Diamonds and death

—Susan Falls

Engagement ring sales drive the diamond market in the United States. But people purchase diamonds to celebrate all kinds of occasions, many of which are rites of passage: births, graduations, and weddings. As people experience these events, their social status changes, or is reaffirmed. They may get a new name, a new title or different responsibilities. In the case of an engagement, a woman moves from single to (almost) married and often, into adulthood (at least in the eyes of some people). In a wedding, one becomes a husband or wife. And diamonds are sometimes given to new mothers or babies as a way to celebrate birth. But what about the ultimate rite of passage: death?

When I was working on my recently published book Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014), death was a theme that loomed large, even within stories of happy unions and new relationships. Many people told me about diamonds they keep hidden away in small velvet boxes because of the emotional power these glittering objects can exert upon us.

My friend Mabel described a diamond her grandfather gave her when she turned sixteen. Her grandmother had died when she was a young child but had asked that the diamond be given to Mabel when she came of age. Mabel treasures this diamond because it belonged to her beloved grandmother, and because it shows how she was already thinking of her granddaughter as the woman she would miss knowing.  But, Mabel told me, “I rarely wear it, and when I do, it makes me kind of sad.”

As it turns out, her grandmother had purchased it for herself. Her grandfather was “not romantic like that,” never giving her fancy jewelry. In what Mabel describes as a brave and difficult move, her grandfather came out following the loss of his wife, and so for Mabel, as much as she adores her grandfather, the ring not only represents her grandmother’s love for her, but also makes her think about “all of the things that she should have had, deserved to have—like romantic love and passion—that she did not get to experience.” The gem contains a story of generosity, family and attachment, but also of longing, even sacrifice. Perhaps Mabel would have the stone reset, or she could pass it on to another family member in the future, but it is hard to image gifting a stone with such a story to a new bride or fresh graduate.

On the other hand, in another story, a woman named Chandra keeps a small, but well cut diamond that belonged to her mother tucked away in the bottom of her closet. She explained that the stone was too much to wear (bear), bringing up memories of her mother’s early demise. But she knew it was part of a fulfilling marriage, passed on to her with the idea of having an heirloom for future children. And indeed, she is excited about passing it on to her nephews when they get engaged.

One thing I learned is that stories definitely stick to diamonds. But what about a stone that is not only associated with a story about someone, but is someone? The company Life Gem can transform cremation remains into diamonds, as a “memorial to their unique life,” which can then be set into a ring or pendant. The company website states that over 100 Life Gems can be made for the family in about six to nine months, and—in following the 4 C’s grading criteria used by the natural diamond industry—provides information on the color, carat size, cut and clarity of their product. The gems can be ordered in a variety of colors (from clear to varying shades of blue, yellow, red or green), and they come in several shapes, or cuts, such as round, princess and radiant, although all are expected to have flaws (just as most natural diamonds have). The diamonds are sized from 0.1 to 1.5 carats, but the company expects to develop an ability to make much larger stones in the future.

I know I was pretty surprised when I first learned of people making synthetic diamonds from cremation ashes or even hair, but, then again, a diamond is just carbon that has been submitted to tremendous heat and pressure. Here we have a man-made stone whose value comes not only from one’s memories, but from enjoying an actual material connection to a loved one. Barring a catastrophe, these diamonds really will be around ‘forever.’

Susan Falls teaches anthropology at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the author of Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014).

Illustration by Kay Wolfersperger.

Maleficent: A feminist fairy tale?

—Jessie Klein and Meredith Finnerty

Maleficent makes us want to stand up and cheer—and then sit down stunned. The film distinguishes itself as the third in a trend of major studio releases that seem determined to reverse the damage of the common fairy tale motif: “Wealthy princes save skinny damsels for love ever after.” Yet, as research reveals high U.S. social isolation, the reinvented princess plots portend ominous new troubles while embracing old snares; together these phenomena suggest that human love in the U.S. may be endangered.

In the wake of Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013), Maleficent suggests that true love at best won’t be found in some random prince you meet one day, and at worst, said prince may well be seeking to destroy you to realize his own ambitions.

“You got engaged to someone you met the same day?” howls Kristoff to Anna in Frozen. These messages are a partial triumph, advising young people to work to find a forever partner, among other priorities.

The other themes, though, are foreboding: In addition to pressure to look like ever more unattainable Photoshopped images (still contributing to eating disorders at ever younger ages), young people are told to look for intimacy from parents and siblings—and consider romantic love from a spouse (or anyone else) a distant, and perhaps unachievable, goal.

Maleficent’s former love, Prince Stefan, steals her power to fly when he absconds with her wings, to become King. In Frozen, Anna’s fiancé, Prince Hans, tries to kill Anna and destroy the ice-power endowed to her older sister, Queen Elsa, in order to mount their throne. And Princess Merida’s suitors, in Brave, chosen by her parents, are arrogant and incompetent.

