The war at home…

The juxtaposition of the passing of Robin Williams with the death of Michael Brown, shot by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, was a stunning example of the disconnect we have in this country. So many posts on social media about depression, suicide and reaching out for help. It made me wonder how many people ever think about the never-ending impact of discrimination that ultimately leads to the deaths of African-Americans, Latinos and so many others in this country, at the hands of the people who have pledged to protect us as citizens.

America has been sleep-walking into a situation where the police have become the occupiers in some neighborhoods.  Dressed in fatigues, carrying weapons that belong on a battlefield, not in a residential neighborhood, and seeing those who they have sworn to protect as “the enemy.” As noted by the ACLU (https://www.aclu.org/war-comes-home-excessive-militarization-american-policing), the excessive militarization of the police has become more than a ticking time bomb, it is now exploding in the deaths of people across the country.

Police wearing riot gear try to disperse a crowd Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Authorities in Ferguson used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse a large crowd Monday night. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

How do we de-escalate this situation?  Ferguson, Missouri looks like a war zone, with the frustration of so many years finally boiling over.  But it’s not just in Ferguson, people across the country are venting their frustrations and standing with the people of Ferguson, like these students from Howard University:

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photo via https://twitter.com/The_Blackness48

I don’t have any answers, I just know that it seems like we have reached a tipping point. I know that I will continue doing what I can to educate people and try to work on changing the tide. But it has an impact on all of us, the sleepless nights, the anger, the micro- and macro-aggressions that we have to deal with on a daily basis. Worrying about what might happen to our children, our husbands, ourselves…it ultimately damages the psyche, not just of an individual, but of an entire country.

Intersections

Intersectionality — it’s a term tossed around in academic circles, feminist discussions, etc…however, this past few weeks has led me to see and feel my intersecting identities in a very intense way.  As a woman not of, but in Texas I have been dismayed by the legislature’s attacks on women’s health, yet buoyed by the sisterhood shared in the protests, rallies, and marches.  As a black mother with two young sons, I feel betrayed by our system of justice that allows a young black boy to be murdered with no penalty to his assailant– a man who carried a gun and followed him without any indication that he was suspicious, except for the color of his skin.  As a political scientist, I have been fascinated with the development of a potential movement, the way that politicians on both sides of the aisle have tried to capitalize on a hotly contested issue, and the potential fallout for future elections.  At times I haven’t know whether to laugh, cry, or start writing. In the end, I will do all three at various times.

I have read so many articles and commentaries about the situation for women in Texas, about Trayvon Martin and the trial that set his murderer free — in general, I’m a political junkie.  In his commentary this past week, Charles M. Blow talks about how the system failed Trayvon and us — but the political system over the last few years has also failed women, particularly poor, rural women in Texas.  The system has made the private political in a way that damages us all. I am black.  I am a woman.  I am a mother.  I am an academic.  I care about access to healthcare.  I care about choice.  I care about my sons.  I care about the direction this country is taking.  Yes, we must have all of these discussions about race, about gender equality, about overall inequalities…but as a political scientist I know it all comes down to power.  I feel the main way to generate change is at the ballot box.

So I will work on registering voters, encouraging friends to be politically aware, and if they have the time, involved.  I will continue examining my own role as a citizen of a country in turmoil.  I will continue to talk to my boys about  the world that we live in and how they may be perceived because of the color of their skin. But most of all, I will try my best to keep these words from the Roosevelt memorial in my heart:

Awakening the giant…

On November 6, 2012, my friend Dean Lofton and I decided we’d had enough of the war on women and we wanted to start a group that would encourage women of all political persuasions to get involved in politics.  Thus “Austin Women for Political Action” was born on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Austin-Women-for-Political-Action/114614922031858?ref=hl).  Little did we know that this would become the summer of women’s discontent in Austin.  The legislature avoided issues related to abortion (although not women’s health) during the regular session, but then came the special session.  The stories of the first special session have been well documented by people like Jessica Luther in this article: http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/13/07/use-your-voice/277481/  Wendy Davis’ filibuster helped to mobilize a group of women, including many in our own organization, that had stood on the sidelines while the Texas legislature passed laws during the last session, like the one requiring sonograms before an abortion.  Many of these women had never been involved in a political protest or rally before.  I was in Europe for a conference that fateful day, but I followed the events as closely as I could and many of my friends were tweeting and posting the latest details on facebook, so in many ways I felt like I was a part of the action. Those who participated were encouraged to wear orange, and the rallying cry began as “Stand with Wendy” and has morphed into “Stand With Texas Women” (#SWTW on twitter).

