March 8, 2012

The Position Of Women In The US On This IWD

[Today is International Women's Day and this is the second piece that Fire on the Mountain has published in observance. The first is here. This is an updated version of an article originally solicited for the IWD issue of the Norwegian magazine Rødt, published by the Red Party there.]

by Judith Mirkinson

What are we to make of this moment in the lives of women in the U.S.?

The Republicans are threatening to outlaw abortion and contraception. There are more women than men in colleges and graduate schools. Young women are told (and most believe it) that they are the equals of men, but they’re still underrepresented in government, in the workplace and even in the recognized leadership of progressive movements. There are women in positions of leadership but they’re just as likely to be right wing as not and/or they just serve the interests of those in power.

Violence against women is for the first time not just considered normal behavior, yet violence against women is happening all the time. We’re living in a highly militarized society, which is still involved in one “official” and many other “unofficial” wars. We know violence against women goes hand in hand with militarism (and, in fact, the Department of Defense just said that sexual violence by military personnel is rising precipitously). Still, buses advertise women’s shelters and decry violence on one side, and have recruiting posters for the military on the other.

Occupy movements couldn’t exist without women’s work, yet male voices are the ones mostly heard. Occupy Patriarchy is being built but there’s a fierce debate over the participation of women of color. Women in the U.S. look at what women are doing in places like Egypt and Greece and are inspired by their courage and determination.

So what are we to make of all this, we who consider ourselves part of the progressive movement? What IS the position of women these days?

When we look at the state of women in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century we find ourselves in complicated and contradictory territory. We've made progress and we've stayed the same. The situation for all women has improved, but as always in America, it's all filtered through our race and class. For those of us who are feminists – and that’s already saying a lot these days – we’d have to say we’ve come 5 steps forward and perhaps 4.5 steps back.

After tens of thousands of years, women are no longer just regarded as inferior/second class citizens: we’re not property. This is a transformation of monumental proportions that neither comes easily nor without consequence. In the face of this change, male supremacist institutions and their representatives in politics, business and the media are fighting back – wanting to restore the status quo. There is a war against women both internationally and in the United States and it’s being fought on many fronts.

Culturally, the religious right is telling women to get back into marriage, have babies, be covered up and do what we’re told. But the converse is also true. We’re supposed to be sexy all the time whether we’re 5 or 65, be fierce, be feminine, be independent but ultimately still let men be dominant. We can see this in movies--which routinely have six or seven men and one woman, in music videos, TV, magazines and so on.

And the left or the progressive sector is right there, often doing the same thing. I’ve been doing an informal survey for years. Literary and left magazines: 80% men. Left journals: men overwhelmingly over-represented. Left analysis/programs/panels/events/rallies are majority male (read white males here). [If you want to investigate this further check out the study just done by VIDA.]

This is not to say that women aren’t fighting back, aren’t resisting. We are, but it’s a hard road and one not easily traveled or navigated.

What about the economy?
The "mancession" is just another urban myth!

Under this recession the feminization of poverty has continued. Women are far more likely to be in poverty than men. Add to this the fact that women of color have been the hardest hit. Almost 1/3 of working Black and Latina women and their children are below the poverty line. This is compared to 13% of white women. One in seven women do not have health care insurance. Programs that were once funded by the federal government are now being shifted to the states where budget cuts have slashed childcare, healthcare, drug programs and job training to women and children.

Over the past several years, as the recession deepened in the U.S., there were many articles in the press--both mainstream and alternative--that men were the main victims of the recession. This was based on the fact that manufacturing, construction and other "traditionally male" jobs were being lost at a greater rate than those "traditionally female" jobs in the service sector.

This is the first "recovery" where men gained and women lost. According to a recent Pew study, men gained almost 800,000 jobs while women lost 200,000 jobs. Of the 1.6 million jobs added, 70% went to men. Women are more likely to be part-time workers and more likely to be underemployed. Although women’s wages have increased women still earn 75% of what men do.

One could say that women’s role has not been transformed, just expanded. We’re still expected to be sexual partners, help mates, cleaners, cooks, and mothers and care takers. Women still do more housework, still are more responsible for raising children and taking care of the elderly.

"Supporting Life" from conception to birth! Forget about our lives after that!
Are we still in the 21st Century?

"Contraception is a license to do things in a sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be. Marriage does not exist because people like to hang out together and have fun." Rick Santorum, Republican candidate for president.

Control over women’s reproduction and sexuality has always been a central tenet of patriarchy--and patriarchy is reasserting itself today.

