Why We Still Need Feminism

By Kaileen McGourty

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The feminist movement has never been unanimously popular – whether due to honest disapproval of gender equality, like that experienced by the Suffragettes, or a disbelief that feminism is still necessary today. And that’s why I’m writing this article, because of the recently blooming opinion that we don’t need feminism anymore. There are a significant number of people in this country, and possibly throughout the world, who believe that we ended sexism and gender discrimination (Yay! We did it apparently!) and therefore see feminism as redundant or even causing victim-hood among women. But that’s simply false. Discrimination based on sex is still very present in the US (and the rest of the world); those who do not see it either aren’t women or aren’t looking very hard. A good way to expose the ever-present sexism in our society is to examine dominant versus popular culture.

Dominant Culture

Let’s being with a definition. The dominant culture is made up of established societal aspects like language, rituals, or social customs. These aspects maintain dominance through institutions like the education system, law, politics, and business. This is the layer of society where first and second wave feminism focused – attacking where the most obvious and detrimental acts of gender discrimination existed at the time. The lack of women’s right to vote or own property, unjust pay, discriminatory educational practices, and workplace sexual harassment all were obstacles in the dominant culture. As a result of strong feminist efforts, we have seen great improvement in this sphere of society – this is what some are referencing when they claim that feminism is no longer necessary. Women won the right to vote and hold land. Laws punishing sexual harassment and encouraging workplace safety have come into effect. Title IX was created to insure educational institutions treat female students equally.

But have we really improved gender discrimination in the dominant culture as much as some may think? Let’s say we’re going to measure the presence of gender discrimination in dominant culture with wages. Over time, in the U.S. it is very clear that the average wage for women has moved closer and closer to that of men (see the graph below). However, we’ve yet to actually reach wage equality. As Harvard economist Claudia Goldin explains, if you calculate the average annual earnings of all full-time working women and divide that by the equivalent calculation for men the result would be around .77 – meaning, on average, women earn 77% of what men earn. So we can’t quite say there is gender equality in pay yet.

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But is this a fluke? Let’s try a different measure. How about the portion of political positions held by women? According to the World Bank data-bank, in 1990 women held a mere 6.6% of political seats in the U.S. and as of 2015 women held 19.4%. That is a huge improvement across time; however that number pales in comparison to the other one-hundred and eighty nine reporting countries in 2015. Ranking from highest percentage to lowest, the U.S. finds itself, just barely in the top 50%, at number 96 – below countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, nearly every “developed” country, and many more. So, sadly, we can’t claim political gender equality either.

Popular Culture

We have to accept that our country has not reached gender equity in dominant culture. That does not mean we’ll forget the huge improvements women have seen in our country’s history – something both genders should be proud of. But there seems to be a final obstacle preventing real equality and an end to gender discrimination. I believe that it’s the sexist foundations of popular culture standing in the way. Popular culture is more than the who’s who and what’s what. It’s defined as the sum of attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and values within the mainstream or dominant culture. It’s the culture of how we interact and what we believe. This is where those who believe sex discrimination has vanished lack an understanding or haven’t connected the dots, so to speak. Our popular culture is built upon the sexist cornerstone that women are not equal to men – this holds back gender parity in dominant culture and perpetuates potentially harmful attitudes. These attitudes account for things like street harassment and catcalling, “mansplaining”, and even rape culture. Let me give a few examples:

I asked twenty women I know, all of different ages, sizes, and locations, a question: how many days out of the week do you experiencing catcalling or other forms of street harassment? Accounting for how many days they actually walk on the street or use public transportation, on average they experienced some sort of harassment approximately 5 out of 7 days – and that’s not considering how many times it happened each day! And if you don’t believe me, ask the women in your life.

I am a huge hockey fan (go Blackhawks!), probably more knowledgeable on the topic than the average fan. But I cannot count with all my digits the number of times a man has tried to explain rules or aspects of hockey to me, based purely on the assumption that because I am a female I must not know about sports. Nor can I count the number of times someone, knowing my academic and professional experience, began explaining topics in my field of expertise because the intelligence of women is constantly challenged in our culture.

