Ready To Go

I left for the airport 3 hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. Little did I know it would only take me half an hour to get to the airport, check-in, and get through security.

As I wait for boarding to begin, I feel compelled to reflect on my time in NYC.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived here at the start of summer. The city seemed so stimulating, I didn’t know how to get around, I hadn’t spent a lot of time with my other Moxies, and I was getting over a head cold. Still, I jumped right in. I got used to the permanently active nature of NYC. After getting lost several times, I learned how to read a subway map. I came to know and love the other Moxies. My cold eventually went away.

Furthermore, I got to know NDWA and the wonderful people that work there. I learned about the domestic worker movement and I began to appreciate it for the remarkable, intersectional, and inspiring movement that it is. I read more feminist theory than I thought I ever would.

During Moxie seminars, I learned from people that are very different from me. I found my voice, and learned to participate more in group conversations rather than simply absorbing what others say.

I realized that I love to have passionate, intelligent conversations, and that it is okay and sometimes preferable to disagree. I volunteered at Choices, a women’s reproductive health clinic, which is not something I necessarily would have predicted at the beginning of the summer. And I’m so glad I did because it gave me the chance to have meaningful conversations with people’s whose views are different from mine. I also got to know New York, which was a great experience. So many museums!

Now, as I’m about to leave, I find that I’ll miss NYC–the city itself, but also the people at NDWA and the other Moxies. And of course, I know I can keep in touch, but it won’t be quite the same. That being said, I do feel ready to move on. This summer was great. I’m so thankful I could be a part of this program, but I feel ready to take what I’ve learned here into my life at home, school, and beyond.

What No One Tells You About Independence

Last week I took notes for a joint meeting between the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Hand-in-Hand, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. During a break, I went to use the restroom. As I washed my hands, one of the meeting’s attendees and her assistant entered the bathroom.

Usually, I wouldn’t think twice about this sequence of events, except for one detail. The woman brought her assistant with her to the restroom because she uses a wheelchair.

After an initial look around the space, the woman realized that one assistant would not be enough. The dimensions of the toilet stall in combination with her wheelchair meant that she could not close the stall door if she wanted to use the toilet. She needed one person to help her get on the toilet, and another to stand by the main door of the restroom  to prevent people from entering until she finished.  Due to my proximity to the situation, she asked me to stand by the main entrance.

I spent the next several minutes standing guard by the door, informing a few very upset women that they had to wait to use the bathroom.

As she and her assistant left the restroom, the woman thanked me profusely for ensuring her privacy. Then, we both returned to the meeting and continued with our days.

I write about this ten minute interaction because it was the first time I felt connected to the difficulties that people with disabilities encounter. An act as routine as using the restroom became an ordeal involving multiple helpers. I–as I’m sure many people do–take for granted how easily I navigate this world. Riding the subway, using the stairs when the elevator breaks, or walking along a gravel path cause me no anxiety. For those with physical or mental disabilities, however, the simplest actions can require an enormous input of energy and resources.

Aside from realizing how privileged I am to have a fully functioning body, this experience also showed me that our society does not always value, and–at times–even resents the existence of people with disabilities.

When I stood watch by the bathroom door, the women I told  to wait could hardly contain their frustration. They expressed no compassion for the woman in the wheelchair who had to deal with a poorly constructed toilet stall as well as the embarrassment of having to inconvenience others.

Although the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act , passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities, disabled people still face a stigma in the United States.

Society often assumes that disability is something to fear or pity. Consequently, all disabled people lose opportunity, no matter their individual impairments. Like many other minority groups, people with disabilities face economic insecurity and are perceived as a danger to groups in power. Additionally, society’s emphasis on health and attractiveness, which we generally attribute to individual effort, means that a prejudice falls on those who do not meet popular standards of beauty–someone in a wheelchair, for example.

A few weeks ago I read an article by Eva Feder Kittay called “When Caring is Just and Justice Is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation.” Kittay examines disability through the lens of philosophy. More specifically, she deconstructs society’s current concept of personhood and how it affects the way we view disabled people, and their claim to rights.

Basically, we think of people as autonomous beings, and we value them based on their ability to be “independent.” Disabled people may be seen as less valuable because it seems as though they rely on others more than an able-bodied person.

But, who is really independent?

Almost all of us depend on others to produce the food we buy, to build and run the cars, trains, or buses we take to work, and to maintain the places where we live. Dependence is inescapable–it is the ultimate unifier.

