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Archive for the category “Politics/Ideas”

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

H. Bradford

8/16/17

Yesterday, I attended my 100th political event of the year.   The 100th event was a solidarity vigil for Charlottesville at the Clayton, Jackson, Mcghie Memorial in Duluth.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  So many people flooded the plaza that there were people in the the street.  It was large enough that the police blocked off the street to passing traffic during the event against white supremacy (but framed generally as hate).  We are just three years shy of the 100 year anniversary of the the lynching of three innocent African American men in Duluth.  Yet, 100 years later so little has changed.  Activists 100 years ago might be terrified to peek into the future and see that we are still fighting imperialist wars, hate groups like the KKK not only still exist but is actually gaining popularity,  union membership is less than it was in 1920 and almost a third of what it was at its peak in 1970s, we are killing our planet, and basically…every oppressed group is …still oppressed.   It would be pretty demoralizing to look ahead in time.  In this long view into the future…this century long parade of violence, misery, drudgery…Trump would probably not stand out as the worst of the worst but just the latest terrible thing in the procession of suffering.  Yet, I would hope that this activist of the past would see some hope.  There are moments when humanity unites and fights against the tide of suffering.  There are slow gains from the struggles of mass movements to rage against everything that destroys and diminishes us.

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(I did not take this photo, it was posted to the Charlottesville Solidarity Vigil and I believe it was taken by Jordan Bissell)


Today was my 100th political event.  Activism is not a numbers game, but I do like numbers.  I know how many books I have read this year, new species of birds I have seen, the number of blogs that I have written, the number of countries I have visited, the calories I have consumed in the last 25 days, spending on food for the last several months, and many other things.  So, tracking my activism is just one thing of many things that I like to keep tabs of.   Numbers do not tell the whole story, but they do provide a piece of a puzzle.  What can be said about 100 political events?  Well, yesterday was day 227 of the year.  That means that 44% of the days this year have been spent at political events such as meetings, protests, or educational political presentations/films.  If I subtract the time I was out of the country on vacation- not at all engaged in politics- the number increases to 50%.  That means half of my days are spent at a political event.  This does not count times I spend writing political blog posts, preparing for political events by making event pages, putting up fliers, or creating fliers, having political conversations, or other political activities.  Of these 100 events, approximately 46% were feminist, 13% were against racism, 10% were socialist specific, 8% were LGBTQ, 7% were non-labor specific economic justice events, 6% labor related, 5% were environmental,   4% were anti-war or anti-imperialism, 3% were criminology related, and 2% were miscellaneous.  These numbers are imperfect, as some events were related to more than one category.  The previous year, I attended 80 events for the WHOLE YEAR.  So, it is safe to say that the election of Trump has resulted in an upsurge of political activity and opportunities to participate in social movements.  I think it is also fair to say that this year has seen the emergence of far more feminist activism.  While I tend to prioritize feminist events, there are far more events than I am able to attend.  Locally, the most consistent and robust area of activism this year tends to be feminism…though there are plenty of opportunities in other kinds of activism as well and my numbers do not reflect the actual number of events against racism or for the environment, for instance.  The numbers tell a bit more about myself than the political situation…but the general increase in activities certainly is indicative of an increase in opportunity.   People are fighting back on many fronts.

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What else can be said about the 100?  I can say that I am a little tired!  I feel accomplished.  It helps keep me motivated.  It also feels like hiking up a mountain and reading the elevation signs or the KM to the top.  When I went on my vacation and entirely disengaged from activism and politics, it was hard to come back.  I can see the appeal for the people who can’t be bothered to become engaged in social change.  I can feel the hopelessness that nothing will become better so we may as live for whatever pleasures we can eke out of this existence.  It isn’t always fun to go to meetings.  It feels like a second job sometimes.  It can feel like responsibility, stress, pressure, annoyance, etc.  I feel a lot of conflicted feelings, really.  I feel that it is mostly thankless and misunderstood.   At the same time, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of need.  I feel enough passion to continue.  I feel very angry.   It is anger that motivates me the most.  I feel so angry that the world is so shitty for so many people.  I feel angry that there are violent, horrific people who want women to live in the social equivalent of a whelping box as they breed the next generation of soldiers and workers.  I feel angry that the ignorance of America’s atrocities over history and today.  The stupid fear mongering over North Korea.  I feel angry that white people feel victimized by a system built upon slavery, genocide, racism, and imperialism.  I feel angry that there are so many people with the means to do more, but they don’t because it isn’t respectable to protest or in their immediate interest to make some waves.  I wish I had more time for other things, yet I actually usually do get a lot out of activism.  At the same time, I often wonder how normal people live.  What do they do with their time?   Then, there are some super activists who have probably been to 200 things this year!  I am sure that comrades, Adam and Lucas, have probably been to more events than I have.  Adam might have been to 150.  They don’t write it down like I do.  It isn’t a contest, of course.  Activism feels a bit like a Sisyphean task.  Most of the time, the results are not immediately obvious.  OR, in the worst case, the stone of social change actually rolls down the mountain.

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Activism isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it is cold…and boring…or disappointing.  Though this event actually was engaging and left me feeling hopeful.


All activists must have some sense of optimism that things can change.  Even without optimism, things always change.  More than optimism, activists have to believe in a sense of efficacy.  That not only does change happen, but humans can and often influence this change.   I have to assume that the imagined activist from 100 years ago would be disappointed if not terrified, but I would also hope that the activists today could give them hope.   I suppose that it where I see myself in history.   I hope that whatever future 100 years from now is better.   Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t prisons, hunger, homelessness, or wars?  What if everyone had enough?  What if the planet wasn’t dying?  How do we get from POINT A (this shit hole world) to POINT B (a better one)?   I believe it is by trying to build movements that will change the world.  I am a very minuscule part of that.   But it will be made by millions of minuscule parts.  So, I am telling you that I have been to 100 things so that maybe someone…out there…. will think that it is time to attend one thing.  The past, present, and future might appreciate it.  And, you can take it from me… one thing is not so much to do.

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Just keeping the flame of hope alive…

Fungi and Feminism

Fungi and Feminism

H. Bradford

8/12/17

 

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


An Introduction to Fungi:

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

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

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

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Mushrooms, Women, and Foraging:

 

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

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


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

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Mushroom hunting- a painting by Bernardina Midderigh Bokhorst

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


Women and Food:

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

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

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

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

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(image stolen from National Geographic…)

Mushrooms, Women, and Witchcraft

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

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(Witches Butter Fungus- Image from Birds and Blooms)


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

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

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

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Women and Mycology

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


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

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(An illustration by Mary Elizabeth Banning)

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

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(Mushroom watercolor painting by Beatrix Potter)


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

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

 


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

Mary Robeson aka Moldy Mary

A depiction of “Moldy Mary”

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


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


Conclusion:  

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

Mushroom Mother - feminist art poster hand finished in gold

A feminist poster called “Mother Mushroom”

Sources:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

H. Bradford

8/1/17

I remember when I was a student teacher, I taught a lesson on the social construction of gender.  A seventeen year old smarty pants wanted to argue that gender was not socially constructed.  After all, a woman can’t get another woman pregnant!  With a smile, I told him that I had, in fact, impregnated three women.  He was taken aback by this and retreated from the argument (which to him was really was more about biology than the social construction of gender).   The story of egg donation came up again tonight at Socialism and a Slice, a monthly meeting of local activists.  The topic was again the social construction of gender, but also the promise that reproductive technologies can usurp some aspects of biological determinism in reproduction.  Of course, reproductive technologies exist in a social context and I am not for the blind worship of science and technology.  Yet, at the same time, I like to think that someday technology can be used to grant genders/biological arrangements access to parenthood.


