Friday, June 22, 2012

Commentary: Voice of a Seven Sisters Graduate


Commentary: Voice of a Seven Sisters Graduate

The Women in Public Service Project is excited to share the first in a series of blog posts from established and emerging women in public service. We hope that their unique perspectives and experiences  will contribute to the broader discussion about women’s leadership, and resonate with members of the WPSP Community. 

Sara Alcid graduated from Bryn Mawr College in December 2011 with a degree in Political Science and Gender and Sexuality Studies.  She currently lives in Washington, DC and works as the Programs and Policy Assistant at the Reproductive Health Technologies Project.  Sara attended the inaugural Women in Public Service Colloquium in 2011 as a student journalist and the founder and president of Bryn Mawr’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.  She blogs about reproductive health and modern feminism at Gendere[a]d and plans to dedicate her career to public health and reproductive justice.  Americans for UNFPA named Sara a finalist for the Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women in 2011.

What do you feel are the greatest unmet needs for women leaders that WPSP can address?
As voiced numerous times at the inaugural Women in Public Service Project Colloquium, the biggest challenge to increasing women’s participation in public service is a hostile cultural climate to the advancement of women to greater roles of leadership. This climate spans all continents and manifests itself in young women’s self-doubt about their potential and ability to become politicians and leaders. I was astounded by the number of influential women at the colloquium that cited a lack of confidence as their main challenge in becoming a leader in public service. Thus, I believe one of the greatest unmet needs for women leaders is a powerful and affirmative network of support and advice that can make a concerted effort to begin to shift cultural attitudes about female leaders by giving voice to the issue and designing initiatives to directly empower women. I think that WPSP is especially apt to achieve such a shift in cultural attitudes because of its collaboration with the Seven Sisters colleges—institutions founded on the premise of empowering and educating women to overcome barriers produced by gender inequality.

The Women in Public Service Project is also meeting a great need for the mentorship of upcoming women leaders. More often than not, a young woman’s access to effective mentors is deeply interconnected with her access to economic and social capital and the upward social mobility that results from a background of privilege. WPSP is helping to bridge the gap of privilege and its implications for being able to find a mentor that can make all the difference in a young woman’s ability to pursue a leadership role in public service.

What are your hopes for the WPSP institutes, and how do you think they can best serve current or recently graduated students who aspire to careers in public service ?
I think one of the most valuable things the WPSP Institutes can offer current or recently graduated students is the opportunity to enter a network of women with similar interests and goals. Working together and in support of one another is infinitely more powerful and effective than women fighting alone for their place in politics. The WPSP Institutes can also serve current or recently graduated students in learning how to marry their scholarly backgrounds to strategies for political change and begin strategizing with mentors and leaders to run for office later in their careers—it’s never too early to start thinking about. I believe the Institutes will also foster an important cross-cultural exchange and collaboration between the attendees, which I hope will open the eyes of students and recent graduates from the global north to the struggles some of their colleagues face as emerging women leaders in developing nations. Although the WPSP was launched by institutions in the United States, it is a global initiative founded on the understanding that women’s empowerment has not been achieved until all women are able to become leaders in their home countries, so I think establishing an understanding among younger participants of the differing experiences of women participating in the initiative will be essential to its success on a global scale.

How has having a mentor benefited you?
I will admit that it wasn’t easy for me to find mentors, but I have been fortunate to grow as a women’s rights activist under the guidance of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s campus organizers. The benefit of being able to navigate the beginning of my career with the help of women that once walked in my very shoes as young professionals cannot be overstated. My mentors have connected me to resources and opportunities that would have been out of my reach or knowledge without their assistance. Their encouragement and belief in my abilities as a young leader have also been instrumental in pushing me to chase after the change I wish to bring about in women’s health policy.

