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Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness

H. Bradford

4/8/18

In 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was launched under the Bush administration.  The program allows student loan borrowers to have their loans forgiven if they make 120 qualifying payments on their loans while working full time as a public servant.  This includes work for state, tribal, and federal organizations, 401c non-profit organizations, Americorps, Peace Corps, and some other qualifying non-profits. I did not learn about this program until about two years ago when I was faced with the reality of paying my student loans and spent some time looking through repayment options.  Since the program is not well promoted or advertised, many people are not aware that they may be able to have their loans forgiven. Had I known about it, I could have enrolled years ago and made some headway towards the 120 qualifying payments. This past year marked the 10 year anniversary of the program, which meant that the first cohort of enrollees in the program were qualified for loan forgiveness.  However, many found that they had not been making qualifying payments and would potentially have to start over. In all, only about 1000 of the 7,500 people enrolled in the program are expected to actually qualify for loan forgiveness this year (Lobosco, 2018). It is unknown how many, if any, have actually seen their loans forgiven, but the frustration of many borrowers has resulted in some lawsuits against loan servicers.  I have had my own frustrations and setbacks as I have tried to navigate the program. I will try to share some of the things I have learned along the way so that others can avoid the pitfalls that have thwarted so many borrowers.

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Direct Loans and Consolidation:


One of the criteria for loan forgiveness is that student loans must be Direct Student Loans (which confusingly are also called Direct Plus Loans and Unsubsidized/ Subsidized Stafford Loans.)   Payments on loans that are not Direct Loans (such as federal Perkins Loans and FFEL loans) do not count and so if you spend time making these payments, it will not works towards the 120 or 10 years of payments.  If you decide to consolidate these loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan, you will loose credit on any payments on the Direct Loans you had been making payments on.  Thus, if you make payments on loans that are not Direct Loans or make Direct Loan payments AND then consolidate all of the loans, and the payment clock will reset once the loans are consolidated. Therefore, aside from working at a qualifying institution, it is important to consolidate non-Direct loans into a Consolidated Direct Student Loan early in the payment process.  In general, it is best to consolidate all federal loans early in the payment process (since once they are consolidated into the Direct Consolidation Loan the 120 payments reset).  I made the mistake that some of my loans were consolidated and some were not.   This is because I had consolidated some of them years ago.   I accumulated additional loans which were not part of the consolidation.  Both of these loans were serviced by Navient with qualifying payment plans, which I made payments on for a year.  It  was my belief that some of the loans may not qualify for forgiveness after 10 years of payments.   Because of this error and to make certain all loans were forgiven, I reconsolidated the loans.  Consequently, I lost a year of payments towards my 120 qualifying payments.   Despite the loss of time, I figured it was better to start over and have everything forgiven than reach the end with only some forgiveness.  Thus, if you are entering the program, make sure that your loans are Direct Loans and that you consolidate early on if you have multiple loans!  There are some other entities that try to offer consolidation loans.  If your consolidation loan is through a bank or some other entity than the federal government, it will not qualify for PSLF.

(Originally, I wrongly wrote that only consolidated Direct Loans qualify.  All Direct loans qualify for the program- but in my case, I was unsure if my loans qualified and was making payments on consolidated and non-consolidated loans.  When I consolidated them I started over.  If you are confused on this matter, read the section on eligible loans: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service/questions)


 Qualifying Payments:

 

To qualify for student loan forgiveness, borrowers must make 120 qualifying payments.  This means that only certain payment plans meet the criteria for forgiveness. A person can qualify by making payments under a standard payment plan.  There are also several income driven plans (IDR) which include Pay as you Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay as you Earn (REPAYE), Income Based Repayment (IBR), and Income Contingent Repayment (ICR).  To qualify for IDR, I filled out a request form and submitted it with my income taxes. Generally, if a person qualifies for IDR, the payments are 10-15% of discretionary income, or income above 150% of the poverty line.  Borrowers must also demonstrate some sort of financial hardship, but simply having a high loan balance compared to annual income is sufficient to qualify. Each year, a borrower must submit new tax information and a new request form to qualify for the payment plan.  To apply for income driven repayment, you can visit StudentLoan.gov https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/ibrInstructions.action?source=15SPRRPMT


Not all payment plans are qualifying payment plans.  For instance, some borrowers were on extended or graduated payment plans.  These plans are NOT qualified for forgiveness, as borrowers found out the hard way when they tried to apply for forgiveness this year.  While these plans also lower monthly payments and are also government sponsored payment plans, they do not qualify for the program. However, the federal spending plan passed in March has made $350 million available to borrowers who made ten years of payments under these plans so that they do not have to restart the clock on repayment (Lenza, 2018).  Despite this recent provision, the funds are only available until they have been used up, so, it is best to either apply for these funds immediately if you have been on the wrong payment plan or switch over to a qualifying payment plan. Image result for public service loan forgiveness image Image from: https://blog.iontuition.com/qualifications-public-service-loan-forgiveness/

Employment Verification:

The heart of this program is employment in public service.  It is important to note that this does not have to be continuous employment or even employment at the same job.  For instance, if you make qualifying payments while doing a year of Americorps service, spend a year working at a for profit company, followed by a year of non-profit work, this would still count as two years of qualifying payments, even if the work was interrupted.  Of course, the year at a non-qualifying workplace would not count, even if payments were made on the student loans. Full time is considered an average of 30 hours a week or more, so it is possible to be a “part-time” worker in terms of hours and benefits, but still be considered full time by PSLF standards.


The program does not require individuals to submit employment verification each year in order to qualify in the end.  When I applied for income driven repayment, I checked a box stating that I worked in a non-profit. I figured this was sufficient for their tracking purposes.  It is…and…it isn’t. While a person COULD work at qualifying workplaces for the duration of the ten years, then, at the end of the 120 payments submit an employment verification form to prove this, it is better to submit this annually for a number of reasons.  1.) This program is under attack by politicians, so, officially enrolling in the program is a good way of getting grandfathered in should the program end. 2.) Your employer may not qualify- so it is better to know sooner than later. 3.) It is a way to keep track of progress towards the 120 payments and avoid any mistakes that will cost time and money by delaying forgiveness.


If you wish to submit an employer verification form, here is is.   Simply have your employer fill out the required parts, then you can mail or fax it to the Department of Education.  But, beware, submitting this form will set in motion a series of unfortunate events….


https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/public-service-employment-certification-form.pdf

Changing Loan Servicers: A Series of Unfortunate Events

While there are many good reasons to immediately submit the employment verification form, there is one major downside.  The major downside is that this will switch your loan servicer to FedLoan, which is the most unpopular and poorly rated loan government servicer.  The government has several student loan servicers including Great Lakes, Navient, Nelnet, and Fedloan. Despite the fact that they all oversee student loans for the government, only FedLoan is used for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  This means that once you submit your employment verification form, your loans will be transferred from your servicer to FedLoan. FedLoan has poor reviews for customer service, miscalculating IDR, delayed processing of payments, slow processing time for paperwork, etc.


I submitted my employment verification form in January.  In the meantime, I continued to make payments with Navient.  It took four months for the loan to finally be switched over to FedLoan.  And, when it finally switched over, I was given less than a week’s notice that my payment would be due!  Not only was my payment with FedLoan due in a week…it was for the full amount…as the income based repayment plan was not transferred with the loan.  While FedLoan had no problem transferring my banking information for automated payments from Navient along with the due date of Navient’s payment, the servicer was completely incapable of transferring my payment plan, even though I had renewed the payment plan in December.  The payment plan was not set to expire for eight months. Worse, I was expected to make a nearly immediate payment of over $1000. Yes, this was a nightmare.


