Monday, December 18, 2006

Shadow Week

As kind of a grand finale to my internship, my supervisor, Deva, arranged for me to shadow a different YWTF board member at her job for three days this week. This way, I would be able to sneak a peek inside a few nonprofits, see how they were different (or similar) to the missions and inner workings of YWTF, and possibly gleam a few career ideas.

On Tuesday, I shadowed Aisha Taylor at the Women's Ordination Conference, where the exclusive focus was working to get women ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church. I wasn't sure what to expect, as Aisha was one of few board members I had yet to meet, and the address listed on their website was a P.O. Box. Aisha told me how to get there, and I arrived at a nondescript strip mall in Fairfax to begin my day at their offices. Aisha, who is the Executive Director of WOC, and Nidza Vasquez, the Program Director, were very friendly, and fed me dark chocolates and artichoke-spinach dip as I set to work organizing a mailing to the leaders of about fifty dioceses, nationwide, showing that their parishioners supported women's ordination. I also hand-wrote Christmas cards to their big donors, and made a few copies of a memo. The office was decidedly cozy, with lots of beautiful art celebrating women in religion.

WOC really challenged a lot of my ideas about feminism and religion. I think it's an unfortunately common western feminist belief that extremely religious women are, in some ways, oppressed by the institutions at which they worship. With the Catholic Church's blatantly anti-contraceptive and anti-choice stance, I must have assumed that any self-respecting feminist would sever her ties with the Church; this was a very stupid assumption. There are billions of Catholic women all over the world who believe in equality for women; just because they are pious does not mean they are victims. Instead of abandoning the Church in which they were raised, why not work towards making the Church more accepting of them? Aisha and Nidza told me that every reason the Church has offered as to why women cannot be ordained has been refuted through a textual analysis of the Bible, and that celibacy and maleness are outdated prerequisites for priesthood, considering the worldwide shortage of celibate male priests and the all-too-obvious problems that have arisen from those requirements. They argued that women do a majority of the actual work within their dioceses, and that they have often felt called to ordination, but denied that right based on their gender, and that this was in blatant disregard of Jesus's teachings of respect and equality for all people. So true! When my day was over, and all the envelopes were sealed, postmarked, and ready to go, Aisha gave me something really cool: a fake dollar bill with the face of Thérèse de Lisieux, a patron saint of sorts for those in favor of women’s ordination, and a message reading, "To encourage the church to celebrate the gifts and calls of women equally with those men in all ministries, I am withholding $____ from this collection. I have contributed it to Women's Ordination Conference." I thought that was really neat.

The next day, I was to meet Alex Walden at Legal Momentum, a women's public policy firm located just a few blocks down from the YWTF offices. I showed up a bit early, and waited in their offices, which were big, white, and set into a grid of cubicles, while reading the New York Times. Alex showed up with a hankering for coffee, so we walked down to Ye Olde Starbucks for some caffeine and chit-chat about her job with Legal Momentum. Basically, Legal Momentum has a legal team and a policy team, who work through a variety of programs to publicize, both in court and out, the preexisting rights of women under the law, and work to push for new ones. Alex worked in policy, which means that she was the one who reviewed the firm's activities and made press releases, amongst other things. She was leaving for New York the next day to negotiate the new contract for Legal Momentum's workers, who are unionized. We chatted away about her career ambitions and mine, and the frustrations and rewards of working for an organization that's policy-oriented. A cup of coffee stretched into an hour or so, and then we went back to her office, where I helped her research the results of female candidates in the midterm elections--luckily, a topic I'd researched before!

Thursday was by far my favorite. I was lucky enough to shadow Sheerine Alemzadeh, who is a paralegal with the Tahirih Justice Center, which helps women without status who are in jeopardizing situations because they are women seek asylum and avoid deportation, by offering them pro bono legal assistance. The center started with the seminal case of Fauziya Kassindha, who fled her native land of Togo because she refused to undergo FGM; she was the first person granted asylum in the U.S. on the grounds of gender-based persecution. This was an amazing organization to get to see first-hand, and Sheerine was the perfect shadow to follow. I highly recommend that anyone reading this blog right now go check out their website right now to learn more about it, because to explain the details of their operations would take more space than I've got. Needless to say, they provide a much-needed service by giving women, who often don't speak English, and know little to nothing about the legal immigration system here, and are most likely unable to afford court fees, to live in a persecution-free environment. Whether they were fleeing their homelands due to rape, domestic violence, or persecution because they were feminists, or whether they came to the States as "mail-order brides" and were living in abusive relationships, Sheerine and her associates help them through a series of phone screenings, interviews, and counseling. I went to a meeting with the three paralegals, who went through a list of cases and decided which ones they could help, and who would take which case. Then, Sheerine took me out to lunch at a Thai place down the street, and we talked about why she loves her job so much. I told her how I thought it was so important to do hands-on, and not just policy-centered, advocacy, and she agreed, saying that the Center really balanced out the two by helping actual immigrant women and by lobbying. She has touched so many lives, both directly and indirectly, and she's only twenty-two! Amazing.

It was so nice to get out of my office and see how other young women are becoming trailblazers in the women’s movement, and in such different ways. Each of the organizations I visited serves a different and integral purpose. YWTF organizes younger women and gives us a forum for meeting up, sharing concerns and ideas, and helping our communities based on local needs. The Women’s Ordination Conference serves as the voice and action of millions of Catholic women who feel called to ordination, or who simply wish to be recognized for their work within the Church on a level comparable to men. Legal Momentum advocates for a variety of issues related to women, both by taking on important court cases related to women’s rights, and by generating policy that speaks to all women, regardless of class or status. The Tahirih Justice Center fields calls from immigrant women at risk for deportation or abuse and helps them negotiate the necessary legal work. And these are only five of hundreds of like-minded organizations in the DC metro area alone working to help women! It was truly refreshing to witness firsthand the commitment and dedication these women and their co-workers manifest, and I, for one, was inspired.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

YWTF Member Profile: DC Metro Chapter

I thought it would be neat to let our readers get a feel for who our members actually are—what they do, how they’re engaged in YWTF, and so on. I hope that future YWTF bloggers will continue this trend, so that we can round it out by featuring profiles from chapters across the country; for now, I’m staying close to home, focusing on the DC Metro Chapter. Enjoy!

Lacey Dunham


How long have you been a YWTF member?
1 year

Why/how did you join YWTF?
I stumbled across YWTF doing an Internet search. The group seemed to fit my interests and seemed like a great way to meet people, so I joined! The first event I went to was The Good Body by Eve Ensler. We saw her perform it at the Lincoln Theatre in NW.

What do you think is the best perk of being a YWTF member?
Getting to meet and talk with other younger women. I also enjoy how the DC group’s agenda is member driven; what we’re interested in is what we do as a group. I appreciate that openness and flexibility.

What was your favorite event that your chapter hosted?
I’m a creative person with a lot of interest in the written and performative arts, so I’ve enjoyed the performances the group has attended. Something new we’re doing that I really enjoy is our discussion evenings, an informal gathering of members to talk about an issue affecting younger women. It feels wonderful to connect with women over issues that are important and matter.

Are you involved in any other form of activism outside of YWTF?
I work with a neighborhood association in my area that works to provide a balanced voice for all citizens in the neighborhood, not just the affluent, property-owning (and often Caucasian) neighbors.

What is your profession?
Currently, I am a fundraiser with an international development research and action organization that performs our work through the lens of gender.

Where did you go/are you going to school? What did you major in?
I graduated from a women’s college, Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. I doubled majored in Creative Writing and Social Politics.

What do you like to do in your free time?
A lot! Reading and writing are my true loves so I read voraciously and provide occasional freelance book reviews for websites and businesses. I also write a lot and take part in a bi-weekly writing group in NW DC. Additionally, I sing in a gospel choir and work now and then at a local yoga studio. I try to find time to meditate daily and to play with my two cats. As you can see, I like to keep myself busy!

What’s the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
The last book I read was A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There are short-comings to her thesis, namely that she doesn’t take class and race into perspective but it’s an important book for anyone interested in women and feminism. I also finished a book recently by a young adult author, Francesca Lia Block. Her writing is simple but her language and imagery are often overwhelming with their beauty. She writes on very adult themes and I appreciate that she is exposing youth and children to ideas and concepts in the world from which I don’t believe they should be sheltered.

If you had to pick a younger woman role model, who would it be and why?
You know, I’m always very impressed with all the younger women I meet in DC. I love talking with them and discovering their passions, learning about their jobs, and what motivates them in their daily lives. I am much more motivated by all of these women than I am by any Hollywood face or name. I think women who are living their daily lives, who are making a difference, who have passion and dedication for what they do are important role models for me and everyone.

How do the goals of YWTF apply to your daily life?
YWTF provides a forum for me to explore myself and my relationship to the larger world, especially now that I’m a professional and no longer a university student. I think ageism is an enormous problem in our culture and I appreciate YWTF because, as a younger woman who is often seen as incompetent, unintelligent, and incapable because I’m both a woman and I’m younger, it’s meaningful for me to know that an organization exists to support me and my place in the world.

