19 September 2008

Women Matter: Getting Regular Women Engaged in Politics

Last week, I lamented that Palin Fever seemed to have exposed a real disconnect between feminism (or more generally, all people working on behalf of women in politics) and the "woman on the Street." The fact that hordes of women were flocking to throw their support and adulation behind a woman who has no track record of actually helping their situation in meaningful ways first horrified me, then made me sad that somehow our message had gotten lost to these women, even alienated them.

But hooray for Smith College! The current issue of the Alumnae Quarterly is focused on politics and the campaign and featured Women Matter, a site founded by Smith alum Nancy W. Bauer specifically to engage women in the political process by discussing the links and impact of policy on what they call Life Issues. It's a non-partisan site that seeks to clearly lay out the issues and explain the various possible remedies. Each Life Issues section also ends with concrete action a woman can take - from the simple act of registering to vote, to how you can get informed of your local and national representatives' positions, to contacting those representatives to tell them where you stand.

I think this is just fabulous. After all, I can understand how someone not brought up or educated in an environment of political participation or activism would fall prey to the cynical view that your votes doesn't even matter or that the only ways to engage are through specific interest groups. With these simple, personal, concrete steps, I think any woman can get involved and start to build confidence in their voice and that it carries weight in the process.

Unfortunately, I really hadn't heard of them before this. I'm hoping this is my own ignorance, since I really think this is an organization that ought to be a reference for everyone from the TV Talking Heads to high school Civics teachers and, of course, individual women.

17 September 2008

Google actually IS changing the way I think

Periodically, there are arguments about how Google is making us all stupid by "thinking" for us - much the same way that no one knows how to spell anymore thanks to Microsoft Word and the advent of cellphones means no one actually remembers anyone's phone number. It's debatable as to whether this is actually dumbing us down. I suspect it's more like allowing students to use calculators so they can spend more time actually learning algebra and calculus and less time doing tedious multiplications and divisions.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I recently noticed a very fundamental way that Google changed my thinking. When I first downloaded Google Desktop Search some time back, there was some little happy markety type phrase about "Search, don't sort" and referring to some utopian future where I would never have to create a folder hierarchy on my computer again. I'd just dump it all in one place and use tagging and searching to immediately access what I was looking for. I laughed. I had a great system already, and I just kept on extending it, using GDS as more of a dynamic shortcut than a real search tool.

Then I got a new job and a brand new, absolutely blank computer. In the interim, I had also taken to Google Reader and Google Docs, both of which reinforced aspects of that non-hierarchical vision. It's been months and I still have less than a dozen folders (outside the default Pictures, Music, My Scans) and typically do use search as the primary method of finding and accessing documents. So, thanks Google!

12 September 2008

Rachel Maddow: Keeping me Sane since 2008

So, I have had a kind of crush on Rachel Maddow since Feministing clued me in early last month. But nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming rush of love and happiness she brought on, when I sat down with my TiVo last night, after my day of great Palin-induced feminist/existential angst. Just being able to turn on the TV and see an example of a smart, funny woman in this prime time boys club chair restored my faith in the progress women have made... as well as the progress men have made in adapting and honestly embracing a new reality instead of fighting it or pandering to it. And, let's face it, Rachel Maddow is more than TV-level attractive, she's just plain hot, and she would probably have to stick to radio if that weren't the case, but no one is judging her competence based on her "sexy librarian" look or telling her she has to "put on a skirt" to be successful.

So, please, read Rebecca Trainster's profile, then Watch The Rachel Maddow Show and rejoice.

