Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A busy woman’s guide to being an informed voter

BY: Nancy Poling, author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman and Out of the Pumpkin Shell

When I think of scary election scenarios, I imagine David Duke in his Grand Master of the Ku Klux Klan garb sitting at a desk in front of the state seal of Louisiana. In 1991 he ran for governor there and got 39% of the votes. He didn’t win because black voters turned out. That’s why I refuse to let cynicism over American politics overpower my determination to make my political voice count—because the voices of a group of like-minded voters can make a difference.
If we allow ourselves to be convinced that politics is dirty, that all politicians are dishonest, that the world’s headed for disaster anyway—so why do anything?—there’s no chance of rectifying the situation. Our disinterest will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The alternative is to be like the black voters in Louisiana in 1991, to be informed and mobilize our forces.
It’s the being informed I want to address here.
Political campaigns depend on our not keeping up on current events. In the weeks leading up to an election, sound bytes and misinformation blast the media. There’s usually something to fear—ISIS, ebola, criminals, big government—and those who haven’t been paying much attention respond to the fear that best fits their situation.
Unfortunately staying informed requires time and energy, two luxuries most working women don’t have. How might a woman fit it into her already hectic schedule? I’ve got a few suggestions:
1.) Set a reasonable goal. You’re not likely to have enough time to be well informed on every topic.
2.) Just like you schedule exercise, set a goal of reading or listening to current topics for fifteen minutes a day. You can do it while you pedal the exercise bike, commute to work, or by grabbing a little time for yourself at the end of the day. (Beware the gym that keeps the TV tuned to Fox News.)
3.) Pick one or two issues that matter the most to you. For me they’re the environment and racial justice—though I glance at news related to all events of that day. Here are a few websites that may coincide with your interests. Environmental issues: sierraclub.org/planet. Racial justice issues: naacp.org/blog. Women’s issues: huffingtonpost.com/women/.  There are plenty of sites out there, but be sure if you’re googling the topic to choose a reliable source. I find that a search on Twitter under “feminist,” “environment,” or “racial justice” connects me with people who’ve already done the hard work of locating informative material.
4.) Check on what your representatives are doing. Many post on Facebook. Does their voting reflect your values? Also pay attention to what elected officials at the state level are talking about. By the time the election comes around you’ll know whether you want to vote for or against them.
Fifty years ago, John Lewis was in the front line of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He and others marched—put their lives at risk—for the right of African Americans to vote. Lewis has said, “The vote is precious. It’s almost sacred. It’s the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society.”

Let’s use that tool responsibly. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

“Islam In The Media: How Global Events Tarnished Its Reputation”

BY: Usma Hosain, Senior at The Bryn Mawr School

The latter half of 2014 was a busy time for global events and happenings. Not only was the Gaza-Israel conflict appearing everywhere, but the execution videos released by ISIS were dominating headlines. Topping all of this off was the coverage done on the behalf of media, tarnishing and slandering Islam as a religion and muslims as a population.
In late September, I was watching CNN, eager to hear about the conflicts filling the world and praying it would have nothing to do with muslims. My heart dropped, however, as I read the headline posted on the screen. “Does Islam promote violence?” I felt tears fill my eyes and the lump in my throat made itself known. The screen flashed and changed to two news anchors interviewing one of my favorite authors and scholars of religion, Reza Aslan. As I listened to Aslan critique the remarks of Bill Maher regarding muslims, one of the anchors interrupted him and brought up an aspect of Islam I had never heard of; the reason being that it doesn’t exist. She questioned why Islam is so misogynistic towards women. I could hear my heart pounding and all of a sudden, I couldn’t hear the interview anymore.
            Thoughts were running through my head faster than I could process. Words regarding muslims that I had heard throughout the years flashed through my head. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, jihadist, terrorist, monster, murderer, and more. I fixated on one, however: “jihadist.” Alongside all these events, I had been writing college essays and I had used jihad in one of them. I looked up the dictionary definition, wanting to verify I was using it correctly in terms of how people hear it today. Yet again, I was let down. The dictionary definition is as follows:

ji•had noun \ji-'häd, chiefly British, -'had\
"a war fought by muslims to defend or spread their beliefs"

