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More Fluid Than Blood: Vampires and Bisexuality

More Fluid Than Blood

Vampires and Bisexuality

  1. H. Bradford

      12/10/17

 


Each month, Pandemonium meets to discuss issues related to bi+ identities and organizing.  This month, the group gathered to discuss vampires and bisexuality.  Anyone who has watched or read vampire themed media might have observed that vampires are often portrayed with ambiguous sexualities, if not outright gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  The following presentation seeks to uncover the history of how vampire sexuality has been depicted as well as the implications of these representations.  Vampires are very much a reflection of the times in which they were imagined.  As monsters, they represent challenges to the social order.  Since bisexuality, or for that matter any non-heterosexual sexuality, is a challenge to heteronormative patriarchy, it makes sense that vampires often lend themselves to a queer reading.


Before they were the subject of books or television series, vampires have long been imagined beings from the folklore of many cultures.  Blood drinking spirits appear in the stories of many cultures, but vampires as they are understood today were mostly based upon the tales of Eastern Europe.  These stories entered the public consciousness of Western Europeans during the 18th century with several highly publicized cases of vampirism within East Prussia and the Hapsburg Empire.  Incidents of vampirism and the related hysteria was investigated by 18th century scholars and Maria Teresa of Austria sent her physician to uncover the truth about vampires.  He concluded that they were not real and she subsequently passed laws against opening graves or desecrating the dead, which put an end to outbreaks of vampire panics. From then on, vampires, at least in Western Europe, were mostly a matter of fiction.  Thus, vampires began appearing in Western European fiction in the early 1800s.   The spread of vampires in Western Europe from Eastern Europe represents a transition of folklore and superstition from the lesser developed parts of Europe to the large, urbanized, mostly literate population of the West (Paolucci, 2000).  

A “vampire” skull from 1500s Venice, found among plague victims

One of the first works of vampire fiction was Polidori’s 1918 story The Vampyre, which featured a vampire named Lord Ruthven.  Polidori served as Lord Byron’s physician and his character, Lord Ruthven, established the trope of that vampires should be aristocratic and seductive (Primuth, 2014).  The plot of the book involves Lord Ruthven travelling around Europe as he seduces various women, often accompanied by his friend Aubrey.  Ruthven and Aubrey have a falling out, but reconcile.  Later, Aubrey watches Lord Ruthven die and makes a promise not to tell anyone of his death.  Aubrey stays true to the promise, even after Ruthven is later discovered to be alive.  Only when Ruthven tries to marry Aubrey’s sister, does he confess his oath in a letter.  Ruthven kills Aubrey’s sister on their wedding night and Aubrey dies as well.  While the story is interesting because it establishes the notion that vampires are alluring, sexual, and aristocratic, it is also of interest because Lord Ruthven may have been based on Lord Byron.


Early Vampire Literature

Prior to the publishing of The Vampyre, Byron wrote a poem about a vampire in 1810 while touring Greece.  The poem entitled The Giaour takes place in Greece, then ruled by the Ottomans, wherein a character named Leila is killed for her infidelity to her husband, Hassan.  Her lover avenges her death by killing Hassan, but Hassan curses him to become a vampire.  This early take on the vampire does not have common conventions such as fangs, sleeping in coffins, aversion to sunlight, etc. Yet, the vampire character in the poem is a Byronic hero inasmuch as he is cursed, dangerous, and an outsider (as Giaour means infidel) (Luchsinger, 2015).  Later, in 1816, Lord Byron stayed in Lake Geneva with his physician, Poliodori, as well as Mary Shelley and Percy Blythe Shelley and his mistress, Jane Clairmont.  During their stay, there was a snow storm, during which they challenged each other to invent stories for entertainment.  Mary Shelley developed the story of Frankenstein.  Byron began a story about a vampire, which Polidori fleshed out and published as The Vampyre (Lord Byron’s image inspired modern take on vampires, 2010).    


Lord Byron, or George Gordon, was a controversial, larger than life figure in his day.  He may have had a child with his half-sister Augusta.  It is also speculated that he may have been more than friends with Mary Shelley and Percy Blythe Shelley.  There is evidence that he was not strictly heterosexual.  He wrote poetry under the female name Thyzra to John Edelston, a young choir member who he fell in love with at the age of 17.  In letters that he wrote during his travels in Greece and Turkey in 1810, he expressed his interest in seeking same sex encounters in these places, which were more tolerant at the time.  He also bragged to friends back home that he had 200 sexual encounters while in Greece and Turkey.  At the same time, the punishment for sodomy in England in the early 1800s was death.  In 1815, he married Annabelle Milbanke, who left him a year later with their infant daughter.  She went to stay with her parents and requested a separation, which unleashed various rumors about his relationship with his sister, adultery, and sodomy.  He negotiated a separation from his wife outside of the courts and left for Europe, where The Vampyre was written (MacCarthy, 2002).  Certainly, the plot line of the story mirrors his life, as the vampire travels through Europe seducing and harming women in locales such as Italy and Greece, then eventually England.  The plot line of Aubrey following Lord Ruthven around Europe, then having a falling out, also mirrors the falling out that Polidori had with Lord Byron.  Finally, while Ruthven mostly preys upon women, the relationship between Ruthven and Aubrey may hint at bisexuality.  Paolucci (2000) suggests that a cave scene between Ruthven and Aubrey is suggestively sexual and that Aubrey’s refusal to believe in the supernatural is a rhetorical denial of queerness.


It is difficult to classify Lord Byron’s sexuality, since modern sexual identities were not yet developed.  The word bisexual was not used until 1892 in the Psychopathia Sexualis, a book about sexual pathologies.  While Byron might be viewed as bisexual, inasmuch as he expressed attraction to both men and women, caution should be used in applying modern notions of sexuality to people and situations that pre-date these understandings.  Still, he was one of the first famous writers to be labeled bisexual.  Though, literary scholar Emily Bernard Jackson warned against this, arguing instead that his sexuality was too fluid and complex for labels (Lord Byron, n.d.).  Nevertheless, in studying the history of bisexuality and vampire’s in the media, it is certainly important to recognize that the first vampire in English literature was modelled after Byron, who was controversial, charismatic, and attracted to both men and women.  In this sense, bisexuality, is built into the fabric of vampire literature, even if Ruthven’s character is not overtly bisexual.  At the same time, this inclusion isn’t necessarily positive, as homosexual/bisexual behaviors and attractions were viewed as deviant.

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Lord Byron- the inspiration of Lord Ruthven- an early vampire in Western fiction

In the 1840s, Varney the Vampire appeared as a newspaper serial (Primuth, 2014).  Varney the Vampire introduced some modern staples of vampire stories, such as fangs, nocturnal visits, entry through a window, super strength, and hypnotic power.  He is also a sympathetic vampire, even though part of the plot of the series involves him trying to take advantage of Bannersworth family.  Varney is important because he was the first sympathetic vampire.  He feels guilty and alone, and tries to control his predatory nature.  He mourns his wife and children from 180 years earlier and is the first vampire to commit suicide.  He is attracted to young, virginal women and seems primarily interested in women (Paolucci, 2000).  Varney is not a virtuous vampire, but he is a conflicted vampire that is not always villainous.  It is possible that his perceived heterosexuality is used to cast him as a “good” vampire rather than a deviant, villainous vampire.  There is less scholarly work on the sexuality of Varney, as opposed to other vampires of the 1800s.        


Carmilla and Lesbian Vampires

While Varney the Vampire has not lent itself to extensive and rigorous analysis for sexual themes, the novella Carmilla has.  Published in 1871, the novella Carmilla predates Dracula by 26 years. Joseph Sheridan Fanu’s novella follows the story of a girl named Laura, who befriends a mysterious girl named Carmilla.  Carmilla makes romantic advances on Laura, does not join her family in prayer, sleepwalks at night, and sleeps during the day.  Girls in the nearby village begin to become sick and die, while Laura herself begins to have strange dreams, poor health, and mysterious bites on her chest.  Eventually, it is discovered that Carmilla is actually Countess Mircalla, a noblewoman from two hundred years prior who had a relationship with a woman whose decedent became a vampire hunter.  Laura, whose memory of the events is unsteady, does not grasp the romantic inclinations of Carmilla towards her and even theorizes that perhaps Carmilla was a boy in disguise. Laura explains how Carmilla took her hand, breathed heavily, and kissed her neck.  The novella is unique in that Carmilla is not interested in the blood of women and men, but exclusively females.  She also explicitly has sexual interest in women with no interest mentioned of men.  She was, by modern understandings of sexuality, a lesbian vampire.  Since Carmilla visits peasant girls in the area, she may also be viewed as polyamorous as she is not uniquely attracted or bonded to Laura.  In the end, it is male power which restores the patriarchal, heterosexual, monogamous order as Carmilla is staked, then beheaded and burned by Baron Vordenburg and General Spielsdorf (Künnecke, 2016).  

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Perhaps owing to Carmilla, lesbian vampires are stock characters in vampire media.  For instance, between 1968 and 1970, there were 20 lesbian vampire films released in the US, Britain, and Western Europe.  These films often drew from the story of Carmilla or from the tale of Elizabeth Bathory.  Elizabeth Bathory was a 17th century aristocratic woman who used the blood of young women to stay youthful and whose history includes rumors of lesbianism and vampirism.  The accusations of lesbianism ignore the fact that she was married to a man, so, perhaps she would more accurately be considered a bisexual woman.  Bi-erasure aside, there was a proliferation of lesbian vampire films in the 1970s, which may have been in part to generate interest in horror films, a dying genre at the time.  Censorship was also relaxed in the United States in the 1960s along with the sexual revolution which opened society up to sexuality. Another explanation is that lesbian vampires, especially those who preyed upon men, appealed to male anxiety regarding feminism.  In these films, the vampire woman must compete with mortal men for the mortal woman.  The vampire is killed and the threat to the order of patriarchy is destroyed.  Lesbians are doubly marginalized, in that they are women and homosexuals.  They are also doubly threatening to patriarchy, which makes them particularly dangerous or sinister vampires.  Whereas Lord Ruthven escaped without punishment, this is not possible for Camilla, because of her claim to male power.  While many films of the 1970s had lesbian vampire characters, the use of violence to restore male power is graphically evident in the 1974 film Vampyres in which the opening scene depicts two women having passionate sex until they are suddenly shot.   Through flashbacks, it is revealed that these two women are vampires who take men home with them to suck their blood after sex (Uygur, 2013).    


The most well known of the lesbian vampire film genre were The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil, which featured Carmilla, but changed her to a bisexual woman.  A 1973 film called Female Vampire is a pornographhic film wherein the vampire Irina has graphic sex with men and women, yet is classified as a lesbian vampire film.  Again, there has been a problem with conflating of bisexuality and lesbianism in film discussions.  In The Vampire Lovers Baker (2012) cites the argument of Weiss that this represents a bisexual triangle, wherein the man is aligned with the forces of good and the vampire with evil, with the woman sought after by both is a neutral party.  After Carmilla is destroyed, Emma is united with Carl and Emma’s response to Carmilla’s seduction is reframed as delirium.  In seven of the twenty films of the era, the bisexual triangle is employed as a plot device (Baker, 2012).  Later films also use the bisexual triangle.  For instance, The Hunger uses bisexual triangulation by centering the story  on the love triangle between John, Miriam, and Sarah.  Miriam is a married bisexual vampire who falls in love with Sarah, who is also bisexual.  Miriam is haunted by her male and female lovers from over the centuries.  Blood and Roses and Daughters of Darkness, are two additional films which feature bisexual love triangles (Ritscher, 2013).

