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Archive for the month “October, 2016”

Halloween Unmasked: A Socialist Feminist History of Halloween

Halloween Unmasked:

A Socialist Feminist History of Halloween

H. Bradford 9/22/16


    I love Halloween.  I love the color orange and the imagery of bats, pumpkins, black cats, spiders, and creepy things.  I love wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, going to corn mazes, the brilliant hues of fall, pumpkin spice everything, scarecrows, migrating birds, gray skies, and empty fields.  But, I also love socialism and feminism.  I love the empowerment of workers and the quest for social justice.  I love to think about how gender shapes and limits our lives.  Thus, this analysis is the marriage of two great loves: Halloween and social justice.  While Halloween is viewed as a liminal time between seasons and life and death, it is usually quite estranged from social justice considerations.  Like any good activist, I want to pierce the veil between the superficial fun of celebration and the hidden realities of oppression.  Behind the mask of every holiday is a hidden world of inequities.


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Pagan Roots:


Halloween began as the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain.  It was the day when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was weakest.  It also marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter (Dvorack, 2010).  Samhain marked the beginning of a new year and was one of four major festivals observed by the Celts.  It’s celebration was marked with costumes, sacrifices of plants and animals, fortune telling, and bonfires to help the dead find their way and avoid humans (Santino, 1982).   It was a liminal time to be sure.  Samhain was appropriated by the Catholic Church as All Saints Day, then All Hallow’s Eve, and eventually Halloween (Dvorack, 2010).   This process began with Pope Gregory I, who in 601 AD, proclaimed an edict missionaries should try to incorporate the practices of pagans as they converted them (Santino, 1982).  As such, almost every Christian site in Ireland was once a pagan place of worship.  Ancestor worship continued through the veneration of saints (Grunke, 2008).  In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV announced the holiday as All Martyrs Day, to commemorate Christian martyrs.  In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III expanded the holiday to include all saints, and it was thusly named All Saint’s Day (History of Halloween, 2009).  All Saint’s Day was a sanitized version of Samhain, as it was hard for the church to reconcile what seemed to be such a dark and evil holiday with Christian beliefs.  However, old practices and beliefs were slow to die.  Practitioners of the old beliefs were persecuted as witches (Santino, 1982).  In the 11th century, All Saint’s Day was changed to All Soul’s Day to commemorate the dead.   Interestingly, the celebrations continued to feature some aspects of the original Samhain celebrations.  It was observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades (History of halloween, 2009).  Children would go door to door asking for soul cakes in exchange for prayers on the behalf of dead loved ones.  Soul cakes, which were sweets with a cross over the top, represented a soul being released from purgatory (Fraser, 2015).


The assimilation of Halloween into Catholic holidays was part of the broader conversion of pagans to Christianity.  This conversion to Christianity impacted women in a variety of ways.  Even before the Christianization of Celtic people, there were attempts to assimilate them into Roman culture.  By 43 AD, most Celtic territories were under Roman control, under which they remained for four hundred years (History of halloween, 2009).  Under Roman occupation, there were some efforts to stamp out practices such as sacrifice  (Ellis, 1994).  While Roman occupation was generally hostile towards Celtic people, they did add some of their own culture to Samhain celebrations.  For instance, the Roman festival of Pomonia, which celebrated apples, may have added bobbing for apples to Samhain traditions.  The Romans also had a fall festival called Feralia, which commemorated the passing of the dead (History of halloween, 2009).  Whatever the influence of Roman culture on Samhain celebrations, the influence of Romans on gender relationships was less positive.  Roman officials also refused to work with female leaders and even attacked the kingdom belonging to Boudicca because they felt it was illegal for a woman to rule a kingdom.  According to legends, her land was pillaged and her daughters were raped (Ellis, 1994).

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Despite Roman accounts of female rulers or priestesses, the exact role of women in Celtic society is unknown.  Because Celtic people did not have a written language, information about Celtic pagans comes from Roman accounts and archaeological finds.  In Roman accounts,  Celtic women were viewed as angry, strong, promiscuous, shared by men, and more equal to men than their Roman counterparts.  In Gaul, Celtic women shared in their husband’s wealth, with either inheriting it upon the death of the other.  However, women could be interrogated if their husband died and taken as hostages or given away in marriage to cement alliances.  Women were not noted to be in positions of political power in Gaul, though some of the richest Iron Age burials in central Europe were of women and there were two British Celtic queens in 1 AD, implying some power or status (Adamson, 2005).  Various stories cast women into strong roles, such as the tale of Scathach (Sac-hah), a warrior woman who trained Cuchulain.  There is also the tale of Queen Maeve of Connaught, who lead a cattle raid of the Kingdom of Ulster to obtain a bull that was equal to her husband’s best animal.  According to Roman accounts, women could serve as diplomats, judges, and intermediaries.  And, if his account can be believed, according to Cesar, some Celtic people were polyandrous and others polyamorous (The lives of celtic women, n.d).


While the specific gender roles of Celtic women is unknown, generally speaking, Celtic societies were diverse, united by a related language and religious beliefs, warrior centered, yet different in geography and economies.  Central to these societies, were Druids, or pagan priests who acted as bards, overseers of sacrifices, leaders of rituals, philosophers, and intermediaries between gods and goddesses (Grunke, 2008).  Because of this diversity, it could be assumed that the role of women differed from place to place or over time, with some evidence of more power than their Roman counterparts.  Still, it is important to note that Iron Age Celts were patriarchal.  As such, the role of women in Celtic society should not be idealized.  Nevertheless, even after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, some remnants of female power persisted in that there were two female Bishops in the 5th century: Bridget of Kildare and Beoferlic of Northumbria.  Roman Bishops protested their participation in sacrament and eventually, as more missionaries were sent to the British Isles from Rome, women were ousted from positions of power within the church.  By the Middle Ages, women could only become abbesses and nuns (Ellis, 1992).  Whatever the role of women in Celtic society, Christian views of women leave much to be desired.  Consider the following quotes:


Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil’s gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.  -St. Tertullian


What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman……I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”  -St. Augustine of Hippo


As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.” -Thomas Aquinas


“If they [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that’s why they are there.” -Martin Luther


The selection of quotes demonstrates the dismal role of women to Christian thinkers.  Women were the originators of sin, inferior to men, and useful for little more than breeding.  With the conversion of Celtic people to Christianity, powerful female religious figures from stories and legends were recast as witches (Ellis, 1992).   Feminists often argue that Christianity actively suppressed female knowledge of herbs, medicine, contraceptives, childbirth, and nature in general.  This suppression of female knowledge and experience was continued through scientific and medical institutions.  Feminists also often argue that witch hunts were a means of controlling women and their knowledge.  Interestingly, despite stories of witches and powerful female figures, Ireland had relatively few witch hunts, with only 4-10 recorded witch trials.  Britain and Wales, on the other hand, had about 300-1000 witch trials, of which 228 were recorded.  Scotland had recorded 599 witch trials.  This is still low compared to Germany, which had 8, 188 recorded witch trials and an estimated 17,000-26,000 trials altogether.  France, Germany, and Switzerland had the largest number of witch trials (Irish witch trials, n.d.).  In all, 40,000 to 100,000 people were killed for being witches.  Of these, 20% were men, though the gender ratio varied from country to country.  The witch hunts were the bloodiest after the Reformation, when Catholics and Protestants were competing for souls (Miller, 2005).  It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the various theories regarding the cause of these witch hunts, but it is at least safe to assume that notions of gender and female sinfulness at least were convenient tropes that could be drawn upon to justify the threat of witches.


To make a long story short, Halloween originates from the Celtic holiday of Samhain.  The Celts were converted to Christianity, and Samhain, like other pagan holidays, was Christianized into All Saints Day.  The conversion to Christianity resulted in a diminished role for women in society and the denigration of female legendary figures as witches.  However, it was the trade of one patriarchal society for another, albeit one with codified hyper misogyny through religious texts and religious thinkers who believed women were little more than sinful broodmares.


Modern Halloween:

    

Today, most people do not spend Halloween praying for the souls of people in purgatory or honoring saints.  Modern Halloween was made possible by several social changes: the advent of capitalism, the secularization of society, and the invention of childhood.  With the advent of capitalism, the world became more interconnected and globalized.  This interconnectedness has resulted in massive shifts in populations around the world.  Within the United States, this resulted in an influx of immigrants.  As a result of the Potato Famine, 500,000 Irish immigrants came to the United States between 1845-1850.  In fact, half of all immigrants to the United States were of Irish origin at that time.  Between 1851 and 1860, 2 million Irish immigrants came to the United States to escape poverty and disease, or join relatives who had come in the 1840s (Destination America, 2005).  These Irish immigrants helped to popularize Halloween celebrations in the United States, sharing such traditions as wearing costumes while going door to door for food or money and fortune telling (History of halloween, 2009).  Rather than the earlier Catholic traditions of exchanging prayers for food, 19th century children would exchange songs, jokes, or poetry in exchange for money or fruit (Fraser 2015).  This represented a turn away from religious traditions as the public sphere allowed for more secularism.  Another tradition brought by the Irish was, Jack-o-Lanterns, which came from custom of carving turnips for Halloween and the story of Stingy Jack.  Stingy Jack was believed to roam the earth with a lantern, as he was denied entrance to both heaven and hell.  Though the immigrants used the more plentiful pumpkin to carve rather than a turnip (Fraser, 2015).