1. a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline

2. a crusade for a principle or a belief

The definition provided by not only Merriam-Webster but also the Oxford English Dictionary (slightly varied) puts muslims and Islam in a light that is less than tasteful. Although the second definition is closest to the original, deriving from Arabic, the former is less than accurate. I consulted my Arabic-English dictionary that I had purchased for school. Among the hundreds of definitions listed, ‘a holy war’ did appear, however, there was nothing to suggest it had anything to do with Islam. In fact, in the Qu’ran, it is written that those who wage war on behalf of Islam are not true muslims. After emailing and exchanging several correspondences with the editors of Merriam-Webster, my concerns with their inaccurate definition were politely dismissed. And so, I set out to right the wrongs that I had seen. I started to write a petition to have the definition changed.
I’m not sure what I expected to happen, nor am I sure I had any expectations. I knew that if I could draw enough attention to the issue, even in the case that it did not get changed, I would have done my part. Be it one person or one hundred that read it, I would know that I tried, and I did change the way some people viewed my religion and my culture. I did not, however, expect that this project would take as long as it has.
More often than not, we are much too eager to put people into a box based on what we can see. More often than not, we blindly follow and agree with what the media says, not taking into account that the information they provide may not be the full story. More often than not, we do nothing to speak up, for it is easier to maintain silence than break it. Of course, as I grew older, I came to understand this, but it was not until I began writing the petition that my heart swelled with pride and I embraced my identity. Until that moment, I had not found the courage to break the silence.
My journey, however, does not end here. Over the months that I’ve been doing research and emailing scholars of Islam, I have been envisioning my future. I know that as a woman in politics, I will come to face many hurdles. There will be days when I want to give up. There will be days when I feel my effort is wasted and I am making no difference at all. I will, however, have days when I take pride in having the courage to undertake such a huge project at the age of 17. I will have days when I know that I may be inspiring other people to speak up for their beliefs. I will have days when I feel I have started a movement, for a movement starts not with thousands of people but one person, courageous, willing, and brave enough to begin.
They say women in politics is a bad idea because we’re so hormonal. They say we’re too emotional to make sound decisions and keep in mind what matters. They say women can’t do it on account of their gender. I beg to differ. Women have been the unsung heroes of the world for hundreds of years. In the absence of men, instead of shying away, women stepped up to the plate, ready and willing to help with anything and everything.
I suppose my education at an all girls’ school for 13 years has shaped me into what some would call a die-hard feminist. Some may say my views on women in politics makes me a radical feminist. Some may say that my hopes, goals, and aspirations for my petition are far too ambitious. I, however, refuse to back down. I refuse to walk away from a cause I feel so passionately about. I refuse to silence the voice I was given.
My name is Usma Hosain. I’m a 17 year old first generation American from Baltimore, MD. I am a feminist and I am an advocate for what is right. Above all, I am and always will be proud to be a Muslim.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Rape. Then and Now

BY: Kate Nace Day, Director/Producer of A CIVIL REMEDY
Twenty-five years ago, survivors of rape and domestic violence in the United States started telling their stories to Congress. For four years, their stories joined the testimony of physicians, law professors, representatives of state law enforcement and private business in the eight separate Reports issued by Congress and its committees that led to the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. On rape, Congress found:

         “Three-quarters of women never go to the movies alone after dark because of the fear of rape and nearly 50 percent do not use public transit alone after dark for the same reason.”
         “According to one study, close to half a million girls now in high school will be raped before they graduate.”

         “[One hundred twenty-five thousand] college women can expect to be raped during this -- or any -- year.”

         “[Forty-one] percent of judges surveyed believed that juries give sexual assault victims less credibility than other crime victims.”

         “An individual who commits rape has only about 4 chances in 100 of being arrested, prosecuted, and found guilty of any offense.”

In September 1994, the VAWA was enacted, declaring for the first time: “All persons within the United States shall have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender.”  Violence against women became more than a crime or personal injury. Such violence was now, in national law, sex discrimination, a violation of civil rights. Victims were given the same civil rights remedy as victims of crimes motivated by race or religion: a federal civil action for damages against perpetrators. 

That September, Christy Brzonkala was an 18 year-old freshman at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.  In her dorm, minutes after she met two varsity football players, one of them asked her to have sex with him. She told him “no,” twice.  When she went to leave, she says they raped her – first one, then the other, and then the first again. As he left, the first warned her, “You better not have any fucking diseases.” He later announced publicly, he “liked to get girls drunk and fuck the shit out of them.”

After Christy Brzonkala complained to the school, two rounds of disciplinary hearings were held.  One football player was acquitted and the other was found guilty of sexual assault and suspended for two semesters.  His suspension was quickly voided.  He was then found guilty of “using abusive language.” The University Provost personally intervened and overturned his second suspension.  He returned the next fall, on a full athletic scholarship.

