Friday, September 4, 2015

New Site

I've moved the blog over to I won't delete this one but won't be posting over here. Come visit!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

This Day in Feminist History: Anniversary of an Anniversary

On August 26th, 1920, the 19th amendment granting women's suffrage went into effect. It was the result of years of ceaseless toil:  
“To get the word “male” out of the constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign. During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters, 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write women into state constitutions, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include women suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.” (Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler, Women Suffrage and Politics, quoted in Shulamith Firestone, “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.A.: New View, Notes from the First Year)
And that was just a description of the second large wave of organizing, dated roughly to the founding of the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. (The organizations had divided over whether to support the 15th amendment and votes for African-Americans without the inclusion of of women.)  Dated to the origin of the formalized demand for legal equality made at Seneca Falls, it was a seventy-two year effort. The principle author of the Seneca Falls document, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was born when James Madison was president; Alice Paul, leading strategist of the 20th century campaign, lived to see Watergate. Nor was it a movement lacking in high drama: Paul herself was force fed raw eggs through a tube while on a hunger strike; during the "Night of Terror" in 1917,  members of the National Women's Party, of which Paul was the leader, were tortured by prison guards after being arrested for their White House picket, a particularly provocative action to undertake during wartime. 

Fifty years later, on August 26th, 1970, the ascendant feminist movement came together to mark the anniversary for the largest single feminist demonstration in U.S. history, the Women's Strike for Equality.  The liberal and radical wings of the movement came together around three central demands: the right to abortion**, the right to child care, and equal opportunity in employment and education. 

In researching the history of the movement, I've been fascinated by the relative lack of iconic images of the movement as a movement. Ruth Rosen starts her definitive history The World Split Open  with a reflection on how the movement was a revolution that lacks the iconography of revolution: no street fighting, no barricades. But I've also been struck by how events that were visually and dramatically striking - like the Strike and the Night of Terror, haven't really entered the public imagination. 

The history of the suffrage movement was a live question for the movement at the time. To me, one of the most fascinating parts of Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, is her lament for the loss of feminist history. She attributes a lot of this, as other have, to the demobilization that followed the winning of the vote.  Despite representing a very different strain of feminist thought Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique shared this concern with Firestone - her laments about the conservatism of current college students recall the arguments of Backlash some thirty-five years later. That's why while I understand the impulse to lament how the movement went into out of the streets and into the academy, I find the founding of women's studies a compelling and moving story. So much of the writing of the period is remarkable for its scope and ambition - the sense one was starting from scratch, looking for the fragments of the past, that there was this constant threat of erasure. And it's why I'm more and more reluctant to discuss "gender issues" in a comp. class or wherever without a historical approach. Feminism is one of those things everyone has an opinion about - which is good and natural, as people instinctively understand its relevance - but the complexities and subjectivities shouldn't mean that there isn't a history we have to know something about in order to meaningful enter the conversation.  

***** For what it's worth, there's a significant error in the Wikipedia page devoted to the event, which implies the inclusion of abortion in the platform was a point of contention. In fact, the importance of abortion rights was actually a point of agreement between the liberal and radical parts of the movement  The "feminist pro-life" organizations referenced in the article were a later creation.  It's a telling and depressing commentary on the CW which has a hard time believing abortion could have been an uncontroversial issue even among feminists.  

Monday, August 10, 2015

This Day in Feminist History

Forty-five years ago today, Shirley Chisholm speaks on behalf of the Congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment: 
This is what it comes down to: artificial distinctions between persons must be wiped out of the law. Legal discrimination between the sexes is, in almost every instance, founded on outmoded views of society and the pre-scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology. It is time to sweep away these relics of the past and set further generations free of them.
The role of the ERA in the women's' movement in the 70s is endlessly fascinating: in some frameworks it plays a similar role to the vote in the early movement: a single issue that galvanized many but threatened demobilization: in the first case, when the vote was achieved, in the second, when the ERA reached its final defeat. The debate about its importance was also a key part of the real but misunderstood divide between liberal and radical wings of the feminist movement - the former seeing it (largely) as central, the latter as (largely) a distraction. Like the vote, it was a huge, grassroot effort that by nature demanded an immense grassroots mobilization.  As Bonnie Dow illustrates,  the ERA gave the movement a central demand that ensured it was seen as a movement, and whatever predictable framing TV gave the movement, it was seen as such. If my immersion in the period has suggested one thing, it's that the ramifications of the backlash that led to its defeat are central to any understanding of what a feminist "movement" - not a change in perspective but a social movement with all that goes around this - is and isn't and might be yet.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The George Washington Bridge: "Inside Llewyn Davis," James Baldwin, and Portraits of Grief

