broken walls and narratives

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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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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.

 

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

H. Bradford

5/11/17

The Feminist Justice League meets once a month for a feminist frolic.  These events involve an educational presentation and an outdoor activity.  This month, the Feminist Justice League will meet to do some seed bombing and learn about pollinators.  The goal of the event is to learn more about the challenges faced by pollinators and do something small to benefit them.  In preparation for the event, I researched the history and troubles facing pollinators.  However, since it is a feminist group, I wanted to add a theoretical component.  It is not enough to learn about pollinators.  To grow as feminists, it is important to analyze them from a lense that is critical of patriarchy and capitalism.  I am not a scientist nor am I an expert on this topic. Nevertheless, I hope it offers some insight to the history of pollinators and how this history is deeply connected to economic and social trends in human history.  Understanding this history can help us understand the present plight of pollinators as well as solutions of how to move forward in protecting nature.


A Feminist History of Pollinators:

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Both flowers and humans depend upon bees and other pollinators for survival.  One third of our diet consists of food that requires pollination by bees, though it should be noted that beetles, ants, birds, bats, flies, and butterflies can also act as pollinators.  Bees themselves are believed to have evolved 140-110 million years ago during the Cretaceous Era, which is around the same time that flowering plants appeared (Cappellari,Schaefer, Davis 2013) .  It is astonishing to think that flowers and bees are relatively new in evolutionary history.  Turtles, sharks, frogs, and fish have hundreds of millions of years of evolution before the appearance of flowers and bees.  Even mammals and birds predate bees and flowers by tens of millions of years.  Butterflies also evolved about 130 million years ago, also appearing after the advent of flowering plants.  Since plants cannot move around in search of a mate, they evolved to attract pollinators to spread their pollen, or the male gametophyte of plants.  Pollen could roughly be described as something akin to the plant equivalent of sperm.  Plants produced pollen before the evolution of flowering plants or angiosperms, but prior to this, all plants were pollinated by the wind.  Angiosperms or flowering plants evolved nectar, attractive colors, or fragrances to attract pollinators.  Millions of years of natural selection has produced very specialized relationships between some flowers and particular pollinators.  For instance, some flowers are red and tubular to appeal to the beaks of hummingbirds.  Some flowers are so specialized that only certain species of hummingbirds can pollinate them, such as the sword-billed hummingbird of South America which has a ten centimeter bill (and a 4 cm body) that can reach the nectar deep within the tubular petals of the Passiflora mixta.  Hummingbirds are relative newcomers, which evolved from swifts and tree swifts over 22 million years ago, flourishing in South America (Sanders, 2014).


All pollinators are important, but bees have been particularly important in human history.  Humans have a long history with bees.  Even our closest relative, chimpanzees, are known to use sticks to obtain honey from hives (Kritsky, 2017).  Interestingly, both male and female chimps collect honey, with female chimps able to collect honey with babies on their back.  However, humans are less proficient at climbing, so it might be assumed that collecting honey was historically men’s work.  For about five million years of hominid evolution, humans and their ancestors hunted and gathered their food.  Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but it is only in the last 10,000 years that some human societies moved away from hunter-gathering.  From a Marxist feminist perspective, hunter-gatherer societies were likely more egalitarian and placed more value on women than societies that existed after the advent of private property.  These societies were small and there there little social stratification, since there was less ability for individuals to accumulate significant wealth.  Although there is little stratification in hunter-gather societies, there are gender based divisions of labor.  As such, women likely had a different relationship to pollinators, and bees in particular, than men.  In a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food to these societies.  Typically, the food gathered by men is further away and harder to obtain.  Thus, men may have been involved in collecting honey as this would involve travelling larger distances and climbing trees.  This seems to be true in some modern examples of hunter-gatherer societies.  In Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngandu women and children would look out for hives, which men then collected honey from.  Some honey hunting societies ban women from gathering honey, such as the Ngindo tribe in Tanzania and the Bassari in Senegal.  Hunter-gatherer men have been observed eating honey when it is found, but bringing some back to home to be divided and then stored by women (Crane,2000).  Rock paintings in Spain depict humans stealing honey from bees 7000-8000 years ago (Kritsky, 2017).  The paintings do not clearly depict a man or woman, so it is hard to know the exact gender roles of men and women concerning bees.


Some societies moved away from hunter-gathering and adopted settled agriculture.  The development of agriculture allowed for private property to arise as well as larger populations and cities based upon stored and surplus food.  The first agrarian societies emerged 10,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Thus it is no wonder that the first evidence of beekeeping arose in civilizations of the Middle East.  In contrast to previous hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies developed classes and specialized occupations.  The oldest evidence of actual beekeeping is from Ancient Egypt, where pyramid artwork depicts beekeeping in 2450 BCE.   In Egyptian society, it appears that beekeeping was an established profession.  Likewise, in 1500 BCE, various Hittite laws were passed regarding stealing hives and swarms of bees.  The oldest bee hives themselves have been found in Israel.  Early hives were made from straw and then later pottery (Kritsky, 2017).   The oldest record of beekeeping in China dates from around 158 CE.  A relief at Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicts beekeeping and dates from 1000 CE.  Mayans also raised bees, which arose independently from Western Culture.  They depicted bees in art, hieroglyphs, and developed cylindrical, ceramic hives.  It is interesting to note that honey bees had gone extinct in North America, but the Mayans encountered stingless tropical bees (Kritsky, 2017).  Stingless bees do not produce as much honey as honey bees, but modern Mayans continue to cultivate them.  Deforestation has caused these bees to become endangered.

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From a Marxist feminist perspective, the status of women fell with the invention of agriculture.  Thus, in all of these examples, the status of women would have been less than the the status that women enjoyed during the long history of hunting-gathering.  The development of private property marks the origin of patriarchy, as the exchange of property from one generation to the next required monogamy and close control of female sexuality.  These societies were often based upon slaves, which were used to build monuments, but also required warfare to obtain.  Because agriculture created surplus, it resulted in more specialization and stratification.  There emerged groups such as scholars, priests, kings, etc. who could live off of the labor of others.  Laws and written language were also developed for the purpose of managing property.  However, many of these civilizations continued to worship female goddesses, some of which were connected to bees.  For instance, the Minoans worshiped a nature, birth, and death, which was symbolized by a bee.  In Greek mythology, a nymph named Melissa discovered honey and shared it with humans.  She also is credited with feeding baby Zeus honey and was later turned into a bee by Zeus after his father tried to kill her. The Greek myths probably were drawn from the stories of nearby societies and societies that predated the Greeks.  Lithuanian, Hindu, Mayan, Greek, and Minoan societies had bee goddesses, though there are also examples of bee gods in other cultures.