To navigate this disaster, I submitted a renewal for my income driven plan on the same day that I learned my loan had been transferred.  This form can be submitted electronically on FedLoan’s site. Borrowers are also able to submit tax forms electronically on their website.  Despite my quick action, I read that FedLoan is notoriously slow and inept at calculating IDR. Some borrowers have had to wait three months to have their income driven repayment plans approved.  In the meantime, borrowers are expected to make full payments. I also called the next day and spoke with a representative, wherein I explained my situation and the surprise at the sudden high payment.  I was able to defer my loans for several months while the IDR is being processed. I actually asked to continue to make payments for the same amount that I made with Navient for this duration, but was told that these would not count as qualifying payments for PSLF.  Although I was approved for temporary forbearance, to make 100% certain that my checking account is not debited the full amount of the loan, I suspended payments for the month. This can also be done electronically on FedLoan’s website. Now, I am hoping that with this multifaceted approach, I can avoid some of the frustrations other borrowers have experienced.  My main piece of advice is to be observant and proactive.


I am still in the early stages of my relationship with FedLoan.  With time, FedLoan should provide me with a report on my payment progress towards the 120 payments.  I have not yet received the report, but I have read that some borrowers have found errors in how this was calculated.  Again, it seems like FedLoan is the shit show of loan servicers. But, I will say that the representative I spoke to was helpful and my forbearance was processed within 24 hours.  I also received notice yesterday that my IDR was processed. This means that it was processed within four days. While the new payment plan has not yet gone into effect, perhaps this is a kernel of hope that FedLoan may not be absolutely awful. Image result for fedloan

Other Information:


Currently, borrowers who do not work at work places which qualify for PSLP can still qualify for loan forgiveness.  Borrowers who make qualifying payments on their undergraduate student loans for a MERE 20 years can have their loans forgiven.  And, if you have debt from graduate school, you can see financial freedom after 25 years of qualifying payments! Hope springs eternal as there is the possibility that debt can be forgiven by retirement.  If it is not, delinquent student loan payments can be taken out of social security benefits (up to 15% of benefit). It is important to note that any student loan debt that is forgiven by the government is counted as taxable income.  It is also important to note that at this time, PSLF debt forgiveness is tax exempt (but 20 and 25 year forgiveness under extended payment plans is not). One final thing to be aware of is that marriage means that Income Driven Repayment plans are calculated with both incomes.  This changes payment amounts and may bar some people from qualifying for these plans. Thus, another piece of student loan repayment advice is to never get married.

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Conclusion:


Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness can be frustrating to say the least.  I am thankful for my education, but certainly wish that education did not require taking on such debt.  In exchange for my education, I am certainly willing to provide a service to society. Though, rather than creating debt that is escapable only through death, we should provide free public education from pre-k through Ph.d.  For those who are passionate about lifelong learning, there should also be free or low cost, varied, and plentiful continuing education programs, certificate programs, and trainings. We should all be passionate lifelong learners.  Instead, education is becoming increasingly private, expensive, and market driven- qualities that are anathema to creating a population with a zeal for expanding their human experience through learning. The present system is flawed in many ways.  At a basic level, it is bad for capitalism since it thwarts the reproduction of labor. If people cannot marry because of debt or must pay student debt into old age, there is a diminished ability to ensure the sustenance and continuation of labor. While I have no sympathy for capitalism’s continuation, the student debt system will inevitably cause crisis in capitalism as workers are increasingly burdened by loans.  PSLF is a small, relatively unknown escape hatch from student loan burden (which still requires 10 years of payments and a lot of hoops). But, for many people, it relieves them of the worst burdens of their debt as they provide various services to society. More must be done. This modest program must be defended, but beyond this, we should demand forgiveness of all crushing educational debt and quality education for all.

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Image from:  https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/senate-bill-would-provide-student-loan-debt-relief-070617.html

 

Sources: (not formatted correctly…)

https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/articles/2018-04-04/how-student-loan-borrowers-can-requalify-for-public-service-loan-forgivenesshttp:

https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/02/pf/college/public-service-student-loan-forgiveness/index.html

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Capitalism and Witches

Capitalism and Witches

 H.  Bradford

10/14/17

The following was written for the Feminist Justice League as part of a monthly “Feminist Frolic.”  These events are a way for local feminist activists to get together and educate each other on a feminist topic while enjoying the outdoors.  This was written for an event wherein activists gathered to learn more about the history of witches followed by a fall themed night hike to a cemetery.  


Since the advent of the feminist movement, there has been increased interest in the history of witches.  In contrast to earlier scholars on the topic who often approached this history with gender blindness, feminist scholars have sought to connect the history of witches to larger issues of gender based oppression by framing the persecution of witches as organized violence targeted specifically against women.  Thus, over the past few decades there have been numerous books and articles which have explored different facets of witches and their place in women’s history.  It would take months if not years to do justice to this vast and interesting topic.  Regrettably, this paper only scratches the surface of this history by highlighting some of the research on the topic.   With that said, although there are debates on the actual numbers of people who were killed or tried for witchcraft, there were at least 110,000 people tried in the Americas and Europe between 1450 and 1750.  Historians have many different interpretations of the causes of these witch hunts, ranging from hallucinations, religious fundamentalism, to economic instability (Thompson, 2003).  However, one of the most intriguing arguments regarding the cause of the persecution of witches is the development of capitalism itself, which coincided with the dates wherein witch hunts were at their height.  Thus, while there are many ways to approach the topic of witches, the focus of this piece is to understand the economic roots of the persecution of witches.


Female Power in Early Europe:

To understand witches (in European context), it is important to go deep into European history.  While the world today is steeped in male power, it was not necessarily always so.  Feminist anthropologists have argued that women once enjoyed more power and status than they do today, though there is caution in going as far as to say Europe was once purely matriarchal.  One of the more classic texts to make this argument was Raine Esler’s (1987) book, The Chalice and the Blade.  I read Esler’s book over a decade ago, but it was eye-opening and one of those wonderfully memorable works that opens one’s mind to the possibilities of history.  Esler (1987) posited that for 30,000 years the women of Europe were important and equal members of society and that in general, European societies were more egalitarian.  One example of the evidence of the importance of women was the discovery of Venus figurines.  Venus figurines are artifacts made of bone, clay, ceramic, stone, ivory, etc. that have been found all over Europe and date from 11,000-35,000 years ago.  Esler (1987)  argued that these figures may have represented a fertility cult or fertility goddess, as their sexual characteristics were exaggerated and some of the figurines appear to be pregnant.    She also argued that Neolithic settlements in Turkey, such as Catal Huyuk and Hacilar do not have striking differences in the sizes of houses or the size of gifts used with burials.  In all, Neolithic art was centered around nature and fertility and burials were largely equal.  The book argues that European societies based upon sharing relationships, with an aversion to warfare, and gender equality were ended about 7000 years ago when nomadic Indo-Europeans spread across Europe, bringing warfare, male gods, and patriarchal social relationships.  European history since then has been the gradual destruction of the remnants of its more female centered early history.  Thus, early female goddesses from more matrifocal societies were turned into villainous, evil characters in European folklore or religions until they were wiped out entirely.  A particular example used by Esler (1987) was the Minoan snake goddess.  In Minoan culture, during the Bronze age on the island of Crete, women played an important role in society as administrators, priestesses, traders, and other occupations.  The Minoans also worshiped more female goddesses than male gods, including a Snake Goddess which appears in various figurines on Crete dating back as far as 5700 BC.  The Snake Goddess is believed to represent fertility and the earth and other goddesses associated with snakes or snake cults existed in the Near East.  Elser (1987) believed that snakes and snake goddesses were later vilified or turned into evil figures to usurp the power of women in society.

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There has been a backlash against the hypothesis that early human societies worshiped goddesses, fertility, were more egalitarian, and matriarchal.  For feminists, viewing patriarchy as a particular system that is less than 10,000 years old can be empowering because it creates space to imagine a world wherein women were not always oppressed.  In this viewpoint, most of human history was not a story of gender oppression.  It is absolutely true that we will never have all of the archaeological evidence necessary to reconstruct the many diverse societies that existed tens of thousands of years ago.  It is also true that purely matriarchal societies are not common.  The Mosuo ethnic group near Tibet features female heads of household and female lines of inheritance, with a mother goddess and ancestor veneration.  The Minangkabau ethnic group in Indonesia is the largest matrilineal society in the world, wherein inheritance is through the female line of descendants and women are the head of the household.  However, there are no examples of matriarchy in the sense that there have or are societies wherein women dominate society in the same way men dominate society in patriarchy.  Though, our ability to imagine what female power may look like is stunted by our experiences of patriarchal oppression.  Still, it is impossible to piece together complex societies with what little remains of them.  The Venus figurines may not represent goddess worship or admiration of fertility.  They could represent objects to curse women or fat shame them for all we know.  However, we can see by looking back at history and even looking at the world today, that there are differences between societies and that the oppression of women varies.

