Category Archives: Social Justice

Why I’m More Pro-Choice After Having a Baby

Trigger Warnings: Limits on reproductive choice, fatal birth defects, fetal distress / death, traumatic pregnancy and birth, post-partum depression

by Storiteller

Some pro-lifers like to claim that if pro-choicers ever got pregnant or had children, the very act of parenting would turn their hearts and help them understand the sacredness of life. Bullshit.

First, 60% of women who get abortions already have children. They are making the choice that will allow them to care for their existing children in the best possible manner.

Second, at least in my case, I found that getting pregnant and having a child actually motivated me to be more pro-choice than ever. Now that I’ve had first-hand experience of pregnancy, birth, and parenting, I understand the stakes much better. While I still believe that abortion is sometimes morally wrong, it is the least wrong of the limited options available in an inherently difficult situation. I especially believe that no matter what your thoughts, every woman should make the right to make the choice for herself. Pregnancy and birth is a life changing experience, and not always for the better.

1) Pregnancy itself is hell on your body. And I’m not talking aesthetically.

I had an easy pregnancy – a very easy one compared to a lot of women. In fact, I was able to keep riding my bike through my 10th month. But despite that, I still had my share of issues. While morning sickness doesn’t sound that bad, it should actually be called “all-day sickness.” I only threw up once, but I had a constant low-level nausea throughout my first trimester. And that was mild – my mother-in-law was sick unless she was eating and some women can keep so little down that they need to be hospitalized. While I could walk up to a mile almost until labor (albeit slowly), I couldn’t stand still for more than 5 minutes. I couldn’t sit in chairs or couches that didn’t have good support without my back cramping up. My feet swelled so much there was only a single pair of stretchy shoes I owned that I could even put on.

And this was the easy version. 15 percent of women have life-threatening complications. Other women – healthy, young women – I’ve known have had life-threatening high blood pressure and months of bed rest. The risks are even greater if you are older or have an existing health condition.

And the fact is, no matter how good our medicine gets, pregnancy will always be this way. Unlike other animals, the fetus and mother’s body are actually in huge conflict, fighting over resources instead of the popular conception of some beautiful partnership.

2) Birth is still and will always be physically risky to the mother.

You are pushing something that is up to 10 pounds out of a hole that is 10 cm big. Even if you get an epidural, it will definitely hurt like hell before, during and after. After almost 10 months of your body doing weird, unpredictable shit, you can be in for hours upon hours of torturous pain.

Besides that obvious fact, the whole process is very poorly understood. We don’t know the details of what triggers labor (we just found out a key protein literally a few months ago) or why some women progress quickly while others don’t. We have only the bluntest of tools to deal with many of the potential complications. Women still die from birth in the U.S. The entire thing is chaotic and rather terrifying.

For me, it was worth it all to have my son. But to say to a woman with an unwanted pregnancy that they must go through this entire life-threatening, incredibly difficult process against their will is simply inhumane. I’m pretty sure if you asked most people if it was okay to force increasingly intense torture on someone completely innocent for 10 months to keep a different person on life support, they would say it wasn’t okay. But pregnancy and birth? Different story.

3) Many women are incapable of having a healthy pregnancy.

There are some women with existing medical conditions who know for a fact that they are likely to die if they bring a fetus to full-term. Even if the mother would be okay, there are instances where they would have no hope of giving birth to a healthy child. Some women have severe depression, multiple sclerosis, or other diseases that can only be treated with drugs that cause severe birth defects. Some live or work in areas where they are regularly exposed to chemicals that could interfere with a healthy pregnancy and aren’t able to move or leave for economic reasons.

Pregnancy itself can endanger your job, making it impossible for you to have the economic means to actually take care of a child. Officially, pregnancy is a protected class in the U.S., which means it’s illegal to fire someone just for being pregnant. But as with all labor laws, the reality is very different. Most working class women don’t have economic or social resources to get legal assistance if discrimination occurs and don’t have enough of a safety net to risk it.

Besides a straight up firing, there are plenty of ways employers can force out pregnant women. Employers can restrict the number of bathroom breaks, not allow women to take leave for prenatal appointments, and not allow women to carry bottles of water. (The Pregnant Women’s Fairness Act would fix this.)

Even if your employer is relatively accommodating, some jobs are made nearly impossible by late-stage pregnancy. One of my friends who is a professional baker had to quit her job two months before she was due. She simply couldn’t stand for hours at a time any more, which she absolutely needed to do for her job.

4) Even wanted and currently healthy pregnancies are risky and scary. Plenty can go wrong that can precipitate needing to make an awful choice.

For me, the scariest part of my whole pregnancy was waiting for the results of the chromosomal test and sonograms. Even if everything has been going well, the fetus’s development can go wrong at almost any point of the pregnancy. While some birth defects result in disabilities that we can accommodate in modern society, others can result in fetal death or no hope of the baby surviving more than a few days outside of the womb.

Thank God, I didn’t have to make that decision. But plenty of other women do, every day, through no fault of their own. The blogger at the Daddy Files wrote about how his wife had a relatively late abortion after they learned their fetus had “mermaid syndrome,” a far too cutesy name for a defect where most of the lower body fuses together. Even if the child were born, he or she would have very few, if any, functioning organs. His wife needed to either wait until the child died inside of her and have a still birth – possibly one of the most horrifying things I can imagine – or an abortion, which was most likely less painful for both her and the fetus. Despite the couple’s personal pain at losing a child they truly wanted, “pro-life” protestors harassed them anyway.

5) Parenting is incredibly hard and expensive, with little societal support in the U.S.

