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).

Making America Christian: A forgotten HERstory

—Priscilla Pope-Levison

Visit dusty archives around the country, even into Canada, and you’ll discover a slew of sermons, diaries, papers, and autobiographies of women evangelists, whose profound impact on American religion is now neatly boxed away on tidy—and more often untidy—shelves, from Oskaloosa, Iowa, to the farthest eastern tip of Nova Scotia. The women whose letters and papers you’ll find there are notably absent from the conventional history of American evangelism, which moves from Jonathan Edwards to Charles Finney to Dwight Moody to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham.

Two decades ago, as I did my class prep for an introductory lecture on American evangelism, resources by and about these men flooded my desk. I began to ask a simple question: Were there any women? I wasn’t aware enough of any women evangelists to pose the question, “Where have all the women gone?” because I didn’t know if they were there in the first place.

Twenty years later, I know. Yes, they were there, a whole army of them, like Evangeline Booth in this Salvation Army photo. Women weren’t just there, in fact; they were actually shaping American religion in profound and powerful ways, as they engaged in courageous social outreach, changed the shape of American politics, and attracted hundreds of thousands of devotees.

Social outreach

These women evangelists championed an intrepid humanitarianism. Sojourner Truth solicited aid for freed slaves living in squalid camps in the nation’s capital city. Phoebe Palmer began Five Points Mission, one of America’s first urban mission centers, in a New York City slum. Within two months after Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple Free Dining Hall opened in 1931, its workers had already fed more than 80,000 hungry people, and the Angelus Temple Commissary, opened in 1927, was crucial to the survival of many in Los Angeles during the Depression. And their contribution to race relations? Women evangelists held integrated meetings—Jarena Lee, for example, whose audiences in the 1820s included “white and colored,” “slaves and the holders,” and “Indians.” This practice continued into the twentieth century, with Aimee Semple McPherson’s and Kathryn Kuhlman’s racially integrated services.

Political impact

These women influenced the nation’s leaders, too. Harriet Livermore preached in Congress several times between 1827 and 1843 about the predicament of Native Americans. Sojourner Truth generated a petition and presented it to President Ulysses S. Grant, requesting that a colony for freed slaves be established in the western United States. Jennie Fowler Willing’s speech on women and temperance in 1874 prompted hearers to form the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest women’s organization in its day. Through her periodical, Woman’s Chains, Alma White supported the platform of the National Woman’s Party, including the Equal Rights Amendment. And Aimee Semple McPherson marshaled her vast number of followers to help defeat Upton Sinclair in his 1934 bid to become California’s governor because, she claimed—albeit mistakenly—that he would introduce Communist and anti-Christian legislature in the state.

Massive numbers

These women preached to audiences often numbering in the thousands. During her 1889 Oakland revival, Maria Woodworth-Etter repeatedly packed to capacity her 8000-seat tent. Aimee Semple McPherson’s church in Los Angeles, Angelus Temple, boasted a 5300-seat auditorium, which filled up three times for Sunday services. Crowds for the weekly healing service stood in long lines, waiting for an open seat in the auditorium. At the age of fourteen, Uldine Utley preached on Halloween night in Madison Square Garden in 1926 to a crowd of 14,000. This service marked the end of her four-week, two-sermons-a-day evangelistic campaign in New York City. Numbers are impossible to gauge for Kathryn Kuhlman’s radio program, “Heart-to-Heart,” broadcast regularly for over 40 years, or her long-running CBS television program, “I Believe in Miracles.”

I no longer ask the question, Were there any women? Nor do I ask, Where have all the women gone? Now I know, at least in part. They’ve underwritten the legacy of American religion, which, until now, has been overwritten by the lives and legacy of their male counterparts. No more, however. It is time to write women evangelists into the history of American religion because our take on American religion is different—changed—by their ubiquitous presence, their bold initiatives, their fascinating personalities.

Priscilla Pope-Levison is Professor of Theology and Assistant Director of Women’s Studies at Seattle Pacific University. She is the author of Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (NYU Press, 2013).

