Swapping Oppressions Is Bad Organizing: Why “Fitch The Homeless” Is No Good

Let’s say the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch explains that his stores don’t sell clothing for larger women, while they do for men, because they only want to market to “the cool kids.” This is outrageous and worthy of action, something many of us have done (myself included — here’s my open letter about eating disorder culture to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch).

Action is applying pressure to a decision-maker to bring about a change. There are many ways to take action. In the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, a corporation dependent upon success in the consumer market, some of the most obvious routes to change include letter writing, petitions, demonstrations and meetings — basically direct “look at me here” actions targeting the company itself. Public pressure of this kind makes sense not just because Abercrombie & Fitch makes its own decisions about what clothing lines it will carry, and what kind of CEO behavior they are willing to tolerate, but also because it is motivated to have a brand that sells.

Successful organizing often entails not angering your natural allies. You want the focus to remain on your cause, not on a newly created controversy of your own making. This is why a recent viral effort called “Fitch the Homeless,” a campaign where some disgusted with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch started giving away his clothes to homeless people and videotaping it in order to allegedly tarnish his “cool kid” brand was so off-base. Using homeless people as props is simply offensive. It does nothing to dispel eating disorder culture. Further, it does not help homeless people with issues they are facing (in fact, one of the larger issues in helping the chronically homeless is establishing trust — and how does forcing them to become part of a viral video campaign in which they are expected to play part of a joke do anything but erode trust toward those who say they want to help?). Finally, it alienates potential allies who are justifiably angry with the dangerous and as-yet unrecanted words and policy of an eating-disorder culture promoting CEO.

Takeaway for organizers: Don’t take advantage of vulnerable people to make a point. Trust that your message is strong enough to stand on its own two feet — introducing one oppression to end another doesn’t work.

Is Volunteer Activism More Legit?

It is fashionable, in feminist quarters, to bash the non-profit industrial complex. To imply that activist work done while receiving a paycheck is somehow less legitimate than a labor of love and only love.

There are a number of problems with this argument. Namely confusing the solution to movement organizations doing a bad job, which is creating and/or fostering movement organizations in a position to do a better job, with martyr-like personal sacrifice. However much your actions matter — and they do profoundly — personal solutions, especially ones that hurt you, will not resolve systemic problems.

Many feminists express justifiable anger with and avoidance of “feminist” organizations that purport to speak for all women while actually representing the needs of women who are and/or look like their leadership; or compromise to the point of becoming a partisan pom squad; or treat the women who work for them like shit. I agree with that. I’m there. But I want you to have your principles and be able to get paid. Here’s why.

First, “don’t get paid” feeds right into economic exploitation, particularly of younger people, that is already common practice at many non-profit women’s organizations. Unpaid internships to do clerical work? Sure, budgets are tight and maybe it’s not illegal, the way it is in for-profit business environments. It’s still highly unethical for the workers it displaces and the students who are often paying tuition for the privilege of answering phones and making copies. And don’t get me started on the low wages many junior staffers are paid, particularly when there’s enough money for others to pull decent salaries. It’s disgusting and a source for shame.

Second, the women’s movement is shifting and needs to keep shifting. #femfuture, a recent report created by online feminists in New York, named and began offering potential solutions to a problem that desperately needs to be resolved: The unsustainable nature of the unpaid work model for online feminism. I argue the concern needs to be extended to feminist activism in general, online and offline (we’re almost at the point where these distinctions shouldn’t be made anymore). We all need to be having #femfuture discussions of our own. There is a point, when people are working so hard to the point of exhaustion, that we need to say — you know what? The old model of feminist organizing, which was heavily dependent on volunteers who were — what do you know — white middle-class housewives, can’t be force-fit to women struggling to pay student loans and support families and “get it all done.” It’s impractical to the point of ridiculous to think that model can somehow be revised to fit the present-day, at least if success is the end goal. We need to figure out a way for more activists to get paid.

Finally, your activist work is not inherently more or less legitimate based on how much you are not or are getting paid for it. Period.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to give some advice and share an experience that are outside the realm of “go work for a feminist paycheck.” Because wanting non-profits to pay you for your work, if that’s what you want, and wanting the best for you are not perfectly overlapping circles.

Realistically you can make a lot more money working outside the women’s movement, and making money is not a bad thing. Practically you can make a huge difference in workplaces that aren’t primarily feminist spaces. We need feminists in every industry. If you can do that, and still want to do volunteer activism that speaks to your heart, great. Much of my career has gone this way.

These days I get paid for some of the feminist work I do, but certainly not all of it. It’s a newer situation. After leaving a movement job last year, I was not paid at all for the work I continued to do for some months on a self-directed basis, and I can honestly say what I’ve just described is one of the best things I’ve done for my feminism. Dreams and integrity are too precious to be outsourced to any non-profit organization, no matter what it purports to represent. But I also recognize that it’s not all lofty. I was in a situation at the time where I could afford to have my presence, including a lack thereof, match my values. Being able to afford time for unpaid activist work doesn’t make me any better than someone who can’t.

So in summary, is volunteer activism more legit? No, not inherently. More of this work needs to be paid, and there’s nothing wrong with insisting that you be paid fairly for it. At the same time, unpaid opportunities offer you chances to follow your heart that a check signer may never endorse. I know you’ll do what’s best for you.