Being pregnant is really hard – but being a mother is even harder. Childcare alone has become staggeringly expensive, with the average in some areas being the same as college tuition. Add to that the costs of doctor’s appointments, diapers, formula or a breast pump, and the many, many other requirements for a newborn quickly add up. In the first year alone, middle-income parents spend $12,000 on child-related expenses. If you don’t use childcare, women are the large majority of stay-at-home parents, eliminating their income and minimizing their future career progression. In fact, if you want to have any maternity leave, you either need to be lucky enough to have paid sick/vacation leave available or just not get paid.

On top of the financial requirements, there’s an incredible mental toll to being a mother. 9-16 percent of women suffer from post-partum depression. If a woman has a very traumatic birth experience, she can have post-traumatic stress syndrome. Even if you don’t have full-blown depression, your mental health can take time to recover. Severe sleep deprivation – especially when combined with unexplainable crying from your baby (doubly if colicky) – wrecks havoc on your sense of reality and perception. Staying at home with a newborn is extremely isolating, as their nap and eating schedule can make getting out of the house feel impossible. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that in the U.S., we have incredibly expensive health care that provides inadequate post-natal care and awful mental health coverage.

Now, as someone who chose to become a mother, I knowingly took all of this challenge and risk on. But no one should ever be forced to take on this level of burden against their will.

6) Children shouldn’t exist to be the punishment for someone’s mistake. No one should be born into a family that doesn’t want them – all children deserve better.

I love my son more than I can even understand. Every child deserves to have this level of love. Every child deserves to have a family who have the capability to take care of them. No child deserves to be born as a way to “force” someone to take responsibility. Forcing women to have children means that either children are born into families that fundamentally don’t want them or can’t take care of them. And I don’t see how that can ever be “pro-life.”

So as a mom, I am pro-choice. Every woman should be able to make the choices that are the best for herself and her family, just as I have been able to.

Being Civil About Your Disobedience

by Storiteller

Content note: Being arrested and potential negative consequences thereof

Writer’s Note: Please feel free to share this post with any activist groups or websites that you think would possibly benefit from it.

Much like the months leading up to the Occupy movement, people are getting fed up with toothless actions and lackluster policy solutions. Instead of banks and an unjust monetary system, the current focus is on the vast impacts of climate change. A number of demonstrators are participating in civil disobedience or direct action (as opposed to indirect actions like lobbying) and many others are stating their support. Even the venerable Sierra Club has gotten in on the action, with the Club’s executive director and president participating with the full backing of the organization for the first time. As someone who’s been involved in the climate movement for quite sometime and has been trained in these techniques (although never participated in them), I’ve noticed some ways these groups can maximize their impact.

Engage diverse participants.
Diverse participants can bring essential perspectives to a movement and increase its effectiveness. Because climate change has the worse effects on people in underprivileged communities, it’s especially important to have their viewpoints included. It’s especially important to have a solid representation from groups of people who have or are personally affected by the problem. Otherwise, it can be easy for these campaigns to become a “privileged folks speak for the poor black people / citizens of developing countries / low-income residents / fill in the blank folks” parade. One of my most emotional moments during last year’s march against the Keystone XL pipeline was listening to students from New Jersey singing about their experiences with Hurricane Sandy. While the climate movement has been pretty weak on this in the past, their recent partnerships with Native American groups against the Keystone XL pipeline are a good step forward.

Having a diverse set of participants also leads to people taking you more seriously. Most people’s automatic response to civil disobedience is, “That’s just a bunch of radical, unemployed weirdos.” (This was common during Occupy.) In contrast, if onlookers see people like them participating, they may be more likely to imagine themselves in a similar position. At direct action protests against new construction at Heathrow Airport, the protestors included a huge diversity of ages and interest groups. Perhaps most notably, they had protestors from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, both which are about as radical (not very) as the Audubon Society is in the U.S.

Tell a story with compelling imagery.
Most media these days have a heavy emphasis on photos and video. A funny, shocking or striking image is more likely to draw attention in person and on social media than an ordinary one. This attention can potentially lead to increased public support and policy changes.

Again, my U.K. friends are very good at this. The Reclaim Shakespeare Company is staging a series of theatrical protests against BP’s corporate sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company and British Museum. In full costume, they’ve interrupted exhibits and plays to deliver screeds that match the tone of the presentation in everything but message – which is of course, anti-BP. They’re even planning to bring a Viking longboat into the museum to “give BP a Viking funeral!” Instead of being annoyed by these protests, people are finding them entertaining and getting the message.

Choose an action that will directly benefit your cause.
This is where the “direct” in “direct action” comes in. Direct actions should be more than just a protest; ideally, they should contribute to your movement’s goal. For example, sitting in a tree to prevent a logging company from cutting it down can bring great press to the problem of deforestation. But if it doesn’t, it at least protects that specific tree. Similarly, chaining yourself to the gate of a natural gas refinery construction site keeps the refinery off-line for that much longer than it would have been otherwise. During the civil rights era in the U.S., protestors sitting in segregated stores forced them to desegrate whether or not the owners wanted them to. Even if hardly anyone sees your action, at least you’re able to make a small difference.

Make sure the focus is still on your goal and not on getting arrested.
Many direct actions or acts of civil disobedience can involve getting arrested. However, having arrest be a goal detracts from the larger mission and lessens the movement’s credibility. This attitude can lead to the group idolizing the people who get arrested and devaluing those who don’t, including those who play essential roles like the police liaison, legal council, media representative, and medical support. In addition, it makes people who can’t risk being arrested, because they could lose custody of their children, lose their job, or be likely to be beaten by police, feel as if they are worth less to the movement than those who are more privileged.