The annual WPSP Institute will be held at each of the partnering Sisters’ campuses on a rotating basis. As a graduate of a Seven Sisters college, how do you think the work and legacy of the Sisters contribute to the vision for WPSP?
I hope that the Seven Sisters’ legacy of pushing the envelope on progressive issues related to gender and sexuality will help WPSP establish a norm of inclusivity surrounding what it means to be a “woman” and the transgender or gender non-conforming community. Even more so underrepresented in politics than women are transwomen and it is my hope that the Seven Sisters’ progressive approach to gender identity, although certainly not complete in its evolution, will encourage an inclusive vision for WPSP and its delegates. It goes without saying that the Sisters are the leading institutions of higher learning in women’s empowerment and they have succeeded in creating an indescribably transformative environment for students to learn and grow in. I hope that the involvement of the Sisters colleges in WPSP will help in recreating such an environment for the women that attend the annual Institute. I can personally attest to the powerful effect that these colleges’ alternative pedagogy can have on a woman’s self-confidence and drive to achieve lasting change in public service. The Seven Sisters also have an evidenced track record of imbuing their students with a deep commitment to improving the lives of other women, which I know is also a central value of the network of women leaders WPSP is building.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Blog for Choice Day: A Look Inside Crisis Pregnancy Centers

This past summer, I interned with a pro-choice organization that was performing investigations of crisis pregnancy centers in order to reveal their deceptive tactics, aid in the creation of legislation that would regulate these pseudo "clinics," and educate women about what really lies inside these centers that advertise for abortion counseling. To contribute to this important initiative, I performed several of these investigations. With a fake name and story, I pretended to be pregnant, vulnerable and poor (okay maybe I didn't have to pretend all that much on that last one. Hello, unpaid internships.)

The reality of what goes on inside crisis pregnancy centers is scary. I wasn't even pregnant and knew all about the trap I was walking into, but it was still terrifying. I also knew that most of the information they were telling me was false--anything they could do to convince me not to have an abortion--which is the scariest part of these places. The medical misinformation that they preach to pregnant women is a threat to their health.

I was told by several crisis pregnancy centers that birth control and condoms cause cancer. I was even presented with fake, yet real looking, medical pamphlets "proving" this. If I had been an actual "patient", not an investigator, and didn't know better, I could have walked out of these places convinced that protected sex would give me cancer. Of course the crisis pregnancy center staff (not medical professionals) told me to be abstinent and thus avoid having to use birth control and condoms in order to protect myself from deadly cancers. But the ineffectiveness of the abstinence-only message has been proven over and over. It is a threat to women's health to instruct sexually active women to abandon methods of safe sex.

Crisis pregnancy centers use deceptive and false advertising to convince women that they provide abortion counseling and referrals. However, once they have abortion-seeking women inside their doors, they go to great lengths--desperate lengths--to convince them not to have an abortion. The number one tactic that they use is to lie about the risks of abortion. Abortion causes breast cancer, internal bleeding, infection, and depression, they told me. If I expressed my wish to finish my college education and worries about the cost of raising a child, they promised me free food, diapers and baby clothes--sometimes even free housing and childcare.

Then came the moral guilt trip. Religion was always brought up during my appointments at crisis pregnancy centers. Sometimes they asked me if I wanted to pray and the beginning and end of the appointment, which I declined. God and morality were brought into the conversation to try to make me feel guilty about having sex in the first place and to convince me that I could correct this wrongdoing by not choosing abortion, but instead choosing to have a child that I expressed that I did not want to have and that would derail my educational and career plans. Gender pronouns and sometimes even baby names were assigned to the imaginary fetus inside of me. If I had actually been pregnant and seeking an abortion, with little knowledge about abortion and choice, this rhetoric of personhood would have only made my decision more confusing.

Crisis pregnancy centers attack a woman's right to choose from angles of "morality" and "science," steeped in a conservative, religious, pro-life agenda.

Another scary aspect of crisis pregnancy centers is that most people are completely unaware of their mission and tactics. The best thing you can do is tell your friends about them, and tell them to tell their friends. Also, please urge your representative to cosponsor the Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women’s Services Act and prevent CPCs from deceiving women.

People often ask me what's wrong with crisis pregnancy centers, as having a child is part of choice. They are absolutely right that choosing to have a child is an option that the pro-choice movement supports as much as it supports the option of abortion. The problem with crisis pregnancy centers is that they use false advertising, false medical information, and other deceptive tactics to persuade women to not have an abortion, despite their wishes to do so. Pro-choice medical institutions, like Planned Parenthood, offer counseling and medical services for all of a woman's options: adoption, abortion and parenting. That's real choice.

I plan to do many different things to help elect pro-choice candidates in 2012, including being engaged with the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance's "Get Out Her Vote" campaign, but a simple and effective thing I will be doing is sharing my experiences inside crisis pregnancy centers to shed light on the scary, harmful rhetoric that the pro-life movement espouses. Electing pro-choice candidates in 2012 is vital for protecting women's health, their right to choose, and their right to receive abortion counseling that does not in any way mirror that of crisis pregnancy centers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Self-Confidence: A Central Challenge to Gender Parity in Politics?

