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.

The Praxis of Social Justice Dialogue

By Lester Asamoah

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“Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. . . But while to say the true word—which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone…” – Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.88)

This opening quotation from Paulo Freire’s work is a great starting point behind the philosophy of dialogue. And, more importantly, why dialogue is so important and urgent. We, or at least those interested in social change, must be involved with the praxis of dialogue. But how can we do this effectively? What are the steps? Clearly, there’s a lot of discourse that is unproductive, and even unhelpful.

I will establish simply how we can begin to think about the praxis of dialogue. Next, I’ll discuss how to create meaningful dialogue. Finally, I’ll discuss what I believe is ineffective and effective. To my audience of social justice advocates: I must stress that this is only a glimpse into a certain philosophy and up to critical debate and interpretation.

What is dialogue?

What is meant by dialogue? Dialogue is a back and forth process between two people in learning about or analyzing the world in some way. Largely borrowing this definition from Freire, I want to make it clear that is a two way process. Its importance in being a two-way process is vital in a world where we conduct a great deal of our communication of ideas either by social media, or listening to people who are experts in a certain field speak on their experience. How can we understand the plight of homelessness by never speaking to someone who is homeless? The simple answer is that we cannot. And we wind up with policies where we “know” how to engage with these issues by marginally dealing with them.

Our means of conversation and dialogue have evolved. We can chat online, or on Skype. We have more diverse communities than ever before. There’s no limit to what we can learn about others. We have a unique way to take advantage of our technological and cultural placement. But before we talk to people and try to develop understanding, we have to remember one critical fact: every person is capable of cognition by the virtue of being human, and we should never assume that anyone is below us or unable to express complex thoughts about something. People doing the opposite of that sentence have brought great ruin to the world from their hubris.  

How can we think about meaningful dialogue?

Meaningful dialogue is about listening. That’s not a secret. Why doesn’t it happen this way? It’s because privilege and power dynamics exist. While these dynamics exist, we have to acknowledge this: If you’re reading this, you likely have some sort of privilege and power. Now, I don’t have the magic formula to get the most powerful people to the table, but Freire notes that we can make a difference with oppressed people to help them realize they’re oppressed. Note that he does not say to lecture people, but he says engage with dialogue. And also note that people that are oppressed are able to express their opinions and take action.

For those of us that are concerned with social change, there’s hope in a bottom-up approach. But we will not be the heroes. I repeat, we will not be the heroes. Empowerment cannot be taught by lecture or monologue, Freire says. But active discussion with those that are oppressed, Freire claims, will help people realize that oppression does not have to be permanent. In dialogue with people of similar or higher privilege than us, we can discuss in a hope that it leads to the understanding they can be empowered to be in the solution. This process is slow and requires patience. Freire’s work is called The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – pedagogy means the practice of teaching. This is at odds with certain ways to invoke social change. But, this is one of many ways to invoke change; a way that can be simultaneous with others.

What has worked and what has not?

I alluded to what doesn’t work – the notion of assuming that we have a higher cognition than others. We have different experiences, perhaps different values, and come from different walks of life. But by virtue of being alive—thinking, therefore they are, as Descartes would say—means we should get to know what people are thinking by hearing it firsthand. The process of dehumanization assumes that people have no cognition. People sometimes act irrationally, and may be even unfavorable to talk to, but all of us have cognition. We see people taking food stamps draw comparisons to animals, or students of Islamic background face discrimination for their creativity. People believe(d) that if one is on food stamps, their cognition is desperately dependent upon the government, or a young man’s cognition is limited and dependent on his religious background.

What works? There’s no surprise that the opposite of assuming we are better than others works. We, as individuals that care, must be open to the idea that everyone deserves human respect. And when we see others treat individuals as less than human, we have to challenge their thinking. Most importantly, we must seek to love the individuals that feel less than human. This, as Freire says, is a constant praxis of action and reflection. We have to be reflective of what we are saying, and we have to take action as people of consciousness to increase the level of consciousness. Most importantly, we have to realize that people have different ways of interacting with the world, and that must be respected. Though, if someone interacts with the world in a way that is destructive, we have to respond.

In terms of covering the philosophy of dialogue, much less the overall work of Freire, this is incredibly limited. However, it’s a starting point for us to think about how we interact with the world, the people in the world, and what we can do to empower each other instead of suffering though one-way dialogues that are ineffective, and even harmful. We have a great societal challenge ahead of us. American and global history has been marred by unthinkable marginalization and violence. However, violence does not have to be our destiny moving forward.

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

Featured Partner: Bennett Foundation for Public Service

Check out our featured partner!

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The Bennett Foundation for Public Service

We’re pleased to be introducing one of our first and most important featured partners: The Bennett Foundation for Public Service. The Bennett Foundation and Thirty Eight Minutes share a number of core beliefs, the most important of which is a duty towards helping create engaged citizens, educating our community, and taking on the defining issues of our time. Find out more about them here.

Upcoming Event: PoliCon 2014

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To promote the mission of creating educated leaders and tackling the issues of our time, The Bennett Foundation is hosting a policy conference on September 27th, 2014 in Oklahoma City, and you’re invited! You can purchase a ticket in advance here or pay at the door. To learn more, click the PoliCon2014 image or check out this excerpt from their site.

“PoliCon is a Bennett Foundation project in partnership with Oklahoma Student Leader Summit and 38Minutes.

The first-ever PoliCon will bring together young leaders from across the state to listen to policy experts discuss some of the most pressing challenges facing Oklahomans today. Leaders will be encouraged to gather information and consider public policy solutions to issues ranging from education to criminal justice reform. We’ll wrap the conference up with a “stump speech seminar” that will help attendees articulate their passion for public service in a way that will immediately grab the attention of prople or groups they go on to speak with.