Monday, November 20, 2006

10 things YWTF members can do over Thanksgiving in the spirit of sisterhood

Thanksgiving is a special time in which friends and family come together and share a fantastic meal symbolic of the thanks we offer for the bounty that has been bestowed upon us. It’s also a unique opportunity to strengthen the bonds of sisterhood, both within your family and outside of it. Even though the women in your family and friends might drive you crazy sometimes, no one’s perfect, and we should all take the time to recognize the love and thanks we have for their presence in our lives.

10. Invite over all of the young moms you know (and their children) and have a special kid-friendly Thanksgiving arts and crafts party. Trace your hands to make turkeys, press leaves in wax paper, serve apple cider and turkey sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Sometimes Thanksgiving dinner can be so formal and stressful for mothers of young children; this event lets them relax and have fun while somebody else (you) does all the work.

9. Volunteer at your local women’s shelter! Thousands of women and children are displaced from their homes every year from poverty, natural disasters, domestic violence, and unemployment. They deserve a yummy dinner, too! Many shelters house their own Thanksgiving events, and need volunteers to donate, serve, and prepare food.

8. Invite all of your sisters over for a post-Thanksgiving leftover party. Open-faced turkey sandwiches taste better the next day, and besides, the women in your life are perfect for sharing stories about what your crazy family members did this year. You’ll all be glad for the excuse to leave the house and catch up.

7. Read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today. Since Thanksgiving is the closest thing we have to commemorating the indigenous peoples of America, we should take the time to educate ourselves about their societies (some of which were abound with female leaders!) and remember what this empire took from them. Also, Native American mythology is absolutely fascinating, and full of vibrant and awesome female characters you’ll be sure to draw inspiration from.

6. Let all of your sisters know how much they mean to you! The actual giving of thanks is often reserved for the dinner table, but that doesn’t mean you can’t show people outside of your immediate family your gratefulness. Send a card, or an email, or even just a text message, thanking them for something they did for you that year, or just for being there.

5. Especially with older couples, women are expected to prepare and serve dinner without question—Thanksgiving, and year-round. Turn this idea on its head by arranging for the male members of your family to serve everything, while the women stay seated and enjoy being waited upon. Have boys pull out chairs and set place cards, while their dads handle the heavy stuff.

4. Invite a friend who is single or whose family lives far away to have dinner with you and yours. I speak from personal experience when I say that there is nothing sadder than eating take-out on Thanksgiving alone because you couldn’t make it to see your mom. Your friend will be relieved to have plans, and removed from the situation enough to laugh at your crazy uncle (everybody has one) from a safe distance.

3. If you are going to be around extended family over the holidays, take the time to talk to the older women at the table—your grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, great-aunts, etc. I once had an assignment over Thanksgiving to do an in-depth interview with my Gram, and I learned so much more about who she was than I had over years of polite conversation. These women have been through it all, so why not run some of those big questions that have been plaguing you by them? They’ll be sure to give you an answer that will make you think, and probably laugh as well.

2. Let the women dining at your house know that there will be no weight-watching at your table. Thanksgiving is a celebration of bounty, and everyone who is lucky enough to partake of such a beautiful meal should be able to enjoy it without guilt or self-hatred, if for just this one day of the year. Make sure everyone knows that fat jokes and the like will not be looked upon kindly by their gracious hostess, and that she will insist on second helpings for everyone.

1. Do not, I repeat, do not let the matriarchs of your family do the clean-up. In my family, my grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-aunt do all of the cooking. Sometimes they let my dad help (he’s a chef), but no one else is permitted to set foot in their kitchen, and that’s fine with me. However, I have to return the favor. Following the age-old rule of “if you made it, you shouldn’t have to clean it,” I believe that the arduous task of clearing the table and scrubbing pots should be left up to us young’uns. Even if your obsessive-compulsive great-grandmother does come and rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher as soon as you’re done.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day

Every other November 6th, I ask my friends, “So are you voting tomorrow?”

Needless to say, I’ve heard every excuse and argument in the book.

You forgot to register. You saw what happened with the 2000 elections, and you don’t think your vote counts anyway. None of the candidates is especially appealing to you, and you’d rather not be forced to choose the better of two evils. You’re just not a political person. All of those nasty smear ads on TV are confusing, and a big turn-off. You meant to stop by the polls, but you were just really busy that day. Or, my personal favorite, you refuse to stoop to contribute to a system which is, in your opinion, farcical in terms of achieving real democracy.

As something of a skeptic myself, I understand where this type of disenchantment comes from. In recent years, the level of corruption at the highest echelons of government has become too obvious to ignore, often reinforcing beliefs held by many that the political structure is not a trustworthy one. What happened with the electoral college six years ago was certainly discouraging. And, I will be the first to admit that, at times, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the sheer Orwellian overtones of it all. But let’s be realistic: it’s not a conspiracy. Even though our forefathers were rich old men who didn’t give a thought to the rights of women or people of color, they did get one thing right: checks and balances. It’s a beautiful concept, or at least it’s meant to be. But a system that’s designed to be of the people, for the people, by the people, is not going to mirror its constituents if they do not care enough to vote. It’s just not going to work. Legislative elections are the very meat and potatoes of democracy—there is no electoral college. Your vote directly determines who will represent you and your community in our nation’s forum.

There are a unique set of challenges facing the woman who votes. Often, women are encouraged to simply vote as their husband does. They certainly are not targeted enough in campaign ads or outreach, and there are precious “spin-free” few media outlets that focus on educating women about the candidates and issues that are most likely to concern them. And, of course, we are significantly underrepresented in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. However, we also happen to comprise a huge chunk of the electorate. Women aged 18-40 are more likely to vote than our male peers, but we’re still teetering around the fifty-percent range. What about that other fifty percent? Everybody has a reason to vote, because everybody is affected by the outcome of an election. This year, with a record 2,431 women vying to join the 240 female “holdovers” who weren’t up for reelection this year, we’re looking at a more female-friendly Congress than ever before.

There are a myriad of issues which directly affect younger women at stake in this election! Are you and your partner married? If not, the medical benefits, domestic violence statutes, and other forms of protection offered to you by the state could be in jeopardy. This affects you! Do you make a living wage, or think that the minimum wage should be raised? This affects you! Do you, or do you plan on having children that you will be sending through the public school system? This affects you! Do you think women should have the option of a safe, sterile abortion? This affects you! Do you want to keep paying exorbitant gas prices or develop cheaper, safer alternative fuel sources? This affects you! Would you be comfortable in your kids’ sexual education if all they knew was abstinence? All of this effects you! And there’s so much more. I’ll spare you the piece about how women fought for the right to vote for years and how not voting is a betrayal of your heritage if you promise to just do it. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. Organize a carpool, or find one that already exists in your area. Do whatever you have to do. Just do it!

Here are some neat links to voting initiatives and resources for the educated female voter.

Voting Vixen
Women's Voices, Women Vote
Emily’s List’s WOMEN VOTE!
Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers
Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement
League of Women Voters

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lifestyle Activism, The Realistic Way

The concept of “lifestyle activism” has been showing up on my radar a lot lately. It was the subject of one of our Leadership Training Institute Workshops, lead by Amy Richards, and I’ve heard many a young activist bring it up in conversation. The idea is basically, “practice what you preach”; if you’re an animal rights activist, go vegan; if you’re an environmentalist, go green; etc. I had never thought about it before, but I love this idea, because it really focuses on the grassroots spirit of activism—something YWTF is all about! It’s different from lobbying, joining an organization, or demonstrating. It’s something that anyone, anywhere, can do at any time, and it’s based on tapping into your own personal power as an agent of improvement.

Okay, I admit it. I am far from a perfect lifestyle activist. Not all of my clothes are sweatshop-free, I have been known to duck into a McDonald’s every once in a blue moon when the desire for a taste of the fries I grew up on overwhelms me, I have an inexplicable penchant for the kind of misogynistic hip hop that gives most mothers the vapors, and if someone offers me a cup of coffee, I don’t ask if it’s fair-trade. But, by this definition of lifestyle activism, who is perfect? In today’s world, it’s pretty impossible to avoid patronizing some people and corporations that aren’t exactly female-friendly. What’s important is that we recognize the value of our money and actions, and realize that we can enact significant and sustainable change, all by ourselves; what’s important is that we make an effort. By watching where we spend and being a good neighbor, we’ll find that even the smallest action can make a world of difference!

As a consumer, my money is highly coveted by a wide variety of businesses and corporations, so I try my best to make sure that, in spending, I’m supporting companies who will, in turn, support women. I use the services of woman-owned businesses as much as I can. Do some research to find out which companies, both locally and nationally, are owned and/or operated by women; most areas have women’s capital funds or economic development groups that would be glad to provide you with listings. Bars, restaurants, garages, cab companies, housepainters, law firms, boutiques, bodegas—whatever service you can imagine, there’s sure to be a female entrepreneur who offers it. Women are often marginalized and excluded from the male-defined world of big business, so do your part to support your sisters!

One way I do my part is by purchasing clothes and bath products from companies with healthy-looking models, who rely on quality products to motivate my patronage. This way, I’m advocating positive body image for all girls and women by refusing to give my money to corporations who make me feel like there’s something wrong with me that needs to be fixed (by their product, with my money, of course!) A lot of the music I buy comes from small, independent distribution centers who support female artists. I respect female performers who value their skill as artists rather than as major-label sex-appeal products, and I respect the companies who support them even more! If I hear a movie’s got an explicit rape scene in it, I don’t go! I’m not spending ten bucks to see yet another hack male director shove that in my face—I’d rather check out some sweet flicks penned by women that offer insight into my life.

