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Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

H. Bradford

5/18/17

Each month, Pandemonium meets up for a discussion and pizza.  Pandemonium is a bi+ group in Duluth/Superior.  Past topics include bisexuality and domestic violence, different bisexual identities, bisexual poets, and other topics related to sexuality and gender such as homophobia and the plight of transgender prisoners.  This month, the topic is Frida Kahlo.  Frida Kahlo is an artist who captures the imagination of many women.  Like many people, I became familiar with her from the 2002 film starring Selma Hayek.  Perhaps she captures the imagination of women and feminists because of her iconic fashion, her relationship struggles, her rebellion against social norms, the personal nature of self-portraits, her physical and emotional pain, etc.  She captures my imagination because she was bisexual and a communist.  Because of my interests, the presentation will focus on her political, gender, and sexual identities.  The presentation itself draws heavily from Hayden Herrera’s (1983) biography “Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo.”  The nature of Pandemonium is to educate one another on a topic for the purpose of growing as a bi+ community and in these identities.  These presentations are peer to peer in nature and none of us our experts on the topics that we explore.  Hopefully the following provides some insights, but should be treated as an informal community presentation.  With that said, Frida Kahlo was a very political and sexual person and these two facets of her identity were both deeply intertwined, sometimes inconsistent, and often revolutionary.

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Frida was born and died in the Blue House, a house build by her father in 1904.  Her father was a photographer who was a Jewish Hungarian born in Romania, but who grew up in Germany.  Her mother, Matilde, was a devoutly Catholic Mexican woman from Oaxaca.  Frida was born in 1907, but changed her birth date to 1910 so that she could shared her birth date with the year that the Mexican revolution began (Herrera, 1983).  The fact that she changed her official birth date indicates her nationalism, or love of Mexico, which was evident in her artwork and fashion sense.  Frida wanted to be associated with the Mexican Revolution.  The revolution itself stemmed from various classes who were upset with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Diaz came to power in 1876 after decades of foreign intervention and warfare in Mexico.  He is credited with creating a powerful centralized government in Mexico and ushering in an era of capitalist development.  Mexican exports increased by six times under his rule, the country went from around 600 km of railroad tracks to over 20,000, and the money in circulation in the Mexican economy increased by twelve times.  Mining industries, oil exports, and banking saw explosive expansion during this time period.  At the same time, middle class Mexicans were frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and lack of opportunities.  While Mexico became much more developed under Diaz, 70% of the population was engaged in agricultural work.  The countryside was heavily taxed, denied regional or local autonomy, and often subject to corrupt governance which arbitrarily fined and punished the population, often with forced labor.  In 1883, a law was passed with allowed landed elites to easily buy commonly held lands or lands without official titles.  This denied peasants the ability to support themselves, turning many into renters, servants to landlords, resident laborers, and sharecroppers.  At the same time, the working class grew with the development of the country, but like all workers, suffered harsh conditions.  The workers were often paid in scrip and also suffered the same harsh taxes and arbitrary law enforcement that peasants did (Easterling, 2009).  The full history of the Mexican revolution is too complicated and lengthy to explore in depth, but basically, Portofino Diaz re-election in 1910 but was challenged by Francisco Madero, a reformist candidate from a wealthy landowning family who won the support of the liberal middle class.  Diaz feared Madero would win the election, so he had him arrested and went on to win the election.  Madero was sprung from prison and escaped to San Antonio, where he promoted a more revolutionary message that promised land reform with the hope of inciting an uprising against Diaz.  The call for revolution was taken up by rebels such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who organized peasant farmers to fight the regime.  In May 1911, Diaz resigned and later that year, Madero was elected.  This did not end the revolution, as Madero quickly befriended members of the old regime and expanded the military in the interest in maintaining the status quo and curtailing rebellion for land reform.  Later, he ordered the destruction of land through scorched earth policies and war against the Zapatistas, or followers of Emiliano Zapata.  The U.S. actively supported anyone who rebelled against Madero, hoping to return some semblance of order to the country.  A 1913 coup against Madero thrust General Huerta into power, but his regime was short lived.  He was ousted from power in 1914, while various rebel factions continued to fight each other.  The next six years consisted of fighting between Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Obregon Zapata.  Carranza was elected president in 1917, created a constitution which tried to appeal to peasant demands, but was assassinated by Obregon in 1920.  Pancho Villa agreed to stop fighting after 1920, but fighting continued in various parts of Mexico until 1934.  In short, the world in which Frida spent her childhood was tumultuous and politically charged as various rebels and social classes vied for power.  This would have informed her early political views and shaped the opportunities available to her as a woman and artist.

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Painting of Zapata by Diego Rivera


Frida Kahlo grew up in a very political world, but had the privilege of growing up in a middle class family which encouraged her personal growth.  According to Herrera (1983) Frida enjoyed a close relationship with her father, who lent her books, taught her painting and photography, and encouraged her to learn about nature and archaeology.  Frida contracted polio at age six, so her father encouraged her to play sports such as boxing and soccer to strengthen her leg.  Her father had no sons, so it is possible that he looked to Frida to fulfill the role of a son.  Thus, she benefited from her father’s non-traditional expectations regarding gender, which allowed her to express herself through education and art.  Perhaps because of he lacked a son, Frida’s father encouraged her to attend the National Preparatory School.  At the same time, Frida benefited from opportunities in art and education that arose after the Mexican revolution.  Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexican intellectuals and leaders looked to Europe for cultural and economic inspiration and disdained indigenous Mexican culture.  The Mexican revolution sought to return Mexico to Mexicans through land reforms, nationalization of natural resources, and embracing native culture.  Frida attended the National Preparatory School just a few years after girls were first admitted.  While studying there, she was a member of The Cachuchas, a very loosely Marxist organization (Haynes, 2006).  This was her first introduction to socialism.  Interestingly, it was not art that she pursued as a student.  Rather, she studied natural sciences with the intention of becoming a doctor (Mataev, n.d).  While at school, she was described by her friends at the school as tomboyish.  Her closest friends were members of the Cachuchas, seven boys and two girls, who were interested in socialism.  However, they were better known for causing pranks at the school, such as bringing a donkey into a classroom and setting off firecrackers during a lecture.  The students were also voracious readers who discussed Hegel, Kant, Russian literature, and Mexican fiction.  This indicates that at a young age, she expressed her gender in non-traditional ways and was politically minded.  Her love life as a student also indicates the political nature of her early life.  While she was in school, she dated Alejandro Gomez Arias, the leader of the Cachuchas.  At the same time, according to her mythology, she was immediately smitten with Diego Rivera when he came to paint the amphitheater of her school.  Although she was a young teen, she told her friends that she would have his child and reportedly tried to trip him by putting soap on the stairs and stole a sandwich from his lunchbox (Herrera, 1983).  Rivera himself was a product of the time, a muralist who created political scenes of Mexican history, social movements, and workers.  If the mythology is true, Frida became infatuated with Diego Rivera when she was 15 years old and he was 36 (Collins, 2013).


In Herrera’s (1983) account Frida’s first relationship was with Alejandro Gomez Arias, but this biography offered scant details about her bisexuality.  Collin’s (2013) posited that Frida’s first sexual relationship was when she was 13 years old and unable to participate in phy-ed due to her earlier bout with polio.  Her health teacher, Sara Zenil, initiated a relationship with her, which was ended when Frida’s mother found her letters and transferred her to a different school (Collins, 2013).  This affair may have been true, as indeed Frida was suddenly transferred from a teacher preparation school to the National Preparatory School.  The letters indicate that Frida believed she loved the teacher and she was exited from the school.   Originally, her mother wanted her to attend the school as she wanted Frida to become a teacher, as it was a traditional job for women (Ankori, 2013).  According to an account from Alejandro, Frida was later seduced by a woman who worked at a library for the Ministry of Education.  Frida was looking for a library job to support her family, who had fallen onto harder times due to her father’s inability to find photography work.  Her parents found out about this and Frida reportedly told a friend that the experience was traumatic (Herrera, 1983).  It is possible that she was involved with two older women, both of which were discovered by her parents.  In both cases, her introduction to same sex relationships was embarrassing, traumatic, and unequal in power.  This history therefore isn’t a positive example of bisexuality, but an example of older women taking advantage of a financially and physically disadvantaged youth.


Trauma and suffering are prevailing themes in Frida’s life.  On September 17th, 1925, Frida was involved in a bus accident.  She was impaled in the pelvis with an iron rod and her spinal column was broken in three places.  She also broke her pelvis, some ribs, and fractured her foot and hand (Herrera, 1983).  She took up painting after the accident and said that she chose self-portraits because she felt so alone during that time period and because it was a subject she knew best (Haynes, 2016).  In reference to the trauma of the accident, she said she lost her virginity to the handrail.  She spent a month in the hospital and several months at home recovering.  During this time, she continued her relationship with Alejandro, but it grew strained as he accused her of being “loose.” In her letters, she admitted to kissing and dating others (Herrera, 1983).  This is an early indication of her flexibility concerning traditional monogamy.  During this time she dropped out of school due to her health and medical costs.  She began painting after the accident and her first painting was a gift for Alejandro entitled Self Portrait.  The two parted ways when Alejandro continued school and traveled to Europe.  Frida was briefly involved in a relationship with German de Campo, who was an anti-militarism and anti-imperialist student organizer.  He was president of the National Student Confederation and fought for academic freedom, a new exam system, but was killed while giving a speech in support of presidential candidate Jose Vasconcelos.  Germain de Campo introduced Frida to some of his friends, including Julio Antonio Mella, an exiled Cuban communist.  She became friends with Tina Modotti, a photographer, model, and communist friend of Mella’s, who later introduced her to Diego Rivera.  Once again, Frida’s love interests were often deeply political individuals.


In the 2002 film Frida, Tina Modotti was portrayed by Ashley Judd.  Frida and Tina shared a dance in the film.  According to DeMirjynn (2011), the audience, along with Diego Rivera’s character, watch the dance in approval, locating her sexuality within the male gaze.  The dance followed a drinking contest, which could be seen as a way to dismiss the legitimacy of her sexuality, as it was alcohol fueled.  The film highlighted her affairs with men, with little attention to her female attraction.  Diego Rivera actually played a larger role in the 2002 film compared to the 1983 Mexican film, Frida, Naturaleza Viva.  In the 2002 film, Rivera reacted negatively to Frida’s affair with Trotsky, but not at all to her affairs with women, rendering her queerness invisible or unimportant according to DeMirjyn (2011).   Herrera’s (1983) biography of Frida supports that Rivera indeed acted either indifferently or supportive of Frida’s affairs with women, but the book gives little attention to these relationships, also rendering that history invisible.  Rivera himself was amused by Frida’s lesbianism, as he called it.  Diego believed in free love and had many affairs, but he did not tolerate Frida’s affairs with men.  He encouraged or was open about her affairs with women.   Nevertheless, Frida did sneak men into her home, warning them that Diego might kill them.  For instance, Frida had an affair with the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, but it ended when they plotted to get an apartment together for their rendezvous, but the bill for the furniture was accidentally delivered to Frida’s residence with Diego.  In Noguchi’s account, Diego threatened him twice with a gun and on one occasion he had to jump out of a window to avoid getting caught with Frida (Herrera, 1983).  Diego’s reaction Frida’s sexuality as well as how it is framed by some historians shows the trouble with how bisexuality is understood and treated in society.  Garner (2000) argued that men may not be threatened by female relationships because female sexuality is framed to exist for them or because women are inferior in society, they are not viewed as threats.  The relationships between women can therefore more easily be dismissed.

