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Fungi and Feminism

Fungi and Feminism

H. Bradford

8/12/17

 

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic.  This month, the goal was to go on a hike to learn more about fungi, edible and otherwise.  We asked Ariel, one of our members, if she would be willing to tell us a little about edible fungi, as she forages for fungi and sells them to a local grocery store.  As for myself, I undertook the task of trying to connect fungi with feminism for a short presentation on that topic.  Connections between these two topics are not commonly made, but almost anything can be connected to feminism.  Indeed, fungi can be connected to feminism through an exploration of women’s roles as foragers and food preparers, the connection between fungi and witchcraft, and the contributions women have made to mycology, the science of fungi.


An Introduction to Fungi:

To begin, it is useful to outline some basic information about fungi.  Fungi are a diverse group of organisms that consist of everything from yeast in bread and beer, infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, mushrooms and toadstools, and mold on bread.  Most people are probably most familiar with fungi in the form of mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of some fungi.  However, this is just a small portion of the diversity of this kingdom.  Taxonomy is always changing, but fungi are often considered to be one of five or six kingdoms of organisms, including plants, animals, protists, archaebacteria, fungi, and bacteria.  For most of history, fungi was lumped into the plant kingdom and it was not until the 1960s that they were separated into their own category of lifeforms.  It might be easy to confuse fungi with plants, due the fact that both grow in soil and tend to be stationary.  In actuality, fungi was more closely related to animals and 1.1 billion years ago they shared a common evolutionary ancestor with the animal kingdom (Staughton, 2002).  Fungi are similar to animals in that they cannot produce their own food, as plants do through photosynthesis.  Rather, they feed on dead and living organisms, breaking them down by excreting enzymes and absorbing nutrients through their cell wall (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  This means that they differ from animals in that they do not ingest their food, rather they absorb it.  Another similarity between animals and fungi is that both of them use oxygen in cellular respiration to convert nutrients into energy.  That is, both use oxygen and release carbon dioxide as waste, as opposed to plants which use carbon dioxide and release oxygen (Bone, 2011).  Yet, fungi are similar to plants in that both have cell walls, although the cell wall of plants is made of cellulose and the cell wall of fungi is made of chitin.  Chitin is the same substance that the beaks of squids and the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects is made of.

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Despite the clear differences between plants and fungi, historically, fungi have been lumped together with plants and even today, mycology tends to be lumped within botany departments rather than zoology.  While fungi have had a sort of identity crisis over history, they do indeed have a very close relationship to plants.  Over 90% of all plants have a mycorrhizal fungal partner.  In other words, plants often have fungi that live on or in their roots for the purpose of helping them extract more nutrients from the soil.  In exchange, the fungi obtain sugar, which the plant produces.  This is why a person often sees mushrooms at the base of trees.  Some unusual plants, such as monotropes (more commonly known as Indian Pipe or Ghost Plant), do not produce chlorophyll and depend upon fungi to obtain energy from nearby trees.  Almost every plant has fungi living between their cells.  In addition, 85% of all plant disease are caused by fungi.  In fact, chili peppers evolved their hotness as a defense against fungi (Bone, 2011).  Therefore, it is no wonder that plants and fungi are associated with one another.

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One of the most interesting thing about fungi is how diverse that kingdom is.  While the animal kingdom contains a wide array of organisms including lifeforms as different as horseflies, sea horses,  horseshoe crabs, and horses fungi vary even more greatly.  Fungi include organisms that reproduce sexually, asexually, and both.  This makes them extremely interesting from a sexual standpoint.  Unlike animals, they can be one celled or made up of many cells.  Subsequently, fungi include such diverse phylums as club fungi, which include mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, and shelf fungi.  This is the phylum that most people are probably familiar with.  These fungi often have club shaped structures with gills containing spores.  Another phylum of fungi are called sac fungi, or fungi which produce spores in tiny sacks.  This group includes yeast, truffles, molds, and morels.  Another phylla is called zygomycota, which feature sexual and asexual reproduction and include black mold.  Finally, there are imperfect fungi, which have unknown methods of reproduction and include penicillium and aspergillus.  There are about 1.5 million species of fungi, but only one tenth of these are known to science.  Interestingly, the mass of the world’s fungi is far greater than the mass of all of the world’s animals, amounting to about ¼ of the world’s entire biomass (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  Fungi also outnumber plants six to one.  Finally, the largest organism on the planet is actually a honey fungus in Oregon which is over 2,400 years old and larger than 1,666 football fields (Bone, 2011).   Truly, fungi among the most fascinating forms of life on the planet.

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Mushrooms, Women, and Foraging:

 

For most of history, fungi were not given much attention as a unique group of organisms.  Thus, most early humans would have understood fungi mostly through the sexual phase or the fruiting body of a mushroom (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Humanity’s earliest encounters with fungi would have been with mushrooms and shelf fungi.  Humans lived as hunters and gatherers, in small communities that foraged for their food, for 190,000 of our 200,000 years as modern humans.  Some human societies continue to live this way.  For most of human history, humans foraged for fungi, for food, medicine, ritual, dyes, etc.  However, mushroom foraging is confounded by the fact that mushrooms may appear only at certain times of the year or under certain conditions.  They may not appear in the same place each year, making them harder to forage than plants.  Mushroom foraging is also made difficult by the fact that some mushrooms are extremely toxic, which means that misidentification or experimentation could result in illness or death.  Around 2,800 species of mushrooms are used today by humans.  Much of the mushroom foraging in the world is done by women  (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).   This comes a little surprise, as in a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food.   According to Crane’s research (2000) the food that was typically gathered by men was further away and harder to obtain.   Today, in Mexico, Bahrain, Guatemala, Guyana, Nigeria, Zaire, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Russia, mushroom foraging is largely women’s work.  However, in Poland and Switzerland, is is more often done by men.  In some tropical areas, women collect mushrooms closest to their homes whereas men collect mushrooms that are deeper in the forest (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, & Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  This is not unlike the gender dynamics of collecting honey and may reflect the importance of women in society for their reproductive capacity (Crane, 2000).   In Guyana, men pick up mushrooms that they find incidentally on hunting trips, whereas women engage in active, premeditated mushroom collecting.  Beyond this, there are gendered ways in which mushrooms are collected, with men tending to be solitary foragers who search out more valuable and hard to find mushrooms and women collecting them together and in more energy efficient locations.  Mushrooms that are collected for ritual purposes are often done by both genders.  Mazatec healers in Mexico can be women or men and Maria Sabina was an important informant of mushroom rituals to ethnographers (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez (2012).

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While it seems that among many hunting and gathering cultural groups women play an important role in obtaining mushrooms, this is not the experience in industrial United States.  Bone (2011) found that many of the people she encountered while foraging for mushrooms were men.  Professional mushroom foragers, who often travelled the country in search of various mushrooms, were often men.  In particular, men from Mexico and Southeast Asia made a living by foraging and selling mushrooms.  At the same time, even amateur or more casual mushroom foragers were men.  When she sought to learn more about foraging mushrooms, it was always men who shared their expertise.  She also noticed a certain machismo among mushroom foragers, as some took risks by eating mushrooms that were known to be toxic or have negative health effects.  Bone (2011) was focused on developing her knowledge of mycology and experiencing fungi from the perspective of a foodie.  Her book, Mycophilia, does not examine the gender dynamics of mushroom foraging at any length.  However, it does very clearly support the idea that in the United States, mushroom science, foraging, commercial production, and preparation are all largely dominated by men.  This begs the question of why mushrooms exist so differently from the women centered foraging that is prevalent elsewhere in the world and presumably elsewhere in history.


There may be a few explanations for their phenomenon.  For instance, until the 1600s in France, mushroom foraging was women’s work.  However, with the scientific revolution, mushrooming became a men’s activity as men began to monopolize the science of mycology (Dugan, 2008).  The shift from mushroom foraging as women’s work to men’s work represents a shift of the power of behind which knowledge is given privilege in society.  As men took control of institutions of learning, medicine, publishing, science, etc. and systematized scientific knowledge, the folk knowledge of women, but also poor people, indigenous people, criminals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups was denigrated, ignored, or suppressed.  This might explain why according to Dugan (2008) mushroom collecting was mainly conducted by women in the United States until the 19th century.  In was during the 19th century in the United States that women’s knowledge of childbirth, medicine, and the natural world in general was suppressed by emergent medical and professional institutions.  As this knowledge was professionalized and monopolized, the knowledge of men was empowered and given social value at the expense of women.  Long before the advent of science, many groups of people developed the a body of knowledge about mushrooms that scientists would only later rediscover.  For instance, Russian peasants had a deep knowledge of mushrooms and some of the common names for these mushrooms were associated with the tree that the mushrooms grew near.  Europeans were latecomers to mushroom identification and even Darwin was indifferent to fungi when writing about evolution.  However, the Mayans developed their own system of classifying mushrooms, as did the Chinese.  Chen Jen-yu’s Mycoflora, written in 1245, proposed 12 types of mushrooms (Dugan, 2008).  In all, this should illustrate that humans have had thousands of years of interactions with fungi and through use and observation developed a body of knowledge.  Some of this knowledge was dismissed or overlooked on racist, sexist, and classist grounds.

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Mushroom hunting- a painting by Bernardina Midderigh Bokhorst

The ability of women to forage for mushrooms is also challenged by capitalism.  Capitalism negatively impacts women more than men, because women are oppressed as workers and on account of their gender in capitalism.  The oppression of women include the being paid less than men, doing more unpaid labor in the home, experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault, having limited reproductive freedom, enjoying less political representation, having less social legitimacy, and a myriad of other expressions of oppression.  Thus, at least on the amateur end of mushroom collecting, women may not be as involved because of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy shape women’s relationship to nature.  Within the United States, time in nature is usually associated with leisure, which women have less of due to spending more time with care work and household work.  Women are often also economically dependent upon men and make less money than them, which may mean that taking up hobbies and traveling around to pursue them is a greater economic burden.  Within the context of societies which are less developed and women continue to forage for mushrooms, women have a harder time obtaining wage labor, surviving on lower wages, and supporting their families.  In some areas of the world, foraging and selling mushrooms to middle men is an important way that widows and single mothers generate income for themselves.  Historically, women sold vegetables and mushrooms in markets in Europe.  This tradition conditions in Eastern European countries like Latvia, Russia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic, where women are often the source of mushrooms in markets (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012). Therefore, mushroom foraging is an important source of income to women.  Because it is work that is outside of the formal economy, they are more vulnerable to difficult labor conditions.  And, because of the environmental problems wrought by more developed countries in the context of capitalism, women are vulnerable as the environment they depend upon for livelihood is threatened.  For instance, women in Puebla Mexico must obtain permits to go into the forest and collect mushrooms.  In other places, such as Burundi, logging has diminished the abundance of mushrooms.  Another challenge is other ecological issues, such as acid rain and soil nitrification in Europe.  Mushroom collectors are often independent workers, so they are not afforded health or safety benefits (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Indeed, mushroom yields around the world have decreased over the years, perhaps as a result of climate change.


Women and Food:

Closely related to foraging, women are engaged in cooking and eating fungi.  The preparation of mushrooms, including cooking and storing, is mostly done by women around the world (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez,2012).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in an average day, American women spend about twice as much time as men preparing food and drinks.  In an average day, 70% of women reported preparing food compared to 43% of men.  This means that women not only do more food preparation than men, more women are engaged in this activity than men (Charts by Topic: Household activities, 2016).  This should come as little surprise to feminists, who have long articulated that women do more unpaid household labor than men.   This work is often devalued, taken advantage of, and taken for granted as part of the normal gender roles and relationship between men and women.  Although women do more unpaid cooking, men dominate professional cooking.  Women and men attend culinary school in equal proportions, but most celebrity chefs and paid culinary professionals are men.  Men also outnumber women 7 to 3 at more prestigious culinary schools and when women do go into culinary arts, they are disproportionately represented upon baking and pastry programs (Jones, 2009).  For instance, at B.A program in pastries at the American Culinary Institute is made up of 86% women (Tanner 2010).   Both of these trends represent how “women’s work” is undervalued in society.  At culinary schools, pastry sections are called the “pink ghetto” or “pink section” because they are dominated by women.  Food and work are both gendered in society.  Baking and desserts are associated with femininity (Brones, 2015).    This relationship to cooking also creates a special relationship to fungi, even if this relationship is not immediately obvious.

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The first relationship to fungi is the relationship between women and yeast.  To begin, bread of some kind or another has been eaten by humans for at least 30,000 years.  But, early breads were unleavened flat breads which were made from ingredients other than grains.  The first recorded discovery of yeast is from Ancient Egypt, where yeast was used to leaven bread and make beer 6000 years ago.   No one knows how yeast was discovered.  It may have been floating in the air and landed in some bread, resulting in lighter, fluffier bread.  Or, it is possible that yeast entered bread by adding ale to it instead of water.  In any event, the discovery of yeast necessarily coincided with several other developments in human history.  First of all, it arose out of settled societies which domesticated and grew grains.  Grains were domesticated by ancient farming civilizations about 8000 years ago.  But, for most of human history, people foraged for their food.  Settled agriculture allowed for population growth, the birth of cities, the invention of written languages, private property, and social stratification.  It also is considered to be the beginning of patriarchy, as with the invention of private property, monogamy and the associated control of women was ensured the transmission of property through sons.   Settled agricultural societies were possible because of a surplus of food.  This surplus of food also allowed for the creation of professions, thus, in Egypt, there were professional bakers, herders, teachers, doctors, scribes, etc.  Egyptian art depicts both men and women engaged in bread making.  However, it is more likely that men were involved in the actual profession of bread making or baking, while women made bread in the home or as supporters.  This gendered dynamic continued through time.  For instance, in Medieval Europe, women prepared food for their families or homes, whereas men were professional breadmakers in guilds.  In both examples, the work of women was essential the same, but not given the same social value.  So, although women are more likely to work with yeast or for that matter cook with any other fungi, it is not seen as work that matters in the same way professional culinary work matters.

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While women have a close relationship to food and by extension, fungi as a food, due to their role as a cook for their families, this often goes unnoticed or unheralded.  Despite gender inequalities, women managed to influence society through cuisine.  For instance, countries can roughly be divided into mycophobic and mycophilliac depending upon their relationship to mushrooms.  France is viewed as a mycophiliac culture, with many recipes calling for mushrooms and a history of foraging for mushrooms.  It was largely through women that this French passion for mushrooms spread to other countries.  For instance, Hannah Glasse wrote an  English cookbook in 1747 which drew from French cuisine and included 110 mushroom recipes called the Art of Cookery Made Easy.  Eliza Action’s cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) also included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Cookbooks focused on the historical cuisine of the British isles tended to have few mushroom recipes.  The first American cookbook, by Amelia Simmons in 1796, does not feature any mushroom recipes.  But, by the 1800s, various cookbooks featured mushroom dishes.  Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, introduced in 1934, popularized mushrooms as part of American casserole cuisine.  And, one of the most popular American cookbooks of the 20th century, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Irma Rambauer’s book The Joy of Cooking included 30 recipes with mushrooms (Bertelsen, 2013 ). In each of these examples, women were able to influence culture by working within the traditional social space offered to women.  The household has traditionally been viewed as the sphere of influence of women.  Books about cooking, by women for women, is a way that women exerted power within the confines of tradition.  In doing so, in a small way, these cultures were changed.  Today, mushrooms consumption has exploded.  The global export value of mushrooms was almost 1.75 billion dollars in 2010, compared to 250 million dollars in 1990 and negligible in 1970.

