The Personal Cost of Street Harassment: A Mother’s View

When I was a young mother, I would sometimes consider what life would be for my babies when they grew up.  I’d watch them playing so earnestly at their pretend games, then one day I realized that because I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been harassed, what had happened to me and every other woman I knew would also happen to them.  It was upsetting to think that I’d have to explain to them that they’d be faced with being called misogynistic names, yelled at as they walked down the street, possibly touched against their will. These small children who made up games based on variations of Harry Potter, laughing and happy, mostly unaware of the heavy weight the culture would soon be placing on them.  I put the thoughts away for later.  Then they grew up.

My younger daughter always looked young for her age, that is, until she turned fourteen, and mysteriously began looking older than her age.   People would guess the girls were twins instead of nearly five years apart in age.  And just as suddenly, she was a target.  She could not walk down the street in our small town without men yelling at her from trucks, screaming obscenities, whistling, cat-calling, and creating such a hostile environment that she refused to go anywhere unless I drove her.  We lived in the heartland of America, the land of the free, a country that highly values justice and equality, a place that we are reminded daily that people died to protect, but she was beginning to live in a different reality from men and boys, deciding if her shorts were an inch too short, her t-shirt too tight, making a hundred small decisions to try to deflect any kind of unwanted attention, yet, despite some days being covered from toe to wrist to neck in a dark raincoat and pants, she still would be yelled at for what I can only assume is daring to be a young female in public alone.  It had the whiff of repressive regime about it, widespread, deliberate.

I tried to explain to people what she was going through, but sometimes even other women didn’t seem to understand that it didn’t feel like positive attention based on her beauty. Instead it felt like she was suddenly on trial for something, the public space no longer shared and open, but menacing now, a place where she has to keep her guard up, not smile at strangers, not wave when someone honks because it could invite further attention.  Every interaction had to be recalculated.  As a child when someone called to her, it was most likely a friend or acquaintance, but now it could be someone leering, gesturing, or otherwise harassing her.  I’ve seen how her once very open Southern manner has, of necessity, become much less friendly, her eyes shifting down in public instead of her usual cheerful, open smile at others, not suspicious, but knowing that being too  “friendly female” can sometimes be taken as invitation to hassle.

I don’t know what long-term effect these realizations about her position in society will have on her future choices.  What years of looking over her shoulder, tamping down her happy personality, dressing as conservatively as possible, all to shield herself from hostility, will have on her.  I remind her that it’s not her fault; it wouldn’t matter what she wore or did or didn’t do.  It would still happen.   Sadly, I can see the changes in her that it has already wrought, knowing that I cannot protect her, but can only try help her feel more empowered to claim her space in public.

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How to Support Gender Equality in Canada

Emma Watson’s impassioned plea for gender equality at the U.N. as part of the launch of its HeForShe campaign created many ripples across the Internet.

Not only because Watson, as the U.N. Women’s Global Goodwill Ambassador, called for an end to gender inequality, but also because she implored men to become an integral part of the solution. “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited, or feel welcome to participate?” she said.

While she admitted that the term “feminism” has experienced a backlash, the sentiment behind the word – true equality for both genders – is the driving force behind the HeForShe campaign. “If we do nothing, it will take 75 years before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work, 15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children. and at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education,” she explained.

What Gender Inequality Looks Like in North America

Even in North America, where the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s made great strides for women’s rights, the gender divide remains. In Canada, for example, women working full time earn about 80% of what men make for the same work.

Gender-based violence also affects Canadian women. On any given day, more than 3,300 women (along with their children) are forced to sleep in an emergency shelter to escape domestic violence. And on average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her partner.

Cuts to women’s services and organizations have reduced services for women in need. Funding for Status of Women Canada was cut in 2006, resulting in the closure of 12 of 16 offices, and some three dozen other major national and local organizations working on improving women’s lives have been forced to shut down due to lack of funds.

Fortunately, there are still thousands of charities across Canada working to support women with much needed programs and services. Many of them rely on donations for their ability to continue operations. If you’re interested in supporting the equality movement, and women’s charities in particular, you can search here for a charity in your area or, take a look at these charities:

UN Women Canada gender-equality-UN

If you’d like to support the HeForShe campaign in Canada, this is the place to do it. The campaign aims to mobilize one billion men and boys globally as agents of change in ending the inequalities faced by women and girls around the world. A donation to UN Women Canada supports women’s programs like HeForShe.


