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Feminist Justice League Year in Review

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

H. Bradford

1/16/18

2017 was a big year for feminism.  The election of Donald Trump mobilized feminists towards activism, which was expressed through events such as the Women’s March, International Women’s Day Strike, protests and social media campaigns regarding sexual harassment and assault, forming new groups, and more.  It is an exciting time to be a feminist, to be sure.  Locally, there has been a flourishing of feminist activities this past year.  The Feminist Action Collective emerged in November 2016 as a large, active, vibrate group which has sponsored a variety of successful events over the past year.  Locally, we have also seen the re-emergence of the HOTDISH Militia, which began in 2002 but had become inactive over the years.  Our group, the Feminist Justice League, was established several years ago during a much less active time in feminist organizing.  The renewed interest in feminism creates new challenges and opportunities for our group.  The following is an overview of our activism in 2017 as well as our outlook for 2018.


 

January 2017 Women’s March, Duluth MN:

2017 started off big with several January events.  The first was the January 2017 Women’s March.  The Feminist Action Collective organized buses to Washington DC, but there was also a local march in Duluth.  One of our members, A. attended the march in Washington DC and later reported her experience back to the group at an event we hosted as a local coffee shop.  It was an inspiring experience for her, despite some mechanical mishaps experienced by the bus.  Several members of the Feminist Justice League participated in the local march in Duluth, which was attended by several thousand people.  This year, Feminist Action Collective is organizing an anniversary march.  Feminist Justice League is supporting their efforts in a number of ways.  Firstly, we have endorsed the event.  Secondly, we are going to make some posters for the event on Friday.  Thirdly, I have tried to promote their event by obtaining sponsors for them, such as Occupy Duluth, Socialist Action, and Safe Haven.  A. and I will also serve as Peace Marshalls at the event.

an image from the Duluth News Tribune- Duluth Women’s March

 

Glow for Roe:

Feminist Justice League organized Glow for Roe last year, which happened to fall on the SAME day as the Women’s March and Dough for Utero.  Although it was an extremely busy day, about two dozen people showed up to hold glow sticks for our glow in the dark protest in support of reproductive rights.  We have done this event twice before and this was the most successful year for that particular protest.  However, in 2018, we are not hosting a Glow for Roe event.  This is because there is already a Women’s March, Dough for Utero, and Party on the Plaza.  Glow for Roe was developed when there was far less feminist activism, so moving towards the future, it may not be as necessary as it was in the past.  Still, a glow in the dark protest is a fun idea, so perhaps it will return in 2019! Image may contain: 4 people, night and outdoor

Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza:

January 2017 also saw Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza, which were both organized by Hotdish Militia and the Women’s Health Center.  Dough for Utero featured $19.73 pizza and beer, raising more money than any previous fundraiser.  Party in the Plaza was a vibrant event in which several Feminist Justice League members attended.  We contributed to the event by promoting it and providing picket signs.  Certainly, 2017 saw more activism related to reproductive rights than there has been in Duluth for a long time! Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, dog and outdoor

Valentine Letters to Prisoners

In February, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a Valentine Letters to Prisoners event with Superior Save the Kids.  The goal of the event was to send solidarity cards to prisoners near Valentine’s Day.  In Christian traditions, Valentine cards were first exchanged by St. Valentine while he was in a Roman prison, so the theme seemed suiting.  The event was attended by several people and was a way for our group to be more intersectional as we tried to connect feminism with issues in the criminal justice system.

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A photo of A.C.’s letters last year

Homeless Bill of Rights Letter Writing:

Feminist Justice League hosted a small letter writing event, wherein members gathered at a coffee shop and wrote letters to the editor to various news outlets regarding the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  Feminist Justice League is one of the endorsing organizations of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  A year later, the homeless bill has not yet passed, protracting this already long struggle to pass a bill ensuring that homeless individuals are treated with dignity.