Join us Saturday, Sept. 27th at the historic Paramount Theater in downtown OKC for a gathering of emerging leaders!

Tickets can be purchased here, and include breakfast and lunch.”

It’s Miranda Lambert’s Country

A Break from Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

By Aaron Bumgarner

 

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Young girls have a lot of options from which to choose when looking for an idol or a role model in the music world today. But if I had a daughter, I’d be thankful for artists like Miranda Lambert and Beyoncé. Neither is perfect; I don’t think Lambert and I would agree on America’s gun laws, and, if I were a father, I’m sure I’d be uncomfortable with my daughter relating to Beyoncé’s overt sexuality. But both singers have released albums of substance within the last year, albums that declare their womanhood to the world with artistry and conviction. I’d be happy having my daughter look up to either of them. (What gives me pause with Beyoncé is that she’s married to the man that released Magna Carta…Holy Grail.)

I’m not a father though, so my only frame of reference for this discussion is my middle-school students. Granted, it’s a lot easier to imagine my students listening to Beyoncé than to Miranda Lambert, given that 90% of them are Latino. I’m not saying that Latinos don’t listen to country music. I have a Latino friend that really enjoys country music. But he’s not a middle schooler living in an urban area and heavily influenced by peer pressure. So I’m going to go ahead and assume that most of my students don’t listen to Miranda Lambert.

But I wish they would! I want my female students to feel empowered to make their own life decisions. I want them to see that women can have the power to start their own businesses. I want them to see that a woman can be married and not be subservient to her husband. I want them to see that a woman can take ownership of her sexuality and not be exploited. I want them to love themselves enough not to define themselves by their relationship to a boy. And I don’t want them to find their identity in their beauty.

Miranda Lambert addresses all these issues and more on her new album, Platinum. She subverts the daddy-daughter song in “Girls” with a chorus of “If you think you’re the only one she’ll want in this world / Then you don’t know nothin’ ‘bout girls”. In “Bathroom Sink” and “Gravity Is a B***h”, Lambert deftly explains that she won’t let what she sees in the mirror become how she defines herself, while extolling the virtues of both her personality and her beauty on “Platinum”. Instead of the crazy ex-girlfriend anthems that have become so popular in country music (and which she’s already mastered), she kisses off boys that ain’t worth her time in “Two Rings Shy” and “Little Red Wagon”. And the only time she explicitly mentions her marriage to Blake Shelton is in a song about her own similarities to a different woman, Priscilla Presley. The lyrics end up hardly being about Shelton at all.

This is an album by a woman about being a woman, regardless of any men. Platinum is all the more impressive when you consider what a boys’ world country music is. Since 2000, over twice as many men in country music have had Number 1 albums on the Billboard 200 than women. Subjectively, it’s hard for me to think of who the women on that list would be aside from Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift, whereas I could think of 7 of the men off the top of my head. It’s even worse in pop music; there may be a lot of female artists in the Top 40, but name one female producer making hits right now.

The worst part about this is the lack of role models for young girls to look up to. Just like there aren’t enough black women starring in movies to inspire young black girls, there aren’t enough women (white or black) making waves in the music world for young girls to respect, and the few that are tend to be presented through the male gaze. If I want my female students to take ownership of their lives and have confidence, Miranda Lambert’s Platinum is a great place to start. Too bad they don’t listen to country music.

A Tribute to Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou at a health care awareness event at the University of Alabama - Birmingham.

This morning, Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. This morning, we lost one of the most exceptional people of our age.

A brief look back into Maya’s life shows us that 86 years was too short to chronicle her affinity for challenging limits. There isn’t much she hasn’t done–as a world-renowned activist, historian, and poet, she has influenced innumerable lives and taught lessons to many. She was the first black and first female to deliver an inaugural poem, she has won several awards and honors (including, but not limited to, the National Medal of Arts, the Mother Theresa Award, and three Grammys), and has performed or seen her poetry performed for the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu,  Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and many more. She has lived a prolific life and is hailed as a global renaissance figure, but the most inspiring things about her to me are her roots.

Maya Angelou was a product of and witness to the troubling times of the Jim Crow south. She spent most of her life dedicated to the fight for civil rights, and her many poems, books, and memoirs regarding the African American experience helped equip me and many like me with the confidence and knowledge to take on the world.

When I think back on how her wisdom found its way into my life, I realize that she had a large role in some of the most memorable parts of my childhood. Maya was there in the evenings my mom and I spent talking about the history of African Americans through select passages of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she was present for the hours and hours I spent listening to conscious hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and Nas spit lyrics that gave new life to her words,  and I like to think she was smiling somewhere on the day I knew I wanted to write and recite poetry after reading and listening to “Still I Rise” for the first time.

I can’t help but feel that Maya Angelou resonated so heavily with our generation because she taught us about change, forgiveness, courage, the meaning of life, and the human condition in ways that inspired us to be and be better, for ourselves and for others. She captured and spoke to the resilience of the downtrodden in ways that left no one out. She gave a powerful and warm voice to the brave men and women who fought for equality and fair treatment under the law, and she made it easy for others to share the plight and the celebration of the civil rights cause with her eloquent, flowing wordplay and prose.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about how I could write a tribute to Maya Angelou as poignant as the lessons I learned from her. I scribbled words in my poetry journal and tried to piece them together in a way that reflected her elegant life, going through her own works for ideas. I finally came across something that might do the trick better than I ever could. The following is a stanza from the poem “When Great Trees Fall”, which is the last poem in my favorite body of her work, I Shall Not Be Moved.

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly.  Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.  Be and be
better.  For they existed.”