While those examples may seem harmless, and on the surface they mostly are, they are representative of a dangerous attitude – what women know, want, or say doesn’t really matter. And when that attitude gets applied to something more complicated than hockey knowledge, like sexual consent for example, heinous violations of women occur.

If you still aren’t sure that our popular culture is built on a foundation of gender discrimination I have a dare for you: in this awards season, watch all the red carpet (whatever color carpet) interviews. The presence of sex discrimination is thinly veiled at these events and is most apparent when comparing how male artists and female artists are interviewed. Compare the types of questions – are women being asked about their love life or beauty regime, while men are asked about their role preparation or inspiration behind a song? Of course, you already know the answer. This type of sexist interviewing goes undisguised in every sphere of pop culture, just watch how absurd the questions for female athletes are in this video by #CoverTheAthlete.

So What?

The reason I had to tell you all this? Gender discrimination is not done. Women are still fighting everyday to be treated with respect and equality. Our culture still does not truly value women’s intelligence, work, sexuality, or opinions. While our dominant culture has made great strides in the past towards gender equity and the fair treatment of women, society as a whole is being held back by the final obstacles – how we think, how we act, and what we value. To truly reach gender equality and an end to sex discrimination in our dominant culture and in all of society we cannot leave behind a popular culture built upon sexism. We need to rally around feminism and women. We need to examine how our individual participation in popular culture is impacting the existence of sexist attitudes. And we need to say “enough is enough pop culture, get it together!” I think it’s about time.

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Kaileen McGourty is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.

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The 2016 Grammys and the Morning-After Anger

By Aaron Bumgarner

Kendrick's performance was riveting


You’ll be easily forgiven if you decided to skip watching last night’s 58th Grammy Awards. I’m not going to recap the entire awards show, because recapping something that lasted 810 hours sounds like a lot of work. Instead I’ll focus on the big moment, the one that had Twitter all aflame, the one that perhaps should have had me seething but instead just made me further resigned: Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat out Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for Album of the Year.

I saw a lot of angry people on Twitter afterwards; chances are, if you’re reading this, you were one of them. I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but allow me to provide a little context, first in favor of what happened and then in condemnation of it.

Taylor Won

The temptation in the face of Taylor Swift beating Kendrick Lamar one year after Beck beat Beyoncé is to lump last night’s show in with #OscarsSoWhite or to simply cry racism. That’s not wrong, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, Morning Phase, the Beck album that beat Beyoncé’s self-titled statement album last year, is lightweight stuff. It won’t be remembered even as one of Beck’s best albums, let alone as one of the best albums of 2013-2014.

1989, on the other hand, is an industry monolith. For 2014-2015, Taylor Swift ruled the world with that album as her scepter. She was dominating the industry on Adele’s 21 levels. Did we really think that the industry as a whole wouldn’t vote for an album as successful as 1989? Swift’s Album of the Year victory isn’t questionable in the same way that Beck’s was.

And on top of that, the little thing that Swift mentioned in her acceptance speech (no, not that little thing) about being the first woman to win this award twice is no small matter. In the 58 years that award has been given out, 18 women have won it, and that’s including toss-ups like John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Fleetwood Mac, the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack (which was probably actually given to T-Bone Burnett, but featured a lot of women), and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. Maybe you noticed that everyone who came up onstage with Swift was a man. That’s very indicative of the music industry as a whole.

As much as Swift may feel like she’s a part of the establishment to you, she is one of few women in the industry who can truly take ownership of her business, and the fact that the Academy is recognizing her matters. We should celebrate that. There are multiple points of discrimination in the music industry, just like in the outside world, that need addressing. We can celebrate progress in one area without neglecting other areas.

Kendrick Lost

And yet I’m still shaking my head that an album like To Pimp a Butterfly was snubbed. I don’t want to jump to conclusions and claim institutional racism without knowing the facts first, so let’s look at Grammy history for a second. This isn’t like the Oscars; because the Grammys give so many awards and split those awards into different genres, you can’t just count the number of black nominees versus white nominees. But Album of the Year is the Academy’s premiere award, and… well, only 16 people of color have won it. Remember, this was the 58th Grammys.