If you want to take your activism a step further, an intense scrutiny of your favorite name brands is in order: What do they pay their women workers? Are they equal opportunity employers? What is their stance on child labor? Do they provide day-care to their laborers? What percentage of management is female? You can find answers to some of these questions here, here for international companies, and here for companies with progressive policies toward women. If you find that the business in question is seriously lacking in these areas, it’s time to find a new brand, or at least significantly cut back on your rate of consumption.

Lifestyle activism can also be conducted through how we form and support our relationships. Mainstream American media often tells us that sisterhood should be replaced by acrimony and animosity. Instead of sharing our experiences with one another and deriving strength from these connections, we’re often encouraged to be catty and immediately dislike women who aren’t exactly like ourselves. As a woman, I keep open eyes and open ears to all of the women in my life. Acquaintances, family members, co-workers, clients, neighbors, teachers, whomever—they all have my support and I make sure they know that I am always available as a resource. Whether you’re walking a friend to her car, lending your couch to someone who has problems in their home life, or just checking in to say hi, your sisterly actions probably mean a lot more than you think. Most of the women I’ve spoken to about this say that what they want the most is someone who knows how to listen. So listen to the women in your life without an ulterior motive, be silent when necessary and know when to offer constructive advice. Be empathetic without being overly sympathetic; no one likes to be labeled a victim. I try to be as empowering as possible when someone’s talking to me about, say, an overbearing boyfriend or how they’re getting harassed at work. If someone has a problem I’m uncomfortable handling, I will refer them to someone who will, and then I’ll make sure that person follows up. But most importantly, I let them know that they’re not alone!

So, yeah. I like fast food and bad rap. But I throw all-girl sleepovers where we watch Thelma & Louise and Waiting to Exhale, eat chocolate and popcorn, and get silly. I get super excited every time I see a Dove ad with healthy, beautiful women on the side of a bus. I make heating pads for menstrual cramps out of socks adorned with buttons and patches and filled with rice to give as gifts during holidays. I try to be a good friend and a conscious consumer as much as I can—and I truly believe that the world, or at least my world, is that much better because of it.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Musings on the F-word

When I began the application process for this internship, I noticed that the word “feminism,” or any of its derivatives, was nowhere to be found in the mission statement or goals of YWTF. I found this strange, since, to me, it was clearly a feminist organization. Although I was aware that the word was controversial, I thought, surely we must be past this by now! Of course you’re feminists—we’re all feminists here. What’s the problem? And so, I set about drawing my own conclusions as to why the word is such a hot spot within the Movement today.

Ever since my first sociology class, when the word “feminist” was defined as someone who advocated that women have equal social, political, and economic rights to men, I have identified it as such. I never understood other women’s reluctance to adopt the title, assuming that they were worried about being labeled as man-hating lesbians or “feminazis.” To me, this was retroactive; how could we ever fully take possession of the word, and ourselves, if we continued to hesitate based on the reaction of men? My mother, for example, has never considered herself a feminist, while in my eyes, she was the embodiment of the word: a strong, powerful woman who is proud of, and comfortable in, her identity as a mother, a worker, a teacher; a woman who raised two equally strong-willed daughters, often holding down multiple jobs to provide for us; a woman who always made sure her husband would meet her halfway; a woman who quit her job of five years with no back-up plan when she found out that the new guy, who was performing the same job, was getting paid more; a woman who respects herself. All of these things made her a feminist to me, but to her, she was just doing what she felt was right. And my mother is not alone; the more people I asked, the fewer I found that willingly self-identified as “feminists.” At this point, I had to ask myself: should we be using this word if a majority of women reject it?

“Isms” can be tricky things. I find them problematic for a number of reasons. Essentially, the attempt to condense a vast, interlocking, overlapping history of struggles and oppressions, both subtle and blatant, into a single, all-defining word, really downplays the importance, and intricacies, of the issues associated with the word. You know that old Kierkegaard quote, “If you label me, you negate me”? It’s similar to that. “Isms” take any number of intangibles and try to make them concrete, easy to pin down; and while this can be a useful tool for preliminary phases of education, it is in no way conclusive or illuminating. In fact, it implies a sense of separateness from other “isms,” when in fact, feminism is inextricably related to questions of race, class, age, sexual orientation, and a myriad of other factors.

Which brings me to my next point: as Katy talked about in her “Feminism Is Not an Island" blog, the “women’s movement” has a history of neglecting those it purportedly seeks to include. Early suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, thought that their goals were being distorted by those of the abolitionists, and believed that winning the vote for white women took precedence over basic human rights for all women, thus effectively removing the support of black women, who certainly coveted the right to vote, but were otherwise occupied escaping human bondage. The “feminism” of the 1950s and ‘60s, as exemplified by Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, sought to open up the world of work to the masses of American women so long confined within the domestic sphere, a goal which was irrelevant, if not offensive, to many women of color, and to poor white women, for whom work was not an option, but a mandate; some may have dreamed of being able to stay at home with their children, but for these women, it was not an economic reality. When African American women in the Civil Rights movement became disillusioned with their treatment in organizations fighting to end the more obvious manifestations of racism in the Deep South—Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael’s infamous joke, “The position of women in SNCC is prone,” comes to mind—they found a white women’s movement that was, by and large, unwilling to integrate, or to attempt to understand, the intersection of sexism and racism.

Since women who possess the faculties and resources to fight for equality (within the preexisting male-centric political model) have been socio-economically estranged from their sisters, by both internal and external forces, the “feminism” has become fractionalized in the public eye. We have all of these divisions: heterosexuals versus lesbians; career mothers versus stay-at-home moms; women of color versus women of white privilege; high school dropouts versus the academic elite. While these women do have differences that need to be acknowledged, I believe that they are able to coexist under the same umbrella. Their isolation is one of many inevitable negative results of a system that has historically underrepresented the voices of women. Those who perform on the socially accepted stage of activism and political efficacy have been able to do so, for the most part, because they have had the advantageous white, upper-middle class wind at their backs. Women’s fertility increases as economic status decreases; the poorest citizens are less likely to be educated about and utilize contraceptives; and school systems in low-income areas often lack the resources necessary to present students with the means to access further education. It is unfortunate that women with families, especially when single, are forced to divide their time between work that pays the bills and the unpaid work of housekeeping, as caretakers, laundresses, cooks, chauffeurs, and consumers. Because of this divide, childfree women are disproportionately influential on the stage of political activism. These inequalities have caused a bias in popular conceptions of the women’s movement by silencing the stories of those women who function somewhere beneath the radar of the media’s consequentially skewed vision of what a feminist is.

This is all changing, slowly, but we’ve still got a long way to go. YWTF’s choice to avoid the word “feminism” makes a lot of sense to me: feminism has too many ties to its sordid history of exclusivity and stodginess. We’re starting something fresh here, and we want to make the voices of all younger women heard, not just a select few.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Roller Derby: Uniting Younger Women, One Bout at a Time

You've probably noticed a recent resurgence in the great American contact sport of Roller Derby. Spurred on by the now-cancelled A&E reality TV show "Rollergirls," small all-female DIY leagues have been popping up like wildflowers in countless metropolitan areas across the nation, drawing spectators by the thousands. The game is simple (kind of): two teams of five "bout" by trying to lap each other in the rink. It gets a lot more complicated once you get into the extended rules, but basically you have three players, or “blockers,” who make up the “pack”; a “pivot” who leads the way and sets the speed; and a “jammer,” whose responsibility it is to make her way through the opposing team’s without getting sidelined. The rules are subject to change depending on the league, but this is the general template. There’s no elbowing or hitting allowed, but pretty much anything else is fair game, with body blocking being the coup de grace of choice. Spectators sit on the floor around the track, and shriek with glee as skaters careen into the crowd, as they so often do.

Roller derby has a kitschy aesthetic, attracts a wide array of women, and has a punk attitude. Each team’s “girls” wear bright, crazy outfits—one team in New York wears orange prison mini-dresses—and have names like Julie Unrulie and Carrie Shitkicker. In any one league, you’ll be sure to find students, teachers, mothers, lawyers, and activists. They don’t exactly fit preconceived notions of female athleticism: women, sometimes tattooed and pierced, of all shapes and sizes fill the rink, because each body type serves a purpose. There is absolutely no emphasis on weight-loss. The idea is simply this: to kick ass. Derby girls learn an impressive variety of skating maneuvers, such as backwards skating and hip-checks, all in an effort to block other teams and, at all costs, to stay on their skates, and they’re not afraid to bleed.

These women are incredibly dedicated. Ask any derby girl what the sport means to her, and she’ll tell you quite frankly that it’s her life. Roller derby gives girls who’ve always wanted to join a team sport, but have been intimidated for whatever reason, a space to play, and play hard. And despite the frequent scrape-ups and occasional broken bones, they wear their bruises like badges of honor. But don’t let the competitive attitude scare you: if you’re on the team, you’re family. Often, new girls haven’t laced up a pair of skates since middle school, and leagues usually appoint welcoming committees to make sure that each newbie is paired up with a veteran derby girl who will give them rides to practice, walk them through the preliminary moves, and introduce them to other teammates.

