The stamp commemorating Jane Addams
I’m not a spiritual or paranormal type, but I do believe in the power of words on our actions and thoughts. Jane Addams deserves to be a household name. I want her to be a household name in the same way her male counterparts like Abbie Hoffman are, because she is that important. And moreover, her vision for culture is so timely, we all need to pay attention.
One of the terrible things about women’s second class status is, historical feminist culture is often portrayed as high tea with a bunch of bustled ladies asking their husbands for 20 cents to make a pink poster, “Pretty Please Let Us Vote!” It wasn’t like that, not at all. The suffragettes of the early 1900s were true radicals. Their activities led them to be imprisoned and force fed (doesn’t that sound dangerously Pussy Riot familiar?). In many cases, like Alice Paul, women dedicated their lives to peace, justice and freedom for women.
Jane Addams, a contemporary of Alice Paul, was a philosopher, pioneer, social worker, suffragette, and author. Her vision for social reform included the needs of women, children, new immigrants, the poor, infirm, and otherwise socially and mentally challenged. In 1931, she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her visionary work. Today, thinkers like Nicholas Kristoff and Cheryl WuDunn, as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton share her vision that women’s liberation is the only way forward in a globalized society.
In 1889, Addams and her partner, Ellen Gates Starr founded the Hull House in Chicago, Illinois, the first settlement house in the United States. The list of the services offered is staggering, and served the psychological, physical, spiritual and economic needs of the community. More than 2,000 people per week came to the Hull House for night school, kindergarten and groups for children, a public kitchen, an art gallery, book bindery, coffee house, music and drama schools, library, as well as labor-groups and training.
Her night school programs inspired continuing education classes offered by many universities today. Addams and her partner believed that craft, in particular, could uplift the immigrant populations, as it connected them in some cases to the heritage of their homelands, gave them valuable job skills, and provided spiritual comfort. These women leaders believed the arts heal and are necessary for society.
Holiday card from Seeds InService
Through a partnership with the Hull House heirloom seed library, alumni of the Book & Paper Program, Maggie Puckett and I are working on a project called Seeds InService celebrating and promoting their radical social reform movement. Addams invited thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois and Gertrude Stein to Hull House to discuss radical change. Later in her career, she was lambasted by some of the press as unpatriotic (which could be considered a compliment at the time.) Interestingly, her personal life was kept relatively quiet: by all accounts, she was a lesbian. Regardless of her relationship status, her love for women was clearly reflected in the programming mission of the Hull House.
You can feel the presence of Jane Addams at the Hull House Museum, where a group of extraordinary people share her memory and inspiration with the world. It is a national treasure, as Jane Addams is. My friends, I want more than a stamp honoring this incredible person. I could keep you here all day with longer reports about her reform activities which are so extensive, she has been the focus of many books and thesis papers. Each and every one of you will be enriched and inspired by Addams, and I hope you will join me in sharing her remarkable legacy with people you meet. We need her.
Photo: Sabina Ott 2010
I have been busy. And when I get busy, I try to fall asleep with Netflix, and—I know!—that is such crap sleep hygiene. I just couldn’t get on the gender pony for a couple of days out of sheer exhaustion.
I was inspired today through grief. I’m grieving for an old colleague, Kanik Chung, who died today from cancer. He was 44 years old. Kanik and I didn’t have gender in common, but we did share this disease. It’s not that it’s about me, exactly, it’s that once you’ve gone through cancer, you live in a secret society with those who know something everyone will know eventually, but would rather not just yet.
Breast cancer is a particularly gendered cancer, and not just because it attacks the breast. Recent research indicates that women who never had children are at higher risk, and those who don’t have children before age 30 are nearly as high risk. The most common breast cancer uses estrogen as fuel. Young women—the largest growing group of patients—tend to get aggressive forms of the disease, and are often Stage III or IV at diagnosis. Chemotherapies usually cause ovarian failure. It is as if the anti-feminist radical right concocted the ultimate revenge against gals who want a little career trajectory or—shock and awe—maybe never wanted kids at all. Biology, what a massive bad joke.
