The Right to Vote and Political Change

In my last post, I noted how much I’ve appreciated the chance to read through the American Girls series with my oldest daughter, in part because of the ways it has led to some wonderful conversations about class, race, and culture.  As I write this on the eve before Election Day, I cannot help but reflect on the questions of gendered inequality and political change.

Political change is rarely an easy or nice process.  In this election, I have a number of friends and family try to tell me that the election does not matter that much. Neither candidate is perfect.  Our trust should be in God. Good people support both candidates. I agree with Yancey’s recent post that the demonization of the other side is problematic. And yet while I agree with some  arguments offered by citizens uninterested in the election results, it does not negate the fact that the stakes are high.  I suspect during the era when women were fighting for the right to vote, or African-Americans fighting for changed laws during the Civil Rights movement, people also made similar arguments.

Political change can be a contentious process. Recently, a posting on Facebook alerted me to a set of political anti-suffrage images from about a century ago.  While the accompanying article was meant to highlight the ways that women are still treated with a lack of dignity in the media, it was the portrayal of the women in the images that caught my attention. The women are painted as ugly, lazy, hateful of their spouses, and indifferent towards their children (not all that unlike some of the more negative depictions of current feminists).

When my daughter reads about Samantha (an American Girl) and her discovery of the women’s suffrage movement, a very different portrait is presented than the images just referenced.  Samantha finds her beautiful aunt speaking at a rally; her aunt is able to convert her mother-in-law to seeing that change is good.  The story ends well. People see the light.  And maybe for a six-year old, that is an appropriate way to introduce the story.

But it’s not reality. In a world divided by partisan politics, my intent is not to suggest that we should stake our identity on political affiliation, or hold politics as the answer to all of life’s problems. But the implications of who wins matter. It matters for everyone. The marginalized are often the ones who know this the best.

I continue to love those friends and family members with whom I strongly disagree, and value the chance to dialogue with them about important issues, including (but not limited to) politics.  And I hope they continue to love me.  But the answer is not for me to pretend the election does not matter, and to turn to questions about the weather or Sunday’s football game.  During the suffrage movement, I’m sure many also wanted to move to ‘easier’ topics, to believe that women’s voting was no big deal. It was easy to portray the women who fought strongly for the right to vote as a bit overzealous or misguided.

To return back to the stories of the American Girls, I appreciate the ways that gender inequalities are presented, and the ways that readers are introduced to a wide variety of gendered norms that have existed throughout time and across culture.  In championing the ability of girls to do anything, the books show the strong spirits that the girls have; they show the ways that they challenge expectations that others have. The girls are portrayed as strong, capable, caring, and creative.

But within that, fighting inequality is often depicted as too easy.  As I take my three daughters into the voting booth with me early on November 6, I hope to also instill in them the importance of politics and policies when it comes to issues of inequality.  Yes, God is in control.  Yes, neither Romney nor Obama (nor any other elected official) will rid the world of sin. Yes, we can try to rise above our circumstances (to some degree).  But let us admit that we will start the day Wednesday affected by what happens at the polls.  It will impact America. It will impact the world.  We have acknowledged the important role that the women’s suffrage movement and Civil Rights legislation has had on the country.  Let us remember that so will our choices concerning immigration policy, welfare, corporate personhood, health care, and the dignity of life.

 

 

 

 

 

Parades and Protests

In cities across America, people marched in parades to celebrate Labor Day yesterday.  At the first Labor Day in 1882 (occurring a few years before Labor Day became an official holiday in 1894), a number of people marched through the streets of New York City.  The march 130 years ago would not have been confused with the marches yesterday, either in purpose or passion.

Walking through various neighborhoods yesterday, I saw flags hanging in front of people’s houses.  I smelled hamburgers and hotdogs cooking.  Online, I read a number of articles and other postings celebrating American workers.  For example, the US Census Bureau released this list of facts to celebrate the 155.2 million people currently participating the labor force.

For many, Labor Day is an important event, but the reasons are often very different than the reasons prompting its inclusion in the register of federal holidays. For some it marks the last day of summer before going back to school.  Many celebrate local workers (such as the fireman and police), and are thankful for the opportunities they personally have to labor in their own lives.  People often come together with family and friends. Without bemoaning these reasons for celebration, we have lost something by not remembering why Labor Day became an official American holiday.