Moving along in history, bees were kept during medieval times, and it was even ordered by Charlemagne that all manors raise bees and give two thirds of the honey produced to the state.  In the middle ages, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic states were engaged in less formal beekeeping in the form of forest beekeeping.  This involved hollowing out trees to encourage bees to form colonies in them, then seal up the tree once the colony was established as a sign of ownership and to protect it from bears.  Early hives could not be dismantled.  Therefore, obtaining honey meant destroying the hive and the bees (Kritsky, 2017).  In Poland in 1337, a statute said that women and men had equal rights to in buying and selling honey.  Husbands and wives were both able to own land related to forest beekeeping and both a son or daughter could inherit this land.  Some evidence suggests that tree beekeeping was done by women.   Nuns and monks were known to raise bees.  In one story, Saint Gobnait, a nun from county cork in Ireland, is said to have sent away cattle thieves by unleashing bees upon them.  Hildegard of Bingen, also wrote about bees.  Examples of artwork from the 1400s and 1500s depict both men and women involved in beekeeping.  In the 1600s in England, there are literary references to housewives as beekeepers and that beekeeping was commonly done by country women.  The first use of the word “skep” in the English language appeared in 1494 and referred to female beekeepers (Crane, 2000).  Perhaps during European feudalism, women were more involved in beekeeping than in other periods of history.  It is hard to know why this might be, as the status of women in feudalism was no better than earlier agrarian societies.  Women were controlled by the church, had limited opportunities, were controlled by their husband or father, and were burned as witches.  Perhaps women’s involvement in beekeeping could be attributed to various wars or plagues that would have decimated or occupied the male population or the role of women in general food production.  Interestingly, when European thinkers saw a single ruler bee, they assumed it was male.  Aristotle called this ruler bee the king bee, and through the middle ages, bees were seen as entirely male.  Through the 1500s and early 1600s, queen bees were referred to as King Bees or Master Bees (Crane,2000).  So, even though women may have had an expanded role in beekeeping during European feudalism, the imagined social organization of bees themselves reflected a very masculine and feudal worldview.

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Capitalism arose in the 16th century in England with the privatization of public lands.  The enclosure movement turned former peasants into workers, driving them off the land into cities for paid work.  Landlords maintained the best lands, which were rented, again, requiring paid labor.  New laws were passed against vagrancy, again encouraging paid work.  The invention of the working class and increased agricultural production of paid farm workers, laid the groundwork for capitalism.  Of course, capitalism really took off with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s.  It was not until the 1800s that hives with removable frames were developed.  Until the invention of modern hives in the 1800s, both the bees and the hives were destroyed to obtain honey.  Large scale production of honey also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of a centrifugal honey extractor in 1865.  The 1860s also saw the commercial sale of honey.  Prior to this, it was produced and sold locally.  Honey was shipped in wooden drums at the end of the 1800s, but switched to 60 lb metal cans.  Specialized honey packing plants emerged in the 1920s (Oertel, n.d.)   In the U.S., women mostly worked to assist their husbands in beekeeping, but in 1880 Mrs. L Harrison of Illinois was a commercial beekeeper in her own right who later published a book about beekeeping.  In the early 1900s, work related to beekeeping was gendered, with women participating in extracting, selling, handling, and bottling honey and men tending to the hive and bees.  Today, 42% of the membership of local beekeeping clubs is comprised of women.  Women make up 30% of state beekeeping organizations and around 30% of national beekeeping associations as well.  However, women are not often in leadership roles and often serve as secretaries or supporters in the clubs.  Some clubs do not allow women as leaders or women as leaders do not last long.  A few clubs even have auxiliaries just for women.  As such, women make up less than ⅓ of the leadership of beekeeping organizations.  As a whole, in the United States, about 31% of farmers are women (Calopy, 2015).


 

Capitalism and Pollinators:

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Capitalism will be given special attention from hereon.  Despite the beauty and importance of pollinators, as well as their long history with humans, they are in peril.  According to a UN report, 2 out of 5 invertebrate pollinators are on the path to extinction.  1 out of 6 vertebrate pollinators like birds and bats are also facing extinction (Borenstein, 2016).  There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and 17% of them face extinction.  Pollination is important as without it, plants cannot reproduce.  75% of the world’s food crops require pollination.  Without pollinators, there will be no food.  87% of the money made globally comes from food crops that require pollination (Okeyo, 2017).  More than half of the 1400 species of bees in North America are facing extinction (Worland, 2017).  Monarch butterflies have also garnered attention as over the past several decades their population has declined by 96.5%.  There are several reasons for this, including deforestation of their habitat in Mexico, climate change, loss of milkweed plants, and pesticides.  Habitat has been turned into farmland.  Nevertheless, there have been efforts to restore monarch butterfly populations such as planting $2 million of milkweed at 200,000 acres of land administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  In Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a project to expand their winter habitat (The Monarch Butterfly is in Danger of Extinction).  There are many factors related to the decline in pollinators, such as loss of habitat and biodiversity, pesticides, farming practices, diseases, and climate change.  97% of Europe’s grasslands have disappeared since WWII, often turned to farmland.  Pesticides containing neonicotinoids have been found in some studies to reduce the chances of bee survival and reproduction (Borenstein, 2016).  Aside from pesticides, bees are vulnerable to climate change.  Whereas butterflies can migrate to new areas with climate change, bees have difficulty establishing themselves in new areas.  In the north end of their range, they have failed to move towards the north pole.  At the south end, they have died off.  Together, bees have lost a range of about 200 miles on their north and south ends (Worland, 2015).  Disease and parasites can also be blamed for the decline of bees.  The Varroa Mite first appeared in the United States in 1987 and within ten years spread across bee colonies across the US.  Bees infected with the mite may be deformed, have shorter longevity, less ability to reproduce, and lower weight.   Pesticides used in mosquito control have also been linked to colony collapses.  Additionally, some scientists believe that pollen from transgenic crops can be harmful to bees as the pollen itself may have insecticidal proteins (Status of Pollinators in North America, 2007).

Image result for monarch butterfly

The rusty patched bumblebee was the first wild bee listed as endangered in the continental United States, when it was added to the endangered species list in January 2017.  The bee was once common in 28 states and now can only be found in small populations in 13 states. In September 2016, several species of yellow faced bees were listed as endangered in Hawaii.  Once again, neonicotinoids are blamed since they are commonly used in agriculture, forestry, and lawn care, and are absorbed into a plant’s leaves, nectar, and pollen (Gorman, 2017).  The problem with neonictoninoids first noticed in 1994 in France, when the country first began using neonicotinoids.  The pesticide was produced by Bayer and first used on sunflower crops.  Bees that collected pollen from treated sunflowers showed symptoms of shaking and would abandon their hives.  One quarter of a trillion bees perished before French farmers protested the use of the pesticide, which resulted in its ban.  In the United States, the symptoms were first observed in 2006 and coined Colony Collapse Disorder.  There was confusion over the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, but a prominent theory suggests that beekeeping has shifted from being centered on producing honey to using bees to pollinate cash crops.  2.5 million hives are trucked around the country each year.  The bees are transported to farms and fed corn syrup rather than wildflowers.  The corn syrup may be laden with neonicotinoids, which results in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Almonds, apples, blueberries, avocados, cucumbers, onions, oranges, and pumpkins are just a sample of some of the crops that could not be grown without pollinators (10 crops that would disappear without bees, 2012).  Of course, there are some crops, such as soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, beans, tomatoes, pecans, and peanuts which do not require honeybee pollination.   Nevertheless, our diets would be much different without pollinators.  Entire ecosystems would be quite different.