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Marxists approach history through historical materialism.  That is, from a Marxist perspective, societies develop upon a base structure consisting of economic conditions.  For most of human history, humans were hunters and gatherers.  The nature of hunting and gathering economics means that there is little social inequality because there is little accumulation of surplus.  Hunter and gathering societies tend to have smaller populations and less specialization in roles or occupations due to the fact that specialization requires enough surplus to liberate some members of society from basic sustenance work.  Thus, in Ancient Egypt, where there were settled societies, slave labor, and agriculture, there were also people who specialized in working as priests, bakers, scribes, or any number of professions that did not require direct procurement of food or the means of survival.  To Marxists, economic conditions shape social conditions such as class relationships, gender inequalities, religious beliefs, and relationships to nature.  Thus, while we can’t know what Europe was like tens of thousands of years ago, we do know that societies are built upon a particular economic foundations.  Societies with different economic bases have different ways of treating women.  For instance, many Native American groups were matrilineal.  Colonialists particularly noted this among the Iroquois, among which when men married they joined the wife’s family or when they separated, the children remained with the mother.  Women were also involved in tribal decision making through councils of senior women who could appoint male leaders and attend meetings.  Because women provided an average of 75% of the calories consumed among Native Americans, they had a socially important role of providing the means to survival.  Native American women were not treated as property by men, had the right to divorce, and the means to support themselves.  While Native American beliefs are varied, many feature important female figures, especially in creation stories (Mays, 2004).   Women were treated differently among these societies because they were not based upon private property, amassing capital, or class inequalities.  Before Europe colonized the world, imposing Christianity and patriarchy, it colonized itself, over centuries and in various ways, until its societies became unrecognizable from its earlier hunter gatherer or agrarian traits.   The oppression of women is rooted in the social and economic function that sexism plays in supporting systems of inequality.  Patriarchy oppresses women as a way to control their reproductive power, support other social inequalities, control their labor, and ensure the continuity of private property.  Thus, understanding the persecution of witches is connected to understanding the larger economic and social conditions of patriarchy itself.


The Evolution of the Witch:

The hypothesis that women once had more power and importance in European societies is evident in the understanding of what a witch actually is.  Max Dashu’s (2016) book Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion, 700-1100 provides a detailed history of early origins of witches.  According to Dashu (2016), various European cultures had the notion of powerful women who controlled the fate of humans.  Often these mythical women were grouped as a trio and involved in weaving the future of each human.  In Greek mythology these women were called Moirai.  In Slavic mythology they were called Suddice and in Roman mythology they were called Parcae.  In Norse mythology, they were called the Norns.  Across Europe, from Lithuania, Ireland, and Italy to as far east as Tadjikistan, there were variations of the myth of three spinning women.  In Latin, they were called Fata or fatae, translating to fates.  The words fae and fairy actually come from fata, so prior to the concept of tiny winged women, fairy or fae was more connected to a woman with supernatural control of fate.  The three Fates each had a name.  In Saxon, the oldest of the sister name was Wuro.  In German it was Wurt and in Anglo it was Wyrd.  The word “weird” in English, originally meant destiny.  In old English, werding meant worship and a witch was a “weird women” which was roughly understood as a woman with control over destiny.  And, the “weird sisters” in MacBeth, which were portrayed as witches, represents a shift in how “weird women” were understood.  In the play, the women certainly have some knowledge of the future, but their “weirdness” is not their understanding of destiny, but the oddness of being haggish women using body parts in a cauldron.  The word witch itself may come from the German word wikke or Anglo-Saxon word, wiccian, which both mean wise woman.  The main point that Dashu (2016) makes is that at one time in European history, the prototype of witches were wise women or women with control over fates.  This original understanding was warped over time into the more modern notion that witches were evil women, with dark powers, and an alliance with the Devil.  In fact, a significant turning point in this understanding was the 1600s.  The example of MacBeth and the change of the word “weird” is indicative of that pivot in history, a point that will be explored later.

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The Greeks, Norse, Slavs, etc. whom Dashu (2016) wrote about were all patriarchal societies.  However, these patriarchal societies had enclaves of female power in the form of deities and female spiritual leaders.  Perhaps these bastions of female power were the remains of much earlier female centered societies.  What is know is that witches were once understood as wise women and the process of villainizing witches was slow and uneven.  In some cases, the three sisters were Christianized, such as the Three Sisters, a trio of Belgian Saints and Las Tres Marias-the three spinning Mary’s in Italy and Spain.  Throughout the early middle ages, it was common for people to associate weaving with supernatural power, just as the Fates used their weaving skills to weave destiny.   For instance, there is a story in the Annals of St. Neots in 1105 which mentions a magical banner that shows a raven in times of war.  It was common for various cultures to use knots for protection.  Celtic crosses and manuscripts feature knots, another example of the Christianization of pagan beliefs, and the Russian word for wizard, vzol’nik means knot tier.  Before 800 CE, the punishment for witches was flogging or fines.   In 800, Charlemagne decreed that heathens and diviners could be enslaved or imprisoned, death to those who would not convert, as well as death to anyone who would not fast for lent.  In 845 CE, Ramirol, a Spanish King was said to have burned a large number of sorcerers, Jews, and astrologers.  In 873 CE, the Frankish King Charles the Bald is also said to have engaged in a witch hunt.  The first European witch whose name and execution was recorded was Gerberga, who was killed for befriending the step-mother or Prince Lothair and helping her mary King Louis with a spell.  In 853, an unnamed serf woman was killed for poisoning the daughter of a lord,  Engilpercht, who was then awarded land for his loss.  In 800, a Tyrolean Bishop decreed that if someone practices witchcraft, they should have their head shaved for the first offense, have their tongue and nose cut off for the second offense, then execution or enslavement for the third offense.  Some of the worse laws, and certainly some of the most clearly gendered laws were from Spain.  In 1176 CE the Forum Turdii Code of Aragon stated that a male witch should be banished after having a cross shaved in his head, whereas a female witch should be burned.  Death by fire was the punishment for ending a pregnancy, leaving a husband, or having sex with a Muslim or Jew.  Women could prove their innocence through the Trial by Iron, in which they had to hold a fire heated four foot rod of iron as wide as their palm and thick as two fingers, eight steps without dropping it.  Alfred the Great called for death or exile to unchaste women and witches, but there was no law against male promiscuity.  Across Europe, the notion of witches and whores were paired together.  For instance, in 1030, the Archbishop of Trier accused a nun of making him a pair of magical shoes that would cause him to lust after her.  For her lustful magic, she was banished (Dashu, 2016).


It isn’t know how many witches were killed between 800 -1100, since records were not always kept or preserved.  It can generally be said that among peasants, there were many remnants of paganism in the form of fortune telling, herbalism, or even worship of herbs through song or chants.  The control of women’s sexuality through its connection to witchcraft is a perennial trend in patriarchy.  Patriarchy is based upon private property and controlling women’s sexuality is a way to control property by ensuring the its is passed on through male lineages.  Thus, using witch accusations to control women’s sexuality comes as little surprise.  While the persecution of witches has a long history in Europe and certainly spiked under certain rulers or in certain times, full scale witch hunting did not come into being until 1500s.