Christy Brzonkala sued under the civil remedy provision of the VAWA.  As her case made its way to the Supreme Court as United States v. Morrison, the only question had been framed early on by the trial court. It was not the question whether her civil rights had been violated, but a question of federalism. The Supreme Court answered: Congress had no power to place law in the hands of women victims.  In the entire record of her case, Christy Brzonkala has only one word, “no.”

It is fifteen years since the Court’s decision in Morrison. The story of rape on American campuses has been building - on new social media, like the websites of survivors like Know Your IX and student organizations, SAFER, and blogs like Feministing and in the unprecedented political and legal responses of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights' disclosures of Title IX investigations and The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. 

This past year, survivor stories became newly visible in documentary film.  In Cecilia Peck's BRAVE MISS WORLD, rape survivor and activist Miss Israel and Miss World Linor Abargil encourages victims of campus rape in America to speak out, and they do.  The director of the award-winning THE GREATEST SILENCE: RAPE IN THE CONGO, Lisa Jackson follows five survivors as they fight for accountability on campus and in federal court in her newly released film, IT HAPPENED HERE  

Just days ago, Kirby Dick's film about campus rape, THE HUNTING GROUND, premiered at Sundance.   Dick is known for telling human stories of inequalities and power, violence and impunity.  The Invisible War, his 2012 film on rape in the US military, pressed for accountability in how the military handles rape. In March 2014, a bill to take military sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of commanders fell only five votes short of beating a Senate filibuster. 

 I have not seen THE HUNTING GROUND, described by the Sundance Film Festival as a “piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses.” While it may be too early to know the specifics of the film’s policy agenda, US Senators Barbara Boxer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand were at Sundance speaking on a related panel. Both are backing legislation requiring schools to disclose publicly the result of anonymous surveys concerning assaults. 

I hope colleges and universities will use these films to teach the vulnerability and violence of rape, its entrenched inequalities and shocking failures of accountability. To teach what the law says, what law does, what law has the power to change – in rape at home, at school, and on the streets, rape as pornography, rape for profit, rape as spectacle, rape in the military, rape as genocide, rape as war too extraordinary to be believed, rape in peace too commonplace to be visible.  

To those in colleges and universities who try to silence survivors or erase the small details and remembered events of their stories, then and now, young women are saying, “no.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Observations from my first "March For Life"

                              BY: Jessica Greer, NWPC Political Planning & Action Intern

In this post, Jessica reflects on her experiences attending the "March For Life," an annual anti-choice rally held in the nation's capital on the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision.

 It felt very cold on one of the last Thursdays in January when I went to protest the March for Life. However, after talking with older women who have been coming to this rally for years, forty degrees was nothing. I was quickly given a sign and became a part of my first feminist protest. I have been to protests before, but never one for women’s rights. I felt more impassioned during this protest than others, and after hearing the pro-choice men, I realized how important it is to have other groups actively support you. I have met many men who support reproductive rights, but never ones who went out of their way to prove how important my rights were to them. It meant a lot to me. However, the good feelings did not last long, as pro-lifers starting trickling in bit by bit. At first they were passive, walking around with their signs, babies, and rosaries. There were also occasional prayers said for our souls, so nothing out of the ordinary.

       About an hour later, the hoard arrived and we blocked the road while chanting in unity. The police gave us the right to protest for a while, but eventually we had to clear the street in order to let them pass. A few young (and old) brave women refused and were arrested. All I can hope is that when I am old, I have the gusto that these women do. Watching the pro-lifers march past was an interesting experience. I went to a catholic school for 12 years, so I know what they can be like, but I never saw them in their full glory—and it was terrifying. Seeing all the younger children march past with confused faces was incredibly disheartening. I wouldn’t bring my children to a march for anything at that age. The babies were worse. These people shout about how much they care about babies, but they bring theirs in cold weather to an event with thousands of screaming people. Something else that disturbed me was how many men were marching. They were telling stories over loudspeakers about how their girlfriends had abortions and they felt as if they “lost their fatherhood.” They really brought themselves into a debate that they have no business being in. How can someone be so against something that doesn’t even affect them? The women in the march also barely had respect for their fellow females. Of course, abortion is a choice and you can always choose not to have one. Nonetheless, women should still respect other women who feel that they are unready for a child or simply do not want to be pregnant.

