Ah, women. You know how it is: if we’d just tone it down a little, be more respectful, less emotional, less colorful, less pink, then men would take us seriously. If we just didn’t wear that short skirt, if we wore that longer skirt – but not that long a skirt – we wouldn’t be raped. If we just wore enough makeup to not be wearing makeup, if we just were clear about our interests in guys but not so clear to be sluts…
If we just lived under a constant set of rules that are ever-shifting the target, but boil down to the same thing: if we just twisted ourselves into the way men see other men, they’d treat us with respect.
Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak is the latest accuser in this salvo of women-not-doing-it-right: c’mon, ladies, why are you wearing pink cat ear hats to a march? That’s so frivolous! How can you expect anyone to take you seriously like that! You want to be taken seriously, don’t you?
Dvorak’s afraid that pink pussy ears are too fun, too distracting – after all, media took a photo, once, of a mohawk’d family at a climate change protest, and now that’s what we all thing of when we think of climate change. What hockey sticks? Michael who?1I’m being sarcastic, but also serious. Dvorak really did say this about a sociology professor’s experience: “she was in deep on climate change protests, she saw a hard-to-miss family: They all had mohawks, even the kid.And despite the scientists, environmentalists and students trying to make serious points at the protests, all the cameras focused on the mohawk family. Everyone remembered the mohawk family.”
But this is the norm, right? Dvorak’s just reiterating a constant social message about what women need to do and take care of. We have to be careful that women’s bodies and what they do with those bodies don’t distract men from The Important Things. Women should be careful that their actions can’t be misinterpreted, at any time; we wouldn’t want a photographer taking a picture of a few women wearing pink pussy ear hats and think this was just some kind of fun get-together for knitting enthusiasts!
It’s not too many steps over from making sure you dress the right way so men don’t misunderstand your intent in a bar, is it?
Because ultimately, the messaging is being placed on women. It’s not up to men or journalists or historians to make sure they understand the message; nope, women must properly convey their intent and any error in inference is their fault, and no one else.
Possibly the funniest thing about the whole piece, in that sort of “historical revisionism is funny when people try to use the past to guilt us in the present” kind of way, is Dvorak’s insistence that the suffragettes protested properly:
Protests are successful and effective when they have a clear message, a clear mission. That’s part of what made the 1913 march by the suffragettes seeking the right to vote so memorable
Yes. Those suffragettes. They never had any fun in their rallies.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a highly contentuous new Vital Signs post on women, pregnancy, and alcohol. The main message was, essentially “don’t drink, ever, if you could possibly be using your uterus to store more than endometrial tissue, fibroids, or intrauterine devices.” The impetus for the post appears to be the fact that roughly 52% of pregnancies in America are unplanned, and many women are pregnant for 4 to 6 weeks before they realize they’re pregnant; in that time, there’s the possibility of consuming alcohol.
Now, while studies don’t support the idea that mild drinking while pregnant will harm a fetus, the CDC (and many commentators) have latched onto this rather ludicrous THE RISK IS REAL DON’T TAKE ANY RISK approach for alcohol and pregnany, even going so far as to say it’s not worth risking a single IQ point.2Which makes me wonder: really? Given we know that socioeconomic status can affect significantly more than a solitary IQ point, would the recommendation be not having children if you’re below a certain SES? Hmm. Let’s say we accept this fearmongering approach, ignoring the lack of scientific support for the assertions, ignoring the victim-blaming nature of the infographic,2Someone abuse you while you drank? WELL WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? …yeah, the CDC went there. even ignoring the fact that the CDC conveniently forgot not only a man’s role in conception but the damage drinking can do to sperm and how that can affect fetal development.3Designer Chris Giganti kindly provided an updated graphic for men. Any risk is bad. Wrap pregnant women up in cotton, leave them in a padded room, and don’t let them do anything in case they happen to be in the process of 9.5-odd months of gestation.
Really don’t let them smoke, right? I mean, the risk is real! Smoking while pregnant can cause fetal death, low birth weight, preterm birth, affect the integrity and function of the placenta, is a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome—oh my gosh! This list is just as bad, if not worse, than the risks of pregnancy and drinking for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Certainly with the release of new data on the risks of smoking and pregnancy—completely separate from the other known risks that smoking has on health, such as cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and death—the CDC has created an equally dire infographic and message saying that the risk is real, so quit smoking, why take the risk?
Instead, we got a very sensible, calm, factual question-and-answer style statement from the CDC explaining how smoking can harm a pregnancy and baby, the number of women who smoke while pregnant, benefits of quitting, effects of second-hand smoke, and further resouces, with various facts hyperlinked within the article itself.