In fact, it may be possible to get your message heard without being arrested at all. In general, the Shakespearian protestors have been communicating what they want to and then leaving without needing to be asked.

Focus on the most effective, appropriate location and audience.
Breaking the law has the potential to hurt people. After all, many (although obviously not all) laws have good intentions behind them. Because the goal of an action is to draw attention to your cause, not be a jerk, it’s important to minimize harm to uninvolved parties. I saw the consequences of being too arbitrary when I visited Mount Rushmore a few years ago. A few months earlier, Greenpeace hung a banner from Mount Rushmore protesting a lack of greenhouse gas emission limits. While it definitely provided compelling imagery, it actually ended up hurting people. Even though Congress was most likely the intended audience, most Congress members probably never heard about the protest. Instead, it seriously inconvenienced the park rangers, who were already sympathetic to the cause. It also hurt future visitors because the park had to shut down the trail the protestors used due to the risks associated with trespassing. In fact, it made the rangers so annoyed that they told visitors exactly why they had to shut down the trail, turning people who might have been supportive of the group against them.
I think direct action or civil disobedience should only occur after activists have exhausted other options. However, because it can be the only effective option in some situations, it’s an important part of an activist’s toolbox. So if you’re going to get arrested, you might as well make the most of it!

Feminism and Parenting: A Perfect Match

(written by Storiteller)

Feminism believes that we should equally respect women and men, as well as trust women’s ability to make their own decisions. As becoming a parent (or not) is one of the biggest decisions in life, it isn’t surprising that feminism has a lot to teach both individuals and society about parenting. If patriarchy hurts everyone, then feminism is good for the whole family – mothers, fathers, and children.

Feminism teaches us that being a mother is an important job – but far from the only important job.

At first glance, American society appears to valorize mothers. But that image only goes so far. In reality, society uses it as an excuse to control women and corporations exploit it to sell products. Feminism offers true respect for mothering, including support for paid family leave (to take care of children or aging parents), job protection for pregnant women, universal health care, and financial assistance for poor women. Feminism also recognizes that unpaid work can be worth just as much if not more than paid work.

But simultaneously, feminism acknowledges that women have many important roles that have nothing to do with children. In addition to allowing women expanded opportunities, I think this recognition also helps women with children be better parents. If women aren’t forced to shove all of their ambitions into a box labeled “mother,” they’re more likely to respect their children’s own interests and less likely to smother them with unfulfilled dreams.

Feminism teaches us to respect non-mother caregivers.

Parenting extends beyond being a mother and people other than parents can be excellent caregivers. Assuming otherwise gives everyone short-shrift. This attitude severely restricts mothers’ career choices, either out of straight-up prejudice or societal shame. It also denigrates fathers, grandparents, and non-related caregivers. It denies them the opportunity to take the caregiver role, even if they’re the one best suited for it in the family. I can personally say that both my husband and I have benefitted from feminism’s advances in this area. My husband is a stay at home dad by choice and I’m glad that we have the societal privilege to have this arrangement. Lastly, the “mother is the best” completely erases male gay couples with children.

In addition, a recognition that caregiving extends beyond mothers is better for children. It allows for a greater variety of role models of varying genders and ages. In addition, because it doesn’t assume that “anything but mommy” is second-best, it creates a higher baseline for quality daycare.

Feminism teaches us to respect women’s choices about their bodies, including if and when to get pregnant, how to give birth, and whether or not to breastfeed.

Obviously, it’s the best for everyone for all children to be wanted, joyful additions to their parents’ lives. But the societal judgments – and in some places, legal limits – about women’s choices don’t stop once the child is born. The parenting world, from books to blogs, is full of judgment for all sorts of women’s choices. In contrast, feminism emphasizes policies and attitudes that increase women’s choices rather than restrict them. Carrying this respect for a variety of choices into parenting would be better for women and their children than side-whispers and snarky comments on message boards.

Feminism teaches us that we should value and respect those less powerful than us.

I’ve recently started reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, a classic of the Positive Parenthood movement. Reading it, I realized how many of the ways sexists devalue women are also how adults devalue children. In both cases, the more powerful party tells the less powerful person that their emotions aren’t valid, generalizes a single mistake into a judgement of their character, explains why they are illogical, and gives lip service to the other’s problems instead of listening. I would never say that children have the same ability to make choices as adult women, but their thoughts and feelings still deserve respect. When the kyriarchy teaches children that they are not important because they are less powerful than adults, I believe they grow up to be more likely to be racist, sexist, and classist. In contrast, if adults show children respect, they are more likely to carry that respect towards everyone out into the world as adults.

Feminism teaches us that we are stronger and better in community than alone.

Community is essential for new parents. It’s important for new moms to catch the signs of post-natal depression and alleviate plain-old post-natal isolation. (I personally have never felt so lonely as being alone with my baby when he was crying and not knowing what to do.) Beyond the parents’ mental health, I also believe in the “it takes a village” philosophy of child raising. It’s essential for children to interact with people of different ages, genders, races, sexualities, experiences, and viewpoints. It helps them become better, more empathetic citizens who can see outside of their small household.

Needless to say, I’m a feminist and I hope to bring up my little boy to be one too.

The Women of Nintendo, Part One

Recently, to my inexpressibly immense excitement, Nintendo announced the addition of Megaman to the lineup of playable characters for the upcoming Super Smash Bros. 4. That same day, to my rather more muted excitement, they also announced the addition of the Wii Fit Trainer, the fourth woman among the series’ more than 30 playable characters.