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A scene from Daughters of Darkness

 Despite the common use of bisexual love triangles, many of these films are classified as lesbian vampire films.  Richter (2013) argued that bi-erasure is a perennial problem in media studies, as bisexual characters are often miscategorized as gay, lesbian, or queer.  For instance, the movie Brokeback Mountain is often called a gay film in the media.  However, several bisexual theorists have argued against this and used this as an example of bi-erasure as the men in the film are romantically and sexually involved with each other, but also their wives.  Ritscher identifies several ways that bisexuality is erased from film.  The first way that bisexuality is erased is when scholars or reviewers refer to same-sex attraction or behaviors as homosexual.  This creates a false dichotomy wherein sexual acts are either gay or straight.  By this logic, only threesomes can be coded as bisexual.   In The Hunger, bisexuality is rendered invisible when Sarah and Miriam have a “lesbian sex scene” which is discussed and remembered by critics, scholars, and film viewers.   Another way that bisexuality is erased is by downplaying opposite sex relationships.  For instance, in the film Daughters of Darkness, Elizabeth who is a vampire, has an erotic scene with Tom, a human.  Despite this, she is still considered a lesbian.  In Blood and Roses, the character Camilla is depicted as in love with Leopold.  In the end, she kills her female lover Georgia and takes her place, so that she can marry Leopold.  Nevertheless, Carmilla is classified as a lesbian character.  Down playing opposite sex relationships is done to bolster same sex relationships, but in doing so reinforces the binary between straight and gay.  Richter (2013) cited Kenji Yomito, who argued that both straights and gays have an interest in erasing bisexuals.  Though, this may not be intentional and malicious, but an unconscious social norm.  Lesbian vampire film theory is problematic because it has assigned homosexuality to characters that may instead be viewed as bisexual.  In doing this, homosexuality is contrasted against heterosexuality as an opponent.  According to bisexual theorists, bisexuality is not merely a sexual identity, but an undoing of  the two oppositional poles of of sexuality and a challenge to the notion that sexual identity as a category.  As such, the goal of bisexual scholarship should not be to spot the bisexual, but instead to challenge thinking about the gay straight binary.  Bisexual theorists argue that bisexuality threatens not only the order of male supremacy but is also a threat to sexual rigidity (Ritscher, 2013).  I would argue that both male supremacy and sexual rigidity uphold patriarchy.  Sexualities that are fluid or non-monogamous threaten capitalist patriarchy because they threaten the structure of family and the gendered roles of men and women.  In doing so, these threaten the social reproduction of labor.     


Examining Dracula:

While Carmilla serves as the foundation of lesbian and female bisexual vampirism, it is not the most famous or generally influential vampire novel.  The most famous vampire novel, Dracula, was published in 1897 by Bram Stoker, an Irish writer.  Bram Stoker himself was believed to have been gay, or at least this was an argument made in ‘Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula.’  Bram Stoker wrote letters to his close friend, British author Hall Caine, which may be interpreted as romantic.  He also wrote a gushing letter to Walt Whitman regarding his ability to be natural and unashamed when speaking to him, but how his is shackled or unfree (Cardamone, 2017).  Presumably, the letter was about his closeted homosexuality.  In 1895, when Oscar Wilde, a friend of Stoker’s, was convicted gross indecency, Stoker disavowed the twenty year friendship in a panic.  Perhaps this was due to his own anxiety as a closeted, gay man when being out of the closet was a criminal offense (as in the case of Oscar Wilde who was sentenced to hard labor).  It is in this context that Dracula was written.  McCrea (2010) suggests that the novel depicts closeted heterosexuality, that is, it is written from the view that heterosexuality is foreign and frightening.  This interesting argument follows that the story of Dracula is a marriage plot.  In the story, Mina and Jonathan are going to be married, their lives are interrupted by the chaos wrought by Dracula, and when this resolves, they become a happily established married couple with a son.  At the same time, Lucy, Mina’s less sensible friend, considers her marriage prospects but her life is cut short by vampirism and death.  McCrea (2010) notes that many scholars have analyzed Dracula as an “other” in post-colonial, feminist, Marxist, queer, etc. interpretations of the novel.  However, McCrea (2010) proposes that Dracula is familiar.  For instance, Jonathan Harker passes deeper into Eastern Europe in the novel, into increasingly uncomfortable superstitions, spicy food, slow trains, and unnerving sights.  Yet, when he arrives at Dracula’s home, his first thoughts are to pause and consider how he is moving up in his career and what Mina would think of this.  Even Dracula himself is courteous, well read, and welcoming.  Dracula saved Jonathan from the three vampire women who tried to seduce and bite him, for which he is thankful.  Dracula even treats Jonathan’s stay at the castle as a marriage contract, saying that he has entered freely of his own will.  When Dracula leaves on unknown business, Jonathan waits for him in the castle, like an imprisoned wife (McCrea, 2010).  In this way, the novel is a dark fantasy about heterosexual marriage.   


Although Stevenson’s (1988) analysis is dated, it does make specific mention of bisexuality in Dracula.  His piece is mainly focused on the theme of exogamy.  That is, Dracula represents a foreigner who is trying to seduce the female characters and as such, represents an external threat that must be fought against.  He represents British imperialist anxieties over their racial order of the world.  Aside from exploring this theme, Stevenson (1988) took time to examine female sexuality in the novel and suggested that vampires are bisexual.  However, his view of bisexuality was very narrow and conflated with understandings of gender or even sexual roles.  His main argument is that vampires are bisexual because both female and male vampires are penetrators and receivers.  Their fangs penetrate and at the same time, they ingest the fluids of their victims.  Female vampires in the novel become more sexually aggressive, a demonstration of their masculinity.  Stevenson’s (1988) analysis is interesting, but lacks the language and nuance to explore gender as something apart from sexuality, which unfortunately is generically labelled as bisexuality.  However, this may be due to the fact that in 1988 there was less knowledge and awareness of bisexuality as an identity and little visibility as a distinct part of the LGBTQ movement.  BiNET USA, the oldest bisexual organization in the United States was not founded until 1990.  To broaden this analysis, it might be argued that if blood sucking is a metaphor for sex, then vampires are bisexual in that they prey on any human victim, male, female, trans, gender non-conforming, etc.  Gender is not as important to vampires as blood itself.  Even if drinking blood is not viewed as a metaphor for sex, it is an intimate act in that it usually involves drinking directly from the neck, which is often viewed as a sensual location for kissing in Western societies.  This act is usually done privately and at night, again, if not blatantly sexual, at least following social conventions regarding sex.  Upon closer examination, there may be hints of bisexuality in Dracula.  One example of a homoerotic or bi-erotic scene is the passage wherein Jonathan Harker is passively seduced by a group of vampire women living in Dracula’s castle.  This is interrupted when Dracula arrives and tells the women that Jonathan belongs to him (Künnecke, 2015).   Dracula affirmed the trope that vampires are threatening to both men and women.   


Many of the vampires of the 1800s have “deviant” sexualities.  According to Foucault, the development of capitalism resulted in the increased repression of sexuality, so that by the Victorian Era, when many of these famous vampire novels were written, sex had become relegated entirely to the personal sphere. That is, sex and sexuality were not to be expressed or discussed in public.  At the same time, the roles of men and women were more sharply defined than any other time in history and homosexuality or any other “deviant” sexual behavior or identity was driven underground.  Male homosexuality became highly regulated, whereas female homosexuality was given less attention.  Women were viewed as more emotional in general and given more social leniency to express affection towards one another (Künnecke, 2015).  Perhaps this accounts for why Carmilla was depicted as a lesbian, whereas male vampires were not overtly homosexual or bisexual.  Foucault also noted that monsters are individuals whose behaviors must be corrected.  At the core of monstrosity is deviance and irregularity.  Monstrosity is threatening because it calls into question social norms.  To Foucault, homosexuality became understood as something deviant because society had come to the understanding that the strength of a nation was bolstered by its citizens, their marriages, and their families.  In this understanding, sex was a tool used by the state for regeneration.  A monstrous vampire always represents a threat to the order and is constructed as somehow deviant.  Defeating a vampire results in the re-establishment of order.  As such, if blood drinking is a metaphor for sex, a vampire is a bisexual or homosexual threat to society.  Early folkloric vampires may have represented fear of Plague.  However, 18th century vampires were written about in a time that was beginning to fear homosexuality, and as such they represent anxieties over violations of sexual norms (Uygur, 2013).  


Early vampire characters were mostly constructed as monstrous and evil, with some exceptions, such as Varney the Vampire.  The ability for vampires to be portrayed as anything other than overtly heterosexual and is a function of social movements which sought to expand the rights of the LGBTQ community.  In general, if gays or lesbians appeared in the media before the late 1960s were tragic, unstable, or miserable characters.  Some films, such as the 1943  Creature of the Devil may hint at homosexality or bisexuality, in that the main character becomes jealous of his twin brother’s relationship with a woman and sends a hunchback to kill him.  The 1944 short story, The Bat is my Brother may allude to homosexuality or bisexuality, in that the main character is shown how to be a vampire by an older vampire mentor.  The younger vampire is guided through his vampirism, coming out and and coming to accept his condition.  Still, there are no overtly bisexual or homosexual vampire characters.  The 1931 film version of Dracula was directed by Tod Browning, who was gay, but in general, queerness was consigned to the shadows due to social conservative and active persecution of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals (Primuth, 2014).  Vincent (2015) noted that 1960s and 1970s saw an opening of sexuality in America with the feminist movement and gay rights movement.  The FDA approval of birth control in 1960, its legalization in 1964, the elimination of homosexuality as a disease in 1973, and the Stonewall riots in 1969 all contributed to the process of broadening the expression of sexuality in society.  The most landmark piece of vampire media created during this era was Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.  She created morally ambiguous characters that usurped traditional sexuality.  For instance, Louis described his first encounter with Lestat in suggestive terms, describing Lestat as extraordinary, graceful, like a lover, and opening up new possibilities.  Yet, even though the transformation into a vampire is coded in homoerotic imagery, Louis becomes interested in woman named Babatte Freniere who spurns him as unholy.  Louis and Lestat have fluid sexualities, which may be due to their dependence on the blood of women and men, their outsider status to human societies, and sexuality that is unbound by reproduction (Vincent, 2015).

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The 1980s saw a backlash against the gains of the 1960s and 1970s.  During the 1980s, vampires were often villainized again, such as Fright Night in 1985 and The Lost Boys in 1987.  The AIDs epidemic also influenced vampire media.  For instance, in the 1991 novel, Dracula Unbound, Dracula contracts syphilis.  In the 1998 film Blade, Blade takes a serum to stay alive, which might be comparable to the cocktail of pills that HIV patients must take to ward off AIDS (Primuth, 2014).   It was not until the 1990s that more positive representations of LGBTQ characters began to appear.  For example, the heroine of the 1990s young adult book series, The Last Vampire, is a bisexual, though this series mostly focuses on her relationships with men.  In 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer began airing and featured Willow as a positive lesbian character.  


Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Willow was a popular character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of her dialectical nature.  She was a character with destructive power, but also the power to help.  She was also one of the first characters on television to be depicted in a lesbian relationship, when she entered a relationship with her fellow witch Tara.  However, Willow is also an example of bi-erasure because her sexual fluidity is ignored in the series.  For instance, her previous heterosexual relationships were ignored or dismissed when she asserted that she was “gay now.”  In the series, she was depicted as heterosexual, with a crush on Xander or her relationship with Oz (Muscat, 2014).  Mo (2016) noted how in seasons one and two, Willow was depicted as interested in men.  First she was interested in Xander, which was unreciprocated in season one.  She later became involved with Oz, but cheated on him with Xander, eventually reconciling with Oz who she dated until season four.  However, in season five she reminded Anya that she was gay now when Anya expressed concern that she would steal Xander away from her.  Later, Tara was worried that Willow wasn’t really a lesbian and would return to dating men.  Willow defended herself against this accusation that her sexuality was fluid, which was reinforced by the narrative of the story which did not allow for any deviation from being fully lesbian from then on.  Muscat (2014) argued that Willow was reduced to a binary of totally straight or totally gay, which denied the possibility that she might have been bisexual or fluid.  In an episode wherein all of the female characters vied for the love of a character named RJ due to the effects of his magical letter jacket, Willow only falls for him when she uses her magic to alter his gender.  This reinforces the notion that homosexual attraction is only authentic when absolute.   Muscat (2014) also noted that within the Buffyverse, bisexuality is coded as dangerous and often associated with vampire characters.  For instance, Vamp Willow, an alternative universe version of Willow was coupled with Xander, but propositioned a girl at The Bronze and licked the neck of regular Willow.  In the series Angel, there are homoerotic undercurrents to both Drusilla and Darla’s relationship as well as Spike and Angel’s.  Only if a character is evil or morally ambiguous can they experience fluid sexuality.   Even Willow called her vampire self skanky (Mo, 2016).   

