Tag Archives: women

Is a Feminist Uprising the Traditional Ninth Anniversary Gift, or the Modern?

Today is my wedding anniversary.

Which, in retrospect, is perhaps not the best time to finally get around to reading Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.

Anyway, the combination of the anniversary and the book, and my continued thinking about motherhood and women’s struggles for equality and justice and health and peace…have me thinking about what a truly pro-women policy agenda would look like, and what such a movement would mean for families, the nation, and our social work profession.

Women’s experiences in our society are distinct, and we need political power that recognizes that, demands policies that support us, and changes the expectations that we have internalized, which, after all, is what the backlash is really about: making women police ourselves, so that no one else even needs to consciously repress us.

And I think that all of that is tremendously important, which I why I read blogs like MomsRising and Feministing, why I include content in my policy classes about “gendered budgets” and how social welfare policy has oppressed women, and why I think that we need policy reforms that give women real options and real equity and real authority. Absolutely.

But, on this day, my thoughts are really more on my own journey as a woman, how the personal is always political and, for me, the political is personal now, too. I’m thinking about how I couldn’t see how sexism and proscribed gender roles impacted my life until I was a married woman, largely because I had bought into the conceit of exceptionalism. I’m thinking about how many people have nodded sympathetically (approvingly?) when I said that I quit my full-time job because I missed my kids too much when I was traveling, and how their reactions affirm the backlash at work: “see, another woman who tried to have it all and thought better of it.” I’m thinking about how my wonderful husband, who had to actually show me where we get things dry cleaned when I first went to part-time work (because I never, ever got off work in time to go to a dry cleaners before!) has only made dinner a few times in the past three years. I’m thinking about how nice it would be, at least sometimes, to be the one to rush off to work in the morning, and about how much I miss the recognition and respect that came with a more prominent job. I’m thinking about how many mothers at the park say “lucky” when I tell them that I work part-time, and how many of my full-time employed friends say the same. I’m thinking about how our own social service organizations fail in creating the kinds of jobs that work for working mothers, and about how many times I asked for more help so that I could cut my hours back, before I quit. I’m thinking about how glad I am that my son told me, “when I’m older, sometimes I’ll have to get off work early to pick up my kids because my wife will be at work,” and how to make sure that he sees all of me, not just the Mommy side. I’m thinking about how many people told me to “work less” when I couldn’t get pregnant, and how no one told my husband that. I’m thinking that many of the same groups that attack women’s right to an abortion attack the technologies that helped us build our family, too, and about how my grief cemented my commitment to women’s full spectrum of reproductive freedoms. I’m thinking about the kind of example that I may have inadvertently set for the young immigrant women with whom I organized when I stepped back from that work…and about how missing my kids can be construed as a statement about something entirely different.

And, because I’m an organizer and a policy geek, I’m also thinking that I bet most of those moms at the park would agree that they do more than their fair share at home, want better options in the labor market, and reject being labeled as “just stay-at-home moms”, and I’m wondering how many would self-identify as feminists. I’m thinking about how to build a movement that can change the frames that constrain women’s lives, because “pro-family” shouldn’t mean “turn the clock back”, “gender-neutral” almost never is, and no one ever nods knowingly at working fathers who “try to have it all”. And I’m thinking personally, too, about how my wedding vows included the phrase “work with you for justice and peace in our home and in our world”, and about what building a truly equitable partnership looks like, every day. I’m thinking about that agenda: equal pay and equal education and some things that must be distinctly unequal–reproductive choice and affirmative action and economic support for single mothers. And I’m thinking about how to make sure that my kids, especially my daughter, grow up in a society that supports women in a multitude of roles, having broken through the backlash for good.

And I’m thinking, too, happy anniversary, honey. I swear.

Move over, Eleanor? No, there’s plenty of room.

Sarah and Angelina Grimké

I named my daughter after Eleanor Roosevelt.

She has a framed picture of the former First Lady, at work in the United Nations, in her room.

So you can imagine my chagrin, when, after reading The Woman Behind the New Deal, about Frances Perkins and her role within the Roosevelt Administration and the architecture of the New Deal, I realized that (while I still think Eleanor is an amazing woman whose role in history is well-deserved) I’ve been a bit duped.