It’s almost an ideal example of how to present facts about a risk in order to allow women to do an analysis of the situation based on their own agency and autonomy.
The CDC did everything right this week with their publicization of new information about smoking and pregnancy data and risks. As Sarah Richardson and Rene Almeling noted in the Boston Globe on Monday, “[w]omen are constantly bombarded with advice about what to eat and drink and how to behave during pregnancy,” and rather than add to the growing list of simplistic injunctions of an “omg if you do that you will kill the baby” variety, the CDC provided pregnant people with credible information about how to weigh reproductive risks.
And yet. And yet. In the light of last week’s NO RISK IS ACCEPTABLE message regarding women and pregnancy, it’s a stark difference in approach and messaging, and both underscores the hypocrisy of their “ABSTAIN OR ELSE” message regarding alcohol while further damaging their credibility as a trusted source of health information and regulation.
Although it’s not the first thing you learn in ethics, the idea that you’re not going to be popular probably should be; it really does make life a lot easier. After all, a large part of the job of the ethicist is to be unpopular:
no, you can’t modify that flu virus so that it’s more contagious and more deadly than the lovechild of smallpox and the Spanish flu;
yes, it’s okay that this person wants to die;
no, you can’t just put fecael microbes in open brain wounds;
sorry, no, the science doesn’t support your claim;
So I wasn’t terribly surprised to face the typical backlash when I noted just how unscientific, shaming, stigmatizing, and plain wrong the CDC’s recent “treat every woman4This is one of those areas where policy work and activism clash.The CDC frames their infographic in terms of “women,” but that’s certainly exclusionary and ignorant, given the fact that there are people who identify as men who do have uteruses, and could carry a pregnancy to term. as pre-pregnant”2A term that is offensive all in itself-women are more than just their ability to reproduce, an idea I go into more here. declaration that no person with a uterus should drink3Oh hey, a day later, the CDC has changed their graphic away from “any woman is at risk of violence from drinking” to include men. Nice try, CDC, but the internet is forever. unless 100% certain there’s no uterus-crasher in residence was—but it’s always nice when folks who have the respected PhD after their name (and are at Ivy League universities) join the chorus.
The CDC’s overly broad advisory damages its credibility as a source of clear, balanced advice about health risks. A risk may be “real,” but it may not be large or well substantiated. The CDC claims that “drinking any alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can cause a range of disabilities” for a woman’s child.” Yet a balanced review of the scientific evidence does not support such unequivocal claims. In fact, medical research suggests just the opposite. For example, the Danish National Birth Cohort Lifestyle During Pregnancy Study demonstrated that moderate drinking during pregnancy carries no long-term risks.
First, the CDC needs to be clear that science on the risk of alcohol during pregnancy is far from settled. Any advice about reproduction should respect the autonomy and intelligence of women by presenting evidence in its full context. Public health officials should provide perspective about the size of the effects relative to other common risk factors. And they should be straightforward in describing the evidentiary base for health advisories.
The CDC can regain credibility in this realm by providing information to women and men that details the relative risks of various behaviors, as well as the state of scientific debate regarding the evidence supporting these assessments
The CDC’s mission is to identify and address clear and present dangers to the public health. As such, their credibility is literally a matter of life and death … Issuing guidelines with all the nuance of a sledgehammer only damages the public’s trust in federal health recommendations.
There are possible risks to drinking while pregnant, and women should be told what those risks are. But they’re not clear-cut, they’re not well-understood, and there’s no guarantee that abstaining from alcohol means a baby won’t be diagnosed with Fetal Alochol Spectrum Disorder; like many disorders, it’s a diagnosis of exclusion, and the criteria for diagnosis does not require confirmation of alcohol consumption during pregnancy (and in fact, at least one paper in Pediatrics suggests that if a woman has a child diagnosed with FASD and says she abstained during pregnancy, she must be lying about her drinking habit).
Note: I wrote this last year when the One Key Question initiative in Oregon was being discussed, and pitched it to an appropriate publication. Unfortunately, the editor of that publication somewhat maliciously string me along and sat on it until it was no longer timely, and it’s been sitting in my sads folder since. With the recent CDC recommitment to the notion of pre-pregnancy, I decided this should at least be published on my blog.
A “simple, routine question” advocated by the Oregon Foundation for Reproductive Health is a great way to alienate and further disenfranchise women who are childfree.