A disturbing study found that 50% of breast cancer patients lose their partners. They lose them for a variety of reasons: caregiving is so rarely a male responsibility, they often fall apart trying to do it (the generous version.) Many women talk about the affairs their partners have in frustration over trying to manage caregiving. By way of a little black humor, I love the idea of a 60ish woman who leaves her husband with prostate cancer for a young stallion. But this is what it really is for many breast cancer patients.
Though there are many jokes about how lucky breast cancer patients are to get a free “boob job” with their treatment, mastectomy has nothing whatsoever to do with a breast augmentation (fortunately, many patients can avoid mastectomy, but the drawback is, cancer eventually returns, the hope is that it is decades in the future and localized, not metastatic.) When such significant amounts of tissue, and even muscle are removed, recovery can be a disaster, a permanent injury and disfigurement. It also can precipitate lymphedema, a painful chronic swelling of the arm that can look like an elephant leg at its worst.
In the United States, breast cancer isn’t a shameful thing to discuss (though young patients trigger particular denial responses,) and women can live in the world with their bald heads. I was lucky, I looked quite okay bald. I had folks come up and tell me I was beautiful. Of course, there’s nothing really beautiful about having chemo induced hot flashes that make it impossible to wear anything on your head, but it is a sign that things have changed for women. Removing that stress from treatment is huge.
For me, it was more than a little ironic my female body parts attacked me with cancer. Today, my life is an ongoing bargain to suppress the attack: tonight no beer, so tomorrow a cupcake, green vegetables, not fried and annual mammograms and MRIs. But even though my female body may sink me early, in the end, all our bodies give way to time regardless of our gender, no earthly privileges can protect us.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s masterpiece, Judith Slaying Holofernes, now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago
My feminist fairy godmother, Jeff Abell, always has my best interest at heart: last night, after his return from Holland, he brought me a Virginia Woolf finger puppet, AND reminded me that this painting is now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. And what a trip down memory lane it was going to see it today. He was right: the room was blood soaked, painted an iron-tinged red, and the sword featured in the painting was on display sporting the rather hilarious text, “Such a sword was used for thrusting and cutting.”
To be honest, I don’t know much about Judith’s story. And uh oh, to be even more honest, I really don’t care. Biblical history bores me so much I can barely stand it, the only thing less interesting to me is the Civil War. And football. I am a sorry excuse for a confirmed Episcopalian, but what we lack in Bible cred, we make up for in progressive attitudes towards women, so bear with me.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings weren’t just rife with historical references, they were symbolic of female self-determination. In my Women, Art and Society class, we discussed this work as a masterpiece excluded from the canon’s greatest hits. At that time (the mid-90s,) I wonder if it was even in the major art textbooks. In those days, art by great women were still largely relegated to the pages of women-specific art history books, and thank you, thank you, thank you Lucy Lippard and Whitney Chadwick, you gave us what we were missing.
It is suggested A. Gentileschi’s historical paintings, which include this blood buster, as well as Susanna and the Elders, were metaphors for her sexual abuse at the hands of one of the men in her father’s painting guild. The historical accuracy of these claims wasn’t the only point for my junior feminist painting and printmaking team. This was revenge fantasy material, and it showed up in quite a few large scale impasto paintings and addition and deletion lithographic prints at VCU.
This is complicated and dangerous territory, because first, women aren’t supposed to be violent, and second, a nice liberal is supposed invoke the Gandhi spirit. But in the far corners of feminism, there have always been those more radical asking, what would the world look like if women took revenge on their abusers? Such a radical notion this is, there are just a handful of films depicting it with any authenticity including Monster and Bandit Queen. The question is an important one, as it lays bare the way women are trained to believe there are “nice men” and “bad men” (as though the cycle of abuse is ingrained in one half of the population by chance, separate from our social systems that employ it.) In America, some of us are also trained to believe we have a right to be selective, free from unwanted advances. Though nearly every feminist believes in a woman’s right to wear whatever the hell she wants without repercussion, that sentiment hasn’t eradicated rape yet.
This isn’t a call to arms, but it is a call to consider a world in which women demand justice for themselves by any means necessary. It is also a celebration of a woman who was more radical in the 1600s than most of us are today.