In Frozen, it is Anna’s sister, Elsa, who accidentally ices Anna’s heart, and then frees her from this fate with her own true love sibling kiss. In Maleficent, the evil witch-turned-doting mother figure embodies such love; and in Brave, Merida herself liberates her mother from life as a bear, with the heart only a daughter can bestow.

What a departure from the historic themes where evil stepsisters, stepmothers, and girls generally are so competitive that they achieve each other’s demise. Such parables characterizing sisters as envious and hateful are present in, among others, Oz, the Great and Powerful (2013) and expected in Cinderella (2015); and a constant in contemporary film renditions of classics such as King Lear.

The depiction of sisters and “stepmothers” as devoted to one another in Frozen and Maleficent is new; and the portrayal of true love found in familial bonds reflects startling statistics. Family intimacy remains constant when relationships of other kinds are disintegrating as revealed by the General Social Survey 2004 when compared to GSS 1985. The U.S. marriage rate has reached its lowest point in the past century. In 1920, 92.3 percent of Americans married; now it is 31.1 percent according to a 2013 study by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Marriage and Family; and 40 to 50 percent of those unions end in divorce. Not least, people have fewer friends, and connect with neighbors and other community members less.

Today’s fairy tale heroines are also turning to non-human companions for support (note Maleficent’s bird and Anna’s snowman). Princess Merida and her mother see each other’s wisdom only when the mom becomes a bear. Could this be a reference to real world declining rates of social connections outside family? Almost 25 percent of women won’t marry unless their pets approve (as per JDate and Christian Mingles State of Dating in America, 2014), suggesting that animals are replacing humans for family support. Another trend is for women to adopt dogs instead of children.

Young people watch these films while social isolation has tripled; and empathy and trust decreased. Other than with Mom and Dad, a trusted sibling, and perhaps a dog, people in the U.S. have less love in their lives than past generations.

We celebrate the victories in these reimagined legends. When before have children’s movies warned against blindly following the call to marry, above any other goal—and encouraged girls to look for intimacy elsewhere, much less the family? We appreciate the themes encouraging girls to know and use their inner power. These are among the memos we wish we and our peers received in our formative years.

We hope, though, that future scripts will also describe, and prescribe, more hope for social relationships in America among intimate partners (gay, straight and other) and male and female human friends. We look forward to heroines who defy the still frozen frames whereby women must be blonde and stick-thin to be loved.

These standards are destructive and cruel, and have even expanded to torment men. New impossibly high-definition muscle man images have contributed to increasing rates of eating disorders among men who are afflicted with life-threatening diseases such as the still recently dubbed: “Bigorexia.”

Each of these tales shifts hope for the marriage in question from the classic “happily ever after” to “perhaps.” Will we see such a “maybe” embrace heroes and heroines with different body types, in future films? Could friends and neighbors be the source of an expanded depiction of the many shapes of true love? Let us know.

Jessie Klein is the author of The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools (NYU Press, 2012). She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Adelphi University. Meredith Finnerty is a Birth doula and certified HynoBirthing Childbirth Educator (HBCE).

[Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.]

Love travels: Queer friendship across class lines

—Lisa Henderson

Hotel giant Marriott International has unveiled its #lovetravels marketing campaign just in time to sponsor Pride events this June in Washington, DC, New York City, and San Francisco. The campaign appeals to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender travellers, featuring celebrity queer and transgender people on multiple media platforms. This would have been hard to imagine back in the 1980s, when many of us in Philadelphia volunteered with the Lesbian and Gay Task Force to protest against routine discrimination, including in public accommodation.

But as anyone who travels (or wants to) knows, love travels best with money, especially if you’re DC-bound this Pride month and plan to stay at the Renaissance and Residence Inn hotels at Dupont Circle, the Renaissance Downtown, the Ritz Carlton, or the Washington JW Marriott—all establishments that will feature #lovetravels banners. This is a high-end campaign, inclusive of those who can pay.

I am employed; I travel; I have stayed in Marriott properties; and I know that appealing to queers on the road beats taking our money while reviling our profile. But the campaign reminds us that wealth is the price of admission, which means that those without it aren’t invited. This is a far cry from an earlier period less enfranchised by the standards of civil rights but perhaps more sustaining of queer world-making across class lines.

In “An Old Queen’s Tale,” downtown performance artist Penny Arcade’s recent love letter to Christopher Street, Arcade writes:

“When I speak to young queers who want to know the differences between today and back then I say quietly, ‘Show me one twenty-seven-year-old queer guy who is going to take in a homeless seventeen-year-old girl. Back then we knew we had to take care of each other…It was humane and inclusive…Everyone recognized their people intuitively.’”