11 September 2008

No, The Political is Personal

Over my work-related period of radio silence, a LOT has happened. Well, really one thing - Sarah Palin. My initial reaction was to laugh out loud - the tone deaf choice of an unknown, un-vetted, completely unqualified women just to un-subtly lure those crazy old leftie ladies who were still grumbling about Obama winning over Hilary? Literally, could McCain's campaign go anymore horribly off track?
But her immediate and aggressive acceptance among right-wingers started to shake my convictions that this was the last nail in the coffin. It was a bait-and-switch! She's not really there as a Hilary replacement (though she is certainly bouyed by the energy and conversation created by Hilary), she's there to energize the base, to allow Republicans to actually like their ticket. And worse yet, she's their Obama. Just as Obama brought many previous non-voters from ubran and working class backgrounds into the fold, Palin is the kind of candidate who appeals to the Red State "little guys" who have been seriously sidelined since the loss of Huckabee. I cringed, I got worried, but it's all still politics and the game can change at any minute. And, let's remember, as much as the outcome is deadly serious, this part is still just a game.
Then two articles I read today brought up a far deeper sense of dread. In the Washington Post's piece on the way that Palin has become the new fluffy celebrity, this campaign's Paris Hilton, a woman on the street is quoted as putting forth the mind-exploding idea that

"She exemplifies what a genuine feminist is," said Elizabeth Hauris, who owns a company that manufactures cloth diapers. "She's pro-life, pro-family, nurses her son, carries him in a sling, which epitomizes the idea of close attachment."

Actually, that's nearly exactly the opposite, honey. Feminism is supposed to be about women NOT being strapped to their babies (literally or figuratively) and I'd venture that if there are only two things all feminists agree on, one of them is that we necessarily must be pro-choice.

This kind of co-opting of this campaign's legitimate suge of feminism was annoying when it came from talking heads and GOP aparatchik, but it's absolutely terrifying when it comes from the ground up. Rebecca Traister, as always, have an insightful and balanced take on this new zombie feminism.
In this strange new pro-woman tableau, feminism -- a word that is being used all over the country with regard to Palin's potential power -- means voting for someone who would limit reproductive control, access to healthcare and funding for places like Covenant House Alaska, an organization that helps unwed teen mothers. It means cheering someone who allowed women to be charged for their rape kits while she was mayor of Wasilla, who supports the teaching of creationism alongside evolution, who has inquired locally about the possibility of using her position to ban children's books from the public library, who does not support the teaching of sex education.
She goes on to say "But if we inadvertently paved the way for this, then the Democratic Party mixed the concrete, painted lanes on the road, put up streetlights and called it an interstate. The role of the left in this travesty is almost too painful to contemplate just yet." But, the thing is we have to contemplate it NOW.

We need to take a hard look at why these women feel alienated by real feminism (or the strange, fractured version that trickles down to them through the media) and why they are starving for validation of their more traditional choices. While we've all been fighting at the far edges, pushing our rights further and further towards equal, the Right swooped in an co-opted the middle ground. Smart Women Everywhere are already debating whether ironic cupcake baking is good or bad, but most women are still struggling through the real life choices of work and motherhood and how far expectations and mores have changed in just a single generation. We've left these women behind, we haven't done the best service by them because we barely even see them and they barely even see us. Their idea of "feminism" has been so distorted by everything from FOX News to Saved By The Ball and the Pussycat Dolls that it's no wonder so many young women, who are actively reaping the benefits of feminism, don't even know it and outright reject that label.

This is not to say the front line should fall back, it is vitally important that we keep pushing forward. But we have to shore up the rear, too. We have to ensure that women who choose to take on more traditional roles for themselves feel included and can see how much we are already helping them with work and pay issues, health care and family leave issues, and other day-to-day concerns. And it's possible - after all, don't we all know women who are in just that position? Women who did choose to scale back or leave work all together when they first had children, but who are no less feminism because it and already enjoy the validation of their choices by the friend family and peers?
We have to make sure that we don't lump all career moms into one big basket of scorn and pity in an effort to avoid taking steps backward. It's going to mean a lot of work - teasing out the signs from the signified, putting out messages for everyone along the path, and still knowing when to fight hard against the Palins of the world who want to force us into a state of choicelessness - but it's clearly time to start digging in before feminism becomes any more diluted and convoluted.