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Mendlesohn (2002) argued that in contrast to other characters, the series denies a queer reading of the relationship between Buffy and Willow.  A “queer reading” is when a reader, or in this case viewer, constructs homosexual desire in situations wherein this sort of attraction is not overt and heterosexuality is normalized.  It is way for readers who was oppressed or excluded to identify codes for same sex relationships or cues that two characters may be flirting, loving, or passionate towards one another.   Willow is coded to be young and innocent, as she wears pinks and reds rather than darker colors.  Throughout the series, her behaviors are rarely sexualized.  Intimacy with male or female partners is usually shown off screen.  Buffy, on the other hand, has more overtly sexual behavior.  Buffy also tends to look to male characters for support and validation.  Throughout the series, Willow grows, changes her appearance, makes new friends, and becomes more confident.  On the other hand, Buffy does not grow, nor does her appearance change.  Their relationship lacks the necessary tension to drive it towards a queer reading.  In contrast, it is easier to do a queer reading of the Buffy and Faith relationship because Faith is the opposite of Buffy in appearance, unrestrained, and sexual.  Willow is more of a backdrop to Buffy rather than her equal or antagonist. (Mendlesohn, 2002).  Casano (2013) agreed that while While there is no overt bisexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the relationship between Buffy and fellow slayer, Faith is sometimes speculated to be bisexual.  Faith appeared in season three of the series, following the death of the slayer, Kendra.  Eliza Dushku, who played the character, felt that Faith had feelings for Buffy and was bisexual.  Faith is promiscuous, fearless, bad girl, who is an outsider to the Scooby Gang (Casano, 2013).  Any hinting that her character is bisexual would play into the stereotype that bisexuality is deviant or that only a morally ambivalent character could be bisexual.  Certainly, in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the series aired, there was growing awareness of bisexuality with the establishment of BiNet in 1990, the release of the book Bi any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out in 1991, the first international bisexual conference was held in Amsterdam in 1991, the bi flag was invented in 1998, and the first Celebrate Bisexuality Day was celebrated on September 23, 1999.  The 1990s was a pivotal time for biseuxals because it saw the establishment of organizations and inclusion of bisexuals in Pride Festivals.  Still, despite the flourishing of bisexual identity in the 1990s, it is disappointing that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did not handle the issue of bisexuality as well as it might have.

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An example of wholesome, non-sexualized Willow

In the decades since the 1990s and early 2000s, there has been some improvement in the portrayal and visibility of bisexuals.  HBO’s series, True Blood, which aired from 2006-2014 and was based upon Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries novel series, depicted many LGBTQ characters.  One prominent bisexual character was Sophie-Anne LeClerq, the Vampire Queen of Louisiana who was sexually, romantically involved with male and female characters, including Sookie’s cousin Hadley (Reynolds, 2014). Sophie-Anne appeared in eight episodes and was portrayed as a mentally unstable, but powerful antagonistic vampire.  She wears glamorous clothes, longs to be in the sunlight, collects birds, plays Yahtzee, and seems genuinely attached to Hadley.  In the series, she acquires some debts and resorts to selling vampire blood.  Facing an IRS audit, she is forced to marry Russell Edgington, the vampire King of Mississippi.   Sophie-Anne is a capricious, immature, unstable, frivolous character so in a way, she may pander to some stereotypes about bisexuals being mentally unstable.  However, the character was a survivor, who clambered her way up in the world to become the vampire queen of Louisiana, then submitted to marriage to Russell Edgington to overcome her financial troubles.  Evan Rachel Woods played Sophie-Anne and is openly bisexual.  At the same time, in an interview with US Magazine, her character was called a lesbian, even as she says her bisexuality has been a part of her for as long as she can remember (Ravitz, 2011).   

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Sophie-Ann in True Blood

Pam de Beaufort, the bar manager of Fangtasia, was also depicted as bisexual and had a relationship with Tara Thornton (Reynolds, 2014).  Pam appeared in 63 episodes and is loyal to Eric Northman.  She is depicted as more interested in women than men, has a dry sense of humor, and dislikes children.  In her human life, she ran a brothel and was romantically involved with Eric Northman, who later turned her into a vampire.  Generally, the character was developed well enough that she doesn’t particularly fall into any bisexual stereotypes.  Like most vampires in the series, she is morally ambiguous and in some ways deviant, but generally she is a well-rounded likeable character for the setting and tone of the show.  Pam does have a fun quote, “Let bygones be bygones and bigirls be bi girls.” (Nicolaou, 2017)  At the same time, her bisexuality was erased when Sookie told her that she didn’t have time for her lesbian weirdness.

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Pam- attacking Sara Newlin

Tara Thornton  was the most prominent bisexual character in the series (Reynolds, 2014).  Tara is Sookie’s best friend in the show.  She is sour towards vampires and a survivor of abuse.  When she becomes a cage fighter, she begins dating a fellow female cage fighter.  She later is turned into a vampire by Pam de Beaufort and the two eventually have a relationship (Zakarin and Fleenor, 2017).   Eric Northman is also depicted as bisexual.  He is the owner of Fangtasia and a love interest of Sookie Stackhouse.  In the series, he seduces Talbot, the partner of Russell Edgington the King of Mississippi (Nicolaou, 2017).   The series features many bisexual, gay, and lesbian characters.  Even characters that are not portrayed as bi or gay are never rigidly straight.  For instance, in season three, Sam the shapeshifting bartender, has a sexual dream about Bill Compton (Gray, 2011).  Finally, while Sookie Stackhouse, the main character, is depicted as straight, Anna Paquin, who portrayed her, is bisexual.  She has been very open about her bisexuality, but it has been the subject of confusion.  In an interview with Larry King, she discussed her marriage to her co-star Stephen Moyer and the birth of her twins.  Larry King assumed this meant that she was no longer bisexual.  She had to correct him by stating that a straight person does not stop being straight if their partner dies or they become single, so her bisexuality does not change if she is in a monogamous relationship (Nichols, 2014).  This demonstrates the misunderstandings that persist about bisexuality.     

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Tara had a variety of relationships in the series, including a relationship with Pam, a short lived relationship with “Eggs,” a longtime crush on Sookie’s brother Jason, and a relationship with Sam.

The series itself was produced by Alan Ball.  Other than portraying a variety of queer characters, the show had many clear and obvious parallels to LGBT issues.  For instance, the series takes place after vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are publicly known to exist.   Obviously, coming out of the coffin is the vampire equivalent of coming out of the closet.  Vampires themselves have their own vampire rights organizations and vampire-human marriage has been legalized, again mirroring the LGBT movement.  Not everyone is on board with vampire rights, which mostly include far right Evangelical Christian figures.  One hateful church has “God hates Fangs” as a slogan on a sign outside the church, again, a parody of “God hates Fags.”  (Primuth, 2014).  According to Campbell (2013), queer politics seeks to challenge heteronormativity, resist assimilation, embraces differences, and combats social forces that discipline and normalize.  Rather than focusing on identity, it focuses on fluid and contextual opposition to dominant norms of gender, race, class, and sexuality.  In True Blood, vampires are a metaphor for queerness and queer politics.  Campbell (2013) cites Cathy Cohen when he argues that U.S. institutions seek to appropriate and assimilate queer life and in doing so, marginalize queer women, poor, working class, and queer of color.  This mirrors the vampires of True Blood.  While all vampires drink blood, some vampires are better than others.  For instance, some vampires drink “True Blood” a Japanese blood substitute which allows these vampires to assimilate into society and are viewed as safer than others.  Bill Compton, for instance, is presented as a protagonist in early seasons.  He is a white, heterosexual vampire who values monogamy, in contrast to other vampires.   Bill is gentlemanly and better than other vampires, such as the hedonistic Malcolm, Liam, and Diane.  Malcolm was presented as a gay character, who was against coming out of the coffin and assimilation.  As such, he is seen as dangerous, immoral, and a stand in for an anti-assimilationist queer identity.  In the series, deviant vampires are signified drug use, hedonism, and promiscuity.  Cohen called this secondary marginalization.  So, although there are many queer characters in the series, many of the characters are vampires, which enjoy power, wealth, comfort, beauty, and immortality.  Many, like Eric Northman, Bill Compton, Pam de Beaufort, Sophie-Ann, etc. are white, conventionally attractive, and generally privileged.   The show could be critiqued for promoting an assimilationist viewpoint. Nevertheless, the show generally did a good job portraying a large number of queer characters and developing many of those characters beyond stereotypes.  

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Other recent television and film series have not handled LGBT issues as well.  The television series, The Vampire Diaries, did not introduce its first same sex couple until Season Seven.  The characters were Nora and Mary Louis, villainous vampires.  Mary Louis was captured by an organization that hunts supernatural creatures called the armory, where she was injected with vampire hunter blood.  She and Nora both died together in an attempt to destroy Rayna, the vampire hunters, magical sword (Anders, 2016).  Their deaths were rather pointless and the characters were not allowed to stay in the series long enough to become compelling.  Also, their sacrificial deaths harkens back to film norms that LGBT characters must die or experience tragedy.  The Vampire Diaries introduced, Luke, a gay character in season five.  He was a witch and had a twin sister named Liv.  He sacrificed his life to save Liv, but was never well-developed nor shown in a relationship.  Again, the series used the old trope that gays must die tragic deaths.  While Caroline Forbes’ father was gay, he was never shown in the series and was referred to disparagingly.  Once again, this was not a positive depiction.  Finally, Matt, Rebekah, and Nadia had a threesome in the series, but Rebecca and Nadia’s bisexuality is never expanded upon beyond this scene.  Because this is the only context for their bisexuality, it seems that the show depicts bisexuality as a performance for the pleasure of men (LGBT Characters in the Vampire Diaries and the Originals, 2015).   

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While vampire fiction has historically been an arena for expressing subversive sexualities, this is not the case with Twilight.   Twilight goes against earlier traditions of gender non-conforming characters by creating characters that are very traditional.  Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are brave and muscular, while Bella and female characters have female slumber parties, bake cookies, and cook meals for men.  Bella is often a damsel in distress and Edward Cullen shuns intimacy before marriage.  When Bella and Edward are finally married and do have sex, Bella finds herself bruised from the encounter and blames herself (Ames, 2010).  The Cullens themselves, though not related by blood, live as a family unit of heterosexual couples, with Edward being the only character not coupled until he meets Bella.  Other vampires, such as the Nomads and Volturi, do not live in the same traditional family units.  They drink blood and act more like traditional vampires.  The Volturi allow for more of a queer reading, as the Volturi consist of a trio of men, Aro, Marcus, and Caius, who spend more time together than with their wives.  The Volturi are also presented as feminine men.  The Nomads are also a trio, which begs the question of how the third person relates to the couple.  In contrast, the Cullens consist of Carlile and two males and two females.   The Cullens represent the monogamous, heterosexual ideal.  Bella marries early in life and become immediately pregnant, then fights the keep the pregnancy even after it threatens her life.  Throughout the relationship, Edward is protective and watchful of Bella, which could be viewed as controlling and stalking behavior.  When Bella is injured by sex, she is mostly concerned about comforting Edward than her own well-being (Hofstatter, 2012).  In this sense, the series is not only heterosexual, it is violently heteronormative.   Despite the confining heterosexuality and gender roles in Twilight, Kristen Stewart, who played Bella is openly bisexual and told the guardian that she was not confused about her sexuality and that in general, she saw sexuality as grey or fluid (Brooks, 2017).

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“Move along…nothing queer here…we assure you” -Actual Volturi Quote…or not.

The popularity of vampire fiction has declined over the last several years, but more recent vampire stories offer insights about the future.  Obviously, True Blood came along way from Dracula in its overt depiction of sexuality and other media in general for its positive and prominent depictions of LGBTQ characters.  At the same time, Vampire Dairies was centered upon heterosexual relationships and kept queerness in the margins.  Twilight was even worse in its hammering assertion of heterosexuality.  The stark differences between these series demonstrates that queer liberation is incomplete.  Twilight represents the alluring hold that tradition and conservatism continue in society.  It represents a world where deviance from heterosexuality does not dare name itself or where it simply does not exist.  This is the same world of Dracula, where sexuality is quieted, impulses controlled, and deviance is exiled or destroyed.   In The Vampire Diaries, queerness can exist as an auxiliary to heterosexuality, so long as it stays quiet, does not distract, and dies when necessary.  True Blood made the most ground, but it still portrayed queerness as preferable when it is expressed by those with beauty, wealth, power, and whiteness.  As for bisexuality, there have been many mis-steps in its presentation over history, the largest being its invisibility, fetishization, or conflation with gay or lesbian identities.  However, bisexual social movement organizations are only a few decades old.  Better representation of bis in the media hinges upon the success of this movement along with the larger LGBTQ movement to assert itself in society as a whole.  Hopefully this is done with a mindfulness towards the rights and representation of people of color, people with disabilities,  the working class, people who are poor, people of diverse sizes and appearances, and all the many other ways that groups of people are marginalized in society.  Liberation expands the lense of who is portrayed and how they are portrayed in the media.  Vampires have long made for fascinating characters and storylines.  They are also a mirror for how society constructs deviance and acceptability.  In this reflection, there is plenty to see.             



Sources:

Ames, M.A. (2010) Twilight Follows Tradition, Analyzing Biting Critiques of Vampire Narratives for their Portrayal of Gender and Sexuality, Faculty Research and Creative Activity. 36.  