"Masters of Achievement," lithograph by Melissa Potter 1992 (riot grrrl phase)
Holy flerking schmidt! Love the idea that this ultra-femmy bunch of Southern belles might covertly be working for women’s rights and advancement blows my mind.
Thanksgiving in Chicago 2013 with the Azalea Trail Maids
The lord works in mysterious ways. I was really stumped about how miniature ponies at the parade would turn into a Gender Assignment post today. I overslept—the dumb cat was all over creation last night and futzing with the door. I was crabby. And then I opened the shades, and what did I see? My Azalea Trail Maids, going right up the block behind my apartment. It was a sign. If I life long enough, I am going to do a documentary on this piece of American ethnographic gender ritual.
Back in 2010, I saw these creatures in the photo above, and I just had to know about them. I felt sure they were from the South, so I googled “hoop skirts Thanksgiving Chicago.” And I found them, the Azalea Trail Maids.
The Trail Maids are from Mobile, Alabama. They evolved from debutante parties celebrating the famous Azalea Trail in the area, and today, young women can interview to be part of the court. From their website: “The Azalea Trail Maids organization is representative of southern culture, values and hospitality. An Azalea Trail Maid must be a young woman of good character and disposition…A young woman with self-confidence, strong character and a passion for her community exemplifies the characteristics of a true southern belle.” This is exciting, it sounds like they are recruiting well mannered feminists!
Candidates are interviewed and scored based on personality, career goals, and test scores. The highest ranked candidate is the Queen, and runners up are First and Second Ladies in Waiting. As is the case with all things Southern, family legacy plays its part (though no disclosure on whether descendants are privileged for entry.)
And, like all Southern organizations, they are not without controversy. In 2009, the Maids were in the Presidential Inauguration Parade, and the NAACP petitioned the state on the basis that the group promotes values of the Confederacy. They did participate, but whether they will in 2013 is a question.
The dress. As wild and weird a story as the group itself. Candidates must commission a dressmaker to craft a dress for the city interviews, and select her favorite three colors (within the palette, of course) for the Board of Directors to select (ten of each dress color only!) The dresses weigh up to 60 pounds, and cost up to 5K. Now that’s dedication! They are a massive fuss of all things Gone with the Wind, and look like something between a wedding cake topper and something from the brilliant Phyllis Bramson's paintings. Details from the hoops to the gauntlets can be found here (ain’t enough room on this post for the deets.) They claim each dress is an expression of the Maid’s personal style. Uh…you be the judge on that.
Hoop skirts aside, the group works to raise scholarships for young women, and clearly provide a network for their careers. I would love to do a follow up—what do these young women do afterwards? Do they consider themselves a progressive group for the rights of women? (They have significant standards for racial diversity, I wonder how class plays.)
SNAP! I need to do a Gender Assignment interview!!
Happy Thanksgiving, all.
Just in case you didn’t believe I was there. I told the gals I love them, and really read up on their organization. They were so pleased!
I promise I won’t kill your Thanksgiving buzz tomorrow, but today, I have to share a really, really great campaign by New York Film Academy to illustrate the under-representation of women’s various talents in the film industry.
Affirmative action, to be clear, is not as simple as opening the doors. It is a hard process of changing the rules to make it possible for the under classes to get to the door in the first place. Women continue to struggle against mommy-martyrdom (and consequently, low wages and inability to re-enter the work force,) and being valued first as pretty objects in the hopes of scoring a landed gentryman. These values permeate all levels of society, and are enforced by each and every one of us, every day. Next time you call a woman standing up for herself a bitch, or judge an outfit—take note.
In the meantime, I am hopeful for change. Knowledge is power.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for free and open information on women in the workforce, and I’ll celebrate that with the miniature horses at the Chicago Thanksgiving Day Parade tomorrow! Gendered horsey photos forthcoming!
My friend and colleague, Jeff Abell joins the selfie discussion!
There’s been an amusing debate about “selfies” in the media lately, including an article in the New York Times, and a lively debate on Facebook and Twitter. Some say that the tendencies of 20-somethings to turn their camera phones on themselves is a sign of desperation, or narcissism. But the self-portrait has a long and venerable history. Here are so-called Selbstbilder of me, taken over the last 14 years, that I think complicate the discussion. I also wonder if the new ubiquity of the camera phone isn’t another instance of a new technology being explored. I discussed this with a colleague in relation to the history of photography, and what happened when I introduced 18-year-old students to video. ”Give an adolescent a camera, and the first thing they do is point it at themselves,” my friend said. “And the second thing they do is take their clothes off.”