In 2007 and 2008 I was really struggling.  I had a large bill with St. Scholastica, was making less than minimum wage as an Americorps volunteer, worked two to four jobs, and was just beginning to pull myself out of the black hole that is depression.  My long experience with depression is another story.  But, to make that long story short, I spent a good portion of my 20s as a non-existent person.  I hid from the world, didn’t pay my bills, and waited patiently for death.  Needless to say, I had a lot of financial things to deal with once the clouds began to clear.  One solution to this problem was working myself in a demoralizing frenzy of drudgery to climb out of the hole.  Another solution, in addition to that one, was to donate eggs.  I began to look into this option.  The closest place to donate eggs was a hospital in Minneapolis.  But, it paid around $3000 if successful.  I filled out a long application.  I believe it was over 25 pages long.  The application was accepted and I was invited to the hospital to continue the process- which would include a mental health examination, health exam, and interview.


I believed that at any part of the process, I would be weeded out.   But, I am generally a pretty healthy person.  I have never smoked, drank alcohol, had a surgery, had a major illness, been hospitalized, tried an illegal drug, etc.  On paper, I seemed like a good candidate, as I have many hobbies, was a healthy weight at the time (they had weight restrictions), intelligent, driven, etc.  I even passed the mental health evaluation.  So, despite some struggles with anxiety and depression in my early 20s (which I can talk about later), they were not red flags.  I passed each barrier, which was great as I invested my meager resources at the time in traveling to Minneapolis for evaluations.  Finally, they took my photo and told me that I would be put on the roster of possible egg donors.  With a few weeks, I was told that I had been chosen to donate.   It should be noted that it was an anonymous donation, so I would never know the recipient of the eggs nor would that person know me.  I was simply donor number 306.

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The donation process was involved.  It first involved a visit to the hospital to go onto birth control pills so that my menstrual cycle would align with the recipient.  I was told to begin them on a certain date.  After which time, I would begin a series of injections.  I was given a large amount of hormones, as the goal was to make my body produce a dozen or more mature eggs.  I injected myself with Gonal-F once or twice a day, depending upon the stage in the process.  Towards the end, it was more and in all, I spent about three weeks taking hormones.   In addition to the Gonal-F injections, I also took injections of a medication that suppressed ovulation, simulating menopause (Lupron).   Beyond this strict schedule of injections, the process also involved early morning drives to Minneapolis, as my blood was tested for its estrogen level and I was given ultrasounds to check on the progress in my ovaries.  It was an intense time, as I would rush to the cities then drive back for work.  At the same time, towards the end, my ovaries felt like bags of marbles.  I felt heavy.  I am sure it was imagined, but I felt droopy and weighed down.  The first time that I donated was in November and I remember making a large Thanksgiving meal for my family.  I remember them attributing this to my mega dose of estrogen.  As if they believed that somehow I was magically domesticated by the hormones.  I was deeply offended.  Despite being pumped full of estrogen and in a fake state of menopause, I was not weepy, crabby, plagued by hot flashes, or somehow more feminine.  Really, I just like cooking things from time to time…hormones or no hormones.   I felt entirely like my self, just weighed down and worn out from the driving.  In any event, after daily trips to the cities for a week…the time finally came to donate.  I was given a dagger sized syringe and a date.  I was told to impale myself on my butt then show up the following morning for the extraction.  No eating.  No drinking.  The final injection was some sort of magic potion that would mature the follicles and release the eggs (HCG).

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I made several dishes for Thanksgiving this past year.  Not one of them was the outcome of my hormone level.


The extraction itself was uneventful.  I was put to sleep, a needled was inserted into my vagina, and eggs were somehow sucked out from my ovaries (I believe?).  The extraction process took less than an hour, but I was moved to another room to rest for an additional hour.  In all, around 15 or 16 eggs were removed.  Though, I believe that my second time donating, it may have been as many as 23.  These eggs would go on to be fertilized.  The most promising would then be implanted in the recipient.  The failures and duds would be destroyed with the option of freezing some eggs for later use.  Thus, I am responsible not only for three pregnancies (since I donated three times and each time resulted in a pregnancy), I am responsible for some abortions (depending upon how one defines such a thing).  Because of the large number, I was told that I was a good donor.  I also did not experience much pain or any complications after the first donation.  Again, I handled it pretty well!  I was given a check for my efforts as well as parting gifts from my recipient.  The first time, the gift included a card and some gift cards.  In all, it was pretty cool.  I used the money earned from three donations to pay off my car loan, put money towards my St. Scholastica bill, and a little money towards a trip to Cuba.


As I said, I donated three times.  The first two times were uneventful and largely successful.  But, I was kept on a pretty tight schedule.  Not long after I had donated the first time, I was asked to donate again.  And, once I had donated the second time, I was asked to donate a third time.  This is a pretty intense process.  It was a lot of driving.  It was a lot of early mornings in addition to working over 60 hours a week.  It was a lot of hormones.   It was a lot of sedation.  Plus, I was saving up for an expensive trip to Cuba.  In order to afford the trip to Cuba, I worked from March to June without a day off.  I have never worked that long of a stretch in my life.  I hope to never do that again.   Even with money from the donation process (which I mostly put to bills) I still had to save several thousand dollars for the Cuba trip.  And, my third donation actually happened shortly after this trip, so I was taking hormone injections while on vacation.  My third donation did not go as well.


When I awoke from sedation, I began having odd body spasms.  My arms and legs shook.  I felt nauseous.  The nurse and doctor asked if I had taken any drugs, but I had not done anything unusual.  Eventually this uncontrolled trembling stopped, though for the next week, whenever I was resting, I would spasm a little.  Because of this reaction, I was told that I could no longer donate.  I have no idea why this happened, but I felt angry at myself.  I felt angry at my body for betraying me.  Had I been a trooper…the kind of person who could soldier on through exhaustion and hormones…without complaint or complication, I could have donated my way out of debt.  I felt so upset with myself.   So, so, so upset!  But, three times was an accomplishment.  Perhaps it was hard on me.  Perhaps I was overly tired.  Maybe I was anxious.  Maybe I hadn’t been taking care of myself.  Why did the third time go awry?  I will never know.  But, that was the end of my short lived career as an egg donor.