In the 40 years since Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973, support for abortion has steadily eroded. The majority still support abortion, but pro-abortion, excuse me, pro-choice activists have lost the moral high ground as more and more people think abortion is tantamount to killing. Abortion on TV is anathema or a tragedy. Women won’t admit they’ve had more than one, or even one. Sex is everywhere, but apparently only men are supposed to have it freely.

Since I first wrote this article, the Rush Limbaugh debacle where he called Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute for talking about birth control has taken place. There are two interesting things about this. One, that he actually got a lot of support and two, that people, especially women organized against him. At the same time the Blunt bill which would have allowed any employer to deny their female employees contraceptive coverage because of that employer's beliefs, was only narrowly defeated.

The birth rate is dropping for all women, but especially for white women, and birthing and pregnancy are being fetishized as never before. Every time you look at a magazine they’re talking about a woman’s “bump.” Babies, like everything else, are commodities and big business.

It’s not all one way. There’s a real divide out there over sex, marriage, and the notion of family: gay marriage is gaining acceptance, as are gay adoptions. The number of women having children later and outside of marriage has steadily increased. The reality is that about 1/3 of all women will have an abortion in their lifetime and that’s across class and race. So the war against sex flies in the face of the reality that women live every day. Unfortunately, it’s steadily gaining traction.

Over the past year, more anti-abortion and anti-family planning measures have been introduced into legislatures than in any year since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. 162 restrictive measures have been signed into law in states throughout the country. Recently a state court upheld a law in Texas that requires women to have invasive ultrasounds “showing the fetus” before being allowed to have an abortion.

Family planning funding for poor women has been slashed. In New Jersey and Montana, it was cut completely. Nationally there is a move to completely eliminate Title X, which is the national program to provide family planning to low income women.

The Obama administration just caved into the right wing by denying young women the ability to obtain Plan B---or the morning after pill--to young women under 17 without a doctor’s prescription.

Even when abortions are legal, they are often not available to those who live outside metropolitan areas. When so-called pro-lifers are asked: "Well, if you don’t want abortion what do you think should happen to provide for all these families?" The answer: "God will provide and women shouldn’t have sex outside marriage." The irony is that abstinence-only communities have some of the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies in the country! And while health insurance companies and legislators debate funding family planning, there is no such debate over pills such as Viagra, which promote men’s sexuality.

Am I sexy? A 10-year-old girl to her mother.

Bitch, Cunt, Ho.
Go on any bus; listen to teen-agers talking to each other at the mall. Watch TV. Go to a demonstration. You’ll hear these words over and over again. Women are being denigrated and are denigrating themselves every day and everywhere. We’re being pressured to have sex and be sexual everywhere we turn. Women’s bodies are still being used to sell everything from cars to beer to building supplies. We’re objectified and commodified as never before and of course we’re an enormous market.

Women of all ages don’t really know how to think about themselves. The image of feminism as un-cool or even wrong is all over the place. Let's face it, the achievements of the women's movement of the past does mean that many women can work hard and get ahead. At the same time, most women do recognize the inequalities that still exist and are really worried and angry about the attacks they see on reproductive freedom. Still, they're in conflict about what to do about it all.

There’s a lot of testosterone out there! History does repeat itself.

"Racism and sexism are a byproduct of capitalism so if you just deal with capitalism they’ll be taken care of."
"Sexism? It’s so divisive! What about class?"
"Yeah, I know he’s abusive but he’s a great organizer."
Excepts from "Shit Manarchists Say" video on Youtube.

I sat down with some women the other day to talk about the dynamics around feminism and sexism and the Occupy movement. All these women are involved in Occupy Oakland and they’re in touch with women from all over the country.

They identified as feminists, although they couldn’t all agree on what that meant. Some identified as queer, some trans, some straight, some white, some women of color. They described going to demonstrations and being forced out of leadership by their men friends. They talked about the fact that a woman had been the main organizer for the Block the Port action in Oakland but that one man had gotten all the credit. They said that after each mass arrest it was women who did all the legal work to get people accounted for and out of jail. They described meetings where they were afraid to voice their opinions and where their opinions were not valued. They described articles coming out of all the Occupies and how women and especially women of color fought the hardest about sex, race and class. The women were smart, engaged and committed and they all felt very frustrated about what to do.

"The thing is, we’re what makes occupy happen. We’re on all the committees and do tons of the work. And then we have no time to do our own work."
"And when we do have time, it all degenerates into what men are doing what to whom. And we can’t agree."
"Yeah, we can’t even agree on what to do to men who are abusive and there are a lot of them."
"And what about our own theoretical work? We have no time for developing our own ideas about feminism."