I looked forward to watching Inside Llewyn Davis for a long time before it came out. I grew up on folk music and some of these songs will probably be the last thing I remember when I've forgotten my own name. 

I wasn't disappointed, but a lot of people were. Critics and friends alike - and my folk-loving parents - all focused on the how "unlikeable" Davis was - like David Edelstein, they found him/the movie "sour" or "snotty." 

I was intrigued by this reaction. As anyone whose read a single think piece about the "Golden Age of Television" knows, we're living in the age of anti-heroes: the more anti the better. So what had Llewyn done that soured the deal when unrepentant murderers, meth dealers, and racists were compellingly "complex"? 

The brilliant Eileen Jones writes persuasively in her piece at Jacobin that viewer's contempt has to do with the American valorization of success - the film doesn't give its hero a narrative of upward mobility, of movement towards success, and we're not open to stories of failure, so much so that "If Inside Llewyn Davis weren't so funny, none of us could stand it."

I think she's undeniably right about all of that. But after watching the movie again recently, I was struck by the extent to which it is also a movie about grief. It strikes me that Davis' problem isn't that he's not talented or successful enough, it's that his friend and former singing partner died in a terrible way, and he doesn't pretend not to be wrecked by that. 

I think I missed this the first time because Davis doesn't talk a lot about his grief - and that's the point. Like unrequited love, grief in a happiness-obessed and death-denying culture is the love that dare not speak its name. This time, when, midway through the film, we learn through a conversation with John Goodman's unsympathetic jazz musician that his friend jumped off the George Washington Bridge, I thought of another portrait of New York Bohemia from around the same time, James Baldwin's Another Country. Here we have another suicide by another young musician from the same bridge. Unlike in Inside, Baldwin takes us right to the scene: 
Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire. 
This scene comes on page 78 of a 365 page novel. The rest of the book deals with the fallout among his group of bohemian friends. Straight and gay, black and white, talented and otherwise, they are truly marginal in a way recent hipster culture would make us forget. They are wrecked will various kinds of guilt and anger they take out on each other without recognizing it as such. It's an incredibly portrayal of grief and what artistic expression can and can't do with it. 

I played this audio of Baldwin reading from this scene in a fiction class about a year ago. I didn't have a particularly good reason except we were reading a Baldwin story and I'd just come across these and wanted them to hear his voice. There was an awful tension in the room when it was done. Turns out when you play audio of a suicide scene people's first reaction isn't "those sentences!" I had violated some rule by putting something like that out there and just letting it hang. I imagine that's how people in deep grief feel - like they are stinking up the party wherever they go. 

In her piece Jones taIks about  the key scene when Davis has a chance to play for the powerful agent Bud Grossman and he picks the resolutely bleak "The Death of Queen Jane" to which Grossman replies "I don't see a lot of money here." The first time I saw this, what struck me was Davis's acceptance: he doesn't, as the heroes of countless art versus commerce movies might do, tell Grossman where to stick it or that he will rue the day or some such. I wonder if people would have found him more "sympathetic" if he had. 

But what I noticed this time was the other part of the exchange. Grossman, trying to be helpful, doesn't reject Davis out of hand. He tells him he's a musician, not a star. His advice is to get a partner, to which Davis replies, "that's good advice." 