The Young Women’s Christian Association has been operating across Canada since 1870, and works to foster equal opportunities and a better future for women by way of short-term housing options, employment and health programs, and services for single mothers.

Canadian Women’s Foundationgender-equality-Cdn-Womens-Foundation

This charity was launched in 1991 as a mechanism for women to help other women and change the systems that created inequality through charitable giving. Since then it has invested over $40 million in charitable support to over 1,200 community programs and to every woman’s shelter across Canada.


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Why Bro-Humor Breast Cancer Campaign Slogans are Bullshit

Another October has arrived, and with it has come the endless breast cancer fundraising campaigns. “Save the Ta-tas!” “Save Second Base.” “Save the Boobies!” “I’m Here for the Boobs.” Last week I even saw a bowling tournament named “Spare the Boobies.”

These slogans have been bombarding us ever since people figured out how to make raising awareness of breast cancer “cool.” The devastation of the disease was not enough reason to get attention; clever marketing moguls decided that a little sex was needed. And humor. Humor is probably the most unconscionable excuse for slurring female body parts to promote a campaign. Take a look at the Save the Ta-tas “About Us” page:

The Save the Ta-tas® Foundation and Ta-tas® Brand was created by clothing designer Julia Fikse as a way to fight breast cancer using laughter and fun as a way to fight a serious disease. Her playful line of t-shirts and accessories include messages such as “save the ta-tas” and “caught you lookin at my ta-tas.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I find that fucking hilarious. Comedy gems, right there. I know if I had a mastectomy scheduled, I’d be loudly chortling all the way to the hospital, possibly right up until I was counting backward from ten in the operating room. I sure know my mother, who beat breast cancer in 2010, was just chock-full of bubbly giggles on her surgery day between the awkward silences and worried cheek-chewing before she disappeared behind the double doors.

And wait a minute—what if my ta-tas can’t be saved? Can I still wear the shirt?

While many people find this kind of slogan baiting completely acceptable, perhaps even clever and harmless, I encourage them to step back and look again. Any cleverness in the slogan is trumped by the realization that poorly crafted puns are being used to falsely manipulate dollars out of wallets in the name of breast cancer. And only a small percentage, if any, of sales go toward any real breast cancer research or awareness funding.

As an added bonus, these for-profit businesses are trading on female sexuality for so-called awareness of a serious, deadly, and fairly unsexy disease. Puking in the afternoon after chemo? Scary surgeries to carve up your chest? A very real and present concern over losing a part of your female sexuality when faced with a partial or full mastectomy? None of these things are sexy. However, slang terminology for female breasts—usually traditional male slang-words that we, as women, have unfortunately assimilated into our norm—is considered lighthearted. Men and self-professed “totally cool” ladies can get behind it, relieved that they don’t have to think about the big C-word directly. Best of all, people can purchase and sport cheeky t-shirts that trumpet their support of a valiant cause without having to really think about it. It’s a win-win process that goes like this: 1) buy t-shirt and believe you donated to charity; 2) wear t-shirt so everyone else believes you donated to charity; 3) don’t think about it ever again.

Nevermind that a percentage of breast cancer is male, and usually has a higher mortality rate since it goes undetected. Awareness for male breast cancer is in the gutter—in fact, the very idea of a man getting breast cancer is a little…distasteful. (A man dying of a typically female disease? Perish the thought!) But let’s face it, male breasts just aren’t fun. Why should we be interested in saving them?

To me, awareness, as the word is used today, should be a true awareness of the disease and its consequences. Awareness should be about regular breast exams. It should be about the wide-reaching scope of cancer, the sobering choices that many people face to save their lives, and it should include men’s health, too. Awareness should be more than a slogan about titties that inspires naughty giggles behind hands. Sure, people will be aware of breasts, or something to do with breasts, or just, you know…breasts. But this faux awareness doesn’t offer anything beyond that. No PSAs on early detection, yearly mammograms after 40, or unveiling the mystery of what breast cancer really is.

So is bro-humor really the only way to successfully reach a large audience for a disease that affects women? Sadly, I think the answer is yes. It seems strange to me that ovarian cancer, an exclusively female disease, lacks any kind of sexy marketing. But there just isn’t any hilarious and kinda-vulgar, frat-party terminology for the ovaries. Unless you are Henry Miller telling a woman you’d like to “turn her ovaries incandescent,” there’s really no bro-joke associated with the other internal parts of a female that can be turned into a noble campaign slogan.