That’s how few women there are among Nintendo’s iconic characters: to find four, they had to dig so deep as to add a character who doesn’t even have a name. And honestly, who else is there they could add? Midna would be admittedly awesome, but she was only ever in one game. Besides her… Krystal from Star Fox? Dixie Kong? Gender-swap the existing Pokemon Trainer? None are particularly compelling. Nintendo has a plethora of iconic characters, but when it comes down to it, out of the dozen or so in the top tier, only three are women: Princess Peach, Princess Zelda, and Samus Aran.

Anita Sarkeesian is already doing an excellent job of surveying the treatment of women in the video game industry as a whole in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series on YouTube. I’m not going to retread that ground here; what I thought I would do instead is examine each of these three iconic women in turn, how they’ve evolved over time, and how Nintendo has treated their characters.

We’ll start with Peach.

Pretty in PinkPeril

An image of Peach, a young, white, blue-eyed blonde woman wearing a frilly pink dress and a jeweled crown.

Official art of Princess Peach as she appears in the Super Smash Bros. series.

Peach is, in many ways, the first lady of video games. She is female lead of most of the Super Mario Bros. games, and love interest to those games’ hero, one of the most recognizable fictional characters ever created, Mario.

Peach was introduced in Super Mario Bros. (1985), at which time she was known as Princess Toadstool. The daughter of the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, she existed solely to be kidnapped (an event which occurred in the instruction manual, which is where the bulk of a video game’s story generally took place in that era) and rescued at the end of the last level. She is entirely passive—her sprite isn’t even animated!—and has no dialogue except thanking the player and challenging them to replay the game at a higher difficulty. She is objectified in every sense of the word: the object of Mario’s quest, immobile, and an entirely passive damsel in distress.

At the opposite extreme is her next appearance, Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988), in which she is one of four possible player characters and has a unique ability to float after jumping, making her the character of choice for a lot of children of the time (myself included). She is an active presence throughout the game, bopping enemies and throwing vegetables (it is a deeply surreal game, even within the context of the generally surreal Super Mario franchise) on an equal footing with Mario and Luigi, and at no point is she kidnapped or treated as a sexual object.

Sadly, this vast improvement on the treatment of her character was entirely accidental. The game known in the U.S. as Super Mario Bros. 2 is actually the Japanese game Doki Doki Panic (1987), and originally had nothing to do with the Mario franchise or characters. For its American release, Nintendo of America made a marketing decision to replace the main characters with Mario characters, but leave them otherwise unchanged. Peach was chosen to replace the Doki Doki Panic character who could float because her dress could, in the game’s dream-logic, function as a parachute.

With the exception of Super Mario Bros. 2, Peach’s depiction in the core Mario series (which includes the subseries Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy, and New Super Mario Bros., as well as the standalone games Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and Super Mario Sunshine) has consistently been that of passive victim. Outside of the core games, she is usually depicted with more agency, most especially 1996’s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. In that game, Peach is kidnapped for a brief time, but interestingly, her role as Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom is depicted as being not all that different from being held captive, and she runs away from it. She is by far the most useful character in the game, having access to both some very powerful attacks (if you know where to find them and how to do them) and the best healing and support abilities of any character.

Peach in a skin-tight pink jumpsuit, walking along a road.

Peach as she appears in Mario Kart.

Peach is also playable in the Mario Kart series, many of the Mario sports-game spinoffs, Super Paper Mario, and Super Smash Bros. (the last of which is almost entirely based on her Super Mario Bros. 2 depiction, with a few nods to Super Mario RPG). Technically, she’s playable in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, but her segments in that game consist of talking with a lovestruck computer that keeps her prisoner and spies on her in the tub, and then getting possessed by the villain and serving as the final boss. Finally, Peach stars in Super Princess Peach, which I will address later in the article.

Peach wearing a pink soccer uniform consisting of sneakers, gloves, short-shorts, and midriff-bearing top.

Peach’s character art in the soccer game Super Mario Strikers simultaneously infantilizes and sexualizes her.

Peach’s depiction, with the exception of a few standouts like Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario RPG, is fairly consistent across her appearances, to the point of being effectively static; there is little difference between her character in Super Mario Bros. 3 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. She is the epitome of the Western concept of the fairy-tale princess, and would fit right into the Disney Princess line between Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Her childish mind in an adult body makes her the ideal object of a White Knight fantasy. A sweet innocent who is perpetually in need of rescue, she waits passively for her savior and rewards him with cake or a kiss on the cheek when he arrives. Peach’s role as a princess is equally a part of this objectification; while there is such a thing as a ruling prince/princess, they’re usually found in principalities; if Peach ruled the Mushroom Kingdom she’d be a queen. The role of a princess in a kingdom, generally speaking, is to bestow kingship on her eventual husband, implied to be Mario and thereby the player—yet another way in which she is a reward, rather than a person with her own agency.

But what about in her own game? Surely she must fare better there?

As I mentioned, to date Peach has had a starring role in only one game, 2005’s Super Princess Peach, a role-reversal in which Mario has been kidnapped and Peach must fight through a series of levels (generally among the easiest and most forgiving in the entire franchise) to rescue him. Unlike Mario, who generally travels alone, Peach is accompanied by the talking parasol Perry, who advises her. Throughout the game, the player is able to temporarily change Peach’s mood, altering her abilities: happy Peach is surrounded by wind and can fly in some areas, sad Peach runs very quickly and cries a steady stream of tears that damage enemies, enraged Peach is slow but invincible and able to set enemies on fire, and calm Peach regenerates health. Finally, at the end of the game, after Peach defeats the last boss, Mario breaks the door of his cage open by himself.

