Out with the Old; In with the New

By Chris Howard-Williams

My summer with the Women’s Center is drawing to a close.  During my time here, I’ve tried to educate myself about feminism and what I can do as a man to promote the cause of feminism.  For my last blog post in this effort, I want to focus on a slightly different question.  Instead of the “how”, I want to touch on the “why” – Why should I, as a man, support feminism?

I’m not going to lie … there are many articles out there already that explain the importance of feminism for men that will put it more eloquently than I ever could.  A quick Google search of “How men benefit from feminism” pulled up many different articles to read.  Reading through just three of the first articles that popped up from the Independent , the Crimson White, and the Medium, I realized there’s nothing I can really add to the discussion that would be new, save for one thing – my own voice.

So, in my own words, why do I support feminism?  Here’s my short list based on my own personal experiences with the inequality and toxic masculinity that still exist:

  1. Because I want to be able to cry and show emotion without it being seen as showing my “feminine side”;
  2. Because I want to be able to enjoy cooking and baking at home without being teased about making someone a “good wife”;
  3. Because I want to be able to say that I don’t enjoy sports without wondering if I’ll be viewed as “less than a man” because of it;
  4. Because I want to be able to stop the “male posturing” for strength and dominance without being called a derogatory term for the female anatomy;
  5. Because I don’t want to be regarded more highly than someone else simply because of my gender (or the color of my skin, while we’re on the subject);
  6. Because I want the women in my life to be considered for who they are and what they can accomplish rather than to be viewed through antiquated stereotypes;
  7. But most importantly, because it’s the right thing to do!

There’s probably more that I could list, but those are the big ones, folks.  Equity and equality matter, and they’re needed.  Men, if you don’t understand why, it’s time to educate yourselves.  It can start with a simple Google search, but it takes a real inner-self search as well.  It’s time to usher out the old, the outdated, the ignorance and the broken gender roles.  It’s time for the new to become the norm.

Choose Your Words Wisely

Image from Flickr

By Chris Howard-Williams

I believe in the importance of the words we use.  Perhaps this is why, one of my first weeks working in the Women’s Center, I noticed something interesting about our mission statement: “The mission of the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is to advocate, educate, and provide support services for the advancement of women’s equity on campus and within the community at large (emphasis mine).”  It’s a small thing, but for some reason, it struck me that the mission statement used the word equity as opposed to equality, and it immediately got me thinking.  Was there a reason for the specific choice of words?

A quick Google search turned up an article from Forbes that very succinctly describes the difference between gender equality and gender equity.  Gender equality does not mean that women and men will become the same, but rather that their rights, responsibilities, and opportunities will not be dependent on whether they were born female or male.  Gender equity, however, means fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs. It understands that, while equality is the ultimate goal, there may need to be some “leveling of the playing field” in order for equality to be achieved.  It is the concept that “fair does not always mean equal”.

So, why is this distinction important?  Well, in my mind’s eye, I see it like a road map.  Gender equality is the destination we want to reach, but gender equity is the route we have to take to get there.  As much as we may want equality between the genders, we have to realize that we aren’t there yet and we have to do some work in order to arrive. The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, put out by the World Economic Forum, ranks the United States as 49th out of 144 countries in their ability to close the gender gap in their country. As shocking as this statistic is, it is even more disheartening to learn that the 2013 report ranked the US as 23rd (out of 136 countries ranked that year) on the list. We not only have a gender gap problem … it’s getting worse!  And according to the 2017 report, it will take 217 years at the present course to achieve gender equity!

So, is one little word important?  It absolutely is!  While “equality” is a good reminder of where we want to be, “equity” is the wake-up call that we aren’t there yet.  As Dr. Nancy Southern puts it in a blog post, “most people don’t see how important (gender equity) is to creating a healthy society.”  She goes on to argue that we need to change the conversation in America to “how we can create the institutional, economic, cultural and other conditions so that women can equally contribute their knowledge, skills, and experience to creating a better society.”  The truth is, without equity, we are missing out on a big part of our potential as a society, and that’s a lot of weight bound up in just one simple word.

So, choose your words wisely … they may just be the keys we need to unlock our future!