Queer history is full of community friendship and protection across class lines, but that can’t really be the message of a marketing campaign, least of all when pricey forms of access are the measures of queer arrival.

Consider a recent but old-school example of queer friendship across class lines. Last January, English actor Rupert Everett wrote a feature for The Guardian/Observer about the police ouster of sex workers from their shared apartments in London’s Soho neighborhood. The arrests were conducted under the guise of stopping sex trafficking, says Everett, though no traffickers were apprehended. Contrary to the claims of police and morality squads, there is a Soho land grab going on, where police co-operate with property developers and their partners in City Hall, rubbing their hands together over a Soho reconfigured for international tourism and sales, as if London weren’t expensive enough. Everett follows his sex worker friends to trial, to witness the proceedings and to write dryly—and knowingly—about the theater taking place there and the revelation of legal done-deals against Londoners with few resources, save their own social networks now ruined by police “protection.”

Readings Everett’s piece left me wondering about Everett himself—his posh writing style, his come-and-go fortunes as leading man in popular film since openly identifying as gay in 1989, his friendship and solidarity with maids and prostitutes pooling their housing resources in Soho. Everett is not unique among English cultural figures—part social and cultural elite, part artistic bohemian and old school sexual rebel—indeed he reminds us of Oscar Wilde, whose biography, plays, and film adaptations Everett knows well as performer.

Everett’s Guardian piece, however, re-animates the conversation about sexual culture and class solidarity in queerness—the queerness of being a gay actor who, at one time, traded sex for drugs and money, the queerness of being unmoved (if still displaced) by morality squads working at the service of property development, the queerness of sexual libertinism and the sensible distrust of sexual show trials. Anyone who watched the purification of New York’s Times Square and the loss, there, of a mixed culture of rent boys, porn workers, and sexual bohemians (Samuel Delaney’s writing preserves it achingly, as Sarah Schulman’s does for New York’s East Village) will find Everett’s account of Soho familiar.

Everett’s Guardian authorship reminds me of the history of multi-class queer friendship, of solidarity amid survival and sexual trouble-making. It also reminds me of the thick weave of social, cultural, and economic forms—capitals, in Bourdieu’s terms—that make up class and class difference in the present.  In Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production, I unravel the cultural and economic intersection of class in queerness, to expose that intersection in many places, from the history of hyper-acculumulation that marks queer—and all—political development since the mid-1970s, to the cultural representation of queerness as a class project, the taste hierarchies that separate queers once gathered by sexual exclusion, the draw of class recognition in queerness, and the terms of political opening that might favor renewed solidarities across class lines.

Imagine the alternative marketing campaign that invites people to share rides, sleep 8 to a room, eat pot-luck, and welcome strangers and the friends of friends. A lot of people got and get to big-city Pride celebrations that way.  It wouldn’t work for Marriott but it might signify the practice of friendship and solidarity in a mixed life that is both queer but never only queer, and it might enable a little more movement energy, the stuff we still need to make life work for everyone.

Lisa Henderson is Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Love and Money: Queers, Class, and Cultural Production (NYU Press, 2013).

Pride Month and Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx

—Amber Jamilla Musser

Last week I waited for an hour to go inside a warehouse and see Kara Walker’s new art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The line stretched several blocks to see a woman posed like a sphinx with a headscarf. She is rendered in white sugar, so she is grainy to the touch and fine powder falls around her. She looks regal and impassive, staring past her minions—small brown candy boys carrying baskets, fruit, or other objects, who melt slowly into the ground around them.

While Walker is known for her fierce engagement with history, race, and sexuality, you might be asking what this has to do with pride? Though it may be coincidence that Walker’s installation is up during Pride Month, I want to ask what it would mean to think about these projects as overlapping.

Both Pride Parades and Walker’s installation involve bodies—bodies on display, bodies watching other bodies, waiting bodies, nudity. One might even be tempted to say that both are celebrations. Walker’s installation, always controversial, honors many things including the pain and suffering of plantation slavery and the labor of the Domino workers. Pride parades, begun to mark the Stonewall riots, honor LGBT struggles for inclusion and rights. In theory, pride parades offer a way for LGBT people to live in their identities freely by dancing in the streets as they are cheered on by their brethren.

There are differences, however. In Walker’s installation black female sexuality is at once revered and enclosed, animal and human, and the emotions one sees or feels upon encountering the marvelous sugar baby are amplified by the production of distance. A Subtlety is a spectacle; the black boys are spectacles; we gaze upon them and their eyes do not meet ours. In contrast, Pride parades mobilize bodies and invite participation.