The Staking Out and Flogging of the Girl, Patsey, from the account made into the film 12 Years a Slave
Yesterday, I saw the film 12 Years a Slave. It was hard to take visually, and mentally it was crushing. Extraordinarily acted and produced, it is in my mind the most complex work about the many psychological layers of privilege and oppression in American slavery (for instance, the use of religion to justify slavery was extremely well articulated.) For the oppressed, coping came in many forms: denial, suicide, dignity, complicity, hatred, elitism.
Steve McQueen’s strategy reminds me of Yvonne Rainer’s film, Privilege, an extraordinary piece about the ways privilege interacts with gender, age, race, and class. Privilege is not static for those of us on the bottom. It is a series of microaggressions every day: woman to woman, white woman to black woman, straight woman to queer, gay man to dyke. It reinforces the rat race for the tiny scrap of power that keeps us just alive enough to fight for it.
And, like everything, gender plays its part. What struck me is how reduced to their biology slaves were: men for their hard work abilities, women for their ability to be raped, and bear children. McQueen plays a powerful narrative throughout the film with his character, Patsey, acted by the incredibly believable Lupita Nyong’o. She is subject to male power in many forms: at the hands of her master, and by extension, the master’s financially dependent wife, but also, to Solomon Northup, the main character, who refuses her deep wish to die in the right hands. Why did Solomon deny her wish? Did he believe she would prevail? Was he concerned it might implicate his own plan for freedom? Did he not perceive it as a compassionate act? He had borne witness over and over to her rape and abuse. McQueen makes it perfectly clear this woman’s body is going to be the place where the real shit goes down.
In many ways, I considered her plight the basic conundrum of the whole film. In perhaps the most pivotal scene, Patsey is whipped, first by her master, and then by Solomon himself, cheered on in a pornographic display by the master and mistress. She is bloodied, rendered. But she lives, denied not once, but twice by Solomon.
The only real problem I had with the film was its American/Hollywood ending. It seemed to me the film ended as Solomon’s friends from the North are finally able to prove he is a free man. He is rushed to the carriage before his psycho master can intervene. And as they pull away, Patsey is on the path watching Solomon go off in the distance, destined for an unmarked grave that can’t come fast enough for her.
I am really intrigued with Coco Layne’s (also known as Lolita Bandita) project, Warpaint which made its way to my Facebook page a number of times last week. An experiment with the implications of gender display on her daily life, Layne creates a series of images that present female identity at 25 intervals. Here she talks about what it means to walk out as these various iterations of herself and how it is received by the queer community, and in her professional life.
When I read about your project, War Paint, I understood you were treated differently based on how you looked. Can you tell us more about that experience? Any specific examples?
When I started working at my job at the women’s retail store, I quickly realized how my presentation played into how well I’d do with sales. The clientele at my store were predominately women in their late twenties and up. I found that on days I looked hyper feminine vs. the days I wore only a little bit of make up, customers were more likely to take my opinion with clothing vs. the latter. I confirmed this by experimenting and the results were almost always consistent.
What was the inspiration for the project?
The project grew out of the realization of how versatile my haircut was, and how styling it different ways would affect my gender presentation. I just re-shaved the hair off the sides of my head recently, and it made me reflect on my experiences last year when I had the same hair cut. I was searching for a temp job last year, and when I got an interview for a conservative women’s retailer, I thought It’d be wise to present myself as a more conservative, feminine candidate. I’m a relatively feminine person most days, but had I both sides of my head shaved at the time. Without makeup, I looked a more masculine than I did before, and the hair I had on top wasn’t long enough to part down the middle. I ended up wearing a black bob wig and a lot of make up to the interview. I eventually told my managers after I’d been hired about my hair situation. They were completely fine with me coming to work with platinum blonde hair split down the middle (shaved sides hidden, of course). The focus at work was taken off my appearance because of my professionalism and my ability to meet numbers and sales quotas.
