Why Should We Care About Shulamith Firestone?

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Shulamith Firestone died sometime last week at the age of 67. She had been a recluse for years, which is one reason why no one found her body for several days. (Her sister confirmed that she died of natural causes.) The feminist community took notice, but the average person could have cared less. And that’s a pity.

Why should we care? What connection could she possibly have to our lives today?

Those of us who are Baby Boomers might remember her name in connection with the Women’s Liberation Movement. She helped to create several radical feminist groups in the late ’60s and was outspoken in her criticisms, not only of the patriarchy, but also of the political left, which she felt didn’t do enough (if anything) to liberate women.

But it was her book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published in 1970 when she was only 25, that earned her a primary place in feminist history. And it was also her book—or rather, the reception the book received—that drove her to withdraw from public life in the years following its publication.

To say that Dialectic created a firestorm is an understatement. Even many feminists felt that Firestorm had gone too far in her denunciation of family life and her assertion that women are enslaved by their biology. She felt that women should be released from the burden of reproduction by the use of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and artificial wombs.

Besides being one of the first feminist theories of politics, Dialectic also set the tone for how the general public perceived the feminist movement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it helped to make feminism the dirty word it is to many people today. The book calls for a complete obliteration of gender differences and traditional patriarchal society (what many would now call “family values”). She wrote that pregnancy was barbaric and that as long as the traditional family existed, women would never be liberated.

It was strong stuff then and is even more so now. Most people have forgotten the woman who put forth these ideas, but they haven’t forgotten that feminism appeared to approve of them. They fail to make the distinction between radical feminists, which Firestone most certainly was, and mainstream feminists (as typified by the National Organization for Feminists, or NOW).

I’m a pretty traditional woman. I believe in marriage (although I don’t think it has to be restricted to male-female unions) and families. I think there is such a thing as a maternal instinct and that mothers tend to occupy themselves more with the care of their offspring than fathers do (or perhaps just in a different way). But I also believe that women are penalized in this society merely because they can have children, let alone if they actually have them.

A lot of people still think that feminists are anti-family, that they put down stay-at-home moms, or moms period. (Not to mention are bitter, man-hating lesbians.) But the vast majority of feminists get married (or enter into committed, long-term relationships) and have babies, work in and out of the home, and struggle with the same issues as non-feminists.

The difference is, feminists are also aware of the wrongs that are done to females in this society and are willing to fight to right them. Firestone recognized the problem, and, even if we don’t agree with them, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize her sincere attempt to formulate solutions.

She saw what a lot of people are unwilling to see: This society is not woman-friendly, especially when it comes to reproductive issues. However, the answer is not to give up on having babies. The answer is to take charge of our own bodies. We don’t need artificial wombs; we just need for (male) law-makers to keep their hands off the ones we have.

 

A Thirteen-Year-Old Talks About Sex–OMG!

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The video below has gone viral recently, scoring over a half a million hits, and generating a lot of controversy about the fact that a thirteen-year-old girl is talking about…wait for it…sex!

It seems that many adults are blown away by the fact that “Astrorice” is so knowledgeable and articulate about sex. They obviously see a thirteen-year-old as a child who has no business knowing, much less talking about, things like “slut-shaming” and rape.

I for one am encouraged by this young woman. She really has a handle on what’s wrong about judging people for their sexual activity, whether real or presumed. And I was really impressed by what she said about rape culture. The adults in this next video, not so much; they thought she crossed some kind of line.

What disturbed me is that the panelists spent more time talking about her precociousness than they did about the issues she raised. I thought the most important part of her video was when she talked about “the rape culture.” She’s absolutely right that slut-shaming (or judging people based on their sexual activity or appearance) does contribute to the attitudes that make some men think it’s all right to push sex on women against their will. That’s rape whether the woman is drunk or dressed in a mini-skirt or just minding her own business. I don’t understand people who say that “date rape” isn’t really rape, or that there are degrees of rape, some barely worth mentioning.

Just sayin’.

 

Thoughts on Femininity and Feminism

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On Facebook today, “Muslim Feminists” asked the question, “What makes you feel feminine?” Apparently there was a discussion about this on a radio show and the women who called in said everything from dangling earrings to being on their periods.