Our history seems to only have enough room, often times, for one really monumental woman at a time. And, with Eleanor’s proximity to the President, she’s often been the one given that historical spotlight.

So, while it was Frances Perkins whose ideas became much of the social legislation of the New Deal, and whose ability to see “the elements of disintegration in the social fabric” (p. 294) foretold the fall of France to the Nazis, and whose commitment to preventing injustice saved more refugees during World War II than any other individual in the U.S. government, and whose vision secured the role of the International Labor Organization as a voice for workers worldwide, and whose government service created much of the infrastructure that opened careers for generations of social workers, and whose belief that statistics tell human stories brought to the White House a dedication to alleviating suffering during our nation’s greatest economic tragedy…there hasn’t been much room for her in our understanding of the forces shaping the modern welfare state, or even in our social work education.

My first instinct was to feel chagrined–I’ve been guilty of overlooking one woman’s accomplishments because of too much focus on another’s. And then I got angry–where did this instinct come from, to jump from one heroine to the next, instead of arming myself with a whole phalanx of awesome women to serve as role models for my life (and that of my daughter)?

This isn’t just about what I name my daughter (although Frances is looking kind of appealing). In an age where textbooks are being rewritten to exclude even more of the stories of courageous campaigners for social justice, and even more of the voices of marginalized populations, what we understand about the past is increasingly important as statements about who we are, and who we want to become.

So here’s to not just Eleanor, and Frances, but Grace Abbott and Jane Addams and Florence Kelley and Caroline Love O’Day and Mary Dreier and Bertha Reynolds and Lugenia Burns Hope and Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah and Angelina Grimké and the countless others I can’t wait to learn about.

I’m not going to have enough daughters to honor them all, but my young woman still has a lot of room on her wall.

Make it work with women, and you’ll win

Social work is an overwhelmingly female profession. And, in many fields of social work practice, social workers also make up a majority of clients, as well.

We know this.

Yet, for such a female-centric profession, we often forget that women are, also, a big part of the puzzle in terms of addressing the social problems that plague our society, too. We fall into the myth of ‘gender neutral’ communication and outreach and advocacy, even though we really know better.

And then we wonder why we don’t have more supporters, or more advocates, or more donors.

One of the most uplifting books I read this spring was The She Spot: Why Women are the Market for Changing the World–And How to Reach Them. It’s an easy read, by two awesome and talented women who know how to communicate and, most importantly to me, are super committed to social justice, writ large. So you should really read it. It has a lot of good examples, too, and they’ll get you on the very first page when they describe their disgust and disdain for a get-out-the-vote website, aimed at women, wreathed in pink flowers. Seriously.

So, we know that we don’t want to go that route. But we social work advocates also don’t, usually, have the big budgets to hire a firm like theirs to help us craft advocacy messages. Hey, we often don’t even have the money to hire an intern to help us craft advocacy messages.

So what can we take away from these lessons to adapt our current campaigns and make them resonate with the very folks who will help us get to victory: women?

One of my favorite pieces from the book is their emphasis on how women share information, a reality very much a part of my life (where I get and give advice and resources with women in my social networks all the time). It’s not only true; it’s guerrilla marketing that, for advocacy, has the advantage of not only being lower cost (because your leaders are carrying the message for you) but also more likely to lead to success (because people who are asked by those they know to take action are much more likely to than those more passively solicited). This means empowering your leaders to shape and disseminate messages themselves, reflecting a reality that, in this digital age, there’s no such thing as total ‘control’ anyway. This means taking advantage of social media and other emerging technologies to help people connect, not only to your cause, but to each other. It’s a core principle of community organizing, really: for men and for women, it’s all about relationships.

The authors’ discussion of ‘cultivation’ focused primarily on the fact that women tend to be tougher customers, in terms of supporting causes, but fiercer and more loyal supporters once they’re on board. To me, though, this principle demands power-sharing, too; what better way to truly bring women into your fold than endowing them with power to make decisions and help to chart strategy, and being transparent so that women can learn to really trust what you’re doing and where you’re headed? And, of course, they make the key point that these kinds of commitments on the part of organizations will also, often, attract support from men, as well; while reaching out in a stereotyped way can turn off either gender, paying attention to the need to cultivate deep relationships with your potential supporters will bring men along, too.