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Another way in which women relate to fungi is through the ways that food is gendered in society.  Because mushrooms are a viewed as a vegetable and something healthy, one might assume that women eat more mushrooms than men.  After all, women are told to watch their weight, monitor their food intake, and make healthy food choices.  At the same time, masculinity is connected to meat eating.  Eating mushrooms seems to be something lowly and feminine.  There is even a racial and ethnic component to eating mushrooms, as they are associated with mycophilliac cultures such as India, China, Japan, and Russia.  Surprisingly, men and women in the United States actually eat roughly the same amount of mushrooms each year.  According to the USDA, women consume about 8% more fresh mushrooms then men, but men are more likely to eat processed mushrooms.  As a whole, men ate about 49% of all mushrooms produced in the United States, whereas women ate about 51% (Lucier, Allhouse, and Lin, 2003).  Yet, this isn’t to argue that gender does not shape mushroom consumption.  In Mycophilia, Eugenia Bone, a food writer from New York, expressed disdain when she attended a Midwest mushroom foraging event and the men in attendance planned on battering their mushrooms or putting them on steaks  (Bone, 2011).  In this example, gender, geography, and class intersected to generate a different sense of taste from the Midwestern men with less social capital.  In another example, the white truffle is the most expensive food in the world, at $3000 per pound (Bone, 2011).  However, men with power are more likely to obtain and ingest truffles.  For instance, a 3.3 pound truffle was auctioned for $330,000 to a billionaire named Stanley Ho, a Macau casino owner.  The truffle itself was discovered by an Italian truffle hunter and his father, along with their dog.  Gordon Wu, a property tycoon from Hong Kong purchased two truffles at an auction for 125,000 euros.  An anonymous Chinese writer purchased a truffle for $120,000 at an auction.  Globally, women and children are more likely to be among the world’s poor and less represented among the super wealthy.  The truffle’s value is because it is hard to successfully commercially cultivate, rare, and labor intensive.  At the same time, some its value is more symbolic than material, as truffles are abundant in China, where labor is cheap enough (i.e exploited) that they are raked from the earth by humans rather than trained dogs and pigs.  But, these black truffles are viewed as inferior to European black truffles.  In this sense, when food is associated with power and privilege, women are less likely to partake in this indulgence.  So, while men and women may eat equal amounts of mushrooms, how they are eaten may differ.  I would hypothesize that men eat them more often on pizza, battered, on burgers, or on steaks and women in salads and as a meat substitute.  Class certainly shapes mushroom consumption as well, not only in access to elite foods like truffles, but in consumption of mushrooms in general.  Bone (2011) noted that the biggest consumers of mushrooms were those who were 350% above the poverty line.

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(image stolen from National Geographic…)

Mushrooms, Women, and Witchcraft

Another way in which mushrooms have been associated with women is through medicine and witchcraft.  In Europe, mushrooms have often been associated with mushiness and evil.  French words for mushrooms translate to eggs of the devil, devil’s paintbrush, and toad bread.  Toadstool and toad hat are names derived from Danish mushrooms.  In Estonia, Fulgio septica, a large yellow slime mold is called “Shit of a Witch (Dugan, 2008).”  An edible yellow fungus commonly found on dead branches is called “Witches butter.”  Western Europe and the British Isles in particular associated mushrooms with witchcraft (Bertelsen, 2013).   In Russia, Baba Yaga is associated with magical tree mushrooms.  In one story she spares the life of a hedgehog that is eating a mushroom, under the understanding that the hedgehog will become a boy and serve her.  She is also accompanied by spirits that live under mushrooms.  In Italy, there is a story of a witch who disguised herself as a mushroom to figure out who is stealing her cabbages.   Mushrooms have been associated with fairies and in 1599, the word fairy ring described, which is a ring of mushroom left behind by dancing fairies.  In Germany, fairy rings were known as Hexen rings, where witches would dance in a circle on Walpurgis night or the night before May Day (Dugan, 2008).  Plant diseases caused by fungi were sometimes believed to be caused by witches, as exemplified by a decree by Pope Innocent the VIII who noted that witches cause crop failure.  Witches were also blamed for the poisoning of cattle, which itself was often the cause of grain fungi.   Witches were believed to use fungi in herbalism, and that least Inquisition documents indicate the beliefs that witches used puffballs in potions in Basque country, Amanita Muscaria is known as “Witches mushroom” in Austria, and witches in Portugal used a hallucinogenic mushroom called  Panaeolus papilionaceus.  There is also a Finnish belief that if someone is bothered by a kobald like creature, a certain species of mushroom was fried in tar, salt, and sulfur, then beaten, and the woman who controls the kobald would appear to release the creature.  In the Balkans, dried mushrooms were used to ward of witches by placing them in the windowsill (Dugan, 2008).   It seems that mushrooms have been associated with witches, mischief, powerful women, and misfortune.  Though, there are some exceptions.  For example, in China, the lingzhi mushroom or mushroom of immortality, was associated with Kuan Yin, the goddess of healing and mercy (Bertelsen, 2013).

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(Witches Butter Fungus- Image from Birds and Blooms)


There may be some actual connections between witchcraft and fungi.  For instance, there is a connection between ergotism and witch trials.  Ergotism is caused by the grain fungi, Claviceps purpurea.  The fungus colonizes cereal crops, producing nectar like droplets containing spores.  The disease is called ergot, the French word for spur, due to the rooster spur like shape of the fungus on the infected plant.  In medieval times, up to 30% of the harvested grain was actually fungus, due to wet weather conditions.  When humans or animals ingest the fungus many symptoms can arise.  The infected can feel intense heat over their body and lose blood flow to their extremities, causing the limbs to rot and fall off.  This condition was called St. Anthony’s Fire due to these symptoms.  The alkaloids produced by the fungus can also cause vomiting, diarrhea, the sensation of ants on the body, twitching, hallucinations, seizures, and distortions of the limbs.  Ergotism outbreaks occurred through the 1800s.  Peasants were vulnerable as they had to eat lower quality grain or could not waste the diseased grain.  Children were particularly vulnerable with 56% mortality in some outbreaks.   Historians such as Mary Matossian have hypothesized that witch trials and bewitching may have actually been the result of ergotism.  She argued that most witch trials happened in river valleys in southwest Germany and south east France, where cool and wet conditions would have promoted fungal growth.  Both places grew rye and peasants in the area would have consumed up to three and a half pounds of bread a day.  There was only one witch trials in Ireland, where grain was not grown as much.  Trials for witches often happened in the fall or winter following wet years.  Even the Salem Witch Trial followed this pattern as it occurred after a cool spring.  The symptoms reported in the witch trials were similar to ergotism and the fact that children reported these symptoms is also consistent with the fact that children are more vulnerable to the effects of ergotism.  It is interesting to note that in studying ergot grain fungi, Albert Hofman developed LSD (Hudler, 2000).  In any event, it is possible that outbreaks of ergotism were blamed on witches and a catalyst for witch hunts.

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(A vintage Halloween postcard featuring a costumed witch with fungi)

Beyond this association with witch trials, it is useful to dissect what a witch is.  A witch is symbolic for a women with power and knowledge.  For thousands of years, humans obtained an immense amount of knowledge from the natural world in terms of edible foods, useful medicines, dyes, animal movements, etc.  Because women had an important role in gathering foods, they had special knowledge.  Further, prior to the invention of patriarchy, women likely had important roles as religious or spiritual leaders, healers, and religions with goddesses.  Over time, with changes in social structures and the introduction of Christianity, the role of women was diminished and their knowledge was viewed as threatening and connected to paganism.  In this way, the idea of a witch is a way to diminish and persecute the traditional knowledge and roles of women.  Witches may be associated with mushrooms because of how mushrooms were used in healing and rituals.  Indeed, some fungi have healing properties.   Mushrooms are valued in Chinese cuisine, culture, and medicine.  Chinese medicine includes 100 species of mushrooms, including the wood ear mushroom which was eaten for its perceived improvement to circulation and breathing.  The health effects of mushrooms are only recently being discovered in the West.  Mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which boost the immune system and can be a source of protein, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, copper, and selenium.  Chanterelle mushrooms are 11 to 24% protein.  In contrast, the average potato contains 3.9% protein.  Mushrooms also secrete antibiotics (Bertelsen, 2013).  The most famous fungal cure is penicllin, but fungi are used in many modern medicines.  Beano is made with the fungi Aspergillis niger, which digests methane and in turn relieves flatulence.  Lovastatin and Pravastatin are both derived from fungi and used to treat high cholesterol.  Cyclosporin comes from a fungus and is used to suppresses the immune system for organ transplants.  Shiitake mushrooms may have cancer fighting properties (Hudler, 2000).  Gypsy mushroom may be effective against herpes, the steroids used in birth control come from fungi, turkey tail mushroom may be a treatment against hepatitis C, and fomitopsis officinalis has been used to treat tuberculosis and e-coli.  Midwives in Germany and Italy used ergot, the deadly grain fungus, to induce labor (Bone, 2011).  Mold was used by Chinese, Ancient Egyptians, and French to treat wounds (Hudler, 2000).  Of course, the benefits of fungi should not be overstated.  They may be hard to digest due to their chitin cell wall.  Some fungi are deadly.  Designating fungi as a superfood is a marketing ploy to sell more mushrooms.  However, the healing properties of many mushrooms may mean that witches were associated with mushrooms because healers traditionally used mushrooms as medicine.   By associating healing with evil and witchcraft, women’s knowledge, experience, and power was de-legitimized.  At the same time, through witch hunts and trial, women themselves were terrorized with violence and the threat of violence as a form of social control.

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Women and Mycology

It should be clear that one of the themes related to women and fungi relates to the value of the knowledge and work of women in society.  It is suiting then that the final point is how women have contributed to the science of mycology.  In this feminist narrative of history, women have probably been closely connected to fungi for most of human history as foragers for food and as healers.  With the end of hunting and gathering societies in many parts of the world, women took on new, but subservient roles in society.  Still, women continued to be connected to fungi through their preparation of food and role as caregivers, even if this labor was not given social importance.  This final segment of history is about women struggling to assert themselves in male dominated science.  Outside of the realm of formal science, women are often responsible for passing down knowledge of mushrooms to their children.  Even the science of mycology depending upon the knowledge of women.   For instance, Carolus Clusius and Franciscus van Sterbeeck, who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, respectively were two of the the first pioneers in mycology.  These men relied upon the knowledge of wise women, known as herb wives, to obtain information about mushrooms (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  It is tragically ironic that when men were developing science based upon the knowledge of women, these very same women were persecuted as witches for their knowledge of nature.


Later in history, Mary Elizabeth Banning was a pioneer in mycology who sought to identify mushrooms in the 1800s (Bertelsen, 2013).  She identified 23 new species of fungi and completed one of the first guides to mushrooms of the New World.  She worked as a teacher to support her mother and sisters after her father died, but found time to pursue mycology, then associated with botany.  Men dominated professional botany, but women were sometimes amateur botanists.  For 20 years, she studied the mushrooms of her home state of Maryland at a time when there was only one book on American fungi.  She never earned money or recognition and was often viewed as a lunatic by those outside of the scientific community.  She did however correspond by mail with various scientists (Pugliosi, 2016).  Her life represents several barriers for women who wish to pursue science.  For one, she was burdened with care work for her family.  Her mushrooming adventures were limited by the constraints of caring for her family.  At the same time, her work was stymied by the fact that she also had to be a wage laborer as a teacher.  Her “hobby” as a scientist was an unpaid third shift.  While she produced useful information, she never published it out of lack of confidence and her outsider status to scientific institutions.

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(An illustration by Mary Elizabeth Banning)

In a similar but less tragic example, Beatrix Potter was interested in mycology and painted hundreds of scientifically accurate portraits of fungi.  She studied fungi under a microscope and presented a paper on fungal spores at the Linnean Society of London.  She began creating watercolor paintings of mushrooms at the age of 20 and sent her paintings to the naturalist, Charles McIntosh.  In turn, McIntosh gave her scientific advice and sent her specimens to paint.  Beatrix Potter also began studying lichens, which she wrongly believed were fungi rather than a symbiotic relationship between fungi, algae, and bacteria.  The mycologist, George Murray, rebuffed her, both for the position on lichen and her earlier work on spore germination, which he said had already been studied in Germany decades earlier.  Her paper was never published and she was told to make revisions.  Female students were not accepted into the society until 1905 and she was unable to present the research herself.   Her biggest contribution to mycology was her illustrations, which were used for fungi identification (Flemming, 2016).  Potter went on to achieve fame as a children’s book author and illustrator, but her scientific endeavors largely went unnoticed in history.  Again, she was shut out of a world controlled by men and men mediated her access and legitimacy within science.

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(Mushroom watercolor painting by Beatrix Potter)


With successes of the early women’s rights movement and other social movements, the social space within science slowly expanded for women.  In 1950, Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown discovered Nystatin while trying to isolate antibiotics from Strepomyces noursei  (Hudler, 2000).  Nystatin was one of the first anti-fungal drugs and is used to treat various Candida infections such as diaper rash, yeast infections, and thrush.  Both scientists worked together for the New York Department of Health  and went on to develop two antibiotics.  Developing anti-fungal drugs is particularly challenging because, as it was noted earlier, fungi are closely related to animals.  This makes fungal infections harder to fight than bacterial infections.  Bacteria are simpler organisms, with a cell wall but not the complex cellular structures of animals and fungi.  This makes it easier to destroy bacteria.  Drugs developed to fight fungal infections may attack healthy human cells, as they are more similar (Staughton, 2002).

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Another contribution to mycology was the discovery of the cause of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that destroyed elm trees in Europe and the U.S..  The cause of this disease was discovered by a team of five female Dutch scientists (Hudler, 2000).  The source of the devastating tree disease was uncovered in 1921 by a team, lead by Johanna Westerdjik.  Westerdjik was a plant pathologist and the first female professor in the Netherlands.  She wrote over 70 papers on mycology and plant diseases and supervised over 55 Phd students, half of whom were women.  It was her student, Marie Beatriz Schwartz who isolated the fungus infecting elms and another student, Christine Johanna Buisman who developed Dutch Elm Disease resistant elms.  The project that she started continued until the 1990s.