Last month, I was honored to attend the Women in Public Service Project Colloquium as a feminist leader at Bryn Mawr College and student journalist. The Women in Public Service Project was launched by the US Department of State (special nod to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) and the Seven Sisters Colleges to increase the participation of women in politics and the public service sector by facilitating the mentorship of young female leaders and starting conversations about the detrimental nature of normative gender roles that do not usually permeate mainstream discourse. Overall, the colloquium was incredibly empowering and being surrounded by the trailblazing energy of the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem (pictured above with me), Madeleine Albright, and Atifete Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo was enough to help me forget the doubts I have about my ability climb to the top of the male-dominated ladder of politics and public service. However, I am fortunate to have little doubt about that in the first place, which became increasingly clear at the colloquium.

To my surprise, women's struggle with self-confidence became a prominent theme at the colloquium. During the colloquium’s second panel discussion, Vice Admiral Carol Pottinger, Deputy Chief of Staff of Capability Development at NATO Headquarters (pictured above, second to the right), spoke about her struggle with self-confidence early on in her career and marked this issue as a great challenge to her ability to succeed as a young woman. Once Pottinger gave voice to this issue, her fellow panelists and later speakers echoed her story. Women’s self-confidence, or lack thereof, became a dominant point of discussion at the colloquium, with several women of power in public service urging the young leaders in the audience to work to overcome any lack of confidence in order to be able to participate in public service with pride and the assertiveness necessary for effectively sharing one’s vision for global governance.

Kathleen Sebelius, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services (pictured above, on the far right), knocked on the small table beside her chair and stated, “I know men in politics who are less bright than this table but they have no problem asserting themselves with confidence.” Sebelius contributed to the colloquium’s general observation that women seem to have less confidence than men, but shared that her sixteen years of all-female education gave her the tools to overcome this struggle that many women face. I am still livid about Sebelius's decision to reverse the FDA's decision to sell Plan B over the counter, regardless of age, but was happy that she brought up the value of single sex education in alleviating this seeming epidemic of women and girls' low self-confidence.

The relevance of and need for women's colleges are questioned like clock-work each year in the media, but always with a resounding response of, "YES they are still relevant!" from women's college students and graduates and those that study the affect of all-female learning environments.

I certainly attest to the fact that women’s colleges teach young women to have exceptional confidence and belief in their abilities. The non-normative ideologies of gender and power at Bryn Mawr unraveled the social conditioning I had undergone since a young age and “re-conditioned” me to approach my goals with a confidence that is aware of the falsity and patriarchal tilt of the messages that popular media and dominant gender ideologies send women.

Furthermore, the pedagogy of Bryn Mawr is bound up in analyzing systems of thought and structural violence in order to explain the emergence of societal “realities” like women having less confidence than men. During the bus ride back to Bryn Mawr from Washington, D.C., students that attended the colloquium discussed the issue of women’s self-confidence and could be heard saying: “Blame the system, not women!”

Speaking of "the system" and structural violence, my one critique of the colloquium was that this “self-confidence issue” was not discussed in a manner that explicitly examined the relationship between normative gender roles and the socialization of women and girls that produces such a disparity in confidence. Women and girls are not born inherently lacking confidence. We are “taught” from a young age to lack belief in our vision and abilities by the media and pervasive gender norms; these influence everything from the toys we play with as children to the professions we feel able to aspire to. In case you are not convinced about this structural violence against women's self-confidence, consider the endless policing of Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and the sexualization of Sarah Palin, the portrayal of female athletes, and the early limitations put on the possibilities for girls' future careers (read princess). It should not be forgotten that boys and men are similarly socialized to aspire to a very specific masculinity and very specific futures. In short, gender socialization restricts the ability to experience true free will and flourishment for both girls and boys, women and men. However, I would argue that normative masculinity contains more upward social mobility than normative femininity, which is why high-power female leaders spoke about their struggle to overcome low self-esteem in order to occupy their current positions of influence. This is also not to say that men do not struggle with confidence issues, especially with the prevalence of bullying among both genders in today's schools, but Secretary Clinton and her high-power female peers often find themselves sitting at meeting tables at the White House being the only female present and have attributed much of this disparity to women's struggle to garner self-confidence.