The authors talk a bit about women’s lower rates of political giving than men, with some insights that are very important for advocacy work and, even, for direct services. They make a compelling case that getting women to participate more in the political process as donors requires helping to draw connections between those contributions and the results they can generate in the policy sphere; women already care about the issues, what they need to believe in is the process. And that means we need to be rigorous about evaluating our advocacy, work, too, so that women have reason to trust that process and to see connections between their contributions and activism and progress in the social concerns about which they’re passionate. AND we’ve got to make participating in social action feel just as good as direct service; too often we bemoan people’s greater willingness to get involved on the micro level while we ignore the need to feed people’s spirits in our macro work, too.

Finally, it occurred to me as I was writing this post and pulling dozens of sticky notes off the pages of The She Spot, doing advocacy in a way that appeals to women (as targets) will appeal to women as organizers, lobbyists, fundraisers, and coordinators, too. I have little notes saying, “how fun!” in the margins of so many of their examples (like the house parties to show a movie about sex trafficking and have hosts lead discussions and coordinate petition drives among their friends and colleagues). That’s not surprising because, after all, I’m a woman. And since women have been at the heart of every movement for social justice in the history of this country, playing critical, if not always heralded roles, and since we make up the majority of staff and supporters and volunteers of nonprofit organizations today, and since many of the social problems we’re collectively trying to address disproportionately affect us, well, then, we should get to run these campaigns our way.

Policy Reform to Make Every Day a Happy Mothers’ Day


Who makes me a mom–my big kid at age 3 and the twins at 3 months

Yesterday was Mothers’** Day (okay, so I’m really writing this the week before, since I usually spend Mothers’ Day sleeping late and then just playing with my kids, but give me a break–it’s Mothers’ Day!).

This post isn’t about any inspirational lessons my kids have taught me, though, or the history of the holiday, or anything heartwarming like those email forwards about sick kids that people always send around this time of year (that I curse under my breath but still cry at?).

It’s about public policy reforms that would make every mother’s life better, and make our country a better place in the process, and about building the kind of political movement that would make that happen.

It’s about really believing that it could, that it can, that it will, because moms manage to make some pretty amazing things happen every day, there are a lot of us, and, well, even the most jaded politicians are afraid to be “anti-Mom”.

This spring, I read The Motherhood Manifesto. It’s terrific–stories about ordinary moms and how public policy changes would make a difference in their lives, and in ours. For several months, I’ve been an active member of MomsRising, a truly fantastic blog/advocacy group/support for progressive parents that takes on the policy priorities (maternity leave, open/flexible work, after-school programs, health care for all, excellent childcare, realistic & fair wages, and paid sick days) that stem from The Motherhood Manifesto, but, in today’s digital age, it’s a site that uses video and social networking and the highlighted voices of real parents to inspire action. If you are a mom, or you want to honor one, check it out.

Reading the book and communicating with other moms on the site, I think that there’s a real missed opportunity not to just press for these policy priorities, but also to activate families more and include a ‘motherhood (and apple pie is always good)’ appeal in other policy advocacy, too. For example, there’s a real claim to make that providing greater access to health care outside of the employer-employee relationship would open up job options for mothers and fathers who want flexibility but often sacrifice it for full-time positions that come with benefits (which can mean, then, that one parent settles for less employment than he/she (usually she) would like, because the other is in an overwhelming job that comes with health insurance). I don’t hear the pro-mother, pro-family, pro-labor market flexibility argument much in the health care debate these days, and it seems to be a missing element.

Similarly, the discussion around universal preschool and greater supports for early childhood education highlights the high cost, scarce availability, and spotty quality of childcare options, but gives short shrift to the struggles of childcare providers, many of whom are themselves mothers, who, despite the unaffordability of childcare for many parents, often earn poverty wages for their families. Uniting mothers who are childcare providers and those who are childcare consumers seems key to building a coalition that will shift the public understanding of childcare to something that more parallels higher education, where considerable public subsidy is considered an essential component of a thriving economy and society.