It is quaint to consider that many of our Halloween traditions came to the United States as a result of Irish immigration.  However, it is important to point out that the tragedy of the potato famine was not caused by an unfortunate fungus.  Instead, the true blight was British colonialism.   In 1801, the Act of the Union went into effect in Ireland.  It was a free trade agreement which sought to integrate Ireland into the British economy by reducing tariffs, merging currencies, ending the Irish parliament, and retooling the economy towards British needs.  In the subsequent years, the Irish economy became centered on exports of barley, wheat, potatoes, linen, cotton, and livestock.  As the economy shifted towards a cash crop export focus, poverty and unemployment increased across the country.  At the same time, the land became increasingly overused.  To enforce the subjugation of Ireland, there was one British soldier per 80 Irish persons, more than any other colony.  The extreme poverty of rural Irish people, resulting from the Act of the Union, increased their dependence upon potatoes.  Potatoes themselves were introduced to Ireland from British colonies.  Thus, when the potato crop failed in 1844, one of several crop failures over the previous fifty years, it hit an already beleaguered population.  And, the Irish themselves were blamed for this as Malthus considered the famine a matter of “survival of the fittest” among an overpopulated people.  Yet, even during the famine, more wheat and barley were exported to Britain than the three years prior to 1845 and livestock continued to be exported even as people starved.  During the famine, impoverished farmers were evicted from their land and former slave ships were repurposed for carrying Irish immigrants to the U.S.  Thus, the famine actually revitalized the shipping industry (McCann, 2011).  In this sense, the spread of Halloween was made possible by the colonial plunder of the Irish economy.

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Aside from the Irish contributions to the celebrations of Halloween, the holiday gained popularity during the Victorian Age with fortune telling, ghost stories, and parties.  However, the biggest boon for Halloween was the commercialization of the holiday during the early 1900s.  Magazines of the era told women how to host Halloween parties and rotary clubs began hosting Halloween celebrations (A most bewitching night, 2008).  In 1927, the word Trick or Treating was first used in the U.S. to describe children exchanging threats of pranks in exchange for treats (Fraser, 2015).   The holiday became a family holiday after World War Two (Dvorack, 2010) and it was during the 1950s that trick or treating became common across the country.  The 1950s also saw the explosion of the horror film industry as well as the manufacture of decoration and greeting cards (A most bewitching night, 2008).  The commercialization and family orientation of Halloween in the post-WWII era was the result of several social trends.  Firstly, the United States emerged from World War II as a hegemonic power with little capitalistic competition in the realm of military, diplomacy, and economics.  The Marshall Plan pumped thirteen billion dollars into Europe to rebuild it, but also refashion the world as a consumer of U.S. goods.  This allowed for an increase in living standards, wages, and employment, but also an increase in births and marriages.  These benefits were not shared equally among society, as the United States was racially divided and actively persecuted anyone who did not share in the consensus of consumerism.  Thus, it is no wonder that Halloween emerged as a family friendly consumer holiday during this time period.  Furthermore, the period also saw the rise of youth culture.  This itself was made possible by Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlawed child labor, as well as compulsory education laws from the earlier portion of the 1900s and the high school education movement.  In other words, the spread of trick or treating represented a view that children should be enjoying candy rather than making it in factories, accompanied by living standards that did not require child labor.


Slut Shaming and the Rise of the Sexy Costume:

The United States has long since lost its place as the only dominant economy in the world.  Since the 1970s, the United States has had to once again compete with the rebuilt economies of Europe and Japan, as well as newly emerging economies.  Despite diminishing living standards, the consumerism of Halloween continues.  As the same time, Halloween has shifted from its focus on kids and families to adults.  This shift is best illustrated by the rise of the sexy Halloween costume.  The sexy Halloween costume can be traced to Greenwich village in the 1970s.  Greenwich Village hosted a family friendly Halloween parade, but also was a center of gay culture.  The LGBT community pushed the boundary of sexualized, gender bending costumes.  This is also true of Castro Street in San Francisco and West Hollywood.  The 1970s also saw the commercialization of Halloween (Conger, 2013).  The 1940s and 1950s saw the commercialization of children’s costumes and trick-or-treating, but the 1970s expanded this into the adult market.  Sexy costumes have become so popular that since the early 2000s, they make up 90-95% of the female costumes (Conger, 2013).  As a whole, adults spend 1.4 billion on Halloween costumes  (Stampler, 2014).


As mentioned earlier, costumes have long been a part of Halloween celebrations.  Originally, Samhain costumes were not sexy, as they were meant to confuse the souls of the dead (Labarre, 2011).   Still, the holiday does have a history of testing boundaries.  For instance, young male choristers in churches dressed like virgins on All’s Hallow Eve (Stampler, 2014).  The supernatural obsessed Victorians dressed as creepy characters, such as bats and ghosts, but also exotic characters such as Egyptians and gypsies.  However, these parties were mostly for the upper class who had the leisure and means to host Halloween parties.  The sexy maid costume also originated during this time period among an upper class who actually had maids.  Maids themselves were sometimes expected to perform sexual duties as part of their employment, so the sexualization of the profession was not much of a leap.  After WWII, when Halloween became more of a children’s holiday, adult costumes weren’t particularly sexy.  This matched the conservative atmosphere of the day (Stampler, 2014).  In reality, the 1950s version of Halloween was an aboration from the more adult centered history of the holiday (Labarre, 2011).  The social space for sexier costumes was really opened up by the feminist movement.  Legalized birth control and abortion enabled greater exploration of sexual boundaries in the 1960s and 1970s.  Thus, costumes began to push the boundaries of sexiness, but also violent gore, as these things appeared in popular culture.  Since then, the sexy costume has exploded to the degree that sexiness has moved towards irony, with costumes such as sexy lobsters, sexy peeps, or sexy sesame street characters (Stampler, 2014).  My friend Jenny and I were squarely on the ironically sexy bandwagon with our sexy janitor costumes.

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As many women have embraced revealing costumes, this has resulted in slut shaming.  Halloween itself has been nicknamed “Slutoween.”  Slut shaming is calling a woman a slut or ho as a punishing identity for perceived promiscuity.  At the same time, heterosexual women are expected to be sexy as part of the gender performance.  Someone close to me once criticized an outfit I wore when I went out, telling me that I was asking to be sexually accosted.  The same person has commented on my drooping bottom as I have gotten older.  I am both expected to be sexy and be not sexy.  This is the catch 22 of being female.  Personally, I don’t mind looking sexy or unsexy.  I can be zombie Che Guevara, Lord Licorice, a nerdy Scarecrow, Sailor Socialism, or a sexy janitor.  I like to have fun looking sexy and looking unsexy.  But, in the larger society, shaming is a way for men to control the conduct of women and women to police the conduct other women.  For some women, it might be liberating to wear sexy costumes, as it allows for escapism from everyday life and an opportunity to be someone different.  On the other hand, some women might object to being objectified and regret that there are social pressures to look sexy.  Certainly, the over-sexualization of girl’s costumes is also concerning.  Irrespective of how a woman chooses to dress, she should not be slut shamed because what she wears does not reflect her sexual desires or ask for sexual advances (How to celebrate halloween without being sexist).  Slut shaming is harmful to women because it justifies the sexual assault of women.  At the same time, embracing “slut” isn’t necessarily empowering, as it may put women at risk for sexual assault or being blamed (Tannenbaum, 2015).  Once again, this is another catch 22 of being female.  It is disempowering to embrace “slut” and shaming to reject it.


Halloween should be approached in a nuanced fashion.  Feminists should absolutely stand up to the slut shaming of women who wear sexy costumes.  Nothing is to be gained by shaming women for conforming to an expected gender performance, for escapism, or for expressing their sexuality in this fashion.  At the same time, feminists should also critique the narrow expressions of female gender expressions and the social consequences of costumes which turn women and girls into sex objects.  The glorification and trivialization of sex work, which ignores the social conditions of sex workers, should also be called into question.


Halloween and Women’s Labor:


On the other end of the oppression spectrum is the oppression of women who are mothers.  Thinking back to my own childhood memories of Halloween, I can remember many fond memories of creative costumes, Trick-or-Treating, and parties.  I remember that my mother sewed me a wonderful cat costume.  She also made me a tooth fairy costume and several others.  My mother (and sometimes my father too), would take me Trick-or-Treating.  Some houses had popcorn balls and other homemade treats.  The majority of these memories are possible because of the invisible and unpaid labor of women.  My mother was not paid to make my costume.  She was not paid to take me Trick-or-Treating.  The kindly older women were not paid to make Halloween treats.  My grandma was not paid to make caramel apples or cookies.  These are the labors of love that women do for children because it is expected of them.  As a child, I could never appreciate the magic of these memories.  Childhood was simply created for me to consume and enjoy.  As an adult, I see that these cherished memories represent the exploited labor of women.


According to Marxist feminism, the unpaid labor of women serves a purpose of perpetuating capitalism.  This is accomplished through reproducing workers (the children who are raised to be the workers of the future) and maintaining current workers (through the care of men who are presently workers).  Women provide a service to society by caring for children, the sick, elderly, and husbands (Thompson, 2014).  This unpaid service in the private realm of the household means that capitalists can enjoy greater profits in the public realm.  This may seem to have little connection to Halloween, until one considers the ways in which holidays extract enormous amounts of unpaid labor from women, especially mothers.  While holidays are meant to be fun, and may even result in time off of work, women do not enjoy time off of work if they are expected to create costumes, holiday meals, decorations, treats, or parties for children or family members.  At the same time, society abounds with messages that women are expected to create.  Pinterest perfectly represents this social pressure.  It is no wonder that a survey of 7000 mothers on pinterest found that 42% of respondents felt stressed by the image sharing social media site (The social network that is stressing mom’s out, 2013).


Pinterest, or for that matter Facebook, creates a fantasy of parenthood.   In particular, it constructs motherhood and gender expectations.  After all, in 2012, 60% of pinterest visitors were women.  One in five women over the age of 18 is a Pinterest user (How pinterest is killing feminism, 2012).  It is an ideal world of perfectly carved pumpkins, cute costumes, fun party activities, pretty decorations, and delicious desserts.  The reality is that parenting in the U.S. does not look like this.  In 2011, 40% of all births were to single mothers.  In 2007, 1.5 million children had parents in jail.  In 2012, there were 2.7 chronic neglect cases reported in the U.S. as parents increasingly struggle to meet the basic needs of their children (Balmer, 2016).  The U.S. does not offer paid maternity leave and is woefully deficient in available day care.  In 2015, 20% of adults were in the lowest income tier, compared to 13% in 2003.  In 2015, the middle class (as defined as a household that makes 42,000 to 126,000), comprised of about 50% of Americans, which is down from 61% in 1971.  While there were some gains in the number of Americans in upper income households since 1971, from 4% to 9%, the lowest income group increased from 16% to 20%.  During this time, the wealth of adults over 65 increased, but young adults have become poorer (“The American Middle Class is losing ground, 2015).  If more middle class people are joining the ranks of the poor, arguably there is more pressure for women to care for and maintain the happiness of their families.  Any penny pinching costume ideas, party favors, or treats represent unpaid labor in the interest of diminished buying power and working conditions.  Women are left to tend to the embers of the American dream.  Without unions, home ownership, upward mobility, and nuclear families, women ameliorate the emotional toll of the crisis of capitalism.