You Are The Ones You Are Waiting For: Successfully Working With People You Already Have

We could [do this really cool thing], but we don’t have enough people yet.

Ah, recruiting more activists to come to meetings before moving forward with plans to change the world. Having worked with a lot of activists I can tell you this is one of the most common ways people get derailed.

Truth is, you are the ones you are waiting for. Why would you delegate your readiness to be the change you want to see to a mythical army of people you haven’t met yet? They may not exist. But you, brilliant feminist, certainly do.

When you believe in yourselves and work together, small groups of people can be incredibly successful to seed cultural change, force a bad actor to change course, or create or implement a new policy. Many times I’ve pulled off successful actions with small core organizing groups sized anywhere from three to 10 people.

Using a small core organizing group doesn’t preclude you from having a large event where many people show up — and it means you don’t have to keep calling meetings expecting all those people to show up until you give yourselves permission to act (under those pretenses, that day may never come).

Still don’t believe me? Anthropologist Margaret Mead knew a thing or two about peoples and cultures. She said so, too:

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

So ready to get cracking? Here are some additional tips for successfully working with people you already have:

If you’re a leader, be a feminist. Delegate. Listen. Lead in the shape of a circle (emphasizing interconnections and intersections) rather than a triangle (emphasizing hierarchy). It’s not just the right thing to do — it works better.
Although some people never get this memo over the course of a lifetime, it’s especially common when first thrust into leadership to believe that you need to prove you can do it all by yourself and/or tell others exactly what to do and how to do it. That’s a disaster! Not only will you burn yourself out and drive people away, your activism will suffer as a result. More thoughts and more skills create more opportunities to kick ass.

Leadership is working through other people. Orient your thinking around what your small group can accomplish together to boost your odds of success.

Activity: Have everyone go around the room and say three things they can do really well (in the context of an action or campaign).
I love this activity! You may think you know your friends and colleagues, but chances are you don’t know what skills each other has. Next time you’re together, take the time to each say three things you can do really well, such as negotiating, or writing, or editing video, or dealing with difficult people in crisis situations, or logistical details or … Chances are strong you will learn about skills within your group you weren’t aware of before. This becomes really helpful in divvying up tasks.

Due to socialization, it’s more common for women to announce what we can’t do. Affirming what you and others can do is power.

Make sure everyone gets included in discussions.
Some people like to talk. Some people don’t hesitate to throw out the first idea or reaction when the room is silent. Some people are comfortable speaking up in the middle of a spirited conversation. The people who don’t fit in this category have insights no less valuable, so it’s up to you to be a feminist and make sure everyone is included in the discussion. If someone hasn’t spoken in awhile, ask them directly what they think. Or think back to the skills activity and ask them “so what about this from a, for example, photography perspective? Any additional thoughts?”

Elevating the softer voices in a room is one of the most important aspects of feminist leadership. At a micro-level. At a macro-level. Practice it routinely.

Everyone has a job. Every new person who shows up leaves with a job for next time.
Being part of something larger is what energizes people, but don’t mistake sitting there and soaking in other people’s work as filling that hole. Successfully working with the people you already have means engaging all of them. Make sure everyone has a role. Want people to come back (especially first-timers)? Don’t ever leave a meeting or an action without a new activity for everyone to do. That could include something as simple as an invitation to join a celebration potluck after a demonstration, or agreeing to research a policy before coming to the next gathering.

Both new people and existing people are precious. Don’t just treat them that way, acknowledge their worth by explicitly including their presence and their work at your next gathering.

Use the people you already have to recruit people for your big day(s).
Publicizing is great — do it online, do it through social media, do it through likeminded associations, do it through reporters and public relations, do it through public calendars and bulletin boards — but don’t just do that and expect your big crowd to fall out of the sky and into your event. Leveraging the core organizing group you already have means counting on your people to bring people to show up on your big day. Depending on the scale of what you are doing, you might want to ask everyone to commit to bringing one friend to the delivery of a formal letter to a decision-maker (just promise me you’ll record what you’re doing and post the video online), or you might want to ask everyone to commit to recruiting 50 signatures for your petition.

The people you already have are your most important asset, and that includes not just their skills but their networks. Use them or lose them!

A bias toward action is the seed of feminist change. One of the best ways to foster that bias is to believe in, and work with, the people you already have. The likelihood that someone is going to mythically appear and give you permission to move forward is low. The odds are statistically against your favor if you believe that holding meeting after meeting will somehow give you enough people to suddenly believe there are enough people to do something more than meet again and hope for more people. But your ability to kick ass is omnipresent. So grab it and go!

There’s A Lot More To Change Than Movement Organizations Doing A Bad Job

Activism and running a non-profit organization are often confused. What is sad is when the precious and rare gems who are activists get sucked into the drama of movement organizations doing a bad job, and it becomes an end in itself. Eyes on the prize, my dear doves: Change society. Let those multitudes who are not activists focus on changing the organizations that make a brand out of change that needs to occur.