According to Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch (2012) in the 5 th through 7th centuries serfdom began in Europe after the breakdown of slave systems.  The lot of a serf was better than a slave, inasmuch as serfs were not punished as much as slaves, were given plots of land, and were granted access to commons, or commonly held land such as forests, pastures, or lakes which were open to public use.  Of course, the lives of serfs were not that great and over the course of the feudal centuries there were various peasant revolts and heretic movements.  Movements such as the flagellants, Bogomils, cathars, and millenarians are examples of heretic movements that Federici (2012) framed as liberation theology of their day.  There were also less religiously based uprisings, such as when in 1377 clothing workers in Ypres took up arms against their employer, the Peasant wars in Germany, or the 1379 Ciompi Revolt wherein workers briefly seized power in Florence.  Women participated in and sometimes led peasant revolts.  Thus, the first “women’s movement” might be seen as some of these early expressions of resistance to feudalism.  The Black Death, which killed 30-40% of the population of Europe created the social space for peasants to advocate for themselves due to labor shortages.  This resulted in rent strikes and uprisings.  Generally speaking, between 1350-1500 prices went down, rents went down, and work days decreased.  To curtail the power of peasants, something had to change to shift the balance of power.  This shift was the development of capitalism. Image result for florence workers uprising ciompi revolt

Witches and the Advent of Capitalism:

Federici (2012) noted that capitalism’s early development was made possible by such things as the exploration of the New World, the enclosure or privatization of commons, slave trade, the development of workhouses and systems of mass incarceration, and witch hunts.  These are all characteristics of what Marxists call primitive accumulation.  Primitive accumulation is the process by which the initial capital was generated to make capitalism possible.  For instance, for capitalism to work, there needs to be capital, which can include such things as land, buildings, raw materials, and labor.  Within feudalism, peasants were able to obtain the means to support themselves through small plots of land and use of commons, such as hunting, fishing, or gathering from commonly held land.   This commonly held land was also a place for peasants to meet and even organize against injustices in the world.  Any modern activist can surely relate to the lack of free meeting spaces to utilize for public events, which represents an often overlooked facet of what a lack of commons in capitalist society means.  Peasants were evicted from their land because capitalism depends upon workers who support themselves with a wage.  People who can support themselves do not require wage labor.  Thus, in order to turn peasants into workers who relied upon a wage, common land had to be privatized, rents had to be increased, and people needed to be evicted from their land.  At the same time, not working had to be criminalized.  This resulted in the passage of vagrancy laws, which criminalized begging, loitering, or non-work.  This process of primitive accumulation increased starvation and malnutrition. In the mid 16th century, population increased, food production decreased, and inflation was up across Europe  (Barstow, 1994).  Meat, oil, salt, wine, and beer disappeared from the menus of common people during the 16th century.  At the same time, work days lengthened and incomes deceased.  It was not until the middle of the 1800s that wages returned to before the Enclosure movement (Knight, 2009).

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The first witch hunts coincided with the birth of capitalism.  For instance, the Malleus Maleficarum, the famous guidebook for exterminating witches, was written in 1482,  In 1532, witchcraft became punishable by death in England.  At the same time that land was being privatized and “idleness” criminalized, Federici (2012) argued that there were important changes to how women were treated which also played an important role in the early development of capitalism.  The 16th century saw severe fines passed against women who used contraceptives, engaged in infanticide, or sought abortion.  These became capital crimes.  In the 16th-17th centuries, the number one crime that women were executed for was witchcraft, but the number two crime was infanticide.   During this time period, midwifery was banned and folk healers were persecuted (Federici, 2012).  Sollee (2017) noted that in 1556 the French Parliament ordered women to register their pregnancies and to have a witness watch their deliveries.  A woman could be penalized if their infant was stillborn or died after birth and there were no witnesses.  Judge Henry Boquet of Burgundy claimed that all witches were abortionists (Barstow, 1994).  He pronounced over 600 death sentences against witches and sometimes had them burned alive.  Witch hunting was a way to control women’s reproduction.  Witches themselves were often punished publically, through burning, hanging, or torture.  Witches were punished in front of their community, but also in front of their daughters.  The daughters of witches were also subjected to punishment.  By making witch hunting a public spectacle, all women were collectively punished and cowed into submission to the new social order of capitalist patriarchy.  Within Feudalism, women often worked together sewing, harvesting, tending to animals, or washing in common.  This solidarity between women was broken as witch hunting cultivated the fear, suspicion, and isolation necessary to divide women from one another and relegate them to atomized households (Knight, 2009).

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The transition to capitalism saw other changes to the status of women as well.  In the 16th century, women were barred from highly skilled work and relegated to part time, low investment, home related trades.  Women, unlike men, were allowed to take up more than one trade, but this was indicative of the devaluation of their work.  In the 1500s, women were also forced out of guilds (Barstow, 1994).  While women certainly worked, their public work was devalued, as evidenced from their ban from guilds and professions.  Of course, women’s work is still devalued, as evident in the wage gap between men and women but also the amount of unpaid labor that women perform.  Within capitalism, women are tasked with the social reproduction of labor.  This means that women are supposed to reproduce the next generation of workers but also care for the current generation of workers by taking care of their health, cooking, cleaning, or tending to the household.  Thus, control of women’s reproduction is a way to ensure the production of more laborers and their relegation to the household and denigration of their work ensures that women provide the free service of upkeeping capitalism.  Witch hunting served the purpose of both controlling women’s reproduction and collectively punishing women into submission.

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The Peasant Wedding-Pieter Bruegel 1567

It is no wonder then that Barstow (1994) noted that witch hunts did not simply target women, they targeted elderly, single, and poor women.  Barstow (1994) cited many examples of women who lived in the margins of society as beggars or widows who were accused of witchcraft.  For instance, two impoverished families living in the Pendle Forest selling trinkets and charms were accused of witchcraft in 1612.  The head of the Demdike family was an 80 year old woman who was believed by locals to have practiced witchcraft for 50 years and the head of the the Chattox family was also an elderly widow.   A dispute between the two families was taken to court, wherein Old Demdike’s granddaughter accused her of witchcraft along with the Chattox family, resulting in the executions of 10 people as witches.  The complicated story involved a family fued, but also overzealous judges and a landlord, Robber Nutter who accused Anne Red Fearne of the Chattox family after he failed to seduce her and threatened her with eviction.  In another example, Margaret Flower of Rutland England was keeper of poultry who was fired by the earl that she worked for in 1613.  After the firing, the earl’s son got sick and several years later, his eldest son died.  He attributed this to witchcraft and had Margaret and her two daughters arrested.  Margaret died en route to prison and the two daughters were hanged.  Barstow (1994) observed that on average, European victims of witch hunts were over the age of 50.  In New England, women who had inherited land were more likely to be accused of witchcraft.  Single women and postmenopausal women were also more likely to be accused.  Women with outspoken personalities were also more likely be accused and scolding actually became a crime in Britain.  The punishment was that a woman could be put in a scold’s bridle, an iron cage with spikes in the tongue.  While upper class women were sometimes targeted, it was often an act of revenge.  So, sexism, ageism, and class conflicts were compounded in witch hunts.  This supports Federici’s (2012) argument that witch hunts supported the foundation of capitalism, because targeting outspoken women enforced submission to the new order.  Targeting poor women who were beggars or outsiders to society enforced the virtue of work and the victimization of poor.  Even today, the poor are often blamed for their lot in life.  Targeting women without male heirs or widows also served to keep property out of the control of women.


Although Barstow’s (1994) book Witchcraze does not connect capitalism with witch hunting as clearly as Federici’s (2012) work, it supports some aspects of her hypothesis.  Barstow (1994) argued that the persecution of witches coincided with changes in systems of governance.  For instance, in the 16th century, governments became more powerful and centralized, with higher tax rates.  At the same time, secular courts had been developing since the 15th century, often based upon inquisitional courts of the 13th century.  This transition also marked a change from punitive justice, which consisted of community administered justice to less personal state administered justice consisting of fines, punishment, or execution.  The changes that Barstow (1994) outlined made witch hunting possible, but also represents a shift towards more secular, rational institutions which are characteristic of capitalism.   This is important to note since witch hunts are often framed as religious extremism, the scientific and secular minds of the day participated in and supported witch hunts.  For instance, both Hobbes and Bodin participated in witch hunts.  Most witch trials were conducted by secular courts and both Protestants and Catholics used the same arguments against witches (Federici, 2012).  While the sort of evidence used against witches, the notion of witches, the trials and punishments, etc. seem wildly irrational, the phenomenon of witch hunts was rational inasmuch as it was conducted by increasingly rational, or standardized and predictable state apparatus.  This same state apparatus made possible the centralization of power necessary for such elements of capitalism such as national banks, stock exchanges, overseeing the appropriation of commons, and the enforcement of property rights.   Federici (2012) also noted that the Enlightenment or Scientific revolution is sometimes credited with ending witch hunting, but posits that witch hunting ended when it became more of a nuisance to those in power than an effective tool in terrorizing women into submission.