If a web of dependence connects us all, then why have our laws and our attitudes often assumed that able-bodied people are more entitled to rights, respect, and opportunity than those with disabilities? Why are only certain workers protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and others–like domestic workers–excluded? Why do films, advertisements, and books rarely feature disabled people? Why do bathroom stalls in downtown Manhattan fail to accommodate a woman in a wheelchair?

As a society, we need to reconceptualize personhood. If we think of our selves in terms of our relationships with others rather than in terms of our autonomy, then we will be on a path towards valuing all people.


DIY: Conquer the Patriarchy

I love museums.

Their clean surfaces, quiet patrons, elegant displays, and informative exhibits make me happy. Living in New York–a city known for its “museum mile”–has only intensified my musemophile tendencies.

Last week, I visited the American Museum of Natural History. I spent my first hour there in pure bliss. The African Mammals, Global Disease, and Cosmic Pathway displays kept my too-easily-bored mind engaged. Seriously–I could feel myself getting smarter.

Then I entered the “Hall of African Peoples” exhibit.

An anthropological journey through the lifestyles and customs of African people, the exhibit explores Africa’s cultural heritage from Ancient Egypt to modern times. I approached the first display–the evolution of human tools–in my usual fashion: an initial, brief glance over the entire display, next, a focus on the artifact being highlighted, then a close reading of artifacts’s accompanying panel.

Immediately, I felt bothered by how the authors of the exhibit described the people who used the tools. They referred solely to a masculine actor. “Man” created stone tools starting 2.5 million years ago, “Man” developed hand axes in the lower paleolithic era, and “Man” designed spears around 300,000 years ago.

So, what’s wrong with this exhibit? After all, wasn’t “Man” the one who made tools in order to hunt, and provide for his pre-historic dependents?

Actually, he wasn’t.

The idea that the male “breadwinner” has existed throughout time is a myth. After surveying two hundred hunter/gatherer cultures in Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, anthropologists have determined that women’s gathering of food stuffs sustained pre-historic tribes. Hunting by men provided twenty percent of a tribe’s nourishment; women produced eighty percent of the total food consumed. Further analysis of ancient people’s teeth indicates that grains, nuts, and fruits–foods obtained through gathering, not hunting–served as their main food sources.

In the past two centuries, anthropologists have focused on “Man” as the inventor of tools to use on the hunt (see: Natural History Museum display). Now, several scholars credit women with inventions they had formerly attributed to men. In fact, many say that hunting developed after gathering, meaning that women invented the earliest tools (i.e. bones, stones, lengths of wood for digging up roots).

Prehistoric women enjoyed equality with men, likely because of their economic contributions. Women’s parity only diminished as agriculture developed, and communities made the transition to patriarchal societies. The ideal of the male “breadwinner” did not exist until the late nineteenth century when male artisans in England–who lost their jobs to women–used the notion as a justification for confining women to the home. They claimed that society would fall apart if the moral pillars of families, women, left the home to work.

If history clearly shows us that women were as much the “breadwinners” as men in prehistoric societies, why do we continue to live with the legacy of the male “breadwinner”?

Here’s a better question: Who controls information and how it is distributed to the masses? Who has a monopoly on knowledge?

Men constitute 70% of full time faculty in degree-granting post secondary education institutions in the US. In 27 states, males make up the majority of public high school principals–in Kansas, by greater than 40%. 19 out of 33 senior officials in the U.S. Department of Education are men.

These statistics show that men control knowledge. The “man the hunter,” man the “inventor of tools,” and the inescapable male  “breadwinner” ideals, give men privileged access to employment, higher salaries, and status in organizational hierarchies.

Why would anyone sacrifice privilege for the sake of historical accuracy, and more importantly, gender equity?

To be fair, women comprise 44% of the museum labor force. Still, we have to think about where those women went to school, who their principals were, what professors they had. Likely, their education taught them to internalize the gender roles that many scholars have transferred to prehistoric people. Perhaps those women see nothing wrong with the Natural History Museum’s  “Hall of African Peoples” exhibit.

Eradicating gender inequality begins with education. We must see injustice before we can address it. 

Universities need more full-time female faculty members. The Department of Education needs more women senior officials.Kansas needs more female principals. 

Case and point: 

Furthermore, transgender education providers are so few that researchers do not even include them in most demographic analyses of school boards and college professors. How might history look if the most marginalized had a seat at the table?

As a society, we must change a culture. We have to shift away from only men controlling knowledge. It is time for a joint sharing of information and interpretation between genders.