Having gone through that experience, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, I feel great.  It helped me pay off some debt and go on a trip to Cuba.  I also feel like I cheated evolution, gender, and biology.   In terms of evolution, success is passing on your genes.  I am not sure if the three recipients had successful pregnancies, but supposing that they did, this means that I may have three offspring in the world.  I may have more because of the high incidence of twins from IVF and the possibility that some eggs may have been frozen.  I cheated biology, since as a person who was born female, reproduction requires a lot of effort.  Raising a child requires a huge amount of resources and labor.  Thus, I feel that I am the equivalent of a brood parasite, such as a catbird.  I laid my eggs in some other bird’s nest and got to fly away, without effort or consequence.  Egg donation is a bit of biological trickery on my part.  Finally, I have suffered some gender dysphoria in the past.  It is not something I am particularly open about nor is it immediately obvious because of my feminine gender presentation.  In this regard, I feel that I transcended some of the limits of my gender and biology.  I was able to express both my gender and biology in a non-conventional way.   I’ve impregnated multiple women who I don’t even know.   I kind of felt like a stud.


On the other hand, there is a darker side to all of this.  Egg donation was hard on my body.  After the third donation, I actually developed wrinkles around my eyes.  The skin on my face became like crepe paper…very fragile and wrinkled.  It was an odd reaction that went away over the months following the donation (thus I know it was correlated with egg donation rather than with natural aging).   I also woke up convulsing on a hospital bed.  Then, I felt that I was blamed for this reaction (as I was barred from donating again and accused of taking drugs).   The reason why I donated was because I was in debt.  I was overworking myself.  My debt was related to my depression and the high cost of education.  In the context of capitalism, those who donate will always mostly be lower income women.   The cost of IVF is extremely expensive.  Thus, the recipients will always be women with access to money.  Of course, both women in the situation are oppressed.  Why do women feel that they must spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive technologies?  Why not adopt?  Why is going through the process of pregnancy so important?  I don’t blame the women for their choices nor do I look down upon these choices.  However, choice exists in social context and our society does tell women that motherhood and pregnancy give value and meaning to life.  Women who choose not to have children are seen as deviant, selfish, or of lesser character.  To make matters more complex, there are plenty of women with infertility issues who can’t afford IVF or adoption (which itself costs tens of thousands of dollars).  For instance, now that I am older and my fertility is waning, I know that would never be able to afford to have children through adoption or IVF.  It is plainly too expensive.  Additionally, why was I considered a “good donor?”  Partially because of supply and demand.  The demand is for young, educated, talented WHITE women, as most recipients are professional white women.  So, while I support reproductive technologies, in the context of capitalism and patriarchy, there is inherent exploitation involved.  I was so miserably poor I really didn’t care if there were medical complications.  I wanted a better life.  I became upset when my own body became a barrier to a better life.


Despite the negatives, I mostly draw a positive balance sheet from the experience.  I needed to pay off a bill with St. Scholastica so that I could further my education.  I have…furthered my education a bit too much…but it certainly opened a door for me.  I feel proud of my unique gender experience.  I feel smug about my place in evolutionary history.  I traveled to Cuba, which was a wonderful and educational experience.   I paid of my car early, improving my credit score and freeing up more spending money.   In all, I have little to complain about.  As for the exploitative nature of the situation, that could be mitigated by free higher education, living wages, universal medical care, etc.  It was certainly odd that I used money from the donation process to travel to Cuba, where education and health care are free, despite a much smaller GDP to work with and embargo.   As for the recipients, I am thankful that I was selected and hope that they have a happy family.  I hope that their children turned out to be smart, talented, well-behaved, thoughtful, independent, creative, angelic little creatures.  I hope that donor 306 was a blessing in their life and a mystery to puzzle, rather than an accursed brood parasite.

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Intersectionality as a Tactic

Intersectionality as a Tactic

H. Bradford

7/18/17

Both the Feminist Justice League and Pandemonium have met this month to discuss the important topic of intersectionality.  I myself have read dozens of articles in an effort to clarify this concept so that it can be used to strengthen these organizations.  However, even the most basic questions about intersectionality remain elusive.  Is it a theory?  Is it a metaphor?  Is it an action tool?  Is it a methodology?  Is it all of these things?  If so, how it is in defined?  What do critics have to say about it?  In short, what is intersectionality and how can it be used in organizing?  The following is based upon my recent readings, but also conversations with activists such as Adam, Lucas, Jenny, Chris, and Pamela.

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To begin, I first heard about intersectionality in graduate school about five years ago.  I was a latecomer to the concept, probably owing to the fact that I had never taken Women/Gender Studies courses in college or plainly hadn’t been paying attention.  I heard about it at an LGBTQ event on campus.  I didn’t care for the concept at the time, since although it addressed interlocking oppressions, the speaker explained it as if these oppressions exist in an ether of power.  The concept of power was so diffuse that the analysis did not connect these interlocking oppressions to capitalism or any particular institution within capitalism.  Since then, I have encountered intersectionality many times.  Sometimes I have felt that it is a buzz word or a badge that activists can hide behind to see more legitimate and inoculate themselves against “white feminism.”  Other times, I have scratched my head, waiting for something more.  I want a meatier definition than what I am offered.  This has finally sent me on a quest to figure out intersectionality.


My readings have made it very clear that intersectionality originated with Black feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s.  These feminists believed that mainstream feminist analysis at the time did not address how racial oppression intersects with gender and class oppression.  Of course, there were considerations to gender and race by feminists earlier in history, but through a genealogy of concepts such as interlocking systems of oppression, borderlands, and multiple jeopardy, intersectionality was brought to birth.  It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal professor at UCLA in response to Degraffenreid v. General Motors.  In this case, five black women sued GM for discrimination.  However, they had trouble demonstrating in court that they had been discriminated against since not ALL female workers had faced discrimination and not ALL black workers had faced discrimination.  Thus, the discrimination they faced was the outcome of both their gender and race, yet the legal system did not recognize these compounding oppressions.  The heart of the concept is that oppressions interlock with one another.  Kimberle Crenshaw herself said that it was meant to be a metaphor and not a complete theory.  Of course, this creates a challenge for me, as I am used to operating in the world of theories and actions based upon theories.

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I have felt frustrated and befuddled by the vague and incomplete nature of intersectionality.  I want to understand it because I don’t want to fall into the trap of “white feminism.”  For instance, many activists and organizations call for intersectionality, but don’t actually define it.  When it is defined, it is usually very simply, again referring to interlocking oppressions faced by individuals of multiple identities.  Identity is an important word that is often used in the definitions that I have seen.  This has led some activists to write off intersectionality as an extension of identity politics or incompatible with a materialist world view.  In my own opinion, of course identities are socially constructed, but they have real world meaning and consequences.  Identities are not incompatible with a materialist world view.  After all, if someone wants to organize the working class, it certainly helps if people identify with and as members of the working class or workers in general. (As opposed to “middle class” as is the common, watered down, socially encouraged identity.)  Identity helps individuals to see themselves as having common interests and develop demands based upon these interests.  Has there ever been social change without identity of some kind?  The important part is rooting identities in history and economics.  Thus, the aspect of framing intersectionality that I struggle with is that identity is more than a label.  It is also a social position or place within a system of power.  Therefore, a person is not oppressed because they identify as female or bisexual or both, but because being female, bisexual, or both disadvantages one in a patriarchal capitalist society that empowers men while promoting heterosexuality in the interest of maintaining control over property and reproducing labor.  This is why I have felt that some of my readings on intersectionality have been an incomplete sentence.  Alright, oppressions intersect.  I agree.  But, why?  How?  By what mechanism?  By what institutions?  Complete the sentence.  Oppressions intersect because of systems of power within CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.   They could intersect because of feudal patriarchy.  They could intersect in a slave based economy.  But, since we are living in a capitalist system, it makes sense to connect oppressions to their place and role in capitalism.

