life goes on.

We can tut-tut that such a shift is the stuff of traditional dystopias.

But we can also look around us right this very minute and see the ways in which our lives are subtly changing, and how we’re beginning to take them as ordinary. We might be horrified, we might protest, but life continues, at least for many of us, more or less as it was prior.

And in a parallel of sorts, we can see the ways in which this shift—the acceptance of a new, dystopian ordinary—revolves around the silencing of women and in our case, people of color.

The large dystopian present has to do with 45 (my synonym for He Who Shall Not be Named): on any given day (see @Amy_Siskind on twitter for a weekly roundup) he engages in any number of acts that would have landed Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in endless investigations, but which only seem to infuriate some of the people, some of the time. That’s how revolutions, however slow, however negative, can happen. Most people don’t care. Change happens, and suddenly our ordinary is different, as a consequence of apathy.

For example, look at the accelerated pace of ICE raids.

The ways agents stalk their prey—and that’s exactly how many treat the people they’re looking for, as prey—at their homes, schools, churches, even in court. Where once law-abiding (albeit undocumented) residents had been widely tolerated as a battle not worth picking, the same people now find their everyday has changed dramatically. Like June, they have to watch their backs, their children, some not even leaving their homes lest an ICE raid bust up their family. We now have stories of families running for Canada, through the woods, to secure their safety. The raids, which often seize parents and put them in detention centers [Red Center, anyone?] essentially force kids into foster care. That, in fact, burdens the system—a system people claim is fraught because of undocumented people. It’s terrible, and it’s becoming ordinary, particularly as many Americans can go on as though it’s not happening.

In the meantime, we watch our government become a source of cash into one man’s personal coffers as he turns the now-widely-understaffed branches into his own nepotistic advantage, leaving our country woefully unable to negotiate diplomacy, nevermind pursue the wars he’s consistently threatening (note, too, the presence of war in The Handmaid’s Tale—also in 1984—both not coincidental). And while many of us wave our signs, call our representatives, white America sees most of its lives undisturbed, and many are unwilling to rock the boat.

In episode one, Moira comments to June, in a flashback to the Red Center, that this nightmare in which they lived couldn’t last long—things would go back to normal. Lest we also see our own “reproductive dystopia” worsen, we shouldn’t make the same mistaken assumption.

J.

The Handmaid’s Tale, episodes 1-3, are currently available on Hulu. “Reproductive Dystopia” is from Moria Weagle, “We Live in the Reproductive Dystopia of the Handmaid’s Tale,” The New Yorker, 4.26.17, http://bit.ly/2plZIru.

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Bret Stephens, Shame of the NYT

Oh, New York Times, you’re killing me.

Mid-April the long-esteemed Gray Lady hired Bret Stephens to join its staff of opinion writers. Stephens hailed from the Wall Street Journal and his hiring served as an addition to the Times’s conservative lineup, featuring don’t-even-get-me-started-on-him David Brooks and “I flew with kids, which is worse than being beaten on a plane” Ross Douthat. Given the Times’s coverage of the Clinton email debacle and their unwillingness to condemn 45’s pro-fascist leanings during the campaign last year, I’ve all but bailed on the Times’s coverage of nearly anything. The addition of Stephens feels like the last nail in that particular coffin.

Bret Stephens, in his Twitter photo

To wit, check out Stephens’s interview with Jeff Stein at Vox. Here, let me paste for you:

Jeff Stein

You wrote one column for the Wall Street Journal about the imaginary enemies of the liberal mind, and one of the ones you named was the “campus rape epidemic” —

Bret Stephens

Focus on the word “epidemic.”

Jeff Stein

You wrote, “If modern campuses were really zones of mass predation — Congo on the quad — why would intelligent young women even think of attending a coeducational school?”

My question to you is: Isn’t it necessary for women to attend these coeducational schools for their economic and educational advancement? Isn’t it possible that’s why they’d be there even if there’s a higher risk of sexual assault?

Bret Stephens

Of course it is.

But if sexual assault rates in, let’s say, east Congo were about 20 percent, most people wouldn’t travel to those places. Because that is in fact — or, that would be, in fact, the risk of being violently sexually assaulted.

