Tag Archives: feminism

The Heroines of 34justice

Update (8/29/17): Sadly, Aung San Suu Kyi has not only condoned but helped facilitate the Burmese government’s ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim minority population in the time since this post was written. Given this atrocity and thanks to the heads up from Richard Tilley and others, we have decided to remove her from the site’s banner, though the post below still contains the original language from when the banner included her picture.

In case you haven’t heard yet, the United States Treasury Department decided in April to overhaul how our currency looks.  The new $20 bill will feature Harriet Tubman, an amazing abolitionist who, in addition to bringing hundreds of former slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage.  She won’t be the sole occupant of her new real estate – despite ceding the front of the twenty to Tubman, the bill’s current (and rather despicable) mascot, Andrew Jackson, is just migrating to the back – but Tubman will be one of the first women since Martha Washington and one of the first Black people ever to appear on American paper money.  The qualifier “one of” is only necessary because the Treasury Department will also be adding Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, and Sojourner Truth to the back of the $10 bill and Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. to the back of the five.

Since the design of the new bills won’t be completed until 2020, White men can continue to revel in their exclusive hold on U.S. paper currency for quite some time.  We try to move a little faster here at 34justice, however, and, thanks in part to a reminder from a Twitter commenter, we’re going to see the Treasury Department’s delayed modifications to the dollar and raise them a change, effective today, to our website banner.

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The new 34justice logo features (from left) Ida Wells, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai, Cesar Chavez, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Authentically celebrating the achievements of women (or any other group of people, for that matter) requires far more than visual representation.  We are consistently humbled by reminders from our female partners, friends, and family members that women have played a tremendous role in advocating for power-balancing policy while occupying a marginalized position even within their own movements, and we plan to continue to look for opportunities to elevate women’s voices on this blog.

In the meantime, we hope our revamped banner better highlights both the diversity of the people who have fought for social change and the interconnectedness of their respective challenges to power.  History is replete with examples of courageous women who, like the following four newcomers to the 34justice logo, have made vital contributions to social justice movements and left indelible marks on the world.

Helen Keller

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Many people know that Helen Keller, despite being a “wild and unruly” child after becoming blind and deaf when she was 19 months old, was very bright, mastered sign language, and eventually learned to speak.  Fewer people know that she was an an active leader of the American socialist movement, a suffragette, an ardent advocate for people with disabilities, and an anti-war activist (not to mention a strong supporter of birth control).  In fact, Keller helped found the ACLU and was a renowned author and speaker on social justice issues, emphasizing the intersectionality of various struggles in her work and earning the well-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Aung San Suu Kyi

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In 1988, after spending most of her life in India and England, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to her native Burma to take care of her mother, who had suffered a severe stroke.  That same year, Burma’s longtime military dictator stepped down and a pro-democracy movement – along with backlash from the military junta that killed thousands of protesters – took the country by storm.  Suu Kyi emerged out of the “8888 Uprising” (termed as such because it began on August 8, 1988) as a prominent member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), advocating for “a non-violent movement towards multi-party democracy” as well as “human rights and the rule of law.”  The NLD won 59 percent of the vote in a 1990 election and should have taken 80 percent of the seats in parliament, but the junta nullified the election results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

In 2010, the Burmese government finally held an election.  It was unfortunately a sham and the military-backed party won in a landslide, but Suu Kyi was released a week after it took place.  She met with the country’s president and helped facilitate some long overdue political reforms, and in 2012, the NLD won in a landslide in the country’s first “free and fair” elections in over 20 years.  Suu Kyi, who continued her social justice advocacy, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from the United States and was finally able to collect the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991.  Burma (officially known today as Myanmar, though there is considerable controversy about its name) is far from where it needs to be, but the NLD, with Suu Kyi at the helm, won another decisive victory in 2015 that sent “a clear message that civilians are now in charge.”  While technically banned from the presidency because of the country’s military-designed constitution, Suu Kyi has assumed the position of “state counselor” – created just for her – and is effectively the leader of the new government.

Ida Wells

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In 1884, 71 years before Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat to a White man on a bus in Alabama, Ida Wells refused to give up her seat to a White man on a train in Tennessee.  After being forcibly removed, she sued the railroad and initially won her case, though Tennessee’s Supreme Court overruled this decision.  Wells, a teacher, began to write about that and other injustices.  When she highlighted the unacceptably poor conditions of the schools serving Black students in Memphis, she lost her teaching job.  But that didn’t discourage her; instead, it further invigorated her passion for social-justice-oriented investigative journalism.

Wells began to debunk myths about lynchings; at the time, many people thought they were appropriate responses to rape or some other heinous crime.  She documented how they were actually White supremacist murders of people who competed with White businesses, had consensual relationships with White women, or were even viewed to have looked at White people wrong.  Forced to move north by the anger and death threats her writing provoked, Wells continued to speak out about these injustices, touring Great Britain and successfully drumming up some European opposition to lynching.  She was also a founding member of the NAACP and several women’s organizations.

Malala Yousafzai

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The Taliban controlled much of northwestern Pakistan in 2007 and aggressively suppressed women’s rights; girls were banned not just from “cultural activities like dancing and watching television,” but from attending school as well.  That didn’t sit well with Malala Yousafzai, who at age 11 delivered a speech entitled “How dare the Tailban take away my basic right to education?”  Soon thereafter, Yousafzai began to blog and speak out about her experience under the Taliban regime for the BBC, garnering worldwide attention and a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

In response, the Taliban tried to kill her; she was shot in the head on a bus in October of 2012.  The assassination attempt sparked a massive outpouring of support for her cause and led to “the first Right to Education Bill in Pakistan.”  Amazingly, Yousafzai survived and immediately resumed her advocacy, kicking things off with a speech at the United Nations in 2013 and eventually co-winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.  When she turned 18 on July 12, 2015, she opened a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and “called on world leaders to invest in ‘books, not bullets.’”