That’s where my problem starts and ends. Upon examining why these campaigns are marketing to horny, hetero men and, more importantly, why our supposedly modern society supports it, I find the answer is simple. If you don’t support these campaigns, you are considered a feminazi who hates men, women, AND cancer research. The fact that you support the cause but not the marketing is conveniently overlooked as outrage ensues.

The heated questions roll in: how can you not support any fundraiser that ultimately raises money for the disease? Why are semantics more important than dollars funneled toward the cause? Why do you hate everything?

The reason I don’t support these slogans is because too often they are used in the absence of any real good being done. In other words, I took a look at the fucking facts, and I encourage others to do the same. A fraction of the profits gained from campaigns such as “Save the Ta-tas” goes to actual cancer research. According to their own website, a measly 5% of Ta-tas’ sales go toward cancer research and awareness. The Save the Boobies t-shirt shop claims to be raising “awareness,” but any mention of donating a portion of their profits to anything remotely breast cancer related is nowhere to be found on their website.

The Keep A Breast Foundation, originator of the bowling “Spare the Boobies” fundraiser and seller of the “I Love Boobies” merch, is a nonprofit, and they claim to be donating substantial funds toward fighting breast cancer. However, their 2011 financial report tells us that they donated only 6% of funds to actual cancer research—6% of the $3,000,000 that they received that year. The rest of their income went toward administration, fundraising events, and general programs. To be fair, there are some promising programs they have launched, such as the Non-Toxic Revolution (toward which they spent a mere 11% of their income); however, I still find their reductive marketing slogans disturbing, especially since they are targeting a younger audience. What statements are we making to our daughters and sons when we tell them it’s okay to reduce women to body parts as long as it’s for a good cause?

I would argue that while these organizations make very few valuable efforts to fight the disease, they are making very generous donations toward sexist attitudes in today’s “modern” society.

Of course, there’s always the plain-Jane of them all, The American Cancer Society. No sensational slogan, no cutesy or frat-humor marketing campaign. No breast jokes, which, if you don’t laugh at, make you a bitchy Debbie-Downer. Just a group of people who would like to see shitty diseases that kill people go away. If you really want to help the cause, donate to them. Seventy-two percent of donations will go toward something good—cancer research, prevention, detection and support, and patient services. And if you need a t-shirt to let everyone else know how awesome and generous you are, they can provide that, too.

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Safer markets for Pacific women vendors

Cross-posted from UN Women

Pacific markets - Rose

Market vendor Rose Starlyn receiving her workshop certificate at the Markets for Change Solomon Islands launch in Honiara, May 2014. Photo: UN Women/Ellie van Baaren.

It may not have been a regular part of her everyday business, but it seemed interesting so she decided to go along. For market vendor Rose Starlyn, attending a series of UN Women-run workshops in April and May 2014 in Honiara, the capital city of her native Solomon Islands, turned out to be the beginning of a journey. So far, that journey has seen her address an audience of more than 100 people, including politicians and diplomats, and be elected as the first chairperson of the newly formed Honiara Central Market Vendors Association.

“We can make a market that is a happy place for everyone,” Rose, a vibrant woman of 37, says with a broad smile. “A place that is healthy for everyone, where more people, including tourists, can come, and market vendors can earn more money. We can create a place where people can learn and share skills, and women can ‘come up’.”

Rose is one of around 1,000 vendors working at the Honiara Central Market, an estimated 80 per cent of whom are women.[1] She works six days a week as a tailor and clothing vendor and the money she makes covers the school fees and bus fares for her five children.

In many ways, Rose’s story is typical of women at markets around the Pacific. Between 75 and 90 per cent of market vendors in the Pacific region are women; hours are long, profits are often low, and conditions difficult. Many female vendors come from rural areas and sleep at the market for the three or four days they are there, exposing them to a higher risk of gender-based and sexual violence as well as theft.

They are rarely represented in – and often excluded from – the planning and decision-making that determines how markets are run.

Pacific market vendors

Market vendors participating in a UN Women Markets for Change workshop complete a group exercise at Auki Market, Solomon Islands in June 2014. Photo: UN Women/Marni Gilbert

This was the motivation behind UN Women’s Markets for Change (M4C) project. Developed specifically for the Pacific region, where markets are often the main source of livelihoods, especially in poorer households, the six-year, multi-country initiative is injecting more than USD 10 million into ensuring that such workplaces in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are safe, inclusive and non-discriminatory. Principally funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the initiative was officially launched in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in April, May and August 2014 respectively, and workshops like the ones Rose attended in Honiara are among the project’s initial activities.