International Women’s Day Strike:

In March, Feminist Justice League organized a symbolic strike for International Women’s Day.  The strike was a protest that lasted for 78 minutes to highlight the pay gap between men and women.  At various intervals, we banged on pots to highlight the pay gap between Hispanic women, African American women, Native American women, Pacific Islander women, and women over the age of 55 and men.  This event was followed by a panel, wherein several speakers discussed labor issues and gender.  The event was successful in that it was covered by several news outlets and was even mentioned in a British Socialist newspaper! Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, hat, child and outdoor

HOTDISH Militia Bowl-a-Thon:

The biggest event that Feminist Justice League participated in April was HOTDISH Militia’s bowl-a-thon.  We had a team of about seven people and though I don’t remember the exact number, I believe we raised over $600.  Our team dressed as superheroes at the event and won a prize for best costumes.  It was a fun event and HOTDISH Militia’s best fundraising event yet!  They reached their fundraising goal and were able to obtain matched funds to help low income women access reproductive health care locally. Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

Graham Garfield Petition:

In May, members of the Feminist Justice League participated in several events related to the Graham Garfield domestic violence case.  We were able to develop a successful petition which contributed to his resignation as a Superior City Councilor.  However, interest in the case waned over time and although his trial is ongoing, there is little activism around it at this time. Still, I think that the group was able to effectively work towards his resignation and can be proud that we sought to educate the community about myths regarding domestic violence.


 

Mother’s Day Letters to Prisoners/Film Showing:

During the month of May, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a film showing about incarcerated mothers with Superior Save the Kids.  The group also co-sponsored a mother’s day themed Letters to Prisoners event.  By helping to host and support these events, Feminist Justice League hopes to connect feminism with other issues.


 

Chalk for Choice:

During the summer and fall, Feminist Justice League sponsored Chalk for Choice events on the evening before clinic days at the Women’s Health Center.  While these events are often only attended by a few people, our group receives a lot of positive feedback from workers at the WHC.  During these events, we draw or write supportive images and messages for the patients and workers who utilize the Women’s Health Center.  The events provides us with a creative niche for our activism.  Looking at 2018, it should certainly continue these events as they are easy to organize, do not require large numbers of participants, and are a unique way to promote reproductive rights. No automatic alt text available.

40 Days of Choice:

For the past several years, Feminist Justice League has organized events for 40 Days of Choice, which happens each year in September and October in response to the 40 Days of Life.  The 40 Days of Life is an international campaign wherein pro-life activists gather outside of abortion clinics and reproductive health centers to pray and protest to end abortion.  The Feminist Justice League was actually founded in response to this annual pro-life campaign.  This year, as in year’s past, we participated in the event by hosting Friday pro-choice pickets.  Some of the pickets were smaller than in year’s past owing to FJL’s dwindling numbers.  On the other hand, some were larger owing to the participating of the HOTDISH milia this year.  HOTDISH sponsored its own Thursday pickets.  Our goal next year should be to increase the numbers at these events by bolstering our own membership, continued collaboration with Hotdish, and improved collaboration with Feminist Action Collective.  This year, we also hosted a successful launching party for the 40 Days of Choice, but the success of the event would not have been possible without HOTDISH Milia’s collaboration and WHC’s support. Image may contain: 1 person, child and outdoor

Feminist Frolics:

Once a month throughout the year, Feminist Justice League hosted events called Feminist Frolics.  These events usually do not attract more than four or five people, but are high quality educational opportunities and community building events.  This year’s highlights include a citizen science project wherein were learned about women in science and learned how to test the health of a river by examining small fauna such as snails, worms, and insect larvae.  We also learned how to geocache and did this while collecting garbage.  I researched women and waste management and did a short presentation on that topic for our event.  We also learned more about fungi and one of our members, Ar., told us about her experiences gathering and selling mushrooms to local businesses.   A few of us also attended a Halloween themed event wherein we hiked to an abandoned cemetery at night and learned about the history of witches and capitalism, based upon my readings on that topic.  We have not done a frolic in a few months due to cold weather, but we can consider planning more at our next meeting.  My suggestion is that we continued them, but on a more irregular basis in 2018.  Personally, I put a great deal of effort into researching these topics and lack the time I once had.  However, I think that these events remain viable if we can find others who are willing to research and present the topics.  These events remain important because they are an opportunity for learning, connecting to nature, and bonding. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, child, shoes and outdoor

