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

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

H. Bradford

5/18/17

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

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

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Painting of Zapata by Diego Rivera


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


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


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


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

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The dance scene from the film, Frida


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


Sources:

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

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



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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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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.

international-women-s-day

 

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.

Image result for bisexual organizing

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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White Winter: Racism and Winter Sports

White Winter:

Racism and Winter Sports

H. Bradford

1.28.17

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


 

The Myth of Geography:

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


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

 

 


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


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


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


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


 

The Role of History:

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


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


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

The Role of Racism:   

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


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

surya-02-679x1024


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


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


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


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


Conclusion:

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

 

Sources:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Year of Books

A Year of Books

H. Bradford 1/13/17


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


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

 

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


2. Socialism and Sexuality by Sherry Woolf (2009)

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

3. The Witches by Stacey Schiff (2015)

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


4. Warrior Nation by Anton Treuer (2015)

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



5. The Beast Within by Joyce Salisbury

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

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

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6. Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin (1994)

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

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


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

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

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


8. Apartheid: A History by Brian Lapping

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


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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


16. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1998)

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


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

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


18. Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis (2016)

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


 

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

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


 

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

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


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


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

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


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

 

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


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

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


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

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

All the Season’s Ladies

All the Season’s Ladies:

Forgotten Females of the Holiday Season

By H. Bradford

12/18/16


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

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

Mrs. Claus

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

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

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(St. Nicholas is more somber than jolly)

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

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

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


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

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St. Lucia


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

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

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

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Beiwe:


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

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


La Befana:

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

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

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  Snergurochka:

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

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

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


Conclusion:

 

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

 

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Sources:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

by H. Bradford

12/12/16


As you may or may not know, one of my hobbies for the past few years has been urban gardening.  I can’t say that I have a green thumb, but I do have a “red thumb” as I try to connect this hobby to my larger interest in socialism.  This is why the garden is called “the vangarden” as it is a play of words on “vanguard.”  I try to do different theme gardens and one of the themes is an Eastern European or Russian inspired garden.  This involves growing vegetables that hail from Eastern Europe.  In particular, I have been trying out some varieties of tomatoes that have ties to the former Soviet Union.  Now, as a Trotskyist I am not someone with a blind adoration of all things Soviet, but it did represent possibility and a distortion of potential.  It is also interesting to learn about the history of plants and try out varieties of vegetables that are not available in grocery stores.  There are dozens of tomatoes that can be connected to the Soviet Union.  These are just a few!  (note that the images are not from my garden)


Cosmonaut Volkov:


I found this tomato plant at the farmer’s market in Duluth this year.  It is an heirloom variety of tomato which was developed in the Ukraine.  The tomato seemed to grow without problems from disease, cracking, or pests and produced medium to large sized red tomatoes, with a slightly tapered bottom.  I purchased only one plant, but it produced well and actually climbed up the clothes line and a barrier that I had created for a raspberry plant.  It was the best growing full sized tomato that I grew last year.

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Cosmonaut Volkov is one of hundreds of tomato varieties grown by Igor Malsov (a retired engineer).  Maslov named the tomato after his friend Vladislav Volkov.  Volkov was one of several cosmonauts killed on the Soyuz 11 accident.  The accident occurred on the 30th of June 1971, when the re-entry capsule containing three cosmonauts depressurized as it prepared to reenter Earth’s atmosphere.  The cosmonauts on board were the only humans who have died in space.

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I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an astronaut.  However, a newly discovered bush tomato is Australia was named after the fictional astronaut from the movie/book “The Martian.”  Solanum watneyi or Watney was the name assigned to the bush-tomato.  Bush-tomatoes are wild plants that can be toxic to humans, though aborigines ate some varieties by burning, drying, and roasting them.


Paul Robeson:

I have not yet grown Paul Robeson tomatoes, as I only learned about their existence this past fall!  It is a smooth, dark colored tomato introduced to the U.S. in the 1990s by a seed saver named from Moscow named Marina Danilenko.  Paul Robeson was an African American singer, scholar, lawyer, athlete, actor, Civil Rights activist, anti-imperialist, socialist.  He was popular in the Soviet Union, hence the naming of a tomato after him.  I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an African American

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Memory to Vavilov:

I have not tried out this variety of tomato, but I thought it would be a good addition to the list.  Memory to Vavilov produces small red fruits.  Like Paul Robeson, it was made available in the United States by Marina Danilenko during the 1990s.  Unfortunately, I can not find out any additional information regarding who Marina Danilenko is.  Vavilov was a famous geneticist/botanist from the Soviet Union who contributed to plant science by hypothesizing that there were biodiversity hotspots where many domesticated plants originated and by creating an extensive seed bank in St. Petersburg.  He recognized the need to save seeds to preserve biodiversity, which he viewed as essential to food security.  This mission was taken so seriously that the scientists at the seed bank did not eat their seeds, even when faced with starvation during the 28 month siege of Leningrad.  Vavilov was awarded the Lenin Award, but was later thrown into prison once Stalin consolidated his power, where he continued to give lectures but later died.  He was thrown into prison for his opposition to Lysenkoism, or Stalin’s state sponsored scientific position against genetic inheritance, natural selection, and the existence of genes.  Vavilov was a hero to science, so I am glad that there is a tomato named after him.