I am very, very aware of the many privileges that make motherhood a (usually) pleasant journey for me: a partner who shares a lot of the family work load; life insurance that would keep our family from being devastated if something happened to either one of us; a part-time job that allows me a lot of flexibility; a higher education that makes that job a possibility; extended family nearby; a safe neighborhood full of people who view our children as partly their responsibility; access to health care for my kids…I can’t imagine being a mom without these supports, and yet the reality is that most mothers are denied many of them.

Still, my reality is that I won’t make what I did once I go back to work full-time (the motherhood wage hit is about 30%, and it lasts for years, ON TOP OF the $700,000 lifetime hit women take in earnings due to the wage gap); I’m not saving anything for my retirement; I do more than half of the housework and the vast majority of the hands-on childcare; I panic whenever our childcare falls through; I work and parent even when I’m sick; including caring for my kids, I ‘work’ about 80 hours/week, but I’ll only get Social Security credits for a fraction of that. I see around me mothers who wish they were working but couldn’t make enough to pay for childcare, mothers who wish they could see their kids more but don’t want to sacrifice their careers, mothers who only have 2-3 weeks at home after having a baby, mothers who rationalize sending their kids to poor-quality childcare because they can’t afford anything else, mothers who themselves aren’t earning what they’re really worth.

It’s wrong, our nation can’t afford it, and our families deserve better. Nearly every other developed nation does a better job of surrounding mothers with investments for success than ours–we know what would help, and we know that the we will reap the rewards for decades to come. Please, go make it a Happy Mothers’ Day, today and tomorrow and the next day…

**I’m intentional about the placement of the possessive here; “mother’s day” would be about honoring one’s own mother, which, you know, is fine, but certainly not revolutionary. I consider it “mothers’ day”, which, if we took it seriously enough, could change our world.

Women in Social Work who Have Changed the World

One of my winter break reads (yes, the reviews are still trickling out, folks…) was the most recent book edited by my undergraduate advisor and very good friend (and blog reader!) Alice Lieberman. You should pick it up; I read it in just a few hours, as it’s really a collection of interviews with phenomenal women social workers around the world who have done (and are doing) amazing work.

Because it’s such an easy read, and because I know that you’re all looking for some more good books to add to your reading lists, at my suggestion, I’m just going to relate to the stories, in aggregate, in a couple of very personal ways. Besides, really, choosing just one of two to include here would be too difficult. Um, an ambassador? U.S. Senator? Iranian social worker who faced down a firing squad? One of the 100 most influential Hispanics in the country? And two nuns? You know how I feel about nuns…

On only about the third page of the book, still in the introduction, I had one of those lightbulb moments. I was really not aware, at all, of the literature about the powerful role that fathers, in particular, play in their daughters’ social and emotional development. That particular influence runs through many of the stories in the book, and it really hit a chord with me. In many of these cases, it’s obvious why supportive fathers are so important: in much of the developing world, without strong advocacy from the father, girls have very little access to education.

But that wasn’t the case for me, certainly, and yet I can think of no single greater influence in my decision to use my life to serve others, than my father. I thought of him a lot throughout the whole book. In an interview from Pakistan, an advocate speaks of seeing her mother berate a group of men who had just kicked a widow out of her house, and I thought of my Dad forcing a car off the road so that he could get out and drive the drunk (and unknown to us) man home. My favorite story in the book is in the chapter on Sister Jean Abbott, with whom I had the great honor to work some while I was in St. Louis. She speaks of her sister getting so excited when a man asked for a drink of water, because she thought this was her big chance to do what her father wanted: give someone more than what he/she had asked for. The man was quite taken aback with the huge breakfast her sister offered. It reminded me of my favorite story of my sister who, when asked to draw a picture of Jesus in Sunday School, drew him with a bald head and glasses. I don’t have to tell you what my Dad looks like.

The other very personal thing for me in this book was the realization that very few of the women profiled have children and partners, and some of those who do are either estranged from their families or acknowledge that they missed much of their children’s lives. I love my kids fiercely, and I gain tremendous joy from mothering them every day. Yet I am also very conscious of the opportunity cost of this intensive parenting–the more that I give to my kids, the less I have to give to others. I’m certainly not saying that I would have become an ambassador or an Ashoka fellow or anything, had I not chosen parenting, but I do wonder about that other path, sometimes. Having decided to have kids, I have very strong feelings about the role that I want to play in their lives, and yet I know what I’m not doing, then, as a result. And, of course, it made me think about how you’d likely never see those stories in a book about outstanding men and their contributions, and about how moms are the ones expected to straddle both worlds.