To Bra, or Not to Bra: That is My Choice

By Ann Varner

About a year ago, I was sunburned so badly I had second degree burns on my back. The burns were so bad that I had to wrap my back in gauze to cover the open wounds from the blisters, and could not wear a bra due to the area where the burns were. At first, I was horrified that I would have to go without a bra. I still had to work and not wearing a bra made me terribly self-conscious. The entire time I was working, I was crossing my arms trying to cover up my unsupported chest. But after a few weeks of freedom from my bra, I found I was infinitely more comfortable without a bra. I really started to love being braless and couldn’t care less about what people were thinking.

Thanks to that sunburn, I have been liberated from my bra and the pressure to always wear one.  I have made the choice to go braless or at least only wear a simple bralette with no underwire and no padding. It’s enough to hold up the girls when I need the extra support, but that’s it. It’s comfortable, it’s what works for me, and it’s my choice.

Some women prefer bras for various reasons. And that’s okay. For instance, if you have a large chest, wearing a bra can help relieve back pain. Wearing a bra can also hold things in place while exercising. Those are fine reasons for wearing a bra. Those are also choices that a woman can make herself and that’s why I’m writing this blog. I think wearing a bra should be a choice, not a necessity.

Over the years I’ve heard comments from both men and women directed towards women that they notice who are not wearing bras. These comments are mostly critical about braless women being too “lazy” to put one on. I’ve heard people say, “She was so lazy she wouldn’t even put a bra on” and “I can’t believe she couldn’t take two seconds to put on a bra. That’s lazy.” I’ve even had my own friends direct similar comments toward me and my choice to go braless. For the record, friends: I am not too lazy to put on a bra. I am making a choice!

Being braless does not equal laziness. Choosing to wear a bra or not is a woman’s choice to make, and women should not feel ashamed or embarrassed if they make that choice. But why do people still think that they are entitled to have an opinion about a woman’s choice to wear a bra or not?

According to the online women’s health magazine, the bra wasn’t even invented until the 1900’s. Women went centuries without binding their chests in spandex and polyester. A woman named Mary Phelps Jacob came up with the first idea for a bra, which consisted of two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. However, it was a man named Frederick Mellinger (a.k.a. Fredericks of Hollywood) who created the first padded and push-up bra in 1947. He soon built a business of highly sexualized bras and undergarments. Mellinger’s bras helped bring focus to women’s breasts as objects covered in satin and fancy lace and coyly hiding one of the woman’s most titillating body parts – the nipple. Social rules of modesty have demanded that women must cover up their nipples, yet men have always been free to display theirs in any public setting without scrutiny. (The #freethenipple campaign is working to bring equity to the issue.) So because women’s breasts (and nipples) are seen as objects of sexual desire, the bra has become a tool to control that desire and a woman’s ability to control her own sexuality. A braless woman with her free wielding breasts and nipples sends the message that she is in control of her body and sexual desires, and that can make some people – especially men – uncomfortable.

I wholeheartedly believe that women should always be in control of their own bodies and I encourage you to make your choice to wear a bra or not based on what’s comfortable for you. After all, you were not put on this earth to make other people comfortable.

Don’t Know Much About … Women!

By Chris Howard-Williams

It has been a truly educational summer for me. As part of my Couples and Family Counseling program at UMKC, we are required to take a course on sexual counseling.  Here is my personal paraphrase of what I’ve learned so far:

Men – When you encounter sexual issues, rest assured that there are volumes of articles and studies that have been done on many levels, including biological, physiological, psychological, and psycho-social ones. We have pills, positions, therapeutic techniques, and support groups available for you to tackle any problem that comes your way!

Women – (shrugging) Um … we really haven’t studied you that much.  Have you considered asking your husband if he will let you get a vibrator?

It has been eye-opening to me to see the disparity between the attention that we have given men and women just regarding their sexuality. I was appalled to learn in class recently that we put a man on the moon and created the Internet before we had a full understanding of the biology of the clitoris. Heck, it was another 10 years after that discovery before we could even scientifically determine how it worked! Women, I know you don’t need me to say it, but I’m going to anyway… it’s about time we devoted the attention to studying you as we have to studying men for centuries now!