Spark in the Dark:

Following the swarm of sexual harassment and assault cases involving celebrities and politicians, FJL organized a small protest against assault and harassment.  The goal was to believe victims, hold public figures accountable, and make ourselves visible.  The evening event was attended by about a dozen activists, despite chilly weather.  In the end, we lit sparklers to symbolize the spark of social movement organizing around these issues but also light in darkness. Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and crowd

Christmas Cards to Prisoners:

The same day as the Spark in the Dark event, we once again collaborated with Letters to Prisoners/Save the Kids to send Christmas Cards to Prisoners.  The event was the best attended Letters to Prisoners event yet.  It was hosted at Amazing Grace Cafe and activists at the event were interviewed by a newspaper. Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor

 

Looking at 2018

 

Our Challenges and Assets:

As we move into 2018, our biggest challenge by far is that we have a small, active membership.  Over the years, we have lost a few people who used to be more active in the group.  One of our active members, A., has recently had a child so she will not be as active for a while.  Two of our members, C. and An., have young children so they will not be able to participate as much as they would like.  Children should not be a barrier to participation and this also shows our weakness in providing child care.  Since we are small, it is hard to provide this service.  At the same time, perhaps we can think of alternative roles for these members, such as posting online content to our Facebook page.  Small membership limits what we can do as an organization but also has a demoralizing effect.  I often wonder if I have personally failed as an activist when our numbers are low.  Thus, we should brainstorm ways in which we can attract new members.  Ideas towards this end might include collaborating with other organizations, tabling at events, putting up fliers more often, and advertising ourselves more on community calendars.  I think it is also important to reframe what success looks like and better work with what we have.  If interest in feminism is generally increased and other organizations have seen new members, then we should celebrate the overall victory of feminism, even if our organization is small.  Further, even a small organization can maximize its impact in the community through collaboration with others.


Despite our low numbers, we do have some assets.  I am proud of the many events that our group sponsored and organized last year.  We also have some great members with some useful knowledge and skills.  Both J. and I work in the field of domestic violence, which I think puts us in a good position to do activism related to this. I also work part time at the WHC, so I think this will help us continue our reproductive rights activism. We have a new member named C, who is smart, knowledgeable of science, and very active in criminal justice activism.  A. is a male member and close friend who is an asset to the group because of his long history of local activism, especially his labor activism.  We have several members who sometimes attend, but perhaps get spread thin by their own activist schedules.  Overall, we often attract low-income and working class activists to our group.  We also often attract members who have experienced homelessness, trauma, mental health issues, poverty, violence, etc.  I think that we can be proud of ourselves if we continue to be an organization that creates space for those who experience multiple oppressions.  While these things can be barriers to activism, it can inform the sorts of issues we work on and perspectives we promote.  At the same time, our organization mostly attracts white people.  There is no immediate solution to making our group more diverse, but, we should always be mindful of the pitfalls of “White feminism” and seriously consider how the group can tackle racism along with sexism.   Sponsoring, promoting, attending, and collaborating with anti-racism activism is one step in that direction.


Finally, several of our key members and most of those who attend our events are anti-capitalist.  This can help us create a niche in the feminist movement.  Although we are a small group, we can act as a complimentary group to FAC.  FAC is a larger group that appeals to a broader group of people.  However, based upon their focus on candidate events, female identity, representation in politics and the business community, etc. the group leans towards liberal feminist ideology.  Our niche in comparison is that we should try to attract anarchist and socialist feminists or provide space to promote those ideologies.  While this ideological focus is less popular, promoting anti-capitalist feminism is a way to differentiate ourselves and what we do.  This should not be rigid nor a requirement for participation/membership- but a useful framework for focusing the organization’s tactics and issues.  The goal is not to compete with other feminist groups, but to broaden the overall feminist movement through theoretical diversity while collaborating on common causes.


Our Goals:

Based upon the following summary, I suggest the following goals for 2018.

