Disturbing Reality Behind School Dress Codes

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“That dress is too short,” my husband remarked when he saw my 16-year-old daughter modeling her selection for Homecoming. After marathon dress shopping to find something my daughter liked, I was not in the mood to put up with his remark. But I took his point.

There is a growing awareness in schools that dress codes unfairly stigmatize girls and go easy on boys. Across the country, girls and their parents have fought for the right to allow girls to wear tight leggings, spaghetti straps, and other clothes that have in the past been considered a distraction.

While I agree that it’s unfair to single out girls at school for their attire, the fact that there are so many styles for girls that could be labeled as too sexy or distracting points to an upsetting reality: In our society, females continue to be objectified and judged for their physical appearance in a way that males rarely are.

One might argue that the ubiquitous legging, which girls wear in a manner that reveals every curve of thigh and buttocks, is simply what’s in style for young women. Ditto for short skirts and other revealing clothing. But that fact begs the question: why? Why are styles for women so relentlessly geared toward sexualizing their bodies?

Men dress for comfort or success. Aside from the trend of wearing baggy pants that reveal a guy’s boxers, there are few styles for men that could be construed as too sexy or distracting. The boys at my daughter’s school wear baggy shorts and t-shirts or preppy polos and khaki shorts or “joggers.” As long as there is not an overtly violent message or a logo for a beer label on their person, boys are pretty safe from scrutiny at school.

Not so for girls, who want to look stylish and cute. They are not necessarily trying to come on to boys, but they also don’t want to dress like their mothers or grandmothers. So my daughter turns up at Homecoming in a tiny, short dress that reveals her incredibly long, muscular legs. Even I’m intimidated looking at her sometimes.

This is the dilemma girls and women face in our culture. Until we change our social norms and start to prize females more for who they are inside, we will continue to objectify their outer selves. And schools will continue to fight battles over what is appropriate dress in schools.

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Swift Justice

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I love Taylor Swift. Not just because she’s pretty and sings catchy pop tunes. But because in her recent lawsuit against a radio DJ, she stood up for everywoman. Yesterday, a judge awarded Swift the symbolic one dollar she sought from David Mueller, a Denver radio jock, for sexually assaulting her during a backstage meet-and-greet.

After Mueller grabbed her buttocks at the event, Swift and her mother complained to the radio station management. She did not file criminal charges against Mueller or tweet about the incident to get public sympathy or support. But Mueller was fired and decided to sue Swift, her mother, and others for setting out to cost him his job. That’s when Swift decided to countersue.

The judge found that the alleged assault had indeed taken place and dismissed Mueller’s original suit. But not before Mueller’s lawyer tried the time-honored technique of blaming and shaming the victim. First he questioned why she did not do anything at the time of the assault and why no one else noticed it happening. Her answer to the latter question is priceless: “‘The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.'” (“The essential part of Swift’s court case,” Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2017)

Then the lawyer tried to make Swift feel guilty about Mueller’s having lost his radio DJ job. Again, Swift stood up for women everywhere when she replied,

“I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions – not mine.” (Tribune, Aug. 15, 2017)

Taylor Swift has the money, fame, and power to stand up to those who would assault her and to a justice system that allows victims to be publicly shamed for someone else’s abuse of them. In doing so, and in claiming her symbolic award of damages, Swift sent a message to women, courts, and would be sexual predators everywhere that sexual assault will not be tolerated and will never be the victim’s fault.

Thanks, Taylor. I hope you can now “shake it off” and continue doing what you do best: entertaining your fans.

 

 

Thinking About Gender

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The other day my daughter was hanging out with two of her best friends in our backyard. It was her birthday, and they had surprised her with an early morning birthday breakfast. As I puttered in the kitchen, I glanced out the window and saw the three girls squeezed into my daughter’s parachute-like hammock, limb upon limb. I thought to myself, “Teenaged boys would never do that.”