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While children have benefited from child labor laws, public education, and legal protections in the United States, children in the rest of the world do not fare as well.  They live as children in our own country lived a century ago.  Two thirds of the world’s cocoa beans come from West Africa and while many countries and chocolate companies have promised to curtail child slavery in the production of chocolate, in Ivory Coast, chocolate child labor increased 51% between 2008 and 2014 (Welder, 2015).  Children in the chocolate industry are sold by poor families or simply kidnapped.  They range from age 11 to 16 and work 80 to 100 hours a week.  The chocolate industry is a $110 billion dollar industry (Omega, 2014).


Beyond the horrors of child labor, are the ethics of Halloween costumes.  Americans were expected to spend $7.4 Billion on Halloween in 2014.  $2.2 billion was on candy and $2.8 billion on costumes.  $1.1 billion was for children’s costumes, $1.4 on adult costumes, and $350 million on pet costumes!  These costumes have been critiqued as “fast fashion” or fashion that is cheaply made and quickly disposed of.  Not only do the costumes end up in the dump.  They are full of toxins like lead, tin, flame retardants, and PVCs (Abrams, 2014).  The costumes themselves are often made in sweatshops in places such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, where there is little pay, no rights to unions, and long work hours.  Women make up 90% of the laborers in sweatshops, where they are subjected to sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and physical punishment (“Feminists against sweatshops,” n.d.).


Conclusion:


From sweatshops to slut shaming, modern Halloween is haunted by the horrors of capitalist patriarchy.  Of course, the same could be said about Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and all the other holidays we hold dear.  Further, this piece is missing important histories such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression.  While this isn’t a comprehensive view of what lies behind the mask of Halloween, it should offer a little insight to how Halloween has changed over history and some gender and class issues related to the holiday.  Finally, it is not enough to uncover the child labor in Halloween chocolate, fast fashions, slut shaming, consumerism, and unpaid labor.  Something must be done to change it.  To this end, building social/labor movements is the best starting point.  Within these movements, we can stand up against sexism and slut shaming and demand pay for unpaid labor, equal pay for paid labor, shame and boycott stores that utilize sweatshop labor, and consider consumer choices while putting pressure on producers to elevate the working conditions and improve the environmental consequences of production.  Rather than being haunted by a world of horrors, the world should be haunted by the specter of revolution.

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The lives of Celtic women. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from http://www.celtlearn.org/pdfs/women.pdf

The social network that’s stressing Moms out (2013, May 11). Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/11/pinterest-stress-moms-social-media_n_3253475.html

Thompson, K. (2014, February 10). Feminist perspectives on the family. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from https://revisesociology.com/2014/02/10/feminist-perspectives-on-the-family/

Santino, J. (1982, September ). Halloween: The fantasy and folklore of all Hallows (the American Folklife center, library of congress). Retrieved September 22, 2016, from https://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html

Wedler, C. (2015, October 30). Is your Halloween candy made with child slave labor? Retrieved September 15, 2016, from http://theantimedia.org/is-your-halloween-candy-made-with-child-slave-labor/

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Reflections on Working at a Domestic Violence Shelter

This is my two year anniversary of working at a domestic violence shelter.  It is also the tail end of Domestic Violence Awareness month (October).  As such, I thought I would write about some observations that I have made about domestic violence since I began working at a shelter.

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Race: Perhaps one of the most striking features of the shelter is the racial composition of the clients that we serve.  While I do not have official statistics from the shelter, as a general observation, at any given time, 60-80% of our shelter residents are women of color.  This rate is based upon my own calculation of a sample of data, so it should not be taken as official data.  Around 2.5% of Duluth residents are Native American and 2.3% of our residents are African American.  Consider that for a moment.  These groups make up under 5% of our general population (not including other minorities and mixed race individuals).  At the same time, they make up over 60% of the women in shelter (and often over 75% of the shelter).  To me, this highlights the extreme vulnerability of women of color in our community.  Nationally, rates of physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner are 30-50% higher among women who are African American, Native American, and multiracial than white and Hispanic women.  So, it comes as little surprise that the shelter would have a higher percent of women of color than white women, as this is consistent with the national statistics.  However, not all women who are victims of domestic violence go to shelters.  In my observation, women who come to the shelter tend to have fewer social networkers, greater poverty, and more community stresses around them.  Whereas a white, middle class woman might have family and friends to stay with, or perhaps some money to stay at a hotel, this is not the case for low-income minority women whose networks are so entrenched in poverty, homelessness, historical trauma, substance abuse, and violence that there really is nowhere else to go.  I believe this accounts for our high number of minority women in shelter.


Gender:

Intimate partner violence can happen to people of any gender.   Certainly, male teens and children are victimized by domestic violence and find themselves at the shelter with their mothers.  Yet, most victims are women.  Nationally, 85% of intimate partner violence victims are women.  So, it is a women’s issue.  Nevertheless, perhaps every other month, there is a call from a male victim.  This is challenging because there are no male specific domestic violence shelters in our state.  Really, there are only a handful of non-gendered domestic violence shelters in the country.   I have taken a few calls from gay men in abusive relationships, but also a few heterosexual men.  I absolutely believe there should be resources for everyone.  I am also supportive of our hiring of a male advocate.  Men can be victims, but also should be part of the solution.  When men call, we do our best to connect them to homeless shelters, our resource center, or do a safety plan.  I fully acknowledge and want to help male victims.  HOWEVER, domestic violence is by and large a gender based problem faced by primarily by women.  I think this is important to point out, since when something impacts one group disproportionately to another, it represents an important piece of information about the functioning of society.  Everyone can be a victim, but why are women more often victims?  This is a long question with many answers.  Women have been viewed as property, without rights, and inferior to men.  For much of history, the physical discipline of women was acceptable and legal.  Women continue to be politically, economically, and socially subordinate to men.  Therefore, it is hardly incidental that women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.


Sexuality:   Thus far this year, I have done about 32 intakes.  An intake is a packet of paperwork that we complete with victims when they arrive at the shelter.  In these intakes, we collect a lot of information, including demographic data.  During the intake, we ask women which sexuality they identify as.  Over half the time, women reply “female” or do not know what I mean.  This is interesting, since it demonstrates a confusion in society about the difference between gender and sexuality.  It also shows that many people do not know how to label their sexuality.


That aside, working at the shelter has given me the opportunity to observe black female sexual identity.  I probably would not have this opportunity in my segregated white world.  In my limited observation, I have observed some fluidity in black sexuality.  I don’t want to “other” this group, but simply point out that they may not fit within the labels and stereotypes of white sexuality.  For instance, the majority of lesbian identifying black women in the shelter have a children from one or more male partners.  They also often have black male abusers.  Despite their sexual history with black men, they identify as lesbian, at least in the intake.  Also, within this population, there have been fewer individuals who would be stereotyped as “butch.”  I find this interesting, since to me, it means that they construct gender and sexuality differently.  In my own observation of white homosexuals or bisexuals, a narrative of continuity is important for establishing legitimacy.  For instance, someone who switches sexual identities or did not “discover” their homosexuality or bisexuality until later in life, might be viewed with more skepticism.  I have not sensed this same anxiety over continuity and labels among the residents at the shelter.  Of course, this is a small sample size and I did not specifically ask the residents about these issues.


Finally, the majority of women who use the shelter identify as straight or heterosexual (when presented the list of sexualities to choose from).   The majority of residents have abusers who are their opposite gender.  Nevertheless, it is important to note that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner, compared to 35% of heterosexual women.   The 61% of bisexual women is particularly startling, as this would indicate that bisexual women particularly vulnerable.  In my own experiences, I have only done one or two intakes this year wherein a woman identified as bisexual.  However, I think that sexuality is rather personal.  I am a complete stranger when I meet the women.  As such, they might not want to divulge their sexuality.


Ability and Health:

One of the biggest challenges of working in the shelter is that the women who come here usually have one or more health issues.  Statistically,  women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence.  The challenge is not that they have a disability or major health issue, but that when we are full, we are serving over 39 residents.  In the summer of 2015, there were some nights when we had as many as 58 residents.  Most shifts have three staff.  The night shift used to have one staff, but has gone to two.  Thus, staff are spread thinly and can not always meet the needs of the residents.  Aside from arriving with injuries from the abuse, women arrive with substance abuse problems, mental health issues, and physical health issues.  This means that the residents need a lot of support and resources.  It is hard to even describe the level of need and the lack of ability to always meet it.  This is probably the number one stressor at the job.  On my own shift, I probably call 911 at least once a month or once every other month due to medical emergencies.  These emergencies have ranged from going into labor, allergic reactions, difficulty breathing, heart problems, and head trauma.  More frequently, residents need to be brought to the ER for non-emergencies such as colds, flu, toothaches, vomiting, infections, UTI, gallbladder issues, etc.  On the mental health spectrum, women often have anxiety attacks, nightmares, manic episodes, depression, or just need someone to talk to.  On the extreme mental health spectrum, there have been delusions and hallucinations.  Of course, there is a difference between disability and health issues, but speaking broadly, each day that I work here, there is one or more medical issues to attend to.