 

  1. Co-sponsor a Letters to Prisoners Valentine, Mother’s Day, and Christmas events in 2018 to continue criminal justice related work.
  2. Continue Feminist Frolics on a more limited basis in 2018.  For instance, create feminist history geocaches in the area for Women’s History Month in March.
  3. Host an event for International Women’s Day in March (depending upon other local events)
  4. Consider collaborating with other organizations to create a community Take Back the Night this summer as the major undertaking of the year.
  5. Continue to Chalk for Choice in the warmer months.
  6. Continue the 40 Days of Choice events.
  7. Work more closely with Feminist Action Collective
  8. Continue to work with HOTDISH Militia
  9. Consider other projects such as a Stitch and Bitch Group
  10. Plan an action related to Crisis Pregnancy Centers
  11. Participate in the Bowl-a-Thon
  12. Host a socialist feminist educational event
  13. Increase our membership by at least one or two core members
  14. Collaborate with and support other organizations and events in areas such as labor, anti-racism, environment, indigenous rights, anti-war, sex workers rights, LGBT issues, reproductive rights, mass incarceration, US imperialism, etc.
  15. Table, put up fliers, make better use of the media
  16. Continue to consider our purpose and niche so that we remain relevant
  17. Try to promote ourselves more!  We could make buttons…

 

Glow for Roe: The Importance of Being Seen

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Glow for Roe: The Importance of Being Seen

H. Bradford

1/28/17

    Visibility is important to any social movement.  For instance, Pride Festivals and parades make sexual diversity visible to the general public.  Offices, newspapers, fliers, and tables at events are ways that socialist groups make themselves visible.  The Women’s March on Washington, along with the marches elsewhere in the country, was a way to make the feminist movement visible across America.  It drew attention to demands and anger in the face of this administration, but also in response to the decades of failures and defeats in realizing gender equality in this country.  There are times when movements must strategically choose invisibility, such as when the violent repression of the state is so great that visibility risks death, injury, or imprisonment.  At this moment in time, this is not generally the case.  This is the time to be visible.  That was my reasoning for trying to organize “Glow for Roe.”  I think it is important for people who support reproductive rights to be seen.  The point of the event was to turn out for a “glowing” protest in support of reproductive rights.  It was one of several Roe v. Wade events last weekend, each of which raised the profile of reproductive rights activism in the Twin Ports.  The following is why it is important to stand up and be seen.


We are the Majority:

 

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, seven out of ten Americans want to keep abortion legal.  In a 2015 survey from the Brookings Institute, 59% of women reported that they wanted abortion to be legal in all or most cases.  It is fair to say that most Americans want abortion to remain legal.  So, this is excellent!  By participating in events like Glow for Roe, the 40 days of Choice, Planned Parenthood support pickets, or the Hotdish Militia’s party/counter protest of the Jericho March, pro-choice activists can show other pro-choice individuals that they are not alone.  Those who are engaged in social movements are always a minority of those who actually support them.  As such, activists play a role in affirming the beliefs and identities of those who may not be visibly involved in the movement.   They also play a role in visibly countering the beliefs of those who disagree.

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Abortion is stigmatized:

 

While most people support keeping abortion legal, many people also support restrictions on legal abortions.  These abortions include such things as waiting periods, parental consent, funding barriers, restrictions on how late in a pregnancy abortion can occur, mandatory ultrasounds, hospital admission rights, etc.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, 338 abortion restrictions were introduced between 2010-2016, accounting for 30% of the restrictions passed since 1973.  So, while public opinion generally supports legal abortion, in reality, legal abortion has been eroded by an onslaught of restrictions.  Restrictions make it more difficult and expensive to obtain an abortion.  At the core of these restrictions is the idea that abortion is something other than health care.  While one in three women have had abortions, it is secret and stigmatized.  In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton popularized the idea that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  By adding “rare” to the discourse, it stigmatized abortion and framed it as a moral rather than medical issue.  There have been 1,142 restrictions on abortion passed since 1973.  According to NARAL-Pro Choice America, states have passed 835 anti-choice measures since 1995.  This means that Over 70% of the restrictions have been passed since the mid 1990s!  Stigmatizing abortion or calling for it to become rare justifies restricting it, thus further limiting access.  Being visible, on the street, protesting for choice is a way to be seen as an unapologetic supporter of abortion and the women who make that choice.  It is a way to destigmatize abortion, bringing abortion as a word, idea, and medical experience into the public sphere.