    Despite all this, there was one thing that gave me hope. Seeing all the kids around the junior high age, pressured to be there by their religion, was not as discouraging to me. I am certain that one day these children’s minds will lead them away from their religious bubble. After all my time in that bubble, I know that many kids will find their way out; I watched it happen. Against the pro-lifers loud and repetitive chant, I do not believe there will be an up and coming “pro-life generation.” 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Feminism and Politics: A Rising Tide

BY: Ellie Grabowski, Senior at The Bryn Mawr School

           "I am an ambitious feminist." Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s words rang out in the auditorium. A split second later, the room filled with cheers and applause. Her words had electrified the audience of teenage girls, and I was caught up in the tide of confidence, inspiration, and awe. For a brief moment, despite all I knew about this unbelievably unjust world in which we live, I was invincible, sitting on the crest of this wave of idealism and determination.
             I attend The Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, Maryland, an all-girls college preparatory school known for its philosophy of women's empowerment. This past November, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York visited and gave a talk followed by a question-and-answer session. She discussed how she entered politics, the struggles she faced and overcame along the way, and her views on issues like sexual assault in the military and paid maternity leave. She was confident. She was intelligent. She was immensely inspiring to the hundreds of teenage girls in her audience. But what struck me the most about her visit was her bold, unapologetic, determined declaration: “I am an ambitious feminist."  Me too.
     There aren’t many self-declared feminists in American culture, let alone American politics. 2014 saw a relative deluge of feminism in mainstream pop culture — ask anyone, and they’ll name Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and Lena Dunham — but that doesn’t mean that mainstream pop culture is suddenly feminist. This, after all, is the culture that allowed domestic abuser Ray Rice to be reinstated to the NFL, the culture that tells high school girls that their bodies are distracting to their male classmates, and the culture that was documented by the ten hours’ worth of street harassment a woman recorded while simply walking down the streets of New York City. This is the culture that resulted in Time picking “feminist” as an option for its poll of words of 2014 to ban on November 12th this year. This is the culture in which that option received the most votes.
      And yet, time and time again, I’ve seen and heard people protesting that feminism is unnecessary. I’ve heard people decry the way it’s supposedly been shoved in their faces. I’ve heard people insist that women’s issues really aren’t as big a deal as they’re made out to be, and that those who pick up the label “feminist” only do so because it’s trendy. On the contrary, the very fact that those who call themselves feminists are accused of being shallow is proof that feminism is necessary. How can feminism be only a fashion statement if it is obvious that those who embrace it are relentlessly criticized? One need only look at the shocking amount of hatred and harassment thrown at Emma Watson after her (relatively mild) speech at the UN to see that we need feminism now more than ever.
         There are even fewer feminist politicians today than there are pop stars. Hillary Clinton is one; Senator Gillibrand, clearly, is another; and some people might be able to name Wendy Davis, but it’s hard to think of any more off the top of your head. This persistent absence of women who represent feminism and the realities of women’s lives from the political sphere is the reason why my classmates and I were so inspired by Senator Gillibrand when she visited our school. She is someone rare and necessary. We need more politicians and people like her, people who are not afraid of the word “feminist.”
            For me, it wasn’t hard to call myself either ambitious or feminist. It seemed obvious to me. I have big dreams, so I am ambitious; I believe in equal rights and opportunities for women, so I am a feminist. Senator Gillibrand, it is clear to me, feels the same way. As a politician, by definition, she works with people with whom she does not see eye-to-eye, but she has not let anyone else’s refusal to accept her opinions prevent her from working together with those people to come up with real solutions to real problems.
            According to the National Women’s Political Caucus, women currently make up less than 20% of Congress and less than 25% of state legislatorsThere are two women in President Obama’s Cabinet and three women on the U.S. Supreme Court. And yet, according to the United States Census Bureau, women make up 50.8% of America as of 2013. These numbers do not match. They do not make any sense.
       We need women in politics. That much is blatantly obvious, but it’s not where it ends. We need, more than anything, ambitious, feminist women in politics. We need them now. We cannot solve any problem, be it sexual assault or global warming, paid maternity leave or world hunger, if women are not represented in the government that makes decisions about our lives. We cannot solve any problem if half of the country cannot contribute to the solution.
         I am a teenager; I am a young woman; I am a student. I have a voice in this world, and I am determined to use it. The sense of invincibility that I felt during Senator Gillibrand’s visit in November does not have to fade away; the crest of that wave is not necessarily fated to come crashing down back to reality. We have the power to use our momentum to keep pushing higher and higher.
        I am not an aspiring politician, but Senator Gillibrand’s visit inspired me, as it did many of my classmates, to take a stand once again for issues that are important to me. I am an ambitious feminist. You can be, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Looking to the Future: Political Parity in Florida

By: Rijaab Mansoor, NWPC Communications Intern
November 4th was a sad day for women in Florida. With the reelection of anti-choice incumbent Governor Rick Scott, as well as the victories of several other anti-women candidates, significant ground has been lost in the fight for equal rights and access to reproductive health services. It was no surprise to see the overwhelming swing towards the right this election cycle. However, post-election day, it is clear that there needs to be progress made in the role of women in politics in Florida.