I am not for one second denying the reality of campus rape, or sexual assault, or behavior of the sort you saw from that swimmer at Stanford — that’s inexcusable and should be punished.

I’m taking issue with the claim that there is an epidemic based on statistics that, when looked at carefully, seem to have a very slim basis in reality. So what you’re transforming is horrendous, deplorable incidents into an epidemic — and that’s not altogether supported by reliable data….

they should go to institutions of higher learning. But I guess my point is this: The statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted on college campuses is a highly dubious statistic.

If it were a true statistic, it would probably create a very different environment. My sister went to Mount Holyoke. I don’t think single-sex education has been thriving in recent years, but there would be more of a movement to single-sex education if in fact this epidemic were as epidemic as that statistic suggests.

(Jeff Stein, “The NYT’s new columnist defends his views on Arabs, Black Lives Matter, campus rape,” Vox, http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/4/26/15413718/bret-stephens-new-york-times)

Wow. Just. Wow. There’s so much to unpack.

Here’s Stephens’s theory, in a nutshell: Women mustn’t be raped/assaulted on co-ed campuses as often as they’re saying they’re being raped/assaulted, because if they were, why would women go to co-ed campuses? (full disclosure: I went to Mount Holyoke).

The logical underpinnings of his theory are that:

  1. Women are liars. Women lying about rape is a dogwhistle, disproven over and over and over again. With very few exceptions, women do not lie about assault because even mentioning being assault starts a sequence of scrutinization usually accompanied by cross-allegations, violence, and verbal/emotional abuse by peers. But women lie, evidently, so as to create this false statistic.
  2. Everyone knows this statistic is false, which is why women continue to attend co-ed institutions. This approach, of course, lacks consideration of the trends in education which suggest most women, despite the numbers that Stephens thinks would encourage them, do not want to attend a single-sex school. It lacks any understanding of the gendered nature of secondary ed, the ways that women are taught from a young age to see each other as competition rather than support. I live in a state with an enormous flagship university with a huge sexual assault problem. I see women flock there. There are days I don’t get it, but I at least try to understand the multiple components at play. Further, big state schools are often less expensive for residents than private schools (Mount Holyoke wasn’t cheap). And additionally, Stephens seems to imply here he sees little reason why a woman might chose, for example, Stanford, despite its known history of protecting rapists. Maybe because it has programs Smith doesn’t? It’s in California? It’s none of Stephens’s goddamn business? Oh, ok.
  3. Relatedly, in his construction of co-ed campuses, Stephens is clearly imagining them, whether he realizes it or not, as male spaces. His logic goes like this: if he’s wrong about the statistic—if it’s as bad as we know it is—then these spaces SHOULD be all-male, because women shouldn’t go there. Let that roll around your noggin a bit. He’s not suggesting that if this statistic were true (it is) that the campus cultures should change—he’s sure as hell not touching the issue of rape culture here because I suspect he doesn’t believe it’s a thing—women should avoid those cultures.

That’s some old-boy network shit right there.

And don’t even get me started on his metaphor of the Congo. It’s so laden with implicit undercurrents of campus-rape-as-race-problem, that someone smarter than I should take it apart.

In short, shame on you, New York Times.

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I’m a Tenacious Feminist–are you?

Last summer, on the heels of an academic sabbatical, I wrestled with a book prospectus. I wondered if writing that book was right for me, or if I might scratch my itch to write some feminist cultural and political criticism with my time. I ended up writing a pair of essays. One was on sexual harassment in colleges and universities, which Women in Higher Education recently published. The other was about the cultural contours of the 2016 election, which I turned into a workshop at the university where I work. Lately I’ve been thinking about these pieces and decided a blog would be a good place to post these musings and share with others.

The 24th of April as day 1 is partly just when I decided to take the blogging plunge, but it also allows my first essay to reflect the premier of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve spent some time lately going through the comments on Hulu’s posts about the show. I’ve already got lots to say.

Come along with me on this journey! We’ll talk culture, politics, and money, and we’ll join the chorus of people reclaiming the word “feminist” from the mire through which it’s been dragged.

In tenacious feminism,

J.

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