The spirit of community is amazing, and whatever happens in the rink, stays in the rink, as teams will often go out for drinks together after bouts or practices, and friendships are easily forged. Of course there are always going to be disagreements, but leagues are extremely democratic, and usually team-owned. And best of all, there’s no ideology pitch: derby girls aren’t getting someone else’s notions of feminism shoved down their throats. Instead, they are invited to experience for themselves the thrills of excelling at a hobby—competition, friendship, and time devoted only to themselves.

Young women all around the country have created these spaces for themselves, and that’s the beauty of the sport: it’s self-defined. Some have criticized roller derby as relying too heavily on shtick or sex appeal, but for many participants highlighting their sex appeal or kitschy fun adds to the value in the sport. Derby girls may be embracing their femininity in the form of funky (and often skimpy) outfits, but they are undeniably strong and fierce, evoking Kali on wheels. This duality is, to me, evidence of how far we’ve come: why shouldn’t our sexuality and our strength be displayed simultaneously? The glory of the third wave is this reconciliation of the restricting contradictions which have been placed upon us, as women, with the joys of being female. If society has told us that our bodies should be static objects, to be looked upon, talked about, and defined by the objective male gaze, but never directly self-engaged, let’s challenge that by making ourselves as active as possible—and there are few things more aggressive than a full-on body-check. If society says that revealing clothing makes for an easy target by stating that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be sexually harassed or objectified, let’s turn that double-standard on its head by putting the bodies that wear them into motion. As my friend Julie, a Richmond Rollergirl, said on the subject,“I think that it’s so true—and we’ve seen this happen again and again—what Eleanor Roosevelt said about, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ We’re not going to sit there and take it…we’re going to challenge it and we’re going to make our own rules as we see fit.” As she said, we’re making it our own, recreating it, for our own benefit. And if, in doing this, we giving younger women a place to connect, and develop their minds and bodies, then so much the better!

When I spoke with some roller girls from Richmond, Virginia, they relayed some amazing stories about the amazing transformations that new team members had undergone, not only because of the community provided, but because these women were, for the first time in their lives, encouraged to really blossom and devote themselves to something other than work, family, or school; an opportunity that many, unfortunately, never receive. Not only can roller derby serve as an outlet for stress and as a place to form new bonds with other women, but one girl I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the sport even served as an exit ramp to one of her teammates’ abusive relationship; once she had stepped outside of her isolation, she was able to gain the focus and clarity to move on with her life.

Roller derby is only one of many positive recreational outlets available to young women today. We should all get active in our communities—there are so many different ways to involve ourselves and each other! If you’d like more information about roller derby, check out some of these links:

Women’s Flat Track Derby Association
A&E’s Rollergirls
Gotham Girls Roller Derby, NYC
River City Rollergirls, Richmond
DC Rollergirls
Charm City Rollergirls, Baltimore

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

No Girl Left Behind

About three years ago, the rise in Afghani children’s education (of both sexes) was used as an example of the U.S. victory over the Taliban regime. U.S. officials boasted that, since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, children’s education was soaring – and they were right. Then.

Now, it’s a different story, especially for Aghani girls. The Taliban insurgency has become even more threatening, and the backlash against U.S. occupation tears apart whole provinces. A recent article in the Washington Post, “Afghan Girls, Back in the Shadows” asserts that “In the southern province of Kandahar, all schools are now closed in five districts. Attackers have thrown hand grenades through school windows and threatened to throw acid on girls who attend school.” The list of tragedies goes on, and too much of that violence is directed at schools, particularly those who educate girls.

And yet, the information about the progress of Afghani girls and women is sparse. When the New Faces, More Voices interns were researching for our lobbying day, many of us reported that we had found little to no research pertaining to Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s Afghan Women Empowerment Act. It’s understandable that it would be difficult to find Afghani research on the subject, but what about the U.S.? Why aren’t these horrible facts being shoved in the faces of complacent policy-makers? Why are we still pretending that the U.S. succeeded in Afghanistan when the insurgent backlash is almost worse than the original Taliban regime?

The answer is, we don’t want to know. It’s better if we pretend that Afghani girls and women are fine, that the literacy rate isn’t in the single digits, that the home schools for girls aren’t being bombed, and that the female teachers aren’t being gunned down by hired thugs. But all that we achieve – as women, people, a nation – by ignoring the Afghanis’ suffering is a false peace of mind and hardened hearts. We need to act.

Now, I’m not trying to say that we should rush into Afghanistan as Western saviors to the “helpless” Afghani women and girls. (That kind of attitude has gotten the U.S. into enough trouble.) The Afghani home schools for girls are proof that these women can help themselves. When it comes down to it, however, their resources are scarce. Afghani teacher Mahmad Agul admits, "We lack everything here -- paved roads, electrical power, deep wells, clinics. But this school was our highest priority."

Hence, the always burning and hard to answer question: What can we do? Well, for one, you can write your representatives in Congress, urging them to co-sponsor the Afghan Women Empowerment Act (SR 2392 in the Senate and HR 5185 in the House). This act will allocate millions of dollars to the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and, most importantly, to Afghan women-led nonprofit organizations. The Feminist Majority Foundation even has a page where you can send an email to your representative directly.

Other than that, I have to admit, I don’t know. I’d be more than happy to hear suggestions from you all. But I do know that just having the knowledge of the situation, and not ignoring the Afghani women and girls, is a step in the direction of real peace.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Leadership Training Institute, Pt. II

As it turned out, all of my event-planning worries were unfounded. The event went off without any (major) hitches, and we were all quite satisfied with the way things turned out!

First on the agenda was a meet-up at Buca di Beppo, an Italian restaurant in Dupont Circle specializing in huge family-style dishes, which I thought was especially appropriate since many of our leaders had never met before, and we wanted to foster a communal environment. I arrived late from putting together some last-minute packets to find a huge table of young women hunched over drinks, joking about the “fill-in-the-blank” ice-breaker worksheets in front of them. This was my first glance at YWTF, really, outside of my office, and I was immediately struck by the diversity of the leaders. Once we had all finished with the exercise, which included details and anecdotes about our backgrounds, personalities, and aspirations, each woman read hers out loud; much laughter inevitably ensued. Everybody was so engrossed in completing the activity that it took a good forty minutes before anyone even looked at the menu! This casual atmosphere really lent itself to the kind of conversation and acquaintance-making that is not as easily breeched in a strictly professional setting. All sections of the table were lit up in discussion—whether directly YWTF-related, political, or fun—as we discovered what we had in common with each other. After we had all consumed enough delicious Italian goodies to sedate a small army, food coma set in on top of travel fatigue, and people split up between going to the hostel and out for more drinks.

The next morning, we were fortunate enough to have Executive Director of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) Terry O’Neill as our first speaker. Terry’s topic was Fundraising and Event Planning, with a focus on the upcoming Women’s Equality Summit (also known as WESCAD). Since NCWO and YWTF would be working on this together, we thought this would be a great time to get a dialogue going about how we wanted to put the YWTF stamp on this monumental event. WESCAD is going to be divided into two days: March 26, which will be issue-oriented; and March 27, which will be a lobby day. To begin, Terry conducted a brief overview of possible resources to reach out to for funding. Individual donors—members and non-members alike—should always be considered important to an organization’s base. The majority of donations, however, are generally going to come from corporations. We discussed ways to engage corporations—which are often wary of donating to charity without a guarantee of profit for shareholders—in the event, such as charging for booths, or matching funds. This latter option is especially accessible to those of us who have friends or associates working at a corporation; apparently, it’s very easy to have your organization’s name added to the list. We talked about some companies that would be likely to want to match funds with YWTF. Then, we brainstormed some potential ideas for the workshops, awardees, etc., that would comprise the first, issue-oriented, day of the WESCAD. For example, for a topic like body image, we would want to call companies who had put some time into generating a female-positive public image, such as a women’s magazine or a beauty-product corporation like Dove. Stefanie, our YWTF-NYC chapter leader, pointed out that, instead of focusing on the same old hum-drum topics which seem to be common at these kinds of events, we should really try and make the workshops as practical and constructive as possible, lest we engage ourselves in preaching to the choir, as it were, by explaining issues to women leaders who are already well-versed in the intricacies of policy. Stef suggested using the workshop time to educate participants on such useful skills as making a fact-sheet, conducting public education and outreach, and running media campaigns. This segment was really interesting and informative, I’m sure, for all who were involved, and gave us a much-needed platform to expand upon our plans for the WESCAD, which is only a few short months away!

Next we had Pat Reuss, Senior Policy Analyst over at NOW. Pat is feisty and extremely hilarious; she is also the author of Title IX, was a key player in the drafting of the Violence Against Women’s Act, and is considered a foremother of the second wave feminist movement. We knew we were in for a treat. When she showed up she asked us, “What was I supposed to talk about again? I totally forgot,” at which point I officially deigned her a woman after my own heart. You wouldn’t have guessed it, however, as she took the conference room with the ease of a pro. Her talk, on consciousness-raising practices and new innovations, was very well-informed, as she filled us in on tips for connecting other women without being exclusivist or didactic and walking the thin line between consciousness raising and education. Though she didn’t offer a definitive definition for “consciousness-raising,” she said it was integral to organizing and is essentially what happens when two people connect with one another, overcome their differences, and share commonalities. It happens best when it is not planned—over coffee, while planning an action, or in reaching out to strategic partners. Consciousness-raising is a powerful tool for building a movement that includes allies and influences other for change. According to Pat (and I agree!) this understanding of consciousness-raising (finding commonalities, recognizing privilege, and building deep connections) is what makes organizing sustainable, meaningful, and powerful. She was, of course, drawing from a very extensive catalogue of experience, as she has been helping to create safe spaces for women for the past twenty-six years of her impressive career!