These different spaces and conjured embodiments remind us that the gap between these worlds is not just a matter of adding adjectives, but of seeing how history and bodies meet. Pride parades aim to turn historic shame into pride. Walker’s installation, enclosed in a building whose walls ooze history and sugar, asks us to recall pain and shame by making us confront regality. Though people of color are not necessarily estranged from mainstream pride celebrations, the gulf between these displays helps to articulate what happens when we imagine sexuality as liberatory while forgetting that for some it is still embedded in a difficult and complex history. As my forthcoming book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, argues this is not a question of merely taking different intersecting identities (black queer female) into account, but asking how celebrating one set of values—pride—threatens to eclipse our ability to understand other experiences, where powerlessness cannot necessarily be overcome with a parade.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (forthcoming in September 2014 from NYU Press).

Are we still queer even though we’re married?

—Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp

We got married for our 30th anniversary, although not on the actual day. Despite our feminist reservations about the institution of marriage, we did it for political reasons, as an act of resistance to those who loudly and publicly asserted, especially in the Prop 8 campaign, that same-sex couples did not deserve the right to marry because we would corrupt children and destroy the institution of marriage. We did it aware—and in agreement with many—of the queer arguments against marriage: that there are more important issues, that rights should not be attached to marriage, that marriage is homonormative.

So we got married. Does that make us less queer?

Despite the marriage equality movement’s strategic emphasis on the claim that “we’re just like you,” the reality is also that marriage has not necessarily turned out to be the beginning of an inexorable slide into hetero- or homonormativity, as queer theorists predict. The Right is right about one thing: our marriages have the potential to undermine marriage as we now know it. Consider, first of all, the way that a younger generation of queer people is wielding and transforming the terms “wife” and “husband.” It is not unheard of for a stranger to assume a woman who refers to her wife has misspoken and to correct her, saying, “You mean your husband.” That’s in-your-face. Is it possible to imagine that marriages between two men or two women, not to mention transgender or genderqueer people, will transform the meaning of the words “husband” and “wife”? For the better?

And consider the fact that marriage, across blue states in the United States and a number of other countries, is becoming something that heterosexuals enter into later or not at all. Or that they enter into it but exit out of it with increasing frequency. That should reassure us that younger queer people will not necessarily be pressured into marriage just because it is a possibility. For those to whom it means a lot—because it is an important personal expression of love and commitment, because it brings recognition from family and friends, because it provides health insurance or immigration rights or needed tax benefits or inheritance rights or parental rights or the right to make life and death decisions—it may be an option. For those to whom it means or brings nothing, it can be an option not taken. And if queer people, like straight people, more and more eschew marriage, then perhaps the rights that we all deserve will no longer be tied to a marriage license. That would be a victory for the LGBTQ movement.

So just as we reject the notion that getting married magically bestows endless happiness and a lifelong commitment on anyone who ties the knot, we reject the notion that it severs us from the queer community. When strangers ask us if we are sisters, or even twins, as they are increasingly wont to do, and if we say in response, “No, we’re married,” we can assure you that they don’t then think of us as just like them. They still look at us as if we are, well, queer.

Verta Taylor is in the sociology department and Leila J. Rupp is in the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Taylor is the co-author (with Rupp) of Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret, and Rupp is the author of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women (NYU Press, 2009).

[Note: An expanded version of this article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.] 

The truth about alimony

—Cynthia Lee Starnes

Here’s a dirty word: “alimony.” Alimony has a nasty reputation as a device that enslaves men and demeans women—preventing divorced men from beginning new lives, and perpetuating female dependence on men. Alimony, it is said, has no place in an era of egalitarian marriage. That it survives is something of a mystery, and surely the day is not too far away when alimony will take its rightful place in the contemporary trash heap reserved for antiquated remnants of an unenlightened, gender-biased age.

The truth about alimony is very different. Alimony is gender-neutral (and must be, said SCOTUS in 1979), it is uncommon, and when awarded, it is usually short-term and freely modifiable. Indeed, the term “permanent” alimony is a misnomer, and the concept of lifetime enslavement an exaggeration. To be sure, outlier cases exist (check out the horror stories on Alimony Reform Group websites, but be suspicious), but in general, alimony’s propensity to bind cuckolded men to country club wives is myth.

As for the charge that alimony demeans women, actually the opposite is true—alimony ensures that women are treated as equal partners in marriage rather than suckers. In most homes, especially those with children, one partner serves as the primary family caregiver, a role that frees the other spouse to make a more concerted investment in a job or career. Primary caregiving is ubiquitous and primary caregivers are overwhelmingly female. While caregiving confers value on the family, it is not free for the caregiver: caregiving is commonly associated with a decline in earnings and ultimately in earning capacity. While the family is intact, these costs are shared and masked, but if the parties divorce, they are abruptly exposed. When marital property is scant, as it is in most marriages, alimony is the only tool for ensuring that divorcing spouses share, as equal partners, the human capital costs and benefits of family roles.