Because the population has been exposed to trauma, is stressed out, is low income, and minority, they have a full plate of health challenges.  And, if a person arrives in relatively good health, the environment itself lends itself to disease and stress.  The shelter is communal living.  Imagine living in a room full of strangers who have all gone through (sometimes a lifetime of) traumatic events.  There is stress and conflict.  There are babies crying in the middle of night.  There are women getting up early for work or going to bed late.   There are people who snore and fart through the night.  Communal living isn’t fun.  Stress and lack of sleep compromise the immune system.  And, communal living is messy!  Any space containing 39 to 50 people is a breeding ground for germs, especially when half of them are children.  Norovirus rampaged through the shelter four times last year.  In fact, I don’t think that it ever left the shelter.  Colds, flus, stomach bugs, and infections find fertile ground to multiple, moving room to room all year long.  It is a germaphobes nightmare.  I have a real fear of norovirus.  Like some junior, unofficial CDC fan-club member, I actually wrote down each time norovirus afflicted the shelter last year.  I found that it hit the shelter at about three month intervals, starting in September 2015, with the most recent outbreak in July 2016.  This is consistent with studies that immunity to norovirus lasts a few months.  Most of the staff had numerous bouts of vomiting last year.  Each night, I clean for a few hours.  I try to wipe down the surfaces with bleach.  It is a losing battle.


Young Victims:

Another interesting characteristic of the shelter is that the victims who come here tend to be young.  While we serve women of all ages, most of our residents tend to be under the age of 25.   These young residents also tend to have a number of small children.  Many of the women first became parents when they were in their teens and some are teen parents when they arrive.  Usually, this makes me feel old!  I am old!  And I am unusual, since I am a woman in my mid-30s without children.  Women who are a decade or more younger than me must shoulder the responsibility of having two or more children!  This is a daunting task, since rents are high, jobs are low paying, transportation is cumbersome, and day care almost impossible to find.  I feel that we are worlds apart.  I have such freedom.  I am enormously privileged.  Motherhood looks like carting crying, coughing, snotty nosed children to the freezing bus stop to get to a housing appointment or find clothes for a job interview.  In their frustration, it is easy to see all of the disgusting ways that society fails mothers.


Aside from young mothers, we usually have one or more women in shelter who are pregnant.  Based upon reports from the intake, these pregnant women were often subjected to greater abuses when they became pregnant than prior to it.  I actually had a woman go into labor on my shift (after earlier in the day she fled her abuser, who attacked her).  It was pretty intense.  She was screaming at me to help her.  Her water broke outside our office.  She actually gave birth on the stretcher as she was pushed into the hospital.  I like to regale my coworkers with the story of how I almost delivered a baby.  For vast majority of the women, the pregnancies were unplanned.  Some had hopes of a good relationship with their abuser.  Others were sexually coerced.  The presence of young mothers is consistent with national statistics.  The group with the highest incidence of domestic violence is 18-24.  This is also the age group with the highest rates of abortion.  Since 4 out of 10 unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, it makes sense that the group that is most vulnerable to relationships that deny them sexual autonomy also has the highest rate of abortion.


The Complicated Victim:

When I tell people that I work at a domestic violence shelter, usually they become quiet or tell me how nice it is that I do that work.  I read recently that 79% of Americans have never actually had anyone talk to them about domestic violence.  When Americans think about victims, we often think of mousey white women who live under the shadow of their abuser.  They are shrinking violets who endure abuse in silence.  This stereotype of a victim is useful, since because of the racism in society, it seems very hard for white people to sympathize with Native American and African American women.  It is hard for ordinary white people to sympathize with victims who have criminal backgrounds, who abuse children, who are themselves violent, or who are addicted to drugs.  In the popular mindset, a victim must be virtuous, long suffering, and “good.”  Victims who are not these things are blamed for the violence against them.


The truth of the matter is that the victims I work with are not the virtuous, saintly, white women who crumble like crushed lilies under the fist of their massive, angry, alcoholic abuser.  Many of the women struggle with severe substance abuse.  Many of the women do not treat their children kindly.  They can be neglectful or even outright abusive.  Many of them have criminal backgrounds.  Some visit the shelter between visits to jail.  Many of the women can be aggressive, insulting, rude, and selfish in their interactions with staff and other residents.  I am not listing these characteristics to put down the women.  Rather, I am being honest and want to create a portrait of the complicated people that stay at the shelter.


The complicated victim is a challenge, since as an advocate, we must challenge ourselves to show compassion and empathy to people who can be mean, rude, or disappointing.  A victim is a victim, even if they fight back or even if they were using drugs.  A victim deserves kindness, support, and unbiased service no matter what they have done or how they treat others.  The ideal of the saintly victim makes compassion easy.  The saintly victim is grateful and positive.  The complicated victim might swear and make a scene.  But, it challenges a person.  It challenges a person to be less biased.  It challenges a person to see substance abuse, homelessness, self-defense, and survival differently.  In the challenging victims, I see a lot of my own privilege.  I have the emotional resources to be calm and collected in the face of conflict.  I have the emotional resources to be patient when I don’t get my way, because I have faith in the long-game of life.  I have a lot of material, emotional, and psychological resources that help me cope with the challenges of life.  My behaviors are the outcome of my conditions and experiences.  So are theirs.

 

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It is hard to see black and blue, but it is also hard for society to see victims who are not white, thin, and able bodied.


Myth of Welfare Queens: As I have mentioned before, upon arrival at the shelter, I complete paperwork with the victims.  During this paperwork, I collect income information.  This is one of the most startling observations about victims: the majority are not getting any kind of public benefit, child support, or income.


Many people believe that low income mothers with many children are gaming the system by collecting child support from multiple fathers or getting large checks from the government.   This simply is not true of the women who come to the shelter.  While many of them apply for benefits once they are here, most do not arrive with health insurance or even MFIP.  Many of the women have severe health problems and disabilities, but are not collecting disability benefits.  I would say that there has not been a single intake that I have completed wherein the victim was receiving all of the benefits they would qualify for.  And, if the women do qualify for benefits, it extremely rare that it is over $1000 a month.  Most receive a few hundred dollars.


There are several reasons why the women do not have the benefits they  could qualify for.  One: Some were financially dependent upon their abuser as a form of abuse called  financial abuse.  Two: Many of the women have been chronically homeless, have moved across states, cities, or counties.  Applying for benefits requires residency in an area or living there long enough to collect the benefits.  This is not the case for women who have been moving a lot.  Three:  Applying for benefits can be difficult, especially because many of the women did not complete high school or may not be the best readers.  They may not know where to apply, the programs available, or the process of application.  Four: Because of mistakes in filling out paperwork, they may have been denied a benefit. In short, in my two years at the shelter, I have not met a single woman who was somehow cheating the system to gain benefits or child support.  It is more common that women have so little income that they cannot afford $1 co-pays on their medications. financial-abuse


Still Going On?  

When I was younger, I imagined that domestic violence was one of those things of the past.  If I heard about it, it seemed rare and shocking.  Doesn’t everyone think that women shouldn’t be beaten?!   Yet, over 4.7 million women experience domestic violence each year.  A few weeks ago, I protested the 15th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.  Between 2001-2012, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lives of 6,488 U.S. soldiers.  During that same time period, 11,766 women were murdered by their male intimate partner or ex-partner.  That is astonishing and terrible!

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Yes, it is still a problem.  Each night, I update our available beds on a website that lists all of the shelters in Minnesota.  Each night, across the state, all of the beds are full.  Women come from across the state to our shelter because they cannot find space elsewhere.  We are regularly full.  There could be another shelter in Duluth and that would be also full.  The problem never goes away.  The shelters are always full.  Sometimes we have people sleeping on mattresses on the floor rather than turn them away.


Once a woman comes to shelter, she is safe, but moving forward is difficult.  Housing is expensive.  Low-income housing is competitive and in low supply.  Jobs pay poorly.  Our public transportation system is extremely inconvenient.  Our community, especially our schools, are hostile to minority women and children.  With consistent effort and enough time, some women succeed and move on to housing.  Even if a victim breaks the cycle of abuse, they are left to fend for themselves in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist society.

Impressions of MN Ballet’s Dracula

Last night, I went to the Minnesota Ballet’s performance of Dracula.  Firstly, I love vampires.  Secondly, I like ballet.  So, there was a lot to love.  Now, when I say I like ballet, I want to make clear that I am not an expert on ballet.  My enjoyment of ballet consists of off and on ballet lessons as an adult.  I am currently taking ballet lessons on Tuesdays, as a matter of fact.  And, as you might imagine, I am a graceless fool with the beauty and coordination of a buffalo.  I think this makes me appreciate it, as I can enjoy how wonderful the performances are compared to my own awfulness.  Anyway, on with the show.

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The ballet began with Harker leaving Mina for Romania.  Their dance together was quaint and not particularly memorable.  Their reserved dance is suits two stuffy Victorian heterosexuals.  Things became more interesting when Harker was attacked by a trio of werewolves.  Again, Harker’s dancing was not all that interesting, but the choreography seemed suitable for a character who is a boring legal functionary.  Harker was rescued from this peril by Dracula, who at that point was depicted wearing a long dark silky tunic reminiscent of Vlad the Impaler.  This version of Dracula has long white Legolas hair.  In other words, he looked awesome!  This contrasted well against Harker’s less charismatic choreography and brown suit.  I also wondered what these suits were made of.   All of the male characters wore suits, so I wonder how they were adapted for dancing.  The white haired Dracula later found a locket with Mina’s picture and subsequently locked Harker in the basement of the castle, where he was seduced by three vampire women.


The seduction scene was great and aligned well with Bram Stoker’s novel.  Harker, the brown suited solicitor, had been pretty buttoned up and proper until that point.  But, the vampire women literally undressed him as they danced with him.  The women writhed around him, extending their long legs over his torso.  To Victorians, their wild sexuality was a marker of their evil nature.  In the ballet, their dangerous sexuality and its influence over Harker seems more pronounced than in the novel.  Dracula again saved him, though he now appeared younger with the traditional slick black hair and suit.  Twice, Dracula saved him from perilous trios, demonstrating his mastery over nature (the werewolves) and women (the vampire trio).  Interestingly, when they dance together, Dracula lightly lifted Harker.  This demonstrated his supernatural strength as a vampire, but also Dracula’s own gender bending sexual magnetism.