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In an overview of my readings, there are a range of critiques of intersectionality beyond identity politics.  Some activists find that intersectionality had radical roots, but was tamed over time by white feminists.  The Black feminist history was forgotten and it has become a meaningless buzzword.  Other critique has suggested that it has sucked up all of the air in academia for other feminist theories.  Some activists feel that the strength of the theory is that it is incomplete, since that lends itself to debate, discussion, interpretation, etc.   Others argue that it is postpositivist, making it hard to study or measure.  On the other hand, I read an article which used multiple regression to tease out how self-reported identities (as variables) correlate to particular political actions.  In this case, intersectionality was measurable in a statistical sense.   Perhaps the best response I read to the whole debate was one from an anarchist feminist group in the UK.  The group (sorry I forgot the name), admitted that intersectionality is debated and has some limits.  They approached intersectionality tactically.  It is a popular word.  It means a lot to many people and in the simplest sense, it means considering how oppression is interconnected.  Keeping in mind how some groups may feel excluded, unwelcome, forgotten, or unsafe in a social movement or social movement organization, only serves to strengthen and broaden the power of an organization/movement.  I completely agree!

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Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in Pittsburgh

Of course, approaching intersectionality tactically is not without its challenges and problems.  For one, no organizations can be everything to everyone…at one time.   The point of social movement organizations is usually to organize around an issue that impacts a particular group of people.  For instance, the Homeless Bill of Rights Coalition is organizing around passing an ordinance that would give more protections to people experiencing homelessness.  Surely, homelessness is connected to many intersections such as race, class, family status, criminal background, disability, health, etc.  I think that the group does a good job, since meetings usually occur at a location that houses homeless people and free food is always provided.  But, child care it not provided (to my knowledge) nor is there sign language translation or Spanish translation.  There is no mini van that roams the city, picking up people to attend the meeting.  By not providing these things, it is very possible that someone in the community could be excluded.  This is not the fault of the coalition, but should demonstrate that social movement organizations are limited in both their financial and personnel resources.  There may not be enough members for childcare, not enough money for a van, not enough members to provide everyone with rides, etc.  While in a perfect world it would be wonderful if social movement organizations could provide supports so that every single interested person can participate in the movement, in practice, this puts demands on individual activists which are better directed at the state (with far more resources).  You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.  Perfect intersectionality in the context of capitalism is impossible as few of us have the financial wherewithal to make it possible.  But, this creates new possibility for new intersections.  We need social movements to fight for free daycare, socialized health care, and public transportation to make it possible for the broadest swath of society to participate in capitalism’s overthrow.

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Another tactical limitation of intersectionality is that it is alright for there to be autonomous social movements/organizations.  It is alright for there to be a black feminist group.  It is alright for there to be a trans group.  It is alright for there to be an environmental group that focuses on mining or another that focuses only on fighting pipelines.  Again, there are so many issues and so many ways that people are oppressed that it makes sense to divide up the work.  Not only is this practical, it benefits those involved.  A bisexual/pansexual group is useful since it helps build identity, leadership, and demands (which helps strengthen the larger, broader struggle against heterosexism).  Of course, all of these individual groups should be mindful of how their issues intersect.  Forming coalitions, working together, planning broader events, co-sponsoring, pooling resources, etc. are all benefits of working intersectionality.  But, at any given moment, a group that fights pipelines does not have to address agism, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and every other ism in one fell swoop.  Sometimes it is enough just to fight pipe lines.  Yet, any effective organization will make an ongoing effort to address some of these things.  This builds power in the movement.  Again, a single organization cannot be everything to everyone all at once.


I have said it before but the biggest barrier to intersectionality is capitalism.  Those who are the most dedicated members in the Feminist Justice League face multiple oppressions.  We are all working class.  Many of us are women.  Some of us are survivors.  Some of us have disabilities.  Some of us have criminal backgrounds.  I know that I personally make an effort to connect gender oppression to other oppressions.  I know I have failed.  I also know that our organization does not perfectly create space and opportunities for everyone.  We are activists, but we are also oppressed.  We operate within the limits of capitalism.  We have no budget as an organization.  I personally do not have time or the emotional resources to be a taxi, nanny, or nurse to a social movement.  I am a socialist, but I am not socialism.  Certainly our failures to be intersectional can be attributed to some personal and organizational failures, but I would say that the biggest barrier is the lack of access to resources in capitalism.  Capitalism itself divides various sectors of the working class.  It obscures class politics and the meaning of class.  Capitalism divides people along racial lines.  It incarcerates and kills in the interest of profit and property.  Capitalism creates gender roles that ensure that no profits are diverted into caring for children or the elderly.  It limits access to abortion.  Everyone woman will produce the next generation of workers and soldiers, or else.  It destroys the environment and makes us believe that we are its chosen people, so that our Have Nots fight the global Have Nots.  This is the power of capitalism, which impacts us all in different ways and to varying degrees, but, the bottom line is that it impacts us all.

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A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

H. Bradford

7/14/17

Sometimes it is hard to enjoy movies.  It stems from my political leanings, education in sociology, and life as a social misfit.  So, I really didn’t expect that I would like the new Wonder Woman movie.  Especially when my brother gave me two spoilers: she falls in love and she fights the Germans.   Nevertheless, I do like superhero movies.  And, the movie is important since it features a female superhero.  Thus, I thought I would give it a try.  With that said, here is my review of the movie!  Of course, is it not the review to end all reviews…


 

Feminist Feudalism:

The film begins in Themyscira, the hidden island homeland of the Amazons.  The Amazons have been sequestered on this island for thousands of years following a battle between Zeus and Ares.  The island itself was made invisible by Zeus before he died.  Themyscira is populated entirely by women, which makes it a little reminiscent of Herland, the short novel by Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman.  Unlike Herland, the women of Themyscira do not reproduce (in Herland they did by parthenogenesis).  But, similar to the novel, the women are strong, educated, and beautiful (though in Gilman’s novel, this is the result of eugenics).  In both, the women must deal with the challenge of the arrival of men to their hidden abode.   Gilman’s book was written in 1916 and the Wonder Woman film takes place in 1918.   The similarities end there, as Herland was more imaginative in depicting an all-female society.  Themyscira is pretty dull.  Although the women are thousands of years old, they live in what appears to be sort of feminist feudalism, governed by a queen.  Wonder Woman herself is a princess.  While Wonder Woman later compared Candy, the secretary, to a slave with disdain, there is clearly social hierarchy within Themyscira.   Also, Wonder Woman/Diana is the daughter of the Queen Hippolyta, who is protective of her and refuses to let her sister train her to be a fighter.  This indicates that although there is only one child in the whole island, she is not raised equally by all of the women.  Instead, she belongs to her mother.   Despite the thousands of years of isolated female community, there has been little social experimentation towards more equal social relations.  Further, although there are Black women on the island, the leaders of the Amazons are all Caucasian.  Again, the island does not seem to be very imaginative or utopian, which is disappointing since it would have been an opportunity to explore gender, gender roles, and social inequality more seriously or even draw from utopian fiction from the film’s era. Image result for Herland


World War I:

The film is set in World War One.  I like this as it draws attention to the 100 year anniversary of the war and where the world is today.  War is a major theme in the film, since the main villain is Ares, the god of war.   In the mythos of the film, Ares will return and start a great war.  It is Diana/Wonder Woman’s task to stop him and end World War One.  Now, World War One is not as popular in American history, identity, and memory.  When I was a student teacher, the students groaned about having to learn about this war.  They wanted to move on to WWII, as that was the exciting war. Because World War One is not given the same attention, but certainly reshaped the globe and caused vast and horrific loss and suffering, I liked that it was chosen as the setting.


Within the film, the Amazons have a “just war” philosophy about conflict.  They want to avoid conflict, but feel that they must train and fight when it is necessary.  When Diana is told about the millions that have been killed during World War One, she feels that she must spring into action.  Unfortunately, the film makes many mistakes in how WWI is presented.  Firstly, the Germans are introduced as the villains via Steve Trevor, the American spy who crash landed in Themyscira.  But, there really were no “villains” or World War One or there was a shared villainy between every imperialist country that participated.  While imperialism SHOULD be the villain in the film, it is beyond the scope of a mainstream comic book movie to show war as the outcome of imperial gamesmanship.  Portraying the Germans as villains draws upon Nazi tropes, that there are crude, uniformed German accented villains plotting some horrible thing against the West.  In the film, the Germans are working in collusion with the Ottomans, who in are not really portrayed, other than offering Germans arms and a place to develop their weapons.  Again, I found it unsettling that the villains were conveniently the Germans and Muslims. Image result for germans in wonder woman

Those villainous Germans….


As the film progresses, Diana/Wonder Woman sees that the British are senselessly sacrificing lives and that Ares was never General Ludendorff, but the weasely British cabinet member:   Sir Patrick Morgan.  Diana also learns from “Chief” (eye rolls) about the genocide of Native Americans.  This muddies the water a little as she realizes that many countries act as villains.  She continues to frame this as the cause of Ares, God of War.  There is a brief moment where she must consider that humans cause war, but the movie sabotages this by having Ares die and the conflict end.  However, this is still not a serious consideration of the causes of war.  The film pits the evil of humans vs. the evil of a god as the causes of war.   Again, I am disappointed that the film does not suggest any other cause of war…such as well, economic motives.


Finally, the film is set primarily in Europe and even then, only the Western Front.  The underlying message is that only Western European lives matter.  The fact that for thousands of years the Amazons waited for a “great war” to herald Ares return…and this great war was World War One is extremely Eurocentric.  I wish that “Chief” would have asked Diana why she didn’t intervene during the genocide of Native Americans.  It is hard to know the exact death toll, but the Spanish conquest of Peru may have taken the lives of 8 million people alone.  Mongol invasions, Tamerlane’s invasions, the expansion of the Mughal Empire all cost millions of lives.  It may have been nice if the Amazons would have mobilized during the conquest of Africa.  Wonder Woman might have taken on King Leopold II before he killed 10 million Congolese.   But, Black and Indigenous lives don’t matter even in the fantasy world of comics.  British, French, Belgian and American lives do.   Nevertheless, I liked that WWI was chosen as the setting.  It makes a great backdrop for a film about the horror and pointlessness of war.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the Eurocentric narrative created around this setting. Image result for king leopold

Why can’t he be the villain?

 

Racial Stereotypes:

There is a character in the film called Chief.  Chief is a stoic, Native American smuggler who finds himself in WWI.  He is one of Diana’s allies, but has very few lines.  The only thing that he adds to the movie is that he informs her that her love interest’s people killed his people.  Again, he is called Chief and not really given any backstory.  The character seems shoehorned into the setting.  If the film maker is going to add a Native American helper character into the mix, he should at least have a little personality and a name.  It might also help if he didn’t make smoke signals… Image result for chief wonder woman


Sameer, the French Moroccan master of disguise is better developed than Chief.  We learn that he is a womanizer, knows many languages, and wanted to be an actor (but could not because of racial barriers).  Still, he is not allowed to be equal to Steve Trevor, the Caucasian American.  He finds Diana to be attractive, but is never taken seriously as a love interest.  He is even nicknamed “Sammy” which Anglo-sizes his name, but also makes him more childish and non-threatening.  When he speaks another language, it is usually French, the language of his colonial master.  Granted, I suppose it is nice that the film included a Muslim character as a “good guy” but in order to be good he must be silly, with clownish masculinity.  Also, why does Sameer want to risk his life fighting for France?

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Dr. Poison:

Many people have written about Dr. Poison, the chemist working with the Germans to create dangerous gases.  She has been widely critiqued because she is a villain with a facial deformity.  This continues the stereotype that people with disabilities or deformities are evil, tragic, and should be pitied.  I found it odd that her real name was Isabel Maru and that she was Spanish.  Spain was actually neutral during World War I, though different sectors of society sided with the Allies and Central Powers.  Dr. Poison is not a well developed character, so who knows what brought her to side with the Germans.   If she sided with them for political reasons, perhaps she was upper class/reactionary/conservative.  On the other hand, perhaps Spain did not offer her many employment opportunities in the field of chemistry.  Perhaps she went to Germany for employment in their chemical industry.  Who knows, maybe she even immigrated there during peaceful times to apply her knowledge to a more benign part of the chemical industry, such as producing dyes.  With the onset of war, maybe her dye making factory was converted to manufacturing gases.  OR, she was just a villain who liked to kill people by making poison gas.  I like to imagine her as a working woman who had to adapt to the demands of the war or face unemployment as a disfigured, immigrant, woman.


Honestly, I found Dr. Poison to be the most relateable character.  I am not gorgeous, fearless, fluent in 195 languages, etc. like Wonder Woman.  There is a scene wherein Dr. Poison is hit on by Steve Trevor.  In a rasping voice she says she doesn’t drink!  I don’t drink!  It is also clear she has zero game.  I have zero game!  If an attractive guy started to chat me up, I would also probably say something weird and off-putting.  That’s why I love Dr. Poison.   Of course, I don’t want to kill people with poisonous gas, but the film does not really develop her motive or the life events that brought her to that point.