Federici’s (2012) argument is both confounded and supported by the fact that Barstow (1994) found that some areas of Europe had higher numbers of deaths than others and some areas engaged in witch hunts earlier than others.  For instance, England was the first capitalist country but not the earliest or largest scale site of witch hunting.  In England, primitive accumulation began in the 15th century, but it was not until the 17th century that 70-75% of the land was under the control of landlords.  Marxists argue that capitalism began in England because that was where landlords were first successful at evicting peasants from common lands. The peak of the witch hunts in England were in the 1640s-60s which is precisely the same time that the English state transitioned from supporting the traditional rights of lords to supporting the development of capitalism following the English Civil War.  Tenant farming became common along with state sponsored enclosures (Poynton, 2011).  Most witch trials in England occurred where land was enclosed but where land remained public, there were no witch hunts.  In the highlands of Scotland and Ireland, where there was slower development towards capitalism, there were no witch hunts (Federici, 2012).  Nevertheless, it is confounding that England did not have the most witch hunts nor the earliest.  It had some significant witch hunts such as the Pendle witches killed in 1612 and the witch hunts conducted by Matthew Hopkins between 1645-1663 which resulted in 300 executions.  More research is needed to explore more precisely why England, the first capitalist country, was not the country with the first or largest scale witch hunts.  It can only be said that its witch hunts did coincide with a shift towards a more state driven effort towards  primitive accumulation.


The rest of Europe was slower to enclose land and developed capitalism later.  According to Barstow (1994) German speaking parts of Europe had the most deaths from witch hunts, accounting for ½ to 3/4s of the deaths.  Catholic areas of Germany put more witches to death, with 900 witches executed by the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg and 600 put to death by the bishop of Bamberg alone.  But, both Protestants and Catholics vigorously persecuted witches.  German speaking regions were the center of witch hunts, but also experienced the strongest peasant movements and the harshest persecution of heretics and Jews.  In the 16th century there were some enclosure laws, but the project to privatize lands was not complete until the 1800s. Barstow (1994) suggested that the Germanic witch hunts were a continuation of earlier persecutions and the newest form of social control.  However, this answer is unsatisfying because it does not connect the hunts to capitalist development itself.  German speaking areas were not centralized into a singular state, but numerous principalities, baronies, and smaller political units under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire.  Nevertheless, the breakdown of Feudalism in Germany was particularly painful.   100,000-300,000 peasants were killed in the Great Peasant Revolt that began in 1524 and lasted about a year.  It was the largest mass uprising in Europe until the French revolution.  Protestant reformation also began in Germany in 1517 and resulted in various social conflicts, including the 30 Years War which began in  began in 1618 and cost the lives of up to eight million people living in central Europe, broke up the Holy Roman Empire, and was ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, which set the groundwork for modern secular, pluralistic, nation states.  Witch hunting was far more extensive in German speaking areas than anywhere else in Europe and certainly these 16th and 17th social upheavals played a role, even if the economy itself was not advancing towards capitalism at the same pace as England.

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Image of the 30 Years War

France was the number two area in Europe or witch hunts (Barstow, 1994).  Yet, property rights in France were complicated.  The Feudal state in France collected taxes directly from peasants and sometimes competed with lords for their surplus.  Sometimes the state intervened at the expense of lords on behalf of peasants and often made it difficult for lords to evict peasants or obtain vacant lands (Poynton, 2011).  Scotland also had many witch hunts, resulting in around 4000 deaths, whereas Ireland had very few.  Some areas experienced witch hunts later, such as Scandinavia where witch hunting peaked in the 1670s or Hungary, where it peaked in the 1720s (Barstow, 1994).  The timeline and scale of witch hunts does not exactly follow the timeline of capitalist development in Europe, but as a general rule countries which developed capitalism sooner tended to have witch hunts sooner.  It would be useful if Federici (2012) would have accounted for these differences.  It can only be said that during the witch hunts many European societies were dealing with the contradictions of Feudalism.  The birth of capitalism was not linear or inevitable and various societies had different elements of capitalism such as merchants, lending, industry, wage labor, markets, rents, speculation, etc.  It is only in England where landlords were able to appropriate the land of peasants that capitalism got the spark that it needed to take off.  The witch hunts could be framed as a part of the general growing pain that many transitioning economies were facing, though not necessarily specific to primitive accumulation.


Witches and witch hunts are a women’s history and gender issues.  Victims of witch hunts were mostly women, who were subjected to male power in the form of male accusers, male juries, male religious leaders, male dominated state power, etc.  On average  80% of the people accused of witchcraft were women, though in some areas the numbers were higher.  For instance, in France and England, 92% of the accused were women.  However, in other areas, more men than women were accused, such as Finland, Estonia, and Russia.  The fact that some men were killed has been used by some historians to challenge the notion that witch hunts were gender driven acts of violence.  For instance, Thompson (2003) noted that although the majority of the victims of witch hunts were women, but ¼ to ⅕ were men.  There are some areas of Europe such as Iceland, Burgundy, and Normandy wherein the majority of victims were men (Thompson, 2003).  It is true that in some areas, men were persecuted in greater numbers than women.  Nevertheless, that in the majority of Europe, it was a gender based persecution.  This is very similar to how although there are male victims of domestic violence in today’s society, the vast majority are female and violence against women plays a role in the systemic oppression of women.  Still, male victims require some explanation.  In Russia, 60% of the accused were men and 40% were women.  In general, there was less persecution of witches and no cases of harsh torture, no children persecuted, and no spectral evidence used in courts.  Witnesses were allowed in the defense of witches and there were never multiple burnings of witches.  At the same time, Russia was not any less sexist than the rest of Europe.  The Orthodox church was repressive of women and sex negative and Russian society had a high tolerance for violence against women (Barstow, 1994).  It is also important to note that although Russia had fewer witch hunts and a different gender dynamic, it was experiencing social change in the form of the consolidation of the Russian state.  Ivan IV or Ivan the Terrible came to power in 1547 and centralized the Russian empire by naming himself tsar of all Russia, by creating a secret police to terrorize other nobility, by conquering various khanates and territories, and by giving positions of power to the emerging commercial class.  He also encouraged men in Russia to beat their wives and distributed propaganda that promoted domestic violence.  Still, witch hunts remained a mostly Western European phenomenon.  If sexism cannot be blamed for the differences in gender makeup of witches, then there must be other answers.  Again, one answer may be the development of capitalism.  Areas which had more men who were persecuted or fewer women, were often less developed in terms of their transition to capitalism.  Finland, Estonia, Iceland, and Russia were all on the periphery of early capitalism.

Image result for ivan the terrible

 

Ivan the Terrible by Viktor Vanetsov-1897

 

Witches Today:

Witch hunting peaked in Europe in the 1600s and declined in the 1700s.  The 1734 Witchcraft Act of Britain decriminalized witchcraft.  While some professional fortune tellers were persecuted, the punishment became less severe.  Witch hunting itself was abolished in 1736 in England, in 1776 in Poland, and 1682 in France.  Maria Theresa, the Queen of Bohemia and Hungary and Archduchess of Austria outlawed witch hunting in the late 1700s.  By the 1800s, witch hunts in Europe were rare.  Despite the end of witch hunting in Europe, there are many places in the world today where women continue to be persecuted as witches.  For instance, women in Papua New Guinea are still murdered for accusations of witchcraft.  In 2008, there were 50 people killed for sorcery, most of whom were women.  In Ghana, women accused of witchcraft are widows who are punished with exile to witch villages.  Those accused are often elderly women and widows with families who are looking to take over their property (Backe, 2014).   In remote parts of Northeast India, over 2000 people have been killed in the last 15 years for witchcraft.  Most of the victims are women who have been blamed for bad harvests or illness, but many have been accused due to land disputes (Singh, 2016).  2000 is a high number as it is greater than the number of witches killed in France, the British Isles, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe respectively.   ISIS beheaded two women and their husbands in 2015 for using magic as medicine.  In Saudi Arabia witchcraft is a criminal offense and in 2006, Fazwa Falih was sentenced to beheading for using magic that caused impotence.  She was sentenced on the basis of one man’s testimony but died in prison before she was executed.  The entire sad story is very similar to the stories of European women who lingered and died in jail before execution and the absurdity of the accusations and evidence used against them.  Witch hunts also happen in Nepal, which target low-caste women.  Around the world, women, but especially poor women, continue to be persecuted as witches.