Labor Day was originally founded in part because of class struggle.  Early organizers were concerned with two central goals:  building and inspiring the organized labor movement, and rallying the public to its cause.  In the 1930s, a number of workers were joining labor movements.  As Kazin and Ross argue (in their 1992 overview of the history of Labor Day in the United States), even with the variation across the nation in how the day was celebrated, since the 1950s, Labor Day has largely failed to evoke the raw emotions surrounding the contentious issues it once did.

It would be hard to argue that the environment towards organized labor today is a positive one.  Most will recall the events of Wisconsin in 2011, when the state—which was, ironically, the first to recognize the collective bargaining rights of workers back in 1959—scaled back such collective bargaining possibilities.  Labor movements do not have the strength they once did, although scholars of labor movements recognize the new ways that labor are involved in social movements today.

Organized labor has fewer numbers and fewer allies than it has had in the past.  Of the labor force, currently just under 12% are now affiliated with organized labor.  This chart, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics based on 2011 data, shows how union membership varies by occupation.

 

Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

 

What is it that we have lost, as parades down Main Street replace labor protests?

First, recent research by political scientists at Notre Dame and Texas A&M suggests that labor unions increase the “life satisfaction” of members—and non-members in areas where unions are present.  Perhaps especially important, they find that the impact of unions matters more for those with low incomes.  While I know readers of this blog will disagree about some of the current tactics and strategies used by unions, it is hard to deny the real effects that collective bargaining has had over the years.  They have been critically involved in championing changes to unemployment laws, fighting against discrimination of workers, and changing the working conditions and remuneration of members.

Second, Labor Day was not just a day where laborers worked for their goals and rallied members, but also a time when the general public was made aware of these voices (a point highlighted by Kazin and Ross).  Currently, many of those working in parallel jobs to the industries where unions abounded—many of the working poor and working middle class—do not have the same chances to have their voices heard.  Workers without economic capital and wealth are often absent from political debates about the economy (as witnessed by the current public rhetoric between democrats and republicans).

I believe that most of us want to be part of a society that provides a chance for all to participate in dignified work.  It is imperative that we not just recognize and celebrate all who labor, even as such an act is important.  We must also recognize the changes that organized labor have helped to bring about for many Americans, and the lack of power that many laborers continue to feel in our economy.

Family Friendly?

In the days leading up to Father’s Day this past Sunday, one could find a number of advertisements providing helpful suggestions on what to buy for Dad.  Home Depot, for example, suggested men really wanted to be fixing things and involved in construction—a task much easier accomplished with the help of their special “Man” gift card.  Just last month, diamond and flower companies were busy spending dollars encouraging families to give Mom the gifts she deserved.

These holidays remind many of us that the media presentations of family dynamics—and the women and men that make up these families—are often distorted. Educational institutions are increasingly teaching students to be critical in their consumption of many of the gendered images they see in the media. Miss Representation (2011), is but one recent example of a documentary aimed at increasing the awareness about the impacts of current media representations of men and women.

Whether it is stereotypes of men seeking power tools and women seeking diamonds or the hyper-sexualized images of males and females in the media, we need alternatives portraying men and women differently.  In this context, the idea of a family friendly outlet sounds promising.  As someone who listens occasionally to Christian music radio stations, I hear this claim often asserted, and acknowledge they do often offer positive messages.   That said, I often end up changing the dial, or turning off the radio completely, due to a lack of a family friendly encouraging message.

I have not analyzed the songs played on most Christian radio channels or those gracing the Billboard charts for their messages about families and gender.  Nor do I listen enough to pretend to know most of the messages emitted over their airwaves.  We do know that men dominate the industry. In an article available online penned about two years ago, Christianity Today brought attention to the fact that men performed 96% of the top 50 Christian songs of the decade (even as between one-fourth to one-third of Christian artists were women).

While a quick glance at a list of popular songs reveals that a majority do not describe different lived experiences for men and women, a significant amount do.  In one song, a woman is encouraged to find meaning in cleaning up Cheerios. Women are reminded that God is there when they are waiting up anxiously for their spouse to come home.  A girl struggling with her image is fulfilled by the notion that God sees her as beautiful.  I don’t object to the message in these songs. Caring and cleaning for one’s family can be an act of love.  Christian faith should speak into angst over appearances.  But these are not uniquely female issues.