 

Anders, C. J. (2016, April 04). The Vampire Diaries Picked the Worst Month for These Pointless, Tasteless Deaths. Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-vampire-diaries-picked-the-worst-month-for-these-po-1768964780

 

Baker, D. (2012). Seduced and abandoned: Lesbian vampires on screen 1968–74. Continuum, 26(4), 553-563.

 

Brooks, X. (2017, March 09). Kristen Stewart: ‘It’s not confusing if you’re bisexual. For me, it’s the opposite’. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/09/kristen-stewart-bisexual-personal-shopper-trump-tweets

 

Campbell, P. O. (2013). Intersectionality Bites: Metaphors of Race and Sexuality in HBO’s True Blood. Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader, 99-114.

 

Casano, C. (2013, October 24). Buffy and Bisexuality: Faith as a Subversive Bisexual Character and Willow as. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from http://girlsincapes.com/2013/10/24/btvs-bisexuality/

 

Cardamone, T. (2017, October 31). ‘Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man… Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/10/31/something-in-the-blood-the-untold-story-of-bram-stoker/  

 

Gray, E. (2011, October 28). Vampires And Sexuality: What Are ‘Twilight’ And ‘True Blood’ Saying About Sex? Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/emma-gray/vampires-sexuality_b_1063907.html

 

Hofstatter, B. (2012). Representations of Gender Relations in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Graz.

 

Künnecke, L. (2015, March). Blood, Sex and Vampirism: Queer Desires in Stoker’s Dracula and Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://www.academia.edu/12280616/Blood_Sex_and_Vampirism_Queer_Desires_in_Stoker_s_Dracula_and_Le_Fanu_s_Carmilla

 

LGBT Characters in The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. (2015, April 24). Retrieved December 07, 2017, from http://www.fangsforthefantasy.com/2015/04/lgbt-characters-in-vampire-diaries-and.html

 

Lord Byron. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://lgbthistorymonth.com/lord-byron?tab=biography

 

Lord Byron’s image inspired modern take on vampires. (2010, June 23). Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/nottingham/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8517000/8517132.stm

 

Luchsinger, A. (2015, March 13). The Vampire – How Lord Byron and The Byronic Hero Influenced The Classic Character. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://www.uwgbcommons.org/archives/26418

 

MacCarthy, F. (2002, November 08). Was Byron hounded from Britain because he was gay? Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/nov/09/classics.poetry

 

Mendlesohn, Farah. “Surpassing the Love of Vampires; or Why (and How) a Queer Reading of Buffy/Willow is Denied.” Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2002. 45-60.

 

Mo. (2016, September 13). Kinda Gay: Bi Erasure on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://butchplease.net/2016/09/13/kinda-gay-bi-erasure-on-buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

 

Muscat, K. (2014, October 4). ‘Ain’t Love Grand’: The Erasure of Bisexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer — Kill Your Darlings. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/aint-love-grand-the-erasure-of-bisexuality-in-buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

 

Nichols, J. (2014, July 31). Anna Paquin Brilliantly Schools Larry King On Bisexuality. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/anna-paquin-larry-king_n_5638081.html

 

Paolucci, P. L. (2000). Re-Reading the Vampire from John Polidon to Anne Rice: Structures of lmpossibility Among Three Narrative Variations in the Vampinc Tradition (Doctoral dissertation, York University Toronto).

 

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Richter, N. (2013). Bisexual Erasure in ‘Lesbian Vampire’Film Theory. Journal of Bisexuality, 13(2), 273-280.

 

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Capitalism and Witches

Capitalism and Witches

 H.  Bradford

10/14/17

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


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


Female Power in Early Europe:

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

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

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


The Evolution of the Witch:

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

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


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


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

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Witches and the Advent of Capitalism:

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

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

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

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The Peasant Wedding-Pieter Bruegel 1567

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


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


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


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

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Image of the 30 Years War

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


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

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Ivan the Terrible by Viktor Vanetsov-1897

Witches Today:

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


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


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


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

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

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Conclusion:

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


 

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

H. Bradford

9/5/17

This summer, I paid a short visit to Turkmenistan.  In fact, one of the big reasons that I wanted to travel on Oasis’ overland trip was the opportunity to visit Turkmenistan and view the Aral sea in Uzbekistan.  In preparation for the trip, I tried to do some reading.  Many travel websites compared Turkmenistan to North Korea.  Documentaries or short videos on Turkmenistan were mostly from the mid-2000s and centered around the bizarre dictatorship of Niyazov, a.k.a Turkmenbashi.  As the trip approached, I became nervous.  I would be joining the trip in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.  Travel websites warned of individuals who had been denied visas or how notoriously difficult it was to obtain a visa.  What if I was not allowed entry?  What if my visa upon arrival was denied?  I would spend my first day or two alone.  What if I accidentally broke a law?  The information provided in travel websites, books, and videos warned of laws such as a city wide curfew, travel restrictions, restrictions on  photographs, bans on circuses or women wearing makeup on television, bans on gold teeth and beards, etc.  If indeed, the country was like North Korea, how safe would I be during the time period I spent alone?

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There are some important differences between Turkmenistan and North Korea.  While Turkmenistan has been called the North Korea of Central Asia or North Korea with oil, a major difference between the countries is how they relate to the United States.   As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, during the Korean war, the United States bombed North Korea into oblivion.  More bombs were dropped on Korea than all of the Pacific during WWII and unexploded bombs are still found in the country.   Thousands of schools, hospitals, and factories were bombed by the U.S.- and when there were but a few buildings standing in the whole country, the United States bombed dams- flooding the country’s agricultural land and threatening the populace with starvation. Civilians were specifically targeted by the U.S., which destroyed 20% of the population in the war.  This created a deep fear and bitterness towards the United States which is used to sustain the repressive Kim dynasty.  Turkmenistan does not have that same destructive and antagonistic history with the United States.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Niyazov proclaimed that the country was neutral.  In fact, there is an enormous monument to neutrality in Ashgabat.  Despite this official neutrality, Turkemistan provided tax and duty free gas/oil to NATO countries engaged in the war in Afghanistan and has allowed NATO to use its airspace and land aircraft at Ashgabat airport.  Furthermore, U.S. corporations such as John Deere, Caterpillar, and Boeing conduct business in Turkmenistan.  Niyazov’s successor, Berdymukhamedov, even sent a personal congratulation to President Obama upon his election.  So, while Turkemistan is viewed as a country that lacks basic rights to organizing, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and a criminal justice system with torture and abuse, a key difference is that this authoritarian regime is a strategic ally of the United States whereas North Korea is viewed as an enemy.   Consequently, the United States is less inclined to call out human rights abuses in Turkmenistan or call for regime change.  In fact, very few Americans know the first thing about Turkmenistan.  Why not?  Well, fear mongering and villainizing Turkmenistan simply isn’t a matter of importance to American foreign policy in the same way North Korea is.   While the United States was an enemy of the Soviet Union and certainly some suspicion may persist, I think it is very unlikely that an American would be kept in Turkmenistan or imprisoned there for political reasons.  The Peace Corps operated in Turkmenistan until 2012 and there is a U.S. embassy in Ashgabat (along with embassies for at least 20 other countries).   In short, despite its reputation as a very authoritarian country, Turkmenistan has fairly “normal” relations with the West.

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Neutrality Monument in Ashgabat


Upon arrival in Ashgabat, I applied for my tourist visa by presenting a letter of invitation.  In contrast, my visa for North Korea was arranged ahead of time in Beijing and  was contingent upon travel with North Korean guides and an organized tour.  My arrival in Pyongyang was heralded by a power outage at the airport- itself a modest building.  Ashgabat’s airport is a much larger white building in the shape of a giant bird.  Tourists in Turkmenistan are free to explore the capital on their own, but a guide is needed for travel outside of the capital.  We were joined by a local guide who stayed with us during our visit through the country.  In Pyongyang, I turned in my cellphone at the airport.  This was not the case in Turkmenistan, where it was common to see satellite dishes and the main indicator of a lack of freedom of information/communication was that I could not access social media.  Because it was expected that tourists are always accompanied by guides and our accommodations were at the Yanggakdo Hotel (on an island), there were no opportunities for independent exploration in North Korea.  In Turkmenistan, I spent two days exploring Ashgabat all by myself.   While traveling around the Ashgabat, no one avoided me but no one went out of their way to talk to me either.  It was common to see police, but they also seemed fairly indifferent to me.  At least on the surface, it seemed that the level of control of tourists or the populace was not the same between the countries.  As of September 2017, U.S. citizens are no longer allowed to travel to North Korea.  This ban does not come from North Korea, but rather our own state department, so a major difference between the two countries at this point in time is that Americans can’t enter North Korea!

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An amusement park in Ashgabat


Both Pyongyang and Ashgabat are showcase capitals.   Ashgabat was hit by a massive earthquake in 1948, which leveled the city and killed 110,000 people.  During the Korean war, only two buildings stood in Pyongyang.   Suffice to say, both capitals are newly constructed since the 1950s.   Nevertheless, Ashgabat has undergone an extensive and expensive renovation since the 2000s, which has transformed the city into a white marble wonderland of fountains and gold.   In this sense, Ashgabat is certainly more luxuriant…as natural gas revenues have been used to remodel the capital.  Even the apartment buildings are marble.  Pyongyang is certainly clean and resplendent with monuments that celebrate the Kim family and Juche, but it is not characterized by the same parks, neon lights, clusters of monuments, and marble.   While Ashgabat is lit up at night, Pyongyang seemed fairly dark.  I think a major difference is that North Korea devotes more resources to the military and developing weapons (20% of the GDP goes to the military).  Because North Korea is embargoed and Turkmenistan is free to sell its natural gas, Niyazev had more money to play with in reshaping the capital (Turkmenistan spends about 3.5% of its GDP on military).  At the same time, North Korea is more developed than Turkmenistan.  Outside of Ashgabat, 80% of the country is desert.  The Karakorum Canal provides irrigation to agriculture (albeit wastefully), but the country, at least from what I could see- is very rural and agrarian where this is possible.  This underdevelopment is attributed to the fact that Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic mainly supplied the USSR with natural gas.  Its economy was not and continues to not be very diverse (though the fact that 80% of the country is desert puts a major geographical limit on development… USSR history and transition to capitalism not withstanding).  The legacy of Soviet gas exploration makes for interesting tourist attractions.  There are three large collapsed craters left behind by Soviet gas drilling.  One is filled with water, the other flaming mud, and finally, there is the Darvaza gas pit, giant flaming crater in the desert- which has been burning since 1971!   North Korea is a country that is industrial enough to…well, have a nuclear program.

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Darvaza Gas Crater


Both countries share a strong sense of nationalism, which plays an important part of the personality cults established by their respective dictators.  Niyazov invented the Ruhnama,  a book that outlined the history of the Turkmen people, but also was a spiritual, literary, and moral guide.  It was required reading for all students and government workers and the book was to be read with the Koran by imams.  Since Niyazov’s death, the book is no longer required reading- but it was meant to help develop Turkmen identity.  Berdymukhamedev has sought to connect Turkmen identity to horses- and Ashgabat features a Ministry of Horses as well as horse head shaped stadium built for the Asian games.  He also built a nearly 70 foot statue of himself on a horse and wrote a book about horses.   Turkmenistan does not have a long history as a nation state with a national identity.  Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, Turkmenistan didn’t really exist.  It was a region of nomadic people who spoke various related Turkic languages, lacked common political institutions, and often in conflict with one another.  This is not to disparage the people of Turkmenistan, as all nationalities are social constructs in one way or another.  It is simply to say that they had not organized themselves into a united people with a common identity and sense of political nationhood.  Despite the seemingly new and artificial construction of Turkmen nationalism, this seems to be the foundation of Niyazov and Berdymukhamedev’s regimes.

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The stadium built for the Asia Games.


Korean nationalism has been around much longer.  The Korean language is one of the oldest living languages, which has had its own unique script since the 15th century.  Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula sparked a modern nationalist, independence movement.  Various kingdoms existed on the Korean peninsula over history, but Korean culture and norms were united by a singular political administration since the Joseon Kingdom of the 1300s- late 1800s.   In North Korea, the juche ideology was used to support self-reliance, self-defense, the leadership of the Kims, and independence.  This is complimented by songun- or the ideology of military first.  Pursuit of military build-up at the expense of social programs or social welfare is undertaken to protect the DPRK from the United States.  So, while it seems irrational and cruel, it does serve the function of deterring direct U.S. military intervention- which has happened in many other countries.

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The USS Pueblo is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.  It is a captured American spy boat which is a proud trophy in the nearly seventy year conflict between our countries.