The plight of pollinators can largely be connected to industrial agricultural practices.  The key challenges to pollinators: loss of habitat, loss of wildflowers, use of pesticide, and agricultural monoculture are all broadly connected to agriculture in the context of capitalism.   Pollinators have been around for millions of years, so it is startling that it is only the past few decades that have pushed them towards extinction.  This begs the question of why agriculture happens as it does and what can be done?  Karl Marx was a critic of agriculture in capitalism.  Marx observed in Capital, that capitalism divides the city from the countryside.  Capitalism itself emerged as the result of the privatization of common land.  When people were pushed off their land, they were separated from their ability to feed themselves.  That is, they had to work for another person to earn the money needed to buy the things that are needed for survival rather than grow or make them themselves.  Capitalism depends on workers, who Marx called wage slaves because of their dependency upon wages to survive.  The birth of capitalism meant the death of a certain relationship to the land.  This connection is part of the Marxist concept of metabolic rift.  Just as workers are alienated from production and one another, they are alienated from nature and human nature.  Humans are deeply connected to the environment, but according to Marx’s belief, it is capitalism which severs this connection (Williams, n.d)  Marx  also observed that capitalism reduces the rural population while expanding the urban population (Westerland, 2015).  Human societies always depend upon the natural world to exist.  In this sense, humans metabolize nature.  For most of history, nature has been experienced in terms of its use-value, or the ways in which it is useful to our existence.  However, capitalism have commodified nature and separated humans from it.  Our economy is dominated by exchange value rather than use value.  This has resulted in metabolic rift, or a separation from our place in ecosystems (Foster, 2015).


Aside from the original sin of moving people off of public land and the privatization of land, Marx was a critic of how land was used in capitalism.  He noted that capitalism resulted in the exhaustion of the soil in the interest of profits.  Marx believed that it was possible to increase the productivity of soil through good management or use of manure, but that it was not profitable to do so in capitalism.   He observed that when land became exhausted it was often abandoned in search of new lands to exploit (Saito, 2014)  Capitalist agriculture not only robs the laborers but the soil (Westerland, 2015).  Oddly enough, despite the surplus of human and horse manure in cities, countries like Great Britain and the United States scoured the globe in the 1800s for fertilizers for their over exploited agricultural land.  Wars were even fought to obtain guano as fertilizer.  Capitalism is so wasteful and illogical, that it made more sense to colonize empty islands for their bat manure than sustainably manage agricultural land or obtain manure locally.  But, capitalism is not driven by what is sustainable, rational, or healthy.  It is driven by profits.  It is the pursuit of profits that results in the vast environmental destruction the world experiences today and the agricultural practices that imperil our food supply by destroying pollinators.  As such, around 75 billion tons of soil wash away or is blown away each year after ploughing.  320 million acres of agricultural land is salinated due to agricultural practices.  40% of the world’s agricultural land is in someway degraded.  Over half to three fourths of all industrial inputs return to the environment as waste within one year.  At the same time, pollinators are worth over 14 billion dollars to the US economy.  Despite their use value, the profit motive trumps sustainable agricultural practices which might protect pollinators.  As a result, farmers in China have actually had to pollinate their own apples with brushes and pots of pollen due to the decline of bees (Goulson, 2012).


Industrial agriculture in capitalism could be described as not very diverse, pesticide intensive, and wasteful.  Agriculture is not very diverse since crops are grown to make a profit.  Therefore, a few reliable varieties of crops are planted because they will grow predictably, ship easily, have uniform qualities, or other desirable traits.  This means a loss of biodiversity, as heirloom varieties of crops go extinct because they are not grown widely.  At the same time, since its beginning, capitalism has needed to divide people from their ability to sustain themselves.  This forces individuals into the economy as workers.  Farmers around the world are drawn into the economy when their seeds or agricultural inputs are privatized and sold on the market.  Farmers who may have once saved seeds have found that the seeds are not patented and they must buy them.  Again, this leads to a loss of biodiversity as old farming practices are replaced by paid farm labor and commercialized seeds.  In pursuit of profits, capitalism over uses fertilizers, as the land is overexploited.  Pesticides are also used because it is cheaper to dump chemicals on plants than practice sustainable, organic agriculture with natural pest control.  Fertilizers and pesticides themselves are often the product of chemicals developed for war.  After World War II, factories which produced nitrogen for bombs were converted to fertilizer factories.  DDT, which was used as a pesticide with devastating effects on bird populations, was actually used in WWII to protect soldiers from fleas and mosquitoes.  Capitalism requires war to open up new markets, destroy competitors, and access new raw materials and cheap labor.  But, it also develops new technology and weapons.  Agriculture’s chemical age in the 1950s was the peacetime application of war technology.  Finally, capitalism is wasteful.  It is wasteful because the drive for profit requires more production.  Production occurs to create more value, from which profit is derived.  Pollinators are in trouble because of the destructive, wasteful, and polluting nature of industrial agriculture within the context of capitalism.

Image result for chemical fertilizers

There are many things that can be done to help pollinators.  However, most solutions are individual solutions.  This is a flaw with the environmental movement, as it often focuses on consumer choices or individual behaviors rather than the larger issue of dismantling capitalism.  These small scale activities are not useless, but must be coupled with movements that challenge industrial agriculture within capitalism.  Individuals can plant gardens that attract pollinators.  Community groups can plant milkweed plants or seed bomb for pollinators.  Individuals and communities can partake in beekeeping.  Partaking in community gardens, visiting farmer’s markets, buying locally, saving seeds, etc. are all small scale actions that can be done.  However, these activities will not tip the scale towards saving the planet as they do not challenge capitalist production.  Capitalism must be overthrown so that giant agribusinesses can be dismantled, food production can be more locally centered and worker controlled, and rational choices can be made of how, what, and where to grow food.  The environmental and labor movement must work together towards empowering workers to take control of the economy in the interest of a sustainable future.  Agribusinesses and the fossil fuel industry donate millions of dollars to both of the major capitalist parties.  Neither can save pollinators or the planet as they pursue free trade and market solutions to environmental problems.  The anarchy of capitalist production could result in the destruction of pollinators we depend upon for survival and which have inhabited the planet for millions of years.  But, each society contains the seeds of its own destruction.  For capitalism, it is its instability and the immiseration of workers.  It is my hope that social movements that can seriously challenge capitalism will emerge and that the labor movement can be reinvigorated and mobilized towards ecosocialism.  Anything less will condemn the planet to a hotter, less biodiverse, more socially strained future.

Image result for rusty patched bees

 

 

Sources:

 

10 crops that would disappear without bees. (2012, July 19). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/2012/07/19/10-crops-that-would-disappear-without-bees.htm

 

Borenstein, S. (2016, February 26). Species of bees and other pollinators are shrinking, UN report warns. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/species-of-bees-and-other-pollinators-are-shrinking-un-report-warns/

 

Bellamy Foster J.  (2015, October 13). Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://monthlyreview.org/2013/12/01/marx-rift-universal-metabolism-nature/

 

Calopy, M. (2015, November 25). Women In Beekeeping. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://www.beeculture.com/women-in-beekeeping/

 

Cappellari, S., Schaefer, H., & Davis, C. (2013). Evolution: Pollen or Pollinators — Which Came First? Current Biology, 23(8). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.049

 

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

 

Gorman, S. (2017, January 11). U.S. Lists a Bumble Bee Species as Endangered for First Time. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-lists-a-bumble-bee-species-as-endangered-for-first-time/

 

Goulson, D. (2012, February 10). Decline of bees forces China’s apple farmers to pollinate by hand. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5193-Decline-of-bees-forces-China-s-apple-farmers-to-pollinate-by-hand

 

Kritsky, G. (2016). Beekeeping from antiquity through the Middle Ages. 2016 International Congress of Entomology. doi:10.1603/ice.2016.93117

 

The Monarch Butterfly is in Danger of Extinction – Here’s What You Can Do to Help. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/monarch-butterflies-is-in-danger-what-we-can-do-to-help/

 

Okeyo, V. (2017, April 24). No bees, no food, no life. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.nation.co.ke/health/End-of-the-bee-end-of-mankind/3476990-3902228-c2u8hg/

 

Oertel, E. (n.d.). History of Beekeeping in the United States (Vol. 335, Agricultural Handbook, Rep.). USDA.