It all sounded very familiar and very sad. The need for autonomous women’s organizations seemed more important than ever, but unfortunately there are also so many factors against their establishment.

There are literally thousands of women’s NGOS, non-profits, in the US. They organize young women, they advocate for women’s health, they build with women of color, they talk about women in prison, and they advocate for reproductive rights and fight against militarism and war. They talk about violence against women and sex trafficking and the role of women in immigration. Some of them are quite radical in their analysis; some see working to reform the government as their goal. Many do very good work but they, like most non-profits, do not substitute for a radical women’s movement that really challenges society and demands full women’s emancipation.

And despite all the non-profits and organizations feminism still gets a bad rap.

There's a wide spread myth that feminism was just middle class and white. And because dominant sectors of the women’s movement were just that, the fact that women of color and working class women were essential to its being gets eliminated.

Clearly the latest attacks on women’s rights affect working class women of color more than anyone else. Rich women were always able to get an abortion if they needed one--the same goes for contraception, childcare and health care.

Women are still terrified of being seen as anti-male. From mainstream women’s groups to more radical ones, the 'men are welcome' sign is always there. Prizes are given to men on International Women’s Day, and men speakers can be the majority at a women’s rights rally.

Unfortunately, this is rather typical these days.

And what of the left? The left has always seen women’s liberation as a necessary evil at best and downright divisive and secondary at worst. They’ll say they support women’s liberation but question what it actually is. Now that the occupy movement is putting the question of capitalism back in the national consciousness, the issue of Marxism and its relationship to race and class is once again being discussed. Women are so integrated into society that the left just sees us as part of everything else.

Thus, the question of women’s oppression is just not seen as fundamental to capitalism. It’s the result of capitalism not part of its genesis. The question of women’s liberation is not seen as essential to building a democratic society (and let's be clear here: U.S.-style democracy is not democracy at all.). The failure of former socialist countries to really build women's equality is not acknowledged as one of the fundamental reasons these "revolutions" were not ultimately successful.

As we approach another International Women’s Day, we have to question and analyze and argue and debate how to rebuild a vibrant, diverse, inclusive and radical women’s movement. Given the growth of the right we really have no other choice. We don’t know what it will look like: it will probably be completely the same and totally different from those that came before.

The great thing is we’re in a really interesting moment. So many women are excited and organizing. Calling themselves feminists, they're questioning authority, questioning the left, and struggling to understand their situation. They're talking about capitalism and racism. They're talking about patriarchy and how it all fits together. They're building a new vision.

Who knows? It's time to move to six steps forward and no steps back.

Author's note: Clearly this is just part one of this discussion. There is so much more to talk about--and this paper didn’t touch on the issues of women internationally (for instance how women are used to justify military intervention and then are the most abused) or the issues of LGTBQ. I welcome any comments, debates, etc.

Read more!

March 2, 2012

Why Would A Woman Want To Be An Ironworker?

[Next week is International Women's Day and Fire on the Mountain will be publishing a couple of pieces in observance. This is a version of an article originally solicited for the IWD issue of the Norwegian magazine Rødt, published by the Red Party there.]

by Jeanne Park

Ironworkers create the framework supporting the structure of our cities. We place the columns and girders of skyscrapers, the trusses and decks of bridges. We bind the rods holding highways together and roadways arching over the ground. We set the handrails and stair stringers that ascend to lofty tower heights.

Our work with metal puts us constantly on the move and always on the watch for danger. We work with crane operators to swing tons of steel in to place hundreds of feet in the air. When we weld and burn steel, sparks and molten metal fly. We walk on bare steel. We work in the fog, sun, and rain, pounding the steel with beaters, wedging it into place with our sleever bars.

Ironworkers have a reputation for being tough and taking risks. Our nicknames range from “the cowboys of the sky” or “skywalkers” to “ironheads.” Because of the nature of our work, we tend to trust each other quickly or not at all. As hard as we work, we have a notorious reputation for drinking and “partying”. Some take to these things to sustain the adrenaline, others to shake it off.

Working with iron seems a very masculine trade, one by which many men use to judge their manliness. The guys like to say that their job is their life, and their coworkers their brothers. They like the image they convey of being tougher than steel, and much more dangerous than so many other trades.

These are some of many reasons why it’s also tough to be a woman ironworker.

Some believe that women aren’t interested in these jobs--that women can’t and don’t want to work so hard and with such heavy equipment. This is a load of crap. During America’s involvement in WWII, women en masse worked welded and worked with metal. That era demanded a patriotic duty from some. For others, the war created a great opportunity and calling. Women were quickly trained and put to work. Tasks that were awkward were made more ergonomic (in an age before that consideration) to account for the size and strength of women. Safety became a priority. On many jobs women refused work until their concerns were addressed.