There are certainly similarities between Turkmenistan and North Korea.  Both countries are disparaged for human rights abuses and lack of freedoms.   Both are viewed as among the most repressive countries in the world.  But, I think that travel websites overstate the similarities.  There is one major difference- this main difference is how these countries relate to the West (or the United States in particular).  This makes a world of difference in terms of travel, but also in terms of how these countries orient their economies, state ideologies, and social priorities.  It also means that Turkmenistan is largely ignored by the United States, whereas North Korea is on the news daily.  Of course, this could be blamed on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs- but how much do we know about our own missile testing or nuclear history?  How much do we know about who and what we bombed today?  Because Turkmenistan does not actively defy the United States or our allies, it is forgotten and unknown.  And, because Turkmenistan’s government is not legitimized by a six and a half decade long conflict- it does look differently and act differently.  Thus, as a traveler to both countries, I tend to disagree with the comparison.

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Pyongyang

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Ashgabat

Fungi and Feminism

Fungi and Feminism

H. Bradford

8/12/17

 

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


An Introduction to Fungi:

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

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

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

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Mushrooms, Women, and Foraging:

 

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

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


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

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Mushroom hunting- a painting by Bernardina Midderigh Bokhorst

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


Women and Food:

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

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

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

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

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(image stolen from National Geographic…)

Mushrooms, Women, and Witchcraft

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

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(Witches Butter Fungus- Image from Birds and Blooms)


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

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

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

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Women and Mycology

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


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

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(An illustration by Mary Elizabeth Banning)

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

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(Mushroom watercolor painting by Beatrix Potter)


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

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

 


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

Mary Robeson aka Moldy Mary

A depiction of “Moldy Mary”

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


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


Conclusion:  

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

Mushroom Mother - feminist art poster hand finished in gold

A feminist poster called “Mother Mushroom”

Sources:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

 

Feminist T-Shirts: Severing the Thread between Capitalism and Feminism

H. Bradford

7/5/17


I’m not going to lie.  I like to wear things that advertise my politics.  It’s terrible.  It’s hypocritical.   But, it is also a way to tell the world that I am weary of the status quo and sometimes it’s a way start a conversation.  It is also an expression of self (which itself should not be idealized) and a message to others like me that they are not alone.  Recently, when I saw a really cool feminist t-shirt at a store at the mall, I really wanted to buy it.  I didn’t.  Still, I am not a saint and my wardrobe is made from the blood and sweat of exploited workers.  Thus, this piece of writing is not a call for people to be perfect.  Certainly, I have a lot of room to grow.  Instead, it is a call to analyze a disturbing trend in feminism with the hope that this knowledge can shape our organizational tools and demands.  The trend this piece examines is the rise of the feminist t-shirt and the accompanying ideology of corporate feminism.  To this end, this topic is July’s educational component of the Feminist Justice League’s “feminist frolic.”  Many topics have been discussed over the past year and it seems appropriate to explore how feminism has been appropriated by capitalism, while doing some small act to combat this trend: making our own t-shirts.


This year has seen an increase of feminist activism.  Locally, there has been an explosion of feminist events to partake in.  Nationally, between three and five million people in the United States participated in the Women’s March, making it the largest single protest in American history.  More people participated in the Women’s March than are members of the U.S. military.   This burst of feminist activism is certainly a welcome development.  Feminism is cool right now.  As a result of the rise in popularity of feminism there has been an increased demand for feminist t-shirts.  T-shirt with slogans such as “Feminist AF”, “The Future is Female”, and “Nevertheless, She Persisted” are a few examples of popular mantras this year (Spinks, 2017).  While it is great that feminists proudly wear their politics on their sleeve or chest, the trend is problematic in that it may ignore the working conditions behind the production of these shirts and reduce feminism to a profit making fashion statement.  For instance, in 2014 women at a sweatshop in Mauritius were paid 80 cents an hour to make t-shirts that said, “This is what a feminist looks like.”  In all, they earned less than $155 a month working at a factory which produced over 40 million t-shirts a year for Urban Outfitters, Next, and Top Shop.  Further, women who did not produce the quota of 50 shirts a day were subjected to discipline (Ellery, 2014).  At their meager wages, it would take the workers about 72 hours to buy one of the shirts produced at the factory.  The workers themselves share a cramped room with 15 other women.  The women often lived in the dorms for months without seeing their families overseas.  The iconic shirt was worn by celebrities and politicians, and was even featured in Elle magazine.  Astonishingly, the shirt itself was used by Fawcett Society, a nonprofit that promotes the labor rights of women.  When confronted by the conditions of the Mauritius factory, the non-profit argued that the garments were ethically produced (Bianco, 2014).

Image result for this is what a feminist looks like sweatshop


The case of the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt is appalling, but it is far from an isolated incident.  Beyonce, a self proclaimed feminist, also came under fire because the clothing in her company, Ivy Park, was produced at a sweatshop in Sri Lanka.  Workers made less than 65 cents an hour and would need to work over a month to afford the leggings that they produce.  Similar to the women from the factory in Mauritius, they worked 60 hours a week and stayed at a boarding house, as many came from rural areas (2016, Euroweb).   Dior sold a $710 t-shirt with the slogan, “We should all be feminists.”  The quote was from an essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer.  Some proceeds from the shirt were donated to the Clara Lionel Foundation founded by Rihanna (Ngabirano, 2017).  The investment of some proceeds of an over priced shirt to a celebrity foundation should raise some eyebrows.  All of these examples illustrate how corporations have sought to profit from the popularity of feminism, but also offer insight to the troubling nature of clothing production. Image result for dior feminist shirt


Globally, around ¾ of all garment workers are female (Spinks, 2017).  The garment industry has historically been dominated by women and has traditionally been very dangerous.  In the United States, one of the deadliest industrial accidents was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took the lives of 123 women and 23 men.  The accident occurred on March 25, 1911 when a fire erupted in the 11 story building near the end of the workday.  A fire that is believed to have originated in a scrap bin quickly consumed the building.  There were no alarms in the building and the doors were locked to prevent theft.  Many people jumped to their death on the streets or elevator shaft, as the tallest ladder from fire fighters only reached the seventh floor.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is noteworthy because it radicalized the labor movement, generated demands for more safety regulations, and was important in the founding history of International Women’s Day.  Yet, little has changed since 1911.  While clothing production has shifted away from industrialized countries like the United States, the working conditions are is inhumane as a century ago.  The Tazreen Factory Fire of 2013 in Bangladesh illustrates this point.  The massive fire killed 112 Bangladeshi workers at the Tazreen Factory which produced clothes for Walmart, Gap, and Disney, among other companies.  Walmart refused to offer compensation to the survivors and families of victims.  Just like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the factory doors were locked.  Victims had to break windows to try to escape the inferno.  When a foreman told workers that there was a fire, a manager told the workers that there was no fire and they should continue working (Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety, 2013).

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While there are many accidents each year in the garment industry, another startling example of the horrors these workers face was the Rana Plaza collapse, also in Bangladesh.  On April 24, 2013, the eight story Rana Plaza in Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 workers in the largest garment industry accident in history.  JCPenny, Walmart, Benneton, and other brands and stores were connected to the garments produced at the factory.  Since then, North American companies signed a safety plan that they call Alliance to ensure safety standards in Bangladesh.  However, the accord has been criticized as industry driven and not transparent.  Companies must pay for inspections, but are not obligated to pay for upgrades related to safety concerns.  Instead, Alliance signees have financed loans to suppliers for safety improvements (Kamat, 2016).  This is surely a boon to brands who can make more money from loans than they can from investing their profits into safety improvement.   The safety issues are not a matter of bad luck, but characteristic of capitalist production.  Bangladesh is one of the cheapest places in the world to make garments.  It is number two to China in garment exports and employs 5 million people in the garment industry (Kamat, 2016).  The low cost of production comes at the expense of safety.  Since October 2015, 3,425 factories in Bangladesh have been inspected, but only eight have passed the inspection (Tomes, 2017). Image result for rana plaza collapse


Many feminists are mindful of the horrific conditions of the garment industry.  Officially, merchandise for the Women’s March was made and printed in the United States, but there were knock offs or other organizations which made have produced garments not made in the United States.  However, simply because a t-shirt was made in the United States does not mean that it was ethically made, since a t-shirt has many inputs (Spinks, 2017).  At the same time, Made in the United States does not necessarily mean sweatshop free as 50% of sewing shops in the United States fit the definition of sweatshops, i.e. they break one or more federal or state labor law.  85% of sweatshop workers are women aged between 15-25 years old (Feminists Against Sweatshops, n.d).  To make matters worse, even if a person purchased clothing from an ethical source, the cotton used in the clothing itself is made with extremely exploited labor.  In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, hundreds of thousands of citizens are mobilized to pick and grow cotton under the threat of loss of land, punishment, and public humiliation.  The governments of these countries maintain monopolies on cotton production, selling it at under the cost of production to remain competitive (Skrivankova, 2015).  US cotton is heavily subsidized, as US cotton farmers receive a total of about $490 million dollars in subsidies.  The Chinese government offers 8.2 billion dollars in subsidies to cotton farmers.  The large subsidies makes it harder for poorer countries to compete, which in turn increases the level of exploitation to maintain profits.  Beyond the human cost of this, there is an environmental toll.  Although cotton is grown on only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it uses 16% of the insecticides and 7% of the herbicides used in agriculture.  It also requires huge amounts of water.  In central Asia, this resulted in the destruction of the Aral Sea, once the 12 th largest lake in the world and now 10% of its original size (Organize Cotton, n.d.).  In India, where cotton has been cultivated for thousands of years, 400,000 children under the age of 18 work in the cotton industry.  Children are often employed in pollinating the cotton by hand to increase yields.  The children are said to have nimble fingers and girls are preferable to boys, as they require less punishment to work. (Neal, 2014).  Of course, these same arguments have been used to justify the exploitation of women in the garment industry.

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It is difficult to know the conditions under which a t-shirt is made or all of the inputs that went into the t-shirt because we are alienated from labor.  That is, in Marxist terms we are not in control of how things are produced.  A t-shirt might have labels that offer clues to the working conditions, but because we are estranged from production, we never see the entire process.  This makes it easy to mindlessly consume.  It also makes it challenging to ethically consume goods.  At the same time, consumers are individuals who exist in a social world.  Focusing on consumption atomizes social problems to a matter of consumer choices.  Thus, while it is important for feminists to consider where and how a shirt is made, it is also important to consider the dynamics in the world which produce exploitative labor conditions in the first place.  This is where the situation becomes far more complicated.


To begin to unravel this, let’s first examine the role of women in the labor force.  The vast majority of garment workers are women.  This is the case in 2017 as much as it was in 1917.  The relationship between women and labor is complex.  On one hand, women’s access to waged labor is a basic demand for gender equality.  Women’s entrance into the labor market has allowed women to support themselves without male support.  This was a historical gain for women, as it allowed women to access such things as divorce, their own housing, their own careers, etc.  That is, wage labor has allowed women to be something more than just the property or dependents of men.  However, it has also subjected women to harsh working conditions, sexual harassment, and lower wages than their male counterparts.  Women can participate in society, but they are still not equal and still dependent upon men.  Work alone did not liberate women, it simply subjected them to the oppressions that wage workers face, combined with the gender oppression of patriarchy.  Within capitalism, women continue to perform a larger share of unpaid labor, which has resulted in a second shift for women as they do unpaid household labor as well as paid labor.  Since paid labor is well, paid, it is given more value in society.  Unpaid labor is invisible and taken for granted as part of the role of women.  Thus, paid labor has also created a dichotomy between labor that matters and labor that does not.  The problem is not with wage labor, but the conditions of labor in capitalism and the challenge of connecting the struggle with women with the struggle for worker’s rights.  To make matters worse, wage labor v. unpaid labor has sometimes created an antagonism between women who work at home and those who do not.  These sorts of antagonisms are useful in blinding people to their common oppression.