It's difficult to disrupt and restructure systems of thought that have solidified around the gendering of confidence, but one thing we can all do at a personal level to begin to unravel the system is so stop policing those in our inner circles. Stop telling your sister to lose weight; start telling her that her strong thighs are beautiful. Stop calling your friend engaging in consensual, safe sex with many different partners a slut; start applauding her for her ability to disregard our slut-shaming culture. Stop silencing yourself and others surrounding highly gendered issues, like sports, fashion, and cooking. Start challenging yourself to enter conversations that you have thoughts about, but don't feel welcome in because of your gender. These are just a few examples of how we can change the gendered confidence disparity in our everyday lives.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Women in Public Service Project is going to change the game of politics and public service for women. However, I know that this could be achieved even more dramatically if challenges to gender parity in the public service profession, like issues of confidence, were tackled in a holistic manner that called gender ideologies and patriarchal hierarchies of power into question. Disturbing these systematic forces that work against women’s advancement in public service will be vital for the eventual realization of gender equality in politics, the home, the boardroom, etc.

Photo Credit: Jim Roese

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The “Founding” of America and the Field of the Visible

Originally written as a response to "Schematic Racism and White Paranoia" by Judith Butler for Bryn Mawr College's Flexner Lecture Book Club Blog, in celebration of Judith Butler's lectureship on campus.

Seeing is not just one of our senses or a biological function—it is a means of knowing the world that is shaped by our history and socialization. Butler explains how among the ever-present fear of the black male body, the act of violence against Rodney King came to be seen as an act of violence against the police. It seems absurd, but the sight of the jury relocated the guilt of the police onto King’s body as a function of lurking white paranoia and the construction of the black male as an ongoing, felt threat to white, heterosexual normativity.

The notion that “the visible” is produced and manipulated appears frequently in American history and perhaps most strongly in what is popularly considered to be the “founding” of the nation. The fact that a predominant American narrative exists in which Columbus’s arrival constitutes the beginning of the nation’s history certainly speaks for the “blindness” of the English settlers and our inherited “blindness” to Native American culture and history.

In the spirit of finding an earthly Eden, spreading Christianity and gaining profit, English settlers had a preformed field of visibility, which was also produced by a fear of “savages” and wilderness. Upon their arrival to Native American nations (now America), white settlers saw and perceived—with their “phantasmatic production” of a paranoia of uncivilized, un-Christian, and dark-skinned Indians—Native Americans in a manner that fulfilled their paranoia. For example, they were blind to the highly sophisticated Native American methods of agriculture and instead saw an uncivilized, godless people that were struggling to survive off of the land. The English settlers’ production of a narrow field of vision also served the minimization of white guilt relating to the Native American genocide.

Could it be that the “racial production of the visible” that Butler writes of in regard to the black male body is rooted in a white American narrative to minimize feelings of guilt surrounding slavery and persisting racial inequality?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Top Five Pieces of Advice Given to Young Women at the Women in Public Service Colloquium

Much of the Women in Public Service Project’s Colloquium was focused on identifying and discussing strategies that will better enable young women to climb to positions of influence in public service. Many pieces of advice were offered to young women in the audience and watching the colloquium’s videocast by the program’s speakers and panelists, like Madam Secretary Hillary Clinton; Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (left); Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State; Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations’ Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand; Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo; Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services; and Gloria Steinem, a preeminent feminist activist and author.

1). The piece of advice that was reiterated most throughout that colloquium was to “have confidence and belief in your vision” to bring about change in the world community through public service, put succinctly by Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a 1959 graduate of Mount Holyoke College. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Atifete Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo and Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand also emphasized the importance of believing in your vision and your capability to make your vision for public welfare a reality.

2). Farah Pandith (right), a 1990 graduate of Smith College and now the US Department of State’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, urged the Seven Sisters students, including sixteen students from Bryn Mawr, at the Women in Public Service Project’s Student Welcome and Reception event to seek out and foster relationships with mentors. Mentorship is one of the key tenets of the Women in Public Service Project and Pandith encouraged us to reach out to Seven Sisters alumnae for help and advice in navigating a career in public service. The Women in Public Service Project hopes to facilitate the formation of mentor-mentee relationships between experienced public servants and women just launching their careers by creating an online portal for this to take place.

