Olympe de Gouges

On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges was guillotined during the early stages of the Reign of Terror for her revolutionary ideas.

45302282_10161165779455472_6445264199118487552_nWell ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally, she dared to write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied public and political space. Following the publication of a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and her very involvement in the male profession of theatre. Gouges remained defiant, writing “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, pressure and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days. Continue reading

China’s “Rice Bunny” Campaign

Once again, the resourcefulness and tenacity of human rights activists in authoritarian regimes never ceases to amaze me. The Los Angeles Times highlights the efforts of Chinese feminists to begin their own #MeToo movement despite the government’s opposition to independent civil society, and subsequent censorship of the hashtag itself.

Employers, universities and even police are generally reluctant to get involved in sexual harassment cases in China and assailants are rarely charged and often never punished, leaving few women bold enough to speak out. When five women tried to organize multi-city protests in 2015 to focus attention on unwanted groping on buses and trains, they were arrested and jailed for more than five weeks for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Yet there is evidence of progress. A prominent Buddhist monk, a university professor, the founder of a well-known charity, an environmental activist, a famous state television host, two badminton coaches and several journalists have all been accused of sexual harassment in recent months, with the accusations spreading rapidly on Chinese social media, though state censors usually quash the messages quickly.

When censors in China banned the #MeToo hashtag, activists came up with imaginative ways to get around the ban, using the characters “rice bunny,” pronounced “mi tu,” to tag posts or by using the emojis for a bowl of rice and a rabbit.

Though victims are often pressured to remain silent, Wan believes public awareness of sexual harassment is growing and pressure is building in China to finally create a clear criminal law banning sexual harassment. In a 2016 online survey of 6,592 university students, 70% reported being sexually harassed. A survey of female factory workers three years earlier by a labor rights group, the Sunflower Women Workers Center in Guangzhou, found the same thing.


One thing slowing the #MeToo movement in China is the lack of a clear legal definition of sexual harassment. Of the more than 50 million legal cases that were filed between 2010 and 2017, only two were brought by women alleging they were victims of sexual harassment.

The Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, which supports victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, is now pushing for a national law to define and ban sexual harassment and discrimination against women and, for the first time, the government is actually drafting a measure that would require employers to take steps to discourage harassment in any form. Activists, though, say that doesn’t go far enough and want perpetrators to face the risk of criminal charges.

China’s intolerance for activism has also likely slowed the #MeToo movement.

Not if the Chinese can help it. To quote one Chinese lawyer featured in the article who handles these cases, when it comes to “the history of setting up laws and regulations against sexual harassment around the world, there was always blood and lives lost in the process, and that is the cost.”



Five Women Pressing For Progress Worldwide

For International Women’s Day 2018, the Washington Post highlighted the efforts of five women activists — from the U.K. to India — who are dedicating their lives, if not risking them, to help advance the rights and political power of women. It is a worthy and inspiring read, with the account of 75-year-old Canan Arin of Turkey especially standing out in my mind:

“Every day, it is getting worse and worse and worse,” she said. “I come from a generation that believed women and men are equal before the law. But I realized that we are not equal, that we have never been equal.”

Arin founded one of Turkey’s first women’s shelters, the Purple Roof Women’s Foundation, in 1990. And she has also helped reform parts of the Turkish penal code, which she said took “a feudal approach to women.”

Her advocacy has also put her in the crosshairs, and prosecutors have charged her with slander against Turkish officials, as well as the prophet Muhammad. But she remains undeterred.

When asked how long she would continue her work, she responded: “Until I die.”

With courage and gumption like that, shared by millions of women around the world, I have a lot of hope for the future.

The 95th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in America

On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, prohibiting U.S. citizens from being denied the right to vote based on sex, and thereby guaranteeing women’s suffrage in the country. It was authored by leading suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and first introduced in Congress in 1878 by California Senator Aaron A. Sargent.

