Equality in Representation in 2015

I have spent the last three and a half months working on a multidisciplinary Women’s Studies project, The Visible Woman. My project includes a creative art project: where I learned photoshop. US History, where I researched the American Revolution, the Progressive Era, and the 1960s Space Race, both the version of those histories traditionally taught and a more accurate version, which I had to mostly create for myself.  Feminist philosophy, where I struggled to understand the origin and currents aspects of female oppression and developed a feminist standpoint. And writing: where I communicated what I learned from this project.

While most of my research was set in a historical context I was also researching, in parallel, current events about equality in representation.

For example, when I was about two-thirds of the way through my project the Liberal Party won the election in Canada, and the new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, created Canada’s first gender equal cabinet and the most racially diverse cabinet in Canadian history. This photograph of that cabinet bears a striking resemblance to the gender equal images I created.

“Because it is 2015.”
Screenshot 2016-04-24 10.33.30
Photo: Barcroft

I admit I was astonished to see this happen, and so close to home, from neighbors who not only share a border but a history as a British colony, not in some far off Scandinavian feminist utopia.

There is some criticism that gender quotas are incompatible with “merit” and who is the most “qualified” for the position. But that ignores the reality that white men with seemingly impressive resumes have actually been privileged with advantages based on their gender and race from birth. Studies show that teachers give more attention to boys in the classroom. That, when a boy and a girl have equal leadership capabilities teachers give the boy the leader role. That the exact same resume with a man’s name will get more job offers than the one with a woman’s name. And, when women do have same experience, tenure, and jobs as men, they still have a much lower chance of being  promoted. Similar disadvantages are found for people of color. So, the white men that have historically held positions of power are clearly benefiting from white supremacy and sexism and their achievements cannot be said to be solely based on merit.  

As, for whether anything will be different or better with gender equality, many studies say it will, but it is my opinion that that doesn’t matter. Women doesn’t have to prove that they are going to do anything different or better to deserve a seat at the table.

Trudeau made a campaign promise to have a gender equal cabinet, but to follow through on his promise there had to be more women elected as MPs. Katie Telford, Trudeau’s campaign manager, was part of the effort to make that happen. She put together a program to get more women into politics called “Invite her to run” which encouraged Canadian women and men to nominate women for political office, and Telford sent them each woman nominated a note of encouragement.

Trudeau has made other campaign promises: to investigate the disappearance of a disproportional number of aboriginal women, to legalize marijuana, as well as to start a national conversation about changing the voting method in Canada, possibly to proportional representation, which is used all over Europe and may result in better gender and racial equality in political elections.

When asked why gender equality was important to him, Trudeau answered, “Because it is 2015.” A quip that implies that “why gender equality?’ is not a legitimate question, and that the reasons for gender equality are self-evident. Trudeau also said, “It’s an incredible pleasure for me to be before you here today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada.”

The Women’s Revolution in Syria.Screenshot 2016-04-24 10.35.14

Photo: Reuters/Umit Bektas

In Rojava, Kurds and multinationals have joined together in a new form of governance called  Democratic Confederalism. They have shed patriarchal authoritarianism and militant Marxism in favor of an environmentally conscious, gender equal, grassroots democracy. All over the world women are fighting for equality, but in the Kurdish region of Northern Syria, Rojava, women are fighting for their lives.

Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who lives under military arrest for past actions considered terrorism, was inspired to create Democratic Confederalism, in part by the writings of US philosopher Murray Bookchin, who, coincidentally, taught at Goddard and created the Institute for Social Ecology there.

Ocalan publically criticized his previous commitment to armed struggle for Kurdish nationalism, war, and hierarchal governments and called for his Kurdish followers to move from a Marxist-Leninist militancy to a direct democracy based on environmentalism and women’s empowerment.

Ocalan in Liberating Life: “The solutions for all social problems in the Middle East should have woman’s position as focus. . . . The role the working class have once played, must now be taken over by the sisterhood of women.”

In Rojava, all leadership positions have male and female co-leaders, there are female only leadership groups that have the right of veto regarding women’s issues, the police force only receives their weapons after two weeks of education in feminism, and women take equal risks as front line soldiers in combat.  But, the continued right to equality has to be defended, at this point, with guns as well as education. The alternative is to lose all their freedoms, and possibly their lives.

Under Syrian rule women’s lives are threatened by “honour killings, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, early marriages, stoning, rape, marital rape and many other forms of violence” and under Daesh, sex slavery, murder, and more.

Kurdish women are literally fighting for a new way of life where they are equal leaders in the formation of their future. At their college, Mesopotamian Academy, they have created feminist epistemology and feminist philosophy, through which they are able to understand their past and chart a course to the future. They have developed a new educational system called Jineology, women’s science, their own Women’s Studies, where they seek to “establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history.”

Gönül Kaya, representative of the women’s movement, writesImportant tasks await us in the 21st century: the philosophical-theoretical and scientific framework of women’s liberation, the historical development of women’s liberation and resistance, mutual complementary dialogues within feminist, ecological, and democratic movements, … This is the task of all anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, anti-power movements, individuals, women. We refer to these alternative social sciences as the sociology of freedom.”