Unfortunately, I missed the end of her session, as I had to run across town to pick up our lunch. We feasted on Chinese food from City Lights and the most amazing chocolate-covered strawberries I have ever tasted, donated from the infamous (and deservedly so) Cakelove Bakery on U St. Next, it was on to the resource-sharing roundtable, which was, I thought, the most integral part of the retreat. In this roundtable, chapter leaders discussed what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past, and ultimately honed our national foci for the upcoming year.

Our leaders had tons of inspiring stories to share about their chapters’ various successes! Natalie Wasmer told us about the Voting Vixen initiative, which seeks to get younger women in the area to register and vote, that our Miami chapter is putting together. Natalie said that the techniques they’ve been using to really target that younger audience—such as creating a sleek, trendy-looking mini-zine, organizing pub crawls, and setting up events in small local record stores—worked so well that lots of people not only wanted to participate, but also wanted to help with the initiative! Brie Blumenreich, of the DC chapter, talked about the AIDS awareness event she put on last month. Aimed at building community, and especially important in a city with frighteningly high rates of young women battling HIV, it was a brown-bag lunch in the park with free AIDS testing, speakers, and goodie bags. Brie said that these kinds of “padded topics” are great for getting people interested and involved in what the chapter is doing. Krista Thomas shared the Chicago chapter’s experience of hosting a screening and panel discussion of the landmark film “I had an abortion.” YWTF-Chicago’s members were pleasantly surprised by the large turnout which could only be explained by the power of personal networking via listservs and word of mouth. New York City’s Stefanie Lopez-Boy also spearheaded a voting initiative, in which NYC members put together a voter’s guide which, instead of focusing on candidates’ platforms and issues, highlighted exactly the responsibilities of each local office, and related this directly to how it might affect younger women. YWTF-NYC did registration outreach from booths in the street to targeted calling. Alison Stein, YWTF board chair, founder, and active member of the Philadelphia chapter, told us about a training session the Philly chapter put on to educate younger women about running for local office. The location, at a community college, turned out to be a crucial benefit, drawing a large and diverse crowd and engaging women who had not previously heard of YWTF. These sessions were followed by happy hours, which further connected the women involved and brought even more into the community! Through these examples, it is magnificently, wonderfully, amazingly clear just how many different ways there are to execute YWTF’s missions and goals. For such a young organization, we have already enacted so much change!

In the next part of the resource-sharing roundtable, we worked on elaborating our national focus for the year. Every year YWTF takes on one focus that all of the chapters commit to organizing around. The focus is decided each year at the retreat so that chapters can weigh in on what that focus should be. Last year the focus was networking. This year we narrowed it down to the following categories: women in the media; women in leadership; civic engagement (and specifically the Equal Rights Amendment); creating intergenerational dialogue; mapping younger women; and working against the glass ceiling, whose familiar “thump” women often don’t encounter until their late twenties or thirties. There was extensive discussion about the Mapping focus. It was also the most interesting of these to me. I wondered: where are all the younger women? What are their lives like? This is a huge project, but it could definitely be accomplished.

In terms of what worked and didn’t work, we decided to reactivate the short-lived “buddy system,” except this time, with the suggestion of Natasha Chatilo from Boston, we would pair more experienced chapters, like New York City, with our fledgling chapters, like Boston. We reviewed strategies to draw bigger crowds at meetings (do them later in the evening i.e., after 6:30 or 7:00pm, include educational as well as social and recreational activities); we talked about creating a boiler plate for common language our chapters could draw upon; we got into chapter leadership accountability, and what to do if removal becomes a necessity; we talked about how to create bylaws for each individual chapter.

Next, the YWTF coordinating board gave reports on their latest work on diversity, fundraising, and groundwork; among some of the more remarkable items discussed were the creation of separate chapter bank accounts, instead of passing all funds through the national office, and the drafting of our first ever YWTF Member Survey, as we often know little more about our members at the national level than their email addresses, and would like to change this as soon as possible.

Our next speaker was Kate Geyer, who is the Legislative Director to Maryland Delegate Anne R. Kaiser. Kate was, herself, a younger woman, who came in looking every bit the D.C. professional and proceeded to tackle most of the myths, and real problems, facing younger women getting involved in local politics. The first thing Kate told us is that we can’t be afraid to “tell the truth to power.” It is a well-known fact that most Americans feel disillusioned with their government—to them it is inaccessible, far away, even corrupt—but don’t know how to directly enact change. We started with a brainstorm on formal versus informal politics, and found out that there’s actually not much of a divide between the two; the largest gap is between the paid work of formal politics and the unpaid work of informal advocacy. But the question remained: how do we bridge that gap? For one, Kate said, we need to have very specific goals. There is a big difference between complaining and implementing change, and in order to accurately represent your population, you need to know the history of your issue and what’s already been done so you’re not backtracking. In order to do this, you need to access your resources: start at the bottom (Google, Wikipedia, university libraries) and work your way up (legislative and judicial records, community organizations, join a meeting with a Congressperson). After you’ve researched your case inside and out, you should know your “benchmarkers”: it’s rare that you’re going to get complete, uncompromising support, so you need to be aware of your limits. What’s good enough for you? Be flexible and ready to compromise, and to offer viable alternatives, but don’t be too quick to back down. If you don’t know an answer, just say “We’ll get right back to you on that,” instead of looking flustered and stammering for a response. Work your pitch down to ten seconds, because the people you’ll be pitching it to will be very busy! Most importantly, you have to be ready to reframe your issue using language that will appeal to the opposition; bipartisan support is integral to all types of coalition building. Kate was really inspiring to me, and gave us the kind of practical, no-nonsense advice that we needed.

Juanita Boyd Hardy was up next. She came prepared with a very detailed slideshow entitled “Leveraging 3 P’s for Effective Public Speaking,” and brought her husband along to film the presentation! Juanita has traveled all over the world, training young executives for IBM in the art of public speaking; on top of this, she has her own consulting company, Tiger-I, so she was really just a wealth of knowledge on the topic. Some of the participants were seasoned public speakers, and some, like me, turn red as a beet whenever more than a few pairs of eyes are turned towards them; for this reason, her opening quote, “The brain starts working the moment you’re born and never stops until you get up to speak in public,” really hit home for me. She proceeded to shed light upon the “three P’s” of public speaking: Preparation, Perspective, and Presence, bringing up many tricks of the trade along the way. Perhaps the most constructive exercise was one in which she had us split into teams and get our YWTF pitch down to one minute in what Juanita dubbed, “The Elevator Pitch.” I know this was really useful for me, because sometimes when I’m trying to explain what YWTF does, I end up sounding quite long-winded and wishy-washy. Now, I know how to articulate our missions in a concise, to-the-point manner.

By this time, it was getting late, so we all headed out to the Community House Party. YWTF-DC board member Kate Farrar was generous enough to open her beautiful home to us, and those of us who lived in the area each brought something to the potluck. This was a chance to really unwind and get to know each other better. Several courses and a few bottles of wine later, we were sitting on the floor gabbing about everything from Tupac to socioeconomic self-identification. We were all tired, though, and the last of us left Kate’s apartment at about eleven-thirty for the comfort of our bunk beds back at the hostel.

The next morning, Fran Strauss, Director of Women’s Health and Health Care Plans from Adeza, came to deliver a presentation called “Pregnancy, Preterm Birth and Infertility: Current Trends and Practices.” Fran and I had an opportunity to chat for a while before the session actually began, and I found her to be really sweet and genuinely interested in helping younger women. She brought along t-shirts and glue sticks to add to the beautiful tote bags donated by Lifetime. She educated us about “fetal fibronectin testing,” a new development which allows expectant mothers to predict the likelihood of a premature birth. I have given lots of thought to birthing in general and the obstetrics industry in particular, but had never before thought about the huge numbers of families dealing with the complexities of premature birth, let alone the lack of information offered by doctors during the pregnancy. FFN testing, as it’s called, is especially efficient because it is a biochemical indicator, and not biophysical, like assessments of contractions and changes in cervical length which doctors have traditionally applied. Certain states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, are low Medicaid reimbursement states who have legislation making access to FFN testing harder for poorer women. I know that many of the retreat participants were significantly moved by this presentation, and I’m sure that we’ll see action on this subject in quite a few of the chapters in upcoming months.