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The Other Side is Visible

Another important reason to protest in support of reproductive rights is because the pro-life movement is large, well-funded, and enjoys a lot of institutional support from churches, social movement organizations, and even the government (through politicians, tax breaks, and state funded crisis pregnancy centers).  They are visible.  Not only are they visible, they are violent.   In 1994, arson destroyed a Planned Parenthood in Brainerd, MN burned along with several neighboring businesses.  In 2002, five shots were fired into the rebuilt building, breaking a window and damaging a wall and ceiling.  The building finally closed in 2011 due to losing Title X funding.  The location did not provide abortion services.  The Planned Parenthood in Grand Rapids, MN was also fired at in 2002.  Since 1993, at least 11 people have died in attacks on abortion clinics.  There are elements of the pro-life movement who seem to believe that they are at war.  Of course, even their peaceful demonstrating constitutes a war against women, but for some, there is a call to violence.  This is terrifying.  This is also a reason why visibly supporting choice is important.  Clinic staff and patrons need defenders who will visibly stand up for their right to life!  At some level, not mobilizing into a visible mass movement is irresponsible when abortion clinic workers life on the line each day they go to work.  Our visibility is the least we can do.

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Our Rights are Threatened:

It is important to be seen because our rights are threatened.  They have been threatened since 1973.  The barrage of restrictions.  The Hyde Amendment.  The Global Gag rule-again.  Here we are, forty four years after Roe v. Wade and it feels like reproductive rights are a fluke.  A set of rights that slipped past the goalie.  No one actually believes that women are human beings.  No one actually believes that women can have autonomy over their body.  No one actually believes that women should not be punished for having sex.  There are people in this society that want to see women go to jail for having an abortion.  Despite having the largest prison population in the world, this warped logic concludes the United States would be better if we imprisoned ⅓ of all women.  The only people who believe that the equality of women hinges upon their ability to control their bodies are feminists.  Like abortion, feminism has been stigmatized.  It is a bad word.  No one wants to admit to having an abortion OR being a feminist. Well, it is important to be visible as a feminist since no one else is going to advocate for women.  No one else believes abortion access is a fundamental and necessary conditions of our liberation.  We are the vanguard of all women.  Our rights are threatened.  They have barely been realized.  No one else will stand up for our rights, but ourselves.

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We Can be Visible:

 

There are places and times in history where women have not been able to be visible.  I imagine communist Romania, wherein women were forced to have pregnancy tests each month at their workplaces.  They were monitored by the state to make sure they did not have abortions.  At the same time, contraceptives were banned by the state.  Thus, women were given no choice.  Well, some chose illegal abortion, resulting in the death of over 9,000 women.  I consider death a choiceless choice.  Until last year, abortion was illegal in all cases in Chile.  This meant that an 11 year old rape victim was denied the right to abortion in a high profile case several years again.  Since many Latin American countries have very restrictive abortion laws, women at risk of Zika virus were told to abstain from sex for two years.  In Saudi Arabia, women can have an abortion only if pregnancy threatens their life, and then with parental or spousal consent.  We are fortunate that we still have some rights and that we are able to assemble and speak our minds without serious threat from the police (in most cases).  The Women’s March was criticized for its coziness with the police, but we can certainly use this to our advantage.  We should speak out while we can and because we can!

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All the Season’s Ladies

All the Season’s Ladies:

Forgotten Females of the Holiday Season

By H. Bradford

12/18/16


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

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

Mrs. Claus

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

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

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(St. Nicholas is more somber than jolly)

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

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

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


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

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St. Lucia


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

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

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

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Beiwe:


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

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


La Befana:

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

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

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  Snergurochka:

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

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

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


Conclusion:

 

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

 

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Sources:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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