The last person of color to win it was Herbie Hancock, which makes it sound like it happened in 1968, but don’t worry, it was 2008. There was actually a relatively rich 10-year period from 1999-2008 (it feels like forever ago, but it wasn’t that long!) in which 6 people of color won: Lauryn Hill, Santana, Norah Jones, OutKast, Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock. Of course the last 8 straight have been white… but still.

I think what we’re seeing is a complicated kind of discrimination, and it appears rooted less in blatant dislike of a people and more of a resistance to a culture. It’s telling that the last African-Americans to win Album of the Year were Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock, both of whom were pioneers of their specific genres and had crossover success to the pop charts in spite of their blackness. When those men were young, I can imagine parents turning up their noses at their music and covering their kids’ ears in fear of what kind of effect their black music might have on them.

And yet over time Charles and Hancock became part of the good old boys’ club, and their music was celebrated. Our perspective on those artists reflects how much their work has permeated the industry since then and become part of what we think of when we think of the establishment. Hip-hop, as much as it dominates the charts, is just now beginning to seep into the foundation of the industry. I wonder if the Grammys don’t see hip-hop the way Bill Cosby did in the ‘80s and ‘90s: “Pull up your pants, boy!”

So Did We Lose or Win?

The Grammys’ awarding of Taylor over Kendrick isn’t a rejection of Kendrick but a continued rejection of hip-hop culture. No rap album has won since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004, which is fine, except that rap has been the dominant pop music medium since then. The lack of hip-hop winners is a resistance to admit that black culture has won.

The memes of audience members watching Kendrick’s outstanding performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” highlight this nicely. The Academy appears to be holding onto the supposed whiteness of rock and pop and folk, even though you can trace much of those genres’ roots back to black artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if Grammy voters were shocked to find out last night that Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes was black.

People are going to tell you that the Grammys don’t mean anything. And in a larger sense, in the bigger picture, maybe they’re right. In 25 years, we’re going to look back on the 2010s and remember Beyoncé and To Pimp a Butterfly (and good kid, and channel ORANGE…) as some of the most defining albums of the decade. It won’t matter that they didn’t win the big award at the Grammys, which will be remembered as out-of-touch and tone-deaf and white (and male!). But in the here and now, those of us who recognize that it is black culture that is producing the most vital and vibrant art of our time are tired of having to hang our heads the morning after.

How You Should Remember Antonin Scalia

By David Postic, Jacob Daniel, and Lester Asamoah

Justice Antonin Scalia death

 


The Supreme Court holds an interesting place in American pop culture: At once, it is one of the most highly visible and highly misunderstood parts of our government. And it is not only the Court that is misunderstood, but its members as well. By now, the entire world likely knows of the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia—the longest-serving member of the current Supreme Court and, perhaps, its most controversial member. In his thirty years on the bench, Justice Scalia emerged as the intellectual power behind conservative jurisprudence and became (in)famous for the stinging and colorful language of his opinions, particularly his dissents. His death has an immediate impact on the Court. For instance, any cases currently before the Court with votes that have not yet been made public are now void, and the justices must re-vote. And with only eight justices on the Court—four conservative and four liberal—ties are now a strong possibility, meaning that some of the more politically charged cases—including affirmative action, the President’s executive action on immigration, and voting rights—may not be completely resolved by the Court, for any tied opinion is not binding Supreme Court precedent, and the Circuit Court opinion stands as precedent for that Circuit.

As such a controversial (and political) figure, the news surrounding Justice Scalia’s death has focused almost exclusively on these quasi-political issues, as well as who will take his place on the Court. So that you will be an informed citizen in the following (what will surely be politically crazy) months, here is how the nomination process works:

  1. The United States Senate is charged with confirming the President’s nomination for filling Scalia’s seat, but the Senate conducts that process in several steps. First, the Senate Judiciary committee holds a hearing for the nominee.
  2. After the hearing, the committee votes to give a positive/negative recommendation or no recommendation for the nominee.
  3. After the Judiciary committee votes, the full Senate then conducts a hearing chaired again by the Senate Judiciary chairman.
  4. Once debate ends, the full Senate conducts a vote. If the nominee commands a simple majority, he/she is confirmed.