The concept of “women’s studies” is relatively young, its birth as a formal study being in the early 1970s.  A quote from a USA Today College article gives a brief history of the evolution of women’s studies:  “In 1971, early women’s studies courses focused on women’s roles in economic and political institutions, and they also analyzed women’s roles in history, literature and equality movements. In the 1980s, courses emphasized cross-cultural perspectives of women and how humans identify gender, and by the late 1990’s, women’s and gender studies courses included topics on race, feminist thought and the socialization of women.”

So why do we need women’s studies courses?  The obvious answer is equity. For too long, our study of the world and everything in it has been dominated by the world of men. This biased focus does not give women the voice or the attention they so richly deserve. Beyond this, there are many more benefits than this already long blog can cover, so here’s a link to a great article instead that covers the bases pretty well.

On a more personal note, why do we need women’s studies? Because despite the progress that has been made in recent years, there is still a staunch resistance to erasing the imaginary barriers between the sexes. I have worked the Women’s Center information table at just two UMKC orientations now, and both times I have witnessed multiple variations of the same event: a parent walks by our table with their son to glance back at him and say, “Oh, you don’t need anything there!”  I’m here to say: You do, guys!  You need women’s studies.  You need feminism, and you need to get past this idea that some things are for boys and some things are for girls. It’s time to look at the world in a whole new balanced way!

If you would like to learn more about UMKC’s Women’s & Gender Studies programs, feel free to visit their website at http://cas.umkc.edu/wgs, or email them at wgs@umkc.edu.

How Listening Led to Speaking Up

By Chris Howard-Williams

In my last blog, I started exploring the lessons I need to remember as I learn what it is to be a male feminist. My first lesson was a reminder to avoid mansplaining. In an effort to practice that by keeping quiet and choosing to listen, I decided to ask my female Facebook friends for their opinions. I wanted to know what they felt were the important things that men need to know or learn in order to support and promote feminism. Interestingly enough, the one answer that caught my attention the most was a simple bit of advice from my good friend and “adopted” sister – speak up!

We live in the age of the #MeToo movement. I’m sure there are blogs on this website that explain it more eloquently than I could, but in case you need a refresher, here is the Wikipedia article about that movement. In response to the women who raised their voices under that movement, Benjamin Law, a Sydney-based writer, started his own movement – #HowIWillChange  “Guys, it’s our turn,” he tweeted out to his followers. “After yesterday’s endless #MeToo stories of women being abused, assaulted and harassed, today we say #HowIWillChange.” What followed were personal commitments to the changes he would make in order to step up and speak against all forms of sexual assault and harassment he personally encountered as well as a charge for other men to follow suit.

So, what can we do?  According to Michael S. Kimmel in an article for the Harvard Business Review, many men engage in sexual harassment and assault simply because they feel they can get away with it. He argues that this presumed support, especially tacit support in the form of not calling other men out, is a reason the problem persists. “When men remain silent, it can be taken as a sign that we agree with the harasser, that we think the behavior is OK, and that we won’t intervene,” Kimmel says. “Men are complicit in a culture that enables sexual harassment, so it is up to us to actively, volubly speak up and let the perpetrators know that we are not OK with what they do.”

So, right after learning that I need to keep quiet and stop “mansplaining”, I’ve learned that raising my voice at the right time is just as necessary. As another online article puts it, I need to speak up swiftly against any man who practices sexual harassment/assault as well as against anyone who tries to retaliate or victim-blame when a woman reports it. It is not enough to ignore it any longer, and calling it out needs to happen at the earliest signs of harassment as well. Lewd comments about and derogatory comments against women will not be tolerated anymore. I am going to speak up, and that’s #HowIWillChange.

Sexism in Colors – Why is Pink for Girls and Blue for Boys?

By Maleigha Michael

When I was younger, I learned the colors of the rainbow through the mnemonic, ROY-G-BIV (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet). It was a color rule that has stayed with me since and helped me understand the relationship of colors. As I was growing up, I also learned another color “rule”: Pink is for girls and blue is for boys.  This is something we all heard growing up. Why though? Who got to decide this? What impact does this have on society? And how come so many of us abide by this rule so strictly?