Some writes such as Leslie Chang and Naila Kabeer have argued that waged work, even in third world sweatshops, liberates women.  It allows women to contribute to their families and find economic independence.  Schultz (2015) argued that this position ignores the dynamics that create the exploitative conditions in workplaces of the global south.  Free trade policies create a race to the bottom for wages and conditions, generating pressure for countries to have the cheapest labor or production costs.  Longer hours, lower wages, and greater environmental destruction are all outcomes of fast, flexible production.  At the same time, because of the lower social position of women, they have less ability to resist and organize for better wages or make demands.  Thus, they often make much less than men and find themselves discriminated against without much option for social mobility.  These exploitative conditions grant super profits to capitalists, while denying the most basic human rights to the workers (Schultz, 2015).  This dynamic answers why women are part of the garment industry to begin with.  It is an industry that seeks to profit by seeking out the lowest wage workers.  Women are not equal to men in society, which puts them at a disadvantage in the labor market.  Women in some developing countries may even be new to wage work, having instead grown up in communities that still earn a living from farming.  Since its origin, capitalism has pushed farmers off their land into wage work.  This dynamic is still at play in the developing world and will only increase with climate change.  Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change as it is a low-lying country that is often battered with powerful cyclones.  This creates pressure on rural populations to move to cities and seek work there.  Bangladesh was not always a major producer of clothing, but became one due to free trade agreements which incentivized a focus on exports, ended textile quotes, and set up export processing zones in the country.  This combined with war, famine, and natural disasters resulted in the development of its sweatshop economy.  So while sweatshops may provide women with jobs, the working conditions are not the inevitable growing pains of development.  They are instead constructed by trade organizations, trade agreements, and the larger dynamics of global capitalism.  The working conditions within the garment industry can be analyzed, understood, organized against, and changed. Image result for bangladesh union fight

(Bangladesh workers struggling for a union at the Orchid Sweater Factory)


While the right to paid labor is a basic feminist demand, this demand has also been used by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to justify women’s employment in export processing zones.  Export processing zones are free trade zones wherein businesses are exempt from taxes, tariffs, health and safety regulations, etc.  Since the 1960s, these special economic zones sprung up in Asia, spreading to Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.  Once again, some feminists have argued in favor of work in EPZs as a means of escape from patriarchal family dynamics.  This argument is unfortunate because it accepts the inevitability of capitalist oppression.  EPZs do nothing more than replace the patriarchy of their family with the economic exploitation of capitalism.  Women who work at Haiti’s Ouanaminth free-trade zone making Levi’s jeans, face verbal abuse, beatings, interrogation, and threats with guns.  Women who work at EPZs in Mexico are subjected to health screenings for pregnancy, personal questions about their sex lives, short term contracts.  EPZs are only liberating in the same way that capitalism is liberating compared to feudalism (Eisenstein, 2015).  As absurd as it seems for a feminist to support sweatshops and EPZs, many feminists did not make the connection between Hillary Clinton and the exploitation of working women.   This is either symptomatic of the lack of anti-capitalist analysis in mainstream feminism or the fear wrought by the lesser evilism and abysmal candidates of the two party electoral system.  Hillary Clinton’s first high profile job was on the board for Walmart at a time when the company was enmeshed in a lawsuit over gender discrimination (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Yet, she was endorsed by NOW and viewed by many as a feminist candidate.  ⅔ of Walmart employees are women, and yet, during labor disputes, Clinton kept quiet while serving on the board.  She also accepted campaign donations from the Walton family which were much higher than the average wage of a Walmart employee.  She also bragged that welfare rolls had dropped 60% while her husband was in office, but this was not because of an accompanying decrease in poverty.  Clinton also supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement to open new markets for American business in Asia (Young and Becerra, 2015).  Bill Clinton supported the passage of NAFTA, which forced Mexican farmers from their land into maquiladoras, or sweatshops along the border with the United States (Barrett and Kumar, 2016).  Despite her support of policies which create the conditions for sweatshops and service to Walmart, which actually uses sweatshop labor, Hillary Clinton was viewed as a feminist candidate.

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Hillary Clinton was not elected president and perhaps it is unfair to target her more than any other ruling class candidate.  She is simply an easy target because she exemplifies “corporate feminism” so well.  “Corporate feminism” wants to see more women in board rooms and as leaders.  But this brand of feminism can never be intersectional and can never truly liberate women because it encourages women to partake in the exploitive mechanisms of capitalism.  Capitalism will never allow the feminist struggle to be intersectional as capitalism itself pits men against women, white workers against people of color and immigrants, etc.  The problem with the “Girl Boss” feminism is that girl bosses exert power over other women.  Consider the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall street, wherein a young girl stands up to the iconic bull of the market.  The statue is meant to depict female power and send a message that there should be more female leaders in Wall Street.  Yet, this panders to the basest, most atomized version of feminism.  Feminism is not simply about girl power.  Bell hooks very simply defined feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” (Sow, 2017).   Feminism envisions women as leaders on Wall Street lures and distracts women from connecting feminism to other social struggles to end oppression.  One such struggle was the Occupy Wall street movement wherein thousands of protesters occupied parks and other public spaces in protest of the growing economic inequality in America, wherein the wealth of the top 1% increased 450% since the 1970s.  It was movement in protest of bank bailouts and costly wars.  Corporate feminism with celebrity endorsements and a women equality that is based upon an equal share in capitalist leadership, feeds into the oppression of women.  Of course, a simple t-shirt is not a statement of alignment with the ruling class, but it is a subtle and insidious expression of the corporate appropriation of feminism. Image result for occupy wall street


What is to be worn?

A woman should not be shamed if she choses to wear a feminist t-shirt.  Many people are new to feminism, may like the message, may not know about the labor conditions, may not have the money or access to other clothes, or any number of other reasons.  Feminism should not be a war against each other, but a war against capitalist patriarchy.  To this end, there are a number of things that are far more productive than policing the clothes worn by others.  Feminist organizations can certainly be mindful of where and how their t-shirts are produced, but the alienation of labor makes this rather difficult.  Feminist organizations can host events that involve crafting, clothing swaps, or DIY t-shirt making as an alternative to buying clothes.  This is a way to use recycle clothes while building community.  However, this is limited because it does not do much to challenge the conditions of capitalist production.  To broaden the impact, feminists can connect with anti-sweatshop groups or labor organizations.  This tactic can amplify the impact of feminists and feminist groups by challenging institutions through boycott and protest.  Connecting with labor organizations can broaden the impact as some may have connections to workers in other countries and may even be involved in organizing them.  The global organization of the working class is a key to improving global working conditions, as capital is extremely mobile.  Factories can easily move in search of the lowest paid, most complacent workers if workers try to organize for their rights.  The goal must be to make this difficult through solidarity and fierce organizing.  Beyond this, feminists can challenge free trade agreements and organizations and the status quo of American imperialism.  The ruling class should fear putting the word feminist on their shirts.  The word will not be a trend, but will spell their doom as part of the untamed, un bought, intersectional expression of the unyielding power of working people to create a better world.

 

 

 

Sources:

 

Barrett, P., & Kumar, D. (2016, November 4). The Art of Spin: Feminism, Privilege Politics and the Clinton Campaign. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Feminism-Privilege-Politics-and-the-Clinton-Campaign-20161104-0005.html

 

Bianco, M. (2014, November 05). There’s a Horrifying Secret Behind Those Trendy Feminist T-Shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://mic.com/articles/103260/the-truth-about-these-trendy-t-shirts-reveals-the-biggest-problem-with-mainstream-feminism#.DTtsefqYW

Eistenstein, H. (2015, July 17). The Sweatshop Feminists. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/kristof-globalization-development-third-world/

 

Ellery, B. (2014, November 01). 62p An Hour: What women sleeping 16 to a room get paid to make Ed and Harriet’s £45 ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirts. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2817191/62p-HOUR-s-women-sleeping-16-room-paid-make-Ed-Harriet-s-45-Feminist-Looks-Like-T-shirts.html

 

Feminists Against Sweatshops. (2014). Retrieved July 4, 2017, from http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html

 

Kamat, A. (2016, December 15). Bangladesh’s Factories Might Have Safer Buildings Now. But the Conditions for Workers Are Still Deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_grind/2016/12/bangladesh_s_apparel_factories_still_have_appalling_worker_conditions.html

 

Neal, J. (2014, February 23). The task of protecting India’s child cotton pickers. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-26294513

 

Ngabirano, A. (2017, March 22). Are women being played by ‘feminist’ ads? Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/03/22/have-companies-taken-over-feminism/98706852/

 

The risks of cotton farming. (n.d.). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://organiccotton.org/oc/Cotton-general/Impact-of-cotton/Risk-of-cotton-farming.php

 

Schultz, E. (2015, March 24). Exploitation or emancipation? Women workers in the garment industry. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://europa.eu/eyd2015/en/fashion-revolution/posts/exploitation-or-emancipation-women-workers-garment-industry

 

Skrivankova, K. (2015, October 02). Why you could be wearing cotton picked by forced labor. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/opinions/uzbekistan-turkmenistan-cotton/index.html

 

 

Sow, A. (2017, January 19). Buying Feminist Merch Is Not Political Action. Racked. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://www.racked.com/2017/1/19/14317912/feminist-merch-political-action

 

Spinks, R. (2017, March 7). Was Your Feminist T-Shirt Made by Factory Workers in Exploitative Conditions? Slate. Retrieved July 5, 2017, from https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/3k8bav/was-your-feminist-t-shirt-made-by-factory-workers-in-exploitative-conditions

 

Survivor of Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory Fire Urges U.S. Retailers to Stop Blocking Worker Safety. (2013). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/25/survivor_of_bangladeshs_tazreen_factory_fire

 

Tomes, J. (2017, April 24). Why cheap fashion remains deadly. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/why-cheap-fashion-remains-deadly/a-38565592

 

Young, K., & Becerra, D. (2015, March 9). Hillary Clinton’s Empowerment. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/hillary-clinton-womens-rights-feminism/

Young and Becerra, 2015

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

The Story of International Women’s Day

The Story of International Women’s Day

H. Bradford

3/4/17

I first became aware of International Women’s Day when I was in my early 20s.  I learned about it through my Russian language class in college.  The professor gave all of the women in the class a flower and explained that the holiday was a little bit like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day in Russia.  This quaint and apolitical version of International Women’s Day remained my template for understanding the holiday until after I became a socialist.  This understanding mirrored my understanding of May Day as a spring holiday with cute baskets.  Yet, both holidays are more than just flowers and baskets.  They are both celebrations that honor a long history of struggle against capitalism.

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 You mean International Women’s Day is not just a cute Russian holiday?


The Socialist Roots of International Women’s Day:

While I learned about International Women’s Day in the context of Russian culture, the holiday, like May Day, actually originates in the United States.  The first “National Woman’s Day” was organized by the Socialist Party and held on February 23, 1909.  The New York event was attended by over 2000 people and featured speaks such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Leonora O’Reilly.  The first “National Woman’s Day” focused on suffrage and women’s equality.  It was also called in support of ongoing labor organizing of garment workers, such as march of 15,000 workers which had occurred the year before.  At the time, socialists wrestled with the issue of balancing the demand for suffrage with their traditional focus on the economic rights of women, but ultimately, committed themselves to both through the advocacy of women within the socialist party.  Like May Day, the holiday was later popularized in Europe.  In 1910, women from 100 countries, consisting of socialists, labor organizers, working women’s clubs, and three female Finnish members of Parliament, gathered in Copenhagen for the Second International Congress of Women.  It is at this meeting that German socialist, Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin, motioned to create an International Women’s Day the following year.  The first International Women’s Day event was held March 18, 1911 and featured over a million demonstrators across Europe who used the event commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune and assert the economic and political rights of women.  That same year, on March 25, 1911, 146 mostly immigrant women lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York.  Because of unsafe working conditions, including locked doors to prevent theft and a lack of fire alarms on some of the floors, a fire originating in a pile of scrap material killed a quarter of the workforce in less than twenty minutes.  The fire was a catalyst for new safety regulations and a rallying cry for unionizing garment workers.  It was also memorialized in future International Women’s Day events.


Early International Women’s Day observances were focused on labor, suffrage, and other facets of political and economic equality.  While the relationship between socialists and suffragists was uneasy, the socialists became increasingly committed to suffrage and collaborating with suffragists during this time period.  American socialists actually marched together with suffragists in Boston a few days before women’s day in 1911.  While suffrage seems obvious today, at the time, socialists worried that suffrage would mean women could be drafted, thereby becoming instruments of capitalist wars.  There were also concerns that women were politically conservative and that suffragists tended to consist of wealthier and middle class women whose interests were not the same as working class women.  Despite misgivings socialists had regarding suffrage, the early celebrations of women’s day were expressions of their commitment to the economic and political equality of women.  According to the Russian socialist, Alexandra Kollontai (1920), North American socialists played a prominent role in arguing to other socialists that suffrage was a worthy demand.