As for her passion for poison gas, I felt that this fit in well with the WWI setting.   Popular Mechanics has a really great article about the history of gas warfare in World War One. http://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/movies/a26769/world-war-i-poison-gas-wonder-woman/ Interestingly, the first use of poison gas dropped from an aircraft was actually the British fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919.    This is in contrast to the film, wherein the Germans try to send a plane loaded with gas bombs to London. Another interesting article, discusses the history of women in WWI.  Women actually did work in factories that produced gas masks and there were some prominent female chemists during WWI who later sought to ban chemical warfare.  Information regarding this history can be found here: https://blog.oup.com/2017/07/wonder-woman-and-world-war-i/ Image result for dr. poison

Wonder Woman Herself:

I thought that Wonder Woman/Diana was a likeable character.  Although I could not relate to her, owing to the fact that she was too powerful, beautiful, and intelligent to be realistic, she was not an off-putting super hero.  She spoke her mind.  She wore what she wanted to wear.  She criticized or mocked social norms.  She showed compassion and struggled to understand the world and make things better.  She was generally much easier to like than Bruce Wayne or Superman.


Although she fell in love in the film, this did not make me want to barf in my mouth.  It wasn’t really sappy.  Her love interest died trying to destroy the gas bombs en route to London.   I didn’t think that Steve Trevor was particularly interesting or compelling.  I also find it a bit annoying that Diana ends up falling in love with the first guy she meets, even though she says that the Amazons have concluded that men aren’t necessary for pleasure.  It would be interesting if she was portrayed as a bisexual character.  Instead, the movie plays it safe, making her monogamous and heterosexual.


As for Gal Gadot, she is certainly beautiful as an actress…but politically ugly in her support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.  She served in the Israeli Defense Force (which adult Israelis must do unless they consciously object) and supported Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 2000 mostly civilian Palestinians.  In protest of her overt pro-Zionism, Wonder Woman has been banned in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Qatar.  The film itself does not explicitly take up the issue of Israel, although the British took control of Palestine after WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Wonder Woman does fight alongside the British against the Ottomans and Germans.  So, in a very subtle way she plays a role in shaping the future of Palestine in the film. Image result for gal gadot israel

Ares:

A final point I will make is on the lesson learned from Ares in the film.  The film leads the audience and Wonder Woman to believe that General Ludendorff is the human guise that Ares has taken.  At the end of the film, he is unceremoniously killed by Wonder Woman.   It turns out that he was just an ordinary guy!  The real Ares is Sir Patrick Morgan, a mustached British man who sought armistice.  This is disappointing.  He is not at all imposing.  He has a silly, ginger colored mustache and the physique of a scarecrow.  Even when he dons a giant, dark suit of armor….he still has that awful mustache.  Perhaps he represents the grotesque power of men in patriarchy.


He is not at all villainous looking.  He looks like he could be Ron Weasley’s father (though he played Remus Lupin).  He is thin…very white…mustached…ginger haired (no offense to redheads) and British.  Nothing about him is imposing or particularly evil looking.  Even when he transforms into Ares in Armor, he looks like a scrawny guy in a giant metal suit.   He floats in the air and shoots lightning from his hands.  All the while he looks ridiculously weak.


In the end, maybe this was a good casting choice.  In order to be Wonder Woman, a woman must speak 195 languages, leave her homeland, train with Amazons, be gorgeous, and the daughter of a God.  In order to be Ares, you can be some pasty, thin British dude.  Most women are not Wonder Woman.  So, they are oppressed.  Only by being so astonishingly exceptional can Wonder Woman defy social norms and overcome the limits that women face.  As for Ares…he just has to be some dude who works his way into the Imperial War Cabinet.  He is far from the most clever, charismatic, attractive, compelling villain.  He’s a forgettable white guy.  Well, he is memorable for his mustache.

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Conclusion:

There you go!  That’s what I thought of Wonder Woman.  Now, I am sure there is more to say or something that I forgot, but I think I hit on the main points.  Despite this critique, I actually did find the movie enjoyable.  It was better than I had anticipated and pretty good for a DC movie.   Obviously the movie could have been improved upon, but if movies were made to suit my taste, Wonder Woman would have fought with the Red Army and fallen in love with a loaf of rye bread that slightly resembles a human face (maybe it could become her sidekick…Wonder Bread).  Her love interest would represent the isolation and misery that are romantic attachments in an indifferent universe full of temporary things.  My brother said that my version of the film would feature a 45 minute pre-movie documentary about the historical locations used in the film and the characters would debate things like cultural appropriation.  So, take what I say with a grain of salt or …a few crumbs of rye bread and feminism.

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Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan.  I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year.  By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually.   Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites.  The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police.  Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health.  These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong.  I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with.   If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought.  I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law.  The fear was unfounded.  The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully.  Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places.  Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.


The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight.  The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku.  I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before.  The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane.  When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight.  All of these six people were foreign tourists.  It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign.   Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation.   However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide.  As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas.  There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%.   Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight.  As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan.  Thus, I breezed through customs without incident.  However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport.  This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time.  After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings.  They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle.  They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings.   I suppose they might have been bored.  I think my snacks were probably disappointing.  As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.


Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories.  I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel.  By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights.  So, I barely paid attention to the city.  I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird.  I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew.  I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.


The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city.  A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome.  I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions.  So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking.  I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes).  It was hot.  I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction.  When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin.  It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around.  My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues.  People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer.   Some meandered through the parks as well.  It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments.   Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all.  The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different.  And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer.  When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.


Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks.  Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past.  Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled.   The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov.  The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself.   Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital.  Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble.  The city is full of well kept parks and monuments.  It really is unique.  Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.

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I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings.  Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art.  I was the only tourist in the three story building.  The staff seemed surprised to see me.  This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat.  The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets.  There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments.  On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars.  They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history.  The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton. Image may contain: sky and outdoor


The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds.  The Botanical Garden was closed.  This is a theme of my life.  When I went to Minsk the garden was closed.  When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed.  I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens.  Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.  It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral.  I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service.  Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day.   I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan.  In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot.  These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.


The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights.  We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world.  Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert!  The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons.  We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year.  Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque.  The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city).  It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star.  The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam.  Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan.  These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan.  We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing.  I thought it was astonishing.   Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance).   Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating.  My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege.   I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic.   In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev.  If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre.  Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful.  As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences.  We are not mired in the same realities of oppression.  When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns.  This painful reality is framed as shocking.  It is framed as a bad travel experience.  Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy!  Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum.  Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.

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Perhaps the exotic should be made normal.  In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars.  But, are our own laws any more rational?  The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment.  An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas.  One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty.   The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old.  But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures.  The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries.  What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage?  Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million.  Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world. Image may contain: sky


At the same time, differences do exist.  We are not all perfectly the same.  To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits.  It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing.  It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few.  As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer.   The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction.  But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union.  Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism.  There are always bigger forces at play.  No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.