Activism is a difficult, though often enjoyable, state of motion. It is fueled by a strategic demand and employs a variety tactics to change a broader culture. Activism takes time, determination, persistence. It includes a willingness to make frowned-upon personal disclosures, examine one’s own actions critically and stand up for principles, even at great personal cost or risk. In popular culture, the snapshot of activism we most see is a photograph or quote in the news, or getting to talk on television, but the cold truth is that most activist work is not that glamourous and many (by no means all) of the people getting photographed and talking on television are people who stand nearby or support the work of activists, rather than serve as activists themselves.

Women’s suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony captured the spirit of activism in the following:

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Susan B. Anthony

Let’s be honest. This profile does not fit most people. It doesn’t mean that most people are bad. Nor does it mean that those people are bad who offer support to a cause once it has been made palatable or popular by activists (for goodness sakes, the point of activism is not to create a righteous little club in a world of awful, but to change society — which includes building support from those who weren’t allies before).

Further, people can be activists in some life phases and not in others. This is reality. There is often, but not always, privilege supporting the ability to push boundaries. Likewise, that doesn’t mean the people pushing boundaries are bad, but it does mean that when people need to be able to afford to eat, which is always, they might not always be able to speak out on an issue at the present time, which is often.

By its nature, running a non-profit organization affiliated with a cause or movement is a radically different state of affairs than activism itself. You have funders. You have boards. You have bureaucracy. It’s not uncommon for non-profit organizations that started out as activist collectives to, over time, become institutionalized and spend increasing time focused on the maintenance of themselves.  Sometimes, but not always, that includes developing a stake in the non-resolution of the issue that caused the non-profit to be founded in the first place. When times are bad, funders dump dollars. If the mission is accomplished, we have to go away. Type of thing. (Previous sentence is a verbal tic from a character in “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel about employees in an IRS Regional Examination Center. Analogy purposeful and painfully apt.)

Which is not to say that you don’t have activists who work for non-profit organizations. But it is to say that it’s pretty hard to do both. There is a tension between maintaining institutions created because of the status quo, many of which will eventually outlive their relevance, and making change.

If you are an activist, recognize the non-profit industrial complex for what it is. You want a job in one? You want to volunteer for one? Go for it. Good for you. Service organizations do wonderful work to support individuals affected by an issue. Movement organizations often support activism and do wonderful work to help those making change on an issue, but no movement organization should be mistaken with the movement itself (while the media does this all the time, an activist should not bother). Political organizations help to change elections and the public policy making process, often leveraging activists, but no political organization should be mistaken with a social change movement.

Activists are rare indeed. If you are one, protect your activism fiercely to the extent you can. One of the best ways to do that is focus on changing the broader world, rather than changing a movement organization doing a bad job. It is sad to see how much time is wasted by those willing to be despised … trying to change a non-profit that is not advancing the issue they care about. If a movement organization is doing a bad job, acknowledge it and move on. Do not confuse changing it with changing society. Instead, be the change you wish to see. Think bigger, and create the conditions you believe are needed in the broader world from a space that is effective. Be awesome or don’t bother.

P.S. In a post like this, I would be remiss not to mention I’m giving an activism how-to workshop designed just for this year’s Visions in Feminism conference: Bringing Feminism to Un-Feminist Spaces. It takes place Saturday, April 6, in Washington, D.C. You’re invited!

Getting To Sorry: Why Apologies Matter When Someone Says Something Bigoted

Last night, while you were either watching the Oscars or sleeping, The Onion tweeted the following about a nine year-old girl up for Best Actress:

“Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right? #Oscars2013″

Later that night, the tweet was deleted without comment. Today Steve Hannah, CEO of  The Onion, apologized.

I was one of many of using all the social media channels to tell The Onion that comment was unacceptable. Cunt is a hate speech word, and to use it against a child — it is too much. It is almost unimaginable to believe so many hours would have crawled by without an apology for a little white girl. The comment revealed as much about racism as it did sexism. What happened last night was public, technological sexual harassment: The message of calling Quvenzhané a cunt was that she should know her role, and not get too big for her britches after being the youngest-ever nominee for Best Actress. It was also a glaring example of promoting and condoning rape culture by forcibly and denigratingly sexualizing others and declaring them dirty — child rape culture, at that.

Outcry was the correct response. Why? Because apologies matter when someone says or does something bigoted. Apologies validate the humanity and human rights of the targeted individual(s), and those who by the same accident of birth belong to the same systematically under-privileged groups. Further, they set a standard for what will not happen again. Finally, they offer a chance for rupture – a change in how things are done by the offending individual or institution, and a change in how greater society approaches the problem.

So briefly, let’s cover how to get to an apology, what to ask for in return and how to move forward constructively.

First, if you see something that sucks, say something sucks. Right away. You don’t need to write a thesis paper about why a given practice is offensive. Simply acknowledge the offensiveness of the comment and immediately let the offender know. And don’t just do it in a vacuum – let others know you’re letting the offender know. Social media is genius for this. But if you take the time to, for example, write an email to an offending company or individual, be sure to then post it on your blog and/or Facebook, and encourage others to write their own comments. Or give everyone a synopsis of the voicemail you left, and encourage them to do the same. (Make it easy for others to take action by providing the contact information in your open letter or notes.)