Federici (2012) argued that witch hunting continues in the so called developing world because this is where capitalism is still in transition.  While capitalism is certainly a global system that impacts the furthest corners of the world, the process of proletarianization is not complete.  That is, there are still places in the world where people support themselves through gathering, subsistence farming, and use of common lands.  At the same time, institutions and agents of globalization put pressure on every country and region of the world to become a part of capitalism.  An example how capitalism continues to privatize the commons is how Monsanto has sought to patent the genes of crops that have traditionally been grown by subsistence farmers.  By patenting the crops, the farmers must buy the seeds or face fines.  Because farmers must buy seeds, they must somehow earn money to grow what they once grew from saving or sharing the seeds.  This forces them to become a part of the economy as consumers, but also as workers.  Governments and international organizations adopt or promote policies which allow international corporations to restructure the economy towards the interests of global capitalism.  For instance, in 2013 in Colombia, peasants went on strike and blocked roads in protest of new laws that outlawed exchanging seeds.  In 2011, the government of Colombia actually destroyed 70 tons of “illegal” rice and raided the trucks and warehouses of rice farmers.  The places in the world which continue to persecute women for witchcraft are often the very same places where people are still in the process of being forced into the capitalism.


While witch hunts have ended in more industrialized countries of the world, the idea of witches continue to be a tool of sexist oppression.  For instance, in Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, by Kristen Sollee (2017) noted that Hillary Clinton was often compared to a witch by her political opponents.  By calling her a witch, she was associated with something feminine, evil, ugly, and old.  It was a gendered insult.  Certainly, Hillary Clinton could and should be critiqued for her support of neoliberal policies that promote America’s agenda for a more violent and impoverished world.  However, by calling her a witch, it sent the message to all women that it is not alright to be public, old, outspoken, and female.  Sollee (2017) also made the argument that the word slut today is similar to witches in the past.  They are similar because victims of sexual assault are blamed for the crime and it is a label that only applies to women.  Sluts are like witches because they are persecuted for seeking control of their reproduction.  While witches have become a part of popular culture, actual witches are still stigmatized in society.  According to the General Social Survey in 2016, just over 70% of Americans identified as Christian.  Traditionally, witchcraft has been viewed as evil by Christians.  The Bible very famously states that “Thou Shall Not Suffer a Witch to Live,” in Exodus 22:18.  Suffice to say that a majority of the U.S. population comes from a religious background that is uneasy if not hostile towards witches.  Furthermore, the idea of a witch is used as an insult and often a negative comparison.  For example, a Texas Preacher named Lance Wallnau said that the Women’s March in January 2017 was the result of witchcraft and the work of the devil.  This comparison was meant to delegitimize the protest and frame expressions of female power and solidarity as evil.  Pat Robertson said, “feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”  It is interesting that witchcraft is connected to feminism, but also associated with capitalism and abortion.  This trifecta of feminist characteristics is precisely what Federici (2012) argued that the witch hunts were all about.  They were about forcing women into submission, reproductively and socially, in the interest of capitalism.


Witches often capture the imagination of women today because feminist historians have done much to uncover the history of witch persecution and in doing so, redeeming witches as healers, midwives, and wise women.  Therefore, to many women witches can be a symbol of resistance or counter-culture.  Women may also be attracted to witches because they represent female power in the form of knowledge and defiance of social norms, but also in the more mythical and magical sense wherein witches may be depicted as actually possessing supernatural power.  Witches offer an alternative role model to young women.  Witches are self-reliant, they don’t need to be conventionally attractive, and they don’t need to be saved by men (Theriault, 2017).  It is no wonder that witches have sometimes been associated with protest.  Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz was based upon Frank Baum’s mother in law, Matilda Joslyn Gage.  Gage was a visionary woman who was a suffragist, abolitionist, and supporter of Native American rights.  She also wrote about witches not as evil women, but wise women.  Gage lived with Baum and served as his intellectual mentor.  When he created Glinda the Good Witch, he drew from Gage’s insights that a witch did not have to be evil and thusly created a beatific and wise witch.  In another example, W.I.T.C.H or the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell was formed in 1968 as a group of thirteen women who used costumes and the imagery of witches as a form of protest.  They hexed the stock exchange on Halloween of 1968 and protested the inauguration of Nixon in 1969 and a bridal fair that same year.  They developed various chapters called covens around the country  (Sollee, 2017).  Dianic Wicca, a goddess centered form of paganism with feminist roots emerged in the 1970s, again indicating the interest that women had in reclaiming witches not only as a political symbol but spiritual inspiration.

 Image result for Glinda the good witch

Interestingly, the modern idea of witches can also be oppressive to women.  The word witch is a gendered term and several branches of modern day neo-paganism were developed by men (Gardnerian/Alexandrian/Crowleyan) and reflect the worldview of men drawing from medieval texts and 19th century British esoterism.  For instance, the moon was envisioned as female and the sun male or masculine fire and feminine water (Theriault, 2017).  Some Dianic Wiccans have been criticized for being trans-exclusionary.  Beyond this, while witches appear in the media, the mainstream media is mainly controlled by men.  Thus, the witches that appear in popular culture are not examples of positive, feminist role models.  For instance, in Hocus Pocus, the witch characters receive their power from a man (a book), are trying to kill children, and are motivated by anti-aging.  The Craft involves a plot line of social outcast teens engaging in witchcraft to punish an attempted rapist, but stopped by a middle class white women who practices a kindlier magic.  Both films were directed by men (Dommu, 2016).  Finally, just as feminism has been commodified by t-shirts and product advertisements, the image of witches and practice of witchcraft has also been tamed by the market.  As a testimony to the money making potential of witches, Etsy has 28,000 results for the query of witchcraft.  Searches for witchcraft were up 30% and witchcraft related purchases were up 60% between 2105 and 2017 (Faif, 2017).  Salem, Massachusetts has cashed in on its history of witch persecution through tourism, gift shops, and specialty shops.  While witches may represent subversive female power, the market often seeks to subvert the subversive if it is profitable.  Thus, in an odd contradiction of late capitalism, we live in a society which disdains witches as evil and uses them to denigrate feminism while at the same time profiting from them and taming them into something more benign.

Image result for the craft

Conclusion:

Witches can inspire feminists today as a both a symbol of resistance and victim of persecution.  We live in a disenchanted world.  That is, capitalism destroys all that is sacred in the name of profit- family relationships, solidarity, dignity in work, relationships to the environment, leisure time, the time and autonomy to pursue passions, etc.  Like witches that were denuded, poked and prodded in search of birthmarks or devil’s marks, the market economy strips us bare of our humanity and connections.  Naked, cold, and alone, we live and die as workers in the home and public workplaces with little protection from the ups and downs of wages, costs of living, the economic strain of endless war, inflation, recession, and depression.  At the same time, poverty is punished and punishment breeds poverty as formerly incarcerated individuals often serve as auxiliary labor as unemployed and contingent workers.  Women are still cloistered in their homes and devalued in the public sphere.  The great witch hunts of the 17th century have ended in the industrialized world, but continue in the impoverished, socially strained, and economically exploited regions of the world.  There is no magic to fight this.  There is no actual “hexing” of Wall Street.  Everything magical in the world is long dead.  But, there is solidarity.  Witch hunts served to pit women against women and entire communities against their more vulnerable members.  The worst horrors inflicted by the state and the economy are often those that we have internalized and inflict upon one another.  If there is a lesson from history it is to stand against the persecution of the outsiders, the poor, the different, the elderly, women, the mentally ill, the marginal, the Other.  An injury to one is an injury to all.  By reclaiming our solidarity we can stand against the injustices of society, many of which are very similar to those faced by witches in the 17th century.  Our criminal justice system can be just as illogical.  Victims are still blamed.  Public enemies are always socially constructed.  The tragedy of the witch hunts is that no one organized against them.  In one instance, in Basque country in Spain, a group of women were to be executed as witches but when their husbands and brothers, who had been fishing returned, they stopped the whole ordeal.  It goes to show that the persecution of witches could have been stopped.  All that is needed is the will and solidarity to do so.