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Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego.  My ego is hungry for experiences.  This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself.  An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible.  The truth is, I am not wealthy and free.  I am oppressed.  I am a worker.  I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here.  I never existed.  My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead.  Isn’t this the epitome of privilege?  Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly?  The rest of the world be damned.  This is something all travelers do.  Many loath to return to work.  The most privileged don’t have to.  So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from?  For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home.  Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis.  It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.


So here I am.  Chronos eats its children.  Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis.  Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans.  Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them.  There are moments when I am a titan.  But, usually I am just a proletarian.  I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction.  I love to travel.  I love a chance to get away.  When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being.  I try to be engaged and mindful.  Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living.  I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits.  Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies.  Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.

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

 

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

H. Bradford

7/5/17


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


What is to be worn?

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

 

 

 

Sources:

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Young and Becerra, 2015

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

H. Bradford

7/1/17

One of the draws of travel to Central Asia was the opportunity to visit where the Aral Sea once was.  I learned about the Aral Sea eons ago.  It was one of the few things I remember reading in my “Weekly Reader” as a first or second grader.  I am sure that I have learned about the Aral Sea in every environmentally focused science class since.  Decades have passed since the sunny autumn days at Wright Elementary School, but the sea continues to disappear.   I believe that the sea was about 40% of its original volume when I was in the first grade.  Today it is less than 10% of its original volume.   I was told by a fellow traveler that the sea continues to shrink by a yard each day.   Really, it is sad to think about the death of a sea.  Living next to Lake Superior (the second largest lake in the world by area to the Caspian Sea), it is hard to imagine a giant body of water just disappearing.   It would be as if in a few decades, someone from Duluth would have to drive to Marquette, Michigan to see the shoreline of Lake Superior.   While I did not spend a long time visiting what was once the Aral Sea, the sea shaped several days of my trip.

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My trip began in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a city lush with trees and fountains.  The many fountains and white marble create the illusion of serenity and coolness in the midst of the punishing heat of the Karakum Desert.  The miracle of endless water for fountains, well watered trees, and shiny clean cars and buildings is made possible by the Karakum Canal.  The 850 mile canal was built by the Soviet Union to divert water from the Amu Darya River to the hungry fields and cities of Turkmenistan.   Apparently 50% of the water the passes through the canal vanishes to evaporation.  Still, the canal is large enough to be navigated by boat for most of its length.  Ashgabat requires its own blog post, but suffice to say that my journey to the Aral Sea began with a visit to a water hungry and water wasteful city in the desert.  The city served as a brush stroke in the painting of a vanished sea.

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Between Ashgabat and Uzbekistan, there was little water at all, spare a salty lake en route to the Darvaza Gas crater.   However, as we neared the border with Uzbekistan, the landscape began to change.  The sandy, white blonde desert morphed into a less arid desert made of sage scrub.  This gave way to fields and trees along the legendary Amu Darya River.  Beyond this, hours along bumpy roads brought us closer to the sea itself, or where the sea once was.  We stopped at Moynaq, which was once a fishing town on the Aral Sea.  The fishing and canning industry in Moynaq employed over 30,000 people at its peak.  Art at the Savitsky Museum in Nuukus depicted various scenes of Moynaq in its heyday.  Paintings of fishermen, burgeoning nets of fish, and pastel sunrises over the pier decorated the walls of the museum.   However, when I visited, the town seemed small and empty, with just a few thousand residents remaining.   There was nothing pretty, pastel, or burgeoning about Moynaq.  The city reportedly has high rates of cancer and respiratory disease from the polluted remains of the sea and all of the chemicals used to grow cotton and other things.  None of this was apparent from a brief visit.  The people did not roam about like zombies, but carried on like any other village or town we had visited.  My traveling companions munched on five cent ice cream bars from a shop with a hodgepodge of supplies.  We’d intended to visit a museum to the Aral Sea, but much like the sea and most of the people, the museum was gone when we arrived.

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At first I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any sign of the sea or anything unusual in the dusty town.  However, once we boarded the truck, we set off for a memorial to the sea and the sea bed itself.   Just up the road we came upon an expansive basin- an empty bowl of sand and brush that extended to the horizon.  It was a dramatic crater that spread over 200 kilometers to meet the muddy shoreline of the shrinking sea.  The rusty wrecks of ships dotted the landscape.   Cows trod along, stomping over grass, sand, and broken seashells.  When I finally saw it, I was impressed by the astonishing melancholy it invoked.  After somehow negotiating with the local police, we managed to camp in the ship graveyard.  This did not prevent the fire department from paying us a visit to check on our campfire.  Otherwise, the camping was without incident, spare the swarms of mosquitoes.  Camping in the sea bed was certainly surreal.  In an alternative history, it might have been a beach resort and in the near history, it was a way of life.  I couldn’t help but feel angry.  It has to be the worst thing that humans have done to the planet.  At the same time, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen if climate change is not stopped.  We will see the Aralization of the planet.

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Seeing the Aral Sea certainly made me angry at the Soviet Union for prioritizing cotton production over the environment.  Of course, it also made me angry at the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for continuing to grow cotton…(and now rice!) at the expense of the sea.  It is a tragic loss for the planet.  The sea is only 24,000 years old, young in geological time, but it vanished in less than 50 years.  Of course, it is easy to blame the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries.  Since I have no control over history and these countries are impoverished, it is hard to blame them for continuing what is cheap, easy, and provides income.  Thus, it raises the question of what I can do as an American.  Really, there is precious little I can do for the Aral Sea.  However, rather than blaming the Soviet Union or Central Asian countries, it is more useful to draw lessons from the Aral Sea which can be extended to current water use practices in the United States.   For instance, aquifers in the United States have been depleted by about 25% over the last century.   56,900 million gallons of water are used each day in the United States for irrigation.  32% of the depletion (over the last century) of the Ogallala Aquifer in particular occurred between 2001-2008.   Someday, we might look upon the loss of the Ogallala Aquifer as a tragedy like the Aral Sea…something entirely preventable, wasteful, and irreplaceable.   Corn (and beef fed by corn) could easily be our cotton, something that future generations will look upon as wasteful and too thirsty for the landscape.  The truth of the matter is that all countries pursue easy profits over environmental sustainability.  It is the nature of the system and dooms us to environmental catastrophe and economic instability.   One of the greatest ecological mistakes seems to be the assumption that resources are endless.  While we are drowsy, we consume too much water, too much oil, too many passenger pigeons or Greak auks.  So, while the Aral Sea is particularly sad, it should be a wake up call to continue to organize.

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The Politics of Travel to North Korea

The Politics of Travel to North Korea

H. Bradford

6/29/17

I was recently on a vacation.  During this time, I avoided social media and the internet in general.  I wanted a break from my life.  So, I didn’t get much news while I was away.  The only piece of news that I heard about while I was gone was that Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a vegetative state.  I didn’t even know that he had died until after I returned.  This news haunted me.  It was horrific and mysterious.  What happened to him?  Why hadn’t he been released sooner?  Would he recover?  In a way, I became haunted by the fragments of the news story.  At the same time, now that I have returned, I have been able to read the news regarding his release and death as well as how it has been politicized.