“This is a Movement not a Moment.”Screenshot 2016-04-24 10.36.46

Photo: Michael Cali/TNS/Newscom

In colleges around the US the #blacklivesmatter movement has brought the fight for equality to their campus administration through marches, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, and to the public through social media.

Students at Mizzou, The University of Missouri, started protesting racial discrimination on campus in September and by November the protests spread to Ithaca, Princeton, Claremont McKenna, and several more colleges. Most of the protesters have similar demands, with the most common demands being to hire more African American faculty.

Many media outlets were dismissive of the discrimination the black students described, conflating issues of hate speech, threats, and discrimination to ones of free speech, and the coddling and immaturity of the students.

Jelani Cobb writes  “The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights.”

The media reframed the demand for equality as “reverse discrimination.” And published articles tone policing the black students rather than accurate information about the student’s experience or demands. And those news sources that even acknowledged that racial discrimination is a real issue on college campuses, mostly white liberal news sources, still did not look to the black students themselves to understand the issues, but to other established white men.

Most of the students activists calling out their administration for failing to deal with discrimination are young people of color, women, LGBT and disabled folks and most of the people writing condescending articles about “safe spaces” are people who benefit from white supremacy and the patriarchy.

Student activists are attempting to change the paradigm of white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy. It is an ideological battleground and the majority, which are comfortable with the status quo, are trying to define the vocabulary and the terms, picking and choosing anecdotes to undermine the activists (like conservatives made “feminism” such a dirty word that many people don’t understand what it means and don’t want to claim it), and belittling and silencing people who are fighting for equality.

It is an unfortunate (and privileged) response to the pain of an oppressed group to shut it down and ridicule it rather than seek out and attempt to understand their point of view. People who engaged in a fight against discrimination are in a much better position to understand discrimination and what needs to be done about it than those who have been privileged enough to not experience racism, sexist, homophobic, or ableist discrimination. We need to listen to what they are saying and the solutions they propose.

Canada’s gender equal cabinet, Rojava’s empowered women, and college students protesting for equality have all been prominent news stories while I have been working on my project. They all relate to what I have been learning about and trying to say in The Visible Woman. Another such story, making headlines in the US, is the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the Broadway musical based on his life, Hamilton.

“America then told by America now”Screenshot 2016-04-24 10.38.03

Photo: Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, July 2015

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the multiple tony award winning genius who translated the story of Alexander Hamilton, based on Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father, into a musical phenomenon. Miranda understood Hamilton as an immigrant story, and that the American Revolution could be reenvisioned as the fight for equality and representation in America today.  

Lin-Manuel, whose father and mother were immigrants from Puerto Rico, plays Hamilton. Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are all played by African American actors. The rest of the cast, excluding King George of England, are played by people of color. The lack of white people on stage says almost as much as the inclusion of people of color does. Miranda’s casting and music choices (hip hop dominates, as the dense topics of the Federalist Papers are staged as cabinet rap battles) are bold and exciting. He manages to reenvision history in a way that is more true and more relevant  than a story about America’s first Treasury of State has any right to be.

In the newspaper for Columbia University, Hamilton’s alma mater, Jenny Singer writes “the diverse cast’s performance is both a celebration of change and a radical reminder of our nation’s dark past and racially divided present.”

Miranda obviously fell in love with Hamilton and his story.  Miranda weaves an exciting and poignant tale that starts with Hamilton’s birth on the island of St. Croix and ends with his untimely death in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. The historical truths are ripe with drama, from Hamilton’s rise to prominence writing for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, to his battles with Thomas Jefferson, his publishing of his infidelities, and loves and losses. But Miranda also, through casting, lyrics, music, and even stage direction, reveals the cognitive dissonance of the Founding Fathers who were fighting for freedom while owning slaves. And, by referencing the #blacklivesmatter movement Miranda points out the obvious hypocrisy of white people who celebrate a violent war for freedom and equality when it is carried out by white men, for white men, but condemn African American protestors for confrontational tactics and insist on respectability politics.

Miranda brilliantly reveals the white supremacist thread in both American History and present day America, through his creative choices. Miranda says, “What I can tell you is that works of art are the only silver bullet we have against racism and sexism and hatred.”

In the last song in Hamilton, Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, Hamilton’s wife, Eliza sings, “I’m putting myself back in the narrative.” That she lived for 50 more years after Hamilton’s death and contributed greatly to the world, including starting New York’s first private orphanage and the first school in Washington Heights. Elizabeth Hamilton raised money for the Washington Monument, was a staunch abolitionist, and, in that last song, the audience learns that is is through Eliza that her husband’s story was remembered, that she had to fight for his legacy, and that her work made both Chernow’s biography and the musical itself possible.

It seems like the tide is turning. There are many people that now realize that the lack of women and people of color in representation is a problem that stems from the system, not from those groups. There are people who find it self-evident that women and people of color have something valuable to add to our governments, the arts, maths and sciences, and all areas of human knowledge and society. To move forward, honoring diversity of thought and experience, we need to look backwards. The true history of oppressed people needs to be recognized and taught and the myths of white supremacist patriarchy unlearned. People around the world making equality a priority and are using clever, courageous, and creative ways to fight for it.