There are, however, ways that the Senate can hold up these proceedings before the final vote. Individual senators (or a group of senators) can filibuster endlessly the cloture rule, which requires 60 Senators to invoke, limits the debate to 30 hours. Typically the opposing party is reluctant to confirm a lifetime appointment during the last year of a lame-duck presidency. In fact, there is a name for this type of stonewalling: the Thurmond Rule, named for the late Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who decreed that no judicial appointments would move in the last six months of a lame-duck presidency. While Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) has made headlines for saying he will not allow a confirmation for Scalia’s replacement, Senator Harry Reid (D-N.V.) made similar statements in 2008. So despite Republican senators making headlines for their “no confirmation” decrees, holding up a judicial nominee in this situation is not solely a Republican tactic.

Nevertheless, these issues will be covered heavily in the coming months (it could even stretch into next year), and hopefully you take time to understand all the political issues at play. It really is fascinating. But while these issues are interesting and, indeed, of great importance to our country, it seems that there has been far too little focus on the man that provoked these issues—Justice Scalia himself. As a result, and in honor of one of the most powerful men in the country, we would like to take a step back and examine the legacy that Scalia left behind.

Justice Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1986 after spending most of his legal career working in the public sector. Amazingly, Scalia was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 98-0—a result perhaps unthinkable in the current political climate. But such was the charm and intellectual prowess of Antonin Scalia.

Almost immediately he established himself as a unique voice on the Court, not afraid to go against the rest of the justices on any opinion that provoked his ire. In 1988, for example, he drafted a thirty-page dissent in Morrison v. Olson, writing so emotionally that Justice Harry Blackmun felt obliged to note, “[I]t could be cut down to ten pages if Scalia omitted the screaming.” But that passion was Scalia’s calling card, and his reputation for emotional dissents calls to mind the similarly stubborn Oliver Wendell Holmes: a man held by many to be one of the greatest justices to ever sit on the Court. And for all of their legal and philosophical differences, Oliver Wendell Holmes serves as perhaps the best modern comparison for what Justice Scalia meant to the Supreme Court.

Scalia was never afraid to make his opinions known—both in and out of the courtroom. He famously concurred in Bush v. Gore, the case that essentially decided the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Years later, when Scalia was asked about the effect of that case on the American democracy, his reply was brief: “Get over it.” As Conor Clarke of Slate commented, “His writing style is best described as equal parts anger, confidence, and pageantry. Scalia has a taste for garish analogies and offbeat allusions—often very funny ones—and he speaks in no uncertain terms. He is highly accessible and tries not to get bogged down in abstruse legal jargon. But most of all, Scalia’s opinions read like they’re about to catch fire for pure outrage. He does not, in short, write like a happy man.”

But by all accounts, Justice Scalia was a happy man. His close friend (and near-ideological opposite) on the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, once said that Scalia was “an absolutely charming man, and he can make even the most sober judge laugh.” Indeed, a 2005 study showed that he brought the Court to laughter more than any of his colleagues. He brought a witty dynamism to the Court’s oral arguments, which he often used to spice up otherwise bland legal issues in his written opinions. For all you might disagree with how he voted on cases, I dare you to read one of Justice Scalia’s arguments and not feel a tug of doubt on your own convictions. That is the keen legal mind that was Antonin Scalia.

Justice Scalia was an originalist, a judicial philosophy that believes the Constitution should be interpreted accordingly to what the text meant at the time the document was ratified over two centuries ago. This view runs counter to the popular legal view of the Constitution as a “living document” that evolves as society evolves. But in Scalia’s originalism, the Constitution was not supposed to facilitate change: it was designed to prevent changes in the fundamental rights that the Founders fought so hard to secure. Scalia hated so-called “judicial activism” and believed that the legislature—as the representatives of the People—should be the true engine of legal change. It was these views that often prompted critics to accuse Scalia of letting his conservative political leanings compromise his legal judgment. But Justice Scalia was far from a rigid conservative, at least politically: He voted to uphold free speech in the Texas flag-burning case, and also struck down a prohibition on hate speech—liberal legal decisions by any measure. Disagree with him all you want, Scalia was his own man to the very end.