 

Saito, K. (2014, October 20). The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://monthlyreview.org/2014/10/01/the-emergence-of-marxs-critique-of-modern-agriculture/

 

Westerland, P. (2015, December 15). Marxism and the Environment. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://www.socialistalternative.org/2015/12/15/marxism-environment/

 

Williams, C. (n.d.). Marxism and the environment. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://isreview.org/issue/72/marxism-and-environment

 

Worland, J. (2017, March 2). Bee Populations Decline Due to Pesticides, Habitat Loss. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://time.com/4688417/north-american-bee-population-extinction/

 

Worland, J. (2015, July 9). Bees Habitat Loss: Study Shows How Climate Change Hurts Pollinators. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://time.com/3951339/bees-climate-change/

 

Wuerthner, G. (2002). The Truth about Land Use in the United States. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://www.westernwatersheds.org/watmess/watmess_2002/2002html_summer/article6.htm

 

Sanders, R. (2015, July 09). Hummingbird evolution soared after they invaded South America 22 million years ago. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/04/03/hummingbird-evolution-soared-after-invading-south-america-22-million-years-ago/

 

Status of pollinators in North America. (2007). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

 

The March for Science Under the Anti-Capitalist Microscope

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



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

Image result for science march sign

 

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

Image result for atomic bombing

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


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

Image result for anti science

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

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


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

Image result for pussy hat at science march

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

 

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

Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

H. Bradford

4/14/17


Each month the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition) hosts a feminist frolic.  The goal of these events are to build community, educate one another, grow in our feminism, and enjoy the outdoors.  Our frolics are not well attended, but I think they are worthwhile since they challenge me to educate myself and others.  This month, we will be doing geocaching and trash collection at a local park.  This is a great way to learn how to geocache while engaging in environmentally focused volunteerism.  However, I was uncertain about the educational component of the activity.  I wanted to connect trash collection with feminism, which honestly, is not a topic that I have ever given any consideration.  Thus, this essay is an attempt to unify feminism with trash. s-l225


Trash in the Context of Capitalism:

First of all, it is useful to frame the problem.  Each person in the United States produces about 4.3 pounds of solid waste a day, amounting to 243 million tons a year.  Of this, in 2009, 1.5 pounds of waste per person per day was recycled (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  The United States produces the most waste of any country in the world.  Though, waste production and disposal is a global problem.  The more industrialized and urbanized a country becomes, the more waste it produces.  For instance, before 1980 in Katmandu, Nepal, 80% of household waste was derived from kitchen waste.  This was disposed of through composting pits.  With increased urbanization and industrialization, there has been an increase of non-compostable waste, but the country lacks the waste management infrastructure to attend to it.  Thus, it ends up in rivers, roadsides, and vacant lots (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, owing to increased development and economic growth, China has become the second largest producer of waste in the year. China has a population that is four times greater than that of the United States, but still produces less waste.  While we produce over 250 million tons of waste by some estimates, China produces 190 million tons.   Although China produces the second most amount of waste, it is important to note that like Nepal, much of that waste is food waste.  In China, 70% of the waste that is produced is food waste.  Typically, in developed countries, about 20% of waste is food waste (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  Thus, it can generally be said that the United States produces a lot of waste, as all developed countries do.  Development can be connected to waste production.  At the same time, as a country develops, the type of waste it produces changes from mostly food wastes to other wastes.


It may be easy to blame development itself on the production of waste, but this is not entirely true.  Waste is the outcome of development within capitalism.  Consider for a moment that U.S. supermarkets throw away 2.5 million tons of food a year.  This number is obscene, considering that many people in our country go hungry or lack access to food.  Why would so much food go to waste?  Capitalist production seeks to produce value.  This sounds a bit complicated, but consider that everything is given value from labor.  Labor is invested into the production of everything, though because of alienation from labor, the labor that went into each product or service is fairly invisible to most of us.  In strictly Marxist economic sense, the value of something is the amount of labor that went into the production of something.  Thus, an apple’s value could be expressed in minutes or hours of labor invested in caring for the apple tree, picking the apple, shipping the apple, or arranging the apple in the produce section at a store.  All of the food at a grocery store that is thrown away, certainly has use value to the hungry, but also value in the generic labor sense.  Throwing out food means discarding the labor that went into it.  This seems terribly inefficient in the sense that people go hungry and that this seems to squander labor.  But, capitalism is a system that really doesn’t care about hunger or waste.  Capitalist production is entirely geared towards valoration or the accumulation of capital.  Again, this is a little complicated.  Valorization entails trying to extract more value from labor by increasing production.  All profits come from the excess surplus value from labor.  By producing more, a capitalist hopes to extract more profits from labor.  The bottom line is that meeting human needs is not the goal of capitalist production,  the goal is profits.  Since acquiring more profits from surplus value requires more production, capitalist production results in a wasteful treadmill of production.  That is, in the interest of profits, the economy produces more than what can be sold.  What can’t be sold is discarded as waste.  Most products are not recycled, not because people choose not to recycle, but because recycling is not profitable.  This is because recycling may involve costly inputs (constant capital) and the end product may not be made into a commodity that is sought after or imbued with as much value as the original commodity (Yates, 2015).  In short, one way that capitalism seeks to increase profits is through more production and all of this production creates waste.  Recycling of waste is not always profitable, due to such things as costly capital inputs and diminished value.  This is why as countries develop within capitalism, they produce more waste.


Another aspect of capitalist development is that not all countries develop equally.  Almost all of the world was colonized by a few European countries.  Colonies developed economies that supported the development of their colonial masters by providing cheap raw materials, cash crop economies, export based economies, markets for goods, cheap labor, etc.   After these colonies fought for and gained their independence, they remained dependent on their former colonial masters through institutions such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF, as well as fair trade agreements and military interventions.  These systems have stymied development in former colonies.  At the same time, capitalism itself makes development challenging since these countries must compete with the already highly advanced economies of former colonial powers.  It is no wonder then that more than half of the world’s population does not have access to waste collection (Simmons, 2016).   In much of the world, impoverished people make a living from rubbish.  In Beijing alone, 160,000- 200,000 people work as scavengers, who pick through the trash in search of recyclables they can sell.  While China is the second largest producer of waste, is also the world’s largest waste importer, importing all of the waste paper products from the east coast of the United States and ⅓ of the UK’s recyclables.  In turn, the United States imports 11.6 million tons of recycled paper and cardboard from China (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  This phenomenon represents a few aspects of capitalism.  Once again, capitalism is extremely wasteful if it is actually more profitable to ship recyclables back to China to be shipped back to the United States.  Secondly, capitalism creates a lot of “have nots” in the world.  These “have nots” survive from the waste produced in our country and their own.

WC_28_WorldImp

How are these countries faring today?