Our final speaker was author and columnist Amy Richards, perhaps best known for her two tomes of local organizing: Grassroots: A Guide for Feminist Activism and Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Amy was fresh, down-to-earth, funny, and anything but didactic. She talked mostly about ways to integrate your activism with the rest of your life, and showed us ways to engage and inspire others. This is what YWTF is based on, so Amy’s session was really important and just as helpful. She gave us a lot of time, so we really got a chance to bounce some of our own ideas off of her, ranging from getting attendance up at meetings, to issues with philanthropy, to educating younger women on voter initiatives. The thing Amy said that stuck with me the most was that you have to reframe your opponents’ issues, instead of working within the frame that they provide. She said that you have to find the one thing they haven’t focused on yet, and hone in on that. While YWTF doesn’t really have any direct opponents per se, it’s good to know how to present your argument to persuade other women who might be hesitant about joining up.

In closing, Deva and I were so tremendously pleased with the way the Leadership Training Institute turned out. I want to thank all of the chapter leaders and representatives who gave their weekends to the cause—that’s no small feat, and we really appreciate it. And, of course, thanks to all of the amazing speakers who came out and donated their time and wisdom to us; obviously, organizations like YWTF would not be able to exist without the inspiration these people provide us. Special thanks go out to Cakelove, Lifetime, and Adeza for the donations; and thanks to Deva for all the hard work she put in to make this a success! There is no doubt in my mind that each and every person involved in the retreat left more informed and more excited about the future of YWTF!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Planning the LTI

Being a women's studies major, I often heard a lot about non-profits as an alternative (or, for some, as a supplement) to a career in academia. I never had time for an internship during my four years as an undergrad, so when I graduated in May, I took the summer off then headed up to D.C. to see what kind of a job I could land. When Deva Kyle, YWTF's national Project Director, hired me as the new Project Intern, visions of the mythical world of non-profits danced through my head. I saw myself looking all professional, commuting to an office downtown full of eager young up-and-comers and eccentric movement veterans, where I would sit at a desk filing papers, completing various tasks too monotonous for anyone on the payroll to stoop to. I had no idea.

Of course, the internship turned out to be nothing like this. The national YWTF office is a space shared with the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) and the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), the umbrella organization housing YWTF, NAPAWF, and about two hundred other non-profits. No one but me keeps regular office hours at YWTF--they all have nine-to-fives, like Deva, who works as a pension lawyer, and run YWTF when they're not working at their main job. This meant I'd be doing a lot more work than I had originally expected. At first, this worried me: I was to be all alone, fielding the myriad of questions asked of a national organization? Within the first week, I received the daunting work plan for the national Leadership Training Institute, and by week two, there were hundreds of emails in my inbox! I felt like the biggest novice, but luckily, I ended up not being as alone as I thought: I had the help of Deva, Ilma and Terry from NCWO, the two previous interns, Katy and Dara, and a big computer file on previous YWTF activity. So, I got to work.

The Leadership Training Institute, or LTI, is a sort of chapter leaders' retreat, wherein the directors, or their substitutes, and board members converge in our nation's capital for a weekend of roundtables, speakers, and dinners. The goal, obviously, is to better equip the leaders of YWTF to improve upon their chapters, but there's a second goal which is equally important: camaraderie. It's crucial for the members of an organization to be close, or at least to be able to put a name to a face, in order to enable the kind of networking and assistance that would best sustain growth. Even though the LTI only lasts three days, it takes a ton of work to execute. The interns before me researched and found speakers, a conference room, booked the hostel, compiled most of the in-city transportation information, and solicited donations to feed our guests. I picked up where they left off. Event planning requires confirming and re-confirming, checking, double-checking, and following up again. As a first-time planner, you are consumed by this intense fear that you're forgetting about some crucial element and the whole thing is just going to fall through at any moment. It can definitely be a little nerve-wrecking, but I'm hoping that my fears will prove unfounded and I'll be fulfilled by the success of the event.

I got in touch with all the chapters to find out who was coming and who wasn't, when they'd be arriving, when they'd be leaving, how they'd be getting here. This alone was a weeks-long process, as a few of the chapters didn't end up finding a representative who was able to fly out. I reconfirmed with the speakers and scrambled to fill in the blanks when some declined. I reconfigured the schedule accordingly and sent copies to everyone. I checked back with the places who had confirmed donations a month ago, and one of them ended up not being able to contribute, but didn't tell us until the Monday before the conference, much too late to find another donor. I called the board members to see which of them was planning on attending. I called Lifetime, who donated goodie bags for our guests. I gathered the speakers' bios, compiled handouts, transportation information, and a list of contacts for the out-of-towners, and made lots of copies. Looking back on this list, it doesn't seem like that much work, but belive me, it was.

Tomorrow is the first day of the retreat. Deva and I will run around pulling last minute strings, making sure everything runs smoothly as planned, picking up supplies, and setting up the conference room. At five o'clock, we're all meeting at Teaism for dinner, drinks, and discussion. I'm excited to meet all of these women I've been communicating with for the past month, and I'm hoping to learn a lot more about the non-profit sector in discovering the differences and similarities between the chapters. At any rate, this experience is invaluable and I'm sure I'll look back and laugh at my initial trepidation.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Media Skirts Responsibility to Women

This morning, while riding the orange line to work, the following particularly eloquent letter to the editor of the Washington City Paper from Deb Callahan, of Bethesda, Md., caught my eye:

City Paper needs an attitude adjustment regarding women elected officials. Your article “Blighted Cropp” (9/8) soundly insulted virtually every female politician cited based on a perceived physical imperfection. Your lead paragraph twice referred to Cropp’s weight, your highlighted sidebar referenced Councilman Kathy Patterson’s perceived lack (and supposed need?) of Botox treatments, and in perhaps the most bizarre slam you refer to Nancy Pelosi as “116 years old but looks like she could be Patterson’s daughter.” The men, meanwhile, are held to some different kind of standard. You find Harold Ford “hot”? Come on, nice looking, but hot? Get a grip. This is an election, not Project Runway.

As soon as I got into the office, I looked up the article in the City Paper’s archives and sure enough, the second line in the cover story on the D.C. mayoral campaign read: “How much does mayoral contender Linda Cropp weigh these days? Has she shed a pound or two this summer?” And then the author adds insult to injury by making the ludicrous claim that “such questions…actually go to the heart of the Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary.”

I’m sorry, but…what?

Since when do we choose to elect (or not elect) public officials on the basis of body weight? Why should the American public care about the appearances of our decision-makers and policy-changers? Shouldn’t the general consensus be that as long as they look somewhat put-together and maybe, oh, I don’t know, do their job right, we don’t have a problem? Yeah, sure…except when the figure in question happens to be a woman.

We all know that the professional world is often—okay, usually—skewed in favor of men. Their work has, after all, been consistently valued more than the work of women; their very presence in the office is never assumed to be distracting to the other employees; they don’t generally require time off for gestation and lactation; and, since they are rarely considered primary caregivers by their employers, their schedules are not perceived as being tethered to the demands of childcare. So when a woman rises to the top of her field, either by remaining childless or through the cooperation of a particularly helpful partner, why can’t we hold her, as a professional, to the same standards of attire as a man?

In fact, we see this scenario replay itself ad nauseam every time a woman steps into any public arena which is not exclusively relegated to the world of fashion, children, the home, or entertainment—especially politics and news journalism, those good-ol’-boy standbys. Instead of being presented on the basis of merit and a lifetime of achievement, she is swiftly taken down a few notches, reminded of her second-class status by a media which inevitably either applauds or disapproves of her choice in wardrobe, hairstyle, relationship history, children, or lack thereof. And it doesn’t stop with her entrance into the spotlight; rather, no matter how well she performs at her job, she will be harangued throughout her career, asked questions no interviewer would dare utter to a man with half of her clout. While most of the negative effects of such media harassment are obvious, there is one which is not quite so blatant: when a female figure’s press is dominated by comments about her inherent femaleness, the public knows less about her platforms or career goals than it would were she a man, thus significantly reducing her chance of success.

This matter was first brought to my attention a few years ago, when one of my favorite college professors complained to our class about the undue attention her personal style had garnered amongst her mostly male colleagues. I thought she always looked the part of a professional, but apparently others disagreed. If she wore a skirt, for example, someone was sure to tell her that she looked really nice (no one commented when she wore slacks). Once she wore a pair of fine-waled fishnets, which she thought looked perfectly modest, and her department head snidely commented, “I didn’t know it was Halloween already!” None of my male professors’ wardrobes was up for public review; in fact, were I to compliment, say, the way a male professors’ facial hair was groomed on a particular day, I am quite sure I would have received the kind of withering stare reserved for only the most insolent of students. The difference is clear: when drawing attention to personal appearance, and hence to the body itself, a man need not feel violated, whereas a woman often feels threatened and sexualized in the same situation. In researching this topic, I found more articles criticizing women for dressing too sexy in the workplace than ones which admonished male employees for making it an issue to begin with. This tactic is called victim-blaming, and is among the more tiresome of sexist defenses.

Case in point: Katie Couric made headlines as part of her historic emergence as the first female network anchor to go solo. But it wasn’t so much the fact that the credits listed her as managing editor, or the way she reformatted CBS’s Evening News structure, that our attention was drawn to. Instead, we heard the collective gasp of critics across the country—“A white blazer after Labor Day? What was she thinking?” Never mind that, were we to compile the heinous hairpieces of America’s male anchors, we’d have standing before us a veritable mountain range; these guys are not exactly clad in Armani. It’s completely acceptable for a man to commit a fashion faux-pas, but as Judy Woodruff, erstwhile CNN anchor, was quoted in the Washington Post ( on the subject of Couric’s debut, “You know you will be judged by your appearance if you’re a woman…if you don’t like to worry about hair and makeup and clothes, you should go into radio or print.”