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Black Krim:


Black Krim is a widely available tomato that I began growing a few years ago.  I was fascinated by the fact that it was a burgundy colored tomato.  The tomato itself originates in the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula.  It is a large, beefsteak tomato.  I have not been able to located an “isle of krim” even though almost every source on the history of Black Krim lists this as its place of origin.  The Russian translation of “Crimea” itself is “Krim.”  I wonder if these sources are confused or if there is really an “isle of Krim” that also happens to be a part of Crimea.  In any event, it is a tomato that is associated with Crimea.


According to various sources (listed at the end) it is possible that the tomato was popularized by soldiers returning from the Crimean War who gathered the seeds and shared them.  Although many sources list this history, it is more likely that soldiers popularized black tomatoes in general rather than Black Krim specifically.  I believe this because another source lists that Black Krim was discovered by lars Rosenstrom of Sweden in 1990.  Black tomatoes are native to Southern Ukraine and were popular across the Soviet Union.


Black tomatoes perform better in warmer climates and do not become as dark in the north.  Black tomatoes also have the strongest taste.  There were over 50 varieties of black tomatoes grown in the Soviet union, with some black tomatoes that have since been developed in the United States and Germany.


Black Krim tomatoes are dark colored because they have a gene in which the chlorophyll does not break down at it ripens.  Thus, the tomato is both red and green, making a purplish brown color.  Other black tomatoes, have been either selectively bred or genetically modified to have more anthocyanins, or the pigment which causes eggplant, blueberries, grapes, and plums to be dark colored.  The purpose of this is to make it have more anti-oxidants, a longer shelf life, and deeper, darker coloration.  Indigo rose was selectively bred over the course of decades (using wild tomatoes) to obtain a darker purple color.  There is also a GMO tomato that uses snapdragon genes to create a darker color, though I am not sure if it is commercially available.  The media has called the GMO tomato “cancer curing” which is a pretty big feat for a tomato.  I think Vavilov would probably approve of simply breeding new varieties and saving the varieties that are already in existence.

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Black Prince or Choyrnii Prins:

This is another dark colored tomato.  I found a seedling at the farmer’s market in Duluth. The appeal was that it has been grown in Siberia, which I thought would make it particularly cold hardy.  It is medium sized with a round shape.  I tried it out, but it did not seem to grow as well as Black Krim or other varieties.  Since I am already growing Black Krim, I probably would not grow this one again.  I am not sure how cold hardy it actually is, as we had a pretty late hard frost this year (Nov. 15th!).  But, since tomatoes were first cultivated in Central and South America, I can’t imagine that any tomato is really cold hardy…even one from Siberia!


Conclusion:

The above was just a small sample of tomatoes with Soviet connections.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a wealth of information on the internet about the history of tomatoes, so it is a patchwork of what I can find.  Perhaps next year I can grow the Paul Robeson tomato and “Amur Tiger” an orange cherry tomato.   There is also a pink tomato called Kremlin Chiming Clock, named after the 15th century clock which chimes twice a day in Red Square.  The variety of tomatoes attests to the popularity of tomatoes in the former Soviet Union.  I can imagine them grown in dachas, eaten fresh, added to borsch or solyanka, or chopped up with cucumbers into a salad.   While beets, cucumbers, and cabbage rank higher among the vegetables many people associated with Russia and its neighbors, tomatoes must have a special place to have yielded such variety.

 

 

 

 

Sources:

http://tatianastomatobase.com/wiki/Main_Page

http://www.veggiegardener.com/black-krim-january-2010-tomato-of-the-month/

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/7/8/1107277/-5-Heirloom-Tomatoes-Five-Stories-Part-1

http://www.almanac.com/blog/gardening-blog/why-do-people-dislike-black-tomatoes

http://www.seedaholic.com/tomato-black-krim.html

http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/purple-tomato-debuts-indigo-rose

https://www.atlanticavenuegarden.com/fall-tomatoes-vegetable-gardening/

http://www.livescience.com/53853-tomato-plant-named-for-martian-botanist.html

https://njaes.rutgers.edu/tomato-varieties/

http://www.amishlandseeds.com/russian_tomatoes.htm

Feminist Astronomy

 

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Feminist Astronomy

H. Bradford

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

Moon:

moon

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


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


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


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


Venus:

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

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


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


Taurid and Leonid Meteor Showers:


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


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


Ursa Major/The Big Bear:

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


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

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


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


Ursa Minor/The Little Bear/Polaris     

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


Bootes:

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


Draco:

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

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


Cassiopeia:

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

cassiopeia                              Cassiopeia: a suspiciously white looking Ethiopian queen….

Andromeda:


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


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

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

Milky Way:

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


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


Pleiades:  


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


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

 

Conclusion:

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

 

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