The image is split into two columns. The left column shows Peach crying a fountain as she navigates a level. The right side shows Peach in a serene state as she navigates a different level.

The left side shows what Super Princess Peach looks like when Peach is in sad mode; the right is calm mode.

In other words, her own star turn gives Peach an easier adventure than any of Mario’s, yet shows her still in need of male assistance every step of the way—and even then, the game can’t bear the suggestion of a woman saving a man, and has Mario rescue himself. On top of that, the mood mechanic is readable in two different, but equally misogynistic interpretations. Extradiegetically, it’s an encouragement to the player (implied to be an insecure, heterosexual man, since who else would find the notion of Peach rescuing Mario to be unacceptably threatening?) to regard women’s emotions as things to be manipulated for his own gain, as clear an invitation to Nice Guy Syndrome and pickup-artistry as I’ve ever seen. Intradiegetically, it depicts Peach as the convergence of two misogynistic myths, that women are overly emotional and that they use over-the-top displays of emotion strategically.

The majority of the time, Peach is depicted as a passive, nonthreatening object onto which the player can project White Knight fantasies. Occasionally, she is depicted as having agency of her own, but in her one starring role, her depiction is so overwhelmingly sexist as to be arguably worse than the objectification in other games. She is a blatant and consistent example of the rampant sexism in video games in general, and the Nintendo oeuvre in particular.

Next installment: Nintendo’s other princess, Zelda.


Throwing Your Body on the Machine

by Storiteller

“You must throw your body o­n the gears and o­n the levers and o­n the machine itself, and make it stop.” – “Chief” Galen Tyrol from Battlestar Galactica, serving as a union organizer, inspired by Mario Savio’s 1964 speech in Berkley, California.

Unions in the United States get a bad rap these days – the Republicans demonize them, the Democrats virtually ignore them in their messaging. Union membership has been declining in the U.S. since 1954, with a national average of only 12.4%. (This is extremely small in comparison to Europe, where rates are as high as 70% in Sweden.) In polls, people associate unions with negative phrases more than positive phrases.  Much of this reputation is unjustified, as organized labor has enabled invaluable material progress throughout history.  Both my husband and I have personally benefitted from being part of unions.  But in many ways, they’re not helping their own cause; with some change in focus, unions could garner far more support among the general public and actually serve their members better than they do.

Organized labor has brought many advances that are quickly forgotten in modern society.  On the job site, we can thank unions for the 40 hour workweek, overtime if you’re in an hourly job, and safety standards.  In the broader society, organized labor helped push for free public education, universal suffrage, and abolishing debtors’ prisons.  Personally, I credit my union for the fact that I have an alternative work schedule that allows me to work 9.5 hour days in exchange for having every other Friday off.  Similarly, pressure from my union and others like it motivated the federal government to allow and encourage telework.  While my husband’s job is radically different – hourly in a service position – he too benefits from being part of a union. In particular, he has a higher pay rate than other people in similar positions because his employer is unionized.  We have both benefited heartily from organized labor, both historically and in our everyday lives.

However, this personal experience has made me more aware of organized labor’s issues.  Despite their huge advances, unions rarely remind people of their accomplishments.  Labor Day is just another day off, when unions need to seize this day – and many others – to highlight the changes that wouldn’t have happened without them.  As a result, we lose perspective on both labor’s historical and current importance. In many anti-union efforts like those in Wisconsin, organized labor loses the debate because people think that there are no more labor issues for us to deal with.  Some people even claim that capitalism fixed the problems that existed before! (Just like we need to get rid of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because our air and water is so much cleaner than it was in the 1970s.)

While they need to trumpet their accomplishments, unions also need to move beyond them or remain stuck in the past to their detriment.  So much of the language from and around organized labor conflicts with or ignores the needs of younger workers.  All of the local advertisements encouraging people to support the federal employees’ union emphasize that “Your retirement could be at risk!” Most of the mailings my husband receives from his union are about how they are preserving his pension.  I know this is essential for the federal workers near retirement age, but doesn’t resonate with me at all.  In fact, I’ve always assumed I wouldn’t have a pension.  This messaging is even less relevant for my husband, who is in a profession where being in a position for more than a year is a long time.

Compounding the problem is the general lack of attention unions give other issues of interest.  While my union has enabled me to have increased flexibility, it doesn’t seem to be making any progress on paid family leave.  The U.S. federal government gives the exact same amount of paid family leave as fast-food places – exactly zero.  The only specific family leave available is the unpaid leave legally required by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires all employers offer 12 workweeks of leave for birth, adoption, or care of an immediate family member with a serious health condition.  (Notably, this does not include taking leave for care of a sick sibling, other relative, or friend, which discriminates against people without children.)  To get paid for this time off, you have to take a combination of sick and annual leave.  Because few people – especially those who have been at their job for a short period of time – have enough sick or annual leave built up when an emergency arrives, they become stuck in a horrible Catch-22.   My husband’s union, which is in a field with a lot of single males, is even worse.  When he asked his union representative about paternity leave, the representative answered, “Uh, three days?  You aren’t the one having the baby.”  The representative eventually gave him the information about the FLMA, but that initial reaction speaks volumes about the attention paid to this particular issue.  While frequently framed as a “women’s issue,” lack of paid family leave seriously restricts the opportunities available to everyone.  When men don’t have the opportunity to stay home, women frequently become default caregivers for children and/or elderly relatives, regardless of what either party wants or suits them best.

