Tag Archives: Feminism

For Mothers’ Sake

We try to be practical for Mother’s Day. I take my wife out to eat every year, but since we both work and Monday always comes earlier than we expect, we usually go on Saturday. It’s kind of a moveable feast for us. The patriarchalist nightmare of the past two years in this country makes it all the more important to celebrate our mothers. Our nation needs to be reminded that without women none of us would be here. When my wife chose an Afghan restaurant I didn’t shirk, although I had to admit I wouldn’t have considered cuisine from Afghanistan if the choice were mine. It would never have crossed my mind. The restaurant was nicely appointed, and busy. One the walls were posters with photos of the mountainous country and its people, stamped with the words “Free Afghanistan.” I realized Mother’s Day is about liberation.

New Jersey, apart from being the most densely populated state, is also the most diverse. Ethnic food here takes on a depth that leaves our days in Champaign-Urbana in the dust. I’d never even heard of an Ethiopian restaurant, let alone eaten in one, before moving here. And each of these diverse countries represented by their food has a story, often involving oppression. Mother’s children everywhere want to be free. The only reason they aren’t is that bullies exist in every language. You can’t go into the swamp any more without being overwhelmed by them. Such men—and they tend to be male—want to assert their control over others. They forget, it seems, that they have mothers.

I struggled to find a way to classify the food I was eating. Years of Euro-centric training led me to place it between the “Middle East” and “Far East,” which, skewed as it is, reflects that Afghanistan falls along the silk road from China to Turkey. Elements of West Asia blend with those of East Asia on my plate. There’s no war here—simply a harmony of tastes that should remind us that we’re all human. We all have the same need for sustenance and we all have mothers. If we thought of the fact that when we harm another we harm that person’s mother, we’d be appropriately ashamed of oppressing anyone. We would come to realize that the secret to being civilized human beings lies in honoring all our mothers.

Good Book Gone Bad

The Bible is a book of horror. This isn’t the main point in Holy Horror, but the fact is terror is never far from the surface in the Good Book. My days as a young scholar of the Bible were defined by the works of feminist scholars. One of the influential books of that generation was Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible. Not hiding behind a masculine orthodoxy, she looked at how various biblical stories appeared from the eyes of female readers. There is indeed terror everywhere. The evils of slavery condemn that hideous loss of agency when one human being becomes considered the property of another. Women, before the feminist movement began, were taught that the Good Book demands this perverted social structure. They are indeed, in the eyes of its patriarchal world, property.

Important as this realization is, the terrors of Scripture go deeper. Even overlooking the genocides—the numbers make it difficult to take in the horrors of the individuals classed as faceless victims—there are multiple accounts of gruesome murders and violence in the Bible. Wars were an annual expectation. Diplomacy was often considered religious compromise. “Us verses them” mentality led to constant conflict. When it came to executing one another, the denizens of the Good Book could be quite inventive. No doubt women and foreigners were poorly treated on a daily basis, but when left to their own devices with divine voices in their heads, the men of Holy Writ knew how to terrorize one another quite effectively.

Even after the message of Jesus of Nazareth, which included love and care and compassion, the Bible goes on to close with the violent visions of Revelation. Perhaps it’s not appreciated so much in the present day, but the Apocalypse had a difficult time making it into the Good Book. Unfortunately the reasons weren’t that it was a book of horror, but the very fact that its status was debated should give us pause when hiding behind the rhetoric of a canon with its door slammed shut. The Bible contains some high, soaring words of noble thoughts and divine consolation. God can be an empathetic lover. With its status, in toto, as a book of divine revelation we have to pay serious attention to the fact of its participation in the genre of horror. Much of this is in the backstory of the films I discuss in Holy Horror. Others may have already explored this dynamic of Scripture, but it’s often a Good Book gone bad.

March On

The day after the government shutdown, Women’s Marches were held across the country. Unlike the shutdown, these marches had been planned and anticipated in advance. They marked the anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that spurred millions of people across the world into action just last year. I count it as a privilege to have been able to march with my sisters in DC last year, and yesterday again, in New York City. Religion gets a lot of bad press these days, but one of its truest aspects is that it invites you to participate in something greater than yourself. These marches are like that. They are all about social justice of the most basic kind. Not what divides us, but what brings us together. There may be historical reasons that women were kept from positions of leadership, but if we learn nothing from history’s mistakes we can call nothing we do progress.