From then on, the story shifted to London.  Lucy began to fall under Dracula’s influence, while the mental patient Renfield acts erratically.  Renfield was amazing.  In the novel, he is a tortured, pathetic character.  In the ballet, he was the most dynamic and energetic dancer.  I don’t have a good enough memory to recall the various motions he performed, but at one point, he jumped high and did what I believe was a changement battu, wherein his feet were fluttering like a hummingbird.  Renfield’s sterile white costume, slippers, and erratic and energetic dancing made him stand out from the dull, black or brown suited assortment of male characters.  Like the novel, it was hard to keep track of Lord Arthur, Dr. Seward, and Quincy Morris as they danced.  Anyway, the ballet continued.  Lucy became a vampire, had a pretty cool dance scene after she arose from the grave, almost drank the blood of a little girl, and was staked.  The story then shifted to Mina, who was also falling under Dracula’s influence.

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As Mina fell under Dracula’s influence, the “men in suits” assembled with stakes.  They danced together, stakes in hand.  I thought that it was interesting that this Anglo-ensemble was off to save Mina from the clutches of a swarthy Eastern European.  It struck me that various guys I have met have expressed anxiety over the seductive power of “others” (Hispanics, blacks, Middle Easterners, Southern Europeans, etc.)  There is an anxiety that being Northern European isn’t attractive to women.  While the sun never sets on the British Empire, it is night just long enough to allow an outsider to seduce and transform their women.  In any event, the men with stakes faced the vampiress trio once again.  Once again, the women writhed and sprawled across the men.  The vampiresses managed to kill Renfield and carry him off.  It was neat to see the three petite ballerinas effortlessly pick up Renfield’s stiffened body.  The “suit men” had crosses and stakes.  They defeated the vampiresses and moved on to Dracula himself.  Dracula danced with all of them, lifting up at least one of the characters.  Again, this is pretty cool as it shows his strength as a vampire, but also as a dancer.  In the end, he is staked and the sun rises.  It should be noted that the final battle scene is far better than the novel.  It involved men dancing with stakes, men jumping backwards as Dracula throws them off, a dramatic caped pirouette, and real flames.  The novel’s final battle was very lackluster.  In the age of blockbuster movies and video games, a media consumer expects a drawn out and dramatic “boss battle.”  I like that the ballet delivered a “boss battle” worthy of Castlevania, complete with Toccata and Fugue and a Lacrymosa.

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Every ballet should have a boss battle.



As a whole, I enjoyed every moment of the ballet.  It was fun and offered food for thought.  For one, ballet is often thought of as very feminine.  However, this ballet, owing to the source material, really didn’t have many female characters.  Lucy and Mina pranced around in a world dominated by men.  The vampire trio were nameless seductresses who corrupted men and women and alike, but lacked individual motivation or characterization.  They danced in sync with each other and each wore the same white and red costume.  Like the novel, the ballet had a lot of masculine energy.  There were seven male characters, six of which wore suits.  In a way, the medium of ballet exaggerated the tropes of Victorian sexuality.  Since it relies on visual storytelling, the vampiresses must contort and extend to show their deviant sexual hunger.  Dracula must physically lift other men to show his strength.  He tries to drink their blood and seeks to control them.  Mina wears virginal white, but Lucy wears red when we falls under Dracula’s influence.  The novel was set in a time wherein sexualities were being scientifically categorized and understood.  The ambiguous romantic same sex friendships of the earlier part of the century were viewed with greater suspicion.  Dracula is dangerous because he challenges the masculinity of other men (by controlling them, saving them, threatening them, taking their women, and claiming ownership of Harker).  The male characters dance together and fight together in actions that are motivated by the female characters, but exclusive of them.  The fact that they are wearing tights and dancing around while they do this, highlights the otherwise subtle homoerotic subtext of the novel.

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Various scholars have argued that Dracula is full of homosexual metaphors.  If it is, the content is certainly subtle.

 


I like to think about gender and sexuality, so maybe I am assigning to much meaning to the ballet.  At the end of the day, it was fun.  There were werewolves and vampires.  The set lighting and pieces were dramatic.  The story was familiar and beloved.  So, of course I had a great time!

 

 

Activist Archives: Bi with Pie and the Importance of Bi+ Organizing

Yesterday, October 18th, marked the first meeting of Pandemonium, a local bi+ organization.  The first meeting lived up to the name, and really, that is my fault!  I thought it would be fun to have a “Bi with Pie” event, wherein we meet up and have some pie.  This SOUNDS fun in theory, but in practice, this meant being seated in the center of the room amidst a crowd of elderly diners at the local Perkins.  So, it was not exactly a comfortable discussion environment.  I asked to move and we were seated in booth that was off to itself, but were eventually joined by two nearby families with small children.  The world is a diverse place.  We have a right to be there and a right to discuss whatever we wish to.  But, most parents aren’t huge fans of subjecting their children to such interesting topics as bisexuality, polyamory, and transgender issues.  Thankfully, there were no complaints and we actually had a lively and interesting discussion.  However, I do take full responsibility for not thinking through the locale as well as I should have.  Next time we will meet at Pizza Luce for “Bi with Pizza Pie.”  We will also meet on Mondays as I was unaware that a local Trans group meets on Tuesdays.  These were honest mistakes, but geez, I feel terrible!


The Bi with Pie event attracted about five adults and one baby.   I was nervous that we would not have enough to talk about, so I brought questions and talking points to the group.  The meeting began with introductions and my own vision/mission of why I wanted to start the group.  This lent itself to some discussion throughout the two hour meeting.   As a little history about myself, I grew up in a small town and was pretty sheltered from various sexualities.  There was a time in high school wherein I thought I was a lesbian, but I kept this a secret from others.  I had a crush on a female at my school and told someone, which resulted in some very brief rumors about my sexuality.  At the time, I thought a person could only be straight or gay.   I eventually did have a boyfriend my senior year (I wasn’t exactly the sort of person who attracts a lot of romantic interest), which laid to rest my questions about my sexuality.  These questions did not surface again until college, when I learned that bisexuality was actually a possible sexuality.  This seems terribly naïve, but I seriously did not know much about different sexualities.  I finally came out as bisexual while studying in Ireland, as this was an environment where I was more free to express myself with less social consequence.  I have identified as bisexual since then.


My own catalyst for trying to start up a bi+ group was the events of this summer.  I was at a vigil for the Orland Nightclub Massacre this summer and was asked to be interviewed by the news.  I told them that they should interview someone else.  I did not feel that I was a good representative of the LGBT community.  After that interaction, I asked myself why?  Why do I feel like I am not a part of the LGBT community?  Why do I feel that my own opinion doesn’t matter?  Why do I feel like I am not queer enough?  As a bisexual, I have had the privilege of passing as a heterosexual.  At the same time, I have felt that perhaps I was not oppressed enough to fit into the LGBT community or that there might not be space for me.  This is not because anyone from that community has treated me poorly.  Rather, it is my own fears and insecurities.  As such, there are several reasons why I think that it is important to organize as bisexuals, which I shared at the meeting and which I will outline here:


  1. Visibility: One of the things that is most frustrating as a bisexual is the lack of visibility.  While bisexuals make up the largest portion of the LGBT community, they are not the most visible.  Opposite gender relationships result in invisibility when bi+ are assumed to be heterosexual.  Same gender relationships can result in invisibility when bi+ are assumed to be homosexual.  Historically, many cultures had sexual practices that might be considered bisexual by modern standards, but these instead get labelled homosexual.  This is all part of the larger issue of bisexual erasure.
  2. Legitimacy:  Several people who attended the group felt that their sexuality was treated as a phase, dismissed as something to appeal to men, or was somehow deviant.  I think that a bi+ group can work to assert ourselves as legitimate and dispel some of the myths associated with bisexuality.  For instance, some people in the group felt appalled that they had been stereotyped as promiscuous, kinky, or hypersexual (not that there is anything wrong with these things).
  3. Education: I was surprised to learn that bisexuals played an important role in the early LGBT movement.  The first campus LBGT group was founded by a bisexual man (Donnie the Punk) and the first Pride Festival was organized by a bisexual woman (Brenda Howard).  Getting together is a way to educate each other about history and learn together about sexual issues.  Part of our discussion involved educating each other on the differences between bisexual and pansexual, different sexualities in general, and the role of gender roles in patriarchy.  Additionally, the groups gives us an instrument through which we can organize educational community events.
  4. Community: Through education, discussion, activism, and support, we can grow in our identities and as a bisexual community.  Some of the members expressed that they felt alone or that they did not fit in.  Some felt that they had always been private about their sexuality because their sexuality had been used as weapon to discredit them.  Thus, a component of the meeting was offering support to one another.  Each person at the table had a struggle.  Themes of these struggles included past relationship violence, mental health, sexual trauma, etc.  The group provides an avenue for sharing and support.
  5. Social: It is fun to get together with people and discuss issues.  This is socially rewarding.  It builds friendships and networks to resources.  So, sexualities aside, having a group fulfils this role.
  6. Activism: Finally, having a group creates an opportunity for activism.  When things such as the Orlando massacre happen, we can mobilize to protest.  We can also participate in Pride, Bisexuality Visibility Day, National Coming Out Day, and other LGBT events.
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Conclusion:

Our discussion meandered over many topics and there was plenty to talk about.  In the end and despite the challenges of the locale, we decided that we would meet on Monday November 21st at Pizza Luce at 6:30 pm.  One of our major goals for the time being is simply to meet up once a month.  Based upon this we can expand into activism, community education, and connecting with the larger LGBT movement.   Although our beginning was a little rough and certainly modest, I am hopeful for the future and thankful to those who attended.

 

Activist Archives: Chalk for Choice

There have been many activities this month related to protesting the 40 Days for Life.  Beyond the Friday pickets hosted by the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition, there have been several Chalk for Choice events.  There have been two “Chalk for Choice” events thus far, with another planned for 7pm on October 27th.  The events have been so successful that even after the 40 Days for Life has ended, we would like to continue chalking for choice on a monthly basis.  Here is a report on the event!