And it was also moving for me to see how many of the women spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt as an inspiration for their work. My daughter is named after her and has a framed picture of the former First Lady on her dresser. It is my sincere hope that my daughter grows up with some of the same compassion and wisdom and moral courage evidenced by her namesake and, apparently, many of those who seek to emulate her.

Less personal, but still powerful, was the very obvious interweaving of clinical and social change orientations in virtually all of the profiles in the book. I feel very strongly that bridging across this false divide is essential for the future of our profession and, I believe, key to our likelihood of success in grappling with the world’s problems, too. As woman after woman stated, it is when we bring our excellent people skills together with a macro-systems perspective and an unflinching commitment to social justice that we become truly powerful forces for change. Nearly all of the women took a more macro approach in school, and certainly in their practice, but they value their clinical experience and clinical tools, as well.

And, finally, my favorite quotes, which honestly reminded me of several of you!
“a dislike for injustice was one of her principal traits” (p. 113)
“it is difficult to say whether (she) chose social work or social work chose her” (p. 41)
And, in a quote of St. Francis of Assisi, “preach and, if necessary, use words” (p. 125)

What women in social work particularly inspire you? Or do you have your own story to tell about a parent’s influence, or the cost of family responsibilities, or being a woman in this “female” profession?

Elections matter (aka “If they can do it in Rwanda”)

If I had a dollar for every time, while registering voters, someone had said to me, “it doesn’t matter who wins, they’re all the same”…well, I’d still be sitting here writing this blog post, honestly, but I would have given away more money last year and I’d be drinking the larger size Diet Dr. Pepper. I have simple needs.

But, seriously, social workers are often guilty of this “they’re all the same” mentality when it comes to elected officials, too. And I can understand it, really. On many issues that we care about, there is not that much difference between the views of ‘mainstream’ members of the two major U.S. political parties, and it’s easy to see our issues pushed entirely off the agenda and conclude that all of that electoral work was for naught.

But, now, we have some data that can actually demonstrate that who’s in office CAN make a difference, at least if that who is a woman. Below, I’ve uploaded two publicly-available academic studies that document, empirically, the difference that increasing the density of women elected officials in local communities. Interestingly, the same effects are not found for women elected to higher posts; there is some speculation that this is because of the corrupting effects of the accummulation of sufficient power to mount a national campaign (note for U.S. activists, too?).

These studies found that, when a change to the Indian constitution required that one third of villages (chosen randomly) have the position of chief reserved for women, spending priorities and governance processes were markedly different in the villages with female chiefs: more water pumps and taps, fewer bribes, and better overall infrastructure (as a side note, can a researcher imagine a better set up than random distribution like this? truly manna from heaven). You can read the studies for yourself.

Then check out the story of Rwanda, which I really knew nothing about until I read Half the Sky (you remember that–it’s the book that you all read last fall! 🙂 As of September 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world with a majority of female legislators. The constitution requires that women make up at least 30% of Parliament; partially because of necessity (after the 1994 genocide, women are 70% of the population) and partially because the population saw electing more women as a sort of safeguard against a reprise of that horrific violence. Once women were elected, voters lost some of their reluctance to elect more, and, as a result, Rwanda is now hailed by many observers as one of the best-governed, most economically promising countries in Africa and, indeed, in the developing world.

And, here’s my New Favorite Thing: Women’s Campaign International. This is a global organization dedicated to helping grassroots women leaders run for office, win elections, and serve effectively. It fulfills this mission by providing technical assistance and capacity building to local women’s organizations, supporting advocacy and grassroots campaigning, and directly increasing women’s incomes through entrepreneurial strategies. They include the U.S. and our rather dismal representation of women in politics nationally as part of their concern, and their website has a blog with current news and some exciting success stories.