Capitalism produces both waste and poverty.  Poverty and waste intersect in terrible ways.  For instance, uranium was mined on Navajo lands to produce nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  The nuclear waste was not disposed of properly and resulted in contamination of land, increased rates of cancer, and birth defects.  Various studies have found that Native American are more impacted by pollution than other groups.  For example, Native Americans are more likely to live by toxic waste dumps, have their communities be targeted as sites for nuclear waste disposal facilities, and live near superfund sites than other groups (Lynch, 2014).  Owing to the long history of genocide, racism, trauma, and the fact that one in four Native Americans live in poverty, they have less political and economic power to fight the outsourcing of pollution to their land and fight corporate power.  All poor people, ethnic minorities, and other oppressed groups are less valued in society, have less power, and are more likely to face the negative environmental consequences of capitalism.


Another way that poverty intersects with waste is that waste recycling generates income to low income individuals, which puts them at risk of exposure to pollutants.  One example of this has been the boom in electronic waste.  Electronics is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world.  Although it only accounts for 5% of municipal waste, it is the most lucrative kind of waste because it can yield iron, gold, silver, copper, aluminum and rare earth metals.  Thus, e-waste recycling appeals to impoverished people in need money.  At the same time, the recycling process can expose workers to lead, mercury, flame retardants, and plastic chemicals.  The chemicals, elements, and compounds in e-waste are known to impact brain development in children and overall lifespan, thereby wrecking not only the health of the workers but their children and communities.  Once again, global inequalities shape where e-waste ends up, as  the United States is the number one producer of e-waste but China and Africa end up with 80% of the world’s used electronics.  There are often fewer waste and labor regulations in many of these countries.  At the same time, there are incentives to have fewer regulations since it makes the labor cheaper and economic conditions more appealing to foreign investors (Heacock, Kelly, Kwadwo Ansong, Birnbaum, Bergman, Bruné, and Sly, 2016).


Poor people and poor countries are often blamed for environmental problems.  Environmentalists often blame population growth on environmental problems.  As such, it is easy to look to the large populations of the less developed world and see future car owners, fast food eaters, and mall shoppers.  It can’t be Christmas everyday and certainly not all over the world!  It is easy to look at the developing world and see waste and pollution.  In the United States, our garbage is collected by professionals and carted away to some place out of the sight of most middle class white people.  Elsewhere, more than 40% of the world’s garbage ends up in illegal or unregulated waste dumps (Simmons, 2016).  Sometimes poor people or people from the developing world are blamed for not disposing of trash properly, perhaps because of lack of environmental education.  However, in a study of 1,512 Hispanic women living in southern Texas, the women who were less acculturated, which was measured by a self-report of use of English at home, with friends, with children, etc. were more likely to be engaged in recycling.   Researchers believed that perhaps this is because the women were more engaged in informal recycling in their home country, such as sharing clothes or recycling bottles for vases.  It is also possible that they are more aware of environmental problems that they were exposed to in their home country (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  This is one small study, but it should be used to dispel the idea that white people of the developed world are more enlightened about the environment.  We are the ones creating the most waste, despite our smaller population.  Again, the problem is production not population.


To summarize these points thus far, capitalism is driven by profits rather than health and human needs.  It is also driven towards production in the interest of generating more profits.  This is inherently wasteful.  Not only is capitalism wasteful, it creates and supports inequalities on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc.  It also creates and supports inequalities between entire nations, in which a few countries are highly developed, but the vast majority exist on the periphery as supports to more advanced economies.  Poor people and poor nations are more likely to endure the negative consequences of the world’s waste, even if they are not the world’s biggest producers of waste.  As a final point on the topic of capitalism, it is important to note that many environmentalists blame consumers and consumerism for the amount of waste.  Certainly consumers do play a role in buying and discarding products.  However, this framework ignores capitalist production, which arguably seeks endless productive growth and by extension, endless waste.  Products themselves are not designed to be long lasting or durable.  This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence and means that production will always chug along because nothing lasts, parts can’t be replaced, and nothing remains trendy in capitalism.  Planned obsolescence is not a term invented by anti-capitalists, but by capitalists themselves who noted that production must continue to avoid economic stagnation.  Goods are created to be replaced.  This is why a car only lasts for 150,000 – 200,000 miles.  It is not because it is impossible to design a better car, but that the effort to design such a car is not incentivized by capitalism.  It is better to produce a car that lasts a few years and then must be replaced by a newer model.  In addition to the waste generated by the drive towards more and new products, corporations spend trillions of dollars on advertising to convince people to buy things.  This results in wasteful products, packages, ads, and production.  Finally, while consumer waste is astounding, it pales in comparison to industrial waste and military waste.  Household waste only makes up 2.5% of U.S. solid waste.  97.5% of the waste actually comes from businesses and the government (Butler, 2011).  The military plays an important role in destroying competitors, opening up new markets, consuming products, providing jobs, silencing countries and groups who do not agree with our way of things, and other functions that help capitalism continue.  It can easily be said that the production of waste is not only a side effect of capitalism, it is in many ways central to its functioning.

Apple-Planned-Obsolescence

 


 

Trash in the Context of Patriarchy:

Today, the Feminist Justice League is collecting trash.  I would like to dissect that for a moment to understand the role of patriarchy in all of this.  I have already established that capitalism creates waste and that minorities and poor people are affected more by this than groups with more power.  At the same time, globally and in the United States, women are more likely to be poor than men.  Women have less social and political power and are less valued in society.  Because of oppression, women are also more susceptible to the negative impacts of waste.  For instance, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs are flame retardant compounds used in construction, electronics, motor vehicles, furniture, etc.  They have a tendency to accumulate up the food chain, resulting in higher levels of PBDEs in human beings.  As such, the European Union and United States have banned the use of some of these compounds.  This is not the case in the developing world, again, because of global economic pressures which reward government deregulation in lower income countries.  It is estimated that 20-50 million tons of electronic waste is produced throughout the world each year.  A single electronics recycling plant in Taizhou, China dismantles over two million tons of electronics alone and employs over 40,000 people.  As a result, snails, mud, poultry, plants, and the air around the facility had significantly high levels of PBDE’s.  When researchers took breast milk samples from women living near the facility between 2012 and 2013, they found that their PBDE levels were twice as high as samples from developed countries, higher than other parts of China, and even higher than women living near other recycling plants.  Infants exposed to higher levels of PBDEs can have reduced memory and motor functions (Li, Tian, Ben, and Lv, 2017).   In China, migrant workers from rural areas and ethnic minorities are groups often involved in this kind of labor.  However, in India, women of the Dalit caste may find themselves living near waste sites or engaged in recycling.  Women are the lowest of the low in both social contexts, so they are more likely to find themselves doing low paying, highly exploited work.  In addition to problems that infants exposed to chemicals face, women may experience fertility issues, cancer in reproductive organs, autoimmune disease,  and spontaneous abortion if exposed to heavy metals, flame retardants, and other toxins (Mcalister, Mcgee, and Hale, 2014).  Pollution itself has also been linked to the shortening of telomeres.  Telomeres appear at the end of strands of DNA and serve the function of protecting chromosomes.  Traffic pollution, fine particles, and smoking is linked to shorter telomeres.  Telomeres naturally shorten with age, but pollution accelerates this process.  In a study of 50 blood samples collected from pregnant women (controlling for age) living in a polluted area near Naples Italy compared to 50 samples from a less polluted area in Avellino, Italy, found that the women near Naples had shorter telomeres.  Telomere shortening has been connected to the aging process and to cancer (De Felice, Nappi, Zizolfi, Guida, Sardo, Bifulco, and Guida, 2012).  In sum, women are certainly impacted by the waste in the environment, especially when gender compounds with class, ethnicity, or caste in the case of India.  Because women have less economic power, they may have less access to health care.  Finally, women are responsible for producing the next generation of human beings.  Unhealthy women may give birth to unhealthy babies or may be unable to reproduce at all.   Historically and in many parts of the world, a woman is valued for her reproductive ability.  Fertility issues compromise the already shaky position of women. e-waste-3