I returned to Austin last Thursday and got caught up on the latest, including the fact that Governor Perry had called a second special session. I was able to join the large protest at the capitol on Monday, July 1st.  It’s very likely that the abortion bill will pass but the most exciting part of all of this has been the energy that has been created.  This is about much more than a law that will limit abortions.  It’s about women’s access to healthcare, which has already been limited by Texas’ decision to turn down federal funds.  This will impact women across large parts of Texas.  It’s also about the democratic process, and allowing women’s voices to be heard.  Referred to as an “unruly mob” this is much more than that.  In what can only be described as a nearly spontaneous outpouring of frustration, Texas women have finally said “we’ve had enough!”  Here are a few images from Monday’s rally:

Politics, history and social change

 

It has been an eventful week, and both the political scientist and the political junkie in me can’t get enough of the analysis of this week’s election.  History was made again, as the first African-American President, Barack Obama, was re-elected.  The Democratic party has put together a diverse coalition of voters that reflects the future of the United States.  We are living in a very important time in history.  It has been talked about for a long time, but this was clearly the first election that Latino votes played a key role in determining the outcome (see latinodecisions.com); women made it clear that they would raise their voices loud and clear; and same-sex marriage was supported in state-wide referenda.  Will this be a sea change in American politics?  Only time will tell.

As I see the gains that women have made, particularly in the Senate where there are now 20 women, more than any other time in history, I am energized and enthusiastic about the future. Indeed, a friend and I started a FB page — Austin Women for Political Action.  If there’s one thing we all learned from the last four years is that politics doesn’t end with an election — it’s only the beginning.  Issues I care about like women’s reproductive health, access to healthcare, and equal rights are ongoing issues at the local, state and national level.  As far as I could tell, voter suppression wasn’t a problem in Texas, but it’s clearly an issue that needs to be dealt with going forward.

On this veteran’s day, I can’t help but think of my father and all  that he lived through.  As I said in my previous post, I can enjoy a better life because of his sacrifices.  My children live in a better world, but there are issues related to our country’s economic situation and climate change which will have a huge impact on their future and their children’s future.  There’s so much to be done…we must support science, a strong educational system, public broadcasting, and things which are public goods that help us all in so many ways.  Our economy has been strong not because we simply let every person fend for themselves – it’s because we valued upward mobility which can only be supported through education.  We value entrepreneurs and support them with government programs and contracts.  We simply value each other, regardless of lifestyle or background.  This country has survived much deeper divisions than we face now — I draw my strength from the words of Martin Luther King “‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Peace ♥

It’s NOT just about women…

 

It really drives me crazy that issues like a flexible work day and dealing with children are considered “women’s issues” — my husband is just as involved with our children as I am.  I haven’t been traveling as much as I usually do, so I have taken on more of the “shuttle” duties, getting the kids to their activities, etc…but when I have events to attend, or when I go out of town for a conference  next week, the fact the Mike has a flexible work day is just as critical as it is for me.  We both end up working in the evening, after the kids go to bed, so we can keep up with our various projects.  As a professor, I usually end up editing my lectures the night before class and posting my notes.  Mike often has conference calls with colleagues in Asia.  I actually do the cooking in our house, but only because I don’t like to do the dishes, so Mike takes care of that.  But dinner wasn’t the issue when I had a 9-5 job and the kids were in preschool, it was picking the kids up on time. Now that they are in school they have multiple activities that I take them to — I tell folks that I can’t schedule anything between 4 and 7 — that’s when I become the “mommy shuttle” and sit down with my kids, and usually my husband, for a family meal and review of the day.

I can’t help but think that if more men would speak up about their need for a flexible work day, this wouldn’t be an issue for women.  In academia, parental leave became more important as the model of the male professor with the spouse who took care of the household came to an end.  My male colleagues with children are all glad that they have flexible schedules, and some have even put their career on the back burner for their more successful wives in academia or the private sector.

Issue like birth control and healthcare shouldn’t just be women’s issues, either.  Men who care about their mothers, sisters, daughters or wives all have a stake in these issues. It’s crazy that more men aren’t speaking up and supporting women in their fight to maintain funding for critical healthcare for women — we will all suffer in the end.  It’s time for men to speak up and show that women aren’t the only ones who care about these issues.