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The dance scene from the film, Frida


There is no denying the importance of Diego Rivera in Frida’s life.  Diego Rivera was a well known artist and communist when she met him.  Frida was a communist in her own right as well.  She was a member of the Young Communist League and while she is remembered for her feminine dresses, ribbons, flowers, ruffles, and indigenous styles, she actually had periods in her life when she wore more militant clothing.   After joining the Communist Party in the 1920s, she started wearing black or red shirts with hammer and sickle pins as well as blue jeans.  She also gave speeches, attended secret meetings, and attended rallies.  Diego actually depicted Frida as a communist militant in a panel of his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution.  He portrayed her as a tomboy, with a man’s shirt with a red star on the pocket and short hair, handing out rifles and bayonets (Herrera, 1983).  This more masculine version of Frida demonstrates her flexibility in expressing her gender and openness about her political beliefs.  Her views of marriage were also less traditional.  Rather than a traditional ceremony, Frida married Diego in 1929 in a small civil ceremony in which she wore street clothes.  Her mother opposed the marriage, since Diego was an atheist communist and she was Catholic.  Her father supported the marriage, perhaps because Frida was his only single daughter, had massive medical bills, and the family could no longer afford their mortgage.  After the wedding. Frida moved into Diego’s mansion where two other communists lived.  Around this time, Diego had a strained relationship with the Communist Party over taking commissions for his artwork, relationship to government officials, his critique of communist trade unions, and his skepticism that countries would attack Russia.  His friend, Tina Modotti, who introduced the couple, remained a member of the Communist Party but denounced their friendship and called him a traitor (Herrera, 1983).   In a theatrical protest of his expulsion, Rivera attended the 1929 Communist Party convention, gave a dramatic speech, and smashed a clay pistol in a dramatic exit from the party (Morrison and Pietras, 2010).   Frida also left the party when Rivera was expelled.

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1929, the year that Diego and Frida married and left the Communist Party, was the same year that Stalin exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union.  Diego sided with Trotsky and pressured Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas into accepting Trotsky into the country after the revolutionary had been forced out of Norway and no other country would accept him (Tuck, 2008).   Rivera presented Mexican president Cardenas a petition for Trotsky to have sanctuary in Mexico, provided that he did not meddle with Mexican political affairs.  However, due to Rivera’s poor health at the time, it was Frida who met the Trotskys along with Max Shachtman and George Novak on November 21, 1936.  Trotsky reportedly refused to leave the boat until he saw friendly faces.  Trotsky and company took a secret train to Mexico City to avoid the GPU.  The arrival was complete with a fake welcome party at Rivera’s home.  Trotsky did not speak Spanish, nor did his wife, so Frida served as an advisor and escort.  Cristina, Frida’s sister, acted as a chauffeur.  Frida also had several of her trusted servants serve her guests.  Frida’s father had the impression that she esteemed Trotsky, as she described him as a companion of Lenin and a man who made the Russian revolution.  Time magazine reported that Natalia had malaria in January 1937 and Rivera had a kidney ailment (Herrera, 1983).  Perhaps these illnesses provided the opportunity for an affair to grow between Frida and Trotsky.  Revenge against Rivera for his affair with Frida’s sister may also have been a catalyst for the affair.

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Trotsky’s secretary Jean van Heijenoort noted that Frida and Trotsky’s relationship was obvious to many around them.  They would meet at Frida’s sister’s home and Trotsky exchanged letters to her through the books he loaned her.  They spoke in English to one another, excluding Trotsky’s wife from the conversation (Zamora, 1991).  Frida attended the Dewey Commission and sat closely with Trotsky as he defended himself against the accusations of the Moscow Trials.  Aside from this, the Riveras and Trotskys spent a lot of time together, doing picnics and excursions.  Trotsky began collecting cacti and horse riding.  Trotsky trusted Rivera, who was one of few people he saw without the company of another.  Trotsky and Frida likely began their affair after the Dewey Commission.  During this time, Frida was reportedly left out of theoretical discussions between Trotsky, Rivera, and the surrealist, Andre Breton.  This may indicate that she was not taken seriously as a socialist or dismissed as a woman.  She said that she didn’t care much for theory and that Trotsky didn’t like it when she smoked.  The affair ended in July 1937 and Trotsky moved out of the house.  He may have felt that the affair might discredit him and it certainly depressed his wife of 35 years.  Frida visited him at the new residents, which again hurt his wife, but Trotsky underplayed the visit in his letter to Natalia (Herrera, 1983).


Trotsky moved outside the city for a time in July 1937.   In recognition of the twenty year anniversary of the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s birthday, Frida gave Trotsky a portrait on November 7, 1937.  The title was Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky- Between the Curtains.  (Zamora, 1991).   Herrera (1983) believed that this portrait was a gift to Trotsky after the affair and represented a shift in Frida’s vision of herself.  The painting is seductive, mature, and confident.  In it, she is depicted in a butterfly printed robe.  She also completed a painting called I belong to my owner which depicts a rose and dry prickly flowers.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this painting may also represent the affair and how despite her flings, Diego owned her sexuality.  The affair with Trotsky marked a new period in her life, wherein she became more independent as an artist.  In 1938, coincidentally the year that the 4th International was founded, Frida came into her own as an artist.  She made her first significant art sales, selling four paintings for $200 each.  Upon making the sale, she said that she was happy that she could travel without Diego’s support.  In 1939, she traveled alone to New York for her first exhibition and began an affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray.  She also traveled to France, where she stayed with Andre Breton and became involved in the surrealist art community.  Despite the fact that she and Trotsky were no longer a couple and she never officially joined the 4th International, Frida attended Trotskyist meetings in Paris as a representative from Mexico.   She also had an affair with an unknown French Trotskyist.  It is also during her time in Paris that she met Trotsky’s future assassin, Raul Mercador (Herrera, 1983).

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Frida’s aversion to Trotskyism may have been more practical than political.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this is because the Trotskyist movement in Mexico was small, poor, and active in trade unions.  No one joined it unless committed to working for it full time.  Rivera joined the movement, but this may have actually strained his relationship with Trotsky.  There are several accounts of how Trotsky and Rivera had a falling out.  According to an account from Alfred Bildner, who stayed with Frida when she was hosting Trotsky and did some translation work for him, Diego and Frida had violent arguments with Trotsky in 1939, as they had adopted Stalinism.  Trotsky left their residence and moved a few blocks away (Bildner, 2004).   In another account, Rivera worked with Trotsky and in February 1938 signed a manifesto for the creation of an International Federation of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, for the purpose of resisting Stalinist domination of the arts.  In this version of the history, the political disagreements between Rivera and Trotsky were over the 1940 presidential election in Mexico.  Rivera supported Juan Almazon, a right wing candidate backed by Mexican fascists.  Rivera denounced Cardenas as an accomplice to Stalinists, which upset Trotsky, who did not want to antagonize the president who had offered him asylum.  The argument caused Trotsky to move out.  Yet, Trotsky described Rivera as fair minded and artistically genius, despite his political shortcomings (Tuck, 2008).  In Herrera’s (1983) version of their falling out, Trotsky sent a private letter to Frida asking for her help.  He said that Rivera was upset with him because he had suggested that he focus on his art rather than politics.  Trotsky had suggested this because Rivera wanted more responsibilities as an organizer, but did not answer letters or other mundane responsibilities needed in party life.  In the letter to Frida, he asked her for help in mending the relationship as he felt that Diego was an important part of the movement.  It is plausible that Rivera, who had a big personality and ego was personally offended by Trotsky’s lack of faith in his political abilities.  Whatever the case, Rivera’s relationship with Trotsky deteriorated.  He even gave Trotsky a sugar skull with Stalin’s name on it.

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Rivera and Frida’s marriage deteriorated not long after.  In November 1939, the two of them divorced.  This may have been due to Frida’s affair with Muray or any number of their affairs.  Frida returned to Mexico, painted prolifically, but also suffered from bad health.  In May 1940, Trotsky was attacked in an attempted assassination.  Following the attack, Rivera fled the country with the help of some friends, moving to San Fransisco.  On August 21, 1940, Trotsky was assassinated and Frida spent two days in jail with her sister Cristina.  They were believed to be suspects in his assassination.  Indeed, Frida had met Raul Mercader twice, but police did not find evidence of her involvement in the assassination (Herrera, 1983).  Following the assassination, she phoned Diego and said, “They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?”  (Rogers, 2014)   A month later, Frida traveled to San Fransisco for medical treatment.  She later moved to New York and began an affair with a twenty five year old art dealer named Heinz Berggruen.  The two spent two months living together in a hotel.  Meanwhile, Diego Rivera proposed to Frida several times, wanting to remarry her.  In December 1940, she married him and returned to Mexico, as both of them had been cleared as suspects in the assassination of Leon Trotsky (Herrera, 1983).


Despite her initial upset over Trotsky’s death, Frida became increasingly pro-Soviet as World War II progressed.  At the same time, Stalinists shunned Rivera for his previous association with Trotsky.  Rivera tried numerous times to rejoin the Communist Party.  He applied again with Frida in 1948.  Frida was accepted and Rivera was rejected.  Rivera remained embittered against Trotsky and even asked Frida to sign her membership paperwork with a pen she had given Trotsky.  Frida refused to do this.  In her diary, she said that denouncing Trotsky was unthinkable, but she denounced him publicly anyway.  She called him a coward and a thief.  Diego even boasted that he only invited Trotsky to Mexico so he could be assassinated (Herrera, 1983).   Rivera’s connection to the assassination as been a matter of some controversy.  Rivera was friends with David Siqueiros, a fellow muralist who attempted to kill Trotksy in 1940.  It is also suspicious that Diego Rivera went into hiding following the attack.  He framed it as though he feared for his own life.  Rivera may have been a collaborator with the United States, according to research by Professor William Chase of Pittsburgh University.  According to FBI and State Department documents, while identifying as a Trotskyist, Rivera provided the United States with lists of communists and communist activities.   It is unknown if Diego actually collaborated with the FBI, but it is known that he was wire tapped by them while he was staying in San Francisco (Davidson, 1993).   In any event, the shadow of suspicion hangs over Diego Rivera, though Frida has not been identified with historians as complicit in Trotsky’s murder.


The remaining years of Frida’s life were marked with profound illness and a stronger association with communism.  Frida began teaching art and leftist theory to students of the Ministry of Public Education’s School of Painting and Sculpture.  She was said to treat her students as equal and recommend Marxist texts to them.  Some of her students were called Fridos and went on to found the Young Revolutionary Artists.  In 1944, her health continued to erode and she was diagnosed with syphilis.  In 1945, she wore a variety of medical corsets and could not sit down or lay down in them.  In 1950, she spent a year in the hospital.  As she grew more closely connected to the Communist Party, her art style changed.  She began painting still lifes and adopting realism.  She said she wanted her art to be useful and even boasted that she was a better communist than Diego, as she had been in the party longer and always paid her dues (Herrera, 1983).   In 1953, Frida had her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was so sick that she had to be taken there in her bed.  Her leg was amputated later that year, which brought her tremendous despair.  She attempted suicide numerous times after her amputation.  Diego continued to have affairs with other women, including Raquel Tibol, whom Frida tried to kiss when she visited her bed.  Tibol was shocked enough to push Frida away.  At the same time, she developed a very close relationship with her nurse, Judith Ferreto.  Judith would sleep in her room, lay beside her in bed, hold her cigarettes for her, and sing her to sleep.  While the relationship may not have been sexual, it was one of her closest relationships during the time period, since her mental health, suicide attempts, pain, anger, and abuse of others alienated her loved ones (Herrera, 1983).   Frida created a painting called Marxism will give health to the sick, which was one of her last paintings and never fully completed.  The painting depicts her in her leather corset, near two large hands, an image of Karl Marx, a dove, and a hand around the neck of Uncle Sam.  Towards the end of her life, she tried to be more overt in the political content of her paintings.  The painting is meant to represent the healing power of Marxism, as she is holding a red book instead of crutches and healed by two large hands.  The original title of the painting was Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism.   (Marxism will give health to the sick, n.d.).  Frida also painted a portrait of Joseph Stalin and became distraught when he died in 1953.  On July 2nd 1954, Frida attended a protest of 10,000 people against the U.S. supported coup against Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala.  Diego pushed her in her wheelchair through the crowd, where for four hours, she shouted “Yankee assassins, get out!”  She said that she wanted three things in life: Diego, to be a communist, and to paint.  The demonstration taxed her health and she died on July 13th (Herrera, 1983).