While you’re going at this first step, don’t feed the trolls. You know who I’m talking about. The people who tell you you’re an overreacting whiner, etc. “Language police” or “political correctness” is a frequent charge leveled by a number of sloppy right-wingers who don’t want to do the work to grapple with a counter-argument of why a practice judged dehumanizing or offensive should be considered alright, or not such a big deal, or part of tradition. Don’t feed these intellectually lazy trolls. They aren’t your target anyway. Your target is the actual offender.

Second, be reasonable. Asking for an apology in response to bigotry is a good step and one you should be proud of. Do so with your shoulders held high.  But I also urge you to think one step ahead — ask for something that will guarantee this won’t happen again. For example, in the case of The Onion’s horrific slur about Quvenzhané, you’ll notice I asked for a two-part solution in an accessible way:

(Ultimately this is close to what The Onion did, although they not only apologized, they said they would implement new social media procedures and discipline the writer.) When I say be reasonable, however, what I mean is to be approachable. Don’t make it impossible for your target to agree with you by acting like a total jerk yourself. And also use your faculties of reason: Offer a step beyond sorry that could sidestep the problem in the future. Once you have made sure to cover this ground, you should feel free to explain all the ways a bigoted comment is offensive. Just remember that persuasion/education by itself does not spell out an action. Make it possible, practical and productive for your target to say “sorry, plus …” in such a way that you should feel confident they are taking steps to eliminate a bigoted practice from their future repertoire.

Don’t stop until you get your apology and a commitment to taking a productive step forward to help address whatever caused the problem. Persistence is your friend. For that matter, rope in your friends for additional backup.

But when you do get your apology and a commitment to taking a productive step forward to help address whatever caused the problem, be respectful. Don’t start hating on your target in a whole new way, saying they are “insincere” or “it doesn’t matter.” By honoring a meaningful apology you are sending a message as an activist to others that you are in this to win this for the cause — not to be a jerk and target an individual because you’re so needy/clingy/stuck on a being a pain. It makes it more likely you will help contribute to other successful reversals in the wake of bigoted comments and actions. And that’s what we want, right? A better world.

Feminism, as a practice, is not about gotcha and declaring some people good and other people bad. It is about eliminating bigotry from our lives — something all of us will have to work at — and moving forward in new ways that honor the full potential and human rights of everyone. So getting to sorry is a big deal, because it is that first step toward honoring people and making change.

How have you gotten to sorry after someone’s bigotry was showing? What changes were you able to bring about? Share your stories and tips in the comments below.

Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind

Want to save the world, and get promoted at work, and feel like you have enough time for friends and family, and exercise, and reading, and hobbies? Lots of people do, and many of them feel like crap. Most of the activists I know feel like they’re auditioning for the part of Frankenstein’s wife — just the wig, mind you — from time to time.

stop me before i volunteer again image

The simple fact is that much activist work is volunteer, unpaid and something you will have to learn how to build time an appropriate amount of time for in your life. Time management is, honestly, one of the more difficult challenges of an activist life. So how is this ever-elusive feat possible? Let’s dive in to some tips. Pick and choose the ones that are applicable to your interests and your reality.

Repeat out loud: Taking care of myself and my needs is my first priority.

Martyring yourself for any cause, even a good one, is gross. This post’s title started with time management rather than stop treating yourself like shit, because it doesn’t help anyone to fool you into reading it. Reality is, many people, especially people who really care about other people, think of “time” as a way to frame “feeling in control.” You are not in control and you are unable to help advance any cause if you run yourself into the ground. No non-profit, no campaign, no activist event should stop you from having a job, nurturing your relationships, getting your laundry done. Affirming that your first priority is taking care of yourself and your needs is the first step to the next important tip, which is to say no.

Say the magic word when you need to: No. And don’t feel bad about saying it.

In sports you can’t win the game, much less play it well, without clear boundary lines. Same goes for activism. Just because someone asks you to do something cool doesn’t mean you have to say yes. For that matter, just because you said yes once doesn’t mean you have to say yes again. Or that you can’t leave behind a volunteer gig that is no longer working for you. Contrary to the way women and girls are commonly socialized, saying no can gain you friends, not lose them. My own mother has a great story of when I was in high school orchestra and she was called up and asked to be on a board that helped to support us. Right away, my mom said, sounds like a great group, but no, I’m too busy. The woman that made that phone call developed a friend crush on my mom based on her “no,” and years later they are best friends.

Seek out volunteer opportunities that are defined-time events.

Feeling frazzled? One of the easiest ways to get a grip on your schedule is to seek out volunteer opportunities that are defined-time events, rather than amorphous projects that will loom over your home life. For example, if you care about abortion rights and feel like you don’t have time to serve on a board or tend a website, seek out those opportunities that are defined calendar events, such as volunteering for a regular phone shift with your local abortion fund, or clinic escorting two Saturdays a month. There are a million ways to make a difference in the field you care about. Don’t get fixated on one option that demands more than you have to give.

Don’t waste your save-the-world time on drama-types.