The goal is to create accessible, inclusive and representative governance structures that will help markets thrive, while strengthening the role and influence of women vendors. The workshops include a mapping exercise whereby participants ask fellow market vendors about the issues they face and the changes they would like to see, making the process fully participatory.

Ethel Sigimanu, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs in Solomon Islands, says the economic contribution that female market vendors make to their local communities and their country’s economy often goes unrecognized.

“Markets are male-dominated. The planning and decision-making and market operations are usually done by men, but it is the women who are doing the selling,” Ethel says. “The Markets for Change project makes women visible. And when women are visible, we not only see their hardships and successes, but we see tangible benefits through what women do.”

So far the workshops have been instrumental in forming vendors associations at Auki and Honiara markets in Solomon Islands, as well as in re-activating the Suva market vendors association in Fiji. At Nausori, also in Fiji, the Women’s Club, which was set up in 2012 to give female vendors a safe space to express their views, and the general vendors’ association have agreed to hold joint executive committee meetings to ensure that the needs and interests of all vendors are represented.

Preeya Ieli, Regional Programme Specialist for Women’s Economic Empowerment at UN Women’s Fiji Multi-Country Office, says that one of the keys to making the Markets for Change project effective is working closely not only with vendors, but also with market management, local government and other stakeholders. “It’s fantastic to see the enthusiasm with which vendors, management and government have embraced the project and how motivated they are to work together to make changes that will benefit everyone.”

For now Rose hopes to help make a difference for herself and her fellow market vendors.

“I can see many things inside the market that need changing – it is not clean; there is no water,” she explains. “This association is an opportunity to work together to make the market clean and good for everyone.”

Rose is looking forward to the day when she and her colleagues can say with satisfaction: mission accomplished.

For more information, check out the In Focus editorial package on Women and the Economy on the new Beijing+20 campaign website.

[1] Stanley, J. A Survey of the Economic Performance of Selected Markets in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, UN Women 2009, unpublished
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No, you don’t have it so much better than your mother did, or even your grandmother

The typical “Intro to Philosophy” class at a University is usually a survey course of major philosophers throughout history that ends with something more or less contemporary.  It will most definitely start with the ancient Greeks including Plato, then progress with whatever thinkers the professor likes and is required at one point to include the Cartesian Meditations.  While teaching in grad school and performing this ritual glossing-over of the Western philosophical canon, I repeatedly encountered the same phenomenon.

When teaching Machiavelli’s The Prince, the students were quick to see how the politicians of today and even capitalists could be considered “Machiavellian.”  They easily noted how this cold and calculating manual for maintaining power was still quite relevant if one wished to use its tactics today.  When I brought up some of the more feminist concerns about the text, such as how Machiavelli describes “fortune” as a “woman who must be beaten and ill-used,” then the text suddenly disappeared into a pit of obscurity which had nothing to do with anything except some archaic before-time.  Rather than think about its implications or interrogate the text on the matter, they would provide the answer: “Well, this was written a long time ago, and in Machiavelli’s time that’s how women were treated.”  Okay, fair enough.  It is from, like, hundreds of years ago.

How about Emmanuel Kant?  Quite the relevant philosopher with his ethics of rationality and hugely influential political philosophy from which the UN basically created its structure.  The students were quite engaged with all the current investments of the world in the ideas of the text.  Until I brought up Kant’s exclusion of women from political subjectivity due to nebulous reasons of “nature.”  The students’ reply:  “Well, Kant wrote this book a long time ago, and that’s just what they thought back then.”

Okay, Let’s try Freud.  While the average psychology student of today may scoff at Freud, his philosophy is still largely unchanged as the general basis informing our understanding of human subjectivity.  With terms like “the unconscious” used in colloquial speech, it’s pretty easy to see this philosopher’s lasting influence.  Freud’s understanding of women was not a side note in his work, either, but rather it was a constant presence and fundamental aspect of his philosophy.

Freud wrote that the phallic orgasm was the catalyst for civilization, spurring the formation of families and then communities.  Therefore, the male orgasm remains the greatest psychic force in the formation of subjects in this civilization.  As you probably know, everything in Freud revolves around the energy of the libido, which is masculine.  Women in themselves are passive, and can only have any control through their influence on men.  Thus women understand themselves as castrated versions of men and have penis-envy.  I probably don’t have to enumerate all the problematic aspects of Freud’s understanding of women for you, but there are some.