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When Kahlo died, her coffin was covered with a red flag with a hammer and sickle imposed on a star (Helland, 1992).  The International was sung at her funeral along with The Young Guard, the song played at Lenin’s funeral (Herrera, 1983).   Her life and death leave many questions.  She is remembered for her femininity, but she also wore her hair short and dressed up in suits and the clothes of workers.  After her divorce with Rivera and after he cheated on her with her sister, she cropped her hair (Herrera, 1983).  At the same time, her masculinity should not be attributed simply to the emotional states caused by Rivera.  After all, she had been remembered as a tomboyish child.  She was a girl who wanted to be a doctor and who enjoyed politics and her father’s company.  She wore men’s clothes in a 1926 family photo.  Thus, her gender expression was more than shadow puppetry in the darkness Diego created in her life.  While she is more well known for her affairs with men, she also loved women.   In her diary she wrote a love letter to the painter Jacqueline Lambda (Haynes, 2006).   Frida also had relationships with actresses Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard.  Frida flirted with Georgia O’Keefe at Stieglitz’s gallery.  Diego Rivera reportedly supported Frida’s affairs with women, but felt threatened by those with men.  Garber (2000) suggests that this may have been because he was turned on by the idea of two women together or because he was insecure that he was twenty years older than her and could not satisfy her sexual appetite.  Whatever the case, her sexuality is always understood in the context of men.  In her own words she said, “Men are kings.  They direct the world (Herrera, 1983, p. 250).”  Trotsky and Rivera were certainly give more attention in this research.  They were masters of the world of politics and art.  Further, Frida’s relationships with women are less known.  They are left out of the narrative of her life for lack of information.  After Frida died, her friends edited and destroyed parts of her diaries.  It is possible that this aspect of her life was destroyed or edited out of history or because of biphobia and homophobia, for decades it was underplayed and under researched.  Beyond sexuality and gender, is her troublesome association with Stalinism and her affair with Trotsky.  She denounced a man who she both slept with and offered safety to.  While it seems that her political decisions were certainly connected to Diego, she was a communist before she met him and it insults her intelligence to suppose that she blindly followed him politically.  Surely he influenced her political life, but she had enough agency to declare herself a better communist and paint Stalin from her deathbed.

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Haynes (2016) noted that one theme from Frida’s life was duality, which is seen in both her art and her life.  An example in her art is the painting, The Two Fridas wherein she depicts two versions of herself, each sharing a heart.  They are dressed differently and in different poses to represent her European identity and the other her Mexican identity, as she was the daughter of a German/Hungarian Jew and a part Native American catholic mother.  The image also represents her emotional side and rational side.  Frida’s gender expression and sexuality may also be described as “in between.”  While her clothes are often feminine dresses, her unibrow, facial hair, and stern expression may be seen as masculine.  As a young adult, she wore suits and after a split with Rivera, she cropped her hair and resumed wearing suits (Haynes, 2016).  Frida actually depicted herself as more masculine during the 1940s, darkening her mustache in portraits of that era (Garber, 2000).  Another duality is her bisexuality, or betweenness in regard to her attraction to men and women.  Bisexual themes have been interpreted in Frida’s art.  For instance, Two Nudes in the Forest, depicts two naked women in the forest.  A darker skinned woman has her hand on the neck of a lighter skinned woman, as a monkey watches from the forest.   The painting was created for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress, around the time she was going through a divorce with Rivera (Collins, 2013).  Delores Del Rio, like many of the women in Frida’s life, was powerful, beautiful, non-conventional, and pioneering.  She was the first Latina actress to become famous in Hollywood, though less political than many of Frida’s other love interests.  Josephine Baker was another love interest, and again, a pioneering woman.  She was the first Black woman to become a world famous entertainer.  She had communist sympathies and performed in Cuba on the 7th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and later in Albania and Yugoslavia.  She also was a leader in the NAACP and an organizer in the Civil Rights movement.  Certainly, Baker more politically interesting and historically important than Diego Rivera.  But, specific details regarding their relationship is harder to find, likely owing to the fact that they lived in a world that was hostile to same sex relationships.  Finally, in a way, Frida’s relationship to Diego might be seen as a relationship between two gender non-conforming individuals. Diego Rivera was woman-like in Frida’s eyes.  He was a large man and Frida said that he would have been welcome on the island of Lesbos.  She said she loved his large breasts and pink, oversized underwear, which he wore due to his enormous girth (Herrera, 1983).

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Politically, Frida’s life was full of duality.  Not only was she at varying times pulled between Trotskyism and Stalinism, according to Helland (1992) she was pulled between Marxism and nationalism.  Frida lived in a time where Marxism and Mexican nationalism were both popular.  Mexican nationalism consisted of an idealization of Aztec culture, an interest in Mexican history, mixed with anti-Spanish and anti-imperialism.   Kahlo used Aztec inspired images in her artwork, such as hearts and skeletons.  Unlike Rivera, she did not identify with the internationalism of Trotskyism and did not create as many traditionally socialist styled pieces of art.  Nationalism may have been why she identified with Stalinism.  Many of her paintings critique the United States, such as her Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, wherein the United States is depicted as highly industrial and robotic, and Mexico is depicted as agricultural and and pre-industrial.  Frida died with an unfinished portrait of Stalin on her easel and near her bed were pictures of Marx, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, and Engels (Helland, 1992).  While she did not overtly call herself a feminist, feminists admire Kahlo because of the themes of female experience in her paintings, such as birth, miscarriage, and unhappiness in love.  Frida might be looked upon as a feminist for her experiences with abortion.  While she later described the incident as a miscarriage, in 1932, she wrote in her diary of a self-induced abortion using quinine.  She also sought a medical abortion due to concerns for her reproductive health after her accident and experienced a miscarriage.  She was denied an abortion, so she sought to self-perform one.  Dr. Pratt informed her that she could have a child and deliver it through c-section.  Interestingly, her abortions have been reframed by historians as miscarriages.  While she is believed to have regret not having children, she may have cultivated this belief in order to conform to social norms of the day and because motherhood was central to Mexican woman identity at the time.  Her poor health may have been used to legitimize this decision.  Abortion was illegal in the United States and Mexico at the time (Zetterman, 2006).  A duality was her longing for reproduction, her love of children, but her inability to have them.  Finally, she is quoted as saying that she detested surrealism as bourgeoisie art, but she also rejected the socialist realism sanctioned by the Soviet Union  (Helland, 1992).  Thus, her art is another duality.  She was embraced by surrealists, but also had elements of realism.  Finally, her art itself contrasts with her politics, as she was a socialist who was deeply interested in herself or own individuality.


Frida Kahlo was a complicated and fascinating person.  The magnetism and mystery that drew people to her in her own time continues to attract audiences to her art and history.  There are so many facets of her life and personality to uncover.  This piece barely explores her political life, faintly reviews her sexual life, and only hints at her gender.  Like others, this research makes the mistake of focusing too heavily on her relationships with men.   Of course, bisexuality does not necessarily mean equal attraction to men and women.  The emphasis on her male relationships is not a problem with Frida’s sexuality or does not in anyway diminish her bisexuality.  Rather, it is a problem with the male focus of society and by extension, historians.  As a bisexual Trotskyist, I was certainly interested in that aspect of her life.   But, this focus runs the risk of creating a narrative that relationships with women or women themselves are unimportant.  Despite these shortcomings, it is my hope that it offers a few tidbits of insight to those who attended our monthly meeting and raises new questions about her.


Sources:

Ankori, G., & A. (2013). Frida Kahlo. London: Reaktion Books.

Bildner, A. (2004). Diego, Frida, and Trotsky. Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies.

 

Collins, A. F. (2013, September 17). Frida Kahlo’s Diary: A Glimpse Inside Her Tortured, Scribble-Happy World. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/1995/09/frida-kahlo-diego-rivera-art-diary

 

Davison, Phil. “Diego Rivera’s Dirty Little Secret.” Independent 25 Nov. 1993

 

DeMirjyn, M. (2011). “The Queer Filming of Frida”: Creating a Cinematic Latina Lesbian Icon. Praxis, 23(1).

 

Easterling, S. (2013, March). Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://isreview.org/issue/74/mexicos-revolution-1910-1920

 

Haynes, A. (2006). Frida Kahlo: An Artist’In Between’. In Conference Proceedings–Thinking Gender–The NEXT generation.

 

Helland, J. (1992). Culture, politics, and identity in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The expanding discourse: Feminism and art history, 397-408.

 

Herrera, H. (1983). Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Perennial.

 

Garber, M. B. (2000). Bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Routledge.

 

Mataev, O. (n.d.). Frida Kahlo Biography. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.abcgallery.com/K/kahlo/kahlobio.html

 

“Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick – by Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. <http://www.fridakahlo.org/marxism-will-give-health-to-the-sick.jsp&gt;

 

Morrison, J., & Pietras, J. (2010). Frida Kahlo. New York: Chelsea House.

 

Motian-Meadows, M. (n.d.). Kahlo As Artist, Woman, Rebel. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/2782

 

Rogers, L. (2014, April 30). Frida’s Red Hot Lover. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://lisawallerrogers.com/2009/06/10/fridas-red-hot-lover/

 

Tuck, J. (2008, October). Rebel without a pause: the tempestuous life of Diego Rivera. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/306-rebel-without-a-pause-the-tempestuous-life-of-diego-rivera

 

Two Nudes in the Forest. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.fridakahlo.org/two-nudes-in-the-forest.jsp

 

Zamora, M. (1991). Frida Kahlo: the brush of anguish. Tokyo: Libroport.

 

Zetterman, E. (2006). Frida Kahlo’s abortions: With reflections from a gender perspective on sexual education in Mexico. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 75(4), 230-243.

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

The title of this blog post, unlike the signs at the March for Science, is a little uninspired.  To tell you the truth, I regret that did not attend the March for Science this past Saturday.  This is not because I am against science, but because I had worked the night shift the night before and didn’t want to short change my sleep.  I support the march and was glad to see that Duluth had a great turnout.  It was wonderful that individuals who do not normally attend marches went to the science march. I was also glad to see that there was a great turnout across the country.  Science is important for society and should be defended.  The fact that it was defended with a march is important, since it normalizes protest which is an essential organizing tool as it is the public, mass, visible sharing of ideas and demands.  Thus, I am elated that another protest has happened and that it was attended by hundreds of thousands of people.  However, I couldn’t help but notice that the media treated the science march very differently than the women’s march.  I think that this is because science is less of a threat to the functioning of capitalism than the liberation of women.



To be fair, I am very biased.  And, to be fair, this isn’t a very scientific analysis of the issue.  Nevertheless, I noted very positive media coverage of the science march.  For instance, an article in Forbes described the march as happy, delightful, and funny.  Various articles highlighted fun costumes and signs.  Fortune also called it fun and a “celeprotest” with signs that were more clever than other protests.  Many articles pointed out that it was non-partisan, though certainly a reaction to the Trump administration.  The coverage discussed the large crowds and hearty, fun protesters who braved the rain.  Now, there was certainly positive coverage of the Women’s March, but there was also negative coverage about the signs left behind, the lack of diversity, problematic pussy hats, partisanship, etc.  There was some critique from fellow scientists regarding the march, but this seemed centered upon the idea that science should be neutral and apolitical.  There was a lot less criticism about the lack of diversity or that the science march was a display of white privilege.  The science march was not called out in the same way for not supporting Black Lives Matter.  The lack of scrutiny worries me, as certainly the March for Science could have been more diverse and certainly science has played a role in the oppression of various groups in society.  This is not to let white feminism off the hook, but to note that many social movements struggle with their role in oppression.  To me, the glowing media coverage represents the fact that science does not represent a real threat to capitalism or the status quo.  At the same time, the Women’s March was covered more positively than Black Lives Matter and the Occupy Movement.  Black Lives Matter calls into question police authority, the entire criminal justice system, the state’s right to kill, and racism.  In reaction, politicians have scrambled to limit the right to protests that block traffic and have sought to impose fees on protesters.  The Occupy Movement called into question banking, finance, social inequality, the right to occupy public space.  The media portrayed protesters as frivolous, unruly, and even dirty.  While the BDS movement does not receive as much media coverage, Democratic and Republican senators in Minnesota worked together to pass restrictions against offering contracts to vendors who boycott Israel.  These movements are/were denigrated because they are very direct in their threat to the existing order.

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The reason why I don’t think that science is a direct threat to capitalism is that, on some level, capitalism needs science to operate.  While the capitalist economy is irrational in its destruction of the planet, focus on profits over human needs, and tendency towards crisis, it is very rational in other aspects.  The process of extracting profit from labor is pretty rational.  It is no wonder that the art of extracting more profit from labor was called “scientific management.”   Frederick Taylor realized that labor output could be treated scientifically.  Capitalism also seeks to generate more profits by increasing production.  Increasing production often requires the use of technology, again, a very rational aspect of capitalism.  Capitalism also requires wars, as this destroys competition, opens up new markets, and defends a country’s access to raw materials and cheap labor abroad.  Science is necessary for the creation of more powerful machines and weapons.  Research and development was actually been an all time high last November, as $499 billion was spent on R&D in the U.S. in 20015 (numbers released 2016).  Over half of that money went to defense alone.  Finally, where would capitalism be without science?  There would have been no industrial revolution and no subsequent imperialist conquest of the globe.  This does not make science bad, but, it should illustrate that science is actually pretty useful to capitalism.