There’s a certain sub-category of people who join activist and volunteer pursuits to share their pain. They are not difficult to spot, really: They are the difficult ones who will email you at all hours of the night in a rude tone, or call you and demand help with their issue immediately (as if you don’t have a life of your own). When you spot one of these, congratulate yourself on your laser vision and then do everything you can to minimize your involvement with that person. Minimizing your involvement doesn’t just mean minimizing interactions, it means minimizing your emotional engagement (not thinking about them, not talking about them with others). In my experience, the vast majority of people are in activism for the right reasons. Leave the ones who are not to burn out on their own time, without your assistance.

For ongoing leadership posts, come up with your three priority questions.

Many of the above tips may not seem helpful if you are on the hook for a cause, like in a volunteer board or leadership position. The thing to remember is that even when you have a title, you are a volunteer — meaning you and ultimately no one else gets to define your boundaries. When I was the volunteer president of my state NOW chapter (and going to night school full time, and working a full time job during the day) I realized fairly quickly that if I didn’t set my boundaries I couldn’t do it. So I actually got out a marker and put a sheet of paper on the wall where I would see it whenever my phone rang: 1. Does this raise money? 2. Does this get new members? 3. Does this raise the status of women and girls in Minnesota? If I couldn’t answer one of those three questions affirmatively, whatever the incoming request was, I wouldn’t give it more than five minutes. Only you can define your own questions, but they’re a great way to separate the essential work you signed up for from someone else’s urgent.

I want to acknowledge the many wonderful critiques of volunteerism as the basis for feminist work, and say that I agree that activists should be paid for their work. You deserve to be paid for your work. The purpose of this particular post is not to deconstruct that, however. It is to acknowledge the reality that much activist work is unpaid, and there are many activists who are doing this unpaid work and want some help with time management.

So, do you have experience with volunteer activist work? How have you prioritized yourself and managed your time? What worked for setting your own boundaries? Share your tips in the comments below.

Introduce Yourself To Your Members of Congress

This is the first in what will be a regular series, Your Activism Guide, designed to make feminist activism more accessible and help you take the power you deserve. 

Purpose: Introduce yourself to your members of Congress.

Process: Set up meetings now to drop by local offices (even if you don’t have a specific request, even if the legislator tends to vote against your interests).

Payoff: Existing relationships can bring the most unexpected of benefits.

A few days ago, the American Association of University Women and National Women’s Law Center hosted a Tweet Chat to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reversed a Supreme Court decision that had effectively gutted the ability to sue for wage discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Joining the conversation to answer questions was Lilly Ledbetter herself.

This is a topic that gets me all hot under the rubber toe caps. Women continue to be paid less than men, and while restoring the intent of a law passed in 1964 was a necessary step, we will not end wage discrimination without a more robust law. A bill exists: It is called the Paycheck Fairness Act. Important provisions include closing loopholes so that employers would be required to demonstrate genuine reasons to pay women less than men, and providing employee protections so you can ask others what they are getting paid without getting fired. Discrimination thrives on silence.

And, last year, Republicans. Then every Republican in the Senate voted to block debate of the Paycheck Fairness Act (barring discussion, not even voting against the bill or amendments!). So I asked the question: All Republicans voted to block Senate debate of the Paycheck Fairness Act. What can we do to engage them the next time?

Here’s what Lilly Ledbetter said:

It got better. Everyone’s favorite (okay mine) advocate and hipster Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro jumped in:

And what they said is absolutely correct. Let’s take this a step further to establishing relationships with your members of Congress now, because the  story I’ll share intersects with this issue (although existing relationships can help you move the needle on any issue you care about). In 2006 I was an advertising copywriter in Minneapolis, not a professional feminist, and I took the time to call Senator Norm Coleman’s office in St. Paul to set up a meeting with a staffer who worked on women’s issues. (One of the things I remember most vividly about that day is how much my coworkers were amazed that I was wearing a skirt, heels and hose for my lunch break trip – hoodies and flip flops were the usual uniform.)

Let’s be clear: I did not consider Senator Coleman my buddy. His actions had a tendency to make my eyes roll – and those were the less noxious actions. I considered him, in a word, hopeless. So much so I would come to work on a second campaign against him in time, on that occasion supporting Senator Al Franken (who took the seat, yay!). I won’t lie, the meeting with Senator Coleman’s staffer was awkward, but I would do it again in a heartbeat and encourage you to do the same. Basically we sat down for twenty minutes or so, and got to know each other. I identified a few issues I was fired up about, and acknowledged that while the Senator and I didn’t agree on much, I would be glad to work together as opportunities arose. We exchanged cards. Bam. Done.

Fast forward two years later to an editorial published in The New York Times in May 2008:

Americans saw the mirror opposite last week when Senate Republicans rejected a far more modest piece of civil rights legislation, the Fair Pay Act. Just six Republicans broke with their party to join Democrats in supporting the new bill, which is needed to counter a noxious 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it largely impossible to enforce the guarantee of equal pay for equal work contained in Title VII of the 1964 law.

The short list of Republicans voting in support of the Fair Pay Act included Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Missing was John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Just weeks earlier, I had been on a trip to Washington dropping off letters with a large group of activists from many states brought in for a Fair Pay Act lobby day at various Senate offices. Most Republican offices didn’t allow us to speak with anyone. We had that experience in Senator Coleman’s office. But then, as we were walking out, I recognized the guy I had met with two years earlier. I called him by name and he recognized me back, and said, Erin! to the surprise of the group. (Apparently he had worked his way up and moved to the Washington office.) This gave the larger group the relationship we needed to break through the front desk filters and make our case to Senator Coleman’s staff. While he could have broken ranks to with his party to do the right thing for a variety of reasons, and likely did, no doubt that conversation with a large group of advocates well prepped to discuss the Fair Pay Act weeks before had an impact.