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History:

Across the country, abortion providers have been accosted by pro-life activists.  To counter this, some of the clinics have chalked their sidewalks to create a more welcoming environment for the women who use their services.  For instance, in 2015, feminist volunteers went to the Founder’s Women’s Heath Center  in Ohio at 5:30 in the morning to chalk the sidewalk before anti-choice protestors arrived.  The anti-choice protestors had already been chalking the sidewalk in the past, so this was a way to beat them to the punch.   The chalk is a way of expressing support for women who use the clinic and the workers therein.  It also attracted the attention of activists and volunteers who wanted to get involved with chalking and volunteering at the clinic.

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Other clinics have also hosted chalking events, including the Red River Women’s Clinic and Preterm Cleveland Ohio.  The Red River Women’s Clinic is the only abortion provider in North Dakota.  They also began hosting chalking events in 2015 and are currently hosting Chalk for Choices events to coincide with the 40 Days for Life.  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the 40 Days for Life is a yearly international 40 day anti-abortion vigil that mobilizes up to 10,000 volunteers to stand outside of clinics in prayer and protest.   North Dakota is an extremely hostile state to women’s reproductive choices.  North Dakota women must endure biased counseling, then wait 24 hours for an abortion.  If Roe v. Wade was ever overturned, abortion would automatically become illegal in North Dakota.  Abortions are illegal after 20 weeks unless the woman’s life is in danger.  Furthermore, since the Red River Women’s Clinic is the only clinic in the entire state, women must travel long distances to obtain services.   For instance, a woman would have to travel over 4 hours to go from  Minot or Dickinson to the clinic in Fargo.  In smaller communities, travel might be six or seven hours to Fargo.  The long distances and restrictions are not unique to North Dakota, but should highlight the importance of pro-choice activism in that state.

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Local Connection:

I was not aware of these clinic chalking events until this fall.  Over coffee, someone familiar with them suggested that the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition should host chalking events.  She showed me some images of the chalking that had happened at the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo and I agreed to help organize this kind of chalking locally.  Thus, that is how the event was born!  It is just another addition to the activities going on for the 40 days of Choice and hopefully a mainstay in local pro-choice activism.

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Our first event had a turn out of about twelve people.  It was held on a Thursday evening at 7pm.  The forecast called for rain, but we decided to host the event anyway.  Even if the rain washed away our work, we would have the photographs.  Sure enough, the rain destroyed our work before the clinic opened the next morning.  However, it was great to create art and at least beautify the sidewalk for a few hours.  Furthermore, by creating art that night, we showed the anti-choice activists that we are an active and visible part of this community.  We also showed this to the community.  A few pedestrians even joined us in chalking!

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Our second event was held the following Thursday.  This event had about ten attendees and much better weather.  Once again, there was some participation from interested pedestrians.   The artwork survived the night and welcomed women to the clinic.  Several staff at the clinic and organizations hosted in the Building for Women also told me that seeing the bright colors and positive messages brightened their day!

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Perhaps the most powerful testimony was from a woman who shared that had an abortion in the past.  She shared that years ago when she went to the clinic, it was a very hard decision for her.  She did not feel supported in her choice.  She shared that seeing the chalk art made her wish that someone had chalked for her.  Rather than feeling ashamed, she might have felt empowered.  So, the art was very meaningful for her.

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Conclusion:

Choice is beautiful.  It is the cornerstone of equality.  Without it, we are beholden to the power of men who might rape or abuse us.  Without it, we are blocked from careers, education, our dreams, and livelihood.  With out it, we are relegated to becoming tired breeders.  Without it, we are denied healthy and full lives. Without it, we live in fear.   Creating lovely chalk art is just one way to affirm women, the choices they make, and the choices deserve to make.   A better world is possible.  We can begin by drawing it in chalk.

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Radical Cheerleading Chronicles: Cheer for Choice

Each year, from late September through early November, is the 40 Days for Life.  40 Days for Life is an international pro-life campaign which involves fasting, prayer, and 24 hour vigils outside of Planned Parenthood or abortion providers.  The event has mobilized up to 10,000 participants from 3,500 churches.  It began in 2004 and I have been involved with protesting these events since 2010.  In fact, the Twin Ports Women’s Rights coalition came out of ad hoc pickets against the 40 Days for Life in 2014.  Over the years, the vibe of the vigil has changed.  Sometimes there are a few members of the vigil who are a little pushier about their beliefs and directly engage us, the counter protestors.  This year, those at the vigil have generally kept to themselves and kept their distance from us.  For the most part, the participants tend to be peaceful, elderly men and women.  Their signs are not as graphic or offensive as those that might typically be seen in an anti-abortion protest.

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Nevertheless, despite their peaceful nature there are plenty of reasons to protest them.  For one, it is important to mobilize pro-choicers.  We have seen decades of defeats in terms of waiting periods, mandatory counseling, parental consent, funding, access, abortion bans after 22 weeks, admitting rights for doctors, and a plethora of other laws meant to restrict abortion access.   It is demoralizing to think of the parade of defeats that have occurred over the decades.  This is why it is absolutely imperative that the pro-choice movement mobilize to defend the few clinics that we have left.   Secondly, peaceful pro-life protestors are a very visible part of a culture which shames women for having abortions.  Three in 10 women have had abortions, yet this is taboo to talk about.  Abortion is always framed as something secret, tragic, and shameful.  By protesting the pro-life picketers we are asserting in an very visible way that being pro-choice is something to be proud of and that we support all the choices that women make.  Finally, it is important because it shows the workers at the clinic that we are in solidarity with their work.  They may not have the same freedom to voice their opinions, especially while they are working.  They are underpaid (due to funding challenges for abortion services) and underappreciated.  Of course, there are many other reasons to protest and every activist is different, but these are just a few of the reasons that motivate myself.


With that said, each Friday we have been hosting two counter protests as the Building for Women.  These sometimes attract the attention of pedestrians and drivers.  From time to time, some stop to challenge us.  For the most part, we get many honks and thanks in support.  These pickets are called the 40 days for Choice.   To make these pickets a little bit more fun and to attract new participants some of them have themes.  For instance, last year we did a costume theme around Halloween.  We will do this again this year.  One of our themes this year was “Cheer for Choice.”  The theme involved dressing up as cheerleaders.  It was a way to roll out our Rah Rah Revolutionary radical cheerleading project.  I think that having theme days and costumes is a way to boost morale for our own participants.  Reproductive rights is a serious matter, but if we don’t have fun, we can become burned out as activist.


This was our most successful event as the re-launched Rah Rah Revolutionaries.  Five of us dressed up as cheerleaders including myself, Lucas, Alexa, Jenny, Angie, and Juniper.  We had one pedestrian who wanted to cheer with us, but she ended up taking her pompoms and leaving.  So, alas, I have lost a set of pompoms.  In addition to the cheerleaders, there were six participants who did not dress up.  In all, this has one of our most successful years as we have regularly had over ten people at our Friday evening pickets.  Of course, the pro-life vigil members have a 40 day vigil with participants each day.  However, they can draw from a larger number of retirees and have institutional support from churches.  As such, they have a greater capacity to mobilize people for their protest than we do.  Still, I am proud of our efforts and glad that anyone shows up at all!  I am also proud that we kept our cool when a pedestrian became aggressive and spit on one of our participants.  Disgusting!  In the end, the pedestrian apologized and said that he actually agreed with us.

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Anyway, that’s just a brief report about what we’ve been up to.  Here are the cheers we did during the event.     Some of these are a little offensive- which I found amusing when writing them and cheering them.  For instance, rhyming John Locke with offensive cock or stating that the “fetus will not defeat us.”  With that said, they might not be appropriate in all contexts- but we democratically discussed our willingness to do the more racy ones.  I also edited one of the chants as it was not inclusive to all women.


Pro-Choice Chants

We’re here,

To cheer,

For the choices we hold dear!

C,H,O,I,C,E (fast spelling)

That spells

autonomy!

Clap your hands!

Raise your voice!

It’s our body

It’s our choice!

No more shaming

And victim blaming!

No more shaming

And victim blaming!

Defend our clinics

Defend our rights

Come together,

Let’s fight, fight, fight!

Keep your rosaries

Off our ovaries

Your god and cross

Are not my boss!

Hey all you feminists,

Stand up and raise your fists!

Now that we’re feeling proud,

Let’s shout it really loud:

Rah rah, rah rah rah

Rah rah, rah rah rah rah

Now that we’ve got the beat

Sound off, what we’ll defeat:

Patriarchy!

Capitalism!

War!

Hunger!

Racism!

Sexism!

…etc…

For all the women, who live in fear

We come together,

It’s why we’re here.

For all the women, who live in shame,

We fight for you,

We’re all the same!

When women’s rights are under attack,

What do we do?

Stand up,

Fight back!

We’re the feminists,

And we couldn’t be prouder

If you can’t hear us,

We’ll shout a little louder!

Hey hey, ho ho,

Patriarchy has got to go!

Defence, (clap, clap)

Clinic Defence, (clap, clap)

Defence, (clap, clap)

Clinic Defence, (clap, clap)

Tell me why,

In this day and age,

Are women raped and underpaid

The fetus, the fetus

The fetus won’t defeat us.

Rise up!

Rise up!

Rise up, up, up, up

Right to life,

Your names a lie

You don’t care if women die

Back alleys

No more

Abortions for the rich and poor!

It’s my choice

Leave it me,

I can choose a family!

Abortion without apology

No more bogus counseling!

I won’t wait an extra day!

I want my rights without delay

Sixteen years old or forty one!

Abortion rights for everyone!

Get your religion

Out of my decision!

Church and state

Should separate

If you don’t like John Locke

Cover up your offensive cock!

There’s no choice without access!

Without choice there’s no progress!

More clinics!

More funds!

Abortion rights for everyone!

Seven clinics, that’s BS

Driving so far causes distress!

No more waiting,

No more drives,

No more begging for dollar signs!

Three in Ten by 45

Some are single,

Some are wives!

Many drove from far away!

Many waited for a day!
Three in Ten by 45

Let’s keep abortion rights alive!

Safe, legal, everywhere

I don’t want abortion to be rare

I want access

I want funds

Not laws based on your legends!

Hey, hey, feminist friends!