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Despite the many ways that science serves capitalism, it remains controversial in society.  It seems odd that religiosity, irrationality, alternative facts, spirituality, etc. have any appeal in this system.  Why does this conflict arise?  Why are things like evolution and climate change at all controversial?  There are many reasons for this.  For one, Karl Marx observed that nothing is sacred in capitalism.  For instance, children are nothing more than future workers and soldiers.  If not for the efforts of the labor movement, the childhood enjoyed by many American children today would not exist at all.  A woman’s womb is a machine to produce more workers and soldiers.  A family is useful inasmuch as it reproduces labor and controls women’s sexuality and unpaid labor, but there is nothing good or virtuous about the family itself in the context of capitalism.  Capitalism actually stole holidays or holy days from the masses in the interest of creating a disciplined workforce with a reliable, year round, schedule.  I am sure many readers who have worked on Christmas or Thanksgiving can understand how nothing is sacred in the economy.  Time off is treated as a privilege.  Work divides families.  It keeps people away from their children and makes them decide whether to take an unpaid day off work to see a school concert or attend to a child’s illness or face the economic consequence.  In many ways, it would serve capitalism better if workers were nihilists with no love of their family, no joy in friendship and romance, no faith in religion, and no belief in any liberating ideology.  Yet, no only does religion persist, it often exists at odds with science.  Why?


Both science and religion play important roles in society.  Karl Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses.  In Marx’s time, opium caused two wars between Western countries and China, meaning that like opium, religion is used by those with power to cause division and conflict in society.  At the same time, opium was used to soothe pain.  Religion therefore soothes the pains wrought by capitalist society by creating community and offering hope of a better world.  The first function of religion is particularly important in capitalism.  While science is generally pretty useful to capitalism, it can sometimes be pesky.  Environmental science is pretty irksome.  Climate change is very nettlesome.  Rabid religiosity that is anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-environment, anti-trans, etc. is wonderfully divisive.  It allows capitalism to chug along without unified opposition to the pillage of the planet.  It allows capitalism to chug along as workers do not recognize their common oppressions and blame social problems on liberal teachers, feminists, gays and lesbians, atheists, or other religions.  Religion is a useful tool in capitalism’s toolbox.  And, since most religious folks focus their dismay about science to decry climate science or evolution rather than say, nuclear physics or science used in the interest of the U.S. war machine, capitalism can allow some degree of anti-science sentiments.

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(I am not sure if this is a photo of a real event or fake, mockery of an anti-science protest)

Besides the fact that anti-science is helpful in dividing people and thwarting environmentalism, because of its role in capitalism, science has been used to oppress people.  Social Darwinism and scientific racism were used to justify the exploitation and colonization of people of color.  Eugenics used notions about genetics to justify segregation, forced sterilization, forced abortions, institutionalization, and euthanasia.   The knowledge and experiences of women, Native Americans, African Americans, poor people, immigrants, and other oppressed groups is routinely ignored as emotional, irrational, backwards, or foolish.  Science hasn’t been used in kind ways.  Psychologists have classified some groups as deviant or sick.  Until 2012, being transgender was considered a mental illness.  Today, only gender dysphoria is listed as an illness.  Homosexuality was viewed as a mental illness until 1973.  Members of those groups may feel a certain antagonism to the science that has classified them as sick.  African American men were lied to and denied treatment for syphilis so that the progression of the disease could be understood in the famous Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  Many marginalized groups such as racial minorities, prisoners, and the mentally ill, have been experimented upon.  In the 1800s, medical institutions arose and monopolized professions and knowledge that was once more democratically available.   If there is some hostility towards science, it is quite understandable considering this history.


To return to the March for Science, these sentiments should in no way diminish the importance of this march.  Scientists need to march.  They need to stand up for science that promotes social justice.  Science is not neutral.  It is very political.  Neutrality is political.  A better world is possible and science can help us achieve a better world.  Just as science has been a tool of capitalists, it can be a tool of the masses.  The sentiment of the march was that science should be used for creating a greener, safer, healthier, easier life for everyone.  To this end, I hope that scientists and supporters of science acknowledge the dark aspects of science’s role in capitalism.  I hope that oppressed groups can feel welcomed by future events and that their experiences and knowledge contribute to a full understanding of our world.  If “scienceism” emerges as a social movement, I hope that it is called to task in the same way that the Women’s March and feminist movement has.  I also hope that protest continues to be viewed as a legitimate response to social problems.  At the same time, I do not think that science itself will liberate us.  It would be helpful if everyone believed in climate change, as this would shift the discourse from “is it real” to “what can be done?”  However, the “what can be done” that is promoted by mainstream institutions will always serve capitalism.  It will never take us beyond market and individual solutions.  We could collectively buy electric cars or green lightbulbs.  We can compost and recycle as the world continues on its path towards the next mass extinction.  The warm response to the protest indicates to me that the powers that be are not particularly afraid of science.  They are mildly afraid of millions of women in pussy hats and extremely afraid of militant Black people.  Protests should be fun.  There should be snappy slogans.  I am up for whatever it takes to make it appealing and normal to the broadest and most diverse segments of society.  This should be done with the hope of pushing for bigger, better, more intersectional, more revolutionary actions.  In the end, the goal of any social movement should be to create fear of the unyielding power of the masses.   This may or may not involve hats.

Image result for pussy hat at science march

photo taken from: https://longreads.com/2017/04/25/pussy-hats-and-brain-hats-the-revolution-will-be-handmade/

 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/haroldstark/2017/04/23/the-march-for-science-in-dc-and-around-the-world/#32eed3395d65http://fortune.com/2017/04/24/science-march-worked/http://reason.com/blog/2017/04/24/march-for-science-rd-funding-is-not-fall

March Activist Notes

March Activist Notes

H. Bradford

3/31/17

March was another busy month!  I can’t believe that it is already over.  Now, I didn’t attend every event that happened this month.  That would be impossible.  I also didn’t attend every event that I could have attended this month.  That would require a revolutionary zeal that I simply don’t possess.  I took time to bird watch, paint bird houses, edit a book I have been working on, and attend the ballet.  I also took walks, wasted time, and socialized.  So, this sample is not all of the events that happened in the Northland this month.  It is not even the most important events that happened this month!  It is a sample of a few things that transpired so that those who missed them can get an idea of what they missed out on.

Berta Vive in Duluth: March 5th

Berta Caceres was assassinated on March 2nd, 2016.  She was an indigenous environmental activist who stood up against the neoliberal plot to build a hydroelectric dam in Rio Blanco, Honduras.   Following the 2009 coup which Hilary Clinton’s state department legitimized if not supported, violence against activists has increased.  Caceres, a critic of Clinton, was one of many victims of this violence.  Witness for Peace is taking a delegation to Honduras this spring, so in honor of Berta, but also to promote the upcoming trip, they hosted this event.  The event featured a panel of previous Witness for Peace delegates.  This was a great way to start International Women’s Day week, since it connected the struggles of women in other countries to our own brutal foreign policy.  Feminism should be for everyone, not just American women.  Our foreign policy is anathema to feminism.

Berta Caceres 2015 Goldman Environmental Award Recipient


International Women’s Day: March 8th

On March 8th, the Feminist Justice League hosted a 78 minute symbolic strike in solidarity with International Women’s Day events around the world.  The strike was meant to highlight the wage gap between men and women.  If one compares the median income of a man versus a woman, women make about 80% of the income that men make on average in a year (80% is the newest statistic, but 78 is still often quoted).   There are many reasons for this.  For one, women are not valued, so their labor is less valued.  Careers which attract women tend to be lower paid and less esteemed.  Because the United States is one of the few countries in the world which does not provide paid maternity leave, women must leave the labor force when they have children.  This also diminishes wages.   Women are more likely to do unpaid labor and care for children as single parents.  This too, diminishes their economic power.   It was extremely cold and windy on March 8th, but a few dozen intrepid protestors braved the cold for the whole 78 minutes.  At various intervals, we banged on a pot and announced the wage gap between various racial minorities and white men.  The banging on the pot was met with “boos!” as we expressed our outrage over the racist, ageist, and sexist wage gap.  Black women make about 63% of the median income of white men and Hispanic women make 54%.  Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders make 60% of the income of white men and Native Americans make 58%.  Women over the age of 55 make about 74% of the income of white men the same age.   Wage parity is important since it highlights the economic foundations of sexism (and for that matter racism).   The event was followed by a panel discussion, which explored other facets of labor.  I especially enjoyed when Ariel spoke about sex work and stripping.  She provided a balanced view of the pros and cons of the industry, her struggles and successes as a stripper (especially with stigma), and a call to legitimize all the work women do.    Kristi provided great information about Earned Safe and Sick Time in Duluth and Katie Humphrey spoke about how women benefit from unions.  A great discussion followed.  On April 4th, there will be another wage parity event in Duluth, hosted by AAUW.

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Feminist Frolic:  Labor History Walk + Discussion

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic, which involves an outdoor activity and a discussion.  This month, Adam was going to present on the labor history of Superior while doing a short walk.   Only three people showed up, so we decided to table the event for a later time.  However, about an hour later, two more people showed up, so I did a presentation of socialist feminism at the Solidarity House.

 


13th Documentary: March 13

Superior Save the Kids hosted a documentary showing of 13th.   I enjoyed that the documentary was dense with history and information, yet easily digestible.  It wove a tight narrative of how the criminal justice system is fundamentally racist.  For instance, African Americans make up 6.5% of our population, but 40% of the prison population.  It is startling to think that there are more prisoners today then there were slaves during the Civil War.   The United States is 5% of the world’s population, but hosts 25% of the world’s prison population.   According to the film, the rise of the prison industry was a way to profit while oppressing racial minorities (and really everyone as we are all to varying degrees oppressed by a system that divides us, threatens us, and profits from our punishment).  To this end, the “scary black man” had to be invented.  Thus, around the turn of the last century,  a narrative that black men were rapists, out of control, and associated with criminality was concocted.  This narrative legitimized the KKK and racist mobs (such as the racist mob which hung Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie in Duluth).  The Civil Rights movement challenged outright violence against and segregation of black people, but violence and segregation have continued through the criminal justice system.  For instance, in 1970, the prison population was about 350,000 people.  Today, there are states with higher prison populations than that number!  By 1980, there were 500,000 people in prison.  The war on drug, which penalized crack cocaine harder than other drugs, as well as cuts to social programs, ushered in an era of explosive prison population growth.  By the mid 1980s, over 700,000 people were imprisoned.  By 1990, the number was over one million.  In 2000, the number reached 2 million.  The Clintons were complicit in this surge, as Bill Clinton wanted to be tough on crime.  Through his Crime Bill and other polices, he supported extra police, the militarization of the police, the construction of extra prisons, mandatory minimum sentences, truth in sentencing (which limits parole), etc.  Hillary called black youth “super preditors.”  I have no illusions with the Democratic party.  But, to be fair, Trump wanted the death penalty for youth.   The movie also pointed out that the mass incarceration of African Americans has resulted in a crisis of leadership or less ability to organize themselves for their own rights.  There was also information about ALEC, for profit prisons, and the movement of individualizing prison through GPS tracking/ankle bracelets.   I had to work that night, so I missed the discussion, but it was a powerful and informative film.  Save the Kids hopes to continue to show films on a monthly basis.  On April 10th, Selma will be shown.