Although the American women’s rights movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York, it truly began to take off after the U.S. Civil War, when activists advocated for universal suffrage to be included in the Reconstruction amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments).As part of this “New Departure” strategy, groups like the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Stanton and Anthony, pursued legal cases arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment (which granted universal citizenship) and Fifteenth Amendment (which granted the vote irrespective of race) together served to guarantee voting rights to women. Continue reading

Five Reasons Why Sexual Assault is So Pervasive

Courtesy of Soraya Chemaly of Salon

First, sexual assault on college campuses happens in environments of overwhelming cultural and institutional tolerance that support discriminatory double standards.  While the overall rate of sexual assault in the US has declined since the late 1970s, it has stayed constant on US campuses.  The Center for Public Policy and the Department of Justice estimate that 95% of college sexual assaults are not reported because victims, regardless of sex, gender or sexuality, do not have confidence that they will be believed, that their schools will help them and that they won’t be humiliated and shamed. Our culture essentially gives rapists the message that they’re entitled to be believed and respected; their victims aren’t.

Since women’s basic right to bodily integrity seems to confuse some people, let’s talk about sexual assault that involves men and boys.  Decades of Catholic Church sexual abuse tragedies, the Boy ScoutsPenn Staterape in correctional facilitiessexual assault in the military, recurring episodes at high schools around the country are all examples of entitlement to rape in the face of institutional tolerance.

These cases all involve situations where people, usually men, with uncontested power use that power to abuse more vulnerable people.  Their victims are vulnerable not only because they are smaller or younger, and certainly not because they are drunk, but because they lack cultural power – the power to be believed or have their rights of bodily integrity respected by society. Sometimes, those people are children; other times they’re men. Much more often, however, they are young girls and women.  Alcohol only highlights deeply rooted ideas about who has the right act with impunity.   As Jaclyn Friedman explained five years ago, drinking “is not a risk for nearly half the population. I’ve never met a straight man who worried about being raped as he contemplated a night of debauchery. Vomiting in public? Yes. Getting rejected by sexual prospects? Sure. Getting in a fight? Maybe. Getting raped? Come on.”

A false accusation of rape is, indeed, a fearsome prospect. But the likelihood of being falsely accused of rape are no different from that of being falsely accused of any other crime. And women are far more likely to be raped than men are to be falsely accused. The insistence on treating the two as equally prevalent issues is ….an entitlement.

Secondly, sexual assault on campus is related to high rates of other forms of gendered violence on campus.  Gender-based violence includes not just sexual assault, but intimate partner violence and stalking.  College-aged women are at highest risk for all of these forms of violence.  Decades of research and work clearly reveal that the defining characteristic of perpetrators of these crimes is entitlement. Perpetrators are people who believe they are “owed” something because of who they are or what they’ve done are the most likely to commit difference-based violence.

Third, people arrive at college with ideas and experiences. According to a study released earlier this month, one in ten people between the ages of 14-21 have already committed an act of sexual violence. Boys are more likely to have been perpetrators, although the older girls get, the more likely they are to become perpetrators too. However, 80% of victims in the study were girls — 18% were boys and 5% were transgender youth. Three quarters of those admitting to using coercion or physical pressure targeted someone they knew or were in a relationship with.  15% said they used alcohol to do it.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the study however was that these children felt no sense of responsibility for their actions. What does this have to do with entitlement? The likelihood of perpetrating sexual violence was not equal across all groups.  The teenagers with the highest propensity to sexually assault a peer were white kids from higher-income families.

Fourth, we cannot talk about sexual assault and broader violence in schools without discussing athletics, both before and during college. While male student athletes make up 3.3% of the U.S. college population, they are responsible for 19% percent of sexual assaults and 37% of domestic violence cases on college campuses. In the wake of the Steubenville rape case, but before so many others, like the more recent case in Maryville, The Nation’s Dave Zirin called for a serious questioning of “the connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture.” The core characteristics of high-status boys’ sports – violence, dominance, power, specialness and impunity – are married seamlessly to the marginalization and sexual objectification of girls and women as trophies and playthings. It is possible to cultivate a healthy sense of fraternity without the denigration and victimization of girls and LGBT youth, but that’s not what’s happening.

