Posts from February 2002

End Sexual Misconduct in Alabama Prisons

I gave this speech on 28 February 2002 at the Alabama capitol building in Montgomery, as part of a press conference held by Amnesty International USA and Alabama state Representative Barbara Boyd (D-Anniston), in support of Boyd’s House Bill 136, which outlawed sexual conduct and harassment by guards in Alabama prisons.

In a society where men sexually assault one out of every five women, where rape and the threat of rape keep women in a state of fear, what can we do to defend the fundamental human rights of women and girls?

What can we do today, for women and girls who do not have time to wait for things to be fixed? What can we do right now for women’s human rights in Alabama?

Right now, the Alabama legislature has a choice to make. Right now, Alabama is one of only four states where there is no law protecting prison inmates from custodial sexual misconduct. Right now, there are over 1,700 female inmates in Alabama prisons. Most of them are guarded by male corrections officers in violation of international correctional standards. Because there are no legal protections against custodial sexual misconduct, women in Alabama prisons have been subjected to sexual extortion, rape, and other abuse by members of the correctional staff to whom they are entrusted.

Rape is a crime of power. It happens when the rapist wants power over his victim, and uses power to force sex. More than any other institution, the prison is a place in which the agents of the state are entrusted with power over other people. With that power must come responsibility.

Most people who are entrusted with this power do not abuse it. Most men would never even consider committing a sexual assault. But we must create an environment in which those who do abuse their power are held responsible. Without legal protections against custodial sexual misconduct, those few who do choose to abuse their power over inmates inflict suffering on their victims that can only be described as a form of torture.

Young people, students such as myself, have been taking the initiative all across Alabama to work against sexual violence. We have volunteered to support rape crisis centers and peer education groups to raise awareness and support the survivors of sexual violence. Through student government and activist groups, we have put our energies into improving safety on our own campuses. And now it is time for the legislature to take up the struggle with us. Last month, Representative Barbara Boyd introduced House Bill 136, which would finally enforce legal accountability for officers who abuse their power over inmates through sexual violence. We are one of only four states without such a law. For Alabama to fully protect the human rights of women, the legislature must approve this bill, as one more step in the fight against sexual violence, one more step in the struggle for women’s fundamental human rights.

Alabama Lags Nation in Pay Equity

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Alabama’s gender wage gap is $0.69 earned by a woman for every $1.00 earned by a man (Alabama is in the bottom third in the country; the worst is Wyoming at $0.63 on the dollar, and the best is the District of Columbia, at $0.86 on the dollar). You can see how your state stacks up in the state-by-state gender wage gap map [link courtesy of Merge].

More Police Brutality in Montgomery

Montgomery, Alabama has a long history of racist police brutality. And they’re at it again. Most recently, five Montgomery police officers resigned and three have been put on suspension amidst charges of police brutality [Nando], as well as abuse of authority, mistreatment of citizens, and false reporting of incidents. One officer, Michael Clark, is being charged with criminal use of mace in the brutality against a 17 year old prisoner. As usual, seven of the eight cops were white, and all of the victims were Black.

Just about every year or couple years, there’s another big high-profile incident with the Montgomery PD, and everyone acts all shocked, like this isn’t shit that goes on every day. Should it surprise anyone that police officers end up acting like jackbooted thugs when we send them on a war, constantly train them that their first job is to take down criminals (rather than, say, assisting the community), jack them up into militarized units, and run them through what amount to little more than paramilitary raids on low-income neighborhoods? There are housing projects in Montgomery which are raided regularly, whether there is any report of a crime or not, by heavily armored police in black SUVs. Poor people of color in Montgomery are basically living under military occupation. Holding these officers accountable is a necessary first step, but we also have to deal with the militarized culture and practice of policing, as well as end the insane and racist War on Drugs, and address the class disparities trapping people of color in high-crime ghettoes in the first place, if we are ever going to see a real solution to police brutality.

For further reading:

How Bob Barr Became the Tinhorn Dictator of DC

Bob Barr holds his hands out, as if to say...

Whoa there, democracy!