 

Sources:

Backe, E. (2014, December 20). Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://thegeekanthropologist.com/2014/07/25/something-wicked-this-way-comes-witches-and-modern-women/

Barstow, A. L. (1994). Witchcraze: a new history of the European witch hunts. San Francisco, CA: Pandora.

Dashu, M. (2016). Witches and pagans: women in European folk religion, 700-1100. Richmond, CA: Veleda Press.

Dommu, R. (2016, October 20). Witches on screen: good for fashion, bad for feminism? Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://mic.com/articles/157194/witches-on-screen-good-for-fashion-bad-for-feminism#.soR3gmPwI

Eisler, R. (1989). The chalice and the blade: our history, our future. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Faife, C. (2017, July 26). How Witchcraft Became A Brand. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/corinfaife/how-witchcraft-became-a-brand?utm_term=.heA0yv6ANY#.cc2N940VY3

Federici, S. (2014). Caliban and the witch. New York: Autonomedia.

Knight, A. (2009, November 05). Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://endofcapitalism.com/2009/11/05/who-were-the-witches-patriarchal-terror-and-the-creation-of-capitalism/

Mays, D. A. (2004). Women in early America struggle, survival, and freedom in a new world. Santa Barbara (Calif.): ABC-CLIO.

Metcalfe, T. (2016, July 18). Black Magic: 6 Infamous Witch Trials in History. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://www.livescience.com/55431-infamous-witch-trials-in-history.html

Peoples, H. C., Duda, P., & Marlowe, F. W. (2016, May 06). Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Poynton, D. (2011, August 08). The Rise of Capitalism. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2011/no-1284-august-2011/rise-capitalism

Singh, V. (2016, February 24). Fighting Modern-Day Witch Hunts in India’s Remote Northeast. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/25/world/asia/india-assam-state-witch-hunts.html

Sollee, K. (2017). Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive. Consortium Book Sales & Dist.

Theriault, A. (2017, February 16). The Real Reason Women Love Witches. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2017/02/real-reason-women-love-witches/

Thompson, D. (2003, March 16). The victims of the witch hunt history would rather forget. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3591284/The-victims-of-the-witch-hunt-history-would-rather-forget.html

howtospotawtich

Feminist Astronomy

 

bannerfrolic

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:

moon

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!

 

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.

What Do We Learn about South African Apartheid?

What do we learn about South African Apartheid?


This blog post stems from my plans to embark on a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in late June. Now, I am not an expert on South Africa or Africa in general. I really am in the stages of learning and thinking, rather than producing knowledge. In this attempt to learn more about Africa in general, I headed to the Duluth Library Book Sale. I came home with dozens of books, but there was next to nothing for sale on the topic of Africa! The only book I found was Brian Lapping’s Apartheid: A History, which was written in 1986! I read the book, but because it is so old, it does not make sense to write a book review. If I reviewed the book, much of the story would remain untold.   In any event, the book was a quick read that didn’t offer much depth or political analysis. I wouldn’t recommend it except as a nice introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write an easy to read blog post about apartheid in South Africa. As I thought of the topic, I considered what I learned about South Africa in school. Really, I learned next to nothing. I think I was given this general idea that once upon a time there was racial inequality in South Africa, then Nelson Mandela came along, and everything was better. With that said, I will explore some of the narratives about South Africa that seem to be popular in our society.


  1. Everything is Better Myth:

If you learn about apartheid in school, the narrative of apartheid is one of victory over injustice. This is the same way we learn about the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage movement. We are provided with a narrative that a historically isolated moment of struggle ends in triumph and change. Everything is better. The end.


Spielvogel’s Glencoe World History textbook, published in 2005 and used at a local high school, ends its two page coverage of apartheid (out of over 1000 pages) with the election of Nelson Mandela and a quote about the rainbow nation. This leaves the distinct impression that good triumphed over evil.


One of the problems with this narrative is that it ignores the ways in which apartheid continues through economic mechanisms. In 1993, South African Trotskyist Neville Alexander, wrote that apartheid laws could be removed because racial inequality already had a firm foundation. Over two decades later, 60-65% of South African wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. 47% of the country lives in poverty and 25% of the country is unemployed. If unemployment is looked at along racial lines, about 39% of Black South Africans are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average white family earns six times more than the average Black family. Although some Black South Africans have joined the middle class since the end of apartheid, the country remains economically divided along racial lines.


There are many reasons why economic inequality persists. Although the original Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC supported the redistribution of wealth and land, economic demands of the charter were not adopted. The ANC is not an anti-capitalist party and apartheid was built upon economic inequality. As such, the end of apartheid allowed only for a democracy founded upon fundamental inequalities and a system that promotes such inequalities. The same state, police, and military continued on, but with a different face. While the racial demographics of government have changed, the state remains the same inasmuch as it has pursued neoliberal policies and used the police to kill workers (i.e. the Lonmin mine massacre that killed 47 people)!


 

2. The Nelson Mandela Myth:

 

Nelson Mandela died back in 2013 when I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. The children told me that they learned about Nelson Mandela in school. Although they learned about him in school, the content was pretty minimal as he was presented as a sort of Santa Claus like character. He was a mythical, jolly, peaceful fellow who ended apartheid and brought the gift social justice to the world. While there is nothing wrong with learning about Nelson Mandela, the way in which he and any other historical figure is presented is as a maker of history. This ignores other individuals, economic conditions, social movements, labor organizing, and other important factors in social change. In short, social change is reduced to the heroic actions of a mythical individual. Beyond this, the depiction of these heroes is white washed. For example, Spielvogel’s (2005) Glencoe World History textbook says the following: “After the arrest of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1962, members of the ANC called for armed resistance to the white government (p. 922).” In this statement, Nelson Mandela is a catalyst for armed resistance but not a promoter of it. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mentioned that Nelson Mandela believed in armed resistance and was the head of the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the ANC). He co-founded it in 1961 AFTER the Sharpeville massacre wherein 69 unarmed protestors were shot (in the back as they fled) by police. But, the textbook does not mention the Sharpeville massacre and the role it played in changing the tactics of the ANC. Rather, the reader is lead to believe that it was the arrest of Nelson Mandela (the great individual in this narrative) which was the cause of arm struggle. This neutralizes the subversive aspects of Nelson Mandela, making him out to a Barack Obama type character.   He was considered a terrorist and leader of a terrorist organization. He went to prison under laws made to persecute communists. He was, at least for a time, a member of the South African Communist Party. He was also a domestic abuser who threatened his first wife that he would attack her with an axe.


Individuals are thorny and imperfect. The right wing has a heyday with such things. Instead, it should raise issues of how a “terrorist” is socially constructed and what is deemed a terrorist organization is a matter of the power. It should also raise issues about the role of violence in social change or considerations of the role of capitalism in promoting racial inequalities (the SACP should not be idealized, but at least recognized as a part of history). In later textbook passages, Nelson Mandela is described with more apolitical staleness. He was imprisoned for 26 years and became the first Black president of South Africa. That is all. Desmond Tutu is mentioned in one sentence as a person who helped to release him. This is the complete cast of characters in the story of apartheid. There is no mention of Steve Biko, one of many people who mysteriously died in police custody (after torture). More important than the addition of other anti-apartheid figures is the lack of coverage of social history. The textbook does not mention the Soweto massacre, for instance. Students might be able to relate to the struggle of fellow students against curriculum changes. Up to 1000 (700?) people died to learn math and to speak their own language!