 


“Moldy Mary” was another contributor to mycology.  Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after observing mold attacking bacteria in a petri dish.  He hired a woman nicknamed “Moldy Mary” to collect moldy produce so the mold could be studied.  Her real name was Mary Hunt and she was a young lab assistant.  The molds that Hunt found were tested to determine if they were penicillin.  Some of the cantaloupes she collected indeed contained a culture of Penicillium chrysogenum and many modern strains used in modern penicillin come from her moldy melon (Hudler, 2000).  Another contributor to knowledge about fungi was Valentina Wasson.  Unfortunately, her husband, R. Gordon Wasson is more famous than she is for his research into the cultural relationship between people and mushrooms.  However, he was struck by the cultural difference between them when on their honeymoon, Valentina, a Russian, began collecting mushrooms.  He was terrified that they were toxic, a reaction that highlighted a difference between his American upbringing and her Russian upbringing and how that shaped their relationship to mushrooms.  The incident inspired the couple to research these cultural differences together and they authored Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957.  They went on to travel to Mexico where they studied the relationship to mushrooms among indigenous people and went on to introduce psychoactive mushrooms to a mass American audience through Life magazine (Hudler, 2000).  Unfortunately, this attracted droves of Western visitors to the Mazatec community and especially to Maria Sabina, who was interviewed in their book.  Maria was investigated by the Mexican police for selling drugs to foreigners and had her house burned down.  Thus, while they examined cultural differences in the relationship between cultures and mushrooms, their work had a negative impact on indigenous people of Mexico.  Finally, as one last tidbit of mycological history, all button mushrooms, the mushrooms commonly used in pizza, salads, canned mushrooms, and cream of mushroom soup all come from a spore discovered by the Dutch scientist Gerda Fritsche in 1980 (Bone, 2011).

Mary Robeson aka Moldy Mary

A depiction of “Moldy Mary”

While women have made contributions to mycology over time, gender inequality in mycology persists today.   There are two times as many male members of the American Mycological Society as there are females.  Only 13% of the presidents of the MSA (founded in 1932) have been female, starting with Marie Farr in 1980.  MSA secretaries have been consecutively female since 1991, but treasurers have historically been men.  Various MSA awards have also gone disproportionately to men, although female students have won travel grants in greater proportion to their male counterparts.  The majority of published articles in Mycologia are written by men (Branco and Vellinga, 2015).  Mycology is not unique among the sciences.  The gender inequality within mycology is pretty comparable to similar sciences such as botany, ecology, and lichenology.  It begs the question of why women do not enter the sciences or when they do, they are not as active in leadership roles.


Oddly enough, I wanted to be a botanist when I was a kid.  I even went through a period of time in the 5th grade when I wanted to be a mycologist.  I attended science camp and continued to be interested in science through high school.  However, I think a deterrent for me and science was a lack of confidence and a fear of math.  Low self-esteem is pretty common among girl.  There are varying statistics on the occurrence of low self esteem, but if one believes the statistics put forth by Dove’s Self Esteem fund, as many as seven in ten girls believe they are somehow deficient.  If girls indeed believe they are not smart enough or capable enough, they may be deterred from science.  And, if they do enter the sciences, they still must contend with the social expectations of women, such as having a family, doing research, doing unpaid labor at home, etc.  This cuts into time spent for research or going to conferences and limits the ability to become leaders in their field.  They may also face sexism and sexual harassment in their work environment, like many women do.  Finally, as it has already been outlined, scientific institutions have not been welcoming to women in the past and have suppressed the knowledge of women.  Rationality itself is associated with masculinity, whereas femininity associated with emotions.  But, rather than viewing one as inferior or that reason and feeling are opposed to each other, they are instead, interconnected.  The drive to study the natural world, interest in research, dedication to a subject, and passion for science all come from an emotional place.


Conclusion:  

I am certainly not a scientist, but I hope that the presentation and accompanying hike provided a few insights about fungi.  Personally, I find fungi pretty fascinating and hope to learn more about them in the future.  That is the goal of feminist frolics, to get together, share knowledge, and hopefully open the door to future learning.  For thousands of years, the knowledge and experiences of women have not been valued.  I think that learning together and sharing builds confidence, community, and self-efficacy.  It is also a way to find a place in nature, science, and history.  Hopefully you will join the Feminist Justice League in future feminist frolics.  I think you will find we are a bunch of fun gals and fungi!

Mushroom Mother - feminist art poster hand finished in gold

A feminist poster called “Mother Mushroom”

Sources:

 

Bertelsen, C. D. (2013). Mushroom: a global history. London: Reaktion Books.

 

Bone, E. (2011). Mycophilia: revelations from the weird world of mushrooms. New York: Rodale.

 

Branco, S., & Vellinga, E. (2015). Gender Balance in Mycology (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://msafungi.org/wp-content/uploads/Inoculum/66(5)%20preprint%20gender.pdf

 

Brones, A. (2015, May 17). Cupcake Feminism: Is What We Bake a Matter of Gender? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.thekitchn

 

Charts by Topic: Household activities. (2016, December 22). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/household.htm

 

Crane, E. (2000). The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. London: Duckworth.

Dugan, F. (2008) Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. North American Fungi, [S.l.], v. 3, p. 23-72, ISSN 1937-786X. Available at: <http://www.pnwfungi.org/index.php/pnwfungi/article/view/1062>. Date accessed: 11 Aug. 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2509/naf2008.003.0074.

 

Fleming, N. (2016, February 15). Earth – Beatrix Potter: Pioneering scientist or passionate amateur? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160215-beatrix-potter-pioneering-scientist-or-passionate-amateur

 

Fungi – an introduction. (2009, October 27). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/dossiers/fungi-an-introduction/

 

Garibay-Orijel, R., Ramírez-Terrazo, A., & Ordaz-Velázquez, M. (2012). Women care about local knowledge, experiences from ethnomycology. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 8, 25. http://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-8-25

 

Hudler, G. W. (2000). Magical mushrooms, mischievous molds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Jones, G. (2009, November 19). Male to Female Ratios in Culinary School. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.reluctantgourmet.com/male-female-ratios-culinary-school/#context/api/listings/prefilter

 

Lucier, G., Allhouse, J., & Lin, B. (2003, March). Factors Affecting U.S. Mushroom Consumption (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from USDA website: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/39489/30836_vgs29501_002.pdf?v=41414

 

Puglionesi, A. (2016, November 08). The Lost Mushroom Masterpiece Unearthed in a Dusty Drawer. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-lost-mushroom-masterpiece-unearthed-in-a-dusty-drawer

 

Staughton, J. (2016, November 18). How Are Mushrooms More Similar to Humans than Plants? » Science ABC. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/how-are-mushrooms-more-similar-to-humans-than-plants.html

 

Tanner, P. (2015, February 20). A Debate About The Role Gender Plays in The World of Pastries-www.njmonthly.com. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://njmonthly.com/articles/eat-drink/does-dessert-have-a-gender/

White Winter: Racism and Winter Sports

White Winter:

Racism and Winter Sports

H. Bradford

1.28.17

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    This past fall, the Twin Ports Women’s Right Coalition began doing small events called “Feminist Frolics.”  These events were meant to educate our participants about feminism while enjoying the outdoors.  The very first frolic was entitled “Patriarchy in the Parks.”  This talk explored how patriarchy shapes women’s relationship to nature and participation in outdoor recreation.  The original talk discussed how history, gender roles, safety, and leisure influenced how women participated in nature.  Since that talk, I wanted to connect how racism, classism, ableism, and other “isms” shape how individuals participate in the outdoors.  As such, this talk puts a special focus on race and recreation.  In particular, it explores racism and winter recreation.  In my own experiences, when I spend time outdoors in the winter, I don’t often see racial minorities participating in skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking.  This talk hopes to shed some light on why this is.


 

The Myth of Geography:

elvgren_napaskier1   When one considers the racial composition of winter recreational activities, the whiteness of these activities seems almost a given.  In our racist imaginations, it seems natural that white people would participate in winter activities.  Afterall, Europeans live in the northern hemisphere, where there is snow and cold.  Thus, one might argue that geography plays a role in why winter sports tend to be more popular among white people.  But, arguments about geography ignore larger issues of racism and classism.  It is true that many parts of the earth do not receive snow and that these warmer regions are inhabited by darker skinned ethnic groups.  However, geography does not entirely account for participation. For instance, some parts of Africa actually have ski areas.  Algeria has two ski resorts and Morocco has three.  Morocco has participated in six Winter Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Algeria has competed in the Winter Olympics three times, but again, has never won a medal.  South Africa has one ski resort, which operates three months out of the year.  Lesotho also has a ski resort, which is open during the winter months and is located about 4.5 hours away from Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.  Despite having one ski area, Lesotho has never participated in the Winter Olympics and South Africa has never participated in ski events.  In 2014, Sive Spielman, a black South African teenage skier was denied entry into the Sochi Olympics.  He qualified to compete in slalom skiing, but the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee disqualified him on the grounds that they did not think he was good enough.  Considering he came from a poor area of South Africa, was black, and learned to ski through a ski club at his public school, his participation would have been remarkable (South Africa withdraws only athlete, 2014).  Even more remarkable considering that blacks would have been barred from ski clubs and the single ski area until apartheid ended in 1994.   Because under apartheid black athletes could not compete alongside white athletes, South Africa was barred from competing in the Olympics between 1962 and 1992 (they were allowed to return to the Olympics before apartheid had ended).  Thus, four South African figure skaters competed in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and the country did not compete in a Winter Olympics again until 1994.


In contrast to South Africa, Zimbabwe has no ski areas, but had a skier compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.  Their skier, Luke Steyn, was white.  Unlike Spielman, he was quite privileged, as his family moved to Switzerland when he was two years old and he attended college in Colorado.  Furthermore, he was provided financial support by the Zimbabwean government (Blond, 2014).  It is odd to think that Zimbabwe’s athlete was a white skier who left the country around 1995.  Although he was celebrated in the media, the celebration was oddly colorblind.  While many Americans adopt colorblindness as a way to avoid the sticky issue of racism, it actually perpetuates racism by skirting around issues of oppression and invalidating the continued racism in society.  While I am not sure about Luke Steyn’s history, his race in contrast to his country of origin seems like an elephant in the room.  His family would have been among the 120,000 whites living in Zimbabwe in the mid 1990s and likely left, like many did, because the political situation was not favorable for white people.  That is, his family probably left because of land reforms which sought to turn white landholdings over to the largely black population.  This was done to rectify a history of colonization, wherein white farmers were offered large tracts of land in exchange for the conquest of the country in the late 1800s.  It was also done to dismantle the economic foundation of apartheid in that country.  While I don’t know his family’s history, judging by his Dutch surname and his family’s ability to move to Switzerland, I can only assume that they were privileged if not landowners.  The stories of Steyn and Spielman make for an interesting juxtaposition, as it shows how a white man can still succeed in a black country whereas a black man struggled for recognition even though he was part of the majority population in South Africa.  One was privileged by race and class, the other disadvantaged.

 

 


All Olympic athletes are to some degree privileged, but in Africa, and when it comes to winter sports, this is more pronounced.  For instance, in 2014, Togo sent its first athlete in the winter olympics in Mathilde Petitjean Amivi, a cross country skier who grew up in France but has a Togolese mother.  In the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Lamine Gueye was the first black African to compete in the Olympics.  But like Amivi and Steyn, he grew up outside of Africa.  He went to live in Switzerland after the death of his grandfather, also named Lamine Gueye, the head of Senegalese Party of Socialist Action.  Gueye has been an advocate for changing the rules of the Winter Olympics to allow more countries to compete.  In fact, 96 nations have never participated in the Winter Olympics.


While tropical climate is certainly an impediment to participation in winter sports, there are many countries which have snowy areas which have not participated in the Olympics to the same degree as European countries.  For instance, India has eleven ski areas and Pakistan has nine.  Iran has almost twenty ski areas.  Kazakhstan has four ski areas, Kyrgyzstan has three, and Lebanon has six.  Ski areas indicate that the countries have elevations high enough for snow, which lends itself to skiing, along with snowboarding and sledding sports.  Iran has participated in the Winter Olympics ten times, but has never won a medal.  Kyrgyzstan has never participated in the winter olympics and Kazakhstan has six times.  Kyrgyzstan is 94% mountains and has 158 mountain ranges.  The Soviet Olympic skiers trained in Kyrgyzstan Karakol Mountain Ski Base (Krichko, 2016).  Pakistan has participated in two winter Olympics and Nepal has twice.  Chile, which has eight ski resorts, has participated in sixteen Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Argentina has ten ski resorts, has participated in eighteen Olympics, and has never won a medal.


The trend is not so much that a country has to have snow to earn medals, as there are plenty of countries with snow, mountains, and wintry conditions which have not won medals.  Instead, it seems that the countries with the highest medal counts are European and high income countries.  The top ten countries for medals are Norway, United States, Germany, Soviet Union, Canada, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, Finland.  China, South Korea, and Japan each make the top twenty.  These countries have more money to devote to developing sport programs and more citizens with income required to compete at a higher level.  Thus, high income countries tend to be more competitive in the Olympics and high income individuals have more opportunities to participate and compete.  This explains why diverse countries like the United States do not have more athletes of color in winter sports.  Athletes of color have excelled in baseball, basketball, soccer, running, and many other sports.  African Americans have long participated in the Summer Olympics.  For instance, George Paoge competed in the 1904 summer Olympics and won two bronze medals in the 200m and 400 m hurdles.  In contrast, the first African American to compete in the Winter Olympics was almost 80 years later in the 1980 Lake Placid games when Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley competed as part of a four person bobsled team.  The first African American woman to win a medal was in 1988 when Debi Thomas won a medal in figure skating at the Calgary games(Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).


Rather than geography, the reason why few African Americans participate in winter recreation is because winter sports require more money for equipment, training, and coaching.  Facilities to practice winter sports are often far from urban centers where African Americans might live (Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).   While I could not find any recent statistics, as of 2003, 2% of skiers in the United States were African American, 3% were Latino, 4% were Asian, and 1% were Native American.  Among the membership of the National Brotherhood of Ski Clubs, an African American ski organization, 74% of the members are college graduates and 60% live in households with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 a year (Rudd, 2003).  Thus at an international level, but also at the level of individual local participation, access to resources shapes these sports.  This is a barrier to participation among racial minorities.  So, even in places with wintry conditions, there is still the barrier of cost of participation.  On the low end, a beginner snowboarder would expect to pay $500-$1000 for a board, bindings, and boots.  Adult skis can range from $200 to $1200.  A winter season ski pass for Spirit Mountain costs over $400.  Since 27% of African Americans live in poverty, compared to 11% of the general population, these kinds of expensive outdoor activities are beyond the reach of many in their community.