For the last 25 years, while the incidence of rape has declined, gang rapes by younger and younger men have been on the rise. And perpetrators now derive even greater power and status from photographing and sharing evidence of their assaults. What does entitlement look like, if not being so confident you’ll get away with a crime that you crow about it on social media?   Sports participation does NOT turn boys into rapists. However, participation in high-level, all-male sports cultures is correlated with sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

Fifth, people come from families and families are riven with similar problems and not talking about them. Boys and girls are being sent off to college without parents ever discussing critical dilemmas, double standards,  power imbalances, cultural entitlements,  or even what it genuinely means to be empathetic.  It’s not just parents who themselves are struggling with alcohol, abuse and dysfunction that are a problem. It’s parents whose reluctance to speak openly about serious issues with children who also enable these problems to thrive.  People arrive at school with complicated histories shrouded in silence, shame, anger and incoherence. Our reluctance to extend our concepts of justice to include the family spills over into other institutions every day and college is one of the places where this is most evident.

The Woman Who Dared to Drive

Two years ago, Saudi citizen Manal al-Sharif dared to defy her nation’s de facto ban against female drivers, enduring jail, mockery, and even death threats — but also helping to catalyze a woman’s rights movement. She describes her ordeal and the ensuing aftermath in this excellent and moving 14-minute TED Talk.

My heart and support goes out to her and all the women like her who are affecting positive social and political change against very difficult odds.

The Tragic Story of Amina Filali

If only horrific stories like these were as isolated as they seem. Sadly, far too many women endure this poor girl’s fate. It’s disturbing to realize that it’s happening even as I speak, and few people either know about it or care.

You can read more about this case, and it’s repercussions, here. I don’t care what the cultural, traditional, or religious pretext of a given social norm is: if it violates a person’s freedom, dignity, and human rights, it should be admonished and opposed. Cultural relativism should not trump ethics. Obviously, some circumstance are more complex, but this disturbing case is clearly non-negotiable.

If you want to help girls like Amina, click here to sign a petition to the Moroccan government. There’s no guarantee it’ll work of course, but there’s no reason not to at least try.

The Double-Standard Towards Women

In the New York Times, Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni brilliantly addresses the widespread sexualized prism through which women are viewed in our society. It’s a poignant exposure of a double-standard that’s so inherent within our use of language, that’s it rarely noticed, let alone seen negatively. The piece is good enough in my view to merit sharing it in it’s entirety.

Floozy. Strumpet. Slut.

When attacking a woman by questioning her sexual mores, there’s a smorgasbord of slurs, and you can take your rancid pick. Help me out here: where are the comparable nouns for men? What’s a male slut?

A role model, in some cases. In others, a presidential candidate.

“Gigolo” doesn’t have the acid or currency of “whore,” and the man with bedpost notches gets compliments. He’s a Casanova, a conquistador.

The lady is a tramp.

Nearly two weeks since Rush Limbaugh let loose on Sandra Fluke, equating her desire for insurance-covered birth control with a prostitute’s demand for a fee, the wrangling over how awful that really was and whether it will truly haunt him continues.

Advertisers bolted in protest; advertisers come and go all the time. It was the beginning of his end; it was ratings chum. He lost his way; he was Rush in Excelsis.

One especially robust strand of commentary has focused on whether Limbaugh, a god of the far right, was smacked down for the kind of thing that less conservative men routinely get away with.

In a spirited essay on The Daily Beast this past weekend, the novelist Paul Theroux joined many commentators in alleging liberal hypocrisy, of which there has indeed been some.

And he said that provocative language is an essential part of public dialogue, arguing that you can’t recoil from its deployment against Fluke unless you want to forfeit its use elsewhere.

“You have to give Limbaugh a pass,” he maintained, in order to preserve the right to call Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor “pimps for Israel, and Rick Santorum a mental midget.”

It’s an interesting point, but it ignores the precise type of language Limbaugh turned to and assumes an even playing field where one doesn’t exist.