It takes a lot to get me back to New York City when it’s not a work day. Nevertheless, the anticipation built along the way. Waiting for the train in Newark, we started to see pink hats at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. At Penn Station in New York they were everywhere. Strangers on the subway started conversations about the march, whether they were going or not. As usual, the program ran a little long and those who were near the stage grew impatient as they’d been on their feet for a couple of hours. Still, the messages were important to hear. Whoopi Goldberg was the star of the show this time, some might say, but all who stood up outside Central Park and gave voice to equality were stars.

The march itself lasted only a few blocks down Sixth Avenue, but the crowds were enormous. Although I held no clever sign, I knew that simply by being a body to march was significant. You see, the Women’s Movement isn’t about excluding anybody. It’s all about redressing institutionalized wrongs that insist “somebody else” is of less value than a white man who’s been able to exploit his way to the top. This system is corrupt and dehumanizing to all. Women see that. Woman say something about it. Women march. Yesterday thousands across the country marched for equal rights. Our government, controlled by one party—the white men’s party—couldn’t even figure out how to keep itself open. The differences between these two views of the world couldn’t be more obvious. I’m humbled and honored to be included on the women’s side.

Digging Even Deeper

What does it mean to exist for someone else? Isn’t this the very definition of slavery? Yes, we may voluntarily give ourselves to someone for the sake of love, but woe to the person who thinks he owns his spouse. Human beings may be an acquisitive lot, but that doesn’t excuse it. To be civilized, after all, means to be more advanced than we are by nature. These thoughts follow on hearing one of my colleagues interviewed on Game Plan on Bloomberg. In the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Francesca Levy and Rebecca Greenfield are interviewing people in different professions to see what inappropriate treatment women receive at the behest of men. Their job is, unfortunately, not one where it’s difficult to find examples. In this particular case, they interview Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona. Dr. Nakhai is an archaeologist and she describes the perils faced by women in the field.

In 1987 I volunteered on the dig at Tel Dor in Israel. I had just graduated from seminary, didn’t have a job, and was pretty sure I’d be going on to graduate school. Tel Dor, like many digs, had different loci excavated by different university teams. I was on the Boston University area, B1, next to the section being worked by one of the universities in California. At one point one of the seasoned men—I can’t remember who—remarked to me that digs in Israel were great because of the three A’s: “alcohol, adultery, and archaeology; in that order.” It was intended as a joke, but it had that time-worn feel of a sentiment that’s been around for a while. At the time I thought little of it. I was there only for the last A, and, had circumstances been different, I might’ve made that my career choice.

Listening to Beth’s interview, however, showed me the darker side of careless remarks like this. Archaeologists often work in remote locations where local laws treat women differently than men. University professors have great power over graduate students and are able to make or break careers. Often married men leave their families in safe locations while they spend their summers directing teams that include female students and other volunteers. I’d never thought of the experience from that angle before. As a man I didn’t have to worry about anyone coercing me into an unwanted physical relationship far from prying eyes or legal systems which, at least in theory, protect women. The truly sad thing about all this is that forces are, especially now, at work to make women victims again even in this country. The point of archaeology is to try to understand civilization writ large. And yet, civilization in the advanced world is now moving backward. How long before we too are buried under a pile of shiftless dust waiting to be discovered by some future excavators whom we can only hope are more advanced than we are?

Gendered Lupines

No doubt an excuse isn’t required for reading about werewolves this time of year. Something about October encourages that sort of thing. Hannah Priest edited a collection of essays from various scholars titled She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. As is to be expected among academics, there are several interpretations wrapped together here and the book covers female werewolves from the Middle Ages—where they are sometimes associated with witches—up through modern cinema. A number of literary sources and a few television representations, and even an RPG, are also part of the mix. The problem with multi-contributor books is that it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions, but some observations do come up repeatedly here, and they are worth pondering.

The connection of the female with the animal nature of human beings is stressed for the female werewolf. As might be expected in a patriarchal culture that is becoming more so daily, this is considered an aspect of inferiority. The connection between lunar cycles and werewolves as an inherent feminization of the monster is also brought up more than once. The bodily transformations of puberty also play a role. What we can clearly see amid all of this is that although male werewolves outnumber females in literature and film, and, with a few exceptions, in folklore, the very nature of the werewolf is coded as feminine. This is something that isn’t obvious until a book like this points it out.