Florida doesn’t have the best reputation of being friendly to women voters (remember the Say Yes to the Dress ad debacle?), but that hasn’t deterred some from running for office. In this election cycle, there were many races that represented women’s issues, as well as several districts where both candidates were women! For the Florida State Senate, there were a total of 5 women running between 10 contested districts. There were also 9 women running in 8 districts for a seat in the US House of Representatives. Although these numbers show an uptick in female participation in politics, the results of these elections were not as hopeful. 5 of the 9 women running for a seat in the US House of Representatives were victorious. In the Florida State Senate race, only two of the five were able to secure a seat.

Fast-forward to today, and the picture of political parity in Florida is as grim as ever. Of our Congressional delegation, only 6 of the 29 Representatives are women, which is just 20%. There are only 12 female Senators in our State Senate of 40, or about 30%. The Florida House of Representatives has 21 female Representatives in the total House of 120, which is again just 20%. With numbers this bleak, it is hard to imagine a future where women will have equal power in government in Florida. And yet, we will not lose hope! Women in Florida must continue to fight for equality on all fronts, including equal pay and reproductive rights. The best way to ensure this is through continued participation in the political process. We cannot stop trying to break through the glass ceiling which continues to hold us down. With the support of groups such as the National Women’s PoliticalCaucus and its state branch, the National Women’s Political Caucus of Florida, women in Florida will surely reach the goal of political parity and equal rights for all!

All data taken from Florida Election Watch: http://enight.elections.myflorida.com/

Friday, November 14, 2014

An Inspiring Afternoon with an Inspiring Woman

By: Alexis McCruter, NWPC Political Planning and Action Intern

Through my internship at the National Women’s Political Caucus, I was given the opportunity to go to a Leadership Seminar  at Georgetown Law that ended up serving as both an awakening and pivotal experience.  The Leadership Seminar was hosted by Liberty and Access for All, in conjunction with the Black Law Student Association of Georgetown Law School. Liberty and Access for All is a new nonprofit organization committed to raising bipartisan leadership amongst minorities and underrepresented groups in America. When I got there, I immediately started to shake hands and introduce myself to people.  I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that I was in for a treat when the invited speaker walked into the room.

The invited speaker was former Federal Prosecutor Sharon Eubanks. Scurrying to a front row seat, I took out pencil and paper so that I was ready to soak in all the wisdom she was going to give to us. She spoke so transparently about her climb to the top. It’s always refreshing to listen to a professional speaker who has not forgotten the exact place where her audience comes from. She came down to a level at which we all could closely identify with. Her story was not only interesting, but it reignited a flame inside me which had been burning out. Even though the room was full of people, it felt as if she was directly speaking to me.
Ms. Eubanks has led and continues to lead a very successful career. She has proven that as both a woman and a minority, she is a force to be reckoned with. She spoke very openly about the prejudice she faced being a woman of color in her field. There was one point in her presentation where she said something that I, as an African American woman, could closely relate to. She said, “As a black woman, I couldn’t skip any of the ladder steps. My white male counterparts were constantly getting promoted over me and they weren’t half as qualified as I was…. I had to work twice as hard to be just as good.”  I knew all too well the struggle of walking into a room and having to prove and help others see that I actually was qualified to do what I’d come to do.
The second talking point she made that resonated with me was about career moves. Her career in Law was so extensive. She said, “I took what I could get until I could get what I wanted. Most times that will actually lead you to exactly where you need to be.” The idea was so simple but so profound. That was the story of my life seemingly for the last 8 months or so. It was so funny, because even though in some instances I was taking what I could get, it always landed me where I needed to be and even further than my original plan would have gotten me.
I stuck around and waited patiently for her to speak with all those who’d lined up to shake her hand. When the room was near empty I walked up to her and said, “Can I speak with you?” She said, “Sure!” I took a deep breath and asked for her contact information and without hesitation she jotted it all down for me. I was amazed by her willingness to help me. This was by far one of the best experiences my internship has given me. Ms. Eubanks helped me in a multitude of ways.

“Equality is not a concept. It's not something we should be striving for. It's a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.”   Joss Whedon