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Supporting Bernie Sanders is a Feminist Choice

Lela Spielberg is a lifelong advocate for gender equality. She has worked in the education and social services field as a teacher, policy analyst, and program designer at a local family foundation in Washington, DC.  In this post, she describes how the dialogue about Bernie Sanders and his supporters illustrates some of the problems with a particular brand of American feminism.

Lela Spielberg

Lela Spielberg

Over the last month, as Bernie Sanders has gained popularity in the polls, the media and prominent political figures have ramped up their attacks against him. At first, these attacks were unsurprising to me: “he’s inexperienced;” “he’s too idealistic;” “he’ll never get anything done.” These statements are part of the typical chorus of attacks that Washington insiders and committed capitalists have used against progressive candidates since the beginning of time.  I won’t spend my time debunking these myths, as there have been several articles, including ones on this blog, that have done so already. However, about a month ago, a new strand of attacks emerged that I have found more troubling – as a woman, as a millennial, and as an American. These attacks allege that Bernie and/or his supporters are anti-feminist. Not only are they untrue, but their language also demonstrates the deep sense of elitism and entitlement that pervades traditional American feminism.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I’m a Bernie supporter. I’ve identified as a socialist ever since I learned about the concept in my eighth-grade world history class, and I’ve admired Bernie’s activism since I moved to Washington over six years ago. Until Bernie jumped into the race, I had planned on casting a rather unenthusiastic vote for Hillary Clinton. While I believe Clinton to be smart and hard-working, her past support for bad trade deals, aggressive war, and welfare reform are not aligned with my values of fairness, peace, and economic equality. Bernie, on the other hand, has spent decades fighting for these values and has a record to prove it.

Moreover, all of these issues are at the heart of what I believe feminism to be—fighting for fairness for all women, regardless of their race, sexual identity, education level, and economic position. Consider, for example, that two thirds of workers who earn the minimum wage are women. While Clinton has voiced support for raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, only Sanders has embraced and aggressively campaigned for the $15 minimum wage that thousands of women throughout the United States are demanding. Or think about the young women and girls being rounded up and deported by the Obama Administration. Clinton defended these actions six months ago and still won’t commit to ending them. Sanders, on the other hand, has spoken out strongly against the deportation raids and in support of Central American children. To me, feminism is not just about abortion rights and breaking the glass ceiling; it’s also about making sure that all women have access to good, reliable prenatal care and early screenings for breast cancer under a Medicare for All health care system, which Bernie Sanders supports and Hillary Clinton does not.  Feminism is about fighting for the empowerment of disadvantaged women both in the United States and around the world.

Yet powerful public figures, including two “feminist icons,” have called my feminism (as well as the seriousness of my convictions) into question by mocking my choice to support Bernie over Hillary. While they’ve since issued partial apologies for their most egregious comments – Gloria Steinem’s assertion that young women only support Bernie because “the boys are with Bernie” and Madeleine Albright’s statement that “there is a special place in hell for women who won’t help other women” by voting for Hillary Clinton – the fact that they made them at all, and their failure to really own them, propagates an American feminism that isn’t about supporting all women, but is about supporting wealthy, powerful, white women. So do comments by the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who said in an interview with the New York Times in January that she sees “a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.”

The idea that young women are complacent and don’t have a sense of history is wrong. I appreciate the strides women have made, in politics and in boardrooms across the country. These accomplishments are wonderful, and they should be celebrated and continued. However, in crowing about these accomplishments without acknowledging that most of them only benefit middle- and upper-class white women, it is Steinem, Albright, and Wasserman Schultz who forget the lessons of history. Even with Roe v. Wade, poor and working-class women still lack access to safe, affordable abortions and family planning choices that their wealthier female counterparts have. This deep inequality that has only grown in recent generations is one of the reasons I am voting for Bernie Sanders.

As it turns out, my peers feel similarly – Sanders leads Hillary when it comes to female voters under 45, and he beat Hillary by 11 percentage points among all women in the New Hampshire primary. Yet many media voices continue to paint Bernie supporters as mostly male by using the term “Berniebro.”  Coined in an article in the Atlantic, the Berniebro label originally characterized Bernie supporters as “white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, ‘upper middle-class’); and aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.”

Numerous other commentators, including Paul Krugman, have now picked up on this label.  In their estimation, the Berniebro is not only a privileged white man, but a sexist, online harasser, too. In reality, however, the term Berniebro is sexist. When it isn’t accusing women of being “bros,” it’s ignoring the voices of women (and, for that matter, the people of color and working-class people) who support Bernie.

Let me be clear: I am not defending anyone, Bernie supporter or otherwise, who makes sexist, nasty remarks about Hillary Clinton. Nor am I denying that Hillary Clinton encounters sexism that Bernie Sanders and other men never will – she absolutely does. However, I am challenging those writing and speaking about the election, and about Bernie and Hillary in particular, to broaden their thinking and definition of feminism. Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra wrote a wonderful piece for Alice Walker’s blog where they eloquently sum up this tension within the feminist community. They write:

In the US feminism is often understood as the right of women — and wealthy white women most of all — to share in the spoils of capitalism and US imperial power. By not confronting the exclusion of non-whites, foreigners, working-class people, and other groups from this vision, liberal feminists are missing a crucial opportunity to create a more inclusive, more powerful movement.

We have a long way to go before we have the truly inclusive, powerful feminist movement that the authors envision. Electing Clinton won’t get us there. To be fair, neither will electing Sanders. But not shaming women for casting a vote against economic, racial, and myriad other forms of inequality is one place we can start.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Gender Issues, US Political System