Similarly, unions don’t seem to be putting a lot of political capital towards pushing for equality on other gender-disparity issues, like equal pay for equal work.  Even though women are 47% of the workforce, women’s and civil rights groups like the ACLU seem much more invested in improving conditions for women than unions seem to be.  (This is based on a fairly fast Google search, but on the other hand, it’s never an issue brought up in communications from either of our unions.)

Now, much of this sounds like complaining that unions aren’t serving relatively privileged people, whether white or blue collar.  But I would also like to see unions go beyond the needs of their members.  From my experience, they often ignore the larger context of non-unionized workers or those outside of their area of interest.  While some overarching groups like the AFL-CIO address immigration issues and there are unions specific to particularly exploitative areas like farm work, I never hear these issues raised within my union or my husband’s.  It’s telling that Occupy, the biggest, most prominent income inequality movement in years, largely ignored and was ignored by unions.  While I understand that they want to serve their current members, it would be refreshing to see unions connect their members’ issues to the larger fight for social justice.  If unions hadn’t banded together in the 1800s, we’d still have the trade guild system and lack the sweeping changes that the labor movement as a whole was able to accomplish.

Unions seem to be a dying breed in the U.S., but it doesn’t need to be that way.  Regaining our sense of solidarity is essential to solving a lot of America’s major issues, from the power corporations hold over government and their workers, to closing the expanding economic gap.  We need organized labor.  Because when workers come together and stop the machine damaging society from the inside-out, we all benefit.

The False Dichotomy of Parenthood

by Storiteller

Content note: Pregnancy, infertility, possible loss of adopted children, harmful gender roles

Some people say that choosing not to have children is inherently selfish. I believe that is bullshit. In fact, I think most of the reasons for choosing to have children biologically are rooted in selfishness. Although I say this as an intentionally pregnant woman may be surprising, I believe that this selfishness is not inherently bad and can even be good.

Suffering from nausea several months ago, I contemplated why I chose to put myself in this situation. I realized that for such a momentous decision, I didn’t think through the reasons as thoroughly as I should have. Because I’ve always known I wanted to have kids, I took it for granted. Because having children is the default in most Western societies (especially for women), this culture forces people who don’t want to them to defend their choices. However, it’s never the other way around.

Like most people, I have multiple reasons for wanting to have children. First, I genuinely enjoy spending time with children and teaching them new skills. One of the best times with my husband was when we volunteered for a month overseeing a summer day camp in rural Maine. Not long after, I taught for a year. While I realized teaching wasn’t the right career for me, I loved working with kids one-on-one. Second, I want to share the breadth of natural and human wonder with my children. I want to bring them to the United States’ National Parks, to the great cities of the world, and to our local nature center. Third, I want to share my values with my children. I want to teach them that every person is worthy of respect. I want to share the stories of my heroes, who worked to forward the causes of peace and justice – Martin Luther King, Sisters Marie and Lucy at H.O.M.E. in Maine, and my mother, who works with underserved children. Lastly, I want to share my faith with my children. I want to teach them that God loves them, how a community of faith can support each other, and how they can share that love with their neighbors. As I move through my pregnancy, I’ve also realized that I’m looking forward to the challenge of becoming a more patient, giving person.

Most of these reasons also apply to adopting a child or fostering a child, so why have a child biologically? Personally, I want to be able to know my child from birth, something that is extremely rare in adoptions. In some ways, I’m enjoying pregnancy and the time it’s giving me to bond with my future child. In addition, I want the legal protection and emotional security from knowing that my legal relationship with my child cannot change, the way it could in an adoption or foster situation. (I find the situation in Russia particularly chilling and sympathize with the potential parents who are now in legal limbo.)

But all of my reasons are selfish, in one form or another. They’re emotionally selfish, in that they fulfill my emotional needs and wants, regardless of what my future child may or may not feel. Children who are adopted, especially from an early age, bond just as well with their adopted parents as those who know them from birth. My reasons are culturally selfish, in that I want to pass on my values and perspectives. While my values may be radically different from fundamentalists of any stripe, my reasons for wanting to pass them on are mostly the same. From a natural resources point of view, having children as an American – which I am – is selfish. Even the poorest and/or lowest-impact Americans have a carbon footprint twice the size of the average person worldwide. If I wanted to work with children, there are innumerable opportunities to volunteer without needing to bring another person into the world.

Some liberals get around these facts by arguing that if they raise their children right, they’ll be increasing the number of people in the world working for justice, economic equality, and environmental sustainability. But while I hope my children will advocate for those issues, it’s unfair for me to expect them to follow in my footsteps. I can’t assume my children will adopt my values without violating their right to make their own choices.

This is not to say that all women or couples who have children biologically are selfish, as selfishness requires freedom. I acknowledge I am immensely privileged – economically and socially. I know that many women worldwide and even in the U.S. cannot choose against having children because of legal and societal pressures that limit their reproductive choices. But fortunately, I do have and can exercise those choices.

Taking all of that into account, why do I want to have children biologically if it’s selfish? I believe being a little selfish, enough to take care of our needs and some of our wants, can be a good thing. Being selfish means that we can take care of ourselves well enough to help others. Women in particular often experience pressure to be unselfish to the point that it that hurts themselves and their families. Understanding our own needs can motivate us to improve our relational and leadership skills, helping us be more loving and empathetic. Being selfish can even help us fulfill our values and reaching our goals for our communities. In fact, a book I’ve read on community organizing argues that recognizing our own self-interest is key to doing social justice activism. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the destructive trap of “white man/rich person’s burden.”

Of course, there’s a limit to this line of thought – I’m definitely not a fan of Ayn Rand or objectivism as a philosophy. But I’ve come to realize that there’s a point at which you need to balance your own needs with other people’s. This applies just as much to having children as anything else. Acknowledging that no matter how difficult giving birth and/or raising children may be, your own reasons for having them may be selfish is a good, honest thing.