To oversimplify: After WWII, factory owners, employers, and unions shut women out of the trades quicker than returning soldiers could take their places. Not all soldiers wanted to go back to factories and many took advantage of the GI Bill. As the need for skilled workers grew, unions found solidarity. They were able to demand better wages, benefits and conditions, even as they shut out their sisters, who had worked so hard to open doors for all workers.

With the strengthening of unions came the realization of workers’ strength. Industrialists, employers and politicians feared the communist and socialist groups, which had helped to inform the unions. The “red scare” of the 50s panicked unions and many quickly cut their ties to their communist origins. Even now, many union oaths to membership and office exclude those with any affiliation to the communist party.

Culturally and economically, women were forced into domestic roles in the home. American markets and advertisers, as well as television and radio producers idealized the homemaker. In this narrative, the homemaker became a willing servant to the male breadwinner and their family. Entertaining at home became a social “must.” Cleaning products, recipes and the newest household gadgets (produced by post-war manufacturers) became social obsessions. The bored housewife was disregarded and de-legitimized. Drugs such as Valium and Percoset and speedy “diet-pills” became regulars in medicine cabinets.

Every woman that I know in the ironworker trade has had to fight for respect at her work and in her union hall. Most of us realize that being a member of the union provides the most rights and protected conditions. Still, it’s a battle to make the many male members realize that once a woman becomes a member of the union, she is an equal member--not a member of an annex or co-union. Prejudices and preconceptions are constantly being addressed. We are so few, that coworkers, bosses, and employers constantly scrutinize each women and judge all by their experiences with one. We cannot make mistakes, as our whole gender is often painted with the same brush.

I’m not trying to say that all of our brothers are so suspicious and unwelcoming. But it is rare to see a respected member take a stand to support a sister on the job. One or two men who don’t speak up against the derisive comments, sabotage, or harassment can ruin a whole jobsite. It takes active leadership and some true courage to undo those wrongs.

Women can also find strength on the jobs by gaining the support of other women who face the same problems. By networking the women that exist in the trade to each other and with the women who are new, we are able to build on our successes and avoid old mistakes. This is my current role.

There are so few of us ironworker women that we rarely learn about the existence of one another, much less work with each other in the same company or jobsite. Less than one percent of ironworkers are women. Because of some limited affirmative action by the federal government, ironworker companies find it beneficial to have a woman on the payroll. The near impossibility of sharing experiences with someone who understands the particulars of your job experience puts us at a severe disadvantage. It’s very tough to be doing such a physically strenuous job, feeling and being told that you are physically inadequate, mocked and molested, and not being sure if this treatment is because of you as an individual, or perhaps something not so personal. Or maybe it’s all in your head--you’re just crazy.

My solution has been to put together the Ironworker Women Calendar. The calendar features pictures of women working in all aspects of our trade. These pictures literally show that women can do the work. Our diverse and capable membership is highlighted. Hopefully this will encourage young women to consider our trade as an option for themselves. By providing the calendar for free to female members and encouraging their participation, the calendar helps to develop a database with which to network our sisterhood as well. [You can order it here. FotM]

The benefits to ironworker women have grown as our network has grown. We exchange advice on basics such as where to get proper fitting work clothes or protective equipment. We all tell stories about our days at work: some amusing, some. Not all of us have the same experiences, but all of us understand our situation. This feeling of not being so alone keeps many of us going even when work gets rough.

Social networking has been a huge benefit to our sisterhood, since we are spread so far and wide. My local union, for example, extends about five hundred miles from the northern boarder of California to the city of Monterey. In all we have roughly twenty women ironworkers. For all of us to meet in person is impossible. Through email and the Internet, we can stay in touch with little effort, which is lovely after a hard day’s work.

Finally, one may ask, why bother? If it is so difficult for a woman to be an ironworker, why fight the current culture inside and outside of the job? The simple answers have to do with the good wages and benefits of a reliable trade. The health insurance and retirement funds, especially in uncertain economic times are very attractive. The benefits of physical work and the variability of tasks and location draw many of us to the trade. Then there is also the feeling of strength, the ability to bend steel to your will and swing it through the air to rest precisely in its place. There is the moment you are able to stand on a structure, look across the skyline, and note which towers, skyscrapers, and bridges you’ve touched the bones of and helped to raise from the ground.

Why wouldn’t a woman want to be an ironworker?

Read more!