Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gender Bending: Women Dressing As Men in the 19th Century

This was written for a class about how we construct women's history.

Identity is a multi-faceted concept that scholarship has recently begun to explore. Gender identity plays an important role in both the slave narrative The Bondwoman’s Narrative and the documentary Rebel, as the respective protagonists Hannah Crafts and Loreta Janeta Velazquez complicate their womanhood by cross-dressing as men. Both women unapologetically blur their gender identities by wearing men’s clothing in order to achieve their respective goals and solve their mutual “problem” of being women, but differ in their ideological reasons for doing so. 

Hannah and Loreta both don male garb in order to affect a desired outcome. After Hannah’s masters force her to work in the fields and get married, she runs away clothed in “a suit of male apparel” (Crafts 216). Dressing as a man obscures her true identity as a woman, keeping the people she encounters from suspecting that she is the runaway her masters are searching for (Crafts 218-219). Loreta also masquerades as male, but for a strikingly different reason: to serve in the Confederate army. She successfully enlists after her husband and children die, but she is only able to do so because she hides her feminine identity; when she finally is discovered, she is forced out of active combat.

Both recorded their unusual modes of dress without giving excuses for their conduct. Hannah simply says that she saw the men’s clothes and felt they would “answer my purpose admirably” (Crafts 216). Considering that she stresses being a good Christian several times in the narrative, it is interesting that she does not hesitate from wearing men’s clothes, even though such dress would have been considered immodest by nineteenth century religious and social standards. It is less surprising that Loreta proudly talks about her cross-dressing, as this behavior evidences her patriotism. Her willingness to pretend that she is a man just proves how strongly she loves and desires to serve her adopted country. Ironically, dressing as a man helps Loreta assimilate into American culture, allowing a Cuban-American woman immigrant to pass as a white American-born man.

Hannah and Loreta’s cross-dressing behaviors are not entirely similar to each other: while Hannah dresses as a man to subvert the system of slavery, Loreta does so to bolster it as an institution. It is interesting to note this stark contrast in the two women’s motivations for the same non-socially sanctioned behavior. Considering Loreta’s higher social status and Hannah’s history as a slave, it’s unsurprising that the two disagree about slavery despite coming from the South.

Both Hannah and Loreta considered their identities as women problematic: Hannah believed that she would be more easily identified if she went on the run presenting a female gender identity, and Loreta knew that she would be barred from joining the army as a woman. They overcame the “problem” of being women by cross-dressing and passing as male, thereby taking agency in a world where they were disenfranchised due to their sex, minority race, and in Hannah’s case, social status. Although the two women come from very different backgrounds, both were drawn to cross-dressing for various reasons, boldly doing whatever it took to accomplish their aims.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Video: The Ms. Male Character Trope

 I took a class called Gender and Fandom* last semester, and the professor introduced us to the wonder of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, which uploads videos that critique issues of gender within the articles that fandom consumes. Although I cannot claim to be a gamer, I found this Feminist Frequency video about the trope of male characters being "feminized" into female characters forms really interesting.

I'm too young to have played the original form of Pac-Man, which the video discusses extensively, but I do remember playing Ms. Pac-Man on my Game Boy Advance** as a kid. I did not notice how Ms. Pac-Man was only distinguished from Pac-Man by a pink bow, but I was always irritated by the fact that my gaming console was called a Game Boy and not a Game Girl. Interestingly, in 1995, about seven or eight years before I started using a Game Boy, Ninetendo reported that half of the product's users were female. I know that the Game Boy has evolved into some other console by a non-gender specific name at this point in gaming history, and I'm rather happy that that's the case. I know that I was never held back from playing on it, but I can easily imagine that other girls would have been reluctant to use an item that literally has the word boy in its name.

*Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds.
**I actually still have it, and I'm pretty sure it still works, despite being about ten years old.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Judy Norsigian on Women's Health in America

I recently heard Judy Norsigian, a cofounder of Our Bodies, Ourselves, speak near my college campus. I really enjoyed hearing Norsigian speak. I had interviewed her by phone and written about Our Bodies,Ourselves (OBOS) in the past, so it was a real privilege to be in the same room in her and hear what she had to say. You can read my notes on her speech here.

Although I already knew about the history of OBOS because of the article I wrote on the organization and the interview I conducted with Norsigian, I found her discussion of its founding and work really interesting. It’s really mind blowing to think that before OBOS came out, there was no literature on women’s bodies that used easily-understandable language and was intended to educate the general populace. I guess my surprise at this lack of information stems from the fact that I don’t really remember life without the Internet; to me, any knowledge I wish to access is, and always has been, a click away.

I think it’s really great that OBOS doesn’t limit itself to only providing accurate information about women’s bodies and health, but also extends into the activist arena. Considering how politicized the woman’s body and health has become in the past few election cycles, I suppose it would have been difficult for OBOS not to take a stance on the issues, but I’m still happy that it has. It’s awesome that they have actually reached out to members of Congress to show them that their votes on women’s health are being monitored, and the public expects them to be educated on the issues.

It’s also wonderful that the organization gets involved in issues that aren’t strictly related to women’s health, like encouraging young women of the millennial generation like myself to vote through the Our Bodies, Our Votes. I found Norsigian’s mention of her niece’s reluctance to vote (because “politics is boring”) really powerful. If someone close to a woman like Norsigian, who is so active in progressive causes, can fall prey to not wanting to vote, then it can happen to anyone. There is so much at stake for women in every election, and it’s imperative that millennials understand that every vote counts. I’m glad that OBOS is doing its part to get young women into voting booths.