At least she’s in good company: Couric can now join the scads of “media tarts” (a title coined by Australian author Julia Baird, in her book of the same title). We’ve all witnessed attacks on the physical appearances of Condoleezza Rice, Geraldine Ferraro, Elizabeth Dole, Hillary Clinton, and Harriet Miers. Who could forget the infamously unbearable USA Today interview in which, after a heated discussion regarding conditions at Abu Ghraib, Barbara Slavin pressed Condoleezza Rice to reveal, of all things, the truth behind rumors of her size six dress size, or the obscene amount of press—dominatrix jokes being the most common—Rice received when she wore those black stiletto boots. For the ultimate experience in this kind of idiocy, check out, where a blogger known as “Princess Sparkle Pony” has so kindly provided a color-coded “Condoleezza Hairdo Alert System,” along with a photo-documented play-by-play of Harriet Miers’s runny eyeliner and wispy bangs. Should it come as a surprise that, when I looked at Princess Sparkle Pony’s profile, the blogger turned out to be a forty-one year old man?

No wonder women make up such a small percentage (22.5 percent at last count) of national leadership! Their media coverage is filtered through the gender stereotypes of producers, editors, reporters, bloggers, and eventually, by the voters themselves, through a tendency to discuss female candidates in relation to their chances of winning and “less devoted to issues and more likely to emphasize their possession of typical feminine traits and their strengths in typical female policy areas,” according to Jessica Aubin’s recent study on media coverage of women candidates (White House Studies, Fall 2005). Since most voters rely on traditional media outlets, this “style over substance” treatment has a predictably negative effect at the polls, as voters are generally more well-informed about male candidates’ platforms.

So, the next time you see a newspaper or magazine wasting valuable print space critiquing the looks of a female politician (or for that matter any other woman in the public), follow Deb Callahan’s lead and write a letter to the editor. You never know how many critical eyes your letter will affect, and the publication will certainly sit up and take notice of the fact that they are offending at least half of their readers with all of that nonsense.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

10 MORE Things You Can Do to Better the Lives of Younger Women!

(1) Speak Up! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the only one advocating for women’s issues in my college classes, only to learn later that there are other young women who feel the same way but who didn’t want to say anything. I understand that it can be daunting to speak your mind, especially in the face of opposition, but please, for the sake of all women, say something! For example, if someone in class says that children of working mothers are dysfunctional and violent, engage them in a discussion about whether that’s factual, or a social construct, and why they think it. Don’t be abrasive, but don’t be afraid to debate either. We need to speak up for ourselves, for each other, for women of color, for all women. When we stay silent, we stay complacent.

(2) Be an Ally to Women of Color. This tip is stolen straight from books like White Privilege: Readings on the Other Side of Racism by Paula Rothenberg, which offer being an ally as one way to end racism. If you are a woman of color, be an ally by advocating for yourself and your fellow women; if you’re not, stand up for women of color and have their back. This goes along with the electronic voice on the Metro that says, “if you see something, say something.” So if you see that the black woman ahead of you gets asked for two IDs when using her credit card, offer to give 2 IDs yourself – simple actions like this (along with larger ones) are the ways that we can strip racism of the significant hold it has on our lives.

(3) One Word: 401K. One of the best things you can do for younger women is to tell them to save money for retirement. It may seem silly now, in our 20’s and 30’s, to be anticipating our 70’s and 80’s, but when that day inevitably comes, you’ll want to have a nice nest egg on which to depend. We women are too often neglected when it comes to financial advice, but putting away for retirement is a great source of empowerment for younger women. It means that we’ll have the financial security that men already have, which is ultimately worth more than that recent impulse buy.

(4) Keep an Eye Out. What I mean by this is, watch your friends and colleagues for signs of things that happen to women every day: eating problems, emotionally and physically abusive relationships, sexual harassment, etc. Obviously, I don’t mean for you to stalk younger women and interrogate them on their personal lives. But be aware that, all too often, younger women experience these kinds of issues, and if you notice it happening, try to bring it up in a way that is supportive and not condemning. Women tend to feel trapped into eating problems and dysfunctional relationships, and too much pushing will only make them retreat into themselves further. But be there for them, and be ready to talk about it, and one day they just might open up and ask for help. I’ve noticed that people tend to avoid these uncomfortable situations indefinitely, but when that happens, younger women lose.

(5) Support Woman-Friendly Political Candidates. Make sure that, when you vote (which I’m sure all of you do), you read up on all of the candidates (a couple helpful sites are and The most important thing you can probably read about each person is her/his voting history. Research like this will show you what the candidates are really interested in, as opposed to what they say to get elected; also, don’t be afraid to see candidates speak and ask them specific questions. If they’re going to represent you, then they better have younger women in mind!

(6) Give Your Fellow Younger Women a Hand Up. If men have the “old boys’ club” we should certainly have a similar (if more inclusive and less disgusting) club of our own. Basically, tell other younger women about job openings and opportunities that will help them reach their goals. And when you succeed, mentor younger women so that they can get to the top too. Working together - simple as that.

(7) Read the News. As depressing as the news can be (especially these days), we have to keep up-to-date on the world around us. For me, that means reading the Express newspaper (the mini version of the Washington Post) on the Metro and scanning the headlines of online versions of progressive newspapers. You can make it more fun by reading blogs to see what’s happening (and usually the blog will link the article itself). But however you get your news, get it – we younger women have to be on top of things if we’re going to be taken seriously, and if each of us stays at least semi-informed, then we’re that much closer.

(8) Smile. I think I can safely say that we all wish people were nicer – so why not start with ourselves? I tripped – pretty much fell – on the Metro escalator today, ending up in a rather embarrassing pose while holding onto the side for dear life. What made it better? The girl next to me who smiled at me when I laughed at myself. These are the kind of insignificant (yet significant) moments that make all of our lives better.

(9) Upkeep Your Relationships. I know we’re all getting through college, applying for jobs, having a tough time at work, trying to take care of kids (and ourselves), and/or are dealing with the many other things that our 20’s and 30’s bring. But, during all the chaos, don’t forget to communicate with your fellow women. Send your mom an e-card, call your sister, send your girlfriend flowers, listen to a friend vent about her job. Just keep your relationships solid, and never take the women in your life for granted.

(10) Defy Stereotypes. This one’s pretty easy, because just by living and being ourselves, we defy the stereotypes that exist about younger women. Play sports. Excel in math and science. Decide not to have children. Skip the make-up. Basically, experiment. Figure out who you are, what you want and make special efforts to try new things without being afraid that you’re not fitting into a certain mold, because after all, it’s the same mold we’re trying to break!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ten Things You Can Do To Better the Lives of Younger Women

Ten Things You Can Do to Better the Lives of Younger Women

1.) Know Your Body. Ask your doctor questions. Regularly check up on developments for health that are related to women. Know what contraception is best for your needs. And if something doesn’t feel right, change it. Learn as much information as you can about your body. Learn whether the HPV vaccine is right for you. But beyond all of that, learn to know what feels best for you body. Figure out what makes it happy and then go for it.

2) Study Hard. If you are a student, work hard while in school, if you’re out of school continue learning new skills. Financial stability is a necessity for younger women, and education is one way to ensure that happens. By being capable of earning your own income, you will feel less pressured to get married for financial reasons. You will have more options and independence if you know you can support yourself. You don’t need a degree or a certificate to dramatically increase your earning potential. The job markets that are growing the fastest are those require vocational training. However, economic circumstances can prevent women from reaching those goals and leaves doors closed. One way to ensure that younger women everywhere can reach financial stability is by working to increase financial aid opportunities as well as to decrease the debt load felt by many younger women who are committed to getting an education.

3) Play Hard. Women who play sports report higher levels of self esteem, are more likely to graduate from college, and receive numerous health benefits. Besides, you get the support you need from a team environment and you learn how to compete in a healthy and constructive way. If you’re still in school start now. Eighty percent of the women leaders in Fortune 500 companies played sports when they were younger. If you’re done with school play sports anyway, adult sport venues like the golf course, tennis course, and local YWCA are great ways to make professional contacts and network. Kick around a soccer ball, go kayaking, join your local hiking group. It might be the key to healthier leader-you!

4) Consume Wisely. Younger women are one of the most sought after consumer groups in the world. As a result, younger women can use this collective buying power as a serious tool for activism. Take for example the work of the young women who organized a “girlcott” against Abercrombie and Fitch for selling blatantly sexist t-shirts. They were able to change company policy. You can also use your buying power to positively support companies and organizations that also support younger women. Don’t shop at places like Target, Walmart, CVS or other pharmacies that don’t guarantee access to contraception. Don’t buy products that use images of younger women in demeaning or objectifying ways just to sell. Buy into something positive instead, like companies with ad campaigns that specifically support younger women instead of objectify them.

5). Stand Up for Younger Women! Sexual harassment can make any space feel unsafe. Walking to your job, at work, riding the subway, and just walking down the street can become harrowing and threatening experiences. When you are in the position of being harassed, it can be harder to speak up and say in a calm voice to “stop disrespecting women.” It can make all the difference in the world if a passerby offers support instead of just ignoring the situation. I was riding public transportation with some friends and when other passengers made comments about my body. Instead of saying something cutting and witty or even expletive-ridden, my friends pretended that the situation wasn’t occurring. Their silence made it that much harder for me to say anything. Worse, by ignoring the situation, they ignored my feelings of discomfort and fury at being called out for being a woman.