All this is why I am surprised by a recurring question, “How can you be a feminist and support alimony?” Maybe those who ask this question haven’t heard of Terry Hekker, the stay-at-home mom of five whose husband announced on their 40th wedding anniversary that he wanted a divorce. Long story short, Terry got four years of alimony, a suggestion from a divorce judge that she undertake job retraining at age sixty-seven, and a notice from the IRS that she qualified for food stamps. Meanwhile, her former husband vacationed in Cancun with his girlfriend.

Terry Hekker was thrown under the bus at divorce—and not respectfully. Her fate is a feminist issue and it is an issue, as one court said long ago, “of ordinary common sense, basic decency and simple justice.”

When I teach the economic consequences of divorce, I sometimes begin with the lovely voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing Irving Berlin’s classic: “I’m putting all my eggs in one basket. God help me if my baby don’t come through.” The unhappy truth is that some babies don’t come through; sometimes they change their minds and leave, and sometimes they take all the family eggs with them. Alimony is nothing more than a tool for ensuring that partnership eggs are shared.

Cynthia Lee Starnes is Professor of Law and the John F. Schaefer Chair in Matrimonial Law at Michigan State University College of Law. She is the author of The Marriage Buyout: The Troubled Trajectory of U.S. Alimony Law (NYU Press, 2014).

Grandmothers on Mother’s Day: Q&A with Madonna Harrington Meyer

We know that a lot of mothers juggle work and family, but millions of U.S. grandmothers do as well. 

In Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Family and Jobs, sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer chronicles the lives of 48 working grandmothers. We see the joy, and the challenges, these women and their families face in a country where supportive family policies are few. In their own words, grandmothers talk about the strength of family bonds, their hectic schedules, and the extent to which they are diverting their nest eggs, adding new debt, delaying retirement, and foregoing travel and other retirement plans.

In time for Mother’s Day (this Sunday!), we asked Madonna Harrington Meyer, author of Grandmothers at Work, to discuss her research and share stories from her book. 

What first prompted you to think about and study working grandmothers?

When my own children were in high school and I was looking forward to an empty nest, I attended a conference at Russell Sage and overheard all of these sociologists who were a few years older than me talking about how much pressure they were under to care for their grandchildren. I knew all about younger mothers juggling work and children; I had not really considered the lives of middle-aged women juggling work and grandchildren. This was a stage I had not seen coming.

What surprised you most in your research?

The joy. To talk to 48 working grandmothers is to talk to 48 women who know joy. No matter how hard it might be to juggle work and grandchild care, no matter how tired, or sick, or impoverished they were feeling, they were also feeling tremendous joy.

Also, I was so pleased by how eloquent the women were. They are a very diverse group with respect to age, race, marital status, and education, and their ways of speaking are very diverse as well. But they are able to express their thoughts with such elegance of words. One woman, describing the rules at her daughter’s house, including no computers and no TVs and complete freedom of self-expression, told me, “These are free range children.”

Is there a particular story or memory during your interviews with these women that stands out for you?

Several stories really touched me. Deanne’s story about her disabled husband, her newly divorced daughter, three mortgages, full time work, and caring for three grandkids most evenings, and visiting her mom in the nursing home, was really powerful. She is devoted to helping her children raise their children even though the financial impact on her and her husband is enormous and leads to a lot of strain in their marriage. They disagree about how much to help.  Meanwhile she has to delay retirement and pay off these three mortgages.

Estelle’s story was also very powerful. She was a no-nonsense grandma, telling her children that they needed to raise their own children. But then her daughter became a single mom and Estelle would work all day and come home to care for her grandson evenings and weekends. She loves him, but she says it has put her in the poor house.  She told me now she will have to work till the end. She told me she will have to die at her desk.

What do you hope readers will learn from your book?

Working grandmothers are very diverse, and their experiences are equally as diverse.  They describe a great deal of joy, and a mix of challenges. This is daily life for millions of U.S. women. The work itself is mainly invisible, and the consequences are mainly invisible. While some have enough resources to take it all in stride, for others working and caring for grandchildren leaves them physically and financially depleted. If the U.S. would offer social programs for families as they do in the EU, federally guaranteed paid sick time, paid vacation time, paid parental leave, universal pre-K, etc., U.S. grandmother could focus more on grand-mothering and less on mothering.

Cycles of gender testing

—Ellen Samuels

A friend who cycles competitively just sent me a link to the new policy on transgender participants in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. It seems like a progressive and welcoming policy, stating that:

The ECCC particularly recognizes the challenges facing transgender athletes. Such members of the community should compete in the gender category most appropriate to their unique personal situation.”