I commented that I feel feminine when I get dressed up to go somewhere. And I feel maternal (which I suppose is a  subset of femininity) when I’m around children (including my own, who are grown). But the rest of the time I feel androgynous. I happen to believe that gender behavior is largely socialized and that somehow I missed out on the training.

But when I thought about it more, I realized that while I don’t feel particularly “girlie,” I do feel like a woman. And I feel more like one the older I get. It’s as if I feel like I’ve earned the designation by all that I’ve been through: puberty, menstruation, PMS, sex, relationships, marriage, birth control, abortion, pregnancy, childbirth, mothering and menopause.

But I don’t think I really started to feel like a woman until I became a feminist. There’s something about being aware of the injustices done to women that makes you begin to identify with them. And that’s not even counting the sense of pride you feel when you realize what women are capable of and have been able to accomplish, despite forces that try to keep them down.

Gender identity is a double-edged sword. If your entire being is wrapped up in your gender identity, it’s easy to feel discouraged when you don’t live up to society’s expectations. But if you don’t identify with your gender at all, you lose a significant part of what makes you feel both unique and part of a group.

(And that’s not even taking into account how you feel if you don’t fit into the gender construct assigned to you at birth.)

Another thing that occurred to me is that no matter what your gender identity is, there are times when you feel like the opposite gender. What if the radio host had asked men what makes them feel feminine? Or women what makes them feel masculine? How many of us embrace the parts of ourselves that don’t fit into our assigned gender?

I can see why some women don’t like to identify as feminists. They think that doing so sends the message that they care too much about their gender identity. They would rather feel free to express both masculine and feminine traits. Or, more typically, they prefer to call themselves “humanists.” (The author Alice Walker is a case in point.)

There’s something to that argument. But it also misses the point of feminism. Feminists are not saying that women are best. It’s not a form of female chauvinism. What they are saying is that we need to collectively support and assist our gender to achieve its highest potential as human beings. So in a sense all feminists are humanists. And all humanists should be feminists.

When do I feel feminine? When I take pride in being a woman, in doing things only a woman can do. But I also feel feminine when I exhibit the gender behaviors that society approves of. The real question is: how much of my sense of femininity is determined by positive forces and how much by negative ones?  Do I only feel feminine when I’m weak and submissive? Or do I feel feminine from a position of strength and self-actualization?

Being a Woman is a Leap of Faith

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I’ve heard it said that if it weren’t for faith, none of us would dare to venture out our front doors. Every time we get in a car, eat in a restaurant, have a medical procedure, or any number of “ordinary” things, we’re exercising faith that disaster will not strike us. Just staying alive is a leap of faith; suicides have lost their faith.

Now I’m going to make a contentious remark: I think it takes more faith to be a woman than it does to be a man. The most dramatic example of this is when a woman gets pregnant, but it starts long before that. When little girls ask questions about sex characteristics or reproduction, they’re told that their “stuff” is inside, where you can’t see it. Boys know their “stuff” intimately: it’s out there and it does things that can be felt and observed.

Little girls have to accept that their equipment is fine even when they can’t see it, and in fact, no one really knows if a woman’s reproductive system is in working order until something goes wrong. Late onset of menses, irregular or lack of periods, and infertility are all symptoms of underlying problems that can’t been seen. That’s partially true for men, but not to the extent that it is for women.

A little girl is always told that someday she can be a mommy. There’s no other explanation for menstruation. If a girl isn’t told what menstruation means, she may think something is seriously wrong with her; even that she’s dying. Yet the explanation isn’t all that comforting. She is told that she will bleed monthly for the next forty years, but that it’s “normal.” She has to accept that by a leap of faith.

She also has to take on faith that a baby can actually grow inside her, and even more so, that it can get out. She has to have faith that she won’t die, that the baby will be normal, that the pregnancy and delivery will take their natural course. Modern science has made it possible for parents-to-be to find out a lot of details that used to be shrouded in mystery—the sex of the baby, the likelihood of (some) birth defects, problems with the placenta or amniotic sac, and so on—but ultimately the pregnant woman just has to trust that things will be okay, even though sometimes they’re not.

Even with the strides made by women in the last five decades, women still have to have faith that they won’t be raped, that they’ll be treated fairly in the workplace and that they will be protected or supported when they’re at their most vulnerable (during pregnancy, after delivery, and while they’re raising children). And even knowing that some women do get raped, or treated unfairly or left without resources when they had a right to expect them, women still go ahead and attempt to do the same things that men do.