6) Abolish Slavery. Despite what you may have learned in history class, slavery is not simply a cruelty of the past. It is a living and brutal reality for the estimated 27 million people still held as slaves around the world. Many of these slaves are younger women who are trafficked and sold across country lines as young wives, housekeepers, or forced to work in brothels. Ending human trafficking and abolishing slavery once and for all is one of the most important steps you can take in order to help younger women across the Globe. Read the stories of ex-slaves, talk to your friends, go to a rally, send money, or commit yourself full time. Don’t stand by and do nothing.

7) Run for Office. The United States ranks 58th for representation of women around the world. It is not enough to simply try and influence the existing policy makers, who everyday make decisions that impact the lives of younger women. Running for office allows you to stay informed, stand up for what you believe in, and actually make a difference. More importantly, you would have the opportunity to create solutions instead of just reacting to the ideas that others have proposed. Support organizations that are working for change like The White House Project and Fair Fund.

8) Make Your Own Headlines. The standard view of the media is that women are collectively tall, tittylicious, skinny, opinionless, mostly white, and able to buy their way into happiness. These images of women are coupled with a news media that ignores the experience of women and provides a narrow world view. With less than 8% of the guests on Sunday morning news talk shows being female, it is necessary to make your headlines. Access to information is key. Creating new avenues for information to be disseminated? Priceless. So make your own blog, start a podcast, or get yourself booked on Sunday morning talk shows on your local cable channel. Heck, even start your own tv show. Making your voice heard by making your own headline.

9) Support LGBT Rights. Working towards full equal rights for LGBT people is necessary. Campaign to have “gender expression” added to the no-harassment clause in your workplace. Make your home a LGBT safe space. Treat your girlfriend well. Support candidates that support full marriage equality. Challenging LGBT discrimination means challenging some of society’s barriers about gender, especially about gender roles. Working to eliminate those barriers helps all women, regardless of whom they love.

10) Join YWTF! Okay, so this seems like a shameless plug, but it is true. In order to help younger women, you should support organizations that are dedicated to furthering the rights of younger women. Joining YWTF gives you the opportunity to join the women’s movement by working on issues that matter the most to you. It will give you the space, the resources, and the community to support those things that help younger women but haven’t been added to lists like these.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Glance Into the Worlds of Non-Profits

When I first came to YWTF as an intern, Deva had me write a short “bio” about myself. I remember writing that I was “interested in the balance between activism and feminist theory” and that I wanted to “further my experience in feminism” through the internship. After the past week, in which I did some career shadowing with several successful younger women, I have a new perspective on what exactly I mean when I say that there must be that balance between what we think is right and what we do to achieve it.

During each day’s career shadowing, I experienced a different type of activism on behalf of women. On Monday I visited the American Association of University Women (AAUW) which focuses on achieving equity between men and women in university settings and, though few would deny that this is an admirable goal, AAUW is one of the leading organizations that acts to fulfill it. Moreover, AAUW doesn’t have just one method of operating: their activism spans from research and lobbying to chapter activism and financially assisting women to gain higher education.

On Tuesday I shadowed at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), an organization that, some argue, is based more on theory and books than on action. Yet, from what I saw and read during my stay, IWPR is an invaluable resource for the gender activist community. The sheer volume of research and studies that IWPR circulates is astonishing, and the results that come from such publications even more amazing. Senators and House representatives have been known to change their stances on issues simply from reading IWPR’s “Status of Women in the United States” reports, not to mention the value of just collecting and disseminating information about women’s equality, or lack thereof. Sure, IWPR may not often lobby or do other more conventional political activism, but their research is the backbone of countless other groups’ platforms, on the Hill and elsewhere. IWPR’s collaboration with many women’s organizations, in fact, is yet more proof that women can and do work together.

Speaking of women working (excuse the awkward and cheesy transition), on Wednesday I visited Women Work! The National Network for Women’s Employment. (And yes, Women Work! usually has an exclamation mark after it, like Jeopardy! but so as not to confuse my computer or my readers, I’ll leave it off.) Women Work operates in two different and seemingly opposing ways. They not only lobby and advocate for political issues, but they also work at the ground level to offer job training and education to women. It was inspiring for me to see how Women Work can deal with both politicians and the women they help, without privileging one over the other (if anything, the women themselves are the ones privileged over the politicians!). Women Work advocates for women to get the vocational training they need to get better jobs and to succeed, and if that’s not activism, I don’t know what is!

Now, although I learned a lot in all of the places I career shadowed, Thursday was probably the most enlightening experience of the week. At the same time, it was the most unnerving, and it left me really considering what to do with my gender activism in the future. I career shadowed with the director of Digital Sisters. I would say that I shadowed at Digital Sisters, but in this case, there was no solid location, no air-conditioned business office – this was the kind of activism that really gets you in the field and allows you to see the effects of your efforts . We visited two places, both impoverished areas where Digital Sisters offers technical education so that people can get better jobs. Digital Sisters goes to the heart of the problem – to the housing projects and the homeless shelters – to help get people off the streets and off drugs and into successful careers.

As I looked upon settings so different from the office buildings to which I was accustomed, I wondered about my own activism: was I doing enough to really reach individual women? I had the right ideas, but how was I translating them into action? And as for my future, how could I reconcile my hoped-for career as a professor with being an activist for women (and men) in hardship?

I still don’t have the answers to these questions, but with time (and experience) I think I will. For now, I’ve at least experienced activism in a myriad of ways, from the halls of the House to community streets. Each women’s organization has a different method, maybe even a different demographic, but the mission is similar: to advocate for and better the lives of women.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Happy Birthday, NOW!

Birthdays conjure up images of birthday cake, party hats, streamers, and happy memories. However, there is always that one kid crying in the corner because none of the other children at the party want to play the same game. Charlotte Hays, from the Independent Women’s Forum, was channeling that same petulant child in her op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on NOW’s 40th birthday celebration. While her op-ed raises some good points, the majority of her criticism is packaged in a way that is fundamentally damaging to women everywhere, not just those who consider themselves feminists.

For example, she opens her article with a jibe at the way that the women and men at the conference were dressed. Is it really necessary in this day and age to criticize women first and foremost on how they look? Furthermore, she also equated “radical” (in a negative sense) with the idea of being open to people of varying sexual orientations. She writes, “[e]very resolution was relentlessly hammered out until there was no possible way that LGBT people (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) could feel excluded; there was an "equal marriage" pretend-wedding reception with punch and cake.” With the majority of the country favoring some form of equality for same-sex couples, equal marriage is hardly the bastion of radical liberal behavior for which it has been ostracized. On the contrary (and maybe this is just because I'm from Massachusetts), celebrating equal marriage with a reception seems like a fairly logical step in support of one of the main tenets of the organization.

Some of Hays' characterizations were simply inaccurate. She writes that “even the music hasn't changed” about the inclusion of folk singer Sally Repp (whom I admittedly have never heard of, but I bet my parents have.) She neglected to include Ani Difranco, a feminist force of the younger set.

Hays also argued that “[s]till, NOW felt just a bit . . . tired. Whatever you think of the feminist movement--and I happen to deplore most of it--the women who got it started were forces of nature, interesting people with strong personalities.” She thinks that the current leaders of NOW don’t have the same energy or spark necessary to fuel the movement. This is a subtle point. At first glance, I would actually tend to agree with her. But that doesn’t mean that the feminist movement has lost its leadership or its luster. Rather, the leadership and forces have multiplied so much that the media can’t pinpoint just one of them. For example, for me, my mother was that force of life that inspires me to be a feminist. So was my father. So was my sister. So was my best friend. Honestly, so was Xena. The leadership of the feminist movement cannot be reduced simply to the officers of NOW or other professional feminist organizations.

She criticized that “(past NOW) president Karen de Crow, with her leonine white mane--dancing to Ms. Rapp's chorus line, ‘We’re Marching With Molly Yard,’ was a caution for us all about growing old gracefully.” What’s the point of growing old gracefully when you can instead celebrate by dancing and eating cake? Hays' anti-older feminist bias, seen throughout her piece, is something that younger women should caution themselves against. While the movement should rightly be taken to task for not taking the issues of younger women seriously, younger women should look to learn from and work with older women. For example, even many of the issues that are considered to be near and dear to older women’s hearts (pay equity, the Equal Rights Ammendment, affordable child care) are all issues that younger women can learn and benefit from (even the ERA!). Likewise, the issues that are more important to younger women (dating violence, media justice, and student’s rights) are also important and relevant to older women. By learning from and combining the strengths of each generation, the women’s movement will ultimately be more successful.

Hays further wrote, “[b]ut some of the decline is simply that there is no new blood there.” It’s far more complicated than that. The decline facing the women’s movement is the lack of cohesion between the younger women leaders and the older generation. Also, the women’s movement is considered to be declining because younger women leaders simply don’t register as leaders. Hays simply wasn’t looking hard enough. The new blood is all around her, especially if you look around your most recent YWTF meeting.