As a young feminist and subscriber to the tabula rasa school of thought on human development, I used to resist the idea that gender roles had any basis in biology. Girls and boys are different, I insisted, because they learn to be. To be sure, it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in the way children develop because even as infants, children are handled differently based upon their sex.

But as the parent of both boys and girls, I’ve had to admit that there seem to be some inherent differences between the sexes. My boys have always been more active and challenged authority more than my girls. The nature of their friendships with others of the same sex is different too. My girls have always felt social slights more deeply than have my boys. And seeing a group of girls braiding each other’s hair does resemble the grooming behavior of our primate relatives, the chimpanzees.

I realize there is wide variation in the way individual children develop. Not all girls like dolls, and not all boys like sports. And the science of human development is discovering the many nuances that make gender much less of a binary phenomenon than has previously been assumed. Such discoveries are making people uncomfortable and opening up debates about gender identification on birth certificates and surgery on intersex children. I think what’s most important in these debates is the idea that we are each unique individuals, and our identities should be respected and viewed as the complexities that they actually are.

Still, it’s been interesting for me to see the way my sons and daughters have developed over the years and to admit to myself that I don’t know the half of it when it comes to gender. I remember when my oldest child tried to be a tomboy. Her best friend was rough and tumble, so my daughter eschewed more girlish clothing and activities. Ultimately, though, her identification as a “girly girl” won out. I also remember my daughter and her friends dressing my younger son up in girls’ clothes and putting barrettes in his hair. That adorable little boy has grown up to be a burly football player.

Gender identification is important. It’s a big part of who we are as human beings. I believe that if we are open and loving with our children, we will raise them to be exactly who they are meant to be: themselves.

 

Behind the Veil

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Women and their head coverings have been much in the news lately. There have been alternating praise and criticism for Melania and Ivanka Trump, for instance, for their sartorial choices on their recent Mideast trip with the president.

Some found hypocrisy in the fact that the women refused to wear a hijab when in Saudi Arabia but were practically covered head to toe in black to meet the pope. Others cheered their spunk and refusal to bow to a hated Islamist ideology. Similar decisions to cover or not cover their heads have been the subject of criticism for other First Ladies, such as Michelle Obama.

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To all of this I have to ask, what’s the big deal? I am far more disturbed by the fact that President Trump said nothing about the dreadful state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia than whether the First Lady was making a pointed political statement by allowing her hair to be seen. On the other hand, such criticism might be seen as hypocritical coming from a man who does not seem to hold women in particularly high regard. Still, it’s all relative, and I hope that at least privately the president put pressure on Saudi Arabia to advance the rights of women as a condition for continuing to arm them to the teeth.

What I find most disturbing about the recent brouhaha over headwear for women is that society persists in judging every single thing about a woman’s choices, right down to her clothing and hair. It’s the 21st Century, and yet we’re still focused on women as ornaments, somehow not fully human. No one mused philosophically about what the color of Donald Trump’s tie or the cut of his suit might indicate about his beliefs or intentions.

Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do so for myriad reasons, most of them religious. Why that choice should be denigrated and looked upon as political is beyond me. The primary purpose in covering one’s head and chest seems to be modesty. What devout Christian would have a problem with women being modest? Yet because of terrorism and the need to demonize those who oppose us, Americans have taken a hostile stance against Muslim women in hijab.

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Years ago, there was a great TV series called Jack and Bobby. It was about two young brothers, one of whom would one day become the president of the United States. The boys’ mother, played by Christine Lahti, is a college professor, and she has a hostile exchange with a female student who wears the hijab. In a memorable scene, Lahti’s character attacks the woman for allowing herself to be controlled by a male-dominated culture. The young woman throws back her belief that American women are the ones being controlled by men’s need to see them as perfect physical specimens whose looks are constantly on display.

That exchange gave me pause back in the Nineties, and it sticks with me to this day. Women of all cultures should be free to dress and speak and act in whatever way they choose. And it should be their character, intelligence, and personal inner qualities that are focused on, not their clothing, their hair, their modesty, or the lack thereof.