(The Hon. Rep. Bob Barr)

District of Columbia citizens have long had to face the frustrations of being deprived of home rule and micromanaged by the federal Congress, which maintains ultimate control over the government of D.C., while having no members at all who are elected by D.C. residents. In 1998, the antidemocratic nature of D.C. government was made clear to the point of ridiculousness, as Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) banned D.C. elections officials from releasing the results of a referendum on allowing the use of medical marijuana, fearing that the majority of D.C. voters would approve. Barr thus managed to effectively mimic Third World tinhorn dictators such as Nigeria’s Sani Abacha, who seized ballot boxes and refused to announce results of elections he feared he had lost.

Since the Barr amendment banned the counting of the results of a referendum solely on the basis of the content of the referendum (that it was to legalize a certain use of marijuana), the ACLU filed and won a First Amendment challenge to the Barr amendment, thus allowing the votes to be counted. As expected, the initiative to legalize medical marijuana in D.C. passed by an overwhelming margin of 69%-31%. However, Rep. Barr quickly went back to work in suppressing the will of the D.C. voters, eventually managing to push through a bill overriding the initiative and banning D.C. from enacting or carrying out the bill that they had overwhelmingly voted to pass.

When the Founders created the District of Columbia as a special area set aside from all the several states, the idea was to create a space for the federal capital which would not be beholden to the sectional interests of any of the several states. However, since the 18th century, D.C. has exploded far beyond merely being a city for the top branches of federal government. Within the borders of D.C. lies one of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation. It is long past time that the federal area of D.C. be reduced into a much smaller area for the federal office buildings, monuments, and possibly residential space for federal office holders; the rest of D.C. should be granted the full rights and responsibilities of statehood under the U.S. Constitution, thus restoring democratic rights to home rule and representation in Congress to the hundreds of thousands of people within its borders.

The Weird, Wild World of Anti-feminism

As a preface to this post, you might want to take a glance over a mostly complete but rather alleatory sampling of the books that I was assigned to read during my high-school English career, which occurred during the heady crest days of the feminist education movement in the 1990s.[1] (Note to English teachers: I am not complaining about this lineup in the least; the English program at AHS is one of the best parts of the school. This is intended merely as a counterpoint to certain claims made in the article being discussed.)

So, then, what have we here? Yet another heaping helping of Christina Hoff Sommers from Salon. I swear to God there must be some kind of law requiring Salon to publish one sloppy lovefest for media creation antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers once every year (2/5/2002, 3/9/2001, 6/21/2000).

And it’s the same old thing they’ve been insisting in the last three articles: feminist education efforts in the 1990s have somehow slighted boys’ aspirations to a good education, and now it’s time to start tilting the balance back the other way or somesuch nonsense. At hand is boys’ lower performance in verbal / literary subjects, compared with the narrowing of the advantage they once enjoyed in science and mathematics classes.

In this article, at least, the author allows voices other than Christina Hoff Sommers to speak (not the case in Befner’s regrettable Battle of the Celebrity Gender Theorists, an article allegedly about Jane Fonda and Carol Gilligan, which nevertheless consisted entirely of a sympathetic interview with Christina Hoff Sommers). However, it just so happens that Hoff Sommers and those who agree with her are given the last word in every case; allowed to skewer interpretations of data by Gilligan and other feminists, but given a free pass on truly bizarre statements.

This, for example, is reported without any comment from an opposing voice:

Our English classes are strongly feminized, even in boys schools, says Hoff Sommers. We want literature to make boys more sensitive. But I’m not sure that we need to invest in literature as a form of therapy.

This claim is not just contentious; it’s downright bizarre. Look over my reading list[1] again and ask yourself how much it’s really feminized. The reading list is packed with literature of boys, by boys, and for boys. It used to be that learning from a reading list not very different from this one was expected to be part of the ritual of a boy growing up into manly adulthood in a civilized society.

She points out that a majority of English teachers still assign fiction in the classroom, while she believes that boys prefer nonfiction. (In the PISA study, girls and boys were asked to self-report on the kind of reading materials they preferred. Boys reported reading more comic books, Web pages and newspapers, while girls read more novels.)

Of course they primarily assign fiction. It’s an English literature class! If you want more nonfiction reading in schools, push to have more primary sources included in History, Science, Mathematics, etc. classes. That’s where it belongs. (And for God’s sake. Comic books? Please.)

Boys love adventure stories with male heroes, says Hoff Sommers. Many would love books by Stephen Ambrose and Tom Clancy. Since they are so far behind in reading, why not give them texts they enjoy? Some teachers are promoting political correctness at the expense of the basic literacy of their male students.