So often, society puts parents and particularly mothers on a pedestal that frames them as being “selfless” and “giving” no matter what. That framing erases these women’s identities as anything other than mothers. Because of this box, society also demonizes those who choose not to have children. Likewise, it completely erases or marginalizes those who want to biologically have children but cannot. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation based on a false dichotomy.

If society could acknowledge that many people’s reasons for having children are selfish and that’s acceptable, I think we’d have healthier attitudes towards parents and non-parents alike.

Twelve Miles and the Bechdel Test

In 1934, the states of New Jersey and Delaware went to the Supreme Court over a border dispute. The Court’s decision relied on the 1682 land grant to William Penn of all the land within a twelve-mile circle of the town of New Castle. The Twelve-Mile Circle forms much of the Delaware–Pennsylvania border and bits of Delaware’s borders with New Jersey and Maryland. The Delaware–New Jersey border is unusual in that the 1934 case defined that border as on the Circle till it touched the low-water mark on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, then following the river bank back to the Circle, rather than dividing the river along its midpoint as is usual when a river contains a state line.

Hold that thought.

A friend of mine, Daniel, asked my opinion on whether a conversation in a story he’s writing would pass the Bechdel test. He knew the conversation had two women and he knew they were talking to each other, and that’s parts one and two of a Bechdel pass. His question was, since the subject of the conversation is a trans man and the conversers are speaking of him as though he is a third woman, would the conversation pass part three? [1]

As far as I’m concerned, asking that question is quibbling over the exact placement of the Twelve-Mile Circle while ignoring that, if Delaware (twenty-five hundred square miles) is all the media in a given year that passes Bechdel, then New Jersey (eighty-seven hundred square miles) is all the media in that same year that doesn’t. Actually, those numbers don’t look right. If twenty-five-hundred-square-mile Delaware is Bechdel passes, Bechdel fails are forty-six-thousand-square-mile Pennsylvania.

Map of the mid-Atlantic states. Delaware is labeled BP for Bechdel Pass. Pennsylvania is labeled Not Bechdel Pass.

Given the size difference between Delaware and the other mid-Atlantic states—given that that size difference is the problem under discussion—who cares where exactly the Twelve-Mile Circle is? Who cares whether the Circle is centered on the New Castle courthouse or on a point a mile or two northwest, whether the Circle is a true circle or a series of circular arcs? Who cares whether a Bechdel-passing conversation must involve women or may involve girls, whether misgendering someone by calling him a she renders a conversation about him a Bechdel pass, whether genderqueer people can get in on Bechdel passes at all? Spending time debating those points, though necessary for the people actually on that border, is a waste of time for people in Dover or Harrisburg, well away from the border. The problem here is that the border is south of Philadelphia, not somewhere east of Pittsburgh and west of Altoona. (This would be equitable only if a substantial amount of New Jersey contains media that has male characters who never talk to each other unless it’s about women.)

Delaware, New Jersey, and two-thirds of Pennsylvania within a single border labeled Bechdel Pass. The western third of Pennsylvania is labeled Not.

Daniel’s question is a valid question to have asked, and a good one. He reveals a weakness of the Bechdel test: like many things (hello second-wave feminism and most of third-wave), it functions in a cissexist, strict-gender-binary framework. A character is male or female as assigned at birth, and they are so till death. There’s no room for genderqueer or genderfluid people, nor for people who come to realize (or always know) that their gender is not the one assigned them.

That weakness is not, necessarily, a problem. The distinction between women and female-assigned-at-birth people often seems another example of debating where to within a foot is twelve miles to New Castle. (I say that as someone who is female-assigned-at-birth and not always a woman; that is, as someone to whom that distinction is highly relevant.) Cis male characters outnumber not-cis-male characters in media overall, cis men have more privilege on the relevant axes than anyone who is female and/or was assigned so at birth, and that seems the key thing.

Yes, saying so is erasure of gender minority concerns in service of cis woman concerns. I do know. The cis woman concerns: still valid. And there’s a lot more cis women than gender-minority people, and they’re farther along in the quest for equality of media representation. Cis women are consistently present in media, if not in nearly the numbers cis men have; cis women’s goal with respect to media representation should be more cis female characters, who are treated with the narrative respect due to cis male characters and who interact with one another like how cis male characters do. Gender-minority folk are consistently absent in media; gender-minority folk’s goal with respect to media representation should be any gender-minority characters, who are treated with the narrative respect due to cis male characters and who have more to their characters than being a gender minority.

For more solid examples, Iron Man is a technical Bechdel pass. Pepper Potts and Christine Everhart talk about Tony Stark and the conversation has a few consecutive lines that don’t mention him. The Avengers is a fail. But The Avengers has more female characters than Iron Man (nothing like a 1:1 ratio, but nearer that), so what’s keeping The Avengers from passing? To make Iron Man a true pass would require replotting the whole thing to make it not about privileged cismasculinity, or possibly about such in a deconstructive way. The Avengers, we’d just need Natasha Romanov and Maria Hill to talk about doing their jobs. Simply having a gender-minority character in a blockbuster film would be a tremendous step towards equal representation of that demographic.