Given my own idiosyncratic interests, I was surprised how much religion came into the discussion. Among classic monsters, werewolves tend toward the secular end of the spectrum. There was, however, from the Medieval Period up through early modernity, an ecclesiastical fascination with werewolves. This fascination often came in the form of recriminations against women—attempts to subject them to the wills of men. The church often blamed werewolves on women out of the control of menfolk. And of course, you may kill a monster with no need to feel guilt. More modern views of female werewolves—particularly in movies—are more, well, humanizing. Recognizing that wildness is part of being an evolved animal means that we’re more sympathetic (or had been until November of last year) to the woman who is able to let go of convention and become truly liberated. Now that we experience the poignant lengthening of nights that stir our primal fears, werewolves come naturally to mind. If only we could learn what they have to teach, we might all howl at the harvest moon.

Thy Fandom Come

It’s not hard to feel that you’re from another planet. If you were born in the sixties and had kind of a rough transition to this whole internet thing, you know what I mean. Still, I want to be part of it—it’s kind of like New York City, only bigger. And faster. The commute doesn’t take nearly as long, now that dial-up’s a thing of the past. So I bought someone who was into fandom Sam Muggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Geek Girls. This particular fandom, well, fan, gave me the book to read. I’m a feminist, so I don’t have any issues with reading a book intended for girls. What became clear to me, however, is that I don’t understand the internet nearly as well as I thought I did, and that girls find they’re oppressed there too. What is it with men and control?

It is an ethical issue. I don’t blame people in the past for not thinking like we do, but today there’s no excuse whatsoever for considering somebody a lesser person because of their gender. Women and girls have just as much right to “guy things” like geekdom as do males of the species. Fandom is all about fun. Enjoying the fantasy of living, for a little while, in other worlds. From the way many men treat women it’s no wonder that they feel that need just as much as my own self-identified gender. Religion, unfortunately, bears much of the blame for this. In the largest religious bodies in the world women are still excluded from leadership roles. Religion is kind of like fandom in that way, I suppose. It can be all about exclusion. We exclude others to make ourselves feel special. Why not celebrate difference and find a place for everyone?

It’s difficult to read The Fangirl’s Guide as a man simply because you’re constantly reminded (and not intentionally, because it’s written for girls) at how inhospitable men have made much of the world for their female earthling compatriots. I was reminded at several points in this book of how films like Wonder Woman and the recent Ghostbusters stand out in their sympathetic portrayal of women heroes. And equally how men find reasons to criticize them. Then I consider the White House and shudder. When a nation elects an open and avowed patriarchalist as president we all could use a fantasy world in which to hide. This little book didn’t make me into a fangirl, but I do hope it makes me a better man.

How to Type a Stereo

In the early days of publishing, type was set by hand. Individual letters, inserted backward onto plates, were used for printing the positive of a page. Printers could make as many pages as desired, but once the letters were released, it was time-consuming and costly to arrange them all again. If a book (principally) was expected to sell well enough for reprints, a plaster or papier-mâché mold was made of the page. This could be used to cast a solid metal plate of the pages to store for future print runs. This solid plate was known as a stereotype. Every copy from the plate would be exactly the same. When the plate was no longer needed it could be melted down and recast. The origin of stereotyping is a useful reminder of what happens when we preconceive a notion. For example, if I write “computer programmer” there is probably an image that comes to mind. No matter how many stereotypes confirm that mental picture, it isn’t true to the original.

Photo credit: Roger and Renate Rössing, Deutsche Fotothek, via Wikimedia Commons.

A piece by Josh O’Connor on Timeline, “Women pioneered computer programming. Then men took their industry over,” tells the story. Back in the early days of computing, when programming was seen as the menial labor of swapping out cables and plugs, it was “women’s work.” When it became clear how complex this was, and how many men didn’t understand it, the job was upgraded to “men’s work” and women in the industry were replaced. Stereotyping wasn’t just for boilerplate any more. The unequal assumptions here have led to a situation where computer engineering jobs still overwhelmingly go to men while women take on more “gender appropriate” employment. Any task that requires mental calculus benefits from input from both genders. One’s reproductive equipment is hardly a measure of what a mind is capable of doing.

Stereotyping is so easy that only with effort can we force ourselves to stop and reevaluate. The computer industry is only one among many that has been remade in the image of man. Our archaic view of the world in which everything is cast metal should be softening with the warming of intellectual fires. A large part of the electorate in our technically advanced nation admitted it just wasn’t ready for a woman in the role Trump is daily cocking up. It will take more hard lessons, perhaps, before even men can be made to admit that women can do it just as well, if not better. Stereotypes, after all, are eventually melted down to make way for new words. This may be one case where literalism might be a reliable guide.