Relationships really, really count. Even if the member of Congress tends to vote for your interests like almost never. Even if you are not a professional activist (I wasn’t at either of the times referenced in this story). If you are reading this, you care about making the world a better place — so make your relationships now. You really never know when it will come back to help you.

So how do I introduce myself to my members of Congress?

Let’s go step by step:

  1. Look up the local offices for the members of your state and federal representatives – both House and Senate. If you don’t know anyone in an office, use the contact form to ask if you can come in for a short meeting to introduce yourself to a staffer who works on women’s issues.
  2. If you want, invite a few friends to come with you. Whether it’s just you or a small group, decide in advance on three different specific issues you’d like to say you really care about (for example, student loan debt, reproductive rights and wage discrimination). You can research what’s going on in Congress, but you don’t need to act like a lobbyist for an introduction meeting. Just be prepared to say from personal experience how these issues affect you and others like you.
  3. On the day of the visit, don’t feel like you have to go overboard, but dress professionally (no shorts, etc.). If you don’t have some through work or a school club, print up some free business cards on the Internet with your contact information to leave behind. If you feel like bringing an article or a fact sheet about an issue you care about, go ahead, but that’s not required. First impressions count.
  4. Once you’re in the office, be friendly. If you usually disagree with the legislator, it’s okay to acknowledge that, just be clear that you’re visiting as a resource in the community and you’re eager to work together on areas where you can find common ground.
  5. When it’s time to go, shake hands and look them in the eye. Thank them for their time. A short follow-up email would be nice.

If you haven’t done this before, it might feel strange, but don’t worry. You don’t have to be an expert or an extrovert to pull this off well. The whole point of this meeting is to have a point of contact for a time that might come when you really, really need it.

What about you? Do you have experiences relationship-building with congressional offices? Tips? Glory stories? Share them in the comments.

A Younger Feminist’s Reflection on The Feminine Mystique

“The only way for a woman, or a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.” – Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan photo

It’s been fifty years since Betty Friedan wrote the The Feminine Mystique. How much has changed. How much remains the same.

Sexism is as foundational to society as it was during the Mad Men era that drove Betty Draper and Betty Friedan mad, if you ask me. The major difference is that people don’t smoke inside, and like colors and hemlines and shag carpets, oh the styles of expression are different.

For-men-only employment ads have jumped over to the lifestyle section of the newspaper, where you see presumed for-women-only feature articles about that ever-elusive “work/life balance.”

(Put no paid parenting leave; no childcare support; and no legal guarantee that you won’t get fired for asking what your coworkers are getting paid on a see-saw: Somehow it always seems to be the women dragged to the ground while men sit on top of Fortune 500 companies, law partnerships, and corporate boards almost totally by themselves. Most “work/life balance” experts say a super pink, super non-structural self-help approach will solve it, no government required! What a sexist joke.)

Only yesterday The New York Times published a column about “pro-life feminism,” in which a man sympathetic to the anti-human rights movement bringing you comparisons of pregnant women to farm animals, bills suggesting that women raped who have abortions be prosecuted for “tampering with evidence” and men-only congressional panels comparing the availability of birth control to choosing a place to go for lunch – a man sympathetic to all of that suggested that feminism be reformed. I beg your pardon.

But of course, the world has changed drastically since The Feminine Mystique, just look! Last week they said women would no longer be barred from combat, and daughters expect equality as do sons. Living up to the expectation of equality, and securing justice for those many experiences outside the realm of wealthy white men, has proved to be the continuing problem for the women’s movement to tackle.

Betty Friedan and her book, to say nothing of the first organization she founded, the National Organization for Women, have had outsize impact on my life as a feminist organizer.

I never knew Friedan personally, saw her across a room at a conference when I was an intern, and, you know, by then the women’s movement was so professionalized interns paid money in the form of tuition to get course credit for working free at the registration table.

When she died on a weekend in February 2006, I was in the National Organization for Women office chairing a meeting of the Young Feminist Task Force. I remember leading a moment of silence and thinking to myself what a profound responsibility I was accepting then, right then, to take the leadership required to help move feminism forward in a new way. I have never lost that feeling.

A few months ago, I decided taking meaningful leadership – contributing the most I have to give – meant leaving a big title in the big organization Friedan started. One of the key factors in my decision was realizing how many people, especially young people, were looking to me as an example of what was possible both in society and for their own lives. Believing in you, as I do, ultimately meant demonstrating I believe in myself and our power to create a better world.

I believe it is within our power to end sexism. I also believe getting there requires taking personal, interpersonal and structural risks. It requires acknowledging uncomfortable truths and working to change them. I believe younger people should define feminism for themselves and help lead the way forward. And while I am profoundly grateful for feminism and feminists of the past, I couldn’t be prouder to set this example. This is not an end. I am only getting started.

What would Friedan say about this? Honestly, I have no idea. As for me, I continue to take considerable inspiration from her legacy and The Feminine Mystique.