I did a lot of reading on the history of these two colors, and it turns out there’s a lot of history behind them. It all started in the 19th century when pastel colors started becoming popularized for babies. The two colors were first chosen because of how they complimented hair and eye colors. Blue was meant to go with blue eyes and/or blonde hair, and pink for brown eyes and/or brown hair. Then, blue was actually the color that was assigned to girls, because it was seen as a dainty color, and pink was seen as a stronger color, so it was assigned to boys.

Okay, that actually sort of makes sense. But how then did pink become a color for girls and blue for boys? In my further reading, I found that girls were reassigned with pink because it was close to red, a romantic color, and women were seen as more emotional. But by the 1960’s during the women’s liberation movement, women challenged this social norm and threw gendered colors out the window. However, this did not last long once prenatal testing came out, which led to parents pre-planning for their babies and retailers realizing that they could capitalize on selling specific content tailored for each gender. So we’re back to square one.

Lately, the advent of “Gender Reveal Parties” has reinforced the “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” rule. Although parents have been getting more and more creative with their reveals, pink and blue have remained the two dominant colors that people use to show the sex of their babies.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Who cares? So what if pink is for girls and blue is for boys? What’s the big deal?” Well the answer I have for you also happens to wrap up what the point of this whole thing is about: Feminism.

Assigning colors to babies enforces a role that they are supposed to grow and fit into. There are only two colors, also enforcing that there are only two genders you’re allowed to claim. If you’re a girl, you have to like pink, and that also means you’re girly. If you’re a boy, you have to have blue, and you CANNOT like pink, or else you aren’t manly enough. If you’re a girl and you like blue, you’re a tomboy, and you aren’t seen as a strong female, but instead as a girl who doesn’t know how to be a proper girl.

Obviously, this is all completely invalid and shouldn’t have ever been applied to our society back then, and shouldn’t be applied now. I know that not everyone sticks to this rule. There are plenty of parents, more recently than ever before, that refuse to stand by this ridiculous code, and some who even take a few progressive steps further as to let their kids dress themselves however they want, such as a allowing their sons to wear dresses.

In summary, gendered colors are totally outdated, and we should stop pushing colors on children if we want a world with less stereotypes, less sexism, and overall less prejudice. As I learned when I was young, there are seven colors in the rainbow, so let’s not neglect the OYGIV of ROY-G-BIV!

I’m Changing My Last Name… But Not For The Reason You Think

By Ann Varner

Lately I made the decision to change my last name to include my mother’s last name. My current last name is Varner, and I will be changing it to Parsons-Varner. My mother raised my sister and me as a single mother from the time my sister was two-years-old and I was four. It makes no sense to me as to why I shouldn’t carry the last name of the strong woman who taught me to be the person I am.

When I announced my name change to friends and family, most were supportive; however, some could not understand. I was met with comments like, “why would you go through all this trouble now when you’ll just be getting married and changing your last name to your husband’s anyway?” When I responded, “If I do get married, I won’t be changing my last name,” they were shocked.

Why is this so shocking? The best answer I can come up with is because not taking you husband’s name goes against tradition. I think that most women in America are still changing their name when they get married. And when they don’t, some people find it disturbing. But this is 2018, and I think there is no longer a need for a woman to take her husband’s last name.

Historically, women had to take her husband’s last name because they had no legal independent identity. An article in Seattle Bride Magazine explains that there once was a time when women could not own personal property or real estate, enter into litigation, participate in business, enter into contracts, or vote. Women were considered one with their husband and part of that was to acquire their husband’s last name. Yes, very sexist and oppressive, I know! While women still have major issues with inequality today, we are fortunate enough to have moved away from many of those oppressive rules and we no longer need a husband’s last name in order to survive.

Personally, I do not want to take the last name of a potential future husband because I do not want to feel as though I am property. I like the name I’m changing to, and if I decide to get married, the person I marry will have to be okay with it. It’s totally fine if someone wants to change their last name when they get married. I respect the decisions others make when it comes to name changing; however, know that we no longer need to change it in order to function in society. I cannot wait to change my last name to include my mother’s last name, because, in my opinion, she is the only person in my life worth doing it for.