Within the United States, women are less likely to work directly with waste management.  In fact, feminists who demand equality to men are sometimes told that they really don’t want equality as this means they will have to do hard, dirty work, like garbage collection.  Within the United States, men tend to dominate this field.  In New York City, there are 7,000 trash collectors.  As of 2008, 200 were women.  These women were honored during Women’s History Month and at least one had been working as a garbage collector for thirty years (Horan, 2008).  American women may not be socialized to look at garbage collection as a career, or perhaps, since it is viewed as a male dominated space, women are less likely to apply to those jobs.  Nevertheless, women are perfectly capable and willing to do this kind of hard work.  For example, Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has an all female garbage collection team.  The women drive trucks, but must also lift heavy garbage cans as the job is not as mechanized as in the U.S..  The women were hired as part of an initiative to attain gender equality among various sectors of the economy and serve the area of Warren Park, a low income community within Harare.  The women seemingly took pride in their work and reported they were treated well because of their good customer service and that they were not harassed by their male counterparts (All women garbage collection team cleans up Harare, n.d.).  The picture is not as rosy for women and girls in Mogadishu, Somalia.  Two decades of instability left the country unable to institute basic governance over such things as garbage collection.  The federal government formed in 2012 sought to tackle the massive amount of garbage that amassed over the years of chaos.  To this end, it hired private contractors to clean the garbage.  Most of the people hired by these private companies are women and girls.  They are regularly sexually harassed and harangued as they work.  For instance, they are told that they should be cleaning their homes, not the streets.  The women may begin work at 5 pm and end work after 9 in the morning.  They are paid $3 a day for their work and if they do not work hard enough, their supervisor may deduct $1 from their pay.  In November 2008, a bomb planted near a pile of trash took the lives of 21 women street cleaners (Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors, 2016).  Even under the threat of violence and constant harassment, the women dutifully worked as there were few job opportunities available to them.

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Around the world, women play a unique role in waste management, even if this is not always evident in paid labor.  For instance, women are often in charge of household waste disposal, as they are more likely to manage household chores such as cooking and cleaning.  Women are often important consumers of products, as they may conduct shopping on behalf of the family.  This can determine the kinds of waste that a household produces.  Women often socialize children and are involved in education, which means that they play a role in promoting and passing on social values, such as recycling.  Globally, women participate in the economy as waste pickers, sweepers, and domestic workers but are less likely than men to have secure, full time employment in waste management.  Women have also been more involved than men in grassroots initiatives in solid waste management, perhaps because waste has a greater impact on their role in the household(Beall, n.d.).   As example of this, women in Kathmandu Nepal noticed all of the trash that was accumulating in their city and started up a project called Women for Sustainable Development.  One of their projects was a waste management initiative which encouraged paper recycling and pressured shop owners to move away from plastic bags (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, in 1997, a small group of women from Dzilam de Bravo in Mexico organized to begin collecting trash and seaweed from the beaches in an organization called Las Costeras.  They wanted to beautify the beaches for tourists and turn the seaweed into compost, which they could sell to farmers.  By 2011, the group had inspired other coastal garbage collection organizations, involving over 400 participants.  The women receive small sums of money from the government for their work and also receive vegetables from farmers.  However, the women expressed that they felt stigmatized by others, since it was dirty work.  The soil of the Yucatan Peninsula is made of karst limestone and very permeable, so their composting project has actually helped to improve agriculture (Buechler and Hanson, 2015).  There are many similar examples of women all over the world who have organized in their community to clean up garbage and recycle trash into art, jewelry, or purses that they can sell.


Not only are women more vulnerable to environmental problems, studies suggest that women may be more involved in more formal and informal environmental activism than men.  This is despite the fact that women have more barriers to involvement in activism in general, due to unequal pay with men and the unequal burden of unpaid labor.  Historically, women have been more involved in environmental activism than other kinds of activism.  Research has also suggested that women are more likely to be concerned about the environment than men. Women are socialized to care for their families and be nurturing, which may lend itself to greater concern for the environment.  Of course, gender inequalities do shape how women choose to engage in activism.  In a survey of British Colombia women involved in three social movement organizations, researchers found that women were more engaged in the organizations.  The women were more likely than men to engage in recycling at home, plant trees, reuse items, compost, avoid disposable cups, buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, buy organic produce, and conserve energy.  Men did outscore women in a few areas, such as being more likely to bike or walk to work, recycling at work, and helping to maintain nature reserves or parks.   Men were more likely to sign petitions, attend protests, attend an educational lecture, do a lecture, attend a community meeting, and write letters to politicians, though women were more likely to engage in more individual activity such as donating money to organizations or buying their products.  The study found that women were more engaged in environmentally friendly behaviors, but less involved in social movement activities.  Perhaps the women did not have as many opportunities to engage in community activism or did not feel confident in taking a public role in their environmentalism (Tindall, Davies, and Mauboules, 2003).


It seems that women may take a more lifestyle approach to their activism. A 2012 UK Survey found that single women recycle more than men.  70% of women were engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal as opposed to 58% of single men.  80% of couples engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal, though women were believed to be the catalyst behind this activity.  This may be because of the gendered division of labor in which women are more likely to wash out cans, remove lids, and sort waste.  Buying and cooking food consists of 60% of household waste and is traditionally done by females (Levy, 2012).  In another study, data collected from 22 nations through the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) was analyzed to understand how gender shapes self-reported environmental engagement.  The study found that women were significantly more likely to engage in environmentally minded behaviors such as recycling and driving less.  All individuals in the study were more likely to be engaged in private environmental behaviors than social activism.  Even in lower GNI countries, women were more engaged in private environmental behaviors.  In higher GNI, this becomes more pronounced as women had more ability to engage in these behaviors (Hunter, Hatch, and Johnson, 2004).  Thus, it can be concluded that women are on a daily basis more engaged in lifestyle activism.  It is alarming that both men and women prefer not to engage in social movement activism and if they do, men are more engaged in this.  Social movement building is important in challenging the structures of patriarchy and capitalism which create waste, environmental destruction, and social stratification to begin with.


The fact that we chose to collect trash as a feminist group aligns with the norms of being female.  It is a nice gesture.  It is a nice way to beautify our city.  But, the lesson that should be drawn from all of this is that the problem of waste is global and systemic. Small groups of volunteers can certainly play a small role in making the world a better place, but to truly make the world a better place, we need to challenge the logic of capitalist production.  There will always be more waste to pick up since capitalism creates waste in pursuit of profits.  The most vulnerable groups in society will always be impacted the most by waste.  Social movement activism is important to realizing our collective power to challenge capitalism.  No amount of recycling, buying organic, or composting will overthrow capitalism.  These are good things and should not be shunned, but they do not challenge how capitalism operates.  Capitalism operates globally, perpetuating war, inequality, and environmental destruction.  Protests, petitions, strikes, boycotts, educational events, etc. are all tools that should be in our activist tool box.  Feminists should support and unite with other social movements such as anti-racist movements, movements for indigenous rights, and the environmental movement, as each of these challenge capitalism in their own way and we are stronger if we work together.  Picking up trash is fine, but the goal should be to throw capitalism into the dustbin of history.

capitalism_belongs_in_the_trash_by_commie_kun-db1jm0w

 


References

All-women garbage collection team cleans up Harare | Africa | DW.COM | 29.03.2016. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/all-women-garbage-collection-team-cleans-up-harare/a-19148073

Beall, n.d.  http://wedc.lboro.ac.uk/resources/books/Solid_Waste_Management_-_SN_5_-_Complete.pdf

Buechler, S., & Hanson, A. M. S. (Eds.). (2015). A political ecology of women, water and global environmental change (Vol. 15). Routledge.