Check them out and, then, find a woman candidate locally whom you can support. Ask her how you can help–fundraising, publicity, issue research, voter contacts…hey, watch her kids or clean her house so she can get more campaigning in. Or run for office yourself! Social workers have been highly effective members of local, state, and federal government throughout our profession’s history, and we have an important role to play today. This is the beginning of a critical election year, and we have a lot of work to do between now and the spring local elections, summer primaries, and November general election.

Just think, if they can do it in Rwanda…

Rededicated to the impossible

Drawings of slave ships were one the primary tools abolitionists used to tell the story of the atrocities visited upon those enslaved

Drawings of slave ships were one the primary tools abolitionists used to tell the story of the atrocities visited upon those enslaved

So I just finished reading Half the Sky. Meaning that I stayed up until 2AM two nights in a row (which, for a mom with little kids, tells you that I was REALLY serious about reading it), absolutely transfixed by the stories of gender oppression around the world and, even more so, the completely inspiring in a million ways women (and some men) who are working in creative, tireless, and mainly fiercely courageous ways to end it.

I’m not going to write a review; here are links to some sources that have already reviewed it. But I do have several posts stemming from it swirling in my brain, so you’ll see some references to Half the Sky sprinkled throughout my writing over the next few weeks. This is the first.

I like authors that make no secret that their writing is part of a crusade for social justice. When I met David Bacon in September, I had the chance to tell him that in person.

The authors of Half the Sky do the same thing, right from the start. And here’s what I especially appreciated about their introduction:

“Honor killings, sexual slavery, and genital cutting may seem to Western readers to be tragic but inevitable in a world far, far away. In much the same way, slavery was once widely viewed by many decent Europeans and Americans as a regrettable but ineluctable feature of human life…But then in the 1780s a few indignant Britons, led by William Wilberforce, decided that slavery was so offensive that they had to abolish it. And they did.” (p. xxii)

Calls to action don’t get much bolder than that, do they?

Think that you’re busy? That the problems you’re confronting are intractable? That you lack the funds, or the technology, or the public opinion that you need to move the needle on your social injustice of choice? Um, try abolishing slavery, unilaterally, at the height of the global slave trade, at a national cost of almost 2% of GNP per year for SIXTY years (plus one brief war and three war scares).

Half the Sky returns to the abolitionist Brits at the end of the book, in the appropriately-titled “What you can do” chapter. There, they pinpoint as the key factor of success the abolitionist activists’ ability to document and vividly describe the horrific abuses and injustices visited upon slaves–this idea that we advocates seem to instinctively know (although sometimes forget)–that building relationships, however vicariously, and helping people to connect in meaningful ways with suffering that we will otherwise try to ignore is the best (and sometimes only) way to build inexorable momentum for dramatic social change. In fact, they cite some very powerful social research that statistics and generalized cries of alarm tend to repel solidarity and collective action, while personal stories of those impacted draw people in and can, even, compel significant sacrifice in pursuit of justice.

So, besides really trying to influence my son to choose William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson as his ‘historical hero’ in the 5th grade, what do I take away from this refresher course in the thrilling history of abolition?

Really, just a reminder of what I already know to be true:

  • There are no excuses. I’m making a renewed commitment to being the kind of person that people shake their heads at, wondering ‘what in the world has gotten into her?’ I will be unreasonably passionate about injustice. I will not pursue pragmatism.
  • We don’t win people over with logic; we win them over by igniting their love for their fellow human being.
  • We can’t wait for the numbers to look good for us. Public opinion alone is seldom sufficient for social change, and so facing significant opposition is no reason to wait.
  • No matter how hard I might think I’m working on a particular cause, or even in general, I’m not even beginning to give what women around the world are giving to their quest for justice. I can and must do more.

    After devouring Half the Sky, I don’t feel guilty. I feel emboldened. Audacious, even. And angry. And part of a much larger whole. And ready, to think really, really, really big, impossibly big.

    So I don’t apologize, if you are one of the dozens of people I’ve grabbed this week and told, “you must read this book!” I won’t apologize for asking you to write letters and give money, for telling you stories that are horrifying and galvanizing at the same time, and for not shutting up about the tragedy that is our treatment of women and girls around the world. We’ve got better tools and more inspiration than those Brits did in the 18th century. We can make this the century in which we eradicate the ills that have thus far plagued us.

    I want it to be written, “and they did.”