While both men and women are called idiots and puppets and frauds, only women are attacked in terms of suspected (or flat-out hallucinated) licentiousness. And only for women is there such a brimming, insidious thesaurus of accordant pejoratives.

Decades after the dawn of feminism, despite the best efforts of everyone from Erica Jong to Kim Cattrall, women are still seen through an erotically censorious prism, and promiscuity is still the ultimate putdown.

It’s antediluvian, and it’s astonishing. You’d think our imaginations would have evolved, even if our humanity hasn’t.

Anthony Weiner may have been felled by his libido, but the weirdness of its expression and his recklessness were what people mainly balked at. Ditto for John Edwards. No one called them gigolos.

You could argue that Limbaugh chose the slurs he did for Fluke simply because the context, a debate over contraception, was in part sexual.

But there are examples aplenty of women being derided as sluts and prostitutes — two of his descriptions of Fluke — when sex is nowhere in the preamble, nowhere in the picture.

Some involve Limbaugh himself. As Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan noted in a recent editorial for CNN.com, he has referred to female cabinet members as “sex-retaries.”

But look as well to Columbia University and what happened last week after President Obama, an alumnus, announced that he would give a commencement address at its all-women’s sister school, Barnard College, instead. A Columbia blog lit up with anti-Barnard rants, several stressing crude, tired sexual stereotypes. A few were apparently written by women.

Last year the TV and radio host Ed Schultz hurled “slut” as an all-purpose insult at the right-wing commentator Laura Ingraham. He got a week’s suspension.

Another radio host, John “Sly” Sylvester, used his Wisconsin talk show to savage the state’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, as someone given to oral and group sex. This was just random invective, his special way of saying “I hate you.” He went unpunished.

The impulse toward gross sexual caricatures of women is a sick tic without end.

In 1992 the threat to Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid was a “bimbo eruption.” Note how the slur was assigned to the lubricious co-conspirator, not the lustful (and philandering) candidate.

Two decades later, Amanda Knox wasn’t just an alleged killer but an alleged killer with supposedly kinky sexual habits, the latter presumably shedding light on the former.

Just before the Hollywood producer and director Brett Ratner was dropped from taking charge of this year’s Oscars telecast, he went on a revoltingly sexist tear, saying that he insists that the women he becomes physically intimate with are examined first for transmissible diseases. He separately used an anti-gay epithet. His misogyny struck me as more florid than his homophobia, but if you followed the events closely, you sensed that the homophobia did him in. Only because his victim pool included men as well as women did the water get really hot.

Back to Limbaugh: the lawyer Gloria Allred has called for his criminal prosecution, citing an obscure Florida statute. (Limbaugh does his radio show from West Palm Beach.) The statute says anyone who “speaks of and concerning any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity” is committing a misdemeanor.

Good thing it’s not a felony. The prisons might fill to bursting.

Women have made great strides this past century, but it’s clearly going to take even longer for them to achieve true parity with men. That won’t start until we – including many women themselves – actually change the underlying attitudes we have towards them.

Is it Okay to Hit Women?

According to a disturbingly high number of women, “under certain circumstances, a husband is justified in hitting is wife.” The Economist shared the results of a recent UN report that compiled data from different surveys across a variety of nations (mostly in the developing world). Since many of the polls were different, and most countries were left out, comparisons wouldn’t be appropriate. Still, the prevalence of this attitude is pretty disturbing, as the chart below will attest.

One wonders what each respondent felt was the appropriate circumstance to hit a woman, and how each of the original surveys framed the question. Either way, the results don’t surprise me.

These are only a handful of the world’s countries, and I have a feeling that Jordan – which is considered rather liberal by regional standards – is hardly the worst offender, if you could believe it. I’d be very curious to see similar data from developed countries; I’ve read somewhere that around 40% of grade school children – girls and boys – believe hitting a female partner is okay.

While it’s tempting to blame such attitudes on immaturity, one has to wonder why they get the impression from. Women’s rights can’t be improved if underlying values don’t change. The normalization of spousal abuse is a major, and disconcerting, obstacle.