The release of this policy highlights the growing centrality of issues of non-normative gender and sexuality in athletic competitions as well as in the wider cultural sphere. The prominence of such concerns, as well as the challenges ahead, were highlighted in the weeks leading up to the 2014 Olympic games, as tennis great Billie Jean King called for a LGBTQ “John Carlos moment”—referring to the African American 1968 Olympic medalist who stood on the winners’ podium with lowered head and raised fist, becoming an iconic symbol for social justice.

In Sochi, despite extensive media coverage of Russian anti-gay policies, that moment never came.

Meanwhile, a little-noted story out of Iran highlighted the extent to which international sports must still contend with its own legacy of gendered injustice. In February, on the cusp of Women’s History Month, it was reported that players in Iran’s women’s soccer league were being subjected to “gender testing” and that a number of players were subsequently expelled from the team for failing to qualify as “real women.”

Sex testing in female athletics has a long and tarnished history dating back to the 1940s, and has included requiring female athletes to parade naked before male doctors, performing invasive medical exams, and mandating genetic and hormonal testing. Indeed, from 1968 until the early 1990s, all elite athletes competing as female were required to carry “certificates of femininity,” issued by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Such universal sex testing was abandoned more than a decade ago, but female athletes who are perceived as overly “masculine” are still required to undergo sex testing and even medical treatment in order to remain eligible.

Representations of the Iranian soccer controversy in the Western media have invoked anti-Islamic stereotypes of backwardness, suggesting that gender confusion was caused by the body-masking uniforms worn by the soccer players. These stories ignore the long history of female athletes from all nations and in the skimpiest of running outfits being challenged and subjected to sex testing, their bodies closely analyzed for signs of masculine “hardness,” “strength,” and “power.”

Media reporting on the Iranian women’s soccer team also reflects a common and disturbing tendency to blur together the very different topics of transgender athletes, intersex athletes, and athletes suspected to be cisgendered men deliberately pretending to be women. The International Olympic Committee recently revised its gender policies in part to attempt to disentangle these categories—although the new policies are rife with their own problematic understandings of “sex” and “gender.”

To return to the ECCC policy, after appreciating its initial trans-positive language, I was dismayed to read the next paragraph:

“Competitors may be asked by the Conference Director(s) and/or their designee(s) to furnish two pieces of documentation from relevant legal, medical, or academic authorities documenting personal sex, gender, or gender dysphoria supporting their selected competition gender category.”

Such requirements show how assumptions about the necessity for biocertification can both underpin and undermine even the most well-meaning of policies directed toward people who do not fit neatly into gender binaries.  It is likely that, just as in international female athletics, the cyclists most likely to be asked to provide documentation are those who appear suspiciously “masculine,” yet identify as female.

However, I did notice a peculiar difference in this policy compared to those adopted in the Olympics and other sports settings: The athlete can provide material from “relevant legal, medical, or academic authorities” to support their gender identification.

To my knowledge, no other athletic gender policy allows for “academic” documentation, and I can’t help but wonder what such documentation would look like: Would a note from Judith Butler suffice? Certainly, this unusual addition to a biocertification policy indicates that queer, trans*, and feminist scholars should not discount the relevance of our work to the everyday contestations of gender in sports and other sites of global exchange.

Ellen Samuels is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is the author of Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (NYU Press, 2014).

Women’s History Month: Remembering Viola Wyle, “a mother to all”

—Caroline E. Light

Many common threads link the lives of the orphans and widowed mothers documented in the case files of the Hebrew Orphans Home of Atlanta. They came to the home when life circumstances left them no other choice: economic crisis, illness, death, and abandonment recur in these records, and the institution extended to each the helping hand of Jewish gemilut hasadim, or “loving kindness.” But another constant, from just before the Great Depression until World War II, was their contact with a woman who many came to see as a surrogate mother during a time of extreme hardship and emotional strain.

Viola Wyle, the orphan home’s Director of Case Work starting in January 1929, was born in Ohio in 1881, the daughter of a native-born father and a Czechoslovakian mother. Before arriving at the Atlanta home at age 49 with her husband Armand, the home’s new superintendent, and her daughter, Eleanor, she had served Jewish orphan homes in Rochester, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Cleveland, Ohio.

Early in her career, Wyle had attended the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in January 1909—less than one year before she herself became a mother—where she joined two hundred other social work professionals to discuss the effects of institutionalization on young children. Declaring that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization,” President Theodore Roosevelt called for an end to the institutionalization of impoverished children. Twenty years later, Viola Wyle would make it her mission to provide loving homes for the Jewish orphans and half-orphans of the southeast.

The Wyles moved to Atlanta in January 1929, just months before the Stock Market crash would send the nation hurtling into economic crisis, with a catastrophic impact on southern immigrant communities. While the wives of past Superintendents had assumed the role of “Matron” or home mother, Viola Wyle worked as a vital part of the home’s professional team, overseeing the process of assigning children to foster families in the community and supervising widowed mothers who received monthly subsidies to care for their own children. It was through her efforts and ingenuity that the home ended its institutionalized care by 1931.