It can be scary to be a woman, which makes it all the more courageous when a woman steps out in faith and gets out of a bad marriage, or files a complaint of sexual harassment, or demands the same wage that her male counterparts get. Men have to do scary things, too, but at least their track record for success is more encouraging. Men have to go to war and support their wives and families, and yet, in recent decades, women have exposed themselves to those risks as well. Women are expanding their horizons while men are merely staying the same.

Yes, it takes a leap of faith to become a father or a husband, but more often than not it is the woman who will be left holding the bag if something goes wrong with the family or the marriage. Woman have more to lose when they become mothers and wives. Even though they are often granted custody and child support, their standard of living almost invariably goes down in comparison to their exes’ whenever there is a divorce.

Even (or especially) when marriage is avoided and the man and woman merely cohabit, this takes a tremendous leap of faith for the woman. She has no rights whatsoever if the couple breaks up. At least women used to be protected by the concept of common-law marriage, but that legal status is becoming a thing of the past. The man is not obligated to support the woman in any way, even if she becomes pregnant.

The greatest leap of faith I’ve ever seen is when a woman decides to go it alone when she has children. She may have only a dim idea of how difficult her life is going to be without a partner, but she takes the chance that her life, and the lives of her children, will be better without him as a live-in dad. She may lose her gamble, but at least she had the courage to try.

I made the comment the other day in a group of women that “we women are strong!” There were a few beats of silence before one of the women said, “Yes, but we need men.” I didn’t say that we didn’t; I said that women are strong. What does the one have to do with the other?

Maybe she thought I meant that women are stronger than men. And, you know, maybe that is what I meant.

 

U.S. Health Care Insurance: Picking on Women

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The United States would have the best health care system in the world if it weren’t for its insurers. I’ve had health insurance for forty years and I’ve never seen such a mess as we’re experiencing right now. A recent event in my own life brought this home to me:

I had a routine mammogram this spring and was surprised—and dismayed—when I received a letter saying that I needed a follow-up breast ultrasound because of some suspicious findings. I had to wait over a month for my appointment. I stayed calm and told myself that it probably wasn’t anything. And I was right. There was nothing there. I just have very dense breasts and it was hard to see just what was going on in the initial mammogram. After taking more extensive x-rays it was decided that an ultrasound wasn’t even necessary.

Good thing, because I would have had to pay out of pocket for that, too.

It seems that my insurance company is refusing to pay for the second mammogram because they only authorize one a year. So I’m going to have to foot the $200 bill.

Tell me, please, what I should have done? My doctor ordered the follow-up mammogram to make sure that I wasn’t developing breast cancer. I didn’t ask for the second mammogram. If I’d known my insurance wouldn’t pay for it, would I have had it done? Maybe not.

I don’t have the $200 but I may be able to work out a payment plan. I can pay it off over time. But what about people who can’t even afford to do that? All this policy is going to do is prevent people from undergoing health procedures that just might save their lives.

If I’d had breast cancer, would my insurance company have paid for additional mammograms as I underwent treatment? Or would they charge me for each of them on the grounds that they only pay for one a year?

I recently read that physicians’ associations are now recommending that annual mammograms should begin at the age of 40. Right now most insurance companies are going by the older guidelines which say that mammograms are not “cost-effective” if a woman is under 50. That’s right. Apparently, they don’t think that enough breast cancer is detected between the ages of 40 and 50 to justify the cost of administering the ten mammograms during that decade.

This is despite the fact that breast cancer is usually much more aggressive in younger women. I myself know three women in their 30s who died of breast cancer.

I guess I’m lucky that I’m old enough to qualify for one mammogram a year. But what if I was younger and had a family history of breast cancer? What if it was determined that I had the markers for it? Would my insurance company still refuse to pay for mammograms that my doctor would most likely order?

Another area in which women are being short-changed by the health insurance system is reproductive care. Contraception has gotten much more expensive, but it’s more expensive still to get pregnant and have a baby. So why aren’t insurers attempting to keep the costs of contraception down? Many years ago, I used to get my birth control pills for free or only a small co-pay. Now they can cost the insured $40 or $50 a month. It would be hard for me to come up with that much money each month for contraception. But what choice would I have?