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International Women’s Day and the Russian Revolution:

Peace became another central demand of International Women’s Day organizers during World War One.  Unfortunately, socialists who had been elected into office, were blinded by nationalism and voted to enter World War One, thereby discrediting Socialist Parties. However, in 1915 Clara Zetkin called a conference of women in Bern, Switzerland and encouraged them to demonstrate against war, even if this meant treason.  Women from countries involved in World War One were denied passports to attend this meeting and unfortunately, the only country that managed to host a demonstration in 1915 was Norway, though some women from war beleaguered European countries managed to attend.  It is during this time that International Women’s Day was first celebrated in Russia, which went on to play an important role in the holiday’s history.  The first Russian “Working Women’s Day” was organized in 1913 as a meeting, as demonstrations were illegal in tsarist Russia.  The following year, organizers for a “Working Women’s Day” were put into prison and the demonstration was stymied by police intervention.  State repression prevented Russian further observances of International Women’s Day until 1917  By then, the Russian population was weary from war, poverty, hunger, and tsarist autocracy.  The threat of imprisonment could not contain the anger of the masses.  On March 8th, 1917, or February 23rd by our calendar, women in Petrograd took to the streets to demand bread and an end to the war, which had taken the lives of two million Russians.  Garment workers played a central role in the strike, but other workers joined them, swelling to a mass of 75,000 workers on the first day and 200,000 on the second.  By the third day, 400,000 workers participated in the strike in Petrograd.  Four days later, military garrisons revolted and police went into hiding.  The International Women’s Day strike in Petrograd spread across the country, becoming what is now known as the February Revolution.  The revolution resulted in the abdication of the tsar a week later, ending over 400 years of tsarist rule and set the stage for the October revolution later that year.


The Russian revolution ushered in a variety of advances for women.  The October revolution granted full suffrage to women and enacted equal pay.  Russia became the first country to legalize abortion, which it provided free and on demand until Stalin came to power.  Divorce became easily obtainable and marriage was treated as a civil matter rather than religious affair.  Daycares and communal kitchens and laundries were established to alleviate the burden of unpaid labor.  Paid maternity leave was also extended to women, something that the United States lacks 100 years later.  All of this was granted to women during a time of civil war and economic collapse on the already shoddy foundation of centuries of tsarist autocracy and an undeveloped economy.  Many of these remarkable accomplishments were later rolled back by Stalin, who rebranded International Women’s Day as a benign Soviet Valentine’s Day.  The revolutionary character of the holiday was largely forgotten and the holiday itself became associated with communism, as countries ruled by Communist Parties tended to be the ones which made it an official holiday.  Like May Day, Cold War politics, which sought to tame, ignore, or persecute the far left, meant that International Women’s Day went mostly unnoticed in the U.S.

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The Struggle Continues:

International Women’s Day was a largely Communist holiday until the late 1960s.  The emergence of the feminist movement in renewed interest in the holiday, though, since socialists participated in the feminist movement, they may have played a role in promoting the holiday.  In any event, the holiday became less associated with communism after International Women’s Day was promoted by feminists and adopted by the United Nations in 1975.  As of 2014, International Women’s Day was observed in over 100 countries.  The United Nation’s version of International Women’s Day doesn’t quite capture the militant spirit of the original celebrations.  Each year has featured a theme, such as human rights, decision making, progress, and empowerment.  However, these themes often sound more like Girl Scout Badges that women should earn rather than rallying calls for the next revolution.  Thus, for most of my life as a feminist, I have been disappointed by the lack of interest or action around the holiday.  The Feminist Justice League, formerly known as the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition, has organized International Women’s Day events in the past, but these were never well attended and there was never much community interest in them.


All of this has changed this year after four million women marched on January 21st.  In the wake of this event, the Women’s March has called for 10 actions in 100 days.  Prior to calling for a “Day without a Woman” Strike on March 8th, feminists around the world were calling for a strike.  Women in Poland, Ireland, and Argentina have been particularly active in this call.  In Ireland, women plan to strike on March 8th in protest of restrictive abortion laws there.  In October, women in Poland striked against the introduction of legislation which sought to criminalize in all cases but imminent danger to the mother’s life.  In Argentina, and across Latin America, women striked against femicide in October, catalyzed by the gruesome rape and murder of Lucia Perez.  The strikers tied the violence against women to the economic conditions that women face, such as unpaid labor, unequal wages, and neoliberal reforms that have cut public spending, all of which render women unequal and vulnerable.  In solidarity with these struggles, and to spotlight the economic component of women’s oppression, the Women’s March called for a strike on March 8th.  This strike was called in mid-February.  As a result of the resurgence of feminism, events will be held all over the United States and abroad.  Locally, the Feminist Justice League is hosting a 78 minute symbolic strike, followed by a march and a panel which focuses on women as workers.  This event will be held at 5 pm on March 8th at the MN Power Plaza.  However, it is one of a dozen local events.  Other events include an the Feminist Action Collective’s International Women’s Day celebration on March 10th at Beaner’s, Domestic Violence Action Day on March 7th at noon at the Duluth City Hall,  PAVSA’s pack the Plaza at 11:30 am on the 8th, and a solidarity with Honduras event at 2:30 at the Building for Women on March 5th.  This is just a sample of the wave of feminist actions for International Women’s Day.

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Conclusion:

I am excited by the revival of interest in International Women’s Day and feminism in general.  Sometimes there is so much activity that I worry that I will be washed away in this new wave of feminist activity.  At the same time, I am incredibly proud to be a socialist.  Some people enjoy pointing out their genealogy, finding joy that at some point in history they descended from a king or Viking.  I take pride in my socialist genealogy.  I take pride in my membership to a party which descends from the Russian revolution and from the socialists before this.  I feel that the history of International Women’s Day is my history.  It is my history as a socialist, as a worker, and as a woman.  Of course, International Women’s Day should be for everyone.  The story of garment workers dying in a fire continues to be the story of all workers who face dangerous conditions. The story of immigrant women who were afraid to organize because of their marginal position in society, continues to be story of immigrants.  The story of women standing up against the senseless loss of war should still be our story.  The story of women standing up to soldiers and the police, protesting in the face of state repression, should still be our story.  This gives new meaning to, “…and still she persisted.”  The story of women trying to build an international feminist movement should be our story.  The story of women connecting femicide to neoliberal policies and economic inequality should be our story.  The story of women making revolution should be our story.

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Sources:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/7/socialist-history-of-international-womens-day.html

http://kclabor.org/wordpress/?m=201703

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/7/socialist-history-of-international-womens-day.html

https://iwd.uchicago.edu/page/international-womens-day-history

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/russias-february-revolution-was-led-women-march-180962218/

https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/womens-day.htm

http://isreview.org/issue/75/februarys-forgotten-vanguard

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

https://viewpointmag.com/2017/02/23/striking-for-ourselves/

Bi+ Identities: Past, Present, and Future

the_bisexual_umbrella_by_drynwhyl-d4gq9ji

Bi+ Identities: Past, Present, and Future

H. Bradford

2/16/17

Once a month, Pandemonium meets for “Bi with Pie.”  “Bi with Pie” is a discussion group wherein members discuss issues related to bisexuality and bi+ identities.  In the past, we have discussed our experiences as well as topics such as bisexuality and domestic violence, bi phobia, and the importance of bisexual organizing.  Usually, I try to facilitate the discussion by bringing an essay or article to share.  This month, I wanted to explore various bi+ identities.  Originally, I wanted to compare bisexuality and pan-sexuality, but this expanded to include other bi+ identities.  I am not an expert on sexuality, but it is an area of interest.  Certainly, there may be some errors in my definitions and analysis.  But, the point of our group is to grow and connect as a community.  Part of my own growth as an activist is my own growth through learning and sharing information.  With that said, hopefully this essay provides an overview of some of the identities within the Bi+ community.  It is far from comprehensive, but I think it helps to clarify some differences between identities while revealing a trend in LGBTQ identities.

Bisexuality:

Bisexuality was first coined in 1892 by Charles Gilbert Chaddock in his translation of Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.  It is in the late 1800s and early 1900s that psychologists sought to classify sexuality.  As such, our modern sexual concepts emerge during this time period.  However, these understandings were medical understandings meant to delineate health from deviance.  For instance, Freud believed that humans were innately bisexual, but that normal individuals would become heterosexual unless exposed to trauma.  Unfortunately, many people still seem to believe that being gay, lesbian, bi, or anything but a cisgender heterosexuality stems from poor parenting or some kind of trauma.  Despite the relative newness of labels such as homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual, there has certainly been a wide array of sexual behavior across cultures and time periods.  Men in Ancient Greece entered relationships with older men as youth, but also married women.  In Ancient Japan, young men formed sexual relationships with older men in the context of Buddhist temples and among samurai warrior culture.  While these cultures aren’t precisely bisexual in the modern sense, and even then, this sexual expression was limited to men, it should at least demonstrate that attraction to more than one gender has deep historical roots.


Although the word has been around since the late 1800s, there are many misconceptions of what it means to be bisexual.  For instance, the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines bisexuality as a sexual or romantic attraction to both sexes.  It also defines it as something which possesses male and female reproductive structures.  This definition is confusing, since it implies that there are only two sexes and does not mention gender at all.  It is also confusing, since it defines bisexual as synonymous with hermaphrodite.  This use of the word might be appropriate in strictly scientific contexts, but it is potentially confusing and offensive in other contexts.  Finally, the definition implies that bisexuals are not attracted to trans or non-binary individuals.


Because of these limitations and misunderstandings in mainstream definitions of bisexuality, bisexual organizations have sought to create their own definitions.  For instance, BiNet defines bisexual as, “A person whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction is to other people of various sexes and/or gender identities. Individuals may experience this attraction in differing ways and degrees over their lifetime.”  This definition is notably inclusive of various sexes and gender identities.  Likewise, the American Institute of Bisexuality defines bisexual as, “A bi person has the capacity for romantic and/or sexual attraction to more than one gender.”  Once again, bisexuality is not limited to attraction to both men or women, but more than one gender, which could include many gender identities.  The Human Rights Campaign defines bisexuality as, “A person emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to more than one sex and/or gender, though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree.”  This definition acknowledges that bisexuality does not mean an even proportion of attraction to various gender.  It is clear by these definitions that bisexuals do not define themselves as simply being attracted to men or women, but simply more than one gender.  In fact, there have even been petitions to define bisexuality more accurately on online dictionaries.


While many people believe that the bi in bisexual means attraction to “two” and the two being male and female, according to the American Institute of Bisexuality, it is a scientific word that describes someone who is both heterosexual and homosexual.   Despite the efforts of bisexual activists to define themselves in a way that does not reinforce binary gender identities, the misconception persists that bisexuals are attracted to men and women.   Many bisexual individuals choose to identify as bisexual because it is the most commonly used word for someone who is attracted to more than one gender.  Some use bisexual in combination with other sexual identities.  Some use it because they are indeed only attracted to men or women or their sexuality is not inclusive of all gender identities.  Bisexuality is also used as a generic umbrella term for a variety of sexualities that involve attraction to more than one gender.  Personally, I choose to identify myself as bisexual since it is the most commonly understood word for attraction to more than one gender, it is a word that is associated with social movement organizations and history, and because I believe it is a word that should be reclaimed to be inclusive of all genders.


Although bisexuals have been part of the modern LGBT movement since the 1960s, it is still in many ways very new as a movement.  The bisexual pride flag was not invented until 1998.  BiNET USA, the first nationwide organization for bisexuals, was not founded until 1990.  The first Celebrate Bisexuality Day was on September, 23 1999.  The first books that specifically focused on bisexuality were written in the 1990s.  Thus, bisexuality as a distinct movement and community is only a few decades old.  Although it is new, there are many identities which have arisen since the 1990s.  This can make some bisexuals feel threatened or may raise the question of if bisexuality has become obsolete.  Hopefully, bisexuality is not obsolete as this would cut short its development as an identity and community and undermine its potential in the struggle against heterosexism.  It is my hope that bisexuality will remain relevant by collaborating with and making space for emergent identities.

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Pansexuality:

The 1990s saw a flourishing of bisexual identity with the emergence of national organizations, books, a flag, etc.  It was during this time period that Queer Theory emerged.  In a larger social and historical context, this period also marked the end of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.  The apparent victory of capitalism, complete with its insidious institutions of globalization and finance, led to a crisis of faith in Marxist or even modernist understandings of society.  This has played a large role in sexuality is presently understood and the emphasis on identities.  Of course, identity politics is important to building movements as it helps individuals develop a sense of self, a sense of unity, and an understanding of their own oppression.  Yet, I think that this also explains the plethora of new sexual identities that have emerged since the 1990s.  We live in a society where politics are very identity driven and individualized.  This is not to discredit anyone’s identity.  It is simply to put these identities into a material and social context.