 

The Role of History:

Another reason why winter sports are white is because of the history of these sports.  After all, when an individual imagines winter sports, they might imagine their white ancestors participating in some form of skiing, hockey, or skating.  However, this version of history ignores that some cultures may have their own winter sports.  For instance, Pakistan hosts a Baltistan Winter Sports and Culture Festival wherein participants play Ka Polo and ice football.  Pakistan actually has the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the poles (“Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB,” 2016).  Likewise, every two years, various circumpolar regions compete in the Arctic Games.  Participants from Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Sami areas of northern Europe, and Northern Russia compete in snowshoeing, snowboarding, volleyball, futsal, skiing, and traditional Dene games like finger pulling, pole push, and stick pull.  Additionally, while there is evidence that skiing originated in Finno-Scandinavia with the discovery of rock drawings in Norway and a 4,500 ski in Sweden, Iran also has a long history of skiing.  In 2000 BC ancient people in Iran produced skis made of hides and boards (History of skiing, 2005).  Cree women would play a marble came, wherein marbles carved from buffalo horns were slid towards holes made in ice (Christensen, 2008).  Snowshoeing originated in Central Asia 6,000 years ago, then migrated across the Bering strait to the Americas.  Anishinabe, Cree, and Inuit invented sledding.  The word toboggan comes from the Algonquian word odabaggan.  Sled dogging was an indigenous invention and the Jean Beargrease sled dog race was named after an Ojibwe postal worker who delivered mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais in often treacherous conditions.  The Iroquois also invented a sport called Snow Snakes, or snow darts.  In this game, the players must underhand throw a smooth stick along the snow to see whose stick rolls the furthest (“Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports,” 2011).  Thus, many cultures have robust histories of winter games and sports.  However, these winter games were either lost and diminished by colonization, appropriated by colonizers, or simply not promoted as mainstream winter activities.


Colonialism continues to play a role in winter sports.  The Ktuanaxa tribe of Canada has been fighting the construction of a ski resort for 25 years.  The tribe has argued that the site is sacred to them as it is a place called Qar’muk, where a grizzly bear spirit resides.  The Canadian Supreme court is reviewing whether or not the resort will impinge on their religious rights, as the tribe has argued that the resort will scare away the spirit and render their rituals meaningless (“Skiers v the religious rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples,” 2016).  Even Spirit Mountain in Duluth, was one of seven sacred sites to Anishinabe people.  It was a place for burials and worship and development of the ski area and subsequent golf course and hotel.  Spirit Mountain was a meeting place for Anishinabe and had historical significance as place on their western migration route (Podezwa and Larson).  Environment and culture did not stop a ski resort from being built in Arizona.  In 2012, the Navajos and twelve other tribes appealed a judge’s decision to allow Arizona Snowbowl to use wastewater to make snow for their ski resort.  The Navajo argued that the land was sacred and that the use of wastewater to make snow was a threat to human health.  Navajo people collect medicinal plants from the mountain, which have been contaminated by the wastewater.  Using only natural snowfall, the resort would have a nine day ski season.  However, the artificial snow extends the season to 121 days.  Once again, geography is not necessarily an impediment to winter sports if there is money involved.  As of 2015, the issue was not resolved (Finnerty, 2012).  While it would be unheard of to construct a skating rink in a cemetery or cathedral, the religious and cultural practices of Native Americans have been ignored, suppressed, and mocked.  It is little wonder why they would not be interested in participating in high priced, environmentally destructive leisure activities on sacred land.


While the lack of Native American participation in some winter activities could be attributed to a different relationship to land, it doesn’t account for why Native Americans do not participate in snowshoeing.  Rudimentary snowshoes originated in Central Asia 6000 years ago and moved across the Bering Strait to the Americas with the migration of aboriginal peoples.  Differing snow conditions resulted in various designs, with longer snowshoes developed by Cree people, who faced warmer, wetter snow conditions and shorter snowshoes were developed by Iroquois people (Carr. n.d.).  Snowshoes were developed as a matter of survival, as they allowed indigenous people to travel and hunt during the winter.  The construction of snowshoes themselves was a traditional craft undertaken by both men and women (Boney, 2012).   As with many things, European colonizers adopted snowshoeing for their own uses, eventually converting them to something used for recreation.  Snowshoeing first became a sport in Canada, then the U.S.  By the 1970s, they began to grow in mainstream popularity.  During the 1980s, aluminum snowshoes grew in popularity (King, 2004).  In the advent of manufactured snowshoes, the craft of snowshoe making has been declining.  This has also rendered snowshoeing a profitable industry to companies who make snowshoes.  Companies such as Red Feather, Tubbs, Atlas, and Yukon Charlie are not owned by Native Americans nor do they specifically seek to benefit them.  While Tubbs boasts about inventing the first snowshoe for women in 1998 and donating money to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, there is no mention of how their snowshoes might benefit anyone other than white women.  Likewise, Redfeather snowshoes based in La Crosse, Wisconsin mentions on its website that it hires people with disabilities, but does not mention anything about helping Native Americans, even if its name and company logo invoke Native American imagery.  It is no wonder that a simple google image search of snowshoeing features hundreds of pictures of white people, but no images of Native Americans partaking in the activity.  It has become a thoroughly white pastime.   It is an example of cultural appropriation that is so normal and commonplace that the historical and cultural meaning of snowshoeing is almost entirely invisible. snowshoes-add

The Role of Racism:   

The lack of participation in winter sports may seem trivial, but in many ways it is a microcosm of the larger racial issues in society.  For instance, in 1997, Mabel Fairbanks was the first African American woman inducted into the U.S. figure skating hall of fame.  She was 82 at the time of her induction and was never allowed to skate competitively.  Because of segregation, she was not allowed to practice at skating rinks.  However, she went on to do her own skating shows for black audiences and was a coach to Debi Thomas and Tai Babilonia.  Thomas cited income as a barrier to competitive skating, as she was raised by a single mother and the cost of training can be $25,000 on the low end (Brown).  In U.S. society, class intersects powerfully with race.  African American children are four times as likely to live in poverty in the United States than white children (Patten and Krogstad, 2015).  In 1967, the median income of African Americans compared to white Americans was 55%.  In 2013, this had increased to 59%, but a 4% increase over four and a half decades is hardly impressive.  Looking at wealth, or such things as retirement savings and house ownership, African Americans owned 7% of the wealth of white people in 2011.  This was actually down from 9% in 1984  (Vara, 2013).  The segregation that Mabel Fairbanks faced continues today in the form of economic segregation that relegates African Americans to poor communities and low paying service industry jobs.  It also persists through the criminal justice system.  After all, an African American male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to jail, compared to a 6% chance for a white male born in the same year (Quigley, 2011).


Aside from the racist structures that may prevent individuals to partake in winter recreation to begin with, there is racism within these sports.  Surya Bonaly, a black French figure skater from the 1990s,  was the only figure skater in the history to do a backflip and land on one blade.  This astonishing feat actually disqualified her in the 1998 Olympics.  She did the flip to flip off the judges, who she felt scored her lower because of her race.  At the time, the rule was that a jump must land on one blade, which was meant to deter back flips as this would be a two bladed jump.  However, she landed on one to test the judges, who disqualified her anyway (Surya Bonaly is the biggest badass in Winter Olympics history, 2014).  At the time, critics called her inelegant and more powerful than graceful.  Surya was accused of damaging the nerves of fellow ice skater Midori Ito, which caused Ito to fall in her performance (Du, 2016).  These critiques demonstrate both racism and sexism, as she did not meet the judge’s expectation of what a figure skater should look like.  To them, a powerful black woman was not only threatening to the sport, but to other skaters.  The nine time French National champion, five time European champion, and three time World silver medalist now resides in Minnesota, where she teaches skating lessons.

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There are many examples of more blatant racism against athletes of color.  Irina Rodina, who lit the torch for the Sochi Olympics, posted an image of Barack and Michelle Obama as monkeys with bananas on her Twitter (Myerberg, 2014).  The Northwestern University Ski Team, consisting of 65 individuals, hosted a racially themed party in April 2012, where they dressed as South Africans, Ugandan, Ireland, Canada, Bangladeshi, and Native Americans.  The students participated in a “Beer Olympics” wherein they portrayed various nations competing with each other in drinking games.  The students dressed in a stereotypical and mocking fashion.  This caused a controversy on campus in which the ski team offered an apology but was also portrayed as victims of aggression from students of color who were offended by their party (Svitek, 2012).  Val James, the first American born black player in the NHL, experienced racism when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres in the early 1980s.  Bananas were thrown into the rink and a monkey doll was hung from a penalty box.  He was born into a low income family in Florida and did not start skating until he was 13.  Despite his accomplishment in overcoming racial and class barriers, mocking spectators would eat watermelons with his name on it.  Even today, only 5% of NHL players are black (Sommerstein, 2015).  These blatant acts of racism send the message that people of color are not welcome to participate in winter sports.


Another example of racism is evident in the story of the Jamaican bobsled team.  Jamaica debuted its famous bobsled team in the 1988 Calgary Olympics.  The story was made into a highly fictionalized movie called Cool Runnings.  The national team appeared again at the Salt Lake Olympics and Sochi.  In the Lillehammer Olympics, the team placed 13th and beat the US, Russia, and Italy.  Bobsledding was easier to adapt to Jamaica since it entailed pushing a 600 pound sled as fast as possible, then jumping in.  The Jamaican bobsled team crashed during their first Olympics, but were treated as national heroes.  The team inspired other unlikely countries to form bobsled teams such as Mexico, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, and several U.S. territories (Atkin, 2014).  Nigeria wants to field its own bobsled team in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.  The Nigerian team of former Olympian sprinters has formed to practice with a wooden sled until they can raise enough funds for an actual sled and track (Payne, 2016).


The Jamaican bobsled team could be seen as heroic, considering the challenges of becoming a winter athlete in an impoverished tropical country.  Yet, the team continues to be a joke at best and racist trope at worst.  For instance, two San Diego High School football coaches wore “Cool Runnings” inspired Jamaican Bobsled costumes, complete with black face in 2013 (Walsh, 2013).  In 2015, a group of UW-Stout students attended a private Halloween party as the Jamaican bobsled team, again in black face.  The college made a statement that they do not affiliate with those actions (Perez, 2015).  In 2014, a group of Brock University college students dressed up as the Jamaican bobsled team and won a $500 costume prize.  A critic of these students wrote that black costumes represent the limit of the white imagination to envision black people as anything other than rappers, gangsters, or athletes.  These costumes are also a way to control how black people are understood.  The film Cool Runnings itself represented Jamaicans in a stereotypical way by actors who were not even Jamaican.  Blackface dehumanizes black people.  The Jamaican Bobsled costumes affirm a racial hierarchy by making the athletes a stereotype or joke (Traore, 2014).


While much of this discussion has focused on African and African Americans, other racial minority groups face similar challenges.  Out of 11,000 U.S. Olympic athletes, only 14 have identified as Native American.  Only two of the 14 were female.  One of the two was Naomi Lang.   In 2002, Naomi Lang became the first Native American identified woman to compete in the Winter Olympics.  She is a member of the Kuruk tribe of California but was mocked for wearing traditional regalia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  Skating cost her family $60,000 a year.  To afford this, she slept on a mattress and wore hand me down clothes as a high schooler.   Lang resisted competitions, since she felt that her culture stressed cooperation and community.  Aside from differences in culture and challenges such as racism and poverty, Native Americans face the added challenge of health.  30% of Native American 4 year olds are obese, which is twice the amount of any other ethnic group (Sottile, 2011).  Native Americans are also three times as likely to develop diabetes than white people.  These health problems can be related back to colonization, which removed Native Americans from their land and traditional food sources and created historical trauma that continues to cause stress and health problems.


Conclusion:

The goal of feminist frolics is to enjoy the outdoors while learning.  As we venture outdoors this winter, perhaps we will notice how very white the forests, trails, and hills are.  Hopefully, this can be connected back to the larger racial disparities that exist in society.  It is my hope that this can help us become attuned to other spaces that are largely white.  For instance, one of the critiques of the recent Women’s March in Washington was the whiteness of the feminists in attendance.  Many of the issues that keep racial minorities out of winter sports also prevent them from participating in politics.  For instance, the media and police had an easier time imagining the protests as non-violent because it was undertaken by large crowds of white women, as opposed to Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, which are viewed more negatively and violently by police and the media.  Becoming aware of why certain groups may feel excluded or unwelcome can help us build stronger and broader movements.  So, that is the larger mission of this discussion.  There should be more spring times for oppressed groups than endless, white winters.

 

Sources:

 

African Athletes representing at Sochi Winter Olympic Games. (2014, February 5). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://afritorial.com/african-athletes-at-sochi-winter-olympic-games/

 

Atkin, N. (2014, February 5). The real cool Runnings. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://en.espn.co.uk/olympic-sports/sport/story/280229.html

 

http://www.snowshoemag.com/2007/01/01/from-bear-paws-to-beaver-tails-the-history-of-snowshoes-from-the-first-edition-of-snowshoe-magazine/

 

Blond, B. (2014) Ten things to know about Zimbabwe ski sensation Luke Steyn.  Retrieved December 21, 2016 from

http://afkinsider.com/41662/10-things-know-zimbabwe-ski-sensation-luke-steyn/9/

 

Boney, N. (2012, June 17). Snowshoes and the Canadian First Nations. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.snowshoemag.com/2012/06/17/snowshoes-and-the-canadian-first-nations/

 

Brown, S. L. (2015, August 18). The rebellious, back-flipping black figure Skater who changed the sport forever. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from https://newrepublic.com/article/122561/back-flipping-black-figure-skater-who-changed-sport-forever

 

Carr, K. E. (n.d.). Native American Science. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://quatr.us/northamerica/before1500/science/#topbar

 

Christenson, C. (2008). Aboriginal Sports. Retrieved January 27, 2017 from

https://www.sfu.ca/lovemotherearth/08classroom/papers/aboriginal_sports.pdf

 

Du, S. (2016, September 7). Surya Bonaly, figure skating’s bad-girl star, makes new life in Minnesota. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.citypages.com/news/figure-skatings-bad-girl-star-surya-bonaly-makes-new-life-in-minnesota/392501041

 

Finnerty, M. (2015, March 14). Compromise complicated in debate over faith, water, land. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://www.azcentral.com/story/travel/2015/03/13/navajo-nation-files-human-rights-protest-snowbowl-snow-making/70214892/

 

Harrison, A.K., (2013). Black skiing, everyday racism, and the racial spatiality of Whiteness. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 37(4), 315-339.

 

History of skiing (2005). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.loveandpiste.co.uk/historyofskiing.php

 

King, C. R. (2004). Native Americans in sports. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference.