Gail Collins, a feminist of a different generation than myself, wrote a beautiful piece on ‘The Feminine Mystique’ at 50. In it, she pointed out more often the book is commented on for what it left out (basically anyone who wasn’t an upper middle class heterosexual white woman), rather than what it was (a piercingly accurate description of the waste of women like Betty).

Strangely enough, the waves of reaction in feminist thought went a bit too far in the other direction, in my opinion, when it became imperative for the incarnation of the women’s movement that followed The Feminine Mystique to speak declaratively “for all women” as if that was somehow possible to do really well. In my experience, people can speak profoundly well for themselves, and do both themselves and others a disservice when they try to speak for everyone else at the same time.

You cannot homogenize diversity, nor is it wise to try. It is the diversity that is the strength. It is the diversity that is the beautiful part. In encouraging diverse people to speak and lead for themselves (and having others listen and add their experience, not to change what the speaker said, but to speak and lead for themselves in the pursuit of an equality to be achievable in common by all) we can move the needle closer to justice. Modern feminism is already doing this all over the Internet. This is my experience and I deserve to be heard. That is your experience and you deserve to be heard. I know we can do better. We can be more than this. Let’s take a risk and organize something totally new and spectacular. It is very exciting, and dare I argue, a very inclusive expression of what Betty Friedan could have helped to kick off had her slice of reality, The Feminine Mystique, been published today.

Planned Parenthood Is Moving On From “Choice” And That’s Just Fine

Just days ago, Planned Parenthood announced it would back away from the “pro-choice” label and move toward a no-labels approach in advocating its support for abortion rights and family planning. The organization will instead focus on how the full range of reproductive health care is critical for the different situations women can find themselves in.

This is a great move. While no one should expect the term “pro-choice” to go away anytime soon, and it will likely serve as useful shorthand for support of abortion rights and family planning for a long time to come, the language has been limiting to the breadth and depth of advocacy for full human rights, particularly in matters of sexuality, particularly for women. Adding more tools and new terminology to the toolbox is something to applaud.

Personally, when talking about abortion, I have always preferred to say I support abortion rights. “Pro-choice” struck me as the sort of casual conversation mechanism, something that implied the decision to continue or not continue a pregnancy was something best done over a latte and a Sunday crossword. It seems that everyone but the most extreme anti-abortion rights folks grants that’s not the case — that the decision to have an abortion or continue with a pregnancy is not some, oh gee, no big deal, that women aren’t totally and breathtakingly shallow and stupid.

When we’re talking about abortion, it’s okay to say abortion and specifically to make clear we’re talking about rights to have an abortion, or not having rights to have an abortion and forcing pregnant women to die if they happen to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is power in using real language.

For that matter, when we’re talking about contraception, it’s okay to say birth control or contraception. There is power in using real language here, too, especially when mainstream media outlets continue to perpetuate the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ complete and outright lie that no-copay contraception paid for by private insurance companies somehow includes “abortion-inducing drugs.” (Medical fact break: Contraception, including emergency contraception, works prior to pregnancy. Preventing pregnancy and ending pregnancy are two different things, boys.)

“Pro-choice” has been experienced as an economically limiting term, particularly since wanting an abortion and having a legal right to abortion has been prevented by discrimination in health care coverage (both private and public), forcing clinics to close to comply with million-dollar and medically unnecessary regulations, mandatory waiting periods that hit women far from clinics particularly hard, and other laws that make it impossible for many women to afford or otherwise get abortion. When federal and state governments bar coverage for abortion, “choice” is a term that applies only to those who can afford it: There is a lesser set of constitutional rights experienced by those who need abortions but must sell their cars, or go without groceries, or hope a local abortion fund has enough money to help.

Loretta Ross and others have for years pioneered a “reproductive justice” approach that resonates more with me. It is a more holistic, inclusive approach that deals not just with the right to abortion but also the right to parent, the right to adequate prenatal care, the right to respect raising children you may already have, the right to use affordable contraception, the right to dignified childbirth, and more. As an activist, and like many other millennial activists, reproductive justice is a shorthand umbrella term that resonates strongest with me.  It most comprehensively encapsulates what my activism is about.

Also as a pregnant woman, I have come to personally confront restrictions on abortion and reproductive health care in a new way. While I am happily pregnant, I am keenly aware of how being in the wrong place at the wrong time could get me into serious trouble. Restrictions aren’t about whether or not I want an abortion, they are not about my choice, they are not about one moment in time when I realized I was pregnant and contemplated what was next, they are about the fact that if I’m having a miscarriage, or really sick, or something else I can’t foresee happens … I could just die in a hospital because that’s what it means to be “pro-life.” Or because the National Right to Life Committee last year declared their “top legislative priority” to ban abortions at 20 weeks for women living in the District of Columbia, and I happen to be 20 weeks three days pregnant. Both of these are things House Republicans have been trying to pass. Further:

New research out from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women shows how anti-abortion rights, anti-birth control, and so-called “personhood” efforts are being used in practice to arrest and force treatment on pregnant women. Restrictions are not just restricting choice. They are restricting human rights, particularly for pregnant women and women who do not wish to become pregnant.