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Bi with (Pizza) Pie:  Trans in Prison- March 20th

Each month, Pandemonium, the local Bi+ group gets together for a presentation on a topic.  This month, Lucas Dietsche led the discussion with a presentation on the challenges that trans individuals face in the criminal justice system.  He gave a very informed and engaging presentation on this topic.   Some of the challenges include getting sent to a prison that misgenders the individual (so typically transwomen end up in men’s prisons or transwomen in men’s prisons), lack of access to hormones or other treatments, sexual assault, solitary confinement, lack of access to gender specific items such as bras, solitary confinement, and use of a legal name rather than preferred name or pronouns.  When writing to trans prisoners, Lucas noted that the writer can not address the envelope or letter to the preferred name of the individual.  The DOC requires that senders must use the legal name of the prisoner.  He also noted that the DOC does not track trans individuals since it does not view them as trans.  Rather, it lists them as their legal or birth sex.  Thus, it is hard to know exactly how many trans individuals are in the prison system as the system renders them invisible.   Lucas also mentioned some examples of trans people in prison or who have been in prison, such as Cece McDonald and Chelsea Manning.   In the future, we would like to host an LGBTQ Letters to Prisoners Event.

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UMD Women and Gender Studies Presentation: March 21st

I was invited to speak at a Feminist Activism and Community Organizing Class at UMD.  This was a great experience.  I spent the hour speaking about how theory informs the organizational tools that I chose to utilize as a feminist.  I spoke about socialist feminism and my focus on building mass movements over electoral politics.   The coolest part was that one of the students had read one of my blog posts prior to my visit to the class!


Socialism and a Slice: March 27

One a month, Socialist Action hosts Socialism and a Slice.  This is an event for local activists to get together and enjoy pizza while discussing current events.  At this meeting, Henry Banks provided us with some information about Uber.  He made a strong argument against Uber on the basis that it is not regulated, it can drive up the price of taxis, and that taxis themselves are often utilized by people of color and low income individuals (contrasted with Uber which has more middle class white appeal).   Taxi companies are more likely to be unionized than Uber and Adam R. pointed out that during Trump’s immigration ban, Uber continued providing ride services while NY taxi drivers were on strike.   Later, Uber undercut taxi drivers who returned to work by turning off surge pricing (that is, when taxi demand goes up, prices tend to go up). This disgusting scabbing should be enough to turn a person off of Uber for good, as it seems that Uber only supports society’s “ubers” and uber profits.  Unfortunately, Duluth’s City Council passed a resolution in support of ride share companies later that night.


Homeless Bill of Rights:

The Homeless Bill of Rights meets each Thursday at 6:30 at Dorothy Day House.  I did not become involved with the group until October, but the organization has been tirelessly and relentlessly working on this issue since 2013.  Finally, after all this time, the Homeless Bill or Rights is finally moving forward.  Two important things happened this month.  Firstly, the Duluth City Council voted that they wanted to move forward or for action to occur related to the bill.  Although this doesn’t mean too much, it does mean that they are looking to see some sort of progress on this issue in the future and are committed to being a part of that.  Another hopeful turn of events is that the Human Rights Commission voted to support the language and eleven points of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights.  They also support this as an ordinance or a template for moving forward with an ordinance.  This does not mean that this will be the ordinance that the City Council eventually vote on, as this requires further negotiation.  However, it is a nice step forward.

14702377_1240475885996242_1996750558988644607_n  This is a promotional photo taken by the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights Coalition.  The featured individual is an activist who is engaged in this campaign and who has spoken about her experiences (Shareeka), though many individuals had their photos taken to promote the ordinance.

Hotdish Militia:

The Hotdish Militia has continued to meet each Thursday at 5:30.  The big project that the group is working on is a Bowl-a-thon to raise funds in support of local abortion access at the Women’s Health Center.   The funds go directly to local, low income women (or possibly men/trans/gender non-binary) so they can afford an abortion or other reproductive health care.  Right now, we are working on raising funds, but also soliciting businesses for prizes to award the teams.  The bowling event will be held on April 29th.  Thus far, the fundraiser has raised over 2000 dollars.  The goal is $5000.  My own modest team, The Feminist Justice League, has raised over $400.  While we are not the biggest fundraisers, I am proud that we have raised anything at all and thankful to the donors who have supported us!

to support us:  https://bowl.nnaf.org/team/106832

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Doctrine of Discovery:  3/30/17

Peace United Church hosted a showing of the documentary, Doctrine of Discovery.  The film is about how Papal law from the late 1400s has been used to justify the denial of land rights and self-determination of Native Americans.   Catholic law has been the basis of U.S. policy regarding Native Americans throughout our entire history.  Basically, Catholics did not recognize the right of Native Americans to own their land.  Rather, as “heathens” they were viewed as subhumans who benefited from civilization and who did not have rights to the land because they were not making “productive use” of it.  As late as 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg no less) has upheld this archaic worldview.  In fact, this worldview is the foundation of the United State’s very existence.  To recognize the property rights of Native Americans would challenge capitalism and the taken for granted right of white people to inhabit/exploit this land.  The documentary was awesome and I enjoyed the thoughtful discussion that followed.   I also enjoyed learning the origins of some words.  For instance, colonization comes from the word colon.  To colonize is to digest.  What a powerful metaphor.  Europeans digested Native Americans by consuming their land, taking their lives, and destroying their culture.

Trans Visibility Day: 3/31/17


The month ended with a picket in support of Trans Visibility Day.   Trans Visibility Day was founded in 2009 in the United States to promote positive visibility of the trans community (as opposed to Trans Remembrance Day which is focused on violence against and victimization of trans individuals).  Locally, the event was sponsored by the Prism Community, though I believe that other groups such as Trans+ and UWS Gender Equity Resource Center were also involved.  The event which I attended was a picket, but the previous night there was a poster making session and later on Friday evening, Prism sponsored a film showing of National Geographic’s Gender Revolution.  I did not attend the film.  However, the picket was very well attended.  It was great to see so many young people, especially high school students.  I also liked all the glitter and colorful hair!  There was a lot of positive energy!  Many vehicles honked in support of the event and I only noticed a few pedestrians and one driver making rude gestures or comments.   This was my first time attending Trans Visibility Day and it was a great experience.  I also received a few compliments on my sign!

Self Care:

I am not a superhuman, so I did take time for myself.   I had a fabulous time attending the MN Ballet’s Firebird.  What is better than Stravinsky, Russian folk tales, and my favorite kick ass lich Koschei?!  I also visited St. Croix State Park.  I saw two fields of tundra swans near the park.  Today, I did some birding at WI Point and saw many common mergansers.  I also painted some bird houses and worked on editing one of the vampire novels I’ve written.  I wish there were more hours in the day.  I didn’t have enough time to read or pursue other hobbies.   Oh well.  It was a great month and I am looking forward to a fun filled, activist driven April!

Some Basics of Socialist Feminism

Some Basics of Socialist Feminism

H. Bradford

3/11/17

This week, International Women’s Day was marked by an impressive array of feminist mobilizations around the world.  For the first time in a long time in the U.S., the holiday hearkened back to its radical roots.  Women from Lansing to Chattanooga, along with at least fifty other cities in the United States, participated in demonstrations related to “A Day Without a Woman.” Locally, there were numerous events spread across the week which touched upon a wide range of issues including domestic violence, wage parity, reproductive rights, and U.S. foreign policy.  Considering the connection the holiday has to the labor and socialist movements, it is suiting that this month’s Feminist Frolic would include a labor history hike around Superior.  I wanted to end the hike with an equally relevant topic: socialist feminism.


It is hard to know where to begin when explaining socialist feminism.  It is something I take for granted and something that isn’t easily explained.  There is no “one” socialist feminism, since there are many strains of socialist thought.  As such, this is not a theoretically nuanced piece.  Rather, it seeks to lay out some basic principles of socialist feminism.  To this end, in 1976, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a short, basic piece which sought to explain socialist feminism.  Her beginning point was to break down feminism and socialism.  According to Ehrenreich (1976), both are ways of looking critically at society.  From a socialist, or more specifically, a Marxist perspective, society is unequal because a tiny segment of the population profits from the labor of the majority.  The vast majority of the population are workers, who must work to survive and who do not control their wages, working conditions, or productive outputs.  The tiny minority are capitalists, who profit by underpaying workers.  According to Marxists, these classes are in conflict with one another.  And, it is possible and hopeful, though not inevitable nor easy, that this conflict could lead to the workers emancipating themselves by overthrowing the capitalists and the system that benefits them.  Thus, the main concern of Marxists is class conflict, through, issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all the other “isms” are also important antagonisms which serve a purpose in capitalism and which Marxists seek to resolve through mass movements and the overthrow of capitalism.  Inessa Armand summarized the importance of organizing to end these oppressions as part of the struggle against capitalism in her quote, “if the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women.”  Ehrenreich (1976) summed it up by stating that socialist feminism is “socialist, internationalist, antiracist, antiheterosexist feminism.”

Inessa Armand


Feminism, like Marxism, sees inequality as characteristic of capitalist society.  However, the area of special focus of feminists is the oppression of women.  Various kinds of feminists come to different conclusions about how to end oppression.  For instance, liberal feminists often want to elect more women into political office.  They might support businesses owned by women and want to promote women into leadership and business positions.  This position generally wants to work within the framework of capitalism and the confines of our existing political system to enact reforms that benefit women.  To be fair, socialist feminists are not against reforms, but are critical of capitalism and our political system.  From a socialist feminist perspective, capitalist democracies cannot end women’s oppression.  The socialist feminist critique of liberal feminism is that promoting women into power perpetuates the oppression of women by giving them reign over foreign policies, military decisions, and austerity measures that hurt women.  For instance, one of the first events for International Women’s Day was a panel sponsored by Witness for Peace.  The panel focused on Honduras, which experienced U.S. supported coup in 2009.  Berta Caceres, an environmental activist, was killed about a year prior to the panel.  She was a critic of Hillary Clinton and her death resulted the violence and intimidation that has sought to suppress activists since the coup.  From a socialist feminist perspective, it is not a win for women if Hillary Clinton would have been elected as president.  For poor women, working women, and women who suffer from our militarism and violent, business centered foreign policy, this would not have been a gain at all.  Socialist feminist critique liberal feminism because it mainly benefits wealthier or more privileged women.

I want a feminism that stands against U.S. foreign policy.


The critique of liberal feminism is nothing new.  Historically, socialists have not always been perfect on the issue of women’s liberation.  While Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote about women’s oppression and socialists organized around issues related to working class women, early socialists were cautious and critical of feminists.  They viewed early feminists as upper to middle class women whose interests were not aligned with those of working women.  These early feminists supported suffrage, but also wanted property rights for women.  These demands seem basic, but to a socialist, who views private property as the basis of patriarchy and who advocates for people who lack property, it is a demand that speaks more to those with means.  Socialists were late to adopt women’s suffrage as a demand for a variety of reasons (e.g. worry about participation in capitalist governments and concern that women could be drafted into imperialist wars) and did so due to the pressure and leadership of women within their own party.  While there is a rich history of socialist women such as Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Alexandra Kollontai, these women are often overshadowed by their male counterparts in history.  Women played an important role in the Russian revolution by leading a strike on International Women’s Day in 1917, but were relegated to less “powerful” or important roles in the government.  The Russian revolution transformed society.  While it is common for people in our society to view Russia as conservative and repressive today, it was actually the first country to legalize abortion and decriminalize homosexuality.  After the revolution, maternity leave, civil marriage, easier access to divorce, free daycares, free health care, communal kitchens, and equal pay for equal work were introduced.  Women’s jobs were even protected from being taken by returning soldiers.  But, these gains were halted and reversed by Stalin.


Stalinism put the brakes on the development of socialist feminist thought in the Soviet Union, but this did not stop socialists elsewhere in the world from developing socialist feminism.  The flourishing of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, deepened the interest in questioning the nature of oppression and how to resolve it.  Some feminists were dissatisfied with the solutions offered by radical feminism, which did not examine social class, and liberal feminism, which did not challenge the economic foundation of women’s oppression.  These feminists also rejected understandings of Marxism which gave primacy to class over gender.  They saw the two as intertwined.  Thus, this was the birth of modern socialist feminism.  Personally, while socialist feminism and Marxist feminist are supposedly schematically different, I find that I am both.  I come from a Marxist tradition, but I also view class and other oppressions as intertwined.  It is not possible to organize a worker’s revolution without the support and advancement of oppressed groups.  Thus, I don’t use the term socialist feminist to differentiate myself from a Marxist feminist.  Perhaps if I was around a larger variety of socialists and feminists, or wrote for an academic audience, these distinctions would have more meaning.  It is also important to note that my education in socialist feminism does not come from academia, but rather my experiences as an activist.  Because of this, the theoretical grounding and minutiae of socialist feminist debates is not as sophisticated as it could be.  Nevertheless, from my own experiences, here are some of the key components of modern socialist feminism.