 

Krichko, K. (2016, January 13). Skiing Kyrgyzstan’s vast, snowy frontier | VICE sports. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/skiing-kyrgyzstans-vast-snowy-frontier

 

Myerberg, P. (2014, February 7). Skater who lit Olympic flame took racist shot at Obama. . Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/sochi/2014/02/07/winter-games-obama-flame-irina-rodnina-racist/5289869/

 

Patten, E., & Krogstad, J. M. (2015, July 14). Black child poverty rate holds steady, even as other groups see declines. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/14/black-child-poverty-rate-holds-steady-even-as-other-groups-see-declines/

 

Payne, M. (2016, December 17). Move over, Jamaica: Nigeria wants to field the next unlikely Olympics bobsled team. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/12/17/move-over-jamaica-nigeria-wants-to-be-field-the-next-unlikely-olympics-bobsled-team/?utm_term=.85c8bee75cd7

 

Perez, I. (2015, nov). UW-Stout students upset over blackface Halloween costume. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://www.fox9.com/news/44912694-story

 

Podezwa, Kathy and Larson, Tim  n.d. Building a coalition on Spirit Mountain. Retrieved December 21, 2016 from

https://freshwaterfuture.org/services/success-stories/building-coalition-on-spirit-mountain/

 

Quigley, B. (n.d.). Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/fourteen-examples-of-raci_b_658947.html

 

Redd, C. K. (2003, November 09). Giving African American Skiers a Lift. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://archive.boston.com/travel/articles/2003/11/09/giving_african_american_skiers_a_lift/

 

Skiers v the religious rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples. (2016, November 26). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21710857-case-supreme-court-will-set-noteworthy-precedent-skiers-v-religious-rights

 

Sommerstein, D. (2015, February 26). As First black American NHL player, enforcer was defenseless against racism. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from NPR, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/02/26/389284068/as-first-black-american-nhl-player-enforcer-was-defenseless-vs-racism

 

Sottile, C. (2014). Winning for native America. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.chiarasottile.com/winning-for-native-america/

 

South Africa withdraws only athlete. (2014, January 24). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://www.espn.com/olympics/winter/2014/alpine/story/_/id/10343352/south-africa-denies-only-olympian-sive-speelman-place-sochi

 

Svitek, P. (2012, April 26). Aggressive effort’ behind exposing ski team party. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Administration, https://dailynorthwestern.com/2012/04/26/campus/campusarchived/aggressive-effort-behind-exposing-ski-team-party/

 

Svitek, P. (2012, April 25). Ski team apologizes for hosting controversial party. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Campus (Archived), https://dailynorthwestern.com/2012/04/25/campus/campusarchived/ski-team-apologizes-for-hosting-controversial-party/

 

Surya Bonaly is the biggest bad ass in Winter Olympics history. (2014, February 6). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://groupthink.kinja.com/surya-bonaly-was-the-biggest-bad-ass-in-winter-olympics-1517897822

 

Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB. (2016, January 27). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://gbtribune.blogspot.com/2016/01/traditional-winter-sports-festival-and.html

 

Traore, I. (2014, November 20). Blackface, trauma and cultural racism — the silhouette. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from https://www.thesil.ca/blackface-trauma-and-cultural-racism

 

Vara, V. (2014, July 16). Race and Poverty, Fifty Years After the March. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/race-and-poverty-fifty-years-after-the-march

 

Walsh, M. (2013, October 30). Coaches’ “cool Runnings” blackface outrages civil rights groups. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/coaches-cool-runnings-blackface-outrages-civil-rights-groups-article-1.1501735

 

White as Snow – Racism and the Winter Olympics. (2013, January 30). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from https://www.ua-magazine.com/22252/

 

Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports. (2011, December 16). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from Indian Country News, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/winter-workout-enjoy-traditional-native-snow-sports/

 

A Year of Books

A Year of Books

H. Bradford 1/13/17


One of my favorite things to do in read.  However, I don’t always find enough time for it.  In 2016, I read 24 books (not counting books that were assigned during my last semester of my teaching program at CSS).  It seems that I read far less than my friends but far more than the general public.  Still, I think that a goal of reading two books a month is probably fine enough, as it leaves me time to pursue my other hobbies.  At the same time, I hope that I read more books in 2017 than I did in 2016.  Thus, my New Year’s Resolution is to read 28 books.  In the meantime, here is a brief overview of the books that I read in 2016.  About fourteen of the books were written by men and ten by women.  Overall, 95% of the books were non-fiction, as I have a strong preference for non-fiction.  About 16% of the books were about animals.  8% of the books were about plants.  Approximately 33% of the books were related to histories of people of color.  16% of the books were specifically about Africa.  Based upon this, it can generally be said that I sought to increase my knowledge of plants, animals, Africa, and sexuality.


  1. Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers by Simon Winchester (2015).

 

I read this book about a year ago, but I generally liked it.  There were some chapters which engaged me more than others.  For instance, I found the information about the atomic bomb tests in the Pacific interesting since I was not aware of how this impacted the indigenous people of Bikini Atoll.   The information about China’s claims to various islands in the Yellow Sea  was also interesting.  On the other hand, I was less interested in the chapters on radios and surfing.  With that said, the book was a hodgepodge of Pacific history.  It wasn’t a heavy, hitting theoretical work, of course.  Rather, it was a fluffy pop history that was engaging enough to capture my attention


2. Socialism and Sexuality by Sherry Woolf (2009)

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I wrote a review for this book last January.   I devoured the book within a day.  Highlights of the book included the history of sexuality after the Russian revolution,  the failure of the Democratic party to be a consistent ally, and a critique of biological determinism.  My review can be read at:  https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/sexuality-and-socialism-book-review/

3. The Witches by Stacey Schiff (2015)

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This book was extremely detailed, but rather dry.  I slogged through it, not particularly interested in the book-despite what should have been an exciting topic.  I think that it did not capture my attention since the history was not held together by a central theory or argument as to the cause or purpose of the Salem Witch Hunts


4. Warrior Nation by Anton Treuer (2015)

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    This book was a history of the Red Lake Nation. I am going to be honest and say that I did not enjoy this book as much as I thought I would.  One reason that I probably did not enjoy it as much was because I am not versed in Minnesota history.  The book was very detailed, but became repetitive.  Of course, that is the nature of the history.  However, it was a bit of a challenge to slog through broken treaty after broken treaty.  Another challenge was that the book put emphasis on the leaders of Red Lake.  I tend to shy away from histories of great individuals and lean more towards social histories.  Anton Treuer visited Duluth last year and gave a talk.  He was engaging to listen to, extremely informed, and had a great sense of humor.  He also signed my book.  Perhaps one of his other books would be more accessible to me.



5. The Beast Within by Joyce Salisbury

I found this book at the Superior Public Library book sale and wrote a review of some of the highlights.  The thesis of the book is that throughout the Middle Ages, people came to view animals as less different than humans and humans as less different than animals.  A flaw was that the book tried to condense a long period of history and large geographic area into a few hundred pages.  Still, it was a fun read with many memorable anecdotes- such as the avoidance of eating the meat of hare because they were viewed as extremely sexual animals that grew a new anus each year of their life.

https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2016/05/20/my-two-cents-on-two-twenty-five-cent-books/

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6. Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin (1994)

    This book was another find from the Superior Public Library book sale.  I also reviewed it earlier last year.  The book was not what I expected (a diatribe against eating beef).  Rather, it was a history of beef.  The book did make me feel angry about beef and how it is historically connected to patriarchy and genocide.   It is nice to find a book that creates an emotional response and food for thought.

https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2016/05/20/my-two-cents-on-two-twenty-five-cent-books/


7. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (2006)

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    Once again, I wrote a review of this book earlier in the year.  I am actually a little surprised that I took time to review some of the books that I read.  Thanks past self for helping me remember what I read and what I thought of it!  Anyway, this was a beautifully written book of interviews with survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/?s=voices+from+Chernobyl


8. Apartheid: A History by Brian Lapping

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    This book was a forgettable history of apartheid, which I picked up from the Duluth Public Library book sale.  I was looking for books about African history and it was one of the few that I could find.  The book was written in 1986, so it was pretty outdated and the book ended before the end of apartheid.  The only positive is that it was an easy to read introduction to the basic history of apartheid.


9. Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future by Martin Meredith (2009)

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    This book was pretty interesting, as I knew little about Robert Mugabe going into it.  The history is well written, detailed, and engaging.  A person could know nothing about Zimbabwe and still easily read this book.  The author was sympathetic to the white farmers who lost their land during the 1990s.  He also seemed to have a negative opinion of how this land was subsequently managed.  This seems to be the mainstream opinion on white landownership in Zimbabwe.  Thus, a person needs to think against the book and its narrative and consider what right do white people have to stolen land or ill-gotten land?  Weren’t they always living on borrowed land and borrowed time?  Also, the reader should think against the narrative that Black people can’t govern themselves.  Perhaps the land distribution and management has had negative consequences, but leaving it in the hands of the white minority diminishes the autonomy and power of Zimbabweans.

https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/whats-a-mugabe/



10.  Traveler’s History of the Caribbean by James Ferguson (2008)

Another easily forgettable history.  I don’t have much to say about this book other than I read it before travelling to the Caribbean to brush up on the history.  It reads like a long Wikipedia article, so it isn’t terrible, but also isn’t memorable.


11. Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, The Boers, and the Making of South Africa  by Martin Meredith (2008)

Of the three Martin Meredith books, I found this one the least interesting.  However, the book provided me with a pretty solid overview of South African, Zimbabwean, and Namibian history from the 1800s.  The book was full of colorful characters with a lot of attention given to Cecil Rhodes.  This in itself made the book interesting and visiting his grave more meaningful to me.  Rhodes embodied capitalism in so many ways.  Capitalism and capitalists are abstract things that exist somewhere in the world.  The 1% is hardly imaginable.  Cecil Rhodes embodied the economic, political, and military mechanisms of capitalism.  Perhaps the only area of capitalism that he did not represent was the ideological aspect of its existence, since he wasn’t an intellectual or philosopher.  In any event, that was the main thing I took away from the book.


12. Fate of Africa:  The History of Africa Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2011)

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    This was the most interesting of the three Meredith books that I read this year.  The book is a great overview of the entire modern history of Africa.  It is a story of the struggle for independence, hope for the future, descent into dictatorships, and shaky futures.  As a Marxist, it is certainly disheartening to ready the story of how socialism failed so spectacularly across the continent.  But, to be fair, capitalism hasn’t been much better.  The book doesn’t really offer an explanation of why this is.  Or, if it does, the blame is placed on corrupt individuals.  This is true of all of the Meredith books.  The engine of history tends to be centered on individuals or events, rather than economics.  Theoretically, the books are weak, as they offer a mainstream journalistic style which masquerades as unbiased but is pro-capitalism and pro-West.  In any event, each of the countries inherited faulty mechanisms of governance and underdeveloped economies from their colonial masters and were expected to develop within the context of global capitalism in a Cold War.  Was there much hope to begin with?


13. Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa by Ashley Currier (2012)

I wanted to read a book about sexuality in Africa and this is what I found.  The book was short and read more like a research paper or thesis project than a book.  The book studies LGBT groups in South Africa and Namibia and uses interviews and observation to identify some of the struggles of LGBT organizing in these countries.  Both countries have struggled with the influence of Western NGOs and how these can de-legitimize their organizations and shape policies.  For instance, Western NGOs can provide funding and support to African LGBT organizations.  However, in doing so, the countries are encouraged to adopt the language and worldview of Western NGOs.  Thus, indigenous beliefs about gender and sexuality may be ignored or mislabelled.  Another challenge was inclusivity.  In South Africa, there were organizations specifically for Black lesbians.  However, this excluded whites, Coloured, and gay individuals.  Exclusive organizations were often established for the safety of participants.  I think this is a very relatable social movement question, especially in terms of domestic violence shelters, which are gender segregated- and often in the interest of safety.  This is a perennial problem that social movements must face, since various groups of people may demand exclusive spaces- such as lesbians and women have in the past.  These groups may have special experiences or needs, which lead them to organize autonomously.  At the same time, exclusion narrows the pool of participants and reifies differences.  The book contrasted some of the differences between LGBT organizing in these countries.  In South Africa, there has been state support of LGBT rights, whereas in Namibia, the state has been hostile.  This has caused the LGBT movement in Namibia to be smaller and more underground.


14. Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (2001)

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This is a fun history of one of Europe’s most unique and ancient ethnic groups: the Basques.  The book contains recipes, cultural tidbits, economics, and history.  Everything from the most authentic Basque cherry pie recipe to Basque independence is covered.  I learned that anyone who speaks Euskera is considered Basque, which allowed ETA to recruit people after their language and culture were suppressed by Franco and diluted by immigrants to Basque regions.  I was also unaware that Guernica was a Basque village (I thought it was a generically Spanish village).   Basque whaling, cod fishing, shipbuilding, and tourism are also discussed, along with the development of written Euskera, Basque literature, and national identity.   I found nothing boring in the book, as it moved along from topic to topic in an exploration of all of the facets of Basque history.


15. Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott (2012)

    I read this book in October to get me in the mood for Halloween.  I gleaned quite a bit from this book, which I used to inform my blog post: The Sociology of Pumpkins.  https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2016/09/25/the-sociology-of-pumpkins/

I can’t imagine that there are many histories of pumpkins, so as far as plant histories go, it was a pretty good book.


16. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1998)

This book has the unique distinction of being the only piece of fiction that I read in 2016.  It was lent to me at a meeting of Books and Beer (which I attended one time).  I was hesitant to read it because I don’t enjoy reading fiction as much as non-fiction.  I was also squeamish about it because it was a feminist version of a Bible story.  While some feminists might enjoy imagining God as a woman or the secret feminist lives of Biblical characters, I am atheist with little time for invisible masters, male or female.  With that said, I actually liked the book.  It brought me back to my childhood.  I remembered the old Bible stories from Sunday school and was amused with the narrative from the women of what “really” happened.  The book was a little bit sad (since it went through the entire life of the character), but also satisfying.


17. Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan (2006)

This book was so-so.  I found the information about the culinary history of acorns to be rather interesting.  However, the focus on oak being used in shipbuilding and architecture did not capture my imagination in quite the same way.  The book is probably more interesting to someone with an interest in carpentry or ships.  As for myself, I would have been more interested in the ecological and symbolic history of oaks.


18. Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis (2016)

    This book is the story of a woman who travelled solo, on foot, across Mongolia, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.  Along the way, she is met with many perils and challenges.  She does not speak Mongolian, she must protect herself from sexual assault, her health and gear sometimes fail her, her beloved dog dies, and she has difficulty navigating the social expectations of Mongolia.  I enjoyed it because it is a travel story.  While it is certainly a dramatic travel story, I think that anyone who has ventured anywhere can relate to the themes of missing home, leaving things behind, making sacrifices for the adventure, and feeling afraid.  To me, the book captured my imagination of what is possible.  Some people test their limits by biking across the country, doing the Appalachian trail,  running marathons, etc.  I was left wondering, what can I do?  What are my own limits?  Of course, she is extremely privileged to be a white woman who has the time, money, and physical ability to travel across very poor countries without invitation or sufficient knowledge of their customs and language.  But, this is also the story of almost all travelers, who come from a place of privilege to indulge in some sort of escapism or self-actualization.