Wyle’s substantial personal qualities and warmth helped generate trust and cooperation among her clients throughout the home’s five state region, and her impact is evident in the extensive case files she compiled and managed during her tenure. As a result of a combination of meticulous record-keeping and what one might call sentimentality, the case files she left behind provide a treasure trove of insight into the lives of Jewish southerners who struggled for survival during the Depression. Her tendency to keep and file the sometimes personal correspondence that transpired between herself and the widows and orphans whose lives she touched illuminate the complexity and ambivalence that characterized the relationship between social workers and their clients.

Hers was difficult and sometimes heartbreaking work, in which she had to balance sympathy for her clients with discerning attention to the institution’s strained budget. For example, Wyle visited the homes of subsidized mothers, ensuring that their children were properly socialized and educated. She determined which local families could provide suitable foster homes for orphans. She collected report cards from all children in the home’s care, providing additional support for subsidized and foster mothers whose children struggled academically.

Yet beyond her provision of guidance and supervision for the home’s regionally dispersed clientele, Wyle served as a source of warmth and reassurance, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, for many of the struggling families she served. Her death in March 1944 sent shockwaves through her community, and the home sent letters to clients both past and present notifying them of the tragic loss of a “mother to all.” Viola Wyle’s personal mementoes—the wedding and bar and bat mitzvah invitations, New Years and Mothers’ Day cards, and baby announcements—are all preserved alongside the professionally assembled case records documenting the lives touched by this “professional altruist.” We owe the depth and richness of this archive to her.

Caroline E. Light is Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South (NYU Press, 2014).

A call to men: Ending violence against women

—Silvia Domínguez

During my research for Getting Ahead: Social Mobility, Public Housing and Immigrant Networks, I developed a framework that demonstrates how women get ahead through social networks and their own individual agency. The majority of the Latin American immigrant women I followed for the project were negotiating networks of support and agency towards social mobility. Nevertheless, there were some women who were stagnating in poverty.

In the book, I demonstrate how violence against women can result in lingering traumatic dynamics, which curtail the life chances of at least three generations. This was only possible due to the information gathered through lengthy ethnography and extensive engagement with women, their families and in the field.

Through other areas of my work, I discovered how one can examine any ethnographic data on low-income women and find structural, symbolic, and interpersonal violence affecting most of the women and families in the sample. I have also shown how trauma resulting from violence against women is evidenced in ethnographic data. As a result, trauma, depression and anxiety disorders are ramped in low-income communities where culturally responsive mental health services are most difficult to find.

We know that violence not only curtails life chances but it also results in health disparities that reduce life expectancy. Violence against women affects both genders, as male children suffer as a result of their mother’s lingering trauma dynamics. Despite this, the issue of violence against women has always been relegated to women to resolve. In fact, violence against women has always been a woman’s problem. While I know well that many see the need to empower women as a response to violence against them, in circumstances such as those found in developing countries, such empowerment leads to further retaliation, and in developed countries, it does nothing to prevent what are record numbers of quotidian acts of violence against women.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I feel the need to call on men to take responsibility for violence against women. I know I am not alone in urging them to the task—as more and more men have been stepping up to make it a men’s problem as well. Think of how powerful it would be for the president and other elected officials to take on this effort. What is required now is a sustained effort by men of stature that will result in the change in culture necessary to respect women.

What are men afraid of? Is it fear that they will lose some of their privilege in the process? What can be said of men who would rather maintain the privilege gained through violence against women than to stop such violence?  Unless men take responsibility and teach other men that violence against women is wrong, violence will continue to curtail the lives of women and their children.

Silvia Domínguez is Associate Professor of Sociology and Human Services at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She is the author of Getting Ahead: Social Mobility, Public Housing and Immigrant Networksnow available in paperback from NYU Press.

Muslim women’s dress, a tool of liberation

—Jamillah Karim

It was in a black feminist/womanist course at Duke when I realized that black Muslim women fit squarely within black women’s tradition of navigating the complex of race, class, and gender struggles. Not, though, because there were any readings on black Muslim women. I understood that black Muslim women had fascinating narratives to be told because I grew up in a Sunni Muslim community in Atlanta with historical roots in the Nation of Islam.

Although readily imagined as a sign of oppression and male control, Muslim women’s dress is a prominent example of the ways in which black Muslim women have used their faith to address overlapping race and gender struggles. Black women scholars including Patricia Collins, bell hooks, and Melissa Harris-Perry have analyzed the ways in which pervasive stereotypes of black women have worked to deny them dignity and rights. The “jezebel” image, stereotyping black women as sexually loose, has its roots in slavery to justify the systematic raping of enslaved women. It is in fighting this image that I see long dresses, or the hijab, as tools of liberation.