Teaching in a time of division

As a professor of political science in a large public university, I have worked very hard to make sure that all of my students feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their views, regardless of their political opinions or what they may imagine my political views to be.  One of my goals is to teach students how to be open to opposing views, make arguments based on facts, and to be able to debate an issue without getting personal (something I wish many of our politicians could do). Mutual respect is key and I feel this type of approach is even more important during an election campaign that has turned very ugly at times.  My job is made a bit easier by the fact that I tend to teach European politics, although I also teach comparative immigration politics, which is about half U.S. and half Europe.  In general, I try to keep my personal politics out of the classroom, although I think it’s fine to call out policies or positions that I think are detrimental, as long as I have the facts to back it up.

As a feminist, I mainly try to set an example for students. I’m already unique in my field — a black woman who speaks French and German, studies European politics, and is successful at it.  I constantly have to break through stereotypes and prove myself to those who try to judge me by my exterior.  I have prided myself on being able to surprise people and make them rethink the way they approach someone they don’t know.  I also appreciate the fact that students aren’t always aware of my political views based on what they hear in class.  However, politics in the U.S. have become so divided, particularly when it comes to women’s rights, I think it is important when I am comparing politics in the U.S. to politics in Europe that I explain how much mainstream politics has shifted in comparison to our European allies.  Many Europeans are shocked to hear the Republicans calling Obama a socialist — in Europe, Obama would be more of a center right politician. Even my European friends on the right are amazed at the debates going on over birth control, abortions and ultrasounds.  The random shootings and our take on gun control is also incomprehensible.  That doesn’t mean that Europeans don’t have their own blind spots – banning the veil and hijab or making immigrants learn the language and take civics lessons before getting a visa would also be problematic for many Americans.

What is important for me is to find a balance, I know that there are those students who would disagree with me regardless of my views and I want students to know that feminists come in all shapes, sizes and viewpoints.  I need to share my views, and sometimes play devil’s advocate (or use the Socratic method) so that we can have an honest dialogue.  Unfortunately that can be difficult in a lecture room with anywhere from 50 to 350 students, but it is my professional duty to get out there and do the best I can. I have come to realize over my many years of teaching and watching political developments in the U.S. that it is important to hear a wide variety of viewpoints and the more we can do that, the more people will appreciate the strength and diversity of this country.  As an educator, I am privileged to teach students about other countries and cultures that have similar strengths and challenges.  My main hope is that they go out into the world equipped with the knowledge to critically evaluate issues from a global perspective and can take strong positions on issues while listening to the others’ positions respectfully.

The Politics of Birth Control and Women’s Health

The Komen Foundation, long a supporter of research on breast cancer, found itself in the middle of controversy when it announced that it would no longer fund cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics.  Many have written about this cautionary tale, yet many politicians seem to have ignored the lessons that Komen learned from this PR debacle. Political strategists often use wedge issues to motivate voters.  Issues like gay marriage, anti-abortion measures and now birth control are seen as ways to motivate voters who have strong feelings about these issues. However, this is clearly not a wedge issue.  Opinion polls indicate that 99% of women have used birth control, and a large majority of voters, even those who are Catholic, support the Obama administration’s position on the issue, yet the attacks continue.

Perhaps what is most perplexing is that many politicians don’t seem to understand that for many women this is a critical health issue.  My own story is an example.  In my mid-20s I was diagnosed with endometriosis.  This was a major concern for me, since my sister had the same disease and had to have a hysterectomy on her late 20s.  Fortunately she had already had 3 children at that point.  I was neither married nor ready to have children so my doctor prescribed birth control pills to regulate my hormones, and hopefully protect my fertility.  My insurance company refused my claim, and I had to jump through many hoops to simply get them to cover my prescription with a co-pay.  Every time I changed jobs and insurance, I had to go through the same ritual.  Particularly when I was in my 20s I could not afford to pay the full price for my prescription, and I may not have my two beautiful boys if I hadn’t followed my doctor’s orders. For these reasons, I am fully supportive of women being able to get a prescription for birth control at little or no cost.

Birth control pills are often used to treat endometriosis, heavy-bleeding during menstrual periods, PCOS, fibrocystic breasts, and even acne.  Limiting access is very unlikely to impact sexual behavior. Using the regulation of birth control as a wedge issue can only be a losing battle.  Women (and Men!) have been and will continue to be pulled from the sidelines of the political debate until the message is heard loud and clear.  This is not a wedge issue – it is an assault on my health and my ability to control and protect my fertility.