1.Patriarchy arose with the advent of private property.  Private property results in the first class societies, but also required methods of passing property from one generation to the next.  This resulted in a system of primogeniture, or passing property on to the oldest son.  However, this also required that women’s sexually had to be controlled to avoid passing property along to an “illegitimate” heir.  Thus, patriarchy predates capitalism by many thousands of years.  Yet, since property is a cornerstone of capitalism, monogamy and marriage continue to be a means by which individuals manage and pass on property.


2.Capitalism is one of many class based societies.  Each had particular shortcomings and class antagonisms.  The main class antagonism in capitalism pits workers against capitalism.  Workers provide capitalists with profits, which is done by lengthening their work day, increasing production, and underpaying them.  At the same time, women play a few unique roles in capitalism.  For one, any oppressed group can serve as a scapegoat for social problems, which distracts workers from their common oppression.  Secondly, women play a role in the social reproduction of labor.  That is, they produce future generations of workers and maintain the current generation of workers through their unpaid labor.  Since women shoulder more unpaid labor than men, they play a bigger role in maintaining the workforce by making meals, cleaning the home, doing laundry, taking children to doctor’s appointments, raising children in general, caring for elderly and retired workers, etc.  In short, women do an astonishing service for capitalism.  Their unpaid labor means that less profits are diverted to social programs and socialized modes of care.


3.Socialist feminism calls for the overthrow of capitalism, because anything less puts social movements in an endless treadmill of fighting for reforms and fighting against the erosion of previous reforms.  For instance, reproductive rights have been eroded over the last forty years.  Activists may be able to fight some of these rollbacks, but unless capitalism is overthrown, there will always be pressures to reverse the rights won by activists.  There will always be another war, another attack on workers, and another cut to social programs.  This is the nature of capitalism and the role that governments take in ensuring that business can happen as usual.


4. Although socialist feminists want to see the end to capitalism, they support a variety of reforms to capitalism in the meantime- as a way to alleviate the suffering wrought by this system.  These demands include safe, legal, free and accessible abortion and reproductive health services.  Free and accessible are important demands that contrast to some liberal feminists, who have argued that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  Abortion should be accessed without coercion and stigma.  It is important to be mindful that minority women, women with disabilities, and women in the third world, have not been given the same autonomy over their reproductive health.  They have been experimented upon and sterilized.  Other demands, which were put forth by the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union in 1969, include pleasant private and collective housing, nutritious and varied food, community control and the disarmament of police, social responsibility for raising children, 24 hour free and client control daycare, free quality, public education for all ages, democratic councils within homes, communities, and workplaces, free competent, prevention focused, quality medical care, social respect for all jobs, an end of housework as private, unpaid labor, etc.  Many of these demands are quite revolutionary and would likely not be accomplished within capitalism, at least not without the pressure of strong and militant feminist and labor movements.  But, they represent the multifaceted nature of socialist feminism.  Social respect for all jobs, including janitors, fast food workers, sex workers, etc. not only benefit those workers, but they benefit women.  Women’s work is not socially respected.  This lack of social respect is used to justify unequal pay.  Respect for all work means rethinking how wages are structured and social inequality is viewed as an outcome of worth or merit.

Work should not be shameful.  It should not be a reflection of a person’s intellect, dreams, talents, personality, potential, or worth.  Even within capitalism, it is the means to survival, yet it is given so much symbolic meaning.


5.Socialist feminism is international.   While liberal feminists may look towards policies that benefit women within their own society, socialist feminists look at feminism globally.  Not everything that seems to benefit U.S. women benefit women elsewhere in the world.  Electing a woman as president means little of this president promotes war, sanctions, and free trade.  The U.S. is not the world’s police.  At the same time, oppressed women in the world will not be liberated by the U.S. or its military.  This is a task they must take up on their own.  For instance, a socialist feminist is against war in Afghanistan, even if some schools for girls are built or other projects that benefit women are supported by this mission.  The cost of war, the violence, the death, environmental destruction, and the usurping of national autonomy is always worse than these gains.


6.Socialist feminism is environmentally minded.  Socialism has not always had the reputation of being focused on the environment, just as it has not always had the reputation of focusing on women.   While I would argue that socialism has always had strong environmental and gender implications, social movements have helped socialists to further develop theory about and emphasize these issues.  It is clear that capitalism is destroying the planet.  Climate change is an outcome of the anarchy of capitalist production.  Capitalism will not transcend a fossil fuel based economy so long as it is profitable.  At the same time, climate change disproportionately impacts women globally because women are more likely to live in poverty.  In the third world, they are also more likely to be involved in farming and food production.  Thus, women are more likely to face food insecurity, disease, loss of livelihood, displacement, and increased impoverishment as the result of climate change.  Economic vulnerability lends itself to other vulnerabilities, such as to trafficking and domestic violence.  Socialists want an economy wherein production is based upon human needs rather than profit.  The productive forces of society should be socially owned, made more efficient, more sustainable, and localized, in the interest of meeting human needs and salvaging the planet.  The fossil fuel economy must be abolished.


7.Socialist feminism is intersectional.  Many feminist activists who use the word intersectional today use it in a very generic way.  That is, intersectionality is commonly understood to simply mean that oppression is complicated and often compounded.  A person may experience many kinds of oppression, including classism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc.  Thus, feminists are called upon to not only look at the oppression of women, but how this oppression interacts with other oppressions.  In this very generic understanding of intersectionality, socialist feminism is extremely intersectional because it is very aware of how the mission of feminism should not be to simply advance women, but to end racism, ableism, environmental destruction, heterosexism, and all of other social ills produced by capitalism.  Of course, socialist feminism does differ from the post-structural understanding of intersectionality.  Class is not one oppression of equals.  Class does have an important place in socialist feminism, because it is not only a type of oppression, it is the heart of the economic system and the engine of liberation.  Class is a node that intersects with many kinds of oppressions.  All of these oppressions play an important role in the functioning of capitalism.  However, because workers, as a class, make up the vast majority of society and because they are the economic power that drives capitalism, they have a special place in the network of oppressions.  Class is more than an identity, it is a social position and economic function.  At the same time, a working class revolution will not succeed unless it is anti-racist, feminist, against heterosexism, against ableism, etc.  These things cannot be divorced or teased out of this struggle.  They are enmeshed so tightly that socialist feminism is intersectional in practice, despite slight theoretical differences with the academic understanding of the word.


Conclusion:

With the resurgence of the feminist movement, it is important to revisit some of the variations of feminism.  Socialist feminism is just one kind of feminism.  Liberal feminism, which is the center of my critique, is another.  But, there are many variations of feminism.  There are variations of socialist feminism.  This piece set out to establish a few of the basics, at least from my own perspective and experiences as an activist.  While socialist feminism may seem old fashioned, I think it remains extremely relevant.  Attacks against collective bargaining, austerity, challenges to reproductive rights, and war have become commonplace.  The planet is dying.  The challenges faced by humanity are as daunting as ever.  Big problems need big solutions.  That is the promise of socialism.  It is a big solution.  Of course, building a socialist movement itself seems like an impossible task.  The question is not, “What is to be done?”  It is, where to begin?  International Women’s Day was a great beginning point to a feminist movement that connects to socialism and the labor movement.  Capitalism atomizes us.  This system breaks the continuity of history so that we feel isolated, lost, and alone.  But, the Day Without a Woman sought to make a connection to the labor and socialist history of the holiday.  It also sought to highlight the economic power of women and the connect the struggle of women in the U.S. to those abroad.  To me, this contains of the seeds of possibility.  On my part, I can continue to have conversations, promote these ideas, and dedicate myself to a variety of causes in the struggle against capitalism.  With hope, others will join in.

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing, hat, shoes and outdoor

 

 

https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/ehrenreich-barbara/socialist-feminism.htm

http://socialistreview.org.uk/367/women-and-revolution

https://monthlyreview.org/2003/03/01/the-socialist-feminist-project/
http://www.oakton.edu/user/4/ghamill/Socialist_Feminism.pdf

A Feminism that Fights Power

A Feminism that Fights Power

H. Bradford

2/6/17

 

Today, at a feminist meeting, we were asked what we hoped for in four years.  I felt very emotional when asked this question.  I angrily said that I hope that in four years both parties tremble at the power of the mobilized masses, whose anger they cannot contain.  Unfortunately, I am very alone in my socialist feminism and this wasn’t met with raised fists and denouncements of imperialism.  I got carried away.  Oh well.  Nevertheless, I remain convinced that women’s liberation is not a question of electing more women to power.  Women do not benefit from simply electing other women to office if these women are not committed to ending such things as poverty, homelessness, climate change, environmental destruction, racism, war, ableism, and heterosexism.  Working class women do not benefit from more women who are CEOs.  Women of color do not benefit from more female police officers and prison guards.  Just as the world is not a better place with more women on firing squads, we are no better when women win access to the tools of capitalist oppression.

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Queen of Hearts- a female with power does not equal feminism.

 


In the foggy days of figuring out politics, I remember that I was a fan of Madeleine Albright.  At the time, I admired her because she was a woman in a powerful position.  I admired that she was tough and stood up to men.  As a young woman, I wanted to see what women could do anything men could do.  It was only after becoming a socialist and seeing feminism in an international and class context, that I could see that Madeleine Albright did nothing to dismantle patriarchy.  She affirmed patriarchy by promoting U.S. foreign policy, even justifying the death of 500,000 Iraqi children due to UN sanctions as “worth it.”  She affirmed patriarchy by supporting the NATO bombing of civilian targets in Yugoslavia and by supporting right-wing guerillas in Colombia.  In the same way, Hillary Clinton offered vocal support of dismantling welfare, calling welfare recipients “deadbeats” and justified the Crime Bill by calling African American youth “super predators.”  She encouraged a coup in Honduras, supported wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and regime change in Libya.  Women’s liberation should not come at the expense of women elsewhere in the world or at the expense of oppressed groups in our own country.   I don’t want war criminals who menstruate.  I don’t want war criminals period.  (Word play intended).

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On a local and state level, it is not much different.  I am disappointed with our female mayor’s support of more “professional housing” developments when the city sorely needs more low income housing and her less than enthusiastic support of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  Amy Klobuchar supported PROMESA, a bill that granted an un-elected board control over Puerto Rico’s finances (enforcing a colonial relationship upon the island).  Although she was against the Iraq war, she supported the war in Afghanistan and sanctions on Iran (even though we are the only country who has actually used nuclear weapons in combat).  I am not aware of Klobuchar supporting Palestinian rights, rather, she supported Israel’s right to “self-defense” against Gaza.  In 2014, in the interest of “self-defense” Israel bombed Gaza, killing over 2000 civilians and destroying over 20,000 homes.  These may not seem like feminist issues, but my feminism is anti-colonial.  My feminism is against apartheid in any state.  My feminism does not think a U.S. war will liberate women.  Women must organize to liberate themselves.

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I understand that this leaves women with choiceless choices.  There are Republicans, who very clearly want to end reproductive rights and who often don’t even give lip service to ending racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and climate change  and Democrats, the kinder gentler capitalist party.  It is sad that women are often left with choiceless choices.  For lack of socialized day care, they must often choose to have children and put their employment and education on hold.  Sometimes they must choose to stay in abusive relationships for lack of money and lack of housing.  They historically have had to choose to get married, exchanging sex and unpaid labor for economic stability.  The two parties seem like another choiceless choice.  Yet, I believe that other choices do exist.  And, at the very least, by participating in mass movements and fighting like hell on the streets and in the workplaces, both parties can be temporarily forced to the left.  Women can be leaders. They can be leaders in social movements.  They can be leaders in their community.  They can be leaders in their unions.  They can be leaders in speaking out against war.  They can be leaders in demanding social programs.  They can be leaders as allies to oppressed groups.  They can be leaders in parties that truly work for workers for – parties that actually fight patriarchy rather than coddle it through war and oppression.   Women can be leaders in fighting the power of capitalism and patriarchy.