A Fool-Proof Formula for Feeling Outnumbered

This week I did something I never thought I’d do. I visited an “abortion clinic.”

I use quotations because “abortion clinic” is not really an accurate term to describe Choices–one of the leading medical centers for women’s reproductive health in the United States. Founded in 1971 by Merle Hoffman, Choices offers female patients a wide variety of services including prenatal care, a full spectrum of gynecological services, counseling, financial assistance, and yes, abortions.

When we visited Choices last week, we had the opportunity to tour the facility. It was one of the most beautiful medical centers I’ve ever seen. Clean, bright, and full of helpful staff, I remained oddly at ease there. Even as we entered the wing of the building devoted to abortions, learned how doctors perform the procedure, saw the medical equipment, and examined a specimen of the products of conception (what is removed from a woman’s uterus during the procedure), I never felt anxious. I think that’s because everyone working at the Clinic seemed so focused on the well-being of the patients, and so assured that they were doing worthwhile, important work that I couldn’t help but feel comfortable.

That changed when we met Merle Hoffman. Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Hoffman is an incredibly generous, impressive woman. She pioneered the abortion-rights movement and  is a marvelously successful business woman. I admire her conviction, her endless dedication to doing what she believes is right. But when she asked me–in a room of 12 pro-choice feminists–why I identify as anti-abortion, I felt just a tad nervous.

And then I explained my position.

I see abortion as a power struggle between the mother and the unborn child. In that relationship, the mother holds all of the power to decide whether or not the child lives or dies. The child cannot advocate for itself. I believe in advocating for the lesser of the two. Thus, I am anti-abortion.

As you can imagine, this is a highly unusual stance for a feminist such as myself to take. Ms. Hoffman and my fellow Moxies agreed. For the next hour, I listened to them discuss why it is absolutely necessary that women have access to abortions.

They described how systems of power and privilege are related to women developing unwanted pregnancies.

Education.Schools, whose curriculum has historically been determined by men, do not provide sex education until boys reach puberty, several years after many girls have reached child bearing age. Traditional teaching on birth control emphasizes two things: abstinence–which is clearly ineffective since 10% of all births in the US are to teenage mothers–and that the burden of contraception rests on the woman (i.e. she must take birth control pills, have an IUD device etc., while there are no pills that, for example, lower sperm count for men). Furthermore, students are not exposed to all methods of birth control. I had a very privileged educational experience, yet I only learned that there are 21 methods of birth control a few weeks ago.

Economic Inequality. In her book Intimate Wars, Merle Hoffman described a study she did in the 1980s which found that 53% of women have abortions because they cannot afford to have a child. She called this phenomenon “Abortionomics.” Unfortunately, the results that came out in her report remain true today. According to a 2014 report by the Guttmacher Institute, 42 percent of women who get abortions live below the federal poverty line. 64% of women who have abortions are women of color. In citing why they have an abortion, three fourths of women say they cannot afford to have a child.

Listening to pro-choice reasoning is compelling. Women–especially poor women and women of color–experience oppression which makes it more likely they will develop an unwanted pregnancy than if they had greater access to and knowledge about contraception, as well as financial support.  I really do understand the perspective of pro-choice activists. Without the option to choose whether or not to have a child, many women and their families would fall deeper into poverty.

Yet, in spite of that, I remain anti-abortion for the same reason I described above. I feel a moral obligation to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

What surprised me the most during my visit to Choices–and in hindsight should not have surprised me at all–was that the staff and Ms. Hoffman herself expressed a strong desire to see the day when women no longer feel they need abortions.

I share the same sentiment.

Hopefully, one day, schools will teach girls about their bodies before they develop, knowledge and access to contraception will be a right not a privilege, poverty will constrain no one, and unwanted pregnancy will be a thing of the past.

I know that’s idealistic. We live in an eternally imperfect world. But maybe, if we keep arguing, reasoning, fighting for change, at least part of that vision will come true.

Lost in the Land of Contradictions

I’ve been in New York City less than a week. So far, I’ve managed to:

1. Get lost three times

2. Meet the amazing staff at NDWA (my worksite)

3. Almost sit in a pile of excrement on a subway bench

4. Survive a sudden and unexpected rainstorm

5. Learn how to use google alerts

6. Cause a sweet potato to explode in the microwave (on accident!)

7. Go for a pleasant run along the Hudson River

8. Get harassed on the street on four occasions

9. See the wonder that is Central Park

It’s been an exciting fews days.