3). Before departing to meet with President Barack Obama about legislation that would grant social securities to caregivers in the informal workforce, Hilda Solis, the United States Secretary of Labor, advised young women to “test your limits” by exploring different sectors of public service and challenging yourself to bring innovation and assertiveness to whatever position you hold. During a conversation that I had with Bryn Mawr alumna of the class of ‘87 and Executive Director of San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women, Emily Maruse, she also advised young women to test their limits and explore their capabilities by pursuing a number of different positions and fields during their 20’s in order to learn four key things about yourself: what you like to do, what you don’t like to do, what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at.

4). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) spoke about the challenges of being a powerful woman in politics and noted that “it’s still hard” for women to occupy positions of influence, as they will often be the first woman or one of the first women in these positions and face a disproportionate amount of criticism from the media just because of their gender. Regarding the undue criticism that powerful women face, she advised us to “grin and bear it” for the sake of the young women who will come after us and will be able to more easily pursue positions of influence through the doors we open into male-dominated fields.

5). An unexpected, but important piece of advice provided by the former Prime Minister and current Administrator of the United Nations’ Development Programme, Helen Clark, was that women looking to become influential in the field of public service should develop a strong understanding of economics. Clark admitted that she regrets not studying and following economics as a young woman because she had to play catch-up when she reached senior standing in her career. Human welfare is bound up in economic sustainability and Clark advises young women to acknowledge and explore this connection sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

@genderead Makes an Appearance at the Obama Student Summit

On November 2, I attended the Obama Student Summit at the University of Pennsylvania. During the summit, audience members and those watching live online were invited to tweet in questions for Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina and the president's domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes.

I asked these members of Obama's team about how Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, works to improve maternal health in the US. I received answers that touted Obama's commitment to women's health and reproductive care.

Screen Projection of Question at Summit

President Obama, if you truly care about women's health, stand up for no-copay birth control as the most basic form of preventative care. Women's health in non-negotiable. The American government is supposed to be secular, remember?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rachel Maddow and Judith Butler’s Critique of “the Shiny New Gay Citizen”

Originally written for Bryn Mawr College's Flexner Lecture Book Club Blog, in celebration of Judith Butler's upcoming extended visit to campus.

Earlier this month, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow expressed skepticism regarding the value of the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the institution of marriage. “I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships,” she explains. “And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture.”

Many gay rights activists were shocked by this critique of the legalization of gay marriage. The liberal political agenda seems to have normalized the “correctness” of the assimilation of gays and lesbians into the institutions of marriage and the military. There has been little discussion of what is lost in this assimilation, or rather, what is gained by hegemonic systems of power. In the legalization of gay marriage and the repeal of DADT, equality for sexual minorities is gained, but this is an equality defined within the terms of a system that is informed by patriarchal heteronormativity. Is that really equality? Maddow’s skepticism of state-recognized gay marriage is rooted in an appreciation for the alternative cultures that arise as a natural resistance to discrimination. On a similar note, in “Competing Universalities,” Butler asks the lesbian and gay rights movement to consider the idea that striving to gain access to and assimilate with historically oppressive institutions undermines the “claim to be working in the direction of substantive social justice” (273).

Instead of striving to gain equality within an inherently unequal dominant order, Butler calls on the lesbian and gay rights movement to “refuse its terms, to let the term itself wither, to starve it of its strength” (274). While I agree with Butler’s (and Maddow’s) reasoning about the value in rejecting the hegemonic system of order and creating alternative orders of sexual legitimacy, there is a social cost to doing this. Refusing the terms of state institutions has consequences; perhaps the strongest being financial–a reflection of the interconnected nature of capitalism and the control of sexuality. Much of the reason that the lesbian and gay rights movement has fought for inclusion in the institutions of marriage and the military is related to economic benefits. Thus, in making assertions of the danger of the assimilation that Butler and Maddow speak of, I think it is also vital to consider the lived realities, namely economic strife, behind the desire for assimilation. While reading “Competing Universalities” I was struck with the tension between theory and reality that is often present in academia and something that I often grapple with as a gender studies student and feminist activist.

Something I look forward to asking Judith Butler about during her upcoming lectureship at Bryn Mawr is how she negotiates this aforementioned tension. She participates in grassroots activism—most recently, Occupy Wall Street—yet also engages in deeply theoretical considerations of social conditions. Perhaps her upcoming lectures, specifically her second one, entitled “Bodies in Alliance & the Politics of the Street” will provide me some answers, as I noticed that she drew from her “bodies in alliance” rhetoric while participating in the politics of the street at Occupy Wall Street.