With that said, while pansexuality may seem like the new kid on the bi+ block, the term has been around since the early 1900s and was coined by Sigmund Freud.  At the time, it was a term that described how sexuality was the basis of all human interactions.  According to an analysis of google data, pansexual began to appear online in about 2007.  The concept arose or at least became more popular with the emergence of genderqueer and non-binary activism.   The word pansexual was invented to specifically include non-binary individuals.  The word pan means “all,” so someone who is pan-sexual could potentially be attracted to all genders or sexes.  There is a slight difference between bisexuality and pansexuality, as bisexuality is often defined as “more than one” and pansexuality as “all.” Thus, pansexuality does come across as more broad and potentially gender blind.  Adopting this label is an attempt to make clear that an individual is attracted to all genders.  Some bisexuals may feel upset with this term, since pansexuality may seem like it is trying to correct a failure of bisexuality to include trans and non-binary genders.  Some bisexuals may feel that this term is not necessary since bisexuality is inclusive or that the label may somehow shame, denigrate, or marginalize bisexuality.  I would hope that pansexuals are not seeking to differentiate themselves in such a manner.  At the same time, everyone should have the autonomy to define themselves how they like.  Pansexuality should be viewed as legitimate and important.


Since bisexuality is misunderstood and pansexuality is not a well-known sexual identity, one benefit of adopting this identity is that it may require an explanation and definition.  This is a way to specifically spotlight the gender component of bisexuality/pansexuality.    Unfortunately, it has added to the misconception that bisexuality is about binary gender and sexes.  Both bisexuals and pansexuals can be attracted to a variety of genders and sexes and both can be allies to these groups.  And, while bisexuals struggle with the rootword “bi” which by default sounds like binary, pansexuals must wrestle with the rootword “all” which to some people implies animals, inanimate objects, children, etc.  Thus, both identities struggle with defining themselves on their own terms.  At the same time, bisexuals have various organizations to advocate for their interests and development as a community.  Pansexuals do not have independent social movement organizations (or at least national or well-known organizations).  As such, they may be dismissed as an internet identity with no presence in the real world.  Pansexuals are lumped together with bisexual organizations.  Because the identity is fairly new, perhaps with time it will grow and separate from the bisexual movement.  For now, both are conjoined.


I am not certain what percentage of the Bi+ community identities as pansexual.  However, in a 2014 Needs Assessment Survey of the Bisexual, Fluid, and Pansexual Community of L.A., 26% of the respondents identified as pansexual.  61.8% identified as bisexual and 36% identified as queer.  Thus, pansexual was the third most prominent identity in the survey, consisting of over a quarter of respondents.  Despite the lack of pansexual specific publications and institutions, some celebrities have come out as pansexual such as the feminist sex educator, Laci Green, rapper Angel Haze, and Miley Cyrus.   The pansexual flag was invented in 2010.  The pink represents women, the blue stripe represents men, and the yellow stripe represents non-binary gender.   In conclusion, pansexuality as a distinct identity is much younger than bisexuality, but is quickly becoming a popular segment of the Bi+ community.   While pansexuality is similar to bisexuality, it emphasizes gender over sexuality.  It remains to be seen if pansexuality will separate from bisexuality and form an autonomous movement with its own organizations.  I suppose this depends upon how well both groups collaborate and identify common needs and demands.  Interestingly, the Bi+ group that I am a part of is called Pandemonium, which puts more emphasis on “pan” than “bi” identity.  An effective Bi+ organization should ensure that pansexuals feel like an equal partner in the struggle against heterosexism. 2000px-pansexuality_flag-svg

Fluid:

Another identity that may fit in the Bi+ umbrella is fluid.  Of course, since fluid is fluid, it may not fit from time to time.  I suppose how it fits in would be up to the individual and how that person wants to relate to the Bi+ umbrella.  A fluid individual is someone who may be attracted to multiple genders or may be attracted to one gender.  Someone who is fluid may reject labels.  Their sexuality may involve attraction to multiple genders at once, or a single gender at one time.   24% of the respondents to the 2014 Needs Assessment Survey of the Bisexual, Fluid, and Pansexual Community of L.A. identified as fluid, which made it the fourth most common response.  To those who identify as fluid, they may feel as though bisexuality or other labels do not adequately describe the variability in their sexuality.  Another word for fluid sexuality is abrosexuality.  Though, abrosexuality may mean rapidly changing, so I am not certain that it is perfectly synonymous with simply being fluid.  Most bisexuals and pansexuals likely recognize that sexuality is to some degree fluid.  It would be rare to find a bisexual person who is always exactly 33.3% attracted to men, 33.3% attracted to women, and 33.3% attracted to non-binary individuals without change or deviation.  However, identifying as fluid makes it very clear that sexuality is always changing and evolving. Abrosexual Pride Flag: Abrosexuality is defined as being fluid in sexuality. This means that a sexuality changes very often. This is different from novosexuality because abrosexuals can usually tell what sexuality they are at that moment.

Queer:

Queer is often used as catchall term for anyone who is not cisgender or heterosexual, so it is a term that is applied both to sexuality and gender.  Thus, it is commonly used to describe any sexual and gender minority or denotes any identity that is not heterosexual.  Importantly, it should not be applied to people who don’t self-identity as queer, as the word has historically been used negatively against sexual or gender minorities.  The word is multifaceted, so some individuals adopt the word to express their identity as someone who is attracted to men, women, trans, or non-binary individuals. The word is also employed to express that an individual is against the status quo or is a radical or revolutionary sexual or gender minority who is looking to challenge oppressive social norms and systems.


Although queer was once a derogatory word used against sexual or gender minorities, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists sought to reclaim the word queer.  An early example of the popularization of the word queer is Queer Nation, an organization that was founded in 1990, which used direct action, marches, education campaigns, and protest to challenge homophobia, violence, and promote LGBTQ visibility.  Queer Nation came out of ACT-UP, an group which used similar tactics to draw attention to the AIDS crisis during the 1980s.  The militancy of ACT-UP was in response to government inaction in response to AIDS and the deaths of thousands of people from the disease.  By 2000, almost 450,000 people in the United States had died of AIDS, though the rates of infection and death had decreased since the mid-1990s.  Because of this history, the word queer has been associated with LGBTQ militancy, though today, many mainstream organizations have adopted this word.


 

Polysexual:

There are many other sexuality within the bi+ umbrella.   Another identity is polysexual.  Poly means many.  Thus, a person who identifies as polysexual may be attracted to many genders but not all genders.   This definition implies that there are some genders which a polysexual is not attracted to or potentially attracted to.  A challenge that polysexuals might face is that “poly” may sound like polyamorous.  Thus, they might be mistaken for polyamorous, or non-monogamous.  As you can see, each identity has some challenges on account of the root word.  Finally, polysexual is much more obscure than pansexual and bisexual, so it may require more explanation or confusion.  I am uncertain of the history of exact history of polysexuality, but judging by the historical trend of other identities, I imagine it was first articulated in the late 2000s.  There are few online resources related to this identity, but it seemed worth mentioning as it relates closely to pansexuality. pride-flag-polysexual

Skoliosexual:

In a similar vein to polysexual, there are some people who are only attracted to non-binary identified individuals.  These are skoliosexuals.  Skoliosexuality is not very well known.  I wasn’t even 100% sure which flag represented this sexual identity or if this identity had its own flag.  The prefix “skolio” may refer to the Greek word for bent, such as scoliosis, a curve of the spine.  The challenge of this sexuality is that it is not well known, it sounds like a spinal deformity, and individuals may be accused of fetishizing gender non-conforming people.  The history of this sexuality is unknown, though it may have appeared on the internet after 2010. 31196b3d048861504b6f04638edb70d8

Other Labels:

Omnisexual, Ambisexual, and Trisexual are other varieties of bi+ identities which I found online.  Of these, omnisexual is the most commonly referenced online.  Omnisexual seems to be used as a synonym for pansexual.  Ambisexual and Trisexual appear to be rather obscure labels at this moment of time.  While there may be individuals who identify as these labels, there are few resources regarding what the identity entails.   There are more common labels such as heteroflexible, homoflexible, and bi-curious, but it is beyond the scope of this particular essay to explore all of these labels.  As such, this essay provides an overview of some but not all Bi+ identities.   The big idea is that there are many ways to describe and experience attraction to more than one or multiple genders. Image result for bisexual organizing


Why So Many Labels?

A big question that a person may have after reading this essay is why are there so many labels?  This essay doesn’t even offer a comprehensive list of possible identities within the bi+ community!  I think that there are several reasons why there are so many labels.  First of all, there are some “old school” labels.  These came about in the late 1800s by scientists and medical professionals.  Labels like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual were coined in the late 1800s.  There are many reasons for this.  Firstly, the mid 1800s saw the emergence of powerful medical institutions which replaced folk understandings of human bodies and health.  This time period also saw the emergence of new disciplines of understanding and organizing knowledge, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology.  The esteemed position of scientific knowledge over religious or folk knowledge was not new, but it was accelerated by the industrial revolution, the subsequent growth of urban centers, and the global expansion of capitalism.  This trifecta of conditions called for new ways of studying human beings and articulating deviance/difference for better control of colonies and workers.  For instance, scientific racism emerged in this time period as a way to classify some humans as lesser.  This justified colonization projects and the exploitation of these people.  The veneer of science was used to define deviant from “normal” sexuality for the purpose of controlling the reproduction of workers, pitting some workers against others, and controlling workers themselves by ensuring the unequal position of some groups within the labor force and household.  Therefore, these original labels for sexuality were meant to control and divide people.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that scientific racism and sexual labels emerged during the same time time period.  There was a fear of demographic crisis.  Population is a resource within capitalism.  Anything that potentially threatens reproduction is automatically suspect.


While different words and labels were adopted and rejected over history, there seems to be a real flourishing of identities since the 1990s.  These labels are not coming from scientific institutions, but individuals and activists who want to define themselves.  The biggest boon in this process seems to have been reclaiming the word queer in the early 1990s.   This came out of militant LGBTQ organizing during the 1980s, which itself stood on the shoulders of the LGBT movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  Queer was adopted by activists themselves, but entered academia through queer theory.   Of course, the academia of the 1990s was somewhat demoralized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the perceived failure Marxism.  Thus, it seems to me that LGBT theory and analysis has been very centered upon the use of language and the development of identity, as academia has been influenced by post-modernism and post-structuralism.    I find nothing wrong with exploring language, identity, or thought.  I also find nothing wrong with deconstructing gender and sexuality.  These things should be deconstructed.  The status quo should be challenged and social movements must promote new understandings.  But, I also think that larger economic forces should ground this analysis.


With that said, new identities have developed because identity is a focal point of understanding LGBTQ issues.  Identity is important to organizing, but it is a double edged sword because it can be atomizing, dividing, and self-focused.  The emergence of so many new identities since the mid to late 2000s can be attributed to social media and the increased ability of individuals to develop a sense of self through the internet.  It can also be attributed to American hyper individualism.   This is not to say that the emergence of new identities is wrong or bad.  It is simply to argue that we live in a society which values individuality (inasmuch as it can be subverted for consumer interests or as a distraction from class consciousness).  At the same time, these identities are subversive, since they do challenge heterosexism.  This may sound contradictory, but I am simply arguing that a society that allows us to define ourselves through thousands of styles of shoes, clothes, music, and food choices also creates the space for us to define ourselves through thousands of labels for sexuality.  And, to add to this, there truly ARE thousands of ways to express sexuality and gender.  Finally, there are more labels because there is increased social space to explore gender and sexuality.  Victories in the realm of marriage equality and trans bathroom access and trans acceptance (despite recent setbacks) create more space for individuals to think about and express gender and sexual identity.  It is my prediction that many more sexual identities will emerge.  That there will be many more new flags.  I think that this is because people are seeking to define themselves and social media provides a platform for connection and identity creation.  There is nothing wrong with this.  The question isn’t a matter of right or wrong or what identities should exist or should not exist.  It is a matter of organizing to fight heterosexism.  To that end, I believe that uniting towards common goals, articulating common interests, identifying economic and structural forces, mobilizing in real time and physical spaces, and building a collective movement that consists of affirmed individuals will further the cause of bi+ individuals as we move towards the future.

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This essay draws from the following sources:

https://bisexual.org/?qna=what-is-the-difference-between-bisexual-and-terms-like-pansexual-polysexual-omnisexual-ambisexual-and-fluid

http://binetusa.blogspot.com/2016/02/correct-definition-of-bisexuality-on.html

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/bi-vs-pan/

http://www.outsaskatoon.ca/bi_pan_poly

http://genderqueerid.com/post/16339992032/skoliosexual-adj

http://www.labicenter.org/LABTF_2014_Bisexual_Needs_Assessment_of_Greater_LA.pdf

https://www.bustle.com/articles/40282-a-brief-history-of-bisexuality-from-ancient-greece-and-the-kinsey-scale-to-lindsay-lohan

http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/10/fluid-sexuality-lgbtq-spectrum/

http://www.advocate.com/health/love-and-sex/2014/02/11/exploring-umbrella-bisexuality-and-fluidity

http://www.uua.org/lgbtq/identity/queer

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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