Summer Intern Works for Equity in the Arts

By Maleigha Michael

Hi, my name is Maleigha Michael. I’m from Parkville, which is within Kansas City and only about half an hour away from UMKC. I have just finished my first actual year at the University of Missouri where I am planning to major in Art History and minor in German.

I chose to apply for this internship because I wanted to gain experience in the Art History field through the Her Art Project, and learn and promote women in the art industry. Through MU, I joined the sorority of Kappa Alpha Theta, the first Greek letter fraternity for women. Our focus is on empowering other women and encouraging them to take leadership positions within their community. Being exposed to so many leading women this past few semesters has lead me to want to influence positive change and progress for women.

I’m very excited to have the opportunity to work in the Women’s Center over this summer of 2018! I hope to create a more positive environment that pushes equality around UMKC, to learn about gender representation in the art world, and to gain skills that I will be able to take with me after this internship is over.

Emmy Rossum Had No Shame Asking for Equal Pay

By Ann Varner

Emmy Rossum is the unsung hero in Hollywood right now after she demanded, fought for, and receive equal pay of her co-star, William H. Macy. One of my favorite shows is Shameless. The show is set in south side Chicago with Macy playing a dead beat dad with six children. The oldest of the children is Fiona (played by Rossum) who is truly the center of the show.

When Rossum began the show 9 years ago she didn’t have the equivalent experience as Macy, so the unequal pay wasn’t an issue to her. However, 7 seasons later and after directing many of the shows herself, she decided it was time to ask for equal pay.  Due to the extensive negotiations about her pay, production for the 8th season was put to a halt. Fortunately, Rossum got what she wanted and deserved and is now beginning filming for the 9th season.

While finding articles about her equal pay fight, I was pleased to find that Rossum had major support behind her fight for equal pay, including support from Macy: “It’s show biz’s job to get us for as cheaply as they can – and our job to say no…It’s unconscionable they would pay a woman less for the same job.”

Regarding becoming a champion for equal pay, Rossum stated: “This is across the board in every industry, how women are paid versus how men are paid. And then you take it further, that kind of bias extends not just to gender but to race, ethnicity, religion.”

Emmy Rossum is a role model and exactly who we need to inspire more women in Hollywood and the real world to demand their equal pay.

Book or TV Series: The Handmaid’s Tale is some scary sh*t

By Ann Varner

Last week, the UMKC Women’s Center bought the book The Handmaid’s Tale and less than a week later I finished reading it. My interest, like many others, first sparked when Hulu premiered The Handmaid’s Tale series last year. The second season recently premiered on April 25 which coincided with Denim Day, a national campaign that raises awareness of the misconceptions of sexual assault and rape – a very fitting coincidence. Only a few episodes in, and I already think that this season is more terrifying than the first. Despite the TV series doing a very good job of following the storyline of the book, I did notice a few differences in the TV series that may have been added to appeal to today’s TV audiences.

Many of the differences between the book and the TV series center on the characters. For instance, one of the biggest differences is that in the book, Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, and the Commander himself are actually a much older couple than portrayed in the Hulu series. In the series, they are a young, beautiful couple. The biggest plot difference is that Janine (or OfWarren) does not give birth to a healthy baby. In the book, the baby dies after a few days; whereas, in the show, the baby is healthy but Janine cannot give it up and attempts suicide and threatens to kill the baby. In the show, this causes Aunt Lydia to try to force the Handmaid’s to stone Janine to death. At the end of the first season, June (or OfFred) refuses to stone Janine and the other Handmaid’s follow. This is the first sign of revolt and the Handmaid’s refusing to follow orders.

Although the first season of the series was a complete retelling of the book, the producers have used the second season to explore the details of June’s character more deeply. For example, the second season addresses June’s affair with her husband who was married when they met. We also learn more about her relationship with her extremely feminist mom who ends up in the colonies. These glimpses into June’s past help to define the choices she makes to survive her current situation.

After reading the book, I am pleased to say that the writers of The Handmaid’s Tale series have done a great job sticking with the story line in the book, but are also using some creative license to expand the plot (with author Margaret Atwood’s involvement). The show is a horror story that I can’t stop watching, but it’s also a grim reminder of why we must continue to fight for women’s rights.