The real veil women are often required to hide behind is the metaphorical one imposed by a society that still does not see them as equal to men. Until we address that reality, what a woman does or does not wear on her head makes very little difference at all.

Young Women Need Feminism

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Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 when she participated as a registered runner in the Boston Marathon. Despite rules barring women from competing, Switzer signed up and managed to run the entire marathon, despite an official physically trying to drag her out of the race. Fifty years later, Switzer jubilantly ran in this year’s Boston Marathon, leading a group of 100 women runners.

After the race, Switzer was quoted as saying,  “If young women today take for granted the fact that they can compete like men in the sport of running, that’s fantastic. That’s what we wanted when we began working for acceptance.” (amightygirl.com) I’m not so sure I agree with her.

I think it’s a problem that young women today don’t realize how many rights women gained only through the activism and struggle of their forebears. It has been less than 100 years since women won the right to vote in America. Even in more recent history, women were discriminated against in the workplace and barred from many rights that today’s woman takes for granted.

In the 1960s, for instance, women could be refused a credit card, and married women had to have their husbands co-sign to obtain one. Married women were also listed on passports as simply the wife of a man. Most of the Ivy League schools barred women from admittance until the late Sixties and beyond. And only married women with menstrual difficulties were allowed to purchase contraception in the early Sixties.

Even as women began entering the workplace in greater numbers, they faced widespread harassment and discrimination. In the 1960s, women earned approximately 60% of what men earned, largely due to the occupations that were open to women, but also because men were looked at as the breadwinners and therefore in need of greater compensation. This was quite overt, as evidenced in the comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary’s boss quite clearly states that she is being paid less because she is a woman.

Aside from salary issues, women were subject to sexist and discriminatory policies at work. For example, a woman could be fired because she became pregnant. Flight attendants in the 60s (called “stewardesses”) were subject to height, weight, and attractiveness qualifications. And stewardesses could be fired for getting married. After all, the predominantly male clientele on flights wanted unrestricted access to attractive single women whom they could sexually harass with abandon.

This week Fox News icon Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign under allegations of sexual harassment, following his old boss, Roger Ailes, who also left the media giant amid such accusations.

Back when I was a young working college student, there was no such concept as “sexual harassment.” Women were routinely subjected to unwanted comments and advances from co-workers. I remember being forced to kiss my boss – on the lips! – on my last day of work at an insurance agency. There was no recourse available to women until Gloria Steinem’s exposé of the Playboy enterprise brought to light the rampant victimization of women in the workplace.

Today many of the rights women take for granted are imperiled by a conservative movement that wants to relegate women to their past restrictive roles as wives and mothers. Particularly in the area of reproductive rights, legislation is intruding upon the rights of women to obtain contraception and other medical care of their choosing. And as indicated by many recent high profile instances of sexual harassment and domestic violence, as well as the current pay gap of 20% between men and women (aauw.org), women still need to fight for our rights, not take them for granted.

Many young women today dislike the term “feminism,” seeing it as a pejorative term for a ball-busting hater of men. What they need to realize is that without feminism, they would not be enjoying the freedoms and rights they enjoy today. And without continued feminism, those rights may slip away in the future.

Glimmers of Hope

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ct-jewish-cemetery-vandalized-20170222Lisa See’s memoir On Gold Mountain describes the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After the law passed prohibiting Chinese nationals from obtaining visas to come to America, racist hatred of the Chinese escalated into terrible violence against Chinese immigrants. That history so closely parallels Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban that it is scary. Even before the president instituted a ban against travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries, indeed immediately following his election, verbal and physical attacks against Muslims increased. Trump’s angry rhetoric about non-whites also awoke latent anti-Semitism in this country.