Hoff Sommers mistakenly assumes here that the reason for not including Tom Clancy pulp in the English class is because teachers are craven p.c. slaves. This is false. The reason Tom Clancy pulp is not included in English literature class is because it’s pulp fiction written on a third grade level. And no, encouraging Reading at all costs is not worth it–what in the world is developing an appreciation for Tom Clancy novels going to do for you, other than make you spend more money at the bestseller rack and get you a knowledge of military gadgetry? Similarly, boddice-rippers and Harlequin romance novels do not deserve to be, and are not, included in the English curriculum, either, even though they are intended for, and often written by, women.

My own son had to struggle through Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club when he was in the 10th grade, she adds. It has some attractive features, but it is full of annoying psychobabble about women and their self-esteem struggles. He disliked it. If teachers are going to assign books in popular literature, they should consider the needs and interests of boys.

Hoff Sommer’s vehemence about The Joy Luck Club makes it pretty clear that she just hates the book and is projecting her own feelings of distaste for it onto a generation of boys. If she hates the annoying psychobabble so much, then isn’t her real issue that it’s simply bad literature, not that it’s cutting against boys in particular?

Moreover, for Christ’s sake, in any English curriculum, there are going to be many books which you find absolutely dreadful and which bore you to tears. I, for example, was forced to wade through such dreary wank-a-thons as A Separate Peace and A Farewell to Arms. If the mere presence of some books you find boring is enough to turn you off to all literature, then you need to learn how to stop whining and get through to the next book.

Meanwhile, Tom Mortensen makes the astoundingly bad suggestion that

If I were teaching, says Mortenson, I would get boys out of the classroom. Take them to a swamp, dig through the muck, look for pollywogs. Then maybe take them back and have them look at pond water through slides and write up a lab report. They need hands-on activities. They get bored and distracted if you ask them to sit down and reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph — the kind of work that girls excel at.

Take them to a swamp? Dig through the muck? If I were subjected to this kind of treatment in school, I would have dropped out by fifth grade. You know what I love? Sedentary desk work. Reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph about it. Boring, dry textbooks. Who does he think he is teaching, the Lost Boys from Peter Pan? This is not a way to encourage serious education amongst boys; it’s a way to get a lot of boys goofing off and throwing mud at each other. Christ, man. Pollywogs?

(Furthermore, Mortensen’s proposal about how to change science education neglects the fact that boys are doing just fine in science education relative to girls. What hands-on activities does he propose we use to deal with disparities in literature? Take boys out to the moor to muck around and fetch wittles while they read Great Expectations?)

Meanwhile, Christina Hoff Sommers ridicules the perfectly reasonable hypothesis by Carol Gilligan that In American culture, says Gilligan, children learn to associate math and science with masculinity; knowledge of the human world and emotional lives are associated with femininity. Why should this be so surprising? It’s definitely true that English curricula are perceived as feminized. But this is not a matter of the reading list being somehow weighted heavily towards girl-power-chic titles, because, well, that’s crap. There is no such bias in English curricula. The issue, rather, is that in boy culture, reading literature and poetry is seen as a feminine activity, and it’s a good way to get yourself derided as a sissy, faggot,geek, dweeb, and otherwise un-manly boy. This, I think, is the only explanation that even remotely makes sense: why else would anyone think that, say, reading John Donne in English class is a feminized curriculum? And if this is the case, then jamming Tom Clancy pulp or comic books into the curriculum isn’t the way to solve the problem. The way to solve the problem is to address the boy culture nonsense which sees reading as girly, and sees being perceived as girly as a curse to be avoided.

Finally: let’s drop the crisis rhetoric, and let’s forget this nonsense about feminist educators being responsible for the situation. Why? Because the disparity in literature education has existed as long as the Department of Education has records, since 1969 (when the organized feminist movement barely existed in politics, let alone in education). The gap has not opened out or widened in the past 10 years; there is no new crisis of boys’ verbal / literary education from feminist educators in the 1990s. There’s merely a disparity which was there before and which has not been addressed yet.