Just as troublesome as the fact that only women are struggling with certain issues is that only men are struggling with others in the songs.  It is a man who is anxious about providing for his family. Men are encouraged to show more leadership in their families. And it is a man who is struggling to connect the dull moments in his work with the larger mission to which he has been called.  Taken together, the models of men and women portrayed in Christian songs promote a restrictive view of gendered roles.

When inspirational messages or short teaching messages about families are shared on the radio, messages are more direct and more normative.  Again, not all provide different teachings for men and women, but some do. One example that stands out is the notion that girls really want to be loved, and boys are competitive and want to succeed—a message even my six-year old sees as ridiculous. Such messages are not confined to Christian radio, but often asserted from pulpits as well.

As a sociologist who teaches on the family, I often remind my students that images of “traditional families” promoted by many evangelical churches (especially those that are largely white and middle/upper class) are not historically accurate. My students read a book written almost 20 years ago, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. In this book, she does an excellent job critiquing the notion that our evangelical models of families are in fact traditional. Some students are often surprised by what they read, and find it challenging to consider the ways culture is embedded in proclaimed Biblical models (progressive and conservative alike).

My observations on Christian radio are not a call to re-ignite mommy (or daddy) wars, or to argue against songs about God drying tears of insecurity, or comforting a lonely mother.  Central to the Christian faith is the idea that being loved by God should be core to our identity.  But I do want to argue against the implicit notion that not being pretty, or not being a good enough mother, are the central issues women care about.  As a parent of three girls, I want more for my daughters.  I want them to hear about women seeking to follow God by taking risks, women fighting injustice in the world, or women wrestling with intellectual and vocational questions.

Family friendly radio claims seem to be based in the fact that they do not air songs with profanity; lyrics are not too sexy; commentators do not make crass jokes. On all accounts, I support these aims. But it’s not enough. A claim of being family friendly should encourage all kinds of families through building them up and building up the members that make them. It should encourage both women and men to lead their families, and encourage them to explore and use their God-given gifts and talents.

At the moment, I have yet to find a station claiming a family friendly label that I would certify. For my family, turning off the station is sometimes the best way forward.

Fair Trade Battles

At the end of 2011, Fair Trade USA resigned from its membership in FairTrade International (FLO).  Just last month, an advertisement in the Burlington Free Press (Vermont) made headlines.  Equal Exchange, the largest fair trade coffee company in the United States, urged Green Mountain Coffee to leave the Fair Trade USA network.  Business Week and others covered the conflict.

This incident represents growing division over how to best help the population that fair trade was intended to represent.  Perhaps the central reason for the split between Fair Trade USA and FLO was the decision  of Fair Trade USA to work with large plantations and estates (instead of the traditional small farmers and cooperatives). Is it better to work with large farms to promote fair wages for workers, even if the ideals of democratic governance and ownership of the product by producers (requirements of FLO) do not occur?

While not trying to simplify all of the issues involved with a decision to include large farms, one issue at stake concerns the relationships consumers and producers have within alternative markets.  My guess is that most of us do not know the people that bake the bread that we eat, sew the clothes that we wear, build the houses we inhabit, or assemble the components in our computers.  One of the initial aims of the fair trade network created in the early 1970s was to try and make the market more personal.  Consumers were connected with producers through more direct buying relationships; narratives of producers were highlighted as important to the products themselves. You can drink coffee and know under what conditions (and where) the beans were picked.

As someone who studies the intersection of religion and the economy, I’m particularly interested in the role of Christian actors in alternative trade movements.  Religious organizations were important to the formation of the first alternative trade network (following the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 1968). Yet twenty years before that, the Mennonite Central Committee was involved in selling artisan goods produced in the global South to consumers in the global North, in a precursor to what was to become Ten Thousand Villages.

Christians are a relational people, both in terms of their interactions with the Divine, and their interactions with other women and men. Different traditions talk about these relationships differently, but most highlight the importance of these relationships.  For example, the Reformed tradition prioritizes the covenant among God’s people, while Catholics are more likely to rely upon concepts of solidarity and the common good.

This most recent disagreement between Fair Trade USA and FLO should cause us to think more critically about the relationships embedded within our economic transactions. I do not want to argue in this post for or against the decision of Fair Trade USA.  But for those of us who try to engage in ethical consumerism, what do we value?  Is the central goal higher wages for producers and workers?  Is it something more? How do we see ourselves in relationships with those producers, and what does it mean to have integrity in such interactions?

 

 


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X