He was, as most great and controversial figures are, an extremely dynamic and likable individual. This is the Scalia that people should remember. Sure, remember his controversial philosophies, remember all his opinions that you disagreed with, remember his passion and his emotion and his anger. But also remember Justice Scalia for what he was: an intellectual powerhouse, a deeply thoughtful and philosophical legal mind, a man who adhered to his values and principles, and a legal titan of the twenty-first century.

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David Postic is a law student at the University of Oklahoma.

Jacob Daniel is a law student at the University of Oklahoma.

Lester Asamoah is a graduate student at American University.

The Case for Black History Month

By Lester Asamoah

MLK memorial


Black History Month, like beauty, is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. Stacey Dash’s recent comments reignited the debate as to whether Black History Month should exist or not. And Ms. Dash is not the only prominent black celebrity to speak out against the month. As we wade through another February, we are left with another year of questioning if a month “belongs” or not.

I would argue it belongs. You, the reader, are left to have your opinion. But the idea of having a month of history dedicated to African-Americans is not a bad thing. The first counterargument that should be immediately addressed is “why isn’t there a White History Month?” My question to counter is: what would we put in a White History Month? This isn’t a coy response. I would actually welcome a White History Month. But how would famous white people be honored in ways they already aren’t? More importantly, how would we assess the history and accomplishments of black people within the existing asymmetric power dynamics in America? The question isn’t, and has never been, how to leave white people out. Rather, it’s how to bring black people in.

There are three brief reasons behind keeping and appreciating Black History Month: Representation, Celebration, and History. Assessing the debate to keep Black History Month through these three lenses paints a little more of a picture as to why the month is important.

Representation

The question of “why isn’t there a White History month?” is a good starting point to point out why a Black History month is necessary. Representation. It’s not so much that black people haven’t invented things, broken records, or started major businesses. It’s that we don’t often hear about these people. Whereas, we are well-acquainted with what white people have contributed to history. Moreover, it’s that American society—in a time frame that is much closer that people realize—actively kept black people from inventing things, breaking records, and starting business. Black History Month really is a pittance compared to the cruel underdevelopment of black neighborhoods and individuals that previously took place.

Celebration

Despite the important acknowledgement of the terrible wrongs that were dealt to black people, there needs to be room for realizing the success of black people. Another common counter-argument against Black History Month is that a month is not enough. And that is true. But, as is commonly said, we don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The increasing limits that standardized testing places on American history and the subsequent lack of interest in black history—doubled with the recent crusade against anything that isn’t American exceptionalism—is a perfect storm for knowing shockingly little about the achievements of black people. Black History Month is a celebration, but a lot of people seem to take it as a “make white people guilty month.” I would argue it’s possible to celebrate the achievements of black men and women who have contributed to history in a purely positive way. It should go without saying that black people taking pride in something is not an attack on white people.

American History v. Black History

Another common discussion point when talking about Black History Month is that it’s American history. First and foremost, someone who is enslaved is not an American citizen. And the US Constitution counted black people as 3/5ths of a person, keep in mind. Black History, as it relates to American history, is really black people either being non-citizens or highly marginalized second-class citizens for what is the majority of the existence of America. All of that being noted, a unique discussion as to what it means/meant to be black in America is warranted.  It is a limited space to contemplate what black people have experienced in America and where the future lies. These conversations can, and really should be done in conjunction with white people. And people from all creeds and races, of course. There is a strange phenomenon in the American psyche that makes people deeply suspicious when black people have their own thing. But with an open ear and an open mind, there is a lot for everyone to discuss and learn. Black History is something that goes in tandem with American history, but the discussion must be honest.

This debate, like history, may repeat itself. But at least we’ve briefly covered a few arguments that make Black History Month important. Whether it should exist or not is contentious at times, but we can certainly derive positive lessons from it while it is around.

Lester Asamoah is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.