There's something deep going on in this film about music and catharsis as there is in Baldwin's novel. The one Baldwin story that's in all the anthologies, "Sonny's Blues," is also all about this. We need music because it's where we're allowed to be sad, irrational, but we want even the people who make this for us to shut up about it the rest of the time. And so it seems we don't forgive Davis not because he's not successful or because of some of his genuinely dickish moves during the movie but because of his sadness. We forgive so much, but not sadness, and that makes me sad.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Marlene Sanders, 1931-2015

For my research reading Bonnie Dow's excellent "Watching Women's Liberation 1970." One point she convincingly makes is that coverage of the movement was not as uniformly hostile as we might expect. Part of this was due to women like Marlene Sanders, who died this week, and, among other things, produced a substantive piece on the Ladies Home Journal strike of 1970. As Dow explains, activist Susan Brownmiller cultivated this sympathetic coverage by leaking word of the sit-in to Sanders in advance, assuring she would be the one on the scene. There are a lot of great stories of these little collaborations at the time - my favorite being another one Dow describes, when a secretary at Playboy leaked to feminist activists a memo Hugh Hefner had written asking for "a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart." , Dow devotes a chapter to the documentary she produced for ABC about the movement and how she navigated her sympathy for the movement with her position at the network and her views about the role of journalists. Those of us on the left are rightly suspicious of the idea that getting more people of X group on the inside is a solution to social injustice, but in this case it did really make a difference.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Some Stupid Test

Over the course of my sabbatical, I'm hoping to write a range of personal reflections on teaching. It's a hard topic to talk about. A lot of the formal scholarship is notoriously bad, which makes a lot of teachers hesitant to read about it, which is a shame. 

One aspect of teaching I think about a lot is how our own histories as students shape the way we teach and, especially, how we relate to our students. One of the reasons I think faculty diversity is important, despite being an inadequate method of addressing institutional racism and sexism, is that people tend to mentor students who remind them of themselves. And one thing most, though not all academics have in common is the experience of being told they were "smart," of doing well on tests, and, crucially, getting the message that intelligence wasn't just a tool, it was an identity. At its best, this identity can help people develop and take pride in their capacities and curiosities and resist our anti-intellectual culture; at its worst, it can foster smug superiority, the belief that if one is brilliant, everything one does must be brilliant too. When too many people who've been told this their whole lives are put in the same place, you get this.  

If nothing else, any teacher worth her salt quickly learns that there's no one such thing as "intelligence."  This isn't some great sentimental statement about equality - in fact it's about difference. There are such a range of qualities everyone has - abilities that are verbal, cognitive, physical, social that can reveal themselves in such a range of ways. There's curiosity, there's focus. There's the ability to do what someone tells you no matter what, there's the desire to say fuck it if it doesn't seem to serve you. Any of these can be useful or harmful or be seen as intelligence or its opposite depending on the circumstances.  

Last year, Michael Kinsley had a moving piece in The New Yorker about his experience living for twenty years with Parkinson's disease and his fear of losing his mental capacities. This experience helped him understand what teaching has taught me. He notes that what he unfortunately calls the "P.C" view of intelligence is actually the one being supported by science. But just as cubically, he's having the experience, for the first time, of being on the wrong side of the test taker who doesn't make those distinctions:
As the word gets out that Parkinson's disease is not just a movement disorder, there will be people whose careers will be destroyed because, on a particular day at a particular time, they can't recite a seven-digit telephone number backward. Allowing someone's fate to depend on whether he or she can do well on some stupid test is just the reductio ad absurdum of the meritocratic machinery that has been pretty good to me (and to you, I suspect) over most of a lifetime.
Notice the parenthetical. It's most likely true that most people who read The New Yorker did well on stupid tests, just like most professors did. I don't want to pick on Kinsley for only now realizing this - what he's talking about is the kind of personal, felt knowledge it's hard to reach without personal experience. We know so many of the stupid tests that are in the news these days are bullshit, but we don't always have access to what it does to the psyches of those on the other side of the line. 