If you want a shorthand term, “pro-choice” is going to continue to work whether or not Planned Parenthood uses it. Chances are good I will continue to use it from time to time. More options are better and a healthy feminist movement of any kind, including a reproductive justice and human rights movement, is stronger with more approaches in the mix.

So that’s my take. How about yours? Do you prefer the term “pro-choice”? If you support reproductive rights, what language do you use?

Pregnancy After An Eating Disorder

Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth.

Maybe this is easy for you. Maybe you like it. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have no experience with an eating disorder, or its aspirational cousin, negative self-image.

Not me. A summary of my situation is as follows: Near-death experience with anorexia, full recovery changed my progressive activism into feminist activism, now I’m pregnant.

I want to situate my first story about the intersection of my pregnancy with my history of having an eating disorder in a broader context, because I was in Arizona in October, and nobody knew I was pregnant, and a woman shared her story with me and it was not just any old day. Here is what I had posted on Facebook:

The 10th anniversary of Senator Wellstone’s death is emotional for me, and more so because I have spent the past two days on a community college campus talking with thirteen classes and passers-by at outdoor events about body image, self-esteem, cultural representations of women and how truly radical it is to love and accept yourself as you are, whether you are a man or a woman. I have talked about how loving yourself is a key within the broader political struggle for women’s rights and human rights, to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. I have spoken with countless students who have come to me in tears, accepted an opportunity to get help for the first time in their lives, told me they were going to work for the basic right to respect and justice for all, smiled through sunglasses saying they had tried to commit suicide but backed out and were so glad they had. I have hugged so many strangers, beautiful and strong, sometimes hurting, men and women, in the past 48 hours and if that’s not professional – who cares. Paul Wellstone said he emphasized “self-esteem, self confidence, and dignity, not as an ideal, but as a test of organization.” He also told us to “Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” Before I could vote, before I was a feminist, before my life taught me how important and political and essential it is to have compassion for yourself and not just for others, I was a progressive and I was an organizer. Paul Wellstone was responsible for that.

One of the women who walked up to me asked if I had done any work on body image after having kids. With pain on her face, this woman explained that she had given birth to four children and was so ashamed of the skin on her stomach that she had stopped wearing bikinis. Perhaps this sounds innocuous if you don’t know she had a pool at home. She wanted to wear a bikini but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Her body image was stopping her from enjoying herself when no one else was looking.

I thanked her for her honesty with me. I told her that sounded like a horrible feeling. I meant it.

People dismiss eating disorders and negative self-image as shallow, trivial, pathological all the time. They say it’s vanity or fluff. It’s as if people who feel bad and admit they feel bad are then supposed to feel bad about feeling bad.

This you-better-do-it-but-don’t-speak-up logic makes sense when it is gender roles too limiting to encourage all we have to offer that are being expressed and enforced.

Body image has everything to do with gender roles, and oppressive expectations and painful lived experiences with our bodies often vary widely based on not just gender, but race, disability, sexual orientation and size.

I accept that my experience with overcoming anorexia is not relatable to some women who have struggled more with their hair, or men who have struggled more with their muscles, or activists who are in a difficult and righteous struggle to end fat discrimination. But while experiences are different and should by no means be declared the same, I also believe we are fighting a common monster among many.

For more than a decade I have been free of pills, treatment, I am able to eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full, I don’t binge, I don’t diet. I have over the years felt a little rebel yell when my stomach gets a little bit more of a roll to it. It has come to feel sexy to me when that happens – it’s not just body business. It’s sexy and radical and transgressive to take up space you’re able to fill.

But at the same time, I won’t lie that being pregnant has forced me to confront what I have long thought was my full recovery in a new way. You see, my post-recovery weight has gone up and down over the years like any normal human being, but it has distributed evenly. I’ve never started growing a stomach that sticks out like a bumper on an old Saab. I’ve never anticipated, much less experienced, such a drastic change in my body.

Recently I had an epiphany in, of all places, a dressing room at Old Navy. I was there trying on maternity clothes for the first time in my life. As an eating disorder survivor there is no question I’ve had some Lifetime Shitty Moments in dressing rooms.  When I was recovering from anorexia, if a negative thought cropped up I talked back to it: “Shut up, you’re trying to kill me.” Ultimately after professional intervention (please, if you have an eating disorder and are reading this, contact a professional and don’t try to self-help your way out), it became those seven words to myself, over and over, that built my life back.

But those magic words were not helpful in Old Navy. This was totally new. I had to simply feel uncomfortable, and think some more about feeling uncomfortable. This is my body. I need to accept my body and myself for who I am. Not who I was. Not for what I might become. This is now. It is what I have.

The collision of my eating disordered past and my pregnancy today is a confrontation of the profane and the sacred.

While many of these confrontations happen in a year, much less a lifetime, this is not one I will be able to ignore. It is the expectation of a harsh lens upon a human being, whether viewed by self or others, versus the actuality that is a human experience with its own rhythms, rules and swerves. To smile considering the times you have acknowledged, as they are, the unworthy stereotypes in your life.

I can accept: Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth. In fact I thought I could accept it going in. It took me two laundry cycles after the Old Navy trip to accept buying low-slung yoga pants that almost (do they really?) make me look a little bit pregnant.

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