Bushell, B., & Goto, M. (2006). Kathmandu: Women Tackle Solid Waste Management. Women & Environments International Magazine, (70/71), 60-62.

Butler, S. P. (2011, December 3). Are consumers destroying the earth? Retrieved April 13, 2017, from http://climateandcapitalism.com/2011/12/03/are-consumers-destroying-the-earth/

De Felice, B., Nappi, C., Zizolfi, B., Guida, M., Sardo, A. S., Bifulco, G., & Guida, M. (2012). Telomere shortening in women resident close to waste landfill sites. Gene, 500(1), 101-106. doi:10.1016/j.gene.2012.03.040

Heacock, M., Kelly, C. B., Kwadwo Ansong, A., Birnbaum, L. S., Bergman, Å. L., Bruné, M., & … Sly, P. D. (2016). E-Waste and Harm to Vulnerable Populations: A Growing Global Problem. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(5), 550-555. doi:10.1289/ehp.1509699

Horan, K. (2008, March 29). City Honors Female Garbage Collectors. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.wnyc.org/story/77923-city-honors-female-garbage-collectors/

Hunter, L. M., Hatch, A., & Johnson, A. (2004). Cross‐national gender variation in environmental behaviors. Social science quarterly, 85(3), 677-694.

Li, X., Tian, Y., Zhang, Y., Ben, Y., & Lv, Q. (2017). Accumulation of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in breast milk of women from an e-waste recycling center in China. Journal Of Environmental Sciences (Elsevier), 52305-313. doi:10.1016/j.jes.2016.10.008

Levy, A. (2012, December 31). Recycling? Women have got it all sorted (and it’s wives who force their men to follow the rules). Retrieved April 09, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255090/Recycling-Women-got-sorted-revealed-wives-force-husbands-follow-rules.html

Lynch, M. (2014, March 10). Native American People, Environmental Health and Justice Issues. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://greencriminology.org/glossary/native-american-people-environmental-health-and-justice-issues/

McAllister, L., Magee, A., & Hale, B. (2014). Women, e-waste, and technological solutions to climate change. Health and Human Rights Journal, 16(1).

Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors. (2016, January). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://witnesssomalia.org/index.php/14-icetheme/homepage/169-mogadishu-s-unsung-heroes-its-

Garbage-collectors

Pearson, H. C., Dawson, L. N., & Breitkopf, C. R. (2012). Recycling Attitudes and Behavior among a Clinic-Based Sample of Low-Income Hispanic Women in Southeast Texas. Plos ONE, 7(4), 1-6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034469

Simmons, A. (2016, April 22). The world’s trash crisis, and why many Americans are oblivious. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://www.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-fg-global-trash-20160422-20160421-snap-htmlstory.html

Tindall, D. B., Davies, S., & Mauboules, C. (2003). Activism and conservation behavior in an environmental movement: The contradictory effects of gender. Society & Natural Resources, 16(10), 909-932.

Van Kerckhove, G. (2012). Toxic capitalism: The orgy of consumerism and waste: Are we the last generation on earth. AuthorHouse, 58-87.

Yates, M. (2015, August). Waste, Immiseration, and the Lure of Profitability . Retrieved April 13, 2017, from https://worldecologynetwork.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/yates-formatted.pdf

Consuming Feminism: The Abusive Touch of the Invisible Hand

Consuming Feminism: The Abusive Touch of the Invisible Hand

H. Bradford

4/2/17

In full disclosure of my consumerist hypocrisy,  I have a few t-shirts with feminist themes on them and a pair of Karl Marx sneakers.  The shirts were free leftovers from political events, but I probably would have bought them anyway.   All of these items were probably made in a sweatshop with the hyper exploited labor of mostly female garment workers.  Thus, what I write is not from some high and holy place.  It is meant to provide some sort of framework for understanding feminism and consumerism.   This understanding is meant to be tactical for social movement building rather than a personal attack or call for confessions of consumerist sins.  I sin.  We all sin.  Personal mistakes are inevitable and unavoidable.  Social movement mistakes have more weight as it represents a collective error.  Of course, social movements also make mistakes.  One mistake is the embrace of feminist consumerism.  While this was not part of the official organizing suggestions of the International Women’s Strike USA, some feminists promoted the tactic of patronizing women owned businesses on March 8th.  Some feminists believe that by buying certain products, they are promoting a better society.   I don’t wish to shame those feminists, but I do want to make an argument against that tactic.  The following is why I am against feminist consumerism:


 

The Myth of Consumer Sovereignty:

 

Many activists believe that we vote with our dollars.   However, like American democracy, market place democracy is a rigged system!  The argument that we vote with our dollars assumes that we enjoy consumer sovereignty, or control over supply and demand.   We lack full consumer sovereignty because supply and demand is confounded by such things as advertisement and government policy.   The items that appear in the market place, our knowledge of them, our desire for them, and our ability to obtain them are all variables that we have less control over than we think.   For instance, when we go to the store, we probably find one or two varieties of potatoes.  These varieties are cultivated because they have desirable qualities such as durability, pest resistance, size, uniformity, or long shelf life.  If we want a variety of purple potatoes or Russian fingerling potatoes, we may not find these at an ordinary grocery store.  If we do, they may be more expensive because they are grown on a smaller scale or are harder to grow.  Only those with more money, more time to search for this desired item, and knowledge can afford these specialty potatoes.  And while, perhaps they are grown locally or non-GMO, the world is probably no better a place because of the purchase of these potatoes because the purchase of the potatoes does not, in isolation, challenge systems of globalization, environmental problems from industrial agriculture, etc.   Further, this trend could influence companies to begin growing more of these potatoes, but may not challenge the working conditions or unjust systems under which they are produced.  Justice materializes into the form of a potato, rather than the productive forces that go into the potato itself.

 


I think that this probably sounds confusing and my potato example may not have clarified this position.   Basically, according to Marxism, we are all alienated from our labor.  This means we don’t have control over how things are produced, our workplace, and where the fruits of our production end up.  A potato grower at an industrialized farm probably does not know where those potatoes go or have much control over the length of their hours, their working conditions, the way the potatoes are grown, their wages, etc.  Likewise, when we go to a store, we see thousands of products, but because we are alienated from labor, we have no idea where, when, and how they were made.  So, if you order an order of fries at McDonalds, you have no idea if you are consuming GMO potatoes, potatoes grown with pesticides that cause cancer, or potatoes from Idaho, Minnesota, or even another country!  This is alienation.  Because we are alienated from labor, we are never really fully free to make autonomous and empowered consumer choices.  Even if we researched the conditions and source of McDonald’s french fries, we would find our self blindly ignorant about a million other consumer choices.   Thus, when it comes to the market place, were are never really able to fully vote with our dollars, since we are always alienated from production.