What has the reception to the project been?
The reception has been mostly positive! I’ve been getting really wonderful feedback from people and even a couple of emails thanking me for sharing my art. It’s amazing how so many people are relating to this project. However, having this project reach a such wide audience really shed light on how people will cast judgement based purely on appearances. There’s a lot of pressure on how you present your gender on and off the internet. I’ve gotten really interesting comments like “I stop feeling attracted to her after the twelfth photo even though I know she’s the same person.” I struggle with femme visibility and find it a little challenging to have the queer community recognize me to be ‘as queer as they are’ because of how femme I look sometimes.
Aside from the gender aspect of physical judgement, I’ve also gotten a lot harsh comments about my skin. It’s ridiculous how some people’s perception of beauty is so horribly warped, they think there MUST be wrong with someone who doesn’t have perfect, porcelain skin on the internet; especially with photoshop being so accessible. I am a real person, and real people don’t have perfect skin. I’ve had eczema my entire life, and unfortunately I had a flare up during the time of this shoot. Don’t get me wrong, I am skilled enough in photoshop to be able to give my skin a flawless finish, but I chose not to this time because I finally felt brave enough to put myself out there and show how I really look. The fact that there were comments focusing only on my skin, rather than the topic Warpaint addresses further proves my point that people will make judgements positive or negative, based on appearances.
On your wonderful blog, http://www.lolitabandita.co, you identify as a “hardcore feminist”. Yay!! So many young women I run into today won’t identify with that word. Why do you call yourself a feminist?
I think everybody should be a feminist by default. I call myself a feminist because have a seething disdain for the patriarchy. Men and women should have equal rights. It’s as simple as that.
Where do you think gender identity is going in the 21st C?
I think it’s definitely moving towards a more open plain. It’s more widely talked about now, especially with all of the trans-positive movements and gender pronoun awareness happening. It all starts with exposing people to what gender identity means and then opening up the conversation. It’s definitely something I think youth is grabbing onto. Nobody told older generations that it was OKAY to not conform to the gender binary, or even explain what the gender binary is. I think with social media, especially Tumblr, we have a bigger platform to spread awareness and literature regarding gender identity, etc. I mean its informal, but I got most of my knowledge and literature about feminism from Tumblr. I’ve learned more on Tumblr about feminist, gender, and lgbtq issues than I probably would have in school, especially since I’m not a gender studies major.
So, what are your next projects?
I’d love to tell you, but I honestly have no idea! I plan to do more projects within the concept of feminist and gender expression but nothing concrete planned at the moment.
Vital Statistics of A Citizen, Simply Obtained by Martha Rosler 1977 (still)
Last night, I had a flash of memory: Martha Rosler's early video work, Vital Statistic of A Citizen, Simply Obtained deals with many of the issues embedded in the selfie debate I dove into yesterday. This work also reminded me how fortunate I was to study with Rosler at Rutgers for my MFA, and why she is one of our most important contemporary artists. It is an intensely layered work that remains completely relevant.
Vital Statistics of A Citizen, Simply Obtained by Martha Rosler 1977
Vital Statistics of A Citizen, Simply Obtained brought up a critical failure in my own debate to consider the tension between the personal and political. I am now forced to ask, when does an image ever separate from its social or linguistic context? On a philosophical level, what is a “self?” Through a series of monologues in the video, Rosler points to these complex issues: “She sees herself from the outside” in a sort of pavlovian response to judgement. “She is carefully trained in mechanical narcissism that is a sign of madness or deviance to be without.”
Rosler weaves issues of race and class throughout this piece on gendered identity. I am reminded the feminist concept of a “continuum” has been lost in part to factionalized interests groups (which in turn reinforces oppression.) I found it important Rosler ends the work with a list of crimes against women: femicide, clitordectomy, slavery, illegal abortion, prostitution, rape, to name a few. 36 years later, all of these crimes continue to kill and oppress millions of women worldwide, both directly, and indirectly.
Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained left me particularly haunted by our complicity in the status quo. How do we perpetuate these crimes against women when we seek our power through a system that oppresses us? Is snapping a photo ever a singular act?