A new piece on Slate discusses one of the most alienating ideas I’ve read in a while, and I wrote about the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision last week. In a nutshell, it argues that for effective and proactive reproductive health care needs, primary care physicians should ask a woman, at every visit, if she would like to become pregnant in the next year.
On the surface, the One Key Question Initiative, by the Oregon Foundation for Reproductive Health, may seem like a good idea. Many women have access to a primary care provider, but do not see OB-GYNs with any regularity. And of course, discussing reproductive and contraception options with a patient should be a basic of yearly, preventive, or wellness exams. The problem is not in discussing reproductive and contraception options, but instead in the framing of the question: would you like to become pregnant in the next year?
If I heard this from my doctor at every visit, I would change doctors. I expect my doctor to listen to me, and expect my doctor, after the first time I explain that I am childless by choice, to respect my decision. Asking me, repeatedly, if I would like to become pregnant in any time frame ignores my stated preference and decision. It falls into the cultural stereotype that women must want children, and that if they’re asked enough, if they get old enough, if they just meet the right man, they’ll change their minds.
Statistics indicate that I’m not alone in my desire to not have children. In fact, a third of women in the “acceptable childbearing age” bracket of 20-44 don’t have children,4US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, June 2010. Table 2. Children Ever Born per 1,000 Women, Percent childless, and Women Who Had A child in the Last Year by Race, Origin, Nativity Status, Marital Status, and Age. and 20 percent of women won’t have children.2Livingston G. Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degrees. Pew Research Center, Washington D.C.; June 25, 2010. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org Many of these women are involuntarily childless, either for medical reasons or circumstance, but a recent survey by DeVries Global suggests that as many as 36 percent of those who are childless are voluntarily childless.3DeVries Global. Shades of Otherhood: Marketing to Women Without Children. http://www.devriesglobal.com/downloads/shadesofotherhood.pd As such, medical appointments should not be used as an opportunity to emphasize the stigma of the choice not to have children.
And make no mistake: there is still a significant stigma to choose to not have children. (One of my favorite paper titles ever is “Women without Children: A Contradiction in Terms?“) Women are judged for not having children; they are selfish, immature, refuse to grow up. The crazy cat lady has become a modern boogieman to scare women with. Headlines scream “The Trend of Not Having Children is Just Plain Selfish” (The National Post), women are assured it’ll be different when it’s your child, and assured they will regret their choice to remain child-free. Some of these beliefs are so deeply engrained into culture that women under the age of 30 have a difficult time finding doctors who will tie their tubes; a persistent, paternalistic attitude that doctors know better than women about their reproductive desires, which Slate itself covered in depth in 2012.4Lowder JB. “Sterilize Me, Please.” Slate, July 2012.
We’ve had this conversation before, when 2006 federal guidelines resulted in women of reproductive age being labeled “pre-pregnant” and treated as if they could fall pregnant at any moment. As bioethicist Rebecca Kukla noted, the idea of pre-pregnancy literally treats the non-pregnant body as on its way to pregnancy, with non-pregnancy seen as a fleeting and temporary state; it also reinterprets primary care for women into reproductive care.5Kukla R. “Preconception Care” and the Transformation of Women’s Health Care into Reproductive Medicine. Presentation, Aston University, September 16 and 17, 2009. http://www.slideshare.net/ParentingCultureStudies/kukla The One Key Question Initiative brings us right back to the pre-pregnancy focus on what some people have dubbed “bikini medicine” – all attention on a woman’s reproductive organs first and foremost – creating a strong pro-natalist, coercive discourse about women’s healthcare, and shifting the focus to future outcomes (pregnancy and children) rather than the immediate patient at the appointment.
This is not to say that the ultimate goal of the One Key Question Initiative, to “ensure that more pregnancies are wanted, planned, and as healthy as possible,” is wrong. In fact, I firmly come down on the side of every child a wanted child, and as authors Julie F. Kay and Michele Stranger Hunter note, “about 85 percent of couples not using contraception will become pregnant in the next year, whether they intend to or not.” Primary care physicians should ask their female patients about childbearing and reproduction; the physician should know the patient preference and note that in her chart. In following visits, it’s more than acceptable to ask a woman who indicated she is not interested in bearing children if her contraceptive choice is working as desired, if there are any side effects, even if the woman wants to make any changes to that contraception. What isn’t okay is to make “would you like to become pregnant in the next year” a mandated question operating from a presumption that pregnancy is always a possibility on the horizon.