The Bechdel test, applied individually or in aggregate, is useful for addressing cis women’s concerns about media representation. Modified, it can be useful for media representation of any other underprivileged demographic, but if the underprivileged demographic is outnumbered (as gender-minority folk are by cisgender folk; as cis women are not by cis men), not as useful, if indeed it is useful at all. And even when looking at something where Bechdel is of certain value, I am not concerned with the precise boundary between Pass and Not Pass. The problem is that even when we expand the Twelve-Mile Circle as far as we can stretch it, moving its center a mile and some towards Pennsylvania and including in Delaware all of the eponymous river within the Circle’s bounds instead of dividing the river down the middle, Delaware’s a lot smaller than Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Even when we expand the Bechdel-pass definition as far as we can stretch it, having a Bechdel pass be any conversation between two female-identifying or female-identified-at-birth people, including female-identified-at-birth people as a valid subject of a Bechdel-passing conversation even when the people in question are male, Bechdel-passing media is far outnumbered by Bechdel-failing media.

It doesn’t matter where exactly the dividing line is. The problem is that that line is many miles from where it ought to be.

[1] I told Daniel I wouldn’t label the story a Bechdel pass on the strength of that conversation, though the women speaking, if they know the term, would think of it as such. I asked if he could send the conversation off on a tangent that would make it an unquestionable pass, but he said that wouldn’t work given the story’s first-person point-of-view character is the trans man. I had to ask that question, and I’m glad he asked his. [back]

When Serving the Public Doesn’t Pay

by Storiteller

Content note: Job layoffs

I am a public servant. I take both parts of that word seriously. Although I currently work for the federal government, I would still consider myself a public servant even if I worked for a non-profit organization, my other likely career path. However, too many people and organizations take the second part of the phrase – “servant” – to mean servants to themselves and take that as carte blanche to disrespect them.

Unfortunately, a couple of my friends recently suffered under a group that seemed to take joy in taking advantage of idealistic people. They both worked for a legal non-profit that derived support from a for-profit law firm. Because they believe deeply in their chosen focus, they worked 50 and 60 hour weeks on a particular case for more than a year. When the organization finally closed the case, the law firm won $20 million of the settlement money. Understandably, the non-profit lawyers thought that they would all get raises for their unpaid overtime. Instead, the for-profit firm’s partners declared that they would no longer donate to the non-profit and retired, effectively laying off everyone at the non-profit organization. So much for serving the public good.

While most examples aren’t as jaw-dropping, the non-profit world is far from being a universally fair place. When I was interviewing for jobs, one non-profit informed me that it was both common and expected to work more than 60 hours a week. For this absurd amount of work? A mere $25,000 a year, no matter your location’s cost of living. After doing the math, I realized that the group, which pushed for a higher minimum wage, was actually paying their own workers less than the hourly minimum. Needless to say, I didn’t pursue that position.

So why do some non-profit organizations (not all by any means) expect their employees to work corporate hours, while paying them far less with fewer resources? In the first example, it was obviously greed. But in others, I think it’s a belief that the work they do is so good and right that it trumps the well-being of their employees. It’s seen as a privilege to do what you believe in and you’re expected to pay for that privilege. The competitiveness of the non-profit world only feeds that attitude. Coming out of graduate school, I applied for more than a hundred jobs, many of for which I was well-qualified. I received four interviews, only two of which were for non-profits. Many non-profits are willing to be so demanding because young, idealistic people believe that they have to be mistreated to do something they care about. Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t do the employees and the populations the organization are serving any favors.

Most obviously, it’s hypocritical. How do you expect anyone to take your cause seriously if you can’t show your employees common decency? It also favors hiring young, privileged people over those with greater financial responsibilities. Most people who make that little in major cities either live with someone who makes more (like their parents or a spouse) or take on a second job, which is impractical if you’re working 60 hour weeks.

On a more practical level, it results in bad advocacy. People who are tired and stressed all of the time aren’t as effective as those who are well-rested. Staff members who are assigned far too many tasks can’t build the foundational skills for good activism. Good advocacy – especially in social justice – is based on listening to the people you’re serving. If you never have time to truly listen, you may cause more harm than good. Similarly, it’s very hard for people to learn from their mistakes if they’re constantly bombarded with stressful situations. People need down-time to help them see how to do it better instead of jumping constantly from one thing to another. Lastly, people whose entire life is their job won’t have the broader perspective needed for activism. Even though there can be a good deal of grunt work involved, leadership comes from a nuanced perspective drawing on a host of life experiences. Someone who does nothing but their job and talks to no one outside of it will never develop that broader context.

Beyond the individual level, these demands result in a less effective workforce. Those hours combined with that level of pay results in major burnout and turn-over. Instead of moving to another non-profit, many people get fed up and join the corporate world or government. As a result, a large percentage of the workforce – not just in one organization, but across the non-profit sector – is inexperienced. This creates a dangerous cycle where people assume that having inexperienced, overworked young people as their on-the-ground team is how it’s supposed to be.

This attitude even has negative reverberations beyond the non-profit world. It creates a feeling that if you love and believe in what you do, you should make less money. Because Western society, and American society in particular, devalues those who make less money, people don’t respect those professions. In particularly, I’ve seen this in attitudes towards teachers, where people assume that because they enjoy their jobs but believe they should be paid more, their jobs must be easy and they’re greedy. (Anyone who says that should have to teach kindergarten for a day.) I’ve heard plenty of similar statements about government workers.

This attitude doesn’t just hurt those people – it hurts everyone. It implies that hating your job should be the default. How does that make us a better and more productive society?

My call is to put the “public” back in “public servant.” In my opinion, everyone should be a public servant in some form or another. We should demand that everyone get treated well at their jobs and be compensated fairly, no matter what they do. If we can work towards a society where everyone’s job contributes to the greater good and they are treated well, we’ll not only be a lot happier, but much more financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable as well.