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A Year of Books

A Year of Books

H. Bradford 1/13/17


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


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

 

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


2. Socialism and Sexuality by Sherry Woolf (2009)

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

3. The Witches by Stacey Schiff (2015)

thewitches

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


4. Warrior Nation by Anton Treuer (2015)

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



5. The Beast Within by Joyce Salisbury

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

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

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6. Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin (1994)

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

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


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

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

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


8. Apartheid: A History by Brian Lapping

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


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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


16. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1998)

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


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

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


18. Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis (2016)

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


 

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

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


 

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

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


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


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

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


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

 

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


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

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


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

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

All the Season’s Ladies

All the Season’s Ladies:

Forgotten Females of the Holiday Season

By H. Bradford

12/18/16


It often seems like men have the starring role in the holiday season.  There’s Santa Claus, who delights children by delivering toys and travelling the world by a reindeer powered flying sleigh.  There are dozens of old men who act in a similar way to Santa Claus, including Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, and Sweden’s Christmas gnome. There’s baby Jesus, who makes babies seem less awful by not crying, spitting up, or creating messy diapers.  The three wise men add to the count.  Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer, the Elf on the Shelf, Krampus, Nester the Donkey, and the Little Drummer Boy can be added to the list of guys.  Even an obscure Bohemian king from the early 900s has a memorable holiday song (Good King Wenceslas).  Thankfully, there are some interesting female characters during the holiday season as well.  They might not be as numerous and might not attract the same attention, but each has an interesting story and offers some lessons in feminism.

 crazy-christmas-ads1  (Tis the season for sexism?)

Mrs. Claus

Mrs. Claus is a familiar Christmas season character who is usually portrayed as a plump, elderly woman dressed in red, with white hair and round glasses.  She is often engaged in such things as baking cookies, ironing clothes, and managing the Claus household.  There are few stories about her or well known songs.  Even her name is unknown or unmentioned, though she has been called Molly, Jessica, Delores, and Maya in some adaptations of her story (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.).  For most of history, Santa Claus did not even have a wife.  This is because the character, Santa Claus, was based upon a bishop from Myra, Turkey who may have been born around 280 CE.  According to legends, St. Nicholas gave his wealth to the poor, saved a three falsely imprisoned men, and gave dowry money to three poor sisters to save them from prostitution.  In a particularly horrific tale, Nicholas sensed that a corrupt inn keeper in Athens had pickled the corpses of three men, so he prayed to have them resurrected (St. Nicholas Origin Story, n.d.).  Ms. Claus has always lived in the shadow of her husband, baking cookies and doing laundry while he delivers toys.  It would be hard for her to compete with a character who gives toys to the world’s children, but also save women from prostitution and revives pickled corpses from time to time.

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Historical evidence of an actual person whom Saint Nicholas was based upon is thin.  His written biography was published 250 years after his death and the region already featured a similar story about a pagan philosopher named Apollonius who performed similar feats as St. Nicholas (Lendering, 2002).  Whatever the actual history, Saint Nicholas was a popular saint who was associated with gift giving and protecting sailors and children.  Even after the Protestant reformation, he remained a popular saint in the Netherlands, where he was called Sinterklaas.  Interestingly, saint days were abolished after the Republic of United Provinces became protestant, but due to unrest in the Catholic south and among students in Amsterdam, private observances of the Feast of Saint Nicholas were allowed.  Dutch immigrants are are credited with bringing Sinterklaas and the observation of the December 6th Feast of St. Nicholas to the U.S, where the character slowly lost his religious connotations and became associated with Christmas (St. Nicholas, n.d.).  There is no historical record that Saint Nicholas had a wife and his pagan counterpart, Apollonius was also celibate.  While modern bishops and priests within the Catholic church are required to be celibate, this would not have been the case in Nicholas’ era.  In 304 CE, when Nicholas would have been about 24 years old, the first written edict from the Council of Elvira stated that clerics should be celibate.  In 325, the Council of Nicea rejected a ban on the marriage of clerics.  It was not until the 12th century that clerics were definitively banned from marriage (Owen, 2001).   Thus, it is possible that St. Nicholas was married, if such a person existed.  But, in the imagination of post-12th century celebrants of the Feast of St. Nicholas, he likely would not have been thought of as a married man because of the normalization of celibate bishops.

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(St. Nicholas is more somber than jolly)

In the early 1800s, Santa Claus began to take on his more modern identity.  He went from the thin, olive skinned, saint in bishop’s garb to the jolly, magical, character dressed in red.  The 1823 poem called, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A visit from Saint Nicholas” helped to create the modern American Santa Claus, as it featured him as a character carried by a reindeer drawn sleigh, plump physique, and chimney travel (St. Nicholas Origin Story, 2014).  The secularization and modernization of Santa allowed the possibility that he might have a wife.  Mrs. Claus was introduced in 1849 in “A Christmas Legend” by James Rees (Hatherall, 2012).  In 1862, she was depicted in Harper Magazine as wearing a dozen red petticoats and Hessian boots, which seems like oddly militant yet fancy attire.  She was again depicted in 1877 in the book “Lill’s Travels in Santa Claus Land (the History Chicks, 2014).”  In 1889, Mrs. Claus was further popularized in the poem, “Goody Santa Claus” by Katherine Lee Bates (Hatherall, 2012).  In “Goody Santa Claus”, Mrs. Claus asked her husband why he should have all of the glory delivering toys and requests to come along in his sleigh (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.).  Bates, the author of the poem is famous for her song America the Beautiful.  She never married, was Oxford educated, and wrote children’s books, songs, and travel books.  Bates also had a very close relationship with Katharine Coleman, an economics and political science instructor.  Modern notions of lesbian sexual identity were not yet understood at the time, but some historians believe that the two women were a couple.  Either way, Bates was an independent woman and it is no wonder that her poem depicted Mrs. Claus as a more assertive and independent woman than other portrayals of the character.

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Generally speaking, Mrs. Claus is a supportive character to Santa Claus, who stays at home while he delivers toys.  She is often depicted as a kindly, large, older woman.  While she often plays second fiddle to her more famous husband, she does have a few more prominent roles in stories.  For instance, in the 1974 Rankin Bass claymation film, “A Year Without a Santa” Mrs. Claus considers donning the Santa suit and delivering toys herself.  She ultimately delegated gift delivery to the reindeer and elves, but does try to convince two weather spirits (Heat Miser and and Snow Miser) to make it snow.  A 1990 book called “Mrs. Santa Claus” deals with a similar premise, wherein Santa is sick and Ms. Claus must deliver the toys using a flying bicycle operated with vacuum cleaners and guided by a goose and chicken.  This eccentric method of delivery is feminine and domestic, but at least offers Mrs. Claus agency and a central role in the story (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.).

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(I couldn’t find an image of Mrs. Claus driving the sleigh, but here is one which conveys her as a lady prepared to wait for her man to return…)


Mrs. Claus quaint, invisible, and domestic characteristics illustrates how society tends to view older women.  Older women are not viewed as sexy or beautiful in society.  Women are shamed for aging poorly.  They are held to a different physical standard than aging men.  Young women are told what products to buy or precautions to take to avoid aging.  As such, aging is viewed negatively for women.  According to a study based upon data from OKCupid, the peak age of female attractiveness is 20 years old according to male respondents!  Thus, most women have only a small window in their life wherein they are considered very attractive.  As an older woman, Mrs. Claus lacks the power assigned to youthful beauty in society.  Like many women, she is defined by her husband, having no name but his name and no role but a supporting role to his endeavors.  Did she want to live in the North Pole?  Does she want to make cookies and stay home? What was her name before she was married?  What were her own dreams in life?  Why can’t she drive the sleigh?  Her isolation in the North Pole in a world of little men and reindeer only adds to the invisibility of being an aged woman.  At the same time, older women have lived experience and have seen history unfold.  They can be mentors, role models, and leaders to younger women.  As for Mrs. Claus, I’d like to see a story about her life before Santa Claus and see her engage in social change that extends beyond giving toys to kids.  She could be an icon against ageism and for the rights of women.

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St. Lucia


Saint Lucia or Saint Lucy is Catholic and Orthodox saint whose feast is on December 13th.  St. Lucy day is particularly popular in Scandinavia, where a girl is chosen to portray saint by wearing a white robe, with a red sash, and a lingonberry crown with candles on her head.  She is followed by a procession of white clad girls and boys in cone hats, who sing songs for Saint Lucia and Christmas.  Traditionally, the girl playing the role of Lucia would visit local farms to distribute saffron buns and coffee on the early morning of St. Lucia day(Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).  Despite her popularity in Scandinavia, she actually originated in Italy.  Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and is said to have lived in Sicily from 283 to 303 CE.  As such, she would have been a contemporary of Saint Nicholas if both can be imagined as real people.  According to legends, Lucia’s father died when she was young and her mother was not a Christian.  However, Lucia became a Christian and refused to marry a pagan man that her mother had arranged for her to marry.  Instead, she gave her dowry to the poor.  She managed to convert her mother to Christianity by bringing her to a shrine to St. Agnes for healing, but the man she was promised to became angry that she would not marry him.  He denounced her as a Christian to the Roman authorities, who sentenced her to forced prostitution.  Thus, just like Saint Nicholas, her story involves prostitution.  Her body became too heavy to be carried away for punishment so she was instead tortured.  In some stories, her eyes were gouged out but healed, which is why she is often depicted with eyes on a plate and the patron saint of the blind (St. Lucy, n.d.).  Like Saint Nicholas, the evidence of her actual life is scant.  Also like Saint Nicholas, she was a popular saint during the middle ages.  Finally, like Saint Nicholas, observation of her feast day was popular among Protestants.

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St. Lucia Day is popular in Scandinavia and has some elements of pagan traditions.  In pre-Christian times, December 13th was celebrated as Yule (Traditions in Different Cultures, 2016).  Solstice and the Feast of St. Lucia both fell on December 13th according to the Julian calendar.  Thus, St. Lucia’s Feast was on the shortest day of the year, which easily allowed for the survival of pagan solstice traditions such as bonfires, burning incense, and singing songs (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).  Even the name of the feast is very similar to the Scandinavian pagan observation of Lussi Night.  Lussi night was a night wherein an evil spirit named Lussi was active, along with spirits and elves.  Lussi would punish misbehaved children by taking them away to her dark world (Traditions in Different Cultures, 2016).  Children would write the name Lussi on fences and walls to announce that the darkness of winter was ending and that light would be returning.  After converting to Christianity, the Vikings introduced the Italian Saint to Scandinavia, as she fit well with pre-existing celebrations of the solstice and her very name means light.  Celebration of the saint survived both a calendar change and the Protestant Reformation.  When the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, the winter solstice moved to December 21st.   St. Lucia’s Feast remained on December 13th.  Despite the shift, St. Lucia Day remained connected to the idea of the return of light.  Her feast became increasingly popular after the 18th century in Sweden and today, the Nobel Prize winner in Literature has the honor of selecting the “Lucy Bride” of Stockholm (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).

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From a feminist perspective, St. Lucia has some pros and cons.  On one hand, it is great that she stood up to her mother, spent her dowry on the poor, and refused to marry a man she did not want to marry.  She was also defiant in the face of Roman authority, as in some stories, she predicted the downfall of the Roman empire and asserted that they would not be able to take her virginity.  She is also a strong character in that she represents the return of light and end of winter.  With the Polar Vortex looming over most of the U.S. right now, and sunset at about 4:20 pm, ending winter is something I can definitely get behind.  On the other hand, the character idealizes youth, beauty, and virginity.  In Sweden, local newspapers often depict various candidates for the year’s Saint Lucia, allowing readers to vote.  Many Miss Sweden winners began as local Saint Lucias (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).  The girls who depict Saint Lucia are usually blond and fair skinned.  This year, the Swedish department store, Ahlens, received over 200 negative comments on facebook because they depicted St. Lucia as gender ambiguous child with a darker complexion.  The department store had to pull the advertisement.  Like the mythical trolls of Scandinavia, the internet trolls threatened to hurt the child model by their racist and cisgendered objections that Lucia was not a white girl (Swedish Lucia advert sparks love and hate online, 2016).  From a feminist perspective, anyone of any age, gender, race, or any appearance should be able to portray Saint Lucia.  The character is almost entirely fictional and as such, open to interpretation and change.  After all, had there been an actual St. Lucia, she most likely would not have been blond and fair skinned, considering she hailed from Southern Italy.  But, just as Santa has been white washed from a skinny, swarthy, Turkish saint to a fat man with a ruddy complexion, Lucia has also been made more Northern European in her appearance.