Growing up, I constantly heard women in my Sunni community making a case for dressing modestly. “It is a protection,” they always told me. Former Nation women shared these sentiments again during research interviews. Islah Umar, who joined in 1970s Queens, noted that she loved the Nation’s modest dress codes for women: “It was a nice relief from being [seen as] a piece of meat in the street.” Jessica Muhammad, of Atlanta, similarly notes that it was great to be a part of a group whose men “respected women who covered and who called black women queens…[and other honorable names] we didn’t hear in the streets at that time.”

Dress may have even played a role in the very beginnings of the black Muslim movement. One report notes that Clara Poole, soon to be Clara Muhammad, decided to attend a meeting by Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation in 1930s Detroit, after a friend told her, “There’s a man who’s saying some things about our people, said we didn’t always dress like we dress. We once dressed in long flowing cloth and we were royal.” Clara brought her husband Elijah to the meeting with her, who would later become the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Contemporary Nation women continue to use dress as a liberating tool. Minister Ava Muhammad of Farrakhan’s Nation has encouraged women to resist the portrayal of the black woman as “an over-sexed woman on display.” Tamorah Muhammad founded Modest Models, Inc. as a platform to prove that “the [demeaning] images can be reversed when black women who have awakened to their true consciousness grow in numbers…[and] create their own images.”

The modest dress that has been embraced by and made meaningful to black Muslim women—from the time of Sister Clara Muhammad to the time of Minister Ava Muhammad—indicates the persistent damage of false racial images on black women and their ongoing faith resistance.

Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014). The two authors anticipate that their book will help to correct the absence of black Muslim women’s voices in women’s studies scholarship.

“Untitled Feminism”

—Juana María Rodríguez

In their 2013 video, performance artists Amber Hawk Swanson and Xandra Ibarra (aka La Chica Boom) capture feminism’s ambivalent and decidedly vexed relationship to sexual politics. Their piece, Untitled Fucking consists of the always titillating Xandra, dressed in cucaracha pasties, stilettos, and not much else, fucking a bent over, equally feminine and sultry, Amber, first with a bottle of Tapatío, and then with her hand.

Photo and Object by Xandra Ibarra.

Throughout the 15-minute video, Amber repeats, over and over again, the same singular phrase that has been buzzing in my head: “Feminism? That’s deep. I think I need a minute to think about that, so… I don’t know.” A few times during the scene, when the litany gets interrupted by moans of ecstasy and the delectable bottom forgets to repeat her lines, Xandra yanks her hair to bring her face, and her repeated refrain, back into focus. (See a still from the video here.)

Being compelled to talk about feminism, as she is getting pounded from behind with a bottle of Mexican hot sauce, registers the ongoing difficulty of feminist discourse to reconcile the complexities implicated in political (and sexual) postures organized around pleasure, power and difference. Feminism becomes precisely what we don’t want to talk about when we are in the throes of sex, particularly when that sex is twisted through the erotics of race, signified here by the valley-girl cadence of Amber’s dialogue, and the ‘Mexi-sexy’ iconography of a hot sauce bottle on a strap-on.

The messy combination of pleasure, power, and racialized femininities gets even stickier in the final moments of the video when Xandra ejaculates her red-hot Latina spiciness all over Amber who is rendered speechless as she tumbles into orgasm. A Latina power top with cockroach covered nipples? Feminism taking it from behind, and loving it? Cross-racial feminine erotics as condiments for our consumption? Or a riotous encounter with the dangerous pleasures and difficult politics that feminism still has trouble articulating?

Feminism, of course, is still about water, war, work and a host of other material issues. But feminism also needs to be about imagining a sexual politics that does not require the abandonment of fun and pleasure. It is precisely because our sexual realities are so often steeped in abjection and violence that insisting on depictions of sex that represent the viscous substances of our lives becomes so urgent.

When feminists refuse to take up issues of sex, including its censorship and regulation in the institutional public spaces where sex also lives, we perpetuate a discourse that locates sex within the confines of a private domestic sphere. Instead, questions of sex and sexual expression need to be part of feminist discussions on public education, immigration reform, the prison industrial complex, technology, urban planning, militarization, art and yes, pleasure.

The sexual gestures looming behind Untitled Fucking might be imagined as too perverse, too dangerous, or simply too trivial to be worthy of feminism. But if those of us invested in imagining our own sexual futures allow a politics of respectability to set the terms of what might constitute a feminist agenda, we vacate the space of public discourse on sex to others who will not hesitate to assign meaning to our psychic and corporeal practices. And that is something we all need to think about.

Juana María Rodriguez is Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of the forthcoming Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures and Other Latina Longings (NYU Press, 2014), and Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Queer Practices (NYU Press, 2003).