Let’s sound off choices we defend:

Abortion

IUD

Nuvaring

Vasectomy

Condoms

Patch or shot

That list is what we’ve got!

Wait, wait, there’s others too

Child birth

Abstinence

Spermicide

You can even choose to cum outside!

Really, we just don’t care

As long as, choice is there!

Radical Cheerleading Chronicles: 15th Anniversary of the War in Afghanistan

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Lately,  I’ve been feeling old.   Well, nothing makes me feel old like the anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.  Seriously…15 years?!  That began 15 years ago?!  I remember sitting in a foreign policy class with that sexist professor from CSS.  I remember being cynical when we dropped food and messages on the population, followed by bombs.  I remember celebrating the 11th anniversary with a small picket in Mankato.  A student snickered a few weeks later when it was announced that the troops were being drawn down.  Our small picket ended the war, he laughed.  Yeah, yeah, we aren’t changing the world.  Rub it in.  Really it seems that we have been “drawing down” for five years.  The Northland Anti-War Coalition disbanded in 2014 under the pretense that we would draw down the troops to half in 2015.  Here we are, 2016, and there are still 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.  And, no one knows and no one cares.  I didn’t even know.  I was shocked when I read a report that cited the Department of Defense…that indeed, we still have almost 10,000 soldiers there.


Anti-war work has a special place in my heart.  My very first activism was anti-war activism.  War is one of those big things.  At least to me it seems pretty easy and obvious to be against war.  Abortion rights can be complicated to explain.  But, war is expensive and it kills adult people…children….pregnant…women…fetuses….animals…environments.   It seems that anyone who generally does not like the idea of things dying or becoming permanently injured, would be wary about war.  This gets confounded by patriotism, fear, and hate, of course.  But, if not death…the enormous price tag should deter some.   The Afghanistan war could cost up to 6 trillion dollars.  Currently, the war has cost about 680 billion dollars.  I read that per American, the Afghanistan war has cost $33,000. Of course, there are different websites with different numbers.  I imagine that it is hard to calculate or anticipate the full price tag of the war.   On the low end, we have killed 30,000 Afghan civilians or on the high end, over 200,000.  We have created six million Afghan refugees.  At the same time, there is little improvement in the country.  The Taliban has been steadily gaining territory and ISIS has been gaining a foothold in the south.  Opium production is actually 35 times greater today than in 2001.  Really, this is a black hole sucking up American resources with little benefit to the population there.  The worst thing is that it is entirely invisible in the public discourse.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans are talking about it.  Yet, both are responsible for this prolonged and pointless war that benefits no one- spare some defense contractors and warlords who siphon off aid.


It would be wonderful if the 15th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan was a catalyst to renew the anti-war movement.  Alas, it is an invisible anniversary for a forgotten war.  Locally, we planned a picket in Superior with the Veterans for Peace and Grandmothers for Peace.  The Rah Rah Revolutionaries decided to make an appearance, even though the event was modest.  Three radical cheerleaders showed up.  It was bitterly cold for October.  Our cheerleading costumes were not enough for the unexpected cold.  However, our chanting and cheering kept us warm.  The pompoms also kept our hands from freezing.  Like Take Back the Night, it was myself, Lucas, and Alexa.  In total, there were eleven people at the picket.  It is sad that there were fewer people at the protest than there were years of war!!  But, this is the sorry state of the anti-war movement and I am glad that there are some die-hard activists.  Eleven is better than zero.

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Although we froze our butts off, there were a few things that made it worth it.  For one, I think that the older activists, especially those who were in the Grandmothers for Peace, were glad that the cheerleaders were there.  Even though we are in our 30s, they were happy to see “young” people there.  Someday I will be an old lady who has done decades of activism-looking to the future.  We are the future.  We are young in the sense we have many decades left to fight.  So, while the 15th anniversary sure makes me feel old, it can also make me feel young when I see the Grandmothers for Peace.  Another plus was that we had a great response from cars that passed by.  We were a bunch of frozen weirdoes with peace signs.  Yet, we had many honks and waves.  People don’t like war.  Maybe they forget that it is still going on, but it is encouraging that they support our efforts.  Finally, it was nice to do cheers as the cheerleaders.  It made the time go quickly.  It kept us warm. And, I now have cheers to re-use for the 16th…and I predict, the 20th anniversary of this war.  Here are the cheers in case any other radical cheerleader group wants to use them:

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Anti-war Chants

I can’t stand,

Another year in Afghanistan,

Fifteen years is way too long,

For a costly war that’s clearly wrong!

15…15

So much war is just obscene!

10,000 troops are still too much!

In country we shouldn’t touch!

15…15

We armed the mujahedeen!

How many years until we see!

War is our policy!

Bush, Obama…Hillary next?

War goes on no matter who we elect!

That’s why we’re here, doing this cheer!

This is a chant all parties must hear!

Hey hey, understand!

We’re still in Afghanistan

We never beat the Taliban,

Even now they’re gaining land!

Hey, hey, understand!

This forgotten war is a sham!

600 billion since 2002,

What on earth should America do?!

31 thousand civilians dead,

Spend that money on peace instead!

No matter how many troops we send

This war goes on without end!

No matter how much money we spend,

This war goes on without end!

We’re anti-war and we couldn’t be prouder

If you can’t hear us, we’ll shout a little louder!

One, we’re anti-war (point to self)

Two, you should be too! (point out)

Three, troops home now!

No more war, war, war, war!

Troops home now! (Clap, clap, clap, clap)

we’ll show you how! (clap, clap, clap, clap)

Take to the streets (clap, clap, clap, clap)

Unite for peace! (clap, clap, clap, clap)

Salam, Pace, Mir

We’re for peace

It’s why we’re here

Paz, peace, amani

No more war,

Just harmony!

1,2,3,4

We cheer for anti-war

5,6,7,8

No more fear, no more hate!

9,10,11,12

Put our weapons on the shelf!

Who was the one who started the assault,

Bush, Bush,

without a doubt!

Who had the urge, to do a troop surge?

Obama, Obama!

Continued the drama

Who is next in November?

Will this war go on forever?

Stop stop

TROOPS OUT NOW! (raise fist)

Six million refugees

Stop this war

Stop it please!

Rah rah rah,

Peace is patriotic

No duh, duh, duh (thumbs down)

War is idiotic

Alexander the Great

Genghis Khan

The Mughal Empire

The list goes on

The Sikhs and

The British too!

All defeated by you know who!

The Soviet Union,

And Now the US

Why we’re there is anyone’s guess!

It could be contracts

Or the war machine!

This endless war is so obscene!

Tell me, tell me

What would you do?

If I gave 30 grand to you?

Would you save for a home, go to college, get a car?

If you didn’t pay for the Afghanistan war

Tell me, tell me,

How would it be?

If we pooled all that money?

Who would be poor or going hungry?

With a new priority!

We want justice

We want peace

U.S. out of the Middle East!

No more wars for corporations,

No more drones and occupations!

Not a penny, not a dollar

We won’t pay for endless slaughter!

Money for jobs and education

Not for war and occupation!

 

Black sites

Drones

Opium Farms

These are the ways our

War does harm!

Radical Cheerleading Chronicles: Take Back the Night

Radical Cheerleading Chronicles: Take Back the Night

 

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This fall was the re-launch of the Rah Rah Revolutionaries, a radical cheerleading group that I started in 2010.  To be sure, it has been a very modest beginning.  However, I am happy that a few people are interested.  Really, it is remarkable that I can find any other human being in the world who wants to dress up like a cheerleader and protest things with me.  This is a brief chronicle of what we have been up to.


Our very first event was Take back the Night, which was held in early October at UM-Duluth.  Take back the Night is an international event against sexual violence/violence, which began in the 1970s with protests against pornography and violence against women.  While I don’t have an official count of how many people attended last year, it seems that there were four times the people who attended this year.  The march went on for many blocks and included a large number of students from CSS.  It was the largest march that I have attended in Duluth for many years.  I can not be certain why there was such an increase of CSS students, but perhaps the high profile rape that occurred to a CSS student who was studying abroad in Ireland was a catalyst for the college to become involved.  Since I was not an organizer of the event, I can only speculate.

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I did not have much vision of what our participation in Take Back the Night would actually entail.  I figured I would bring my collection of pompoms, some signs, make up some chants, and some extra costumes.  With a garbage bag full of gear, I met up with Alexa and Lucas, the only two members of our group to show up.  Well, there was three of us.  That was a start.  Since we didn’t have a table,  I suggested that we could go out into the hallway and welcome people with some cheers.  I asked the volunteers at the registration table if they minded if we cheered across from them.  They seemed enthusiastic about our impromptu welcoming committee.  So, we stood there….together…holding signs and doing the cheers I had prepared.  Some of the cheers were found online.  Others I made myself.  I will post them so that other cheerleader groups may use them in the future.

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We generally had a good response to the cheers.  People seemed curious about what we were doing.  A news station wanted to interview us.  We even had a few people join us.  In all, three additional people joined us for some pre-march chanting.  Since it was in the hallway, it wasn’t particularly disruptive to the Take back the Night resource fair with was happening nearby.  Once the speakers began, we stopped the cheers and joined the event.  This was followed by a march.  We did not use any of our own cheers during the march, as the organizers had their own chant.  However, we did walk together and tried to add some energy to the front of the march by shaking our pompoms and shouting the chants.  The march was pretty amazing since it included hundreds of people.  There were community members as well as a large contingent of male athletes.

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Although it was a modest beginning for our radical cheerleader group, I am proud of our work.  I think we added a little color and energy to the event.  Take back the Night is a serious event.  There is a lot of painful testimonies and raw poetry.  At the same time, there is an atmosphere of power and celebration.  It is an event where those painful experiences are turned into unity and determination for social change.  I think that the cheerleaders added to the celebratory aspects of trying to overcome sexual/intimate violence in society.  As a whole, I draw a positive balance sheet.  I think that next year I would like to see more cheerleaders there.  I would also like to perhaps work with the organizers so that they can direct us to what kind of role they would like us to have (as I would not want to step on anyone’s toes by accident).  Finally, it would be useful to have our own table at the resource fair (though this would take away from our ability to stand outside the hall and cheer).   With that said, it is a start.  Every start is a little rough, but I am very thankful to the small core of cheerleaders who have helped make this project a reality.