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Beiwe:


St. Lucia is just one woman associated with the winter solstice.  Another woman is Beiwe, the Sami goddess of spring, mental wellness, fertility, and the sun.  She is credited with chasing away the winter and restoring the sanity of those who have become mentally ill over the winter.  White animals are traditionally sacrificed in her honor and butter is smeared over the doorposts of homes (Auset, 2009).  On the winter solstice, a white deer was sacrificed in her honor.  The meat was made into a ring and hung from a tree with colorful ribbons.  Butter was smeared in the doorposts so that she would have something to eat.  The Sami believed that the sun was the mother of all life and that reindeer were her children and a gift to humans (Monaghen, 2011).  She flies through the sky on a chariot made of reindeer antlers with her daughter.  The fact that she restores mental health after the winter suggests that Sami people recognized what might be called Seasonal affect disorder (Loar, 2011).  Interestingly, the existence of seasonal affect disorder is currently being called into question.  A 2006 CDC study did not find an increase of depression in the winter months at high latitudes.  Similarly, a 2012 Norwegian study did not find increased mental distress during the winter, but did find a greater incidents of sleep problems in the winter months.  It is possible that the CDC questions did not measure seasonal depression or that the respondents did not recall specific times of year that they were particularly depressed (Turner, 2016).

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Beiwe highlights a perennial issue of the knowledge of women and indigenous people is often devalued by scientific institutions.  It is certainly interesting the Sami people had a goddess which specifically connected winter with feeling mentally unstable.  Truly, for this connection to have been made, the Sami people must have noted that winter had an impact on their mental wellbeing.  At the same time, it is also interesting that SAD is being called into question.  For many people, winter is a difficult time.  I myself feel cooped up by cold weather, saddened by the short days, and less energetic.  Winter driving is a chore at best, and life threatening at worst.  Of course, I enjoy the beauty of winter and have been able to remain happy by adopting winter activities that I look forward to.  Anecdotally, many people around me also dread the winter and become more reserved and reclusive.  Does this constitute a change in mental wellness?  For those who do experience full blown winter depression, do their experiences matter?  Science is an ongoing pursuit to understand the laws, patterns, and trends in the material world around us.  It is a wonderful thing that we can organize knowledge in this manner, but at the same time, because scientific institutions yield power and are themselves beholden to power, this knowledge sometimes shapes our reality and shades our experiences.  This is why marginalized people often find their knowledge dismissed by science.


La Befana:

La Befana is worth mentioning since she like Mrs. Claus, she is another elderly, female character in the Christmas season canon.  In Italy, La Befana delivers toys to children on January 5th, or the Eve of the Epiphany.  According to Southern Italian folklore, she was visited by the three magi as they were on their way to see baby Jesus.  They asked her directions and asked if she would like to accompany them.  She declined, offering the excuse that she had too much housework.  After they left, she decided to follow after them and see Jesus for herself.  However, she lost her way.  Thus, for the past 2000 years she has been searching for baby Jesus, while distributing gifts to children.  In another less pleasant story, she is a mother who lost a child, went insane with grief, mistook baby Jesus as her own child, and was blessed by Jesus to be the mother of all Italian children.  Unlike Saint Lucia and Saint Nicholas, she is not a saint and is not an officially recognized religious figure.  She is entirely fictional.  She is sometimes called the Christmas Witch, and has a witch like appearance, as she has a long nose, warty face, wears a kerchief and shawl, and flies from place to place on a broom.  Like Santa Claus, children leave her treats.  But, instead of cookies, she enjoys wine, sausage, and broccoli.  Similar to St. Lucia and St. Nicholas, she may have some pre-Christian roots, as Romans celebrated the New Year by honoring a goddess called Strenia (Matthews and Newkirk, 2010).  Strenia gave the same gifts that La Befana traditionally delivered, including honey, figs, and dates.

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La Befana is a pretty cool Christmas character.  She is basically the Baba Yaga of Christmas.  She is an independent woman, as she has been a solo female traveller for 2000 over years.  She is generous and active, but not as domestic as Mrs. Claus, due to her extensive travels (mainly around Italy).  While Mrs. Claus has a neat and tidy appearance, La Befana embraces a more haggard, warty appearance.  She definitely seems unconcerned about aging or pleasing or attracting men.  Perhaps her main flaw is that she fits into the stereotype that women aren’t very good with directions or spatial reasoning.  But, perhaps her wandering has become a way of life and she isn’t even all that interested in finding baby Jesus.  Since her way of life offers her unfettered access to all the broccoli, wine, and sausage that a woman could want, finding baby Jesus would probably be a let down at this point in her life.

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  Snergurochka:

Unlike the other characters on the list, Snegurochka does not have any religious connection (granted, Mrs. Claus is only tangentially connected to St. Nicholas through Santa Claus).  The character first appeared in 1869 collection of Russian poems and folktales.  In that story, a childless couple named Ivan and Marya create a child made out of snow.  The snow child comes to life and grows into a beautiful young woman.  However, she melts when she joins a group of girls in jumping over a bonfire.  In another version of the story, she is the daughter of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost) who melted when she fell in love with a shepherd named Lel.  Her story is the subject of a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, music by Tchaikovsky, an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, a ballet by Ludwig Minkus and Marius Petipa, and two Soviet films (Kubilius, 2016).

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While Snegurochka was popular in tsarist Russia, she became particularly popular in the Soviet Union.  In 1929, the Laws on Religious Associations curtailed religious activity in the Soviet Union.  Religion was relegated to groups of 20 or more, consisting of individuals over the age of 18, who registered with the state.  Public worship was banned beyond private worship services conducted by registered groups.  Because public religious expression was banned and the state was officially atheist, Christmas disappeared from the public sphere.  In 1935, public celebration of New Year was allowed.  Ded Moroz and Snegurochka became associated with New Years and would bring gifts to children.  Thus, Ded Moroz acted like Santa Claus and Snegurochka was his helper.  Snegurochka appeared on many Soviet greeting cards and looks a little like Elsa from Frozen, with light skin, pale hair in a braid, and a blue or white dress.  The main difference is that she wears fur and a kokoshnik, or traditional Russian headdress.  Because she is another pretty, young blond, she perpetuates the same beauty standards as St. Lucia.

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Snegurochka offers a few lessons that might be useful for feminists.  The fact that she dies after falling in love is a lesson for feminists to be skeptical about narratives of love.  While many fairy tales end with “happily ever after” “finding true love” and marriage, her story ends with tragic death.  While women should not fear love, they should dissect media messages about love, as many of this messages are unrealistic and unhealthy.  The alternate version of her story is a cautionary tale about peer pressure.  She wanted the acceptance of the other girls, but in following them over the fire, she melted.  Again, a woman should be able to trust others, but she should also be able to stand on her own and say no to dangerous activities.  The fact that her story is not religious is useful to atheist feminists, since it does not reinforce religious ideas about virginity and purity.  Unfortunately, because the character dies young and lives a sheltered life, she does not have much agency or power.  When she was reimagined as a Soviet New Year’s character, she remained a helper to Ded Moroz rather than an independent woman.  This is one of the main drawbacks of the character….aside from her status as an icon for state sponsored religious oppression.  The fact that she was imagined as a helping character wearing the costume of imperialist Russians is indicative of the reactionary nature of Stalinism.  The gains women enjoyed in the early years of the revolution were reversed under Stalin, who reaffirmed conservative values about family and gender by making homosexuality and abortion illegal and divorce hard to obtain.


Conclusion:

 

This is far from a comprehensive list of female holiday figures, but hopefully it offers some ideas of how the holidays might be celebrated differently or characters re-imagined.  Perhaps instead of taking children to see Santa, we should take them to see Mrs. Claus.  Maybe instead of milk and cookies, you should leave out some wine and sausage and see if you are visited by an Italian witch.  Perhaps some gifts could be opened after the New Year, as a special delivery from Snergurochka and Ded Moroz.  The next time a local church or community center celebrates St. Lucia, you might recommend a boy for the role.  Holidays are always evolving.  I imagine that if the feminist movement grows in size and exerts more influence on culture, we will have our own characters, holidays, and interpretations of pre-existing characters.  Until then, we can imagine, dream, and reinvent holidays with our friends and in our own small communities.

 

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Sources:

 

Auset, B. (2009). The goddess guide: Exploring the attributes and correspondences of the divine feminine. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications,U.S.

 

Hatherall, E. (2012). The History of Mrs. Claus. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.girlmuseum.org/the-history-of-mrs-claus/

 

Katharine Lee Bates. (2016). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from LGBT History Month, http://lgbthistorymonth.com/katharine-lee-bates?tab=biography

 

Kubilius, K. (2016, April 6). Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Ded Moroz, or “grandfather frost” is Russia’s Santa Claus. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Travel, http://goeasteurope.about.com/od/russianculture/a/dedmorozrussiansanta.htm

 

Lendering, J. (2002). St. Nicholas Center:: Early sources. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from St. Nicholas Center, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/early-sources/

 

Loar, J. (2011). Goddesses for every day: Exploring the wisdom and power of the divine feminine around the world. United States: New World Library.

 

Lucia in Sweden. (2013, May 28). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Culture & traditions, https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/lucia/

 

Matthews, D., & Newkirk, G. (2016, December 10). Meet the Christmas witch: La Befana is Santa’s wine-guzzling, cheer-spreading, female counterpart. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Religious Phenomena, http://weekinweird.com/2016/12/10/meet-christmas-witch-la-befana-santas-wine-guzzling-cheer-spreading-female-counterpart/

 

Monaghan, P. (Ed.). (2010). Goddesses in world culture: Volume1, Asia and Africa. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

 

Minicast: Mrs. Claus. (2014, December 23). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Podcasts, http://thehistorychicks.com/minicast-mrs-claus/#more-4237

 

Owen, H. L. (2001). When did the Catholic church decide priests should be Celibate? Retrieved December 16, 2016, from History News Network, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/696

 

Santa takes a wife. (2004). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Hymns and Carols of Christmas, http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/santa/mrs__claus.htm

 

St. Lucy. (2009, July 31). Religions – Christianity: Saint lucy. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/saints/lucy.shtml

 

St. Nicholas. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/people/st-nicholas-204635#synopsis

 

St. Nicholas Origin Story. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/news/st-nicholas-santa-claus-origin-story

 

Swedish Customs and Traditions. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://sccc.ca/site/panel5/SwedishCustomsandTraditions.html

 

Swedish Lucia advert sparks love and hate online. (2016, December 4). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from The Local, http://www.thelocal.se/20161204/swedish-lucia-advert-sparks-love-and-hate-online

 

Traditions in different cultures. (2016). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Historia Vivens, http://www.historiavivens.eu/2/traditions_in_different_cultures_1111971.html

 

Turner, V. S. (2016). Study finds “seasonal Affective disorder” Doesn’t exist. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/study-finds-seasonal-affective-disorder-doesn-t-exist/

 

Woodruff, B. (2015, December 18). Why everyone should celebrate a wine drinking witch at Christmastime. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2014/12/celebrate_la_befana_at_christmas_the_holidays_need_a_wine_drinking_witch.html

 

Feminist Astronomy

 

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Feminist Astronomy

H. Bradford

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

Moon:

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


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


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


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


Venus:

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

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


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


Taurid and Leonid Meteor Showers:


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


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


Ursa Major/The Big Bear:

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


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

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


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


Ursa Minor/The Little Bear/Polaris     

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


Bootes:

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


Draco:

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

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


Cassiopeia:

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

cassiopeia                              Cassiopeia: a suspiciously white looking Ethiopian queen….

Andromeda:


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


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

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

Milky Way:

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


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


Pleiades:  


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


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

 

Conclusion:

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

 

Halloween Unmasked: A Socialist Feminist History of Halloween

Halloween Unmasked:

A Socialist Feminist History of Halloween

H. Bradford 9/22/16


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


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Pagan Roots:


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Modern Halloween:

    

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


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

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


Slut Shaming and the Rise of the Sexy Costume:

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


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

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


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


Halloween and Women’s Labor:


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


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


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

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


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


Conclusion:


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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Working at a Domestic Violence Shelter

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

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


Gender:

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


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


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


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


Ability and Health:

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


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


Young Victims:

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


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


The Complicated Victim:

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


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


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

 

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


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


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


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


Still Going On?  

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

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


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

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