I also found Norsigian’s discussion of the dangers of donating eggs really eye-opening. I’ve read a little bit on the Internet about how this is a highly under-researched practice and that it is unwise to respond to random donor requests, but I had never heard that the search for egg donors had spanned internationally, or the extent of the dangers of donating too often.

The lack of research into egg donation just underscores how little the medical world cares, or is willing to pay attention to, women’s health concerns. At Norsigian’s recommendation, I watched the documentary Absolutely Safe, which is about the dangers of silicone breast implants and the medical world’s inattentiveness to the issue. It’s actually terrifying how little research has been done into these implants, despite the volume of women who have had problems with them. It’s the same story with egg donation. On a personal, anecdotal level, I know so many women whose cancer, MS, or other fatal diseases went undiagnosed for years because (male) doctors didn’t take their complaints seriously. Medical practitioners, apparently, just don’t want to listen to women.

It makes me feel good to know that organizations like OBOS and activists like Judy Norsigian exist, since they are fighting the good fight and making sure that women’s health improves. OBOS had (and continues to have) an indelible mark on history, demystifying women’s bodies and creating an environment where women could begin to ask questions and understand themselves better. Women like Norsigian continue OBOS’s mission, working to ensure that public health decisions are based off of good science and research. I am so grateful to live in a world where there are activists working to ensure that my health is taken care of.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Expanding the Conversation on Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern, a fabulous teenage Jewish feminist blogger and tefillin-wearer. She recently founded V'Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit.

A few years ago, I began to think about the possibility of wearing tzitzit and laying tefillin. As a curious fourteen-year-old, naturally the first place I went to explore this idea was the internet. But when I searched for "women and tefillin," I found only articles explaining why women do not wear tefillin, and "women and tzitzit" turned up "tzitzit belts" marketed by messianic Christians. In the past few months, the Jewish news and blogosphere has exploded with stories of young women laying tefillin. It has been my great joy to be a part of these stories, and I hope that now, when some young woman Googles "women and tefillin," she is met with more than explanations of why we do not perform this mitzvah (commandment).

This press coverage, however, is not enough. The driving force behind my decision to finally begin observing these mitzvot was my female role models. Conversations with female teachers solidified my beliefs and strengthened my resolve, and when I finally screwed up the courage to lay tefillin, it was a woman who taught me. The number of women interested in tzitzit and tefillin, however, is small (but growing!) and not concentrated in one place. Many women, including myself, often feel alone, and this makes it even harder to muster up the courage to stand out by doing mitzvot.

It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit. V’Tzivanu is a forum for the publication of women’s writing about their experiences with tefillin and tzitzit. Our first post, from Jen Talyor Friedman, a soferet who writes tefillin, went up yesterday, and upcoming posts explore women’s relationship to tzitzit and tefillin in light of motherhood, veganism, family custom, and more. It is my great hope that V’Tzivanu will be a resource for girls and women who fear that they are alone, and for the broader Jewish community. There can never be too many women's stories in the world, nor mitzvot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Philosophizing on Science and Abortion

This was originally written for a class about morality.

If we accept that women have the inalienable human right to obtaining abortions, it follows that nothing – including science – should be used to limit the scope of that right. Although the law in the United States criminalizes abortion after the first trimester, and many politicians seek to curtail even this short window of time, women have the ultimate right to autonomy over their own bodies.

A fetus is only potential life. Regardless of whether or not a fetus has personhood in any sense doesn’t change the fact that one person has no right to use another person’s body without his or her permission, as a fetus is doing in its mother’s womb. Even if, for example, science makes it possible for a fetus to be viable from inception, so long as it is part and parcel of the mother, she holds the right to terminate or continue with the pregnancy.

As an Orthodox Jew, I personally follow the halakha (Jewish law) that a woman may only have an abortion if the fetus is posing a danger to her life or health. However, as a feminist activist, I hold the belief that it is a woman’s right to have abortion access without restrictions, regardless of how I would comport myself in my personal life.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Some Experiences With Street Harassment - I Did Not Ask You

I did not ask you to say good morning to me. I was in a bus station at 8:30 AM alone; all I wanted was to grab a coffee and get back to campus. I certainly did not want you to say “goooood morning” to me in that tone of voice, nor for you to give me that up and down look. I don’t know what you were looking at, anyway; I was wearing a pair of off-label Uggs and a long, brown, shapeless coat.

I did not ask you to say “smile, it’s not Monday!” when I walked past you right outside of the main hub of campus. I have a calendar, thanks. I know it’s not Monday. I’ll smile when I damn well want to smile, and only then. Your encouragement is not going to make me want to bare my teeth in any positive fashion.

I never ask you to say “good morning, young lady!” or “hello there, pretty girl!” whenever I forget to cross the street parallel to the main hub of campus before I make it to the block that you’re always on. And yet, you always do. I always turn away and ignore you, and you’re never unpleasant about my complete disregard of your existence. But the fact that I have to constantly remember to cross the street, and that I have to tolerate your unsolicited comment to me, is unfair. This should be my street as much as it is yours, and I resent that you are taking it away from me.

My friend and I did not ask you to yell “come home with me!” and assorted other, more graphic requests for sexual favors at my friend and me while we were walking on a street in Haifa on a Saturday night and you were drunk with your friends. Neither one of us were, are, or ever will be interested in going home with you, and I am glad that I had the presence of mind to ask “does saying that to girls normally work?” instead of just storming off or ignoring you. I wish you had responded, instead of just getting nasty. I would have been interested to learn if harassing women on the street actually has ever gotten you a date. I think that your lack of response gives me all the answer I need to know, though.