Take back the Night Cheers:

 

Give me an N: N!

Give me an O: O!

When I say no

You’ve got to go!


Nei, Nein, Nyet, Tidak

When I say no

You step back

Ei, Nee, An-iyo,

When I say no

It’s time to go!


Feminists Unite

Take back the night!


2,4,6,8

Stop violence, stop rape

3,5,7,9

If there’s no consent, it’s a crime!


Say it once,

Say it again,

Stop violent women and men.


Consent, consent, you gotta have consent

If she’s been drinking

Don’t be thinking

You’ve got consent

Consent, you gotta have consent!

If she says no,

You gotta go,

Consent, consent, you gotta have consent!

If she says nothing,

Don’t try something!

Consent, consent, you gotta have consent!


We have the right

To go out at night!

That’s we are here,

We won’t live in fear!

We won’t stand silence

When there is violence

We won’t stand still

When some will kill

We won’t look away

Until abusers pay!


Hey, hey you

If she says rape

It must be true

Hey, hey you

If he says rape

Believe him too!


Whatever we wear

Wherever we go

Yes means yes

And No means No!


No means no,

It doesn’t mean maybe

Do not touch me

I’m not your baby


The night is for the moon and stars

Not tears, bruises, and unseen scars

The night is for women and girls

To stand together and change our world


Bases, home, campus, dorm,

Everywhere assault is the norm

Pastor, spouse, coach, dad

It makes me angry

It makes me mad

Protests, classes, shelters, strikes

That is how we’ll win this fight.


We’re going to fight

For our right

To walk the streets

And Take Back the Night!


Rise up!

Rise up!

Rise up, up, up, up


Tell me why,

In this day and age,

Are women raped and underpaid


For all the women, who live in fear

We come together,

It’s why we’re here.

For all the women, who live in shame,

We fight for you,

We’re all the same!


We’re the feminists,

And we couldn’t be prouder

If you can’t hear us,

We’ll shout a little louder!


Hey hey, ho ho,

Patriarchy has got to go!

 

Vote Shaming: Privilege, Conscience, and Third Parties

Over the years, I have often been either annoyed or indifferent to the election cycle.  Elections are more or less something to be endured.  Time and time again, I watch from the sidelines as two capitalist puppets duke it out over just how shitty the country gets to be over the next four years.  It is sort of a Punch and Judy Show.  No matter if Punch or Judy wins, the work is always the same.  The difference each election makes tends to be who and how many people show up to activist events.


One unique characteristic of this election, however, is the amount of shaming there seems to be against those who do not support Hillary.  I have seen various articles which argue that people who vote for third parties are selfish and privileged.  This seems to be a very popular argument this election cycle.  Generally, the argument goes that only those people who could weather the storm of a Trump presidency, could possibly consider voting for a third party.  Anyone with something to lose must chose the lesser evil.  It is a privilege to vote for your conscience.  It is a privilege NOT to vote for Hillary.  Those privileged folks who vote for third parties are really all about themselves.  They are selfish.  Their individual identities are more important than the social responsibility of voting for Hillary.   This rubs me the wrong way for a number of reasons beyond simply being called privileged and selfish.


I certainly have privilege and my selfish aspects.  I am privileged by being white.  I am privileged by my education.  I am privileged because I do not have a disability.   I am privileged because I am single and child-free.  I have a tremendous amount of freedom.  I am privileged that I am not obese (which is shamed in society) and not too ugly (again prejudiced against).   The list could go on.  Yes, I do have privilege.  But, my privilege is not a function of my politics.   If you decrease x (x=privilege) it does not increase y (y=democratic party support).   I have been a socialist for around fifteen years.  This was before I had completed a college education.  I was a socialist while on food stamps.  I was a socialist through major episodes of depression.  I was a socialist when working at a hotel.  I was a socialist for the 10+ years that I didn’t have health insurance.  At no point did my support of the Democratic Party increase as my desperation increased.  I imagine that if I became homeless, disabled, unemployed, or any other major drop in my privilege, I would continue to support socialism.  While arguably, certain privileges allowed me to become a socialist to begin with (exposure to different ideas, the intellectual wherewithal to make sense of political theory, living in an area where there was a socialist party, etc.), my politics do not change when I have more to lose.


On the other hand, if my privilege is not a function of my politics, perhaps selfishness is.  I don’t know how selfish I am compared to other people.  I write blogs…about myself.  I shamelessly take selfie photos.  I forget birthdays.  I lose contact with old friends.   I don’t always compromise and do what other people want me to do.  Sure, I have my selfishness.  I genuinely enjoy doing helpful things.  I live in a house with a food shelf on the porch!  Next summer I am building a free garden in our yard so that strangers can just take vegetables!  I try to be involved in my community.  I have done AmeriCorps three times (making less than minimum wage).  I’ve worked with homeless youth, at-risk youth, and survivors of domestic violence.   I think that as a whole, I am probably a mixed bag of selfishness and selflessness, like anyone else.  It is true that being a socialist shapes my identity.  So there is some “me-ness” involved.  But, I became a socialist because I was upset with the suffering in the world.  I was deeply upset by poverty and war.  I feel angry when I think about the way in which most people live in this world.  This comes out of a place of empathy.


Let’s suppose that I am privileged and selfish, which has caused me to vote for socialists all these years.  I certainly don’t think that this would be true of other third party supporters that I know.   I am not a Green Party supporter, but generally speaking, I have never met a Green Party supporter who I thought was particularly self-involved or privileged.   In Mankato, the Green Party tended to be well-meaning older adults on fixed incomes.  In Duluth, those who support it tend to be life-long activists who have tirelessly worked on various campaigns often without reward or recognition.  In Mankato, I found that the anarchists were also nice and pretty dedicated to working for political change.  They tried to work with other groups.  They certainly weren’t that privileged, as they worked long hours in service industry jobs…and ate food from dumpsters.  This week, I even met a nice Libertarian who spent the day picketing anti-choicers with me.  As for my own Socialist Action party members, they tend to be hard working, intelligent people, who are also life long activists…who again have worked tirelessly trying to build social movements across the decades.    Is Adam selfish and privileged?  He works as a janitor cleaning up poop and disease.  He spends his money to fund a food shelf on our porch!  Is my friend Mike selfish and privileged?  He enjoys working low paid jobs at group homes as he is passionate about helping people with disabilities. Socialist Actions VP Candidate Karen Schraufnagel is brilliant, kind, and has dedicated herself to fighting Islamophobia and promoting Palestinian rights!  The point is, in all actuality, within my party, but across other political groups, there are nice, selfless people, who want to better society…and who devote their lives to doing this.   Calling their dedicated work for social change selfish and privileged is offensive to me.  Rather than critiquing these alternatives to the two party system on the basis of their principles, it reduces politics to ad hominem attacks.  Finally, everyone has some privilege.  There are privileged Democrats.  Many of the least privileged people in society may vote for Trump.  Rather than witch hunt privilege across parties it is more constructive to focus on the ways in which systems of privilege could be dismantled.   But…that is beyond the scope of two party politics.


No, my politics really aren’t about my privilege and my selfishness.   I simply have a different vision of the political world.  In my world, it truly doesn’t matter if Trump or Hillary win.  In my world, the Punch and Judy show really isn’t where change is made.  In fact, it is a distraction from where and how change happens!  Politicians grant nothing that hasn’t already been won in the streets.  Woodrow Wilson did not GIVE women the right to vote.  This was WON through 80 years of struggle in social movements.  It was WON by millions of people in the streets demanding this.   So it is with the labor movement, environmental movement, or Civil Rights movement.  The Clean Air Act, Environmental Protection Agency, Endangered Species Act, OSHA, and Equal Employment Opportunity Act were all passed under Nixon.  This wasn’t because Nixon was a progressive guy!  It is because there were social movements at the time.  Change is something that is won through struggle.  It is not something that kindly politicians give us from time to time.  I believe in the power of the people.  History is a history of people struggling for their rights.  This is why I am not afraid of Donald Trump.   We have nothing to fear if we mobilize.  Nothing is made or moved in this country without workers.  We have a tremendous amount of power, but lack the vision and organization to use it.


Part of this short sighted vision is the excessive focus on elections!  Elections are a coconut game where everyone is a loser.  At least from a socialist perspective, Trump and Hillary are both representatives of capitalism.  We all lose under capitalism.  Sure, there are some qualitative differences between them.  But, imperialist wars will continue, Blacks will be killed by police, carbon will saturate our atmosphere, corrupt banking will continue, pipelines will be built, immigrants will be deported, and abortion rights curtailed no matter who is in office.   The pace and extent of these miseries is not a function of the party in power, but the people in motion.


Let’s suppose though that Trump is elected and things truly suck.  Rest assured, I will go out and protest every injustice.   I cannot substitute myself for a mass movement, but I can do what I can in my capacity as a human being to fight for a better world.  This is something I try to do already and something I do no matter who is president.


With that said, the shaming will not change me.  My political world view is based upon the power of people and critique of capitalism.  Elections play a very small role in true social changes. When the elections come, there will be people who don’t vote.  That’s okay.  There are voters who will vote for third parties.  That’s okay.  Voting is not a holy quest through which one purges themselves of evil.  Yes, people died so I could vote.  People also died so I could have safe work spaces, they died to protest imperialist wars, they died in those wars, they died to end slavery, they died for basic democratic rights, they died in failed revolutions…people across the world and across history have died for many movements.  Movements are the key.  The right to vote was won by a movement.  Voting was attained, but the story doesn’t end there.  Voting was not the end of history.  The act of voting is not the highest and holiest act, but one small expression of democracy and the realization of a singular demand.  Voting is not self-immolation before the altar of lesser evils.  It is victory, not an idol.  Because my goal is the liberation of oppressed people,  my eye is on victories greater than the promises of capitalist politicians….the sort of victories that won’t be won in elections.

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