When you work with students who didn't have that experience, you realize just how insidious the process can be. In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould's classic look at the sorted history of IQ and related attempts to prove the superiority of the entitled class, he talks about how these classification systems set the conditions that give more and more resources of all kind: to each according to their abilities, when ability = some stupid test. I've been thinking about this passage from the book a lot recently:
We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.
What's interesting to me about this is the extent to which its inverse has become a motivational cliche: your imagination is your only limitation, and all that. A lot of the time we lefties talk about why people buy into the myths of social mobility and all that as if it's a lack of knowledge about social inequalities or the ideology of individualism. But I think a lot of the times people know the game is rigged against them. Putting the blame on oneself can be a way to have hope - if that fault is hard, we can change it, we can work harder next time.

What's also interesting to me is how much, despite all their processed investment in the meritocracy, people who have been raised to be rewarded under the system are often happy, in private of course, to acknowledge that it's all a game. Part of being socialized for success in the U.S. is about knowing which rules apply to you and how; it's about knowing that not all of them do, because if you try to follow all of them you go crazy.  Perversely, the much vaunted failure of students of working class backgrounds to take learning seriously is just the opposite: they take it so seriously it seems overwhelming. Trying to help them navigate the system while still maintaining the value of intellectual work that isn't a game is hard work and I don't know how good I am at it but I know it won't get any easier the more of these stupid fucking tests there are.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Misty Copeland

In another life, like countless girls, I spent countless hours dreaming about ballet. I subscribed to Dance Magazine, I sewed ribbons into shoes, and I watched a VHS tape we had of the Kirov's production of Swan Lake dozens of times. I read Gelsey Kirkland's memoir on the beach and cried.

I wasn't very good. But I kept practicing, and I cared about it deeply. I think it was invaluable for my young physical self growing up in a very anti-sports family, and to my love of the arts.  One summer I went to a ballet camp and there was this imposing teacher everyone was scared of. But one day he broke character and had us huddle around and talked about the worthiness of our calling. He did a probably offensive but very funny imitation of a ditzy high school girl and asked if those girls made fun of us for dancing. He told us, just remember, what do they do? Nothing. What do you do? You dance. He made it sound sacred.

When I got to college (a woman's college I'd picked in part because they had a dance program), I realized quickly a lot of budding feminists saw ballet as a very bad thing.  It fetishized little girls, it gave them eating disorders, it was aristocratic, elitist, etc. etc. I could see where they were coming from, but my heart wasn't in it. Later in graduate school when I met the Marxist who would become my advisor, I sheepishly mentioned I had been a dancer once, in another life. "Ah, she said. That's so wonderful! The physical discipline!" That's probably the moment I knew she would be an important figure to me.

Today Misty Copeland was promoted from soloist to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. She is the first African-American woman to reach that rank in that company.

This profile in the New Yorker by Rivka Galchen from a little while back does a good job outlining why this is such a big deal. I've had a lot of conversations over the years defending my love of ballet with especially women who had bad experiences with dance teachers who told them to go on a diet or who just can't get past the whole aristocratic, Court of Louis XIV thing, or the hierarchy that makes "soloist" and "principle" such important categories, or for whom the whole aesthetic is corrupted by its idealization of weightlessness. I get all that. But like my Marxist professor, I think that some of the things bourgeois culture has made are too beautiful to be left to the bourgeoisie, even if when you got to the NYBT these days you have fucking David Koch's name on your ticket.  I'm also the kind of Marxist who has a certain impulse to defend the guild-like qualities of worlds like ballet. (Copeland even points out in that profile how people assume ballet is her hobby, and she reminds them she's in a union.)

The New Yorker piece also does a good job outlining how often throughout history black ballet dancers have come up against the aesthetic prejudices of the art's gatekeepers, looking not only for young dancers with talent or even turnout but who would fit "uniformly" into an ensemble. It tells the stories of dancers like Raven Wilkinson, a dancer with the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Michaela DePrince who have made their careers abroad after come up against these kinds of barriers in the U.S. Shockingly, when the Dance Theater of Harlem was temporarily closed because of financial difficulties (which of course points to a not-minor aspect of the problem), only one of its dancers was offered a job by a major American company. This is a small step in a slow moving world but one that will genuinely move lots of us former bunheads, even those who, unlike Copeland, Wilkinson or DePrince, lacked for talent rather than opportunity.

Relatedly, I've always been more of a NYCB girl, but who wants to go see ABT with me?