 

  1. Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the present by Neil Miller (1995)

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I found this book at the Duluth Public Library book sale.  This is a wonderful source for books!  The book was pretty interesting.  It covered the LGBT movement and individuals from the mid 1800s onward, beginning with the invention of modern notions of sexuality and the stories of Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.  The origins of biological determinism in sexuality can also be tied to this early history.  The book explored the sexual histories of many famous individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia, though it was mostly focused on U.S. and British history.  There were many fascinating nuggets.  For instance, the Canadian government was extremely homophobic and even invented a “fruit machine” to detect homosexuality amongst government employees.  The book covered the LGBT movement in its various organizations and incarnations, ranging from Uranians, Stonewall, and the HIV crisis.  As a whole, the book was very gripping.  My main complaint is that the history actually did include some transgender and bisexual history, though these are not specifically spotlighted in the title or chapter headings.  While it might be difficult to write a book about all sexual and gender minorities, their absence in this history is an example of erasure.


 

  1. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James Baker and Peter Gomes (2009)

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    Just as I tried to get in the mood for Halloween with a book about pumpkins, I tried to get into the spirit of Thanksgiving with this book about Thanksgiving.  This book was much more sociological than the pumpkin book.  The book argued that there was no original Thanksgiving, as there were many Thanksgivings in many places by many people.  The Plymouth Thanksgiving was one of several and accompanied by fasts.  Just as Thanksgiving is socially constructed, Pilgrims and Indians are.  Pilgrims are depicted wearing dark colors and buckles, but this came from the Victorian imagination of the Pilgrims as quaint and austere.  The Native Americans that accompany the Pilgrims are often shown in the clothing of Native Americans from the Great Plains and inaccurately dwelling in teepees.  The vision of a shared meal between this group only appeared in American culture after the wars against Native Americans had been completed and it was possible to imagine them as a sympathetic, pacified group of people.  Even the long shared table and outdoor feast were invented in the literature of the late 1800s rather than off of actual historical events.  The holiday itself was selected by FDR as the third Thursday in November in order to bolster the Christmas shopping season.


Although there is little historical about Thanksgiving, the authors are middle of the road when it comes to celebrating the holiday.  On one hand, they are against Fundamentalists who insist that it is a part of American heritage, as clearly, the holiday has evolved over time.  On the other, the authors are also against Native Americans who protest the holiday, as this is also viewed by them as ahistorical as Plymouth Thanksgiving did not mark the beginning of genocide against Native Americans.  I think this misses the point that the history itself doesn’t matter so much, as it is still a symbol of genocide and colonization.  In other words, I think that the authors were too dismissive of the Native American perspective on Thanksgiving.    


  1. Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior by Beth Bartlett (2016)

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    We read this book through the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition book club.  It is a must read for anyone engaged in feminist activism or non-profit/social work in the Northland, as it offers a comprehensive history of the major feminist organizations in the Twin Ports, such as PAVSA, CASDA, Safe Haven, AICHO, the Women’s Health Center, etc.  One theme from the book is that many of these organizations began with a small core of dedicated people and few resources.  Originally, these organizations were run with an egalitarian feminist vision, but over time this was compromised in the interest of growth, funding, and conforming to external restraints.  It leaves the reader wondering what can be done to reinvigorate these organizations, the downside of the professionalization of social movement organizations, and how organizations are constrained by a larger context of capitalism.


  1. 50 Animals that Changed the Course of History by Eric Chaline (2011)

 

This book made a big promise!  That is, it promised to tell me about 50 animals and how they changed history.  However, the history was lackluster, childish, and sometimes inaccurate.  It read like a children’s encyclopedia of animals and offered about two pages of basic information about each of the animals.  It was a huge disappointment.


  1. Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenberg (2009)

I liked this book since it highlighted the importance of predators to ecosystems.  We tend the envision the food chain from the bottom up, but this book had many examples of how things at the top of the food chain impact those at the bottom.  It helped me to re-think a very basic understanding of ecology.  It cited various examples of situations wherein predators disappeared and how this had a detrimental effect on the rest of the ecosystem- ranging from starfish to otters.  I think this book would be useful for anyone who is against sport hunting of predators.  On the other hand, the book did get a little strange towards the end when the author suggested “rewilding” the Americas.  This does not mean re-introducing predators that have vanished in the last few hundred years- it means trying to turn back the clock 13,000 years by introducing lions, camels, and cheetahs to the Americas.  While this is interesting, I think that working with the past few hundred years is more realistic.


  1. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher Beckwith (2011)

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This book was weird and boring.  To be fair, I am not very knowledgeable about the “stan” countries.  Hence, I am trying to brush up on them through my recent reading choices.  Since the topic is not familiar, it is always harder to wade through the history.  Nevertheless, the book attempts to condense several thousand years of history across a diverse region into a few hundred pages.  As such, it reads like a timeline.  I was not very engaged in the book and struggled to keep up with names, places, battles, empires, etc.  Towards the end of the book, the author devotes two chapters to make a surprising argument against modernity.  This perked me up a little.  This did not come from a postmodern perspective either.  Basically, the argument was that modernity failed Central Asia, as it lead to economic decline during the rise of capitalism elsewhere, communist rule, and religious fundamentalism.  I suppose it was interesting to consider religious fundamentalism as an expression of modernity (which I associate with Enlightenment ideas like secularism and the separation of church and state.)  To the author, the glory days of Central Asia were in the past.  This isn’t entirely untrue, but begs the question, whose glory days?  It wasn’t a glorious time for women or slaves.  The author disdains mass culture, even taking the time to pooh pooh popular music.  To him, anything produced for and by the masses is too easy and accessible, and therefore can hardly be esteemed as art.  This weird ending seems out of place with what was otherwise a really dull history.  It made me wonder if historians who are interested in the “stan” countries are conservative and elitist.  Perhaps studying them is depressing and lends itself to embracing some bygone time when they were not collection of dusty, forgotten countries but centers of trade and culture.

Bringing Bisexuality and Domestic Violence Into Focus

Bringing Bisexuality and Domestic Violence Into Focus

H. Bradford

11/22/16

Last month, Pandemonium met for the first time.  Pandemonium is a modest bisexual/pansexual/ omnisexual/generally bi+ group that I am working to organize.  Our first meeting was chaotic, but lively.  A disturbing theme that came out of our first discussion was that many of the members had experienced violence of some kind.  Since October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month and LGBT history month, I thought that this theme deserved more attention.  As such, I wanted to investigate this topic further and bring my findings back to the group for our November meeting.  Indeed, being bisexual increases the likelihood that a person may be the victim of intimate partner violence.

The Statistics:


According to a 2010 report from the CDC, 61.1% of bisexual women have experienced either rape, stalking, or physical violence from an intimate partner (North, 2016).  If molestation is added to this list, the rare is 75% (Davidson, 2013).  In contrast to bisexuals, 35% of straight women and 43.8% of lesbian women have experienced stalking, rape, or physical violence (North, 2016).  If only rape is account for, 46.1% of bisexual women report having been raped, compared to 13.1% of lesbian and 14.7% of straight women.  Further, of the bisexual women who have reported domestic violence, 57.4% reported that they had experienced adverse effects such as PTSD or missed work, compared to 35.5% of lesbians and 28.2% of straight women.  This means that not only are bisexual women experiencing domestic violence at higher rates, they are suffering more adverse effects from this violence.  Finally, most bisexual victims of domestic violence had been abused by male partners, as men accounted for 89.5% of offenders (North, 2016).  As a whole, bisexual women are the number one target of domestic violence, followed by bisexual men who experience it at a rate of 47.4%.  This is followed by lesbian women, heterosexual women, gay men, and straight men (Davidson, 2013).  This is very startling, as bisexual men and women are both the targets of domestic violence.


In Canada, 28% of bisexuals reported being victims of spousal abuse versus 7% of heterosexuals.  According to the BC Adolescent Health Survey, Bisexual girls between ages 12 and 18 were twice as likely to report dating violence than heterosexual girls (Bielski, 2016).  In the UK, one in four bisexual women and lesbian women have experienced domestic violence.  Among these victims, ⅔ reported that their abuser was a woman, versus ⅓ reported a man.  Four in ten  bisexual and lesbian women with a disability reported domestic violence.  While the UK statistics lump bisexual and lesbian women into the same grouping, the findings shows the intersectionality of abuse (Stonewall Health Briefing, 2012).  In this case, disability and sexuality put the women at greater risk of abuse.  The statistics from the UK, U.S., and Canada each suggest that bisexuality can be connected to increased incidences of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking.  This begs the question, why is this the case?

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The Media:


It is easy to blame the media for social problems, but it is a useful starting point.  Certainly, the media plays a role in shaping public perception by popularizing ideas, framing questions and ideas, focusing on some information over other information, and setting parameters of what is discussed and how it is discussed.  Davidson (2013) observed that the media, especially pornography, sends a message that bisexual women are depraved, immoral, promiscuous, and have commitment issues.  These portrayals of bisexual women actually victim blames them or justifies their abuse through negative portrayals.  This portrayal of bisexuals represents or contributes to biphobia, which often goes unnoticed or unaddressed in larger discussions of homophobia.  As a matter of example, consider the case of Amber Heard.  Before her divorce trial, many people may not have known that she was bisexual.  According to Bielski (2016), Amber Heard was painted as a gold digger in the media, even as evidence of the violence against her from her then husband Johnny Depp began to emerge.  Despite these accusations, Heard actually donated her divorce settlement money to charity.  She donated half of the settlement to the ACLU for the purpose of ending violence against women.  Aside from gold digging, her bisexuality was also used to discredit her, as tabloids portrayed her as promiscuous and that it was Depp’s jealousy that drove him to beat her.  Even in the face of grotesque evidence, such as a video of Depp kicking kitchen cupboards while shouting at her, photos of her bruised face and swollen lip, and a sexual slur scrawled on their mirror, she was blamed for making him jealous (Bielski, 2016).

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Dynamics of Domestic Violence:


While the media plays a role in shaping public perception about bisexuality, it does not explain why bisexuals are victimized to begin with.  Bisexuality may be used as an excuse by gay or straight abusers to exert control over their victim.  To the abuser, it may represent identity, power, and the possibility of sexual attraction to others.  Controlling behaviors include such things as surveillance, such as checking email or text messages and using isolation, such as not allowing bisexual victims to spend time with anyone of any gender.  To abusers, bisexuality itself may be viewed as something that needs to be controlled.  Farnsworth (2016) argued that bisexual people, along with people of color, disabled people, neurodivergent people are often treated as “others.”  “Othering” a group of people diminishes their humanity and legitimacy.  “Othered” people often have their consent ignored.  Bisexuals and other oppressed groups may be told that they deserve their abuse and that no one else would want them.  Many people in the LGBTQ community also face poverty, which is a barrier to leaving abusive relationships as these individuals may be financially dependent upon their partner. (Farnsworth, 2016).  In fact, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty than lesbian women (Kristal, 2016).  Finally, in the larger society, bisexuals are demeaned, sexualized, and ignored.  Until this is changes, they will be at greater risk of violence (Farnsworth, 2016).


Beyond some of the dynamics of domestic violence, shelters may also bear some of the blame.  For instance, in testimonies gathered for a White House meeting on bisexuality, one woman reported that she was denied shelter at a Chicago domestic violence shelter because the shelter was for women with male abusers.  When she sought a resource for the gay community, she was told that because she was bi she did not qualify for their services.  Unfortunately, gender variant individuals and gay and bisexual men have few resources available to them (Hutchins, 2013).  While bisexual men are the group that is second most likely to experience domestic violence, there is only one shelter in the United States that is explicitly for male victims of domestic violence.  This shelter is located in Arkansas, has nine beds, and opened in 2015 (Markus, 2016).  Females are by far the majority of domestic violence victims, but it is important that men also have services, as well as transgender individuals.  Everyone of any sexuality and gender identity deserves to be safe from violence.


Another facet of domestic violence is mental health.  Bisexual women are at greater risk of depression and anxiety compared to gay or straight women.  This mental health risk could be because of the stigma of being bisexual (Buzzfeed).  However, if 75% of bisexual women have been stalked, raped, molested, or victims of domestic violence, this increased incidence of depression and anxiety may be related to trauma.  A study published by the University of Montreal found that among 1052 mothers who were studied over ten years, those who had experienced domestic violence were twice as likely to suffer from depression and had three times the risk of developing schizophrenia-like psychotic symptoms.  Among the women who had been abused by their partner, they were more likely to have substance abuse, early pregnancy, childhood abuse, and poverty (University of Montreal, 2015).  Factors such as mental health and substance abuse create a vicious feedback effect.  Abuse creates mental health problems, financial problems, pregnancy, and substance abuse.  In turn, all of these things makes a person more vulnerable to abuse.  As abusers target often vulnerable people, the previous abuse and mental health issues experienced by bisexuals may may play into the abuse (Bielski, 2016).  This is not meant to blame them, but to show that their previous victimization may make them more vulnerable to future abuse.

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Biphobia and Bi-Erasure:


All bisexuals experience biphobia and bi-erasure to some degree.  Biphobia is hatred and prejudice against bisexuals.  A 2015 study in the Journal of Bisexuality found that heterosexuals and gays and lesbians had almost identical prejudices against bisexuals.  According to the reported experiences of the surveyed bisexuals, both heterosexuals and homosexuals treated bisexuals as if they were more likely cheat and were sexually confused.  Both group also excluded bisexuals from their social networks (Allen, 2016).  While bisexuals may be viewed negatively as promiscuous, wild, immoral, and disloyal, their voices, histories, identities, and experiences are ignored.  This is called bi-erasure.  Biphobia and bi-erasure can make coming out harder for bisexuals.  Their partners may not understand or think that a bi person is not satisfied (Farnsworth, 2016).  For individuals who are not “out”, they may face challenges when leaving their abuser.  For instance, in the book, Violence against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-LBGT Descrimination, a woman named Dorothy reported facing an additional barrier when she left her husband since she left him to enter her first same-sex relationship (it should be noted that in this example she identified as a lesbian).  Thus, leaving the relationship made harder by the fact that this would “out” her to others.  A woman named Leslie reported that her bisexuality was used to legitimize the abuse and control her.  The abuse worsened after she was married.  She was accused of flirting with both men and women.  After she was pregnant, he accused her of wanting to sleep with their waitress when they went out to dinner together (Meyer, 2015).  Once again, her bisexuality was something threatening to her partner.  In a 2012 Human Rights Campaign survey, bisexual teen girls reported that they were called “whores” or forced to make out with other girls for their partner (Kristal, 2016).  Again, negative stereotypes about bisexuals resulted in slut shaming and coercive sexual acts.  Because bisexual women are believed to be promiscuous and sexually adventurous, consent is assumed (Bielski, 2016).  Thus, it is no wonder why bisexuals are victims of sexual assault at a greater rate per their population than individuals with other sexual identities.