  1. America the Invisible/Elephant in the Room:

            Nowhere in the textbook I’ve been using as an example is there any mention of the role of the United States in all of this. I learned the other day that U.S. companies Polaroid and IBM profited from the creation of identification cards and card reading systems used for the passes that kept Black South Africans segregated and relegated to Bantustans. As of 1985, U.S. companies controlled 70% of the computer market in South Africa. The tires used by South African police and military vehicles were purchased from Firestone and Goodyear. In 1985, 20% of all foreign investment in South Africa was American. These corporations profited from the cheap labor of black workers, who lived and worked as impoverished guest workers in the slave like conditions of their own country. The United States refused sanctions against South Africa until 1986 and vetoed a UN resolution to expel South Africa’s membership. Even under the Carter administration, the United States abstained from a UN vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa. Beyond the economic bounty that corporations gained from apartheid, South Africa was an important U.S. ally and staging point for wars against left leaning independence movements in Africa.   Of course, textbooks try to be apolitical and inoffensive, so the omission of this close relationship with South Africa is expected. But, the absence of the U.S. is political. It only adds to the amnesia of our negative role in history and a denial of our own troubled race relations. Digging deeper, it might call into question the U.S.’s relationship with Israel or the parallels between Israel and South Africa. White South Africans (of Boer descent) saw themselves as a chosen people who belonged on the land. People who had always been there. They also saw themselves as victims of British imperialism and genocide with a right to defend themselves. Just as the story of apartheid ends with Nelson Mandela, the story of segregation ends with Martin Luther King Jr. or the story of slavery ends with the Civil War. In these stories, racism exists only in a historical moment. It existed and, like the dinosaurs, vanishes into the deep history of dust and fossil imprints. The dinosaurs aren’t with us now. And we are led to believe that racism is also a thing of the past.


Conclusion:  

I am not an expert on South Africa or racism. I am not an expert about anything. I am a student. I like to learn. I would also like to be a teacher. In this capacity, I hope I taught you a few things about apartheid and how we think about it in American society. There is much more to say on this topic. I have a lot on my mind. I will save it for another post or wait until I do more reading. Until then, the story continues.

School is out….forever?

The above picture is me trying to recreate my kindergarten school photo.  The sweater is a darker shade of blue, but I did try to add a small blue bow.  So, there I am after my M.S. in teaching and again at the beginning of it all.   I actually took the photo last fall, as I knew that this past fall was going to be a very special school year.  It was going to be the last year at St. Scholastica!  St. Scholastica where…so long ago…I began my undergraduate degree.  This is where I ended my master’s degree!  Those gray towers represent so many harsh, lonely winters and long, empty days.  I struggled with my first degree.  I did not make a single friend at CSS.  Not one.  I worked full time and went to school full time…and lived with my family.  Plus, I lacked the social skills to make friends back then.  Yuck.  I’ve come a long way from those lonely first years of college.


One week ago, I did my capstone presentation.  After adding up all of the points from the entire program, I calculated that I completed the program with 99.33% of the points available in all of my classes.  That feels nice.  This year, I only missed 1.25 points between the classes I took.  I missed .25 points for using the wrong font on my header.  That also feels nice.  I feel validated by numbers.  As for the capstone presentation, it was pretty easy.  It was just a short presentation on a data project that I completed this semester.  The project was a content analysis of three world history textbooks, wherein I analyzed the content using James Bank’s 17 point Checklist for Evaluating Materials.  The checklist is a 17 criteria diversity checklist which uses Likert Scale which rates book on a scale of one to six based upon their coverage of women’s history, African American history, ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, social classes, etc.   The rating is fairly subjective and was designed for American history materials.  I adapted the language of the checklist to say “core society” instead of “U.S. Society” so that it would be more applicable for world history courses.   In this sense, the project draws a little from Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory, as well as Multicultural Education. The three books that I rated did pretty terribly, but interestingly, the book used in an AP World History course performed the worse.  The project ended up being 90 pages and was far from perfect.  However, it was fun to sit down and analyze how history is presented in textbooks.


With this, I am done.  It is odd.  I have been in school a long time.  Being in school has become a way of life.  I know this makes me odd.  It certainly makes me in debt.  This is my second masters.  This follows two bachelor degrees.  Usually, I am looking to the future.  What classes will I take in the fall?  What degree will I pursue next?  Instead, I am done.  Done and without direction.  I even made my first student loan payment last week.  It is like a new era of the normal life.  The life that everyone else lives.  Normal people do not go to school forever.  I have even come to learn that normal people think you are bizarre if you go to school forever.  It is so bizarre that I really don’t advertise it.  Of course, I write about it here and feel proud of it.  In other ways, I feel ashamed.


I feel a little sad.  I used to dream of having dozens of degrees before I die.  I could be a botanist or environmental scientist.  How about an art degree?  What about English?  Another Masters Degree?  Why not try a M.A. in History next time.  The sky is the limit.  Down the road there would be a Ph.d in something.  I would be an eccentric old polymath.   My brother mocked me for even wanting to be a polymath.  I am not trapped in a delusion of grandeur, I just want to know everything.  I want to collect degrees like some old ladies collect porcelain clowns. The reality is that this would amount to so much debt that it would be both irresponsible if not impossible.   So, I feel sad as I put this dream on the shelf for a while.


Oh, it isn’t an impossible dream.  There are ways to go to school without debt.  I could pay for a class here and there and at a glacial pace collect more degrees if that is what I find suits me.   Some master’s programs are funded, so there is always that.  And, I could always work at a university and take free classes that way.   There are ways.  But for now, I think it is time for some time off.


I wonder what is wrong with me.  Some people might suppose that a person who stays in school forever is trying to escape the real world.  But, I have lived in the real world.  I’ve usually worked full time while in school.  I have hobbies and am involved in activism/community.  This is my real world.   Some people might also suppose that I need to show off or have something to prove.  That could be somewhat true.  My self esteem may be tied to getting A’s.   But, I don’t really show off.  At a certain point, there is too much education.  Education is an embarrassment!  And, I don’t want people to feel inferior to me, so if I meet a stranger, I don’t usually talk about schooling.  I recognize that it is a privilege.  I have the ability to conform to educational settings.  I don’t have children.  I don’t have responsibilities.  I can assume debt without consequence to anyone but myself.  And, from time to time, the costs may be defrayed by scholarships or graduate assistantships.


At some level, I connect school with progress.  I feel that if I am not in school, I will become a sloppy thinker with a dopey mind.  School keeps me sharp.  It forces me to read things and do things that I wouldn’t on my own.  On my own, I read and learn, but do not typically write papers or do projects.    I am afraid that if I am not in school, I will become lazy or stagnant.   Also, school gives me a goal to work on.  I know that in X number of years or X number of credits, a degree will be done.  Life does not provide the same predictable benchmarks for achievement.   What’s more, school seems full of choice and possibility.   I could study almost anything.  I could become knowledgeable in a smorgasbord of disciplines.  What a wonderful idea!


To be fair,  school does not make me better or smarter.  I have forgotten many things over the years.  But, I feel that I know a little about a lot.  I can make connections between things, even if I can’t remember all of the details.  It isn’t worth the price of tuition.  Why bother at all?  I think it has symbolic value.   Education doles out rewards in symbols.  Some are letters:, A, B, C and some are numbers, like GPA and percentages.   It is a strange currency that means little outside the institution itself.  I’m addicted to these rewards, like a trained dolphin to fish.  School is a place where I feel competent.


With that said, I meet the end of the school year with sadness and fear.   There is some relief mixed in, sure.  It is nice to be done.  Most people probably feel accomplishment.  I only feel hunger for what is next.  Unfortunately, I don’t know.  It saddens my heart to think that next fall will come and there will be no classes!  There will be dry autumn leaves, but no new educational beginnings.  Short, crisp days but no new school clothes and supplies.  No early mornings with frost on the windows of my car.  No picking out new classes.  Just…the other things.  Amorphous time that is not marked by semesters or academic years.  No “nice job”, A plus, due dates, cohorts, or flash cards.   Just all the other things that were there all along.  More of those things.  More time.  Less stress.


Schools out!  For now.  Probably not forever.

 

Maybe I won’t shelve the dream of being a weird old lady who secretly has degrees in everything.  It is hard to shelve the dream.  The shelf is already full of books.  Would you rather it be shelved with porcelain clowns?

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