I’m tall, I’m a natural blonde, and I have green eyes. I’m also anywhere from “pleasantly plump” to “obese whale” depending on your scale of things, and I’m invisibly disabled. Needless to say, I receive a lot of comments about my body, both directly and indirectly, on a daily basis, and am frequently reminded of how I am—or am not—valued on the basis of what my body looks like and what it can or cannot do. I “should” be thinner, healthier, ignore the people who think I should be thinner, healthier; I “should” embrace who I am, change who I am, be a ‘better’ version of who I am, achieve health at any size-the list goes on, and on, and it often seems and feels like everyone has, and feels comfortable, voicing their opinion on what my body should look like and be capable of.
Would there be any less pressure if I wasn’t fat? After all, some people might want to argue that the comments come because of my weight, and the fact that I am so close to “the ideal” for a woman (tall, blonde, fair) that if I could get get thin, it’d all be fine.
Well, Cassey Ho’s recent “The ‘Perfect’ Body” video should put that idea to rest:
And if I were thin, I think it’s safe to say that the so-called “radical feminists” would simply say that being a thin, tall, blonde, fair woman is merely contorting myself to a body approved by a patriarchal/porn culture, and criticize me for that, as well. I suppose I might get “points back” for being disabled, but who knows.
Are you getting the idea that I can’t win? Because if I can’t win—if I can’t be my normal hair colour, my normal eye colour, my normal skin colour, all of which are considered damned near ideal for way too much of the world, and thin or fat or anywhere in between-then how is anyone else supposed to win?
Playboy (yes, really) takes this on in their post on Laverne Cox’s nude photo for Allure and the frankly ugly response from “radical feminist” Megan Murphy. To quote Noah Berlatsky, author of the Playboy piece,
Murphy reacted to the photo just as Cox suggests that people often react to black and trans women ”” with disgust, prejudice and horror. In a short but impressively cruel post, Murphy sneers at Cox for attempting to achieve a “‘perfect’ body as defined by a patriarchal/porn culture, through plastic surgery, and then presenting it as a sexualized object for public consumption.”
She scoffs at the idea that trans women who take hormones or have surgery are accepting themselves. Murphy suggests that trans women are “spending thousands and thousands of dollars sculpting their bodies in order to look like some cartoonish version of ‘woman,’ as defined by the porn industry and pop culture.
My first thought, reading both Berlatsky and Murphy, is that this comes down to a question of how we define self. Berlatsky, along with most who support trans folks, seems to accept the idea that “who we are” can be a mismatch; your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external representation. For Murphy, it appears that you’re supposed to merely integrate the internal and external, and that if your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external being, that’s the fault of society for placing unrealistic notions on the external being.
Now, this notion of social expectation shaping external being is definitely accurate—if the mismatch you experience is what society tells you your external self should be and what your external self actually is. But where Murphy and most “radical feminists” seem to fall down is comprehending that there’s another option here, the one that trans folk fall in to, where your internal notion of self doesn’t match the assigned external self. When that happens, it’s not enough to say “ignore society” because the dissonance isn’t coming from society; there can, after all, be strong, physical differences between genders that have nothing to do with society and everything to do with biology.6Please feel free to let me know if I got anything wrong re: trans experience of self. I’m trying to keep this simple, but I might have over-simplified in the attempt.Society might embrace fashion that emphasizes child-bearing hips, for example, but society doesn’t create those child-bearing hips. That’s biology.
But my first thought was a bit too shallow, on reflection. While this is all certainly true-Murphy and her ilk are simply not capable of dealing with the nuance of what it means on a base level to be trans-what it actually comes down to isn’t that, at all. What it comes down to is “radical feminists” not understanding the difference between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification. Which, to be fair, is a difficult concept to understand—but I don’t think I’m totally out of line to say “if you’re going to write critiques about bodies and empowerment, you’d best know what you’re talking about, first.”
I find that the cartoon by Ronnie Ritchie, posted by Everyday Feminism, really nicely captures the necessary nuance of power dichotomies (see right).
My problem with the “radical feminists” is pretty simple, and it’s neatly illustrated by the above response to Cox and a lack of understanding agency and consent: they’re drawing such a tiny, tight boundary around what it means to be feminist, that most people fail. Perhaps even more damning, that tight boundary contains body policing—something that most feminists, one hopes, would tell you is decidedly anti-feminist.
I place “radical feminist” in quotation marks because I don’t actually think they’re radical or feminist. I think that, for the most part, they’re scared women who are trying to define themselves in a way that maximizes their own power, and they do that by trying to keep it to themselves rather than share it liberally—another hallmark of what I think feminism should be about. In fact, I think that along with trusting adults to their own agency, about the most radical thing any feminist can do is include everyone.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.