How did my students respond:  “Well, back in Freud’s time, that’s how women were understood…”  Freud didn’t even write that long ago!  That excuse doesn’t work here.  Plus, what?  Everyone thought that women were castrated men in Freud’s time?  I don’t think so.  He wasn’t just passively holding a mirror up to his surroundings.  He had an idea or two of his own.  These ideas have been so important to the world that they’re worth a serious look.

Conversations with university teachers across disciplines have shown me how this overwhelming attitude of historicism is common in teaching any material from the past.  Students have a hard time engaging with the content of the text, because they feel that it’s merely a product of its unenlightened time and that today we have it figured out to a greater degree than ever before in about every way.  For example, we have the best possible political system, judicial system, etc etc.  It’s a recipe for utter complacency which quells any questioning of the current order.  But it seems to be particularly bad when it comes to questions of feminism.

The universally accepted position seems to be:  Women had it horrible in every other time and place, except today.  Furthermore, things gradually improved for women to the point where it has gotten to now, which is pretty equal and good.

But this uncritical presentism impedes us from productive engagements with our history and works from the past.  When watching a film from the thirties, for example, on themes concerning women we are quick to write off the film with an interpretation of female disempowerment.  “Yeah, that’s what it’s trying to illustrate, because that’s how things were back then.  Case closed.“  Either this is the attitude, or the book, film, philosophical text, etc. was completely revolutionary and stood outside of its time.

We need to come to grips with the fact that perhaps, *gasp* we don’t have everything figured out better than anyone else in history.  The discourse which uncritically asserts “now” as the best possible time for women in all respects is connected to the discourse asserting that the feminist fight is largely over and there isn’t much left to be gained.

The situation for women does not always get better.  Sometimes things actually get worse.  And the steady march of time will not ensure the advancing progress of women.  It doesn’t just happen naturally as things move along.  We have to FIGHT for it.  And we have to fight for the battles which we have already won.  Hard won rights can always be dismantled, and civil liberties can be compromised.

Many people are saying that we’re at the beginning of a fourth wave of feminism.  It’s quite exciting to imagine being poised on the edge of a great historical moment.  However, we must be cautious in how we conceive of this.  Just because there have been three waves of feminism before this one does not mean that their efforts all add up to a singular total of feminist wins.  Nor does it mean that each wave fights for different issues.  A feminist “wave” does not start with a certain agenda, obtain it, and then subside nicely back into the ocean.  We are still fighting many of the same battles as our feminist predecessors.

This is not a failing which we must admit with shame.  Rather, it is an admission which empowers us.  We stand together in a long history of women.  We have much to continually learn from them.  For example, in a recent email conversation with a friend on the topic of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, my friend (male) argued that birth control is not a necessary medical expense in the same way as heart medication.  When searching for some resources to bolster the claims in my reply, I came across an essay by legendary feminist Margaret Sanger titled: The Necessity for Birth Control.  The essay from nearly a century ago is still extremely relevant in the feminist discussion today.  Sanger not only illustrates the mundane medical necessity of birth control, but also couches the issue in the context of civil rights.  She writes:

“These are mothers who are asking for means to control the size of their families. And what, after all, are they asking for? For the right to live. For the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

It is a bit sad that her essay is still so relevant, but it should only underscore how things are not the enlightened era of equality they’re supposed to be.  It’s a case of how we can use our entrenched attitude of historicism against itself.  It flares up indignantly: “What the hell?  I thought we’re supposed to be better than this now!”

This is what makes the punchline in jokes such as John Oliver’s recent segment on the gender wage gap where the idea of women being paid 83 cents per every man’s dollar was described as “some Madmen bullshit.”  Stories over at Jezebel occasionally read along the lines of this recent article:

“The governor of California recently signed a bill into law that will ban forced sterilizations in state prisons. That happened this week—and yes it is still the year 2014 and we are, in fact, in the United States of America.”

In conclusion, yes, we may be on the edge of a fourth wave.  But we must be wary of those tactics which attempt to divide us.  This movement will not gently recede after its allotted amount of time is up.  Our struggle is centuries, or rather, millennia old, and we will not be content to be given a consolation prize and go away.  We must be vigilant for new threats on the horizon, but not sit easy over what we have won.  We stand together with a history that does not gather dust in the museums.  The struggles of the past bleed into our present and we must realize how sharp their weapons remain for our use.  The only thing standing between now and a future where things get even worse is us.

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