Yet with all these unwelcome developments since November 8, 2016, I see some glimmers of hope. First of all, the courts immediately struck down Trump’s initial ban, and I have hope that they may see his latest attempt as equally unconstitutional. The Administration has hidden behind vague and unspecified threats to American security in order to justify the ban. Perhaps the cooler heads of the judiciary will see through such tactics.

I have also noticed that Americans are standing up to the hateful racism that has become more overt since the November election. For instance,  when an airline passenger asked a Pakistani couple, “That’s not a bomb in your bag, is it?,” nearby passengers alerted the flight attendant and the racist man was booted off the flight. As he and his female companion gathered their belongings, passengers jeered, “This is not Trump’s America!” and “Goodbye, racists!”

Those “up-standers” were not unique. As a white male terrorist shot and killed two men of Middle Eastern descent at a bar, another white man came to their defense, getting shot himself. Thankfully, this up-stander is recovering from the gunshot wound.

Similarly, when the headstones at a Jewish cemetery were desecrated and knocked over, Muslim groups collected funds to repair the damage, and people of many religions and ethnicities gathered to do the work. People have also been taking it upon themselves to remove Nazi and anti-Semitic graffiti from subways and other public spaces. Such actions make me hopeful and remind me that the vast majority of Americans are decent, well-meaning people who will not stand by while others are subject to hatred.

Even in Republican states, lawmakers are showing some reluctance to further the divisive agenda of Donald Trump. Although Trump rescinded the executive order regarding transgender bathroom use in schools, proposed state anti-transgender bills have been facing intense backlash. These states are learning the lesson of North Carolina, which has lost quite a bit of revenue since passing its famous “bathroom bill.” Numerous sports organizations and other groups are refusing to hold events in the state until that bill is revoked. Once you hit them in the pocketbook, even the most conservative Republicans may yield to public opinion.

Finally, I recently read an article about white extremist “recovery” programs such as Life After Hate. Run by former white supremacists, Life After Hate seeks to help extremists leave behind their abhorrent ideology and find belonging with others who had learned to channel their anger into hatred of the “other.”

To be sure, we need to remain vigilant about attempts to undermine civil liberties in our country. We need to keep standing up for those who are attacked because of their race, religion, or gender. We need to remember our history and vow to do better than our predecessors at championing tolerance. Let’s not slide back but move forward proudly and compassionately to show the world that the greatness of America resides, not in our power or military might, but in our hearts and minds.

 

 

March in Like a Lion

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I have seen them called ReSISTERS. They are gathering across the country and even around the world. Many of them will be donning knitted pink “pussyhats” or “Nasty Woman” t-shirts. They are women from all different walks of life, ethnicities, and religions. Some are men! They are marching in solidarity against our newly elected president, Donald Trump and his politics of hate.

The Women’s March on Washington is expected to be one of the biggest demonstrations in our history. Here in Chicago, the venue for the march has changed as the number of women participating has grown.

Critics will say that marching does little to change the direction of government or the country. I disagree. The famed civil rights marches of the Fifties and Sixties helped abolish discriminatory Jim Crow laws and policies that kept blacks down. Protests against the Vietnam War turned the tide on our involvement in that terrible conflict. Now women are gathering to say, “No. We will not just ‘get over it.'” President Trump needs to know we have the numbers and the will to resist policies that discriminate and divide. He needs to see that he cannot broadcast his deep disrespect for women without consequence.

I know a number of women who will be marching in Washington, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Some are relatives; some are friends. Even a young Chicago bride-to-be decided to have her bachelorette party at the Washington march, according to the Chicago Tribune. I admire the commitment these women have made to be heard and seen and to let those in power know that half the U.S. population will not tolerate an assault on their rights.

To me it’s sad that 240 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, we still have not seen a woman become president of the United States. The equality for all enshrined in that document and in our Constitution still seems like a dream to be grasped for many marginalized groups. But the women’s marches taking place today give me hope that Americans will continue to demand just treatment for all people.

My hope and prayer is that the marches will take place peacefully, that marchers will return home safely, and that their actions today reignite the women’s movement in our country.