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Relationship/Sexual Norms:


At some level, bisexuality challenges sexual norms.  While this is not true of all bisexuals, a study that appeared in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity found that bisexuals reported that monogamy was a sacrifice at greater rates than straights and gays.  An equal amount of bisexuals found monogamy to be a sacrifice as there were bisexuals who found it rewarding.  Nevertheless, gays and straights both reported monogamy as more rewarding than bisexuals.  Thus, while viewing monogamy as a sacrifice does not indicate that the respondents were polyamorous and promiscuous, it does indicate that they were less likely than their straight and gay counterparts to find monogamy rewarding (Vrangalova, 2014).  Many bisexuals that I have spoken with are perfectly capable of monogamy, myself included.  However, to those whom I spoken with, there is often a sense of sacrifice or duty involved with this monogamy.  It is often framed as a sacrifice made for the sake of companionship or a stable relationship with a particular individual.  At some level, bisexuality does threaten monosexual partners.  It does play into their insecurities and jealousies.  This is no excuse for abuse, but this represents a flaw with our relationships.  Society normalizes jealousy and insecurity.  Countless films and television shows feature couples who show their love through jealous behaviors.  An individual who is not jealous, is not viewed as emotional.  Taken to the extreme, jealousy can be abusive.  But, all monogamous relationships involve some level of control over the sexuality of another human being.  So, while bisexuals are capable of monogamous relationship, they are at the same time more apt to question monogamy.  This is very threatening to patriarchy and capitalism, which has treated women as the sexual property of men.


It is only recently, and with that advent of the feminist movement, that women have begun to be seen as having rights to their sexuality.  Today, some states continue to treat marital rape as something different than rape outside of marriage.  It was only in the 1990s that laws began to change so that rape within marriage was considered the same kind of crime, with the same punishments, as rape.  Prior to this, men were viewed as having a right to sex from their wives and implicit consent as part of their marriage.  Since the majority of women have traditionally married, rape is built into the tradition of marriage.  Marriage itself is institutionalized monogamy.  By extension, marriage was institutionalized rape.  Now, certainly there are people who have loving relationships and consensual sex within the context of marriage.  And, bisexuals certainly fought for and benefited from the legalization of same sex marriage.  But, I cannot shake my disgust at the notion that marriage granted men the right to sex without consequence, consent, or criminality.  While consent is considered a part of healthy relationships today, control will always be a part of relationships so long as people attach their self-esteem and happiness to the sexual loyalty of their partner.  In the popular imagination, there is sympathy for “crimes of passion.”  A man who kills his wife after she cheats on him has a legitimate defense.  These circumstances can result in lesser charges or a lower sentence.  A woman who cheats on her husband may be denied alimony.  To some degree, even non-abusive people accept the legitimacy of violence and control for the sake of monogamy.  Control and abuse are enshrined in the law. 47ade34b8769d8976fe72916ab19f89a


What is to be done?


There are many reasons why bisexuals are abused at higher rates than other groups.  Bisexuals are more likely to experience mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and poverty, which both puts them at risk of abuse, but also results from abuse.  Bisexuals experience bi-phobia and bi-erasure.  Their abuse is justified because it is considered a means to control them, out them, that they were sexually confused to begin with, and their consent is ignored.  Bisexuality itself is seen as something that must be controlled.  It is misunderstood.  At some level, it challenges some aspects of monogamy.


Hopefully, this piece offers some insight to why bisexuals may experience greater rates of abuse.  Certainly, more research on this topic should be done.  For instance, I could not find research pertaining to how many bisexuals actually identify as poly-amorous or monogamous.  Besides continued research, more work should be done to end bi-phobia and bi-erasure.  To this end, I hope that Pandemonium can work to create a community of bi+ activists, while fostering discussion, awareness of issues, a sense of identity and history, and action.  As for advocates within the field of domestic violence, I hope that more can be done to become aware of LGBT issues and become more responsive to their needs.  I am a domestic violence advocate myself, and I believe that this very rudimentary research has given me some food for thought in how I approach my work and frame problems.  Finally, if nothing else, this demonstrates the connections between fighting for LGBT rights and the fight for feminism, but also other fights, such as the fight to end poverty and the fight for more mental health services.

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Feminist Astronomy

 

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Feminist Astronomy

H. Bradford

Each month, the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition hosts a “Feminist Frolic.”  A Feminist Frolic is an outdoor adventure combined with an educational presentation.  This month’s presentation was on feminist stargazing, which was held at Wisconsin Point.  The goal of the presentation is to enjoy the outdoors and become familiar with the celestial bodies in the night sky, while connecting science and mythology to a feminist perspective.  With that said, I am certainly not an expert on astronomy, but I enjoy learning about many topics and astronomy is one of them.  Thus, the following is a brief tour of our universe from the perspective of feminist.

Moon:

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The moon is a great place to begin, November 14th marks the super moon.  A super moon is a moon appears larger than normal because it has become full when at perigee, or closest distance to the earth.  Perigee is a word used to describe the nearest point to earth in an orbital path, while apogee is the furthest.  Similarly, the terms perihelion and aphelion are used to describe the earth’s closest and furthest points in its orbit around the sun.  Super moons happen every thirteen months or so, but this one will look particularly large because the moon will become full just two hours from its perigee.  This super moon will be the largest in appearance since 1948.


Even when the moon is not at perigee or full it is super!  And, to many people it has had a connection to women.  In many mythologies, the moon was believed to be a goddess.  The Greeks saw the moon as Artemis, the sister of the sun god, Apollo.  In Chinese legends, the moon was a woman named Chang’e, who drank an immortality elixir to avoid having it fall into the hands of her husband’s rival Fengmeng.  The elixir caused her to float away from earth and away from her mortal husband, where she went to dwell on the moon.  Mayan people have had many beliefs about the moon over time.  In one tale, the moon goddess is the daughter of the Earth God.  The Moon Goddess sleeps with the Sun God, which upsets her father, who destroys her.  Her blood covers the earth, but is collected in thirteen jars from which insects, poison, and disease are created.  However, the blood is also the origin of medicine and a new moon.  The connection between the moon, life, blood, and femininity mark the connection people made between the moon and menstruation.


The moon orbits around the earth every 28 days (or 27.32 to be more exact) in what is called a sidereal month.  To ancient people, the orbit of the moon around the earth was not immediately obvious.  The most obvious change in the moon was the procession of moon phases, or which cycle in a synodic month.  The moon cycles through phases every 29.53 days.  Thus, ancient people marked the passage of time with changes in the phases of the moon.  In fact, the name month comes from the word moon. Many cultures, such as Chinese, Babylonians, Germanic, Hebrew, Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tibetans, used lunar or lunar solar calendars to mark their year.  Today, Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which is why holidays like Ramadan fall on different dates each year.  A menstrual cycle is about as long as the lunar cycle, so ancient people may have connected the moon to goddesses and fertility.  The word menstruation itself comes from mensis, the Latin word for month and mene, the Greek word for moon.  However, there is no scientific evidence that there is a correlation between menstruation/fertility and lunar phases.


While the moon may only be feminine in a metaphoric sense, it certainly has life-giving qualities in the scientific sense.  Not unlike Chang’e, who drifted further and further away from her mortal husband, the moon is drifting further and further away from earth at a rate of 1.5 inches per year.  As it does this, the earth’s rotation is slowing down as it loses gravitational energy.  When life began evolving on earth 3.8 billion years ago, the moon was twice as close and days were half as long!  Some scientists believe that the violent tidal activity may have enabled the evolution of life, by tossing around the proto-nucleic acids that eventually formed into DNA.  Tides themselves allowed for ocean dwelling creatures to evolve into terrestrial life, by creating a nether environment between land and sea.  The moon also created the conditions of life by stabilizing our climate and slowing our rotation.  Before a Mars sized object slammed into the earth, creating the moon, the earth rotated every six hours.  The moon’s gravitational pull slowed us down, resulting in less severe weather and daily temperature changes.  The moon’s gravitational pull also stabilized our axial tilt, resulting in static seasons and a stable distribution of oceans.  Thus, in a way, the moon is a giver of life to our planet!


Venus:

    Another celestial body with a connection to women is the planet, Venus.  This month, Venus can be seen in the early evening Western sky.  Venus is the brightest of the planets and looks like a large, peach colored star.  Because of its proximity to the sun, Venus is never seen above 45 degrees from the horizon, which is another clue of how to locate this planet in the night sky.  Venus is a unique planet because it has the longest rotational period of all of the planets.  A day on Venus is 243 days and it rotates in an opposite direction than all of the other planets.  Venus has a dense atmosphere that is 96.5% carbon dioxide.  This makes Venus the hottest planet, as it has a runaway greenhouse effect of trapped heat.  The average temperature on Venus is 864 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to melt lead.  Due to the thick atmosphere, the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is same as we would experience at 3,000 feet below the ocean on Earth.  If the heat and atmospheric pressure are not hellish enough, the planet features clouds made of sulfuric acid and a water-less landscape of thousands of volcanoes.  Because of the hostile environment on Venus, studying the planet has been challenging.  The Soviet Union was the first country to successfully send a probe to Venus through its Venera program.   The Soviet Union began launching probes in 1961, but did not successfully land on the planet until 1966 with Venera III.  Venera IV was destroyed by the atmospheric pressure before it could collect data.  Venera V managed to collect 53 minutes of data.  Venera 7 survived for 23 minutes on the surface of Venus before it was destroyed by heat and pressure.  Later Venera probes managed to send back photos.  It is coincidentally sexist that the most hostile planet is also the only planet named after a woman.

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The Sumerians connected the planet Venus with the goddess Inanna.  They believed that Venus was a morning star and an evening star, since they only saw the planet at those times of day (as it is only visible when rising and setting due to its proximity to the sun).  Inanna was the goddess of fertility, love, and war.  To Ancient people, the planet Venus moved in unpredictable ways, which accounted for Inanna’s warlike, capricious, and duplicitous personality.  The Greeks associated Venus with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love.  The cult of Aphrodite drew from love goddesses of the near east, including the practice of ritual prostitution in temples to her.  The Greeks also borrowed the idea of Venus as a morning star and evening star from Babylonian astronomy.


Beyond mythology, the volatile and hostile nature of Venus has been used to stereotype women in modern times.   Although it is dated, the best example is the 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which reifies the gender differences between men and women through relationship advice that panders to gender stereotypes.  In the worldview of the book, men withdraw and women seek closeness.  However, humans are complex.  Some women are emotionally withdrawn, some men seek closeness intimacy, and all humans exhibit these traits to varying degrees.  By stereotyping women as out of control, unpredictable, irrational, or emotional, it dismisses their perspectives, experiences, needs, and oppression.  The woman who asserts herself and her rights is thus dismissed as an irrational, angry feminist rather than a clear-thinking critic of social ills.  Of course, ancient people had no idea about the hostile nature of the planet.  Still, they chose to personify the mysterious planet as a foreboding female.


Taurid and Leonid Meteor Showers:


    The month of November features two meteor showers.  The Taurid Meteor shower peaks this weekend around the 11th and 12th, but can be viewed until early December.  The meteors appear to originate near the constellation Taurus and are best seen after midnight.  While the Taurids only yield a few meteors per hour, it is a shower that is likely to create fireballs.  Fireballs are simply meteors that are particularly bright.  The Taurids are the caused by debris left behind by the comet named Encke.  Encke is a small comet which orbits the sun every 3.3 years.


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The Leonids also appear in November.  This meteor shower peaks around the 17th of the month and is created from the debris left behind by Temple-Tuttle, a comet which orbits the sun every 33 years.  The Leonids can feature more spectacular meteor storms.  For instance, in 1833, it yielded over 100,000 meteors per hour in 1833.  This meteor storm was noted by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Joseph Smith.  Smith believed it was a sign of the coming of Christ.  The 1833 meteor shower resulted in the first accurate explanation of their origin as particles in space.  Meteorites, or meteors that land on earth, have been valued since ancient times.  The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was believed to be built where a meteorite landed.  Meteorites were also used as a source of iron for tools and weapons by ancient and indigenous peoples.


Ursa Major/The Big Bear:

Moving on to constellations, we can begin with Ursa Major.  This is the easiest constellation to find because the seven large, bright stars that make up the asterism called the Big Dipper.  An asterism is just another word for a pattern of stars, and in this case, the dipper is part of a much larger constellation in the shape of a long tailed bear.  Many groups of people saw a bear in the sky when they looked at this pattern of stars.  However, Anishinaabe saw a fisher instead.  Arabs saw a coffin and several mourners.  The Chinese saw a wall.


In the Greek version of the story of Ursa Major, the bear was once a nymph named Callisto, who served Artemis, the virginal goddess of hunting.  Zeus found Callisto to be particularly attractive, so he disguised himself as Artemis to gain her trust, then raped her.  He then abandoned her for Mount Olympus, offering no support to her or the son that she eventually had as the result of the rape.  Rather than feeling sympathetic towards Callisto after the sexual assault, Zeus’ wife Hera became jealous of her.  Out of jealousy, she turned Callisto into a bear, leaving her human son, Arcas, without both a mother and a father.  Eventually, Arcas grew up and became a hunter himself.  He happened upon his mother, in the form of a bear, and tried to kill her.  Finally, Zeus intervened and turned Arcas into a bear so that he would not kill his own mother.  He then placed both mother and son, in the form of bears, in the sky where they remain as the Big Bear and Little Bear.

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As a whole, the Greek version of the story can be connected to the idea of rape culture as it features elements such as the entitlement of powerful men, rape as commonplace, and victim blaming.  Zeus raped women in many stories in Greek mythology, but there is little consequence for him but the jealousy of his wife.  Because of this, the rape is never taken seriously, and Zeus himself is a forgivable Bill Clinton or Donald Trump sort who can’t resist the ladies.  Boys will be boys…and Gods will be gods!  His biggest problem in life is his harping wife, Hera.  While the victims of rape in Greek mythology are depicted as virginal and pretty, often putting up some kind of resistance, they don’t have much agency.  Callisto has a son, becomes a bear, is almost murdered, then gets thrown into the sky.  Becoming a bear was a punishment from Hera.  So, Zeus was never punished.  Instead, the victim was blamed.  Perhaps this illustrates that women don’t always have the power to punish men, so they learn to punish other women.


On a final note, the Big Dipper, which makes up the body and tail of Ursa Major, is also known as the Drinking Gourd.  It is believed that slaves used this asterism to find their way north, as the two stars at the chest of the bear or front of the gourd point up to the North Star.


Ursa Minor/The Little Bear/Polaris     

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Following the two stars at the front of the dipper cup, upwards, one can find the North Star, or polaris.  Polaris makes up the end of the tail of the Little Dipper/Little Bear/Ursa Minor.  In Greek mythology, the small bear was Callisto’s son, Arcas.  The Little Bear is much smaller than the Big Dipper and the stars are far dimmer.  Even Polaris is not all that bright and noticeable.  Polaris, or the North Star, can be used to find north.  The star happens to be located near the Earth’s axis.  As such, as the earth spins, the constellations appear to move around Polaris, which stays still.  The height of Polaris in the night sky can help a person figure out their latitude.  The further a person travels north, the higher polaris appears in the sky.