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The Myth of Small and Local:

Because we don’t really have control over production, activists often try to seek out trusted alternatives to corporations.  To this end, they often try to buy items locally and from smaller producers.  Now, this isn’t a terrible idea.  When a person buys locally, they may be more aware of the production process.  For instance, if you bought locally grown potatoes, you could talk to the farmer or see the farm itself.  It also keeps money in a community.  Further, there may be less environmental destruction involved in production, since shipping is not over a long distance and may use less chemicals or produce less waste.  Thus, seeking out smaller scale, local sources can be a reasonable alternative to buying from larger corporations.


Nevertheless,  buying local or small scale is not the panacea to our social problems.  All businesses, large or small, seek profits.  From a Marxist perspective, profit is derived from the surplus value of labor.  Thus, the sweatshop worker who I assume made my sneakers may have been paid a few cents an hour.  The shoes were much more expensive.  The company that made the shoes did not pay the worker the full value of their labor.  In fact, they paid them a minuscule amount and kept the rest as profit.   At a local level, businesses also want to profit.  This is why the local business community has come out against Earned Safe and Sick Time.  This would cut into their profits.  This is also why some businesses have been against the Homeless Bill of Rights.  These businesses do not wish to have homeless people in their shops because they don’t want to scare of their costumers, which they think would diminish sales.  This is also why it has been hard to think of companies to support the HOTDISH Militia’s abortion fundraiser.  Vikyre, which came out for equal pay, was afraid to publicly support the fundraiser.  Why?  Perhaps they thought it was divisive and would scare off other consumers.  Even well meaning businesses, such as the Northern Waters Smokehaus had to abandon its no tip policy and reduce the wage of wait staff in order to remain profitable.  When given the choice between profitability and failure, a business will always choose profits.  This, of course, always hurts workers.  Finally, if there is the opportunity to do so, most local businesses would expand and grow.   Every large corporation began somewhere.  Some began as small businesses that made it big.  The profit motive is inherently inhumane.  It is inherently inhumane since profit represents the conversion of the life of workers into the wealth of business owners.  The exchange rate in this conversion always favors the capitalist.   Thus, it is certainly useful to patronize small or local businesses, but this tactic is not going to end capitalism or patriarchy.  It may alleviate some of the worst excesses of the system, but it does not challenge the laws by which the system operates.  Worse, when social movements call upon individuals to shop locally, it can create an illusion that local businesses are our friends.  They aren’t.  They are not for $15 minimum wage.  They don’t want to offer more benefits to their workers.   They don’t want homeless folks hanging out.  They don’t want workers to take  control of their business and decide for themselves how things should be done or how profits should be used.

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The Myth of Labels:

Alienation makes production mysterious to us.   One way to shed light on the mystery is labels.  Labels are great.   I want more labels.  I like that it is an easy way to know the ingredients or nutrition value in a food item.  It is an easy way to know where a shirt is made and what it is made of.  It is a way to know if your tuna is dolphin free or your coffee is fair trade.   I am for labeling GMOs.  The more we know, the more capacity we have to make informed choices.


The main problem with labels is the false security they may provide and the way in which they reinforce the myth of consumer sovereignty.   For instance, a person may be secure that their Starbucks coffee is fair trade.  It has a label!  But, the coffee could have been packaged by an inmate.  There is no label for prison labor (which Starbucks has used in the past).   Companies try to sell their products by shrouding themselves in labels and packaging such that is green “fair trade” “rainforest alliance” gluten free and breast cancer ribbons.   Consider the recent debacle with Cheerios.  The company was trying to market itself as concerned with bees, but in 2016 Cheerio’s tested positive for glyphosate, the bee killing pesticide produced by Monsanto.  Critics also pointed out that some of the seeds that Cheerios provided are considered invasive or are not native to the U.S.  Finally, critics also noted that the industrialized farming of cereal grains has destroyed bee habitat.   The big idea here is that many companies know that people are mobilizing or at least aware of issues like environmental destruction, gender equality, globalization, cancer, etc.  Labels and branding are used to attract consumers, but also to distract consumers from other unsavory business practices.  I wrote about this before with the phenomenon of Trump washing.  Nike came out against Trump.  Suddenly, everyone loved Nike.  Coming out against Trump is a way to seem progressive and draw attention away from sweatshop labor.   Again, no company should be entirely trusted as all seek profits.

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Tactics:

This piece may seem like it takes an impossible position.  Obviously, we live in capitalism but we HAVE to buy something.  Women must often shoulder the burden of both underpaid paid labor and under valued unpaid labor.  While a person might be able to survive without buying, this would require a lot of labor!!  Imagine weaving your own cloth, sewing your own clothes, producing and preserving your own food!  The amount of time would not be realistic for most people.  Further, it would force women to work harder at unpaid labor in the interest of usurping capitalism.   Of course, there are benefits of making and growing or collecting and gleaning rather than buying – but these do not really have the collective economic power to liberate us from capitalist patriarchy.


I accept that some buying is inevitable.  I accept that people should be mindful of what they buy, but that even this requires time, knowledge, and money.   I accept that there are tactics related to buying that CAN be powerful.  Collectively, we can engage in anti-buying campaigns.   For instance, there are activists who are divesting their money from banks that support or benefit from the Dakota Access Pipeline.  There are activists who supported boycott and divestment against apartheid South Africa.  There are activists who currently support the same against apartheid in Israel.   The labor movement often calls upon people to boycott companies which are not using union labor or to not patronize a business that is in the middle of a labor dispute.  The International Women’s Day March called upon women to boycott sexist companies or avoid buying for the day.  Boycotting and divestment is a useful tactic when it is collective and associated with a social movement.   These movements use consumer power to collectively punish a business in the interest of creating social change rather than individually reward for doing something perceived as good.


Finally, the major flaw with consumer feminism is that it is focused on consumption rather than production.  I get it.  It is easier to focus on the consumer end of things.  I can go to a store and as an individual choose what to buy.  It is easy.  The choice takes little time.  With hope, others would do the same.  However, consumer choices traps one in the logic of capitalism.  It locks one into supply and demand and consumer sovereignty.  It hopes that buy changing one company, the day will be saved.  But, even if everyone chose to buy an organic, Whole Food co-op version of cheerios….and even if Cheerios went under…there would be other cereal brands and other issues with industrial agriculture.  Capitalism is too massive and adaptive to be fought on its own terms and with its own rules.  Thus, this is why ultimately tactics must be production centered.  To this end, we must do the slow and tedious work of building the labor movement.  Only when workers own and control the factories, fields, shops, schools, hospitals, etc. will we really have control of if and how things are produced.  These choices can be thought of logically, with social and environmental good in mind.  In the interim, we must support the struggles of workers for unions, greater autonomy, better wages, more benefits, etc. and connect these struggles to the struggles for racial, gender, sexual, disability, age, etc equality.   The invisible hand will not liberate us.  Capitalism is abusive to women.  It is abusive to everyone who works.  It is abusive to the planet.

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March Activist Notes

March Activist Notes

H. Bradford

3/31/17

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

Berta Vive in Duluth: March 5th

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

Berta Caceres 2015 Goldman Environmental Award Recipient


International Women’s Day: March 8th

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

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Feminist Frolic:  Labor History Walk + Discussion

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

 


13th Documentary: March 13

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

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

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

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UMD Women and Gender Studies Presentation: March 21st

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


Socialism and a Slice: March 27

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


Homeless Bill of Rights:

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

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

Hotdish Militia:

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

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

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Doctrine of Discovery:  3/30/17

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

Trans Visibility Day: 3/31/17


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

Self Care:

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

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