I traveled to North Korea in 2010 without incident.  I was impressed with how clean the country was and how the sky was blue and free of air pollution (at least in places that I visited).  The roads were empty.  The country seemed empty.  I was there for over a week and saw many monuments, the mass games, Kaesong, the USS Pueblo, the DMZ, etc.  It was a memorable, amazing time in a very unusual and misunderstood country.  I felt extremely safe the entire time.  Of course, it was an enormous privilege to travel there, just as all of my travels are an astonishing exercise of privilege.  2010 was the first year that Americans were allowed to travel to North Korea year round.  I felt privileged to go there just as the doors to tourism were expanding for Americans.  I also felt that as an American, I could break some stereotypes about us.  After all, I am anti-war and anti-capitalist….anti-American.  When North Koreans learned that I was American, they seemed shocked, curious, and confused.  I sang The International on the bus with the guides.  The other tourists treated me like I was one of “them” (a communist), even though there is a enormous political difference between North Koreans and myself, a Trotskyist.   Nevertheless, I wanted to see what North Korea was like.   After studying in South Korea, I wanted to see the other side of the story.   I am eager to visit any country that has experimented with/experienced socialism in one form or another. No automatic alt text available.


Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as well, but with a much different outcome.  We were both similar in that he probably also went there out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bragging rights.  Though, unlike me, he was not anti-capitalist or anti-American.   He wanted to be an investment banker, was a Zionist, and was athletic and popular.  I am a tee-totaling, socially awkward, socialist.  He and his tour group went drinking and celebrating the New Year.  One member of his group even went missing for several hours.  I would have spent the New Year quietly reading or journaling.  He took a sign and was detained on his way out of the country.  I left without any incident or perception of danger.  Although I was very careful to follow the rules, it might have happened to anyone.  And, even if he did make a mistake by taking the poster, the punishment of 15 years of hard labor and his ultimate death is grotesquely unjust and deeply disturbing.  I feel terrible for him and his family!  I feel horrified by the mysterious circumstances of his death.


His death has resulted in some controversy and debate.  On one hand, the Left has been accused of hating Otto Warmbier for questioning his privilege and treating him like an ignorant, white, frat boy.   Interestingly, his career goals in investment banking and Zionism has not been as central to criticisms about him.   It is frustrating that so much discourse is focused on privilege, but does not connect this to the larger mechanisms of capitalist exploitation.  At the extreme of the privilege discourse, he is believed to have gotten what he deserved.  Those words cost Katherine Dettwyler, a professor at the University of Delaware, future employment with the college.  While it is not a kind thing to say, it is disappointing that the college did not honor academic freedom.  Personally, I don’t think that anyone deserves to come home in a vegetative state or get sentenced to hard labor for any offense.  Surely, there are more compassionate ways to express frustration with racial and class privilege.  But, at the same time, oppression is real and does not express itself with kind words.  We live in a brutal, violent, frightening, world wherein the majority of humanity has been immiserated by systems that grant power to a few.  For most humans today and throughout history, life is not a hedonistic quest of self-actualization but a struggle to meet basic needs.   Unfortunately, travelers such as myself,  are looking for a distraction, indulgence, or adventure.  The cost and context of this is often ignored.  Even to those who might be a bit more socially minded, must compartmentalize any modicum of pleasure derived from travel as it most surely has negative impacts either on the planet or other humans.   In any event, there should be the social space to speak freely about privilege, even if it is expressed in unpretty ways.


On the other hand, the right has called for banning American travel to North Korea and some kind of action against the country.  In this narrative, the Trump administration is viewed heroically for securing his release and taking more initiative on the matter than the Obama administration.   Americans should avoid North Korea because we are hated there.  This narrative portrays North Korea as a brutal, horrific pariah state which deserves a dose of American retribution (a.k.a regime change, liberation, etc.).   While certainly North Korea is a frightening dictatorship, this narrative does not uncover why we are disliked and feared by North Koreans.  It ignores the fact that during the Korean War, the United States killed 20% of the population.  The United States targeted refugee populations during the war and General McArthur ordered the destruction of every village, means of communication, factory, and city in the north.   Long before the famous famines that North Korea faced in the 1990s, the United States starved the country by flooding farmlands through destroyed dams.   The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean war than it dropped in the entire Asian theater of World War II.  The country was punished with bombs and napalm in a destruction more complete than Germany and Japan faced as a result of WWII.  So, North Korea does have rational reasons to dislike the United States.  Our foreign policy since the Korean War has not done much to dispel the notion that we are not a peace loving nation.

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This raises the question of if Americans should travel there at all?  Assuming that one believes in travel, I don’t think that Americans should impose a ban on travel to North Korea.  Each year, around 6,000 Western tourists travel to North Korea, but around 100,000 in total (mostly from China).  For the most part, these tourists, like myself, travel there without incident.  While Americans have been detained in the past, this has typically been for religious activity or illegal entry into the country.   Of course, our own foreign policy plays a role in the safety of travelers there (just as it plays a role in the safety of travelers to many countries).  Our foreign policy regarding North Korea seems particularly aggressive at the moment.   I have no illusions that somehow travel opens minds or spreads peace.  Travel can be colonizing and damaging to the planet.  So, I don’t believe that travel will somehow liberate North Korea by introducing new ideas or new people, nor should it.  Yet, at the same time, I think it can be useful in seeing The Other and learning something new, even if it is skewed by minders and propaganda.  In a way, it also normalizes North Korea.  Normalizing North Korea is useful in creating an anti-war movement that can stand against U.S. foreign policy.  This isn’t to argue that human rights abuses should be normalized, but rather that U.S. aggression against sovereign countries should not be normalized.  Recognizing the right of other countries to exist is important to thinking against the norms of U.S. imperialism.  Of course, a person does not have to travel to North Korea to come to that conclusion.  A travel ban distracts from the “why” of U.S. and North Korean relations.  All travel involves some risks.  A traveler should consider these risks, of course.  A dark skinned traveler to the United States could be shot by the police.  An American traveler to North Korea could be detained for political reasons.  While there are plenty of compelling reasons not to travel at all, travel is a part of normal relations between countries.  If the government is concerned about the safety of Americans, our safety is best ensured by scaling back our military power around the world. No automatic alt text available.


The death of Otto Warmbier is terrifying.  I hope that someday there are more answers regarding what happened to him.   I don’t think that he deserved to die any more than a woman who drinks too much deserves to be raped.  The world is made unsafe by many things.  Crimes such as theft, sexual assault, gun violence, etc.  Preventable disease.  Terrorism.  And, in Otto’s case, detainment by a repressive regime.  Yet, all of these things…sexual assault, terrorism, preventable disease, etc. have causes and solutions.  While the solution for North Korea is complicated and not something that the United States can or should solve, admitting our own role in history as well as the political landscape of the present is important to understanding why Otto Warmbier died.

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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.

 

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