What’s struck me the most about the city is its plethora of contradictions: A rose bush next to a heap of garbage. Efficient check-out lines in a chaotic Whole Foods. An upscale yoga class taking place next to a sleeping homeless person. A welcoming non-profit sheltered from abrasive city-life.

Yesterday, during a staff-study at my worksite, I and many of my coworkers gathered to learn about undocumented Latina women who also encountered contradictions in their lives, but on a much more serious scale. Our lecturer, Nancy Morales, taught a class on Latina domestic workers at Ithaca College and is currently working towards her PhD in the Feminist Studies program at UC Santa Barbara.

Morales took us through a brief history of Immigration legislation.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed. IRCA granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants, but it also established penalties for employers who knowingly hired undocumented immigrants. The combined affect of these two provisions restricted public assistance and social services to immigrants. In fact, immigrants faced a 5 year bar from receiving any type of public assistance.

Contradiction #1: Undocumented Latinas had the freedom to live in the U.S. yet they did not have access to resources they need to actually live in the U.S.

Latinas also had difficulty supporting their families because of uneven welfare policies. Lawmakers initially designed welfare to help women stay at home. The idea was that provisions from the state would make it so that women did not need to work, but rather, could stay home and care for their families.

Historically, women of color have performed reproductive labor for privileged white women. This societal construction greatly influenced welfare policy. Lawmakers assumed that more jobs existed for women of color because women of color had so heavily occupied the reproductive labor sector from the time of slavery. They saw no need to design laws that benefited working women, when unemployed, privileged, white women so clearly needed help. For example, the Mother’s Pension Program–established in the early 1900s–was exclusively for “fit mothers” with “suitable homes” (read: white women). At their own discretion, social workers rejected women of color’s requests for public assistance.

Contradiction #2: Even documented Latinas who needed public assistance were denied the Welfare that should have been designed to aid them.

The legacy of discriminatory welfare programs like the Mother’s Pension Program in conjunction with the continued efficacy of IRCA shape the lives of Latina Immigrants. Moreover, harsh, racist stigmas make them susceptible to arrest, deportation, and separation from their children. Morales provided this as an example.

Contradiction #3: The place many Latinas come to build a better life for their children–the United States–treats them with hostility.

They deserve better.


How to Oppress Women and Outrage Feminists

Female Indonesian Soldiers perform martial arts to commemorate Raden Ajeng Kartini, a national heroine and leader in Indonesia’s Women’s Rights movement

Indonesia’s top military commander, General Moeldoko, recently defended the practice of performing virginity tests on female recruits. Although Moeldoko admitted to the Jakarta Globe that women’s sexual status does not affect their performance as soldiers, he claimed that it measures morality—a requirement for armed service members. He says, “There is no other way” to gauge a woman’s character “So what’s the problem? It’s a good thing, so why criticize it?”

General Moeldoko

Female officers interviewed by the Human Rights Watch describe the test as traumatic both psychologically and physically. Doctors require women to remove their clothes and submit to an invasive “two-finger” test that violates international human rights law, and according to the World Health Organization has “no scientific validity.”

Men are not even asked about their virginity.

I spent much of my childhood living in Indonesia. Born the U.S., I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia at the age of 10, and lived there for four years. It saddens me to know that such a discriminatory, harmful practice occurs in a place where I made my childhood memories.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now that I have described a shining example of gender-based violence, I should tell you who I am. My name is Abby Clark. I am a Biology Major and Women’s Studies Minor from Anchorage, Alaska. Learning about social injustices like Indonesia’s virginity tests is one of the reasons I applied to the Moxie Project. My interest in feminism and social justice developed after I began taking Women’s Studies courses in college. Once I could see how the patriarchal structure of American society influences everyday life—from the gender wage gap to street harassment—I could not remain passive. I had to engage in conversation and action addressing systemic sexism.

This summer I have the chance to do just that. As a Communications intern for the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, I will help work for the dignity and inclusion of domestic workers in labor protections.

During my time in New York, I hope to do two things. Firstly, I want to listen and learn as much as I can from my peers, supervisors, and other people I meet.

Secondly, I want to be bold.

Only a couple years ago, I would never have dared to start my first blog post with such an abhorrent topic as virginity tests. It seemed too shocking—too likely to make others (and myself) feel uncomfortable. But when I read General Moeldoko’s statements on Sunday, I knew I could not let the subject go unmentioned. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”

So, here’s a promise: this summer I will step out of my comfort zone and address issues that matter.