[This post originally appeared on the Patheos blog, spiritchatter.]

Must-read for Women’s History Month: What Works for Women at Work

Described as having “something approaching rock-star status” in her field, Joan C. Williams has played a central role in reshaping the debate on women’s advancement for the past quarter-century. Williams was awarded the American Bar Foundation’s Outstanding Scholar Award (2012), the ABA’s Margaret Brent Award for Women Lawyers of Achievement (2006), and an Outstanding Book Award for Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (2000).

Williams-Dempsey-webHer most recent book, co-authored with her daughter, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Every Woman Should Know draws on interviews with 127 women at the top of their fields—an all-star list that includes Fortune 500 execs, entrepreneurs, and rainmakers at the world’s biggest law firms—to identify patterns of gender bias in the workplace. The result is a researched-based “how-to” manual for mastering office politics as a woman.

For Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating this groundbreaking work by taking a peek at some recent writings about the book—and tackling issues of gender bias at work in general—from around the web.

Here are three of our favorite passages.

From What works for (non-rich, non-white) women at work,” xoJane:

We have not come a long way, baby. Williams and Dempsey write that as of 2011, only 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women — 2 women of color, 16 white women, 17 men of color and 465 white men (“that’s one table of women in a room packed with 27 tables of men”). To cope, women can use the savvy outlined in What Works for Women…, which notes that the answer is not for women to hear more advice about why they don’t negotiate, but for organizations to start leveling the playing field for women so they’re not stigmatized for negotiating in the same ways that men do. Women should also remember to network and practice self-care — to do what we can, and no more. I took that advice when I left newspapers to start working for myself two years ago.

From “Outing Gender Bias,” strategy+business:

In their book, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (NYU Press, 2014), the authors explain that the “prove it again!” pattern requires women to demonstrate their competence repeatedly, far more often than men, because “information about men’s competence has more staying power than equivalent information about women.”

The authors use a 2007 FedEx ad to illustrate the “stolen idea” phenomena. Yes, the ad features men, but Williams and Dempsey report that 68 percent of the “67 women…roughly 40 to 60 years of age and at the top of their fields” interviewed for their book have experienced the same phenomena.

From “How Women Can Get Ahead at Work: A New Manual,” Forbes:

It’s a good thing that the authors have a sense of humor. Otherwise the book’s meticulous accounting of the many, often subtle forms of sexism in the workplace would be hard to take. But ultimately the tone of this book is quite hopeful. Despite its lengthy discussion of a tug of war between women in the workplace, it carries a unifying message with its blurb from Sheryl Sandberg and the book’s introduction by Princeton professor and former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote a controversial Atlantic magazine article about how it is sometimes impossible for women to balance high-powered careers with the demands of motherhood. Though she and Sandberg have been portrayed as opponents in the discussion over women’s roles in the workplace, they unite in their support for this book’s message:  If we make ourselves and the men in our lives aware of the roadblocks women still face, and we use some of the many tools the authors offer in this volume, we are likely to see women move ahead more quickly. In fact I wish there were a way to interest men in reading this book. They would get the most out of it.

Wrapping up Women’s History Month with Jill Norgren

Over the last few weeks, we’ve invited a variety of authors and thinkers to share their thoughts on Women’s History Month here on our blog—and the pieces have been spectacular!

With the last days of March in sight, we thought we’d end the month not with a final word, but with a reflection on the progress that women have made over the past two centuries, and an invitation to open up the conversation further. For Women’s History Month is not meant to contain the achievements of women within 31 days, but rather, to provide a platform through which these stories can be revived.

On that note, then, we turn to Jill Norgren, who spoke with us about her book, Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers (NYU Press, 2013). In the video below, Norgren meditates on the shifting landscape of the field of law, which has increasingly allowed space for women—and points to the “bold, feisty” ladies who have served as the rebellious pioneers in the legal arena.

Check it out, and don’t forget to follow our channel!