But, of course, Salon has a long history of providing an uncritical platform for media-created anti-feminists including Christina Hoff Sommers, Cathy Young (a regular columnist), Camille Paglia, and Warren Farrell. I can’t put it better than Jennifer Pozner of FAIR did, in her letter to the editor of Salon (located at the bottom of the page):

After listing worthy topics from drug law imbalances to welfare policy to educational and workplace biases, Sweeney asks, Where is a feminist when you need one? On a beach somewhere, apparently … With all due respect, it is easy to find feminists working on those issues and a wide range of others if you look beyond what is represented in carping book reviews and academic arguments. But it is unsurprising that Sweeney or Salon readers in general might believe feminists missing in action: Salon provides a regular platform for anti-feminist pit bull Camille Paglia and feminist ankle-biter Cathy Young, but has no feminist columnists addressing the many ways in which women’s rights advocates are tackling violence against women, poverty, health care, child care, reproductive rights, media representation, workplace issues, sweatshops, trafficking in women and a host of other issues on a national and international stage (from a variety of sometimes opposing liberal, progressive and radical perspectives).

I couldn’t agree more with Sweeney’s assertion that neurotic rationalizing and self-conscious crowing is a profound waste of time in the face of the continued biases women (especially women of color and low-income women) face. To that end, I’d encourage Salon to publish fewer hit pieces on feminists, more articles about sexism in Life and in the news sections, and to balance columnists like Paglia, Young and Horowitz with a few progressive feminist writers like Molly Ivins, Laura Flanders, Katha Pollitt, Farai Chideya, Barbara Ehrenreich or Julianne Malveaux. Salon, which is often a valuable resource for perspectives not found elsewhere (Greg Palast’s election pieces were a great example), could benefit from broadening its approach to gender politics.

— Jennifer L. Pozner, Women’s Desk Director, FAIR

P.S.: While women are excelling boys at verbal and literary subjects, and now make up the majority of college students (college students being, in the majority, liberal arts students), engineering and science departments are still about 80-90% male, and men still make more money than women for equal work (the gap has widened in at least some fields, despite Salon’s claims to the contrary) and still make up the overwhelming majority of high-paid executives — whereas women still make up the overwhelming majority of low-wage service workers. So, something tells me that this educational crisis is perhaps not the biggest gender equity issue on the table right now.

For further reading:

  1. [1]Sidebar: An aleatory sampling of my high school reading list

    • The Odyssey (abridged) – male author, male protagonist
    • Great Expectations – male author, male protagonist
    • The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – male author, male and female protagonists
    • Mutiny on the Bounty – male author, male protagonists
    • Animal Farm – male author, male protagonists
    • To Kill a Mockingbirdfemale author, female and male protagonists
    • A Separate Peace – male author, male protagonists, all male school, boy culture coming-of-age wank-a-thon
    • The Tragedy of Julius Caesar – male author, male protagonists
    • Oedipus the King – male author, male protagonists
    • Antigone – male author, female protagonist
    • Edith Hamilton’s Mythologyfemale author, but from all male sources, male protagonists
    • excerpts from Sundiata and Ramayana – male authors, male protagonists
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude – male author, mostly male protagonists
    • Ficciones – male author, male protagonists
    • The Lost Steps – male author, male protagonist
    • Ethan Fromefemale author, male protagonist
    • A Farewell to Arms – male author, male protagonist, same old swaggering Hemingway crap
    • The Awakeningfemale author, female protagonist, proto-feminist
    • The Cherry Orchard – male author, male and female protagonists
    • The Great Gatsby – male author, male protagonist
    • Death in Venice – male author, male protagonist
    • A Streetcar Named Desire – male author, female protagonists
    • The Crucible – male author, male protagonist
    • Native Son – male author, male protagonist, overly apologetic for brutal violence against women
    • The Inferno – male author, male protagonist
    • The Taming of the Shrew – male author, male protagonist, ragingly misogynistic
    • Hamlet – male author, male protagonist
    • The Bachelor of Arts – male author, male protagonist
    • Heart of Darkness – male author, male protagonist
    • Pygmalion – male author, female protagonist
    • The Importance of Being Earnest – male author, male protagonist, strong female characters
    • Their Eyes Were Watching Godfemale author, female protagonist, proto-feminist
    • Things Fall Apart – male author, male protagonist
    • Bread and Wine – male author, male protagonist
    • The Metamorphosis – male author, male protagonist
    • Richard III – male author, male protagonist
    • Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead – male author, male protagonists
    • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – male author, male protagonist