Some insurance companies are batting around the idea that women should have to pay for additional coverage for possible pregnancies and abortions. That’s like making men pay extra because of the possibility that they might become impotent. And I thought that health insurers were no longer supposed to deny people health care coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Isn’t being a man or a woman a pre-existing condition?

I plan to dispute my insurance company’s decision about my mammogram but the chances of winning are probably not good. I have to try, though. We all have to try. We need to stick up for ourselves when it comes to health care for ourselves. We need to protest unfair and discriminatory denials. And we need to keep ourselves informed about what’s going on in the world of health insurance.

UPDATE: It seems that my insurer is not refusing to pay for the mammogram, they just applied it to my deductible. They would have paid for it if it had been considered “preventative.” But an additional diagnostic mammogram is not considered preventative. Bottom line is: I still have to pay for it myself.

I asked what would have happened if I did have breast cancer. I was told that once my deductible is used up, the insurance would pay for treatment at 85% until I hit the $5000 deductible for catastrophic illnesses. I told the representative that I found this very confusing. Her answer? “Yes, it certainly is.”

 

 

 

 

Court Allows Wal-Mart to Get Away with it Again

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Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court did not find that Wal-Mart routinely discriminates against its female employees. That doesn’t mean that Wal-Mart is innocent. All it means is that the Court refused to hear the case. It seems that the 1.5 million plaintiffs in this class action suit have experiences that are too disparate and don’t show enough commonality to qualify for class action status.

Excuse me? Of course their experiences are disparate: you’re talking about 1.5 million women. And what could be more in common than the fact that they were discriminated against because they were all women?

This is the problem with proving sex discrimination in this country: it happens to women, one at a time, whenever a woman is passed over for a variety of types of promotions: better hours, more hours, positions of greater responsibility, higher pay. But the result is still the same: a woman is denied the opportunities that are routinely offered to men. And she can’t do a damn thing about it.

Because that’s the other thing about sex discrimination: it’s carefully packaged as something else. The discriminators don’t say that all women lack ambition or the requisite managerial skills and personality traits. They don’t say that women don’t work as hard or as long. Instead they pick out one reason and match it to one woman and voilà, it’s not discriminatory policy, it’s the manager’s “informed” opinion. And we all know that every manager is free of sexual bias.

Wal-Mart covers its ass by saying that its policy is equal employment opportunity for men and women, but then allowing its supervisors wide leeway in how they interpret that policy. All a supervisor has to do is show that he had a “valid” reason for promoting a man over a woman and the big wigs at Wal-Mart are satisfied that their non-discriminatory stance is being promoted. They don’t look over their supervisors’ shoulders or second-guess his decisions.

The Supreme Court therefore ruled that since a non-discrimination policy is in place at Wal-Mart, there is no case. Period. Any deviations from that policy are to be handled by Wal-Mart internally. Well, I’m sorry, but I thought the main reason a suit is brought against a company is to get them to do something they aren’t already doing.

The fact that the Court dismissed the complaints of 1.5 million women is an outrage. Does it think these women are delusional? That they all imagined that they were being discriminated against? Surely out of 1.5 million plaintiffs there was enough evidence to warrant hearing the case. Instead, the Justices who voted for dismissal said that there wasn’t enough evidence; only “about 1 [anecdote] for every 12,500 class members.” I’m sure the women could have come up with far more if they’d realized that the Justices were going to consider 120 anecdotes “insignificant.”

The most troubling aspect of this ruling is that it will undoubtedly make it even harder for class action suits to be successful in the future—especially when they’re filed against huge corporations. All the Justices have to say is that the company is too large to hold it responsible for the actions of all its managers.

The women filed a class action suit expressly because it would have been cost-prohibitive for each woman to file a suit against each manager. And why should they when it’s clear that Wal-Mart condones discriminatory practices by its managers by looking the other way?

Maybe we shouldn’t be blaming Wal-Mart for sexual discrimination in the workplace. Maybe it’s actually our society that should be on trial. Because Wal-Mart’s climate exists within a larger system. One in which comments like, “Everyone knows women don’t like to work long hours” are common.

One commenter said that Wal-Mart couldn’t be guilty of sex discrimination because if it was “why would it hire women at all if they’re such poor workers?” Apparently this idiot isn’t acquainted with the practice of hiring people for the “grunt work.” Who better for those positions than women who don’t care about getting ahead anyway?

[Source: New York Times]

Also check out Room for Debate: “A Death Blow for Class Action?