Bootes:

    If you follow the star (Alkaid) at the end of the tail of Ursa Major in an arc to the next brightest star, you will find the constellation Bootes.  This bright star is called Arcturus, or guardian of the bear.  It is part of an asterism of the same name, which is shaped like a diamond.  This diamond shaped asterism is itself part of Bootes, the bear herder or bear watcher.  The story of Bootes and his relationship to his neighbors, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, is murky.  Nevertheless, Arcturus has a rich history.  For instance, the star was used by Polynesians to navigate north from Tahiti to Hawaii, as once it appeared overhead above the equator, the Polynesians knew to turn west towards Hawaii.


Draco:

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    While star gazing near the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, it is worthwhile to point out Draco, a giant constellation which literally snakes between the two constellations.  Nine of the stars in Draco are known to have planets orbiting them.  To the ancient Greeks, the constellation represented Ladon, a giant serpent killed by Hercules or the serpent child of Gaia.  In Roman myth, Draco was a serpent defeated by the goddess Minerva and tossed into the sky.  In Arabic astronomy, the constellation represented four mother camels protecting a baby camel from two hyenas that were trying it.

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Serpents have a long been connected with women.  In the Greek story, Ladon guarded the apples of Hesperides, a tree owned by Hera which offered immortality.  This serpent, woman, and magical tree story is also part of Christian beliefs.  In Christianity, the serpent convinces Eve to eat from the fruit of knowledge, which introduces sin into the world.  Interestingly, Islam and Judaism do not have the concept of original sin, so Eve’s introduction of sin into the world is a Christian belief.  Some feminists have argued that ancient matriarchal religions often involved a serpent goddess or serpent cult.  For instance, Minoan figurines of a woman handling snakes have been found on Crete.  It is believed that these figures could represent fertility and renewal and that Minoans had a goddess centered/woman centered religion.  Temples to the Phoenician goddess, Astarte, were also decorated with serpent motifs.  Some feminists have argued that the association of serpents and women was a way to honor female sexuality and that the advent of patriarchy re-cast serpents and goddesses as evil characters.


Cassiopeia:

Another iconic constellation is Cassiopeia, which can be found this month by looking to the northeastern sky for a “W” or “M” shape in the sky.  This is another circumpolar constellation, so it can be seen all year, but moves higher and northward as the evening progresses.  Although Cassiopeia is usually depicted as white, the Greeks believed she was an Ethiopian queen of unrivaled beauty.  Perhaps the whitewashing of the constellation represents European artists inability to view Black as beautiful or consider Black people as powerful leaders.  Because of her boastfulness about her beauty, she was placed in the sky and her daughter, Andromeda was tied to a rock to be eaten by Cetus the sea monster.  The Persians also saw a queen when they saw the constellation Cassiopeia.  They saw a queen with with a crescent moon and a staff.  Celtic people saw Anu, the mother goddess in this pattern of stars.  Arab astronomers saw the constellation as a hand that had been tinted with Henna.  Thus, many cultures envisioned something feminine when viewing this constellation.

cassiopeia                              Cassiopeia: a suspiciously white looking Ethiopian queen….

Andromeda:


The Andromeda galaxy can be found as it is a blurry spot located between Cassiopeia and the constellation Andromeda.  The deeper “V” of Cassiopeia points to the galaxy.  The Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years away and is the nearest galaxy to our own.  Interestingly, the Andromeda galaxy is expected to collide with the Milky Way in 3.75 billion years.  While objects in the universe are actually moving away from each other, the gravitational force between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy is enough to offset this expansion and pull into each other.  This could result in a new elliptical galaxy once the two combine.  While the impact on our own solar system is unknown, it could result in an entirely different night sky!  The Andromeda galaxy is the only object that we can see outside of our galaxy with the naked eye (in the northern hemisphere).


In Greek mythology, Andromeda was the daughter of the Ethiopian queen and king Cassiopeia and Cepheus.  In art, she is almost always depicted as white, despite her heritage.  After she was chained to a rock to be fed to a monster, she was rescued by the Greek hero Perseus.   Of course, Andromeda was already promised in marriage to Phineas, whom Perseus conveniently turned to stone by showing the Gorgon’s head.  Later, when Andromeda died, she was placed in the sky by Athena as a constellation, after which the galaxy was named.

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Andromeda: the very white looking princess of Ethiopia…as seen in the film Clash of the Titans.

Milky Way:

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If the night is dark and clear enough, it is easy to spot the Milky Way, which looks like a pale cloud of stars spread across the entire skydome.  Everything we see when we look into the night sky (without a telescope and with the exception of Andromeda) is part of the Milky Way galaxy.  The band that is seen overhead is the view of disc of our galaxy, made up of billions of stars.  Our eyes cannot differentiate the light of these billions of stars, so we see them as a misty arc across the sky.  The dark areas within the band are clouds of dust.


To Babylonians, the Milky Way represented the tail of Tiamat.  Tiamat was a primordial serpent goddess who mothered an ancient generation of gods, who in turn parented another generation of gods, whom she sought to destroy with eleven monsters.  In Greek mythology, the Milky Way was created by Hera’s breast milk, which spilled when Hercules tried to suckle too aggressively.  This sounds painful and terrible.  Despite Hera’s victim blaming of Zeus’ rape victims, perhaps she can be sympathized with for her horrible experience with breastfeeding.  Just as women sometimes shame other women for their sexual assaults, women shame other women for breast feeding or not breast feeding.  This only serves to divide women from their common interests, thereby doing the dirty work of patriarchy without men.  Egyptians also saw the Milky Way as milk, though they saw it as cow’s milk and personified it as Bat, the goddess of fertility.  Estonians saw the Milky Way as the wedding veil of a spurned goddess and the Chinese saw it as a bridge of birds used to unite two lovers.


Pleiades:  


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The Pleiades are a cluster of related stars that can be found near Taurus.  In the early evening, they are lower on the horizon, situated downward from Cassiopeia.  The star cluster is one of the nearest clusters to Earth and only about 100 million years old.  In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the Seven Sisters, or seven nymphs who served Artemis.  In one version of the myth, they were put into the night sky by Zeus to protect them from Orion, who still chases them across the sky.  Presumably, Orion was chasing after them to sexually assault them.  Thus, this is one of many Greek myths involving women being turned into something else to avoid rape.  Other stories include Apollo and Daphne (who was turned into a tree), Philomela (who became a nightingale after she was raped), Leda (who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan), and Europa (who was raped by Zeus in the form of a bull, and is also a moon of Jupiter).  Even Hera, Zeus’ sister, was raped by him, which is why she married him.


Aside from the Greeks, several other cultures saw them as women.  The Mono people saw the stars as six wives who left their husbands to eat onions in the sky.  Lakotas saw them as seven women who were giving birth.  Cheyenne envisioned them as seven puppies conceived by a young woman who fell in love with a mysterious human in the form of a dog.  The Basotho people of southern Africa saw them as planter women, as their disappearance from the night sky marked the onset of winter.  To the Javanese, the stars represented seven princesses and the beginning of the rice planting season.  Of course, to some people the stars were brothers, stored grain, the head of a tiger, and a market place.  Nevertheless, many sisters or wives are a common interpretation of the star cluster.

 

Conclusion:

    The supermoon made it a bit more challenging to see these these celestial objects/phenomenon.  Certainly, there is far more to see in the night sky.  This is just a tiny sample of our wondrous universe.  Hopefully the presentation offered a little bit of science, some interesting stories and legends, as well as some insight about the role of women on Earth and in the cosmos.  Join us next month for another fun filled feminist frolic!

 

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.

Sources:

Abrams, L. (2014, October 31). Halloween: America’s no. 1 holiday for wasting money on garbage. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from http://www.salon.com/2014/10/31/halloween_americas_no_1_holiday_for_wasting_money_on_garbage/

Adamson, M. (2005, March 14). An Archaelogical Analysis of Gender Roles in Nonliterate Cultures of Eurasia. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from https://www.flinders.edu.au/ehl/fms/archaeology_files/dig_library/theses/MikeAdamson.pdf

A most bewitching night: The history of Halloween. (2007). Retrieved September 23, 2016, from history.com, http://www.randomhistory.com/2008/09/01_halloween.html

Balmer, A. (2016, September 8). Childhood, family, and the decline of capitalism. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from http://www.marxist.com/childhood-family-and-the-decline-of-capitalism.htm

Conger, C. (2013, October 31). A brief history of sexy Halloween costumes. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cristen-conger/a-brief-history-of-sexy-halloween-costumes_b_4158119.html

Destination America . When did they come? (2005). Retrieved September 22, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/destinationamerica/usim_wn_noflash.html

Dvorack, K. (2010, February 5). National women’s history museum. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from https://www.nwhm.org/blog/a-history-of-halloween/

How to celebrate Halloween without being A sexist. (2013, October 24). Retrieved September 14, 2016, from https://thinkprogress.org/how-to-celebrate-halloween-without-being-a-sexist-91796455bfbe#.hi2h29r57

How Pinterest is Killing Feminism (2012, October 2). Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/how-pinterest-is-killing-_n_1932168.html

History.com (2009). History of Halloween – Halloween. history.com. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween

Ellis, P. B. (1994). The Druids. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Feminists Against Sweatshops. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/

Fraser, I. (2016, September 5). Halloween 2016: Why do children trick-or-treat and what’s with the scary costumes? The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/halloween-2016-why-do-children-trick-or-treat-and-whats-with-the/

Grunke, K. (2008). The Effect of Christianity upon the British Celts. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from Journal of Undergraduate Research, https://www.uwlax.edu/urc/jur-online/PDF/2008/grunke.pdf

Irish witch trials – supernatural Ireland: How fairies influenced a culture. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from https://sites.google.com/site/supernaturaleire/irish-witch-trials

Labarre, S. (2011, October 31). Slutty Halloween costumes: A cultural history. Retrieved September 14, 2016, from http://jezebel.com/5854947/slutty-halloween-costumes-a-cultural-history

McCann, G. (2011). Ireland’s Economic History: crisis and development in the north and south. Pluto Press.

Miller, L. (2005, February 1). Who burned the witches? Retrieved September 22, 2016, from http://www.salon.com/2005/02/01/witch_craze/

Redmond, H. (2015, June 2). Pornographic Halloween. Retrieved September 14, 2016, from http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/31/pornographic-halloween/

Stampler, L. (2014, October 30). The definitive history of sexy Halloween costumes. Retrieved September 14, 2016, from http://time.com/3547024/sexy-halloween-costumes-history/

Tanenbaum, L. (2015, April 15). The truth about Slut-Shaming. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leora-tanenbaum/the-truth-about-slut-shaming_b_7054162.html

The American middle class is losing ground. (2015, December 9). Retrieved September 15, 2016, from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/

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/

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.

 

My Little Archaeopteryx

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The first time I learned about archaeopteryx, it was when I was a child.  I loved dinosaurs. In odd continuity to my adulthood, I had a childhood passion for nonfiction.  One of my favorite books was a dinosaur book with a green glossy cover.  The book contained archaeopteryx towards the beginning.  The fossil was fascinating and beautiful.  Its body arched backwards with the elegance of a ballerina.  The fossil was unique because it had impressions of feathers.  It was a link between birds and dinosaurs.  Although it didn’t feature prominently in my dinosaur book, I committed the name and a few facts to my memory.  In my dinosaur book, archaeopteryx was considered the first bird.

 


Years later, I reconnected with archaeopteryx while I was in London.  In my early 20s, I spent a semester in Ireland.  Afterwards, I explored the UK a little, which involved a few days in London.  I ended up at the Museum of Natural History, which, unknown to me, happened to be hosting an Archaeopteryx exhibit.  I happened upon the special exhibition room with astonishment and delight.  This was it!  The museum had obtained a German specimen of archaeopteryx in 1862, though it usually is not on display.  This fossil was accompanied by a small collection of other German archaeopteryx fossils, along with the Chinese “fuzzy raptor.”  I wandered through the room, awestruck by my good fortune, as the exhibit was scheduled to end later that month.  It is still one of my favorite travel memories and one of the top things I have seen in my lifetime.


Another opportunity to see feathered dinosaurs arose when I was in China, staying with my friend Rose.  Beijing’s Geological Museum of China hosts a collection of feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning province.  Just as archaeopteryx was a groundbreaking fossil discovery of the 1800s, the Liaoning fossils were groundbreaking in the late 1900s (late 1990s to 2000s).  The less easy to remember sinosauropteryx was discovered there in the mid 1990s.  It was the first non-avian dinosaur with filament like feathers.  It was a downy dinosaur.  This discovery implied that all dinosaurs may have had feathers.  Volcanic activity in the area preserved the fossils very well, leaving ashy impressions of feathers.  This has allowed scientists to learn more about the evolution of feathers.  Feathers evolved much earlier than thought and were much more common.  My own impression was that the fossils were not as pretty as my original archaeopteryx.  They were dark and sooty.  Still, the fossils were fascinating and plentiful.  They were also more horrific.  The fossils looked more like mummies or freeze dried birds than bony impressions from a time long ago.  I would still say that this was another one of my top travel highlights.  The Great Wall might be impressive, but what is more impressive than the vastness of Earth’s history and the mysteries of all the life that existed millions of years before our own lives?

 

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I’ve been thinking about getting an archaeopteryx tattoo for a long time.  It has a lot of meaning to me.  It represents my childhood curiosities and hopes for the future.  Like many children I wanted to be a paleontologist.  However, I didn’t know the word for paleontologist, so I mistakenly called it “archeologist.”  I even dressed up in a khaki outfit and brought cow bones to my kindergarten class, for a career themed show-and-tell as an “archeologist.”  No one corrected the error.  Not that being an archeologist wouldn’t be cool.  It also represents some of the neat things I have seen while traveling.  Finally, as an atheist, it has meaning to me as the original archaeopteryx was seen as important evidence of evolution.  In a time when evolution was a new concept, archaeopteryx offered this very clear link between dinosaurs and birds.  All of the feathered dinosaurs have offered important insights about evolution.  And though the new discoveries have made archaeopteryx less important (or just one of many feathered dinosaurs, and certainly not the first), it is still the most recognizable and memorable.

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The main thing that has held me back from getting the tattoo is actually dissatisfaction with my body.  I wanted to get the tattoo on the underside of my arm, but fear that my arms look a little too flabby.  The tattoo was going to be a reward for developing awesome arms.  After about two years of waiting, I decided that I am not going to magically become more toned.  Perhaps I should embrace it.  Like the archaeopteryx, I too have wings.  I have tiny little flabs of chicken wings.